An article by Mike Mooneyham
Wrestling “bad guy” George South has a unique way of getting heel heat during a typical match.
He simply tells his detractors that he’d like to take them to church. And he means it.
“The biggest heat (reaction from fans) I get is if I tell someone that I’m going to take them to church with me,” says South. “That gets more heat than anything I’ve ever seen, more than if you cussed them to death. They’ve had to pull many of them out of that ring, and I’ve had policemen ask me what in the world I said to them. I told them that I just invited them to church.”
South, a 16-year veteran in the wrestling business, says his faith makes it paramount that he spread the word to as many people as possible.
“If I can tell one person about Jesus, it’s worth it,” he says. “We might draw 50 or 60 people, but if I can just get a tract in one of these fan’s hands, to me that’s the whole bottom line.”
South feels his position as a wrestler, a profession glamorized by many of its followers, gives him a natural platform to reach and influence a large audience.
“God uses you. If I’m flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s, I tell people about Jesus,” says South. “It’s a heck of a deal if you’re a professional wrestler. It opens more doors. I’m supposed to be the big bad guy. People ask me how I can claim to be a Christian. I tell them it’s a job I’ve got. It’s just like painting or anything else. When a bad guy hollers at a fan, and they throw a drink or spit at him, when a bad guy turns around and tells them that Jesus loves them, believe it or not that opens their eyes more than if a good guy were to do it. They think a good guy is just playing his part.”
The 35-year-old Concord, N.C., native readily admits that he loves wrestling with a passion. But wrestling takes a backseat to what really is important in South’s life.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“Wrestling is special and it’s what I do for a job, but I love Jesus,” says South. “To be a professional athlete, it’s not the pressure from the fans, it’s the pressure from the guys you’re with 24 hours a day. You have to have more of Jesus in you than you do this world, or this world will eat you alive. And it’s no pretty sight.”
South, who runs the Charlotte-based Professional Wrestling Federation along with The Italian Stallion (Gary Sabaugh), chuckles when he recalls a talk he had a couple of years ago with “Cactus Jack” Mick Foley (now known as Mankind in the WWF).
“I made a trip with Cactus Jack when Smoky Mountain was running. I tried to witness to him just a little bit. He strongly believes that if you’re a good person, you’re decent and you treat everybody right, you’re going to heaven. I told him that had nothing to do with it. You can be the meanest person in the world and you can end up in heaven.
“I used an illustration about Hitler. I said do you realize that if Hitler accepted Jesus before he died, he’s in heaven? Cactus Jack went nuts. He said, `Do you mean to tell me that Hitler’s in heaven and I’m gonna go to hell?’ He didn’t understand the comparison. I told him he wasn’t listening to what I said. If the sincerity’s there and he accepted Jesus before he died, then he’s in heaven. We haven’t talked much since then.”
South says that unfortunately, such views are not uncommon, but he seizes every opportunity possible to spread the Good News among his wrestling fraternity.
“I took a trip once with Scandor Akbar. We got to talking, and I started talking about Jesus. He wanted to discuss religion. I told him I wanted to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus. I asked Scandor if he had ever asked Jesus to come into his heart. He said, `No, I’ve never done it, but I’m going to do it one of these days. I want to finish living my life.’ I said, `Well that might be OK, Scandor, but what if you drop dead tonight?’ He said, `No, that’s not going to happen. I’ve got plenty of time.’ Well, maybe he has and maybe he hasn’t.”
As co-owner of an independent promotion, South comes across many aspiring young wrestlers seeking instant fame and fortune. While telling them there’s no formula for making it big in the business, he does impart some of his considerable experience and wisdom.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how good you are,” says South. “We have all these young wrestlers starting out and they’d sell their soul in a minute. They want to know how they’re going to get a big break or how they’re going to make a lot of money. They don’t to want to hear that they have to get their lives right with the Lord first, and if He intends for you to do it, you’ll do it. They say that’s old-fashioned and they don’t want to hear that.”
South says he has sometimes encountered opposition from within his profession, but that he often has been able to use it to his advantage. He recalls an incident several years ago in which he was almost pulled from a show for wearing the number of a Bible verse on his trunks.
“We were doing TV for WCW, and I wore `John 3:16′ airbrushed on the back of my wrestling outfit. I went out to have my match with my uniform on, and you would have thought I knocked a hornets nest over. They about went crazy. Grizzly Smith, one of the (WCW road) agents, asked what was on the back of my tights. I told him it was a Bible verse. And I’m on my way to the ring, and we’re ready to go. He told me I couldn’t wear that on TV.
“At first I just wanted to keep my mouth shut. But I thought
here’s Johnny B. Badd with his butt hanging out the back of his tights, Razor Ramon doing the Diamond Studd thing with `Studd’ on the back of his tights. So I was going to see how far I could take this thing. I told Grizzly I wasn’t going to take them (the trunks) off. I wasn’t trying to be a butthole, but some body’s got to give me a reason. All of a sudden they stopped taping. How much it must have cost Ted Turner to stop production in the middle of a tape I’ll never know. Van Hammer’s music was starting to play for him to go to the ring. I told them I wasn’t going out there to push my belief on anybody. I’m going out there to do what they were paying me to do.
“It got so bad to where they had me in a room where I was talking to all the big agents. I couldn’t believe they were making such a big deal over it. Here they have all those valet girls down there half-naked, but that didn’t matter. I thought to myself that something was wrong. We argued back and forth and they basically told me I wasn’t getting paid unless I took my tights off. I ended up turning my tights inside out, as corny as that looked. I went down there and got my paycheck and haven’t been down there ever since.
“For so long, I said God, I’m sorry that I finally gave in, because I needed my pay check. But God told me, `George, how many people did you witness to just in the argument time, just in the dressing room?’ I don’t think Grizzly Smith knew what John 3:16 was, because I had to explain it to him. Most people think that’s my name and my birth date on the back of my tights.”
George South has spent most of his 35 years following pro wrestling – as a fan, a wrestler, a trainer and owner of his own promotion. When you ask him what the most satisfying part of his lifelong devotion to the business has been, he doesn’t tell you about the titles he may have won along the way or the money he’s made in the sport.
He will, however, tell you of the message that his faith dictates he share, and about the lives he’s helped turned around. He will also admit that it hasn’t always been easy being a Christian and making a living in a business that sometimes offers shortcuts to the top and temptations on the road.
“I was trying my best to serve Jesus before it was the cool thing to do,” says South from his home in Concord, N.C. “It’s funny, because it’s almost acceptable now. I’ve been a Christian since I was 13, but it took me a long time. I knew I was saved, I knew I had Jesus, but buddy, I still did what I wanted to do. I remember when I first got started with the NWA, if you didn’t party with the guys, you didn’t get any bookings. I fell into that temptation the first couple of months. I look back now and see how stupid I was. But I was young.
“Dusty Rhodes had offered me a beer one time on a plane, and I said, `Naw, Dusty, I don’t drink.’ You could have heard a pin drop on that plane. (Former NWA junior heavyweight champion) Denny Brown told me, `George, if you want to work next month, you better take that beer.’ Now I look back and thank God for the blood Jesus shed years ago still washes away the sins I do today. I hear so many young guys asking what can I do to get a booking. I tell them to get their lives right with Jesus. Don’t make the same mistakes I’ve made. I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I’ve grown stronger. I’ve learned to trust more in Jesus than in the bookers and promoters.”
South says it was difficult early in his career because he was lured by the trappings of fame and fortune that pro wrestling afforded.
“I can remember driving home one time from a match in Raleigh and I pulled over. I said, `God, I don’t understand. I’m trying to live for you and pray and have a quiet time and be close, but I’m not getting any bookings.’ But now I look back – 15 or 16 years later – and I’m still wrestling and all the guys I was worried about getting all the bookings aren’t around any more.
“God kept me for the long haul. I’ve kept a job for 16 years. I’ve been able to buy a little home for my family, get my wife a little car, and been places that I would have never gone. It’s the greatest business in the world, but some of the people who run it ruin it. Some of those guys who can’t wrestle a lick are making all of that money, and guys like Dick Slater who have been doing it a hundred years are just getting by. I just thank God He’s held on to me through the low times and the hard times.”
South says a particularly haunting experience occurred several days before the death of Eddie Gilbert at the age of 33. Gilbert, whose nickname of “Hot Stuff” was as much a reflection of his sometimes volatile and fiery nature as it was his patented strut and confident ring demeanor, died of a heart attack in February 1995.
“Eddie had just come into Smoky Mountain and had brought Unabom (Glen Jacobs) in,” recalls South. “I was on TV having to work with Unabom, and I knew if I worked with Eddie, he would take care of me. But all I could see was this huge guy who looked like Sid Vicious. So I went to Eddie to tell him that he was going to have to take care of me. I sat down with Eddie and before I could say anything, Eddie said, `George, I want you to know you finally got to me.’ I said, `Oh no, what now?’ He said, `I’m starting to go to church with my grandmother. All those years you were trying to get to me, it might have sunk in a little bit. My grandmother’s been coming to get me and take me to church.’ “That was the last thing he ever said to me. Two or three days later they found him dead in Puerto Rico. I tell kids you don’t ever know that last-second seed you plant could be the last chance that someone has to have a chance to accept Jesus. There’s no second chance.”
South says he has witnessed to many wrestlers during his 16-year career.
“I hope that Dick Murdoch accepted Jesus (before he died),” says South. “No matter how much money he made, no matter how much fame he had, all of those trips to Japan, doesn’t mean anything if he’s not with Jesus right now. And that’s what’s so sad. The guys think that the business is all there is.”
South recalls witnessing to Tully Blanchard, a member of the legendary Four Horsemen, several years before Blanchard turned his life around.
“Before Tully ever accepted Jesus, I can remember giving him a tract just simply saying God loves him. That’s when the Four Horsemen thing was real hot and he was making all kind of money. He basically said he didn’t need it.”
Blanchard, who saw his lucrative career take an abrupt detour because of drugs, entered the ministry in 1991 and has served as an evangelist ever since.
South and his wife, Melissa, have been married for 13 years and have four children: George Jr., 11; Brock 9; and twin girls, Abigail and Scarlett, 2.
“Dad keeps busy. Barbed wire matches are no comparison to taking care of four kids,” jokes South. “It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Once the wrestling and the fans are gone, my family will still be here.”
South runs his Charlotte-based Professional Wrestling Federation with longtime friend Gary Sabaugh, who wrestles professionally as The Italian Stallion. In addition to his demanding grappling schedule, South finds time to stay busy in his community and help those who need it most.