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COMMENT





Rock Riddle: Proving people wrong
Inspirational conversation with the first "Rock" to go from the ring to movies
By DAVE HILLHOUSE - SLAM! Wrestling
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Rock Riddle

Imagine for a moment that Dr. Frankenstein had been a wrestling fan. It would have made sense, wouldn't it? His monster could have been the greatest, well, monster heel of all time.

Now imagine, though, that the good doctor decided to make another creation that had pretty-boy looks, long golden hair, gifts of showmanship, business-savvy, and a way of speaking with a motivational style that would challenge Dr. Phil.

Meet Rock Riddle.

"Bumblebees cannot fly, we know that," is one of the first things Riddle utters in an interview with SLAM! Wrestling. "Their bodies are too big and their wings are too short -- they are aerodynamically unsound. But the bumblebee doesn't know it can't fly so it flies anyway."

It's one thing to read a bit of fortune cookie wisdom like that in this article. It's a whole other experience to hear Riddle espouse this logic with absolute belief in its truth. As the interview would progress, I had that feeling you get when you know you're being played by a telemarketer. With Riddle, though, I didn't get that other feeling that usually accompanies it -- wanting to hang up.

The difference, as is the case when selling anything in life, is that Riddle has the experience to back up what he says. He was, by his own admission, a type of bumblebee when he was growing up -- physically unsuited to enter the world of wrestling. He was also though, like his metaphorical bumblebee, unwilling to accept the facts.

"In my life I've done a lot of things to prove something -- to prove it could be done," he recalls. "I love it when people say ‘That's impossible'. I say really? Step back and watch." Again, the glee in his voice is palatable as he remembers growing up like the character in the old Atlas advertisements: the skinny kid getting sand kicked in his face.

He recalls hearing "it can't be done" in the local barber shop in his home town of Burlington, North Carolina. Burlington is not exactly a world-beater city, and with a small-town mentality surrounding him, Riddle was confronted by many naysayers when he spoke of his dream to become a pro wrestler -- and he especially got an earful from his barber. "The barber said ‘You'll never be like them, so just get yourself a regular job, smarten up and be like your daddy.'" Riddle remembers, giving his version of the barber a distinctly unflattering southern drawl.

"Within five years, though, I was in the area wrestling George Becker," Riddle continues, and there's that mischievous quality in his voice again. "I'm in the barber shop and I don't say anything. This same guy is cutting my hair and he just stops -- he just couldn't keep it to himself anymore. He put his scissors down and said ‘You did it. I don't think nothing's impossible anymore'".

So how did Riddle achieve the "impossible"? How did he go from a 130-pound kid squirming in a barber's chair to a 230-pound wrestler making the barber squirm? Well, in a fashion most auspicious for the future smart-mouth wrestler's career, Riddle broke in by bucking the trend in his home-town and creating a fan club for the locally-reviled heels Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson.

Riddle says on his website that "everyone hated them . . . really hated them, so I decided to start a fan club for them". It led to Hawk and Hanson, in appreciation of Riddle's sincerity and sense of humour, giving him that all-important helping hand when entering the business.

With enough amateur wrestling under his belt from high school to call himself a good, if not great, wrestler, Riddle knew he could make himself stand out thanks to one of his most consistent character traits: salesmanship. When he was on the mic he was as good as anybody at attracting hatred -- something he admits to honestly missing whenever he does the motivational speeches that take up a good amount of his professional schedule these days.

He goes on to explain that while it's greatly rewarding to run a seminar that helps people realize their own potential for success, it was a lot of fun "manipulating the crowd to feel what I wanted them to feel." In terms of the audience-crowd relationship so important to making a wrestling match work, Riddle feels that he learned the best lessons from working with one man: Pat Patterson.

"To be in the ring with Pat, with someone who is so good," Riddle pauses as he remembers, seeming to be re-visiting the ring in his mind. "To be able to stand people up at will, bring them up to the edge of the ring, put them back and sit them down again -- and having fun doing it..." Riddle doesn't finish the thought -- he just sighs.

Though the memories of being in the ring, and in his prime, clearly still give Riddle reason to pause, he never had much doubt about when it was time to give up the in-ring action and change gears.


"I do miss the exhaustion afterwards, such as having lost as much as 17 pounds after a match in Florida in the summer, in a non air-conditioned tent, wrestling for an hour," he relates. "But I got to the point where I was tired. Tired of every morning, taking 15 minutes to get out of bed." Sometimes, though, it took much longer than 15 minutes to consider himself fully-awake.

"I remember one day waking up in a hotel room, and it's one o'clock," he starts, choosing one tale from all of his time on the road. "I figure I'm going to go out to a favourite all-you-can eat place. I know at the second lights I turn right and it's a mile away. I go two miles, three miles, four miles. I pulled over. Where am I? I'm not in Atlanta. Okay, I'm in Chicago."

Riddle then realized that life on the road, living in motels and having every night in every city blur into one continuous ordeal, wasn't what he wanted anymore. He remembers coming to the realization that "I can stay in one place and I can make money".

That one place: Hollywood.

Riddle would find himself steady work by making appearances in such diverse productions as The Gong Show, wrestling-themed TV movie Mad Bull, and Sylvester Stallone's own wrestling-themed urban-drama Paradise Alley. Before he landed on his own two feet in California, though, Riddle once again endured the trial he faced as a 130-pound kid: nobody thought he could do it.

"I see people who have dreams but who, because of the negativity of others around them, are told not to follow their dreams," he says, with a clear exasperation in his voice. "Get a real job, they say. Get security. In other words, live your life for my expectations, not yours. Living your life for someone else is very similar to allowing the waiter to eat your food. People towards the end of their lives look back and wonder what would have happened had they gone for their dreams. What do they have to show for it? And then those that are obstinate and stubborn and determined and tenacious enough to actually go for their dreams and achieve them, then all those people who said ‘You'll never do it' are the first people who'll say ‘Yeah, always knew you could do it.'"

That was all said in almost one breath. When Riddle gets his motor going on the need to overcome negativity and create a belief system that wills a person to their own success, one can hear the same passion he holds for talking about the days he spent in the ring. Perhaps that is what made it a relatively easy transition out of wrestling and into acting: when he was faced with the same "It's impossible" argument, he just couldn't help but go and prove the cynic wrong. Instead of a barber, though, this time it was Leo Garibaldi.

"Leo was booking in L.A. when I was making my transition and I said, you know Leo I think I'll pursue the acting business," Riddle says, looking back. "Leo's a friend so I'm not saying this in any kind of negative way, but he would just look at me and smile and shake his head. He said 'Rock, you'll starve, you'll fail just like millions of others, you're gonna get skinny, come back and beg me to book you again and I won't be able to use you because you'll be too thin. Get serious and decide what you're going to do with your life.'"


Rock Riddle is honoured at the 2007 Cauliflower Alley Club dinner in Las Vegas.
Photo by Greg Oliver
You should recognize it by now: the sound of Riddle getting ready to fight back against someone's doomsday predictions of his imminent failure. "There's a cartoon that I would like to have as the symbol of my company," he says, seemingly off on a tangent but soon to bring home the purpose of this anecdote. "There are two vultures sitting on a dead tree in the desert. One looks to the other and says 'Patience my ass, I'm gonna kill something.' There are always people saying something can't be done, but I don't hear those people."

What Riddle does hear is the sound of opportunity knocking, and he found ways to successfully venture from the ring to the acting business. Therefore, just as he owed a trip back to the barber, he owed a trip to see his friend Leo. "I think it was maybe six weeks later I saw Leo and said "Leo, NBC, Thursday, eight o'clock,' and I just smiled," he recalls gleefully. "And I would make a point to go back and say, 'Here's another one and another one."

As the acting credits piled up, though, Riddle learned the one truth that he says all wrestlers share: "There isn't a retired wrestler alive who doesn't think they have one more match in them," he admits. The acting business, as steady as it was, and as easy as it came to Riddle, never held a candle against his time in the ring. Riddle even reminisces about the pain. "Recently I took my bike and rode it over a mountain, and afterward I said this feels good," he exclaims, taking deep breaths as if re-living the experience. "This feels like after I wrestled. I'll do a film here and there but I really don't have it in my blood. It's not something I have to have, so I turn it down a lot -- I don't care."

So, while he explored other avenues for utilizing his skills, including the authoring of a long-running newspaper column detailing his experiences in the ring and dishing a little backstage dirt for mainstream reading audiences, Riddle fell quite honestly into the managerial business.

As already detailed, Riddle has a flair for the promotional arts. He attributes all of his success, in all fields, to an understanding of what makes a person stand out from the crowd. "Why are there so many actors on television whose talent is questionable?" he muses. "Why are there so many great actors that have been trying for five, then, 15 years to break in? It's not about talent, it's about marketing, promotion, networking."

To underscore this point, Riddle says to look no further than the creative mind behind Paradise Alley: Sylvester Stallone. "When he finally talked Chartoff-Winkler into taking him along with his script for Rocky, the first thing he did with his money was hire a publicist," Riddle points out. "And then he's on the cover of all the magazines and people say ‘What a success story,' but a lot of it was orchestrated and that's what a publicist does."

So now Riddle finds himself with a proven background of beating the odds, and holds what seems to be a genuine desire to help others beat those same odds and achieve their dreams. Thus, APS Productions was born. It is Riddle's managerial, promotional company that has been helping actors find their way onto Hollywood's payroll since 1976. "I've made a difference in the entertainment industry," Riddle says proudly. "There are people starring on television shows because of my organization -- over 300 substantial success stories of people we've promoted and marketed."

The company has also afforded Riddle a chance to diversify his talents even further, allowing him to act as a producer on cable television. The ultimate project for Riddle, one that would give him a chance to flex every creative muscle he's ever had, is currently in development as a feature film that would showcase the world of wrestling before the walls of secrecy fell down. This, for Riddle, may well be the project that he considers himself to have worked his whole life towards realizing.

"Our film, whenever it gets done, and it's all a matter of money, it should have been done the summer of two years ago and it may be another two or three years, but it will be a salute," he begins, pitching the project with his patented enthusiasm. "A salute to the people who were in the business before it evolved, or de-evolved, into what it is now. There are people who didn't experience it prior to 1980, people under 30 years old, they don't know what wrestling is. When I talk to Dr. Ken Ramey now he says 'You know, the way things are now I avoid telling people that I was in the wrestling business because they don't know what it is and they think it is what it is now.'"

Does this mean that Riddle is yet another in the long line of disgruntled retired athletes who, regardless of whether they were a wrestler or a ballplayer, lament the current state of their beloved sport? "My goal is not to come out, like some people, and say Vince McMahon killed our wonderful sport and he's evil," Riddle asserts. "The man is extraordinarily successful. I like his personality and I like his sense of humour. I don't always agree with him, but there's nobody out there that I agree 100 percent with."

Don't take this to mean that Riddle thinks all is well and good in the contemporary landscape of professional wrestling however. "The sense of family, camaraderie, of protecting the business, is gone," he bemoans. What he is unwilling to do, however, is to pin all the blame on McMahon, who he says is everybody's favourite target. "I have no animosity for Vince. It's sad that something had to die because of his vision, but my gosh the guy is certainly successful. I would go up and shake his hand and say congratulations -- I hate what you did, but congratulations."

Riddle is not even convinced that if wrestling "came back" in its original form that people would be interested. "Dusty Rhodes allegedly made a suggestion to Vince, in response to wondering 'Where should we go from here?' with people jumping off tables and things exploding -- we've gone so extreme, where do we go from here?" Riddle recounts. "Dusty supposedly said 'We go back to wrestling.' I don't know if people have an interest in what wrestling used to be. What shows used to be on television twenty years ago? There are a lot of people who like the trivia of that kind of thing, but the general public will say ‘That show that was cancelled last season? Who cares?'"

Well, since Riddle has been a wrestler, actor, manager, producer, but not yet a wrestling promoter, one has to wonder: how long will it be before someone tells him it's "impossible" to bring wrestling back in its classic form. If he ever hears that, you can bet he would set his sights on achieving just that -- and you would be unwise to bet against him.

RELATED LINKS

  • www.hollywoodsuccess.com
  • SLAM! Wrestling Movie Database

    Dave Hillhouse is a screenwriter and teacher living near Niagara Falls. He remembers that the last time he rode a bike over a mountain he didn't feel great -- he just felt like crap.