Wrestling isn’t widely understood. It’s a unique art form that you understand and love or it’s a bunch of greased up dudes in their underwear pretending to be superheroes/villains while acting like they’re beating each other up. In all honesty, neither group of people is wrong. For myself, my brothers, and my dad it’s been what has brought us back together more than holidays and birthdays. While others in my family have become more casual viewers, Dad and I continued our consistent love/hate relationship with wrestling. This isn’t a history of my experience with wrestling. The protagonist of this story is my dad, Mark Raven. Wrestling and I are just background players in the following stories.
Mark Eric Raven was born on August 16, 1951 to Meryl & Kathleen Raven in Spearville, Kansas. He was soon joined by three younger brothers. Dad grew up a standout athlete that my Uncle Kevin can attest to. He enjoyed reading, Western movies and shows, sports, and music. Dad was a family man that would have seven kids over the course of two marriages. He was mostly soft spoken until he knew you. Then he would become a very funny and witty person who had no problem giving you shit. Having kids was the greatest thing he ever did with his life he would tell me and my siblings. He meant it too. The Old Man did everything for us. He truly loved us with his entire self and we loved him with ours.
Fathers and sons have come together over professional wrestling for many years. In that aspect we were not unique. My dad enjoyed wrestling years before I was born. He would talk about watching it when he was young in rural Kansas in the 1950’s and 60’s. When he got older he would go to the matches with family including his dad and brothers. One of his favorite stories he would tell was meeting Harley Race in the Kansas City airport. If anyone is ever curious about that particular story feel free to ask me because I’ve heard it so many times I think I could recite it word-for-word like the old man did.
By the time I was born wrestling was already instilled in my two older brothers. Matt and Jeff got to see more of the peak Hogan years of wrestling than I did. Dad would later brag how he took me to see Wrestlemania III on closed circuit television in St. Joseph, Missouri. He would tell me how lucky I was that my first big wrestling experience was Andre vs. Hogan and Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat. I suppose, looking back one could say I was indoctrinated into loving wrestling. Thirty years later I can honestly say I’m happy for it.
By the time I got old enough to really comprehend what was happening in the world of professional wrestling WCW and WWF were beginning the now infamous Monday Night Wars. Even though we grew up closer to the government cheese side of things rather than the silver spoon, we always had cable. This meant we had both Monday Night Raw and Monday Night Nitro. Once the NWO came around every male in my family would gather around the television. Once Rey Mysterio, Jr. took off his mask my sister, Laura, even started to have interest. WCW was more prominent on the screen at the time mostly because my mother did not really approve of us watch Raw. Too many times I yelled, “Suck it!” to the laughter of my dad, I suppose.
Once a month my dad would have to stay at work late on a Monday for a board meeting. He would come home tired from the long day with a fairly grumpy disposition. My brother, Jeff, and I couldn’t wait to catch Dad up on the happenings of what he missed on Nitro. We would tell him everything we already watched that evening while recreating all the moves. Too many times my brother would start telling our dad who Goldberg had already beaten while spearing me. Thanks, Jeff.
At one point I vividly remember putting a Sharpshooter on my littlest sister to the horror of my mom. I was then banned from watching any sort of wrestling for three months. My dad could see that it was killing me that I couldn’t watch my real life superheroes compete. After a few weeks he called me into the kitchen where we had an 8” television. He turned on wrestling then pressed his index finger to his lips indicating that I had to be quiet and not tell my mom. Many times we would here Mom walking towards us. Dad would scramble for the remote to hit the “Channel Back” button that would return us to sports or Grand Ole Opry. Mom would get what she needed from the kitchen and leave. Dad and I would have to stifle our laughter.
First Live Wrestling
The first time I can remember seeing wrestling live was in Chariton, Iowa, for Harley Race’s World League Wrestling. The event was in the high school gym with front row tickets being fairly expensive for the venue. Comprised of a mostly his trainees with maybe one or two ex-WWF/WCW guys I didn’t know anyone who was on the show although later one of their more talented wrestlers would become Trevor Murdoch in WWE. None of that mattered. What mattered was my dad had brought myself and two of my best friends to watch live wrestling! The ring was right there!
The first half of the show flew by in what felt like a second before intermission. This was a new concept for me because there was no intermission on TV. My dad then explained it gave us a chance to go meet the talent. I sprinted down the bleachers like my head was on fire and I was looking for a bucket of water. After Dad had shelled out probably $40 for 8”x10”’s of guys named Ice Pick and The Legend an announcement came over the PA that you could have your picture taken with Harley Race. My face lit up brighter than a neon sign on the Las Vegas strip. Even though I was only in junior high I was very aware of who Harley was and what he did in his career. He was a favorite of my dad who would tell stories about the toughness of the great Harley Race. Dad, once again, opened up his wallet for me. Once I was in line I became nervous that this tough as nails grappler would hit me with a head butt. I begged my dad to get in line with me. “You’ll appreciate this when you’re older,” he told me. He was right. I stepped into the ring going between the middle ropes because “that’s how the men get in the ring.” I stood next to Harley and immediately began panicking. Race could clearly see the intense fear I had so he smiled, put his calloused hand around my shoulder, and said, “If you don’t smile I’m going to pinch you.” The nerves fell off me like an avalanche. I laughed right when the picture was taken. After being handed the Polaroid I got out of the ring and showed Dad. I told him what Harley had said to me. We both laughed. “You’ll always remember that,” Dad said through the chuckles. He was right again.
My dad and I went to a lot of WWE shows together. By the time I was older and had money I would buy us tickets any time they were in the state. We’ve seen a lot of cool things together over the years. Of the dozens of shows we went to I don’t think anything can top my 16th birthday gift. My dad took myself and my friends to Monday Night Raw on September 9, 2002. Dad picked everyone up from school and we left for Ames, Iowa, picking up one kid from Chariton on the way. We visited my sister, Shawna, before the show. I remember how excited she was for us. We got to our seats and I began looking around. Jeff had said he was going to go with a couple of his frat brothers. We gave up searching after a few minutes, but then we heard a lot of noise coming from directly across the arena. Sure enough it was Jeff and his buddies causing some ruckus before the show had even started. Dad laughed and might’ve even flipped them off.
That episode of Raw is remembered for two things. The first is a Fatal Fourway for the #1 contendership of the WWE title between Rob Van Dam, Chris Jericho, Jeff Hardy, and The Big Show. It was a pretty good match from what I recall. Dad was upset his favorite, The Big Show, didn’t win. He had an affinity for Show ever since he heard he played basketball at Wichita State.
The other thing that is remembered from Raw that night is wildly different than the main event. Dad brought binoculars to the show as he would do for every event he went to in case he had bad seats. This night we had pretty good seats. We were close enough that we could feel the heat from Kane’s pyro coming from the ring posts. I decided to see what Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler were up to. At time in Raw history the announce desk was positioned much like it is today by the entrance ramp. I grabbed the binoculars and pointed them directly at JR and King. Less than a minute later King picked up his own set of binoculars and began looking through the crowd. Soon our binoculars were pointed at one another. “Dad, I think King is looking right at me,” I said sheepishly. “Wave to him and see!” Dad retorted. Slowly I put up my hand and waved. Sure enough King was looking right at me and signaled back. Our whole group began to laugh hysterically. Why on Earth does King have binoculars? I thought. I would soon find the answer to that was a bit during the HLA that occurred in the middle of the ring at Eric Bischoff’s behest. For those who may have missed that episode, in order to boost ratings Eric Bischoff brought in two women in bra and panties to have “Hot Lesbian Action.” King had the binoculars to get a closer look for the bit. It was all in good fun, but I remember Dad telling me to leave out the part about HLA when I tell my mom the story.
After the show everyone begged my dad let us stay after the show outside to see the wrestlers. Even though we had school and he had work early the next day he relented. We saw the Dudley’s, Hardcore Holly, and a few others. Dad rounded us all up to make the 1 ½ hour trek home. We stopped at a gas station to use the restroom so we didn’t have to make any more stops. As we all gathered in Dad said, “Boys, look who is getting gas.” It was Test. A mountain of a man with flowing blonde hair putting gas in his rental car. Not long after noticing Test at the gas pump his passenger door opened. Getting out and walking into the gas station was Stacey Keibler. Her famously long legs walked confidently into the convenient store. We were all in silence as she made her way across the parking lot. After what seemed like an hour of all of us gazing at her a familiar voice broke the silence with two simple, but perfect words. “Ho-ly shit,” Dad said.
The Hall of Fame
Each July, Impact Pro Wrestling and the George Tragoz/Dan Gable Wrestling Museum and Hall of Fame puts on a tremendous weekend. Legends from the wrestling world mix with today’s talent and fans for an experience unlike any other. After I moved to Des Moines I started taking in more independent wrestling shows which included the Hall of Fame weekend. I mentioned the show to Dad and who was going to be there and his ears perked up. “Let’s go!” he said with the enthusiasm of a child on their way to Disney World. Dad met me in Des Moines then we made our trek to Waterloo.
Dad immediately was flabbergasted by all big names that were there: Jim Ross, Larry “The Ax” Hennig,” Gerald Brisco, DDP, Baron Von Raschke, Danny Hodge, and a lot more. We grabbed a few beers and started making the rounds to all the tables. I was grabbing autographs and pictures when I spotted Dad over by Brisco’s table. I asked him what he was doing. He pointed to a Brisco Brothers Body Shop t-shirt and said he remembered seeing Jerry wearing them on Raw. I immediately got in line to buy it. I asked for Dad’s size and Jerry asked who I was buying it for to which I said, “That handsome man over there,” pointed at Dad standing just outside the line. Jerry called Dad over so we could all take a picture and get an autograph. Dad was beaming.
After a great show we went across the street to meet a couple friends of mine from high school who are now married, Mike and Gayle. Mike is an independent wrestler for IPW, so we hung out with them and the guys from the show. That night my dad introduced Mike to the glory that is Blue Moon beer. Dad, I remember, acted stunned that Mike hadn’t had it before even though he himself had only been introduced to the beer by me a few months prior.
Later in the evening we were invited by a few of the boys to join them at Risque. If you’re asking yourself if Risque is a strip club let me save the time Googling and just tell you, yes, it is. Dad, recently divorced, was absolutely into the idea of going to this establishment to keep the fun night going. I told him, “We can go, but you can’t tell The Girls.” The Girls are my two youngest sisters, Laura and Leah. Dad assured me he would do nothing of the sort. After a few hours of debauchery we made our way back to Des Moines. While on the way there I reiterated to him that he was to tell no one we went to a strip club after wrestling. “Yea, yea. I’m not telling anyone,” he said. A few weeks later was Dad’s birthday that we all got together for.
Leah came up to me and asked, “So how was wrestling?”
“It was a blast!” I responded.
“What’d you guys do after?” she asked looking me dead in the eyes.
“Uh…we went out to eat and had some drinks,” I said as a small sweat began to breakout on my forehead.
“After that?” she quickly inquired.
“Damnit, Pop!” I shouted knowing full well I was trapped.
“Hell, it was fun. I had to tell somebody!” Dad told me.
One Year Ago Today
Exactly one year ago my dad passed away surrounded by family. He had been sick for a while, but it still felt unexpected. My dad was always my hero and best friend. To me, he was made of Teflon, titanium, and love. He was an invincible superhero that I got to call, “Dad.” I suppose 365 days isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things. For me, however, the last year has felt like an eternity. Every second that passes is another step further away from the last time I spoke, laughed, or even saw my dad. No more would I call him only to hear, “Yo! Moose!” at the other end when he picked up. No more would I get a text that only contained his favorite lyrics or half of a Rocky Balboa quote.
People keep telling me that everything will get better with time. I’ve even told that to people who had lost their fathers long before I lost mine. The words are well intentioned, but hollow the more you hear them. They eventually sound like an echo from a cave that gets softer and further away the more you hear it. I’ll be honest with you. It hurts. It sucks. The pain only subsided briefly while I was working on his estate because I had something to distract myself. Today it hurts just as much as it did when he passed. Don’t let anyone lie to you and say that it doesn’t or won’t.
I am constantly reminded of the love he had for me. Every time I catch a baseball game, go to a George Thorogood concert, or watch wrestling I remember him and everything we shared. He was the kindest, most loving, and whole-hearted person I will ever know. I miss him more every day.
Luke Raven (@ravenluke)