P. T. Barnum would have expired of envy-or admiration.

Nikolai Volkov, a 300-pound "Russian" enters the ring and the announcer informs the crowd of Volkov's request that they be silent while he sings the Soviet national anthem.

Well, the fans are ready for that one. They leap to their feet chanting, "U.S.A.!" "U.S.A.!"

Their ardor is further inspired, not that it needs it, by the presence of Nikolai's Iranian buddy and tag-team partner, the Iron Shiek -- an agent of the Ayatollah without a doubt (the crowd's signs dub him "The Iron Geek").

Nikolai, a sturdy hero of the Soviet Union if ever there was one, is undeterred by the boos and jeers. Standing at rigid attention in his shorts and knee-high boots, delivering a smart hand salute throughout, he bellows the words to the Soviet anthem, presumably in his "native" tongue.

Which takes some inspired bellowing since the Soviet national anthem doesn't have any lyrics anymore. Not since Nikita Khrushchev expunged the originals, which celebrated Joseph Stalin, and a committee appointed to write new ones failed to deliver.

But this is professional wrestling, folks, and things are moving right along, to a match between Nikolai and Rick (Quick Draw) McGraw. "Quick Draw" is the good guy -- not that anyone needs to be told -- a fine 260-pound broth of an American boy.

It is the 20th-century American version of the medieval morality play -- Good versus Evil, a Manichean struggle of Light against Darkness, the whole magilla.

God, that Nikolai is a rotter. And a crybaby. At one point, vexed beyond endurance by a referee's call, he turns cartwheels across the ring in protest. Good cartwheels, not great cartwheels.

He gets Quick Draw with an arm flip, slinging him into the ropes. But Quick Draw rebounds off the ropes and decks the commie with a flying dropkick.

The crowd is going berserk. Quick Draw flings himself against the ropes and catapaults into another flying dropkick to administer the coup de grace to the Kremlin creep.

But the Russian catches Quick Draw in his arms, cradling him, it would seem, much as Romeo hefted Juliet.

With what would appear to the untrained eye to be a little help from Quick Draw, the Marxist hoists him above his head, gives him the famous airplane spin, slams him to the mat and pins him! Another setback in the long twilight of the Cold War!

Nikolai and the Iron Shiek are just the latest in a long line of professional wrestling -- or rasslin', really, as it has a closer relationship to vaudeville tumbling acts and old-time melodrama than to amateur wrestling.

The late A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker once wrote about such earlier Foreign Menace rasslin' villains as Ach Du Lieber Kurt von Poppenheim and Hans Schmidt, who gave the Nazi salute in the ring, turned their backs on Old Glory and sat defiantly during the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Liebling also traced how pro rasslin' evolved from ethnic bars and clubs in which a German Apollo in a German-American neighborhood would take on some outlander just as a Polish Hercules would in another. These in turn evolved from German beer gardens that staged Greco-Roman wrestling, in which no holds are allowed below the waist and when anyone is thrown it's a pin, to help sell beer. When the wrestlers got thirsty, one would throw the other and they'd take a half-hour beer break, then continue on through the night.

Rasslin' evolved as its impresarios realized that real wrestling, while one of the most difficult and demanding of sports, is also one of the dullest. What was needed was entertainment, a story line.

Herman Hickman, the former Yale football coach and an All-America guard at Tennessee in 1931, once recounted how he made a pretty good living rasslin' during the Depression. On the "gasoline circuit" -- so-called because the troupe, good guys and villains alike, traveled by auto from Washington to Knoxville, Birmingham, Atlanta and New Orleans and other points south -- he was a good guy because he was the clean-cut local boy and college football hero.

He was choked, kneed in the groin, buffeted with illegal rabbit punches, had his hair pulled and was subjected to countless other indignities, which he suffered nobly because he was the heroic local southern boy. But he had a devastating weapon from his football days -- the flying tackle, which often carried the day after 40 or 50 minutes of incredible suffering.

Not always, though. Defeat of the good guy sets up revenge matches, and the impresarios in New York set the lineups and outcomes of the matches. Each wrestler had a code name -- Hickman was "Cannonball" because of his physique, the late George Zaharias, husband of Babe Didrickson, was "Subway" because he got lost on the subway his first time in New York.

The instructions for a match would go out on Western Union and be confirmed on the rival Postal Telegraph Co. "Cannonball moon Subway around 35 confirm," the message would read. It meant Hickman was to lose to Zaharias -- look up to the moon -- after about 35 minutes. Hickman also refuted the idea that rasslin' is rehearsed -- the wrestlers must have a feel for the crowd and build to the proper dramatic climax.

He expressed some doubt about the legitimacy of that historic match between Ulysses and Ajax, but noted that rasslin' has one enormous factor going for it -- the conflict of hero and villain is the longest-running plot in show business.