So here's a thought: If a young man in Canada was more receptive to getting punched in the face, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers might not have a touchdown dance; Floyd Mayweather might be wearing giant gold medals around his neck as he walks to the ring (Olympic judging screwjobs notwithstanding); and wrestling superstars like John Cena and Daniel Bryan might be fighting over a towering trophy on Pay-Per-View in front of thousands upon thousands of fans.
But because that young man decided that he preferred shooting the leg to firing off jabs, Rodgers flashes his hands around his waist after big plays, Mayweather's entourage carries gold and leather over their heads, and superstars of professional wrestling get to wear giant, jewel-encrusted belts as proof that they're the biggest names in their business.
The man responsible for the belt craze is Reggie Parks: 80 years old, a now-retired veteran of the wrestling business in five decades, and the King of Belts.
Ironically, unless you're a hardcore wrestling fan, there's a good chance that you've never heard of Reggie Parks. By his own admission, he has no idea who owns the rights to the tape libraries his matches are featured in, and only three of his matches can be found on YouTube. It shouldn't be that surprising, considering he began his wrestling career in the 1950s at 16 years old. Born in the province of Alberta, Canada, Parks grew up as a farmboy, the youngest of four brothers. He got his start in the squared circle thanks to his amateur wrestling trainers, who would be found wrestling in preliminary matches on cards at the local sales pavilion. At the time, Alberta was the promotional territory of the legendary Stu Hart, patriarch of the Hart Wrestling Family and father to WWE champions Bret and Owen Hart—if there was wrestling going on there, you could bet that Hart had a hand in it.
Hart's reputation as a legitimate fighter (a "shooter" as Parks called him, with an accompanying gun-hand gesture) came out in his training. "We went down into the Hart Dungeon, and Stu laid this open-hand slap across my chest, over and over again; my chest was bright red," Parks says. After a flight out to a series of shows in Seattle, the wrestlers in the back wondered why Parks looked so worn out ... until he mentioned Hart's name. They quickly understood from there.
After a few years of regular bookings in Alberta, Parks joined up with a friend who got a deal working a carnival that traveled across the provinces to British Columbia, a six-month journey. This was during the days when wrestling could be a circus sideshow act with audience participation, promising $100 to anyone who could take wrestlers to a certain time limit.
"I was the guy inside, taking on lumberjacks and farmers and coal miners," Parks says. While he was going on with some of the strongest, toughest wrestlers of the Great White North, Parks had something in his favor that the various strongmen didn't: conditioning. "They were tough, but they could only last a minute or two," he says. "You let them grab a hold of you, and pretty soon they're gasping for air. You didn't have too much of a battle after that."
It was on that road, he says, he earned his cauliflower ears, a symptom of the matches he was in. "Those guys would just grab you anywhere, anything they could hold onto," he says of his opponents, recalling that he once had to wrestle 10 fifteen-minute matches a day against the crowd.
"We were supposed to have boxing and wrestling," Parks says before winking. "But, there was never any boxing—the fighter somehow always got hurt at the last town we were in."
It wasn't long after that promoters across the Great White North began to recognize his talent—and just as importantly, his look. This was a time when pro wrestlers were built more like the hulking masses you'd see pounding beers after a day in the mines, solid masses of humanity that resembled mountains as much as they did men. Parks was no small man himself, standing 6'2'' and weighing about 200 pounds.
The difference is that Parks happened to be a physical specimen: Cut with a bodybuilder's physique, piercing eyes and a strong jaw, Parks was perfect to be the upstanding babyfaced hero that crowds could get behind, and a perfect foil to the villainous heels that stood across from him in the ring.
The fact that Parks had the Hart Family stamp of approval only increased his pedigree and soon afforded Parks the opportunity to travel up and down the Pacific coast, from Washington to Portland, Hawaii to Texas, Japan, Korea, across the Southern U.S.—you name it, he's probably wrestled there, and taken on some of the area's most famous wrestlers of the time, working with men such as Harley Race, Fritz Von Erich, Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon, Larry Hennig and a young Ric Flair, among many others. Of primary importance in his matches, he talks about the importance of psychology and storytelling within the ring.
Which was appropriate, really. While we talk, Parks constantly goes off track with new stories about the names he worked with, such as how the Iran-born and Olympic wrestling champion Iron Shiek would confide in him and ask why he'd get shipped out of a territory in two weeks, as fast as he would arrive. Parks responded simply "It's because you keep hurting them," perhaps presaging Shiek's later claim that he would break the backs of his enemies, making them humble.
A particular favorite story, Parks says, comes from his days on the road with Andre the Giant. Parks remembers a time when he and Andre, along with a few other wrestlers, were riding together on the way to their next show. The group was driving fairly buzzed; Andre could drink an entire case of beer by himself, while the rest of the boys split a second amongst themselves. "The cops pulled us over, and started talking to the driver. One by one, each of us stepped out; asking 'Is everything OK officer?' Every one of us ... until Andre stepped out. 'Everything OK boss?,'" Andre asks the cop (while Parks provides a deeply-voiced impression). "The cop took one look at Andre, and said 'oh, yep! Everything's fine! Have a good night!' before he went right back into his car and drove off."
From start to finish, Parks' wrestling career spanned five decades, during which he filled a host of roles; for a time, a tag-team specialist; a masked wrestler known as The Avenger; he was the Man With the Cast Iron Stomach, who had a car drive onto his stomach and rest there before driving off, leaving a visible tire-tread; and for a while, after suffering a back injury in his 40s, he was a part-time referee before quitting as an in-ring performer to open up a carpet-cleaning business. His final match took place in 1999, when he was 64, when he took on Jose Lothario, the trainer of legendary WWE wrestler Shawn Michaels, in a "Legends Match" in New Mexico.
But as capable as he was in the ring, he can say for certain that his real mark on the wrestling buisness wouldn't have come were it not for a ridiculously large trophy celebrating his status as a midwestern tag-team champion.
Along with his tag-tea partner Doug Gilbert, Parks was champion of a promotion headed by Joe Dusek, who provided his wrestlers with a giant, six-foot trophy that proclaimed their status ... the only problem?
"The damn thing wouldn't fit in our car!," Parks says.