It took me beating my dad at ping-pong to realize that Demolition were just a couple of middle-aged fat guys in S&M gear.
Back when I was a kid — maybe six, maybe seven — Ax and Smash were the coolest dudes I’d ever seen in my life. They were (and still are) the longest-reigning WWF World Tag Team Champions of all time, six-and-a-half-feet-tall apiece, with boulder muscles and faces painted up like punk kids on Mischief Night. They wore spiked leather chaps, too, and full facemasks that only years later I’d associate with The Gimp from “Pulp Fiction.”
When they stomped down the aisle to their blistering theme song — performed by Rick Derringer of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie Koo” fame — ring announcer Howard Finkel proclaimed them as hailing from Parts Unknown. Parts Unknown? Where the hell was that? I imagined they emerged from some barren wasteland on the backs of retrofitted Harley Davidson’s — razor-lined tires, flamethrowers strapped to the exhaust pipes — and drove headlong to the night’s event, barreling over innocent bystanders along the way.
I didn’t watch the NWA and had no clue about The Road Warriors, so Demolition never appeared to me as the knockoffs they were. They were my heroes, two of the select few whose pictures occupied a space on my bedroom wall alongside Sylvester, the doofus janitor mascot of “Cracked” (a magazine I staunchly supported over “Mad”), R2D2, Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield and a black and white photograph of my dad.
I don’t know when the photograph was taken or how it ended up on my bedroom wall, but I remember everything about it. Outfitted in dark blue with a badge on his chest (for years I couldn’t grasp that he worked in private security and not for the police), my dad stood there against a brick wall with a German Shepherd on a leash and an impeccable mustache. He thought he looked like Tom Selleck with that mustache just the way every other dad with a mustache thought they looked like Tom Selleck.
It was my dad at his most badass, the photo I still use as the mental avatar of the old man. My dad was capable of things I couldn’t — and still don’t — understand. He could sneak up behind pigeons in a public park and snatch them up with his bare hands. Once, when a fight broke out in a Chinese restaurant in Atlantic City, I watched him rush directly into the fray and pull the two guys apart while everyone else cried out from their rice bowls like extras in a disaster movie.
He was fearless in a way I’ll never be. A result, I imagine, of growing up in Belfast at a time when people he knew were literally being shot to death in the street. My mom had come from Northern Ireland, too, but the experience had the opposite effect, leaving her skittish and forever worried. Strange how two people could emerge so differently from a shared experience.
My dad was good at everything — math, “Jeopardy,” even basketball, which he played with a reckless Bill Lambier-defensive style and an ugly outside-the-paint three-point brick that somehow always went in. I couldn’t imagine myself beating my dad at anything. That was until we went to Canada to visit my mom’s sister and we played ping-pong.
I wasn’t good at ping-pong. Not even average. But I’d spent a lazy summer playing it in a friend’s basement and had learned enough about the game to beat someone who had never picked up a paddle. I was 12 then, halfway between sixth and seventh grade, and I wasn’t quite yet ready to see myself beat my dad at a pseudo-sport that he struggled at as if he’d never played it, but there he was.
The most basic trick shots I’d learned could fool him. I’d fake like I was swinging hard, then go soft and plink the ball over the net like it was nothing. He’d bite every time, swingin the paddle wildly like a man being attacked by killer bees — that’s the way I remember it anyway. So I threw the game.
I know this wasn’t a unique experience (I’m pretty sure that’s what one — if not every — episode of “The Wonder Years” was about), but it was one of the few formative moments of my life I can remember comprehending as it unfolded. I could’ve applied my own weepy Daniel Stern narration complete with a Byrds song playing softly in the background. “My old man, the world-beater that he was, was being dismantled by a seventh grader in a game of ping-pong.”
I let him beat me. And I remember knowing that he felt good about it. He smiled and told me that I was good and I let him believe that even though I knew the truth.
Not long after we made it home to New Jersey, I rented WrestleMania VII on VHS from Video Tonite (my parents never let me order pay-per-views) and watched it on our monstrosity of a television in the family basement. Hulk Hogan beat Sgt. Slaughter for the WWE Championship on that show, but I’ll always remember what happened to Demolition.
Ax had disappeared by then — years later I’d learn, much to my bewilderment, that his permanent absence was due to a bad reaction to shellfish — and was replaced by a younger model known as Crush. At WrestleMania VII, Smash & Crush were beaten in less than five minutes by two Japanese competitors with no fame stateside.
It was the worst I’d seen of Demolition. On that show, Smash’s flabby belly and soft chest became clear to me. Even Crush — who was only in his twenties and was close to actually being 7-feet-tall — appeared potbellied and slovenly with a bad mullet. Still, the fact that they were beaten by average looking Asian men named Genichiro Tenryu and Kōji Kitao made no sense to me. Who were these guys, and what happened to my idols?
There probably were only a handful of things I could’ve beaten my dad at besides ping-pong — maybe just “Sonic the Hedgehog” on Sega Genesis. Still, I don’t remember playing many games against my dad after that. Even today, we have it out over “Jeopardy” on the television sometimes, but that never feels competitive. I know now that I don’t want to find out what I could beat him at. I wanted to preserve him as he was on my bedroom wall.
I’m not sure what you see as a kid that you don’t see as you get older. The world becomes a little more HD, so you can see the strings holding the puppets up. Maybe you don’t recognize imperfections in others until you find them in yourself. How else could I have missed the fact that Ax had thinning hair and Smash had man boobs?
Smash and Crush split up not long after WrestleMania VII, but they eventually came back as new characters — Smash as a cartoonish car thief known as Repo Man and Crush as a Hawaiian hero in purple tights. I didn’t like either of them at that point, but I was glad Demolition was gone. I was almost a teenager, rushing headfirst into years of acne and misery, but I still couldn’t bear to see my heroes lose.
Ryan Murphy's fiction has appeared in Pindeldyboz and Hobart, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His non-fiction has appeared everywhere from Men's Fitness to WWE Kids.