George Michael (r.i.p.) and Pro Wrestling

Allow me to add my condolences to the family and friends of George Michael, the retired sports anchor at WRC (Channel 4) in Washington, D.C. I did not know Michael, but he was, like myself, a native of St. Louis. He also had an interesting relationship with modern pro wrestling history.

Michael had one of the first long-form Sunday night sports highlight shows, the “Sports Machine,” which was nationally syndicated in the 1980s. The Sports Machine was nothing more than a goofy set of outsized mock reel-to-reel tape players with a bank of monitors. After introducing a game highlight or segment, Michael hit a button and said, “Through the use of the Sports Machine …” It was a cheesy variation on “Let’s go to the videotape,” the line of another TV sports guy who first hit it big in Washington: Warner Wolf.

Two years ago, when the station laid off members of his staff during cutbacks, Michael did something that a less secure man could never have done: he left with them. Perhaps he was already battling cancer, as well, but I was struck by the note of decency in a cutthroat industry.

What I most want to memorialize about Michael was that, when World Wrestling Entertainment went national in 1984, he came off as something of an old-fashioned “mark.” That is, he seemed to buy the stuff as real. I doubt that he really did, but then again I never talked to his hairdresser (and TV news people, unlike bloggers — or at least obviously unlike this one — spend a lot of time with their hairdressers).

I especially remember when Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka had to go on sabbatical for drug rehab at a moment when he was on fire as WWF’s second-biggest-drawing “babyface” or good guy. That  left a big void in the shows where Snuka was working at or near the top of the card with Rowdy Roddy Piper. WWF rushed out a Snuka “cousin” to take his place. He was Sam Fatu, billed as “The Tonga Kid.” (Sam Fatu is the brother of Eddie “Umaga” Fatu, the WWE wrestler who died recently.)

The “George Michael Sports Machine” ran a feature on the Kid, complete with a video package of his high-flying Snuka-esque dives off the top rope. (Sam Fatu was a much leaner package in those days than the 300-pound Samoan bad guy he evolved into.) And there was Michael with that delivery of his, an inviting half-deadpan, friendly smile.

Not smirking. Just starstruck like a fan — a perfect bridge from the old school and its clunky technology, to the new marketing.

Irv Muchnick

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