Almost two decades go Tuffy Truesdell, alligator wrestler extraordinaire, decided that the alligator business just wasn't going to pay off. He took up with Victor, a four-week-old black bear from Canada, instead, and the two have since become legend. "Finding Victor was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he once proclaimed.
This past weekend at the D.C. Armory, the offspring of that partnership, Larry Truesdell and Victor's son, Victor, took on all comers, and as usual Victor remained the Victor -- subjecting his public to monkey flips, arm drags and leg dives. Headliners don't take time off for hibernation.
"Bears lost two years of their lives when they sleep," explained Larry Truesdell, owner, promoter and ringmaster for the 650-pound Victor, who has wrestled 10,000 mighty men and, says Truesdell, has never been beaten. "Hibernation is just a convenience."
Victor, who has upstaged Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and a bevy of county-fair queens during his five-year professional career, did seem a bit groggy at the sportsmans' trade show where he was the main attraction. But then he only needed to be half awake to pin more than two dozen challengers who went up against Victor's declawed paws for a shot at $1,000.
"He's a bad boy," said 19-year-old Greg Kerns after being bent, folded and flipped during a one-minute match with Victor, who looks only gigantic until he rises on his hind legs to his full 7-foot-2 height.
Truesdell claims Victor is no meaner than an old lapdog. True, there was the fella in North ydakota who got seven of his bones broken by Victor. But he tried to fight dirty, says Truesdell, and that was years ago.
Truesdell's good humor was soured Saturday by a body builder and professional bouncer from College Park. The six-foot, 248-pound man began slapping at Victor's muzzled snout and trying to grab his face. Victor gurgled a small growl, but kept the bear within him. He stopped the attack before Truesdell could, with a leisurely pin. The challenger immediately began wrestling again, and again was pinned. When he came back for a third ahot at Victor, Truesdell intercepted him and two men wrestled each other to the mat.
While the crowd whistled and cheered at the unexpected show, Victor calmly sat back on his hind legs and ignored the pandemonium. "There's a higher percentage of rowdies in a group of bear wrestlers than in a group of Baptist," said one of the promoters of the camping show after the brawl. "But I'm not saying all bear wrestlers are rowdy."
People have ben grappling with alligators, lions and orangutans for centuries, though the sport was often cruel and not always voluntary. There have been more than a few modern day Humane Society officers who have maintained that Victor's line of work still constitutes a cruel and unusual profession. But Truesdell's show has only been shut down once, in Richmond last year, he says. As far as Truesdell is concerned, he and Victor are carrying on a tradition as old as Caesar.
"Bear rasslin's been around before back in the Roman days," says the 37-year-old Truesdell, a short, talkative man in cowboy boots with slicked-back blond hair. The elder Truesdell is still the boss of the outfit and the road manager for another wrestling bear, Sonny, currently crushed opposition on the West Coast. The original Victor suffered a heart attack six years ago in New York and died.
Now there are 15 different wrestling bears in the Truesdell stables. All of them go by the stage name Victor, but they all, like Sonny, have names of their own, too. All but the two now on tour are quartered in Cherokee, N.C., on an Indian reservation, where some are bred and some are trained for wrestling. "All bears can't be trained. You gotta get one with the right disposition," said Truesdell. "Females are temperamental." Each bear has its own swimming pool and private air-concitioned den for the sultry summer days. The original Victor went to and from his engagements in an airport limousine. The current Victor is relegated to a cage in the back of a blue and white Ford pickup truck.
The alligators of days gone by have been abandoned. "Alligators you can't train. All they want to do is eat and eat you," said Larry Truesdell, sitting with his wife, Mary, during a break between performances this weekend. sThe Truesdells have been married for a year. Mary, a tall, dark-haired beauty, is one-quarter Cherokee, and adorns herself with turquoise and silver jewelry, including a delicate brooch in the shape of a black bear. "She's the only woman I could find that likes me and the bear. One don't come without the other," said Truesdell. Mary smiled her agreement.
Larry Truesdell dropped out of school in the fifth grade to tour with his father and Victor. "I learned more things on the road than you can learn in a book," he said. He learned of alligators, and of bears, of accomplishments and love: "There isn't one man in America in a million who would go into the water and bring these gators out and wrestle them," father Tuffy told Frank Deford in a Sports Illustrated article several years ago. "Well, knowing that is very much to me. But with the bear it is not the same. There is this accomplishment, that I trained this wild animal. The best is when you see him just lying around, like just lying around and loving a little boy [Larry]. That is the satisfaction with the bear. What that is is enchantment." Victor joined the Truesdell family when Tuffy, who had been in search of a bear after he gave up on alligator-wrestling, was notified by some hunter friends in Canada that a female bear had been shot. Tuffy found the bear's den, and discovered Victor lying beside his dead sister. He took him home and raised him like a child.
Larry Truesdell regards the current Victor as next of kin. Paramount Pictures once offered $120,000 for his bear, claims Truesdell, but he refused. Selling Victor, he said, "would be like selling one of our kids."
It would also be like selling a golden bear. Truesdell says he can't estimate the amount he and Victor gross on the tours, but for the five day exhibition at the Armory -- with a total of only 2 1/2 hours of actual show time -- they earned $2,000. They earn top dollar like this for the eight months they are on the road each year. The Truesdells get the money. The bear is rewarded with his favorite beverage, grape Kool-aid in a Pepsi.
"It's worth every cent," said show promoter Peter Carroll, who said attendance was up 40 percent from last year, when the main attraction was a trick dog who pretended to shoot a shotgun at a duck. "We've had people drive 200 miles to come see the bear."
Among the spectators were marines, electrical engineers and office workers who were les interested in the latest Winnebagos than in watching an authentic bear hug. Fifteen minutes before each show, the crowd around the raised wrestling mat was four deep.
The challengers were equally varied, though they seemed more anxious than curious. Some were ready to risk life and limb on a dare. Others said they were participating in the sideshow for the sake of art.
"We're gonna make a movie," said Greg Kerns, the 19-year-old student from St. Mary's College in southern Maryland who drove 70 miles with four classmates and an 8mm movie camera to take on Victor. "His hide will be mine in round nine," said Kerns who did not appear as confident as his boast would indicate.
It was a short flip. Even at 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds, Kerns was flipped and flattened in less than a minute. The worst damage suffered by Kerns was inflicted by Victor's 18 1/2-inch tongue. It is one thing, said Kerns, to get beaten and quite another to get licked.
"Victor is French Canadian," dead-panned Truesdell, explaining the bear's habit of licking his opponents.