Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 9, 2017

Ray and the Rasslin’ Bear

Guys spend a lot of time determining who’s the strongest dude in the room. Not the smartest — strongest. Some hearkening to a primordial time, perhaps. Anyway, it matters, at least to us.

The strongest man I’ve ever known was Ray, who came to work with us in the construction business when he and I were both in our late 20s. He was a great guy: big-hearted, straightforward, an excellent, tireless worker.

Ray didn’t lift weights or work out. He’d been a laborer since some time in his teens, and his physique showed it: broad shoulders, massive biceps, deep chest, thick forearms and big hands. He also had a kind of Berserker mindset that didn’t allow him to even consider the possibility that some mere physical object could resist him; whatever it was, he’d overpower it, no matter what.

A lot of construction work involves destruction — “demolition” is the official term — like tearing down walls or breaking up concrete so you can replace the old with the new.

Ray was a prodigy of destruction.

When some especially problematic, dense obstacle — a concrete wall, a stone chimney, a steel I-beam — needed to go away, we simply handed Ray a sledgehammer or a 5-foot steel pry bar, stood back and admired one of the world masters of devastation at work, while we dodged flying debris.

One of the most extreme tools in the demolition trade is the pneumatic jackhammer.

The thing about jackhammers is that they weigh about 90 pounds. Once you break through whatever piece of sidewalk or slab you’re busting, you have to lift the hammer up, move it to another spot and start hammering again. Over and over. Do that for 8 hours and you’ve moved tons of iron, up and over, again and again, and you’re beaten-up.

Unless you’re Ray. If there were a jackhammer hall of fame, he’d be in it.

There were only two occasions on which I saw Ray meet his match.

Ray vs. Rail

We had a job by a railroad track. Lying alongside the track was an extra steel rail. A standard rail, solid steel, about 30 feet long. Just lying there.

What was Ray to do? What else could he do? He couldn’t ignore a challenge like that. He walked to the end of it, bent his knees, got his hands under it and lifted.

It didn’t budge.

Ray stepped back, shook his head but said nothing, flummoxed. He’d never encountered a simple, discrete physical object he couldn’t overpower.

Sizes and weights vary, but a standard rail weighs about 1,000 pounds. It was a mark of Ray’s astounding power that he fully expected to lift that baby.

Ray vs. Bear

One day, a local mall announced that the famous Victor the Wrestling Bear would appear there and take on any and all challengers. Anyone who could step into the ring, wrestle Victor to the ground and pin him for 3 seconds would win a new car!

Ray figured that car was his. Rasslin’ (in his Kentucky vernacular) a bear!

Victor was an American Black Bear whose trainer took him around the U.S. to appearances like the mall event. Reports vary, but Victor probably weighed between 450 and 600 pounds. His claws and front teeth had been removed in infancy, and he wore a muzzle to prevent an opponent from getting a hand into his mouth where Victor’s back teeth could sever fingers.

At the time, Victor had probably “wrestled” something like 50,000 opponents. In 2 disputed instances, humans claimed to have pinned him, but Victor’s promoter (who also served as referee!) had disallowed them, and no one had ever won that car.

I was present for that epic event.

There was an actual wrestling ring with mat and ropes, and a crowd of people around all four sides. In one corner of the ring, calmly biding his time, was Victor, a big black bear. After some explanation of the rules (designed to protect both bear and challengers), the promoter started calling challengers into the ring. There were quite a few. One by one, Victor got them wrapped up, lowered his weight on them and immobilized them on the mat, usually in less than 30 seconds.

Once one actually saw people up against Victor, the enormous disparity between human and bear became immediately apparent. Still, I figured if anyone I ever met should wrestle a bear, it was Ray.

He climbed through the ropes when his turn came, facing a bear that outweighed him by a factor of 2 or 3 and (once on his hind legs) was at least a few inches taller than Ray.

Victor didn’t behave like a ferocious, wild animal; he was doing what he’d been trained to do. The sooner he could envelop this blond-headed human and bring him to the mat, the sooner he could claim his treat, which was something like a piece of candy. Victor was a vegetarian.

Ray went at it with all the force he could command, trying to position himself for some leverage, but it’s very hard to get your arms around any part of a creature that large, accustomed to evading the moves of humans and their limited agility. In a disappointing amount of time — less than a minute — Victor had Ray immobilized on the mat, match over. Another conquest, another piece of candy.

Afterward, Ray wasn’t happy. He didn’t think that bear rassled fair. The worst thing, he said, was that Victor drooled all over him, which distracted him and kept him off his game. He didn’t think that was at all sportsmanlike. No threat of violence or force had probably ever daunted him, but no one had said anything about one of the risks he was incurring was being slobbered to death.

It didn’t diminish the guy in my eyes at all. I give him credit for the effort, and to this day, when there’s a big, heavy piece of work to do, I wish I could see that guy have at it again. He was a good man, as honest a person as I’ve ever met, unassuming and friendly. Long departed now, but fondly remembered.

I don’t condone the use of captive animals for entertainment, and in a just world Victor would probably have spent his life in some other fashion. By all accounts I’ve read, Victor was well cared-for and not abused. I hope it’s so.

There are a number of stories with more information about Victor and his trainer:

This story on Deadspin

A story by Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated, 1970

© Brad Nixon 2017

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Responses

  1. I love your phrase “a prodigy of destruction.” A good story very well-told.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I, too, have been a prodigy of destruction. However, the result was always unintended! 😂

    Like

    • That’s the trick: SELECTIVE destruction. Only the true masters achieve it.

      Like


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