Forty-three seconds enough time to learn the bear facts

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 4, 2000

The Alabama Legislature officially outlawed bear wrestling several years ago.

This thought came about the other day as I sat perched in the gallery, finally understanding what Daniel Webster said about "watching men making law or making sausage: the latter doesn't make you as sick" (okay, it's sorta paraphrased, but you get the point).

With one fell swoop of the legal pen, there will be no more young men putting bravery on the line to hop in the ring with Mr. Bruin. Paul Bryant wanna-be's can no longer get the nickname "Bear" from going toe-to-toe with a hairy mass of muscle and fur. True, this is all probably much better for both man and bear involved, but bear wrestling holds a dear place in my memory.

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Let me tell you how not to wrestle a bear.

Spring Break 1981. Deville Motel Fort Walton Beach, Florida. A few of we locals had ventured to the sandy reaches of Okaloosa Island in pursuit of fun, golf, and female companionship. (Usually all we ever found was golf) As fate would have it, what did we see plastered in a store window but a poster of a bear and the words "BEAR WRESTLING: TONIGHT: WINNER TAKES $10,000.00". Such a message tends to get your attention when you're twenty-ish.

This I had to do. Ever since I was young I had wanted to emulate the footsteps of Coach Bryant and tie up with a ursus whatevericus or whatever you properly called a bear. So off to the bear wrestling we headed.

The battle royale was being held in the center court of the local mall. As we weaved our way through the crowd towards the ring, I noticed a TV crew headed our way. Seems that the college roommate of one of our group (I'm keeping names out of this to protect the guilty, but Marvin and Newton seem to come to mind) was now the anchor at the local TV station, and had been briefed on my sudden lapse in common sense. He figured that it was worth at least a minute on the ten o'clock news, especially on a weekday.

As I approached the cage, I noticed a flying object pass over my head. As the crowd squealed and parted, I noticed on closer inspection it was a rather large man. I next noticed that he had come from the ring. Putting two and two together, I quickly decided that Mr. Bear might be just a little too much for me.

But it was too late to chicken out. I signed the sheaf of forms that absolved the owner from all sort of ugly legal harm and into the ring I stepped.

The first thing that you notice when you step in to wrestle a bear is they are plug ugly. This one was sort of mangy and had an eye that tended to wander. He looked over my way as his trainer led him to the center for instructions (for me, not the bear. The bear knew what to do. Believe me, he knew what to do.)

The bear's (whose name I never caught) trainer was a gentleman of Germanic descent. His final words to me (at least that I could understand ) were, "chust remember, de harder you fight mit de bear, de harder de bear fight mit you!"

The leash was unhooked, the door to the ring (which for some reason was surrounded by wire, I suddenly noticed) was closed and locked, and Mr. Bear (who was muzzled and declawed: I'm not THAT stupid) reared up on his hind legs to let me know it was time to begin. Throwing caution to the wind, I lowered a shoulder and centered Mr. Bear with a full speed lunge that sent him spinning into the ropes.

This was too easy. As the bear scrambled to his feet, I was already figuring out how far $10,000 would go (by the way, nobody had ever beaten this bear…EVER). I was just into the new red Corvette when I was given a first hand demonstration of a bear hug. Suddenly, everything was upside down as Mr. Bear showed me the effects of gravity as you descend head first into the canvas.

I hopped to my feet. Mr. Bear grabbed one of my legs. I pulled free. He grabbed my other leg I pulled free again He grabbed both my legs. I grabbed the top rope of the ring. He stretched me out like a bow and arrow, then let go.

NOTE TO INTERESTED PARTIES: It hurts like the devil when you bounce off a turnbuckle. Those guys on WWF ain't faking it.

As I ricocheted off the ropes, there stood Mr. Bear, who wrapped me up like a Christmas package with all fours and took me down with a thud that shook the pennies out of the bottom of the fountain in the mall.

NOTE TO INTERESTED PARTIES, AGAIN: The south end of a bear isn't the only one that smells.

Now I'm pinned. I try to squirm out from under Mr. Bear, but he's looking me right in the eyes and filling my face with bear breath. I'm not sure that it wasn't a wrestling trick, because it doesn't take much bear breath to take the fight right out of you. To add insult to injury, the bear had been taught to shake his head three times to count you out, then stand up and raise his arms in victory. Of course, he's standing on your chest while he does this, so it's just a little hard to appreciate at the time.

As I staggered from the ring, I noticed the TV crew. Summoning up what was left of my dignity (it would have fit easily in a bubble gum wrapper, I jauntily observed, "well, I guess you'll have to edit that so it'll fit."

"Naw," said the cameraman. "Whole thing didn't last but 43 seconds."

Take your 15 minutes of fame. I had 43 seconds of terror.