Queering Adrian Adonis (but in a fun way)
Time for my first post here, and what better way to get rolling than to break down one of my favorite promos, 40 years after it first aired (almost to the day). This is from the November 14, 1981 episode of All-Star Wrestling. Pat Patterson is interviewing one of the newest additions to the World Wrestling Federation, “Golden Boy” Adrian Adonis (recently imported from the AWA along with his East-West Connection partner Jesse Ventura). Standing with Pat and Adrian is Adrian’s manager,
Action Grandpa Classy Freddie Blassie. Usually we think of the manager as the talker, but Adrian doesn’t need any help from Fred. If you’re unfamiliar with his work beyond the “Adorable” gimmick, take a moment to grab a glass of water and maybe a wad of gum.
Transcript, with commentary:
Pat Patterson: We’re now going to talk with Mr. Adrian Adonis, and we will find out a bit more about Mr. Adonis’ background and where he’s from. Mr. Adonis, how about your amateur wrestling background? I know that you do have a tremendous amateur wrestling background.
Vince and Pat mention that Adrian’s been a troublemaker since he was a kid, and you’d believe he’s every bit the street-brawling delinquent he’s being hyped as. This cocky son of a bitch probably has a switchblade hidden in one of his pockets, but he wouldn’t need it anyway because he could break your back between his thighs.
Adrian Adonis: Well, let’s just talk about the beginning of time, the beginning of a style. About a man that was molded, Jason.
I’m talking about a kid, from birth, that was left on a doorstep in Manhattan, that worked his way out of the gutter, Jack.
Went to the docks at seventeen years old, [took on] people, and I’m talking about knocking ’em down one by one.
And then I’m talking about going into big time football, and then I’m talking about the Junior Olympics.
I am talking about scholarships to ten major colleges… turned ’em down! You know why? Because the teachers were prejudiced! They didn’t like my attitude!
Can you imagine? Somebody not liking Adrian Adonis’ attitude? Can you imagine the gall that people had in New York State, daddy?
This is actually really great. Adrian has a bad attitude, sure. But he says it himself: he’s been “molded” by the cruelties of an unkind world. We know his perspective is warped, but we understand why he’s so pissed at society. Even after he fought and clawed his way to excellence, even after showing he could play by the rules and come out on top, he’s still being pigeonholed by his background. The straight world still sees him as gutter trash.
Well I’ll tell you something. I took myself outta the gutter and I beat everybody that stood in front of me. That includes truck drivers, school teachers, anybody, all comers, Jack! I’m talkin, “this is one mean bad dude.”
The truck driver thing kinda threw me at first. Why would truck drivers be an obstacle to him? But it resonates a bit with that “docks” line earlier, and I think there’s something to that allusion so I did a bit of googling.
Okay so, the Manhattan waterfront economy had almost totally collapsed by the 70s. The piers were basically abandoned and soon fell into disrepair. When teenage Adrian was apparently heading down to the docks to find work, not many people were hanging around there save for “small-time criminals,” runaway kids, hustlers and clients looking to hook up. They became known as a liminal and lawless space. (And incidentally, the role those piers played in establishing queer spaces and subcultures is really interesting).
While the actual wrestler who worked as Adonis could well have started out working at the docks (i.e. the literal, still very active shipyards in his hometown of Buffalo, NY), I’m not too sure that a 17-year-old Adrian Adonis was going to find a job loading cargo down at the Manhattan docks at this time. If that’s the case, the “truck driver” reference takes on a different hue. It’s a total headcanon, and probably a stretch, but those allusions to a life on the margins, eking out a living from this petty-theft underworld economy… they seem compelling to me.
If we choose to pick up those hints and run with them, I’d say it adds to our understanding of his character. Beyond having to navigate some really rough shit, it’s no wonder he hates the social elite and self-appointed moral authorities preaching ideas of “respectability”. He knows they have the luxury of hiding their hypocrisy behind tinted limousine windows while exploiting the desperate and the outcast.
But despite all the ugliness he has seen, Adonis knows one thing:
Adonis: I’m not just a pretty face, daddy. I am beautiful!
Patterson: Well, you have a good opinion of yourself–
Surely this must be a ripoff of Adrian Street’s immortal line, “You may be pretty, but I am beautiful.”
He ain’t wrong though. Adonis wasn’t in his “Adorable” character yet, but here he’s playing off one of the most successful queer-coded gimmicks of the era. I wonder whether they were teasing it this whole time??
Even setting the future gimmick aside, I have to wonder, is there something else beneath his alienation and anger, beyond the trauma and abandonment, the refusal to conform to social expectations? When Adonis describes himself as “beautiful,” it’s held apart from his physical beauty, his “pretty face.” What is it, then? He rattles off this line at the end of an account of his trials in this world. So is it his resilience, his ability to rise above the labels assigned to him, something else we can’t see? [pause while I catch some feelings over this idea and try not to start crying into my keyboard]
Adonis: Let me tell you something, I’m not finished yet Mr. Patterson! Just let me talk! You’re about as cool as your hairdo, daddy. And I’ll tell you something else–
Adonis: Anybody that gets in my way is gonna get mowed over.
I’m talking about Tony Atlas, I’m talkin’ about Ricky Dickie Martel, and I’m talking about the champion, the man with the most due respect, Mr. Bob Backlund. And I’m tellin’ ya, when I take that belt away from him, I’m takin’ it away from you people too. Because it belongs to him and you. Because all you people stick together. Because you’re all followers. But Mr. Adonis is a leader, daddy.
I wanna think about NYC in the 70s and 80s, and popular anxieties around youth gangs and urban violence. To me that jacket reads early NYC punk rock — Ramones, Dictators, Dead Boys, etc. All those nihilistic kids with no hope for the future, no respect for authority, and a well of anger against society (cue pearl-clutching). He could be anyone’s wayward kid. But most dangerously, he has ambition, direction, purpose, and all that hate in his heart. His early successes show that he’s a credible threat to social order. He’s determined to tear the laurels from the head of the All-American champion, Bob Backlund, specifically to spit in the faces of the conformists he’s raging against.
I really feel for him, truly and properly *feeling things* for him. He’s an outsider, cast aside and ill-used by a society that has seen him as inherently bad, damaged, broken beyond repair from the time he was born. No shit he has a chip on his shoulder.
…And I’m talkin’ about the Guinness Book of Records, when I covered sixty sewer caps down [in] Manhattan in eleven seconds, how about that Mr. Classy Blassie?
I have literally no idea what this might originally be referring to, but it becomes a running gag later on. It’s goofy as hell and makes me laugh every time. Such a worthy addition to this promo.
Fred Blassie: [laughs] That’s the reason I got him, huh? I have nothin’ but the best! I told you. All you pencil-neck geeks says I don’t ever handle any men that know how to wrestle. Well, I’ve proven to you. The man has proven himself. He showed you moves out here you never have seen in New York City before, and on the East Coast. Right? Yeah.
Blassie: I’ve heard you sit right down there, you and that other commentator, McMahon, sit out there and say the man has a lot of wrestling ability.
Patterson: Well he does, there’s no question–
Blassie: That’s right! And he’s put it to use! And he’s also learned other tactics along with it, which makes him unbeatable.
This fucking guy… hyperactive shite that he is, he just had an entire extended rant and still refuses to just let Blassie have some camera time in peace without demanding all the attention in the room. But honestly? It works for him. The way he’s strutting and preening, he should be full of himself. He deserves it. Here, take my attention — take it! Take it you lunatic. I AM LOOKING AT YOU.
Adonis: Mr. Patterson, I’d just like to get in here for one moment again. I know everybody out here in TV land is gonna want to hear Mr. Adrian. I’ll just say this. You know what’s so deadly? You know what even scares me? I can street fight, but I can wrestle! Can you imagine that? The combination is unbeatable, Jack!
Of course he has to jump in again! He cannot physically stop himself! But again he ain’t wrong. Yes, everyone in TV land does want to hear you, obviously! Adonis’ bullshit is flying out of his mouth so fast, you can never tell where he’s going with it, and it sounds like he barely knows where he’s going with it either. This man seems to have one wheel on the tracks at any given time, but it’s fuckin’ magnetic. And I mean it — the unhinged bragging could go on for hours, and I’d be hanging off every word.
I am like the trade center of New York City.
Look at the shoulders. Look at the beautiful Roman profile.
Look at this Italian skin, soft and silky, daddy. I am just too much.
I am looking, okay?! God help me I AM LOOKING AT YOU SIR. I cannot tear my eyes away…are you happy now?? Damn, dude.
Adrian turns our expectations around a bit here. He is what New York City made him: hard-edged, wild, violent, bitter… and also beautiful (as if I needed to mention it again). He has been molded (sculpted, perhaps?) from discarded trash into a “golden boy,” and he loves himself fervently because no one else in this world seems to.
Adrian talking about his prettiness is actually getting him a ton of heat though. I found it interesting that McMahon actually describes Adonis’ preening habits as “effeminate” in an early match, since we see later on that his “coming out” in the Adorable era is accompanied by ruffles, flowers, pink lace, and other signifiers that he has gone stereotypically femme. But we clearly see that his admiration and vanity and self-delineated concept of his own beauty are also rooted firmly in his masculinity. He refuses to accept or even acknowledge the idea that they’re mutually exclusive.
Obviously none of these things – gender, sex, presentation, sexuality, etc. – are inherently fixed to one another. We know this! But we also know in this era of rassle-land there’s a very narrow field of acceptable masculinity that can be performed. Sure, a top fighter (i.e. male, cis, het, macho) should draw attention to his shoulders: signifiers of strength and virility, manly shit. And as visual metaphors go, it doesn’t get much more phallic than the trade center. But how should an audience take it when this same hardass motherfucker of a man starts boasting about the softness of his own skin? How exactly does that map onto the kinds performative masculinity we’d usually see?
Adrian calls us to admire him for the work of art he is,
big ol’ wad of spit patrician features and all. It’s framed to the viewer as an unmanly act (and therefore somehow weak, effete, pernicious). But he does it in a way that proclaims his essential toughness, his refusal to be dominated or humiliated as the logic of heteropatriarchy demands. This writer calls Adonis’ persona an example of “ironic masculinity,” and I’m not sure what exactly I think about everything he mentions in the article, but it’s an interesting read. Maybe he truly is “just too much” to be contained by the fragile veneer of compulsory cishet respectability. Maybe I just want to pet his hair. Idk.
Adonis: Baretta says all the bad people are in the cemetery. Here’s one right here daddy, in living color.
Patterson: What about–Mr. Adonis, what about the Goodnight Irene sleeper?
Adonis: Saving that… for last. [grins] I’d like to say this. There is nobody, nobody, that can get outta Irene.
I will give ten thousand dollars, whoever can get out of Irene, daddy. Nobody can. I’m talking about the man that owns the clam stand at Mulberry and Hester. I put him out, Jack! I’m talking about the man, O. J. Simpson, from the Buffalo Bills, he tangled with me, he backed down, daddy!
Ah yes, Goodnight Irene… a.k.a. wrapping men in your arms and singing them to sleep. Also, this promo is so genius I can barely keep up with my googling. That “clam stand,” Umberto’s Clam House, was apparently the site of a notorious mafia hit in the 70s. The owner? Matty “The Horse” Ianniello, a member of the Genovese crime family. Apparently Matty ran a number of private sex clubs and also participated in all the usual mafia-related extortions, violence etc. Ianniello had not yet been indicted at the time Adrian cut this promo, and was presumably still active as a capo for the family. Adrian phrases it in kind of a roundabout way, but just appreciate for a moment the brass fucking balls of this man going on TV and saying he put Matty the Horse out with a sleeper. Why he may have been tangling with Ianniello, he leaves up to our imaginations.
The O. J. reference is also interesting for two reasons. First as mentioned above, Keith Franke was actually from Buffalo where Simpson spent most of his career playing with the Bills. Second, he apparently did legit quit high school to go into football, and spent some time playing pro in Canada, but left to pursue wrestling. If we hop ever so briefly from kayfabe and into the biographical sphere, there’s perhaps a hint of vindication here: though he didn’t end up as a football player, Adonis came out on top after all. He can make no less a man than his hometown hero back down from him. So yeah, there’s definitely a bit of real-world overlap in this promo, but for our purposes I’m most interested in sticking with the Adonis character. I can’t really know shit-all about the man who inhabited him, since he died so tragically young. But, in certain places it bears giving credit where it’s due – not to the character, but the human being who worked his ass off to build that character (and whose brilliance is shining through here).
Adonis: Me and Irene, and Classy Freddie Blassie, are gonna set the world on fire, daddy. Unbeatable, daddy. Untouchable, daddy. And Eliot Ness has nothin’ to do with it, Jack.
Patterson: Well you know, when he talks about Irene, he’s actually talking about the famous sleeper hold that he uses.
Adonis: That’s right daddy! The sleeper! Good. Night. Irene.
Blassie: Time and time again. And every time, he has to revive ’em. One of these times, he’s not gonna bring the man back. [laughs]
Patterson: That’s a very dangerous hold, you know that.
Blassie: That’s right! You shut it off long enough, circulation to the brain, and they become bumbling idiots like uh, Atlas… Putski… Backlund… Morales… Martel… Garea… [laughs] Yourself!
Lordy, the number of times I’ve had to type “daddy” in this post. We’ll save that bit of analysis for another day, but just know that I had to triple-check I’d typed “leader, daddy” instead of “leather daddy” earlier.
Patterson: Well, we’re just about out of time.
Adonis: Do you [wanna] count? I came out of the dressing room, to talk to everybody–
Patterson: Vince, take it away.
Adonis: –and now we’re outta time, right?
[scene fades out as Adrian continues bitching]
Well, that’s the promo in its entirety. It’s weirdly moving, it’s completely nutty, it’s rich with meaning, it’s actually quite endearing. Really, for all his bragging dickishness, Adrian is the classic archetype of a hurt young man lashing out at the world. But we can see his wit, his talent, his own warped moral code.
We can see how good he looks in that jacket. In future eras, we might imagine Adrian Adonis becoming a popular tweener character – the bad boy you want to root for or god forbid, fix. I’d bet a good chunk of the crowd was firmly in his pocket at this point, because that’s about all it took to win me over.