In 2004, the Chicago Tribuneasked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.
Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.
When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.
This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”
Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.
Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independentreported.
Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.
Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.
In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.
Although there have been other toy crazes throughout the 20th century, none have inspired the frenzy that met the 1983 debut of the Cabbage Patch Kids. Mass-produced yet all slightly unique—each was computer-sorted to have a distinctive combination of hair, freckles, and expressions—the dolls were in such high demand that shoppers risked bodily injury to try and grab one: In 1983, a Wall Street Journal editorial asserted that more Americans were worried about obtaining a Kid than the possibility of nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War. Check out 10 facts behind this dimpled phenomenon.
1. THEY WERE ORIGINALLY CALLED “LITTLE PEOPLE.”
When Appalachian artist Xavier Roberts began handcrafting a line of soft-sculpture babies in Georgia in 1977, he referred to them as Little People and created an elaborate marketing plan around their distribution. Gift shops and other retailers would never “sell” the creations—instead, they were to be “adopted.” Roberts also corrected anyone who referred to them as “dolls,” preferring to call them “babies” or “kids.” The fantasy worked, and Roberts sold well over 200,000 of his Little People before signing a deal to mass-produce them in partnership with toymaker Coleco in 1982. Under the direction of advertising agent Roger Schlaifer, they were rebranded as Cabbage Patch Kids after the stock explanation parents sometimes use to describe reproduction—that kids come from “the cabbage patch.”
2. PEOPLE GOT TRAMPLED TRYING TO BUY THEM.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact appeal of the Cabbage Patch Kids, which were perceived by some as homely. Some psychologists interviewed at the time believed that the adoption fantasy appealed to children who were looking to be caregivers themselves, while others pointed to the idea that parents could “prove” their worth by securing a Kid for their offspring. Whatever the case, the 1983 holiday shopping season drove consumers into a frenzy. Stores receiving small quantities of the Kids saw shoppers stampede into stores, suffering broken bones, being trampled, and even attempting to bribe employees into reserving them before they hit the sales floor. One manager resorted to wielding a baseball bat as a form of crowd control.
3. XAVIER ROBERTS MADE ONE KID CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD.
As president of Original Appalachian Artworks (OAA), the company incorporated to produce the dolls in 1978, the colorful Roberts enjoyed perpetuating the fantasy of the Kids as actual personalities. One of his earlier creations, Otis Lee, was named Chairman of the Board and frequently traveled with Roberts, rarely leaving his side.
4. ONE DESPERATE PARENT FLEW TO LONDON TO GRAB A KID.
Frustrated with the lack of supply in North America, a Kansas City mailman named Ed Pennington flew to London during the 1983 season in order to pick up a Kid for his daughter, Leana. (In England, demand wasn’t quite as strong and few had to risk bodily injury to secure one.) Pennington bought five of the Kids and gave four of them away to charity.
5. COLECO HAD TO PULL ITS ADVERTISING.
With demand for the Kids prompting violence, Coleco was chastised by consumer advocates for a form of “false advertising,” running television commercials that attracted consumers when they knew they would be unable to produce enough supply. James Picken, the consumer affairs commissioner in Nassau County, New York, complained the ads amounted to “harassing small children.” The company soon backed off on their ad campaign, pulling TV spots. It was hardly a problem, though: The furor over the Kids brought them headlines—and free advertising—virtually around the clock.
The marketing for the Kids, which involved an “oath” to treat them with care along with a birth certificate and adoption papers, spoke to adolescent consumers but didn’t find support in the actual adoption community. Feeling the toy trivialized actual adoptive parents and their kids, adoption groups spoke out against the idea, fearing it would prompt children to believe people could be “bought.”
7. THERE WAS AN EASY WAY TO SMELL A FAKE.
With any consumer product sensation comes a parade of counterfeit merchandise, and the Kids were no exception. Consumer advocate groups pointed out that bogus Cabbage Patch items possessed an oily smell due to the industrial rags they had been stuffed with. Thought to be highly flammable, consumers were told to avoid Kids that reeked of kerosene.
Roberts and OAA didn’t find a lot to laugh about when Topps released their line of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards in 1985. Featuring the same rounded heads and cute expressions as the Cabbage Patch Kids, OAA charged that the booger-infested cards were infringing on their copyright. After a court battle, Topps agreed to alter the design of their cards.
9. ONE MODEL HAD TO BE RECALLED FOR EATING THEIR OWNERS' HAIR.
Cabbage Patch mania was on full display through 1984, when Coleco sold 20 million of the toys before demand finally began to wane. In an effort to bolster sales later in the decade, new Cabbage Patch licensee Mattel released Snack Time Kids, which were intended to gobble up fake French fries. Instead, the mechanism could bite down on their owner’s long hair and automatically begin chewing. After complaints—and one 911 call for a child in Connecticut unable to free herself from the Kid’s maw—Mattel offered refunds and withdrew the toy from stores.
Cabbage Patch Kids that had suffered indignities like dog maulings, sibling amputations, or other misadventures could potentially be repaired by doll hospitals. But one morbid rumor sprang up in newspapers: if your Kid was beyond repair, Coleco would issue the toy a death certificate.
I don’t remember much about being seven years old, but I’ll never forget Thanksgiving Day, 1990, at my Uncle John’s house on Staten Island. While the adults were in the dining room drinking and laughing, I was glued to the television, watching my heroes Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and the Legion of Doom. It was WWF’s Survivor Series pay-per-view, and it was basically the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
But that night was memorable for another reason: It was the debut of one of the most celebrated wrestlers in history, a man who’d go on to win seven WWF (now WWE) Heavyweight Championships, as well as an unprecedented and inimitable 21 straight Wrestlemania matches. This man was not a man at all, but an undead monster. A “Phenom,” as WWE announcers would go on to call him.
On that day, the world got its first glimpse of the Undertaker.
This is not his story.
No, this story is about another debut from that night. One that was so perplexing that, more than a quarter-century later, fans are still scratching their heads.
I am talking about what is considered one of wrestling’s worst gimmicks: the Gobbledy Gooker.
WHAT'S IN THE EGG?
The Gobbledy Gooker was actually the most anticipated part of that evening, which only adds to the mystery of how this happened. For the unfamiliar, the Gobbledy Gooker started its life as an egg, hyped heavily on televised WWF broadcasts in the weeks leading up to Survivor Series. The world would find out what's in the egg, it was promised, during the big pay-per-view event on Thanksgiving.
When Survivor Series finally aired, all was revealed. “Mean” Gene Okerlund, the voice of the WWF in the 1980s and early 1990s, enhanced the drama. “Is it the playmate of the month?” Gene asked, to the cheers of men across the arena. “The way it sounds to me right now, the speculating is all over!” I couldn’t handle it anymore. Break open, already, dammit. Break!
When the egg finally did break open, few in the crowd at Connecticut's Hartford Civic Center could believe what was inside: a man in a giant, cartoonish turkey costume.
To say fans were unhappy is an understatement. Watching the video now, you can immediately hear the boos. As the turkey climbs off its platform, “Mean” Gene tries to sell it to the fans. “Take a look at it ladies and gentlemen!” Okerlund exclaims. “Feathers, a beak, a little rooster tail on top. You’ve got a pair of legs like my mother-in-law, pal.”
The Gooker leans in and gobbles into Okerlund's microphone.
"What is with the gobbledy?" Okerlund asks. "Don't tell me you're the Gobbledy Gooker?"
The Gooker grabs Gene, and the two walk to the ring, run the ropes, and dance the show off the air to a cheesy version of “Turkey in the Straw.”
At the time, I was confused, though not as angry as most of the fans in attendance. Looking back, I still don’t see what kind of sense it was supposed to make. After about a month or so, the Gooker was all but gone, little more than a bizarre, tryptophan-aided memory.
If he was supposed to wrestle, the entire costume seemed unreasonable. If he was meant as a mascot, who was he representing? And why did Vince McMahon, who had just hours earlier introduced the great Undertaker, follow it up with this?
I had to know.
So I asked.
THE MAN BEHIND THE BEAK
The Gobbledy Gooker, it turns out, was a wrestler named Héctor Guerrero, a member of the famous Guerrero wrestling family; son of the great Gory Guerrero, brother of Chavo, Mando, and Eddie Guerrero. While not the surefire hall-of-famer Eddie was, Hector’s career was nothing to sneeze at. He won more than two dozen titles across the country, including multiple tag titles, an NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship with Crockett Promotions, and an NWA Florida Heavyweight Championship. In 2007, he moved into the broadcast booth, joining the Spanish commentary team for the Total Nonstop Action promotion, where he remained until 2015.
Most wrestlers have had a gimmick that doesn’t work, or one that they’re embarrassed by. For example, hard-nosed British technical wrestler William Regal was once known as “The Real Man’s Man,” a guy who chopped wood and wore a hard hat. The Undertaker’s in-character brother, a demon from hell named Kane, was previously a wrestling dentist. It’s all part of the business.
But over the phone from his Florida home, Hector doesn’t sound embarrassed. To him, the entire Gobbledy Gooker thing was a missed business opportunity, one he says could have worked if it was given the right venue. He’s vehement that, in front of the right crowd, it would have been recognized for exactly what it was: Something fun to entertain the kids. “It was always for the children,” Hector told Mental Floss. He says he was not ready for the rowdy northeastern crowd he faced that night in Hartford, and thought that a more kid-friendly audience would have been more appropriate.
“It was not a kid crowd,” he laughs.
GOOKER'S ORDERS FROM THE TOP
Hector started receiving calls from the WWE in early 1990, months before Survivor Series. He was not immediately responsive. Years prior, he says, he had a brief but antagonistic encounter with one of the company’s agents, so he didn’t pay the calls much attention. He eventually relented, however, and soon he was speaking directly to the man in charge himself, current WWE CEO Vince McMahon. The two had a cordial conversation—McMahon was reaching out because wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes had vouched for Hector.
The idea, as Hector remembers, was a fun mascot for kids who would eventually start actually wrestling. Months after getting the call from Vince, Hector tried out for Gooker in person.
There was some initial hesitation about Hector's body type. The WWE was fresh off a 1980s era that prized the godlike physiques of wrestlers like Hulk Hogan. Hector, who had just gone on two tours with the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling, was smaller than most of the roster.
The Guerrero family, from Mexico City, was known for melding the exciting, Mexican lucha libre-style of wrestling—athletic, fast-paced, freeform, and acrobatic—with a traditional American style inspired by old school wrestlers like Dory Funk Sr. Years later, when Hector’s brother Eddie and other lucha-style wrestlers became stars with the WCW, they were exclusively part of the company’s cruiserweight division—wrestling that often demanded a smaller physique.
“They had expected to see me bigger, but at this time, when this all happened, I was on a very strict diet,” Hector says. “They didn’t realize that us light guys could do things that could maybe draw money.”
Nonetheless, Hector credits his small, athletic build and quick skill set as the impetus for WWF’s call. The work he did with WCW as “High Flying” Hector Guerrero was innovative to American audiences, and despite his smaller-than-average size, Hector impressed during his WWE Survivor Series tryout—all while performing in full turkey getup.
He was asked to put on the costume and show what he could do in the ring, and he bounced from rope to rope, doing flips and cartwheels. To see, Hector had to look through two holes drilled into the giant turkey mask's bulging plastic eyeballs, which was extremely difficult. To look left or right, he had to rotate his entire head. Still, he nailed the audition and landed the gig.
Hector started to receive a stipend and began working as part of the company. When wrestler Tito Santana was to debut a new character, El Matador, WWE wanted native Spanish-speaker Hector in Mexico to help film vignettes. And having been in the business since he was a teenager, the 36-year-old Hector also knew a few friendly faces in the company. His traveling companion, Terry Szopinski—better known to wrestling fans as the Warlord—helped him bulk up on the road. Even he and the Undertaker, who would later debut on that same Thanksgiving night, shared a brief history in WCW, where Hector was impressed with the agile big man’s work.
GOBBLEDY GOOKER'S BIG NIGHT
On Thanksgiving 1990, Hector huddled in a box underneath the giant egg for four hours—enough time so that no one entering the Hartford Civic Center could see him before the show. He was given a TV monitor, a light, and some drinks and snacks. The crew pranked him by pasting pornographic photos inside the box. (Hector, who says he was by then a devout Christian, was not amused.)
The night went on, and Hector waited patiently for his moment. Suddenly, Gene Okerlund began to talk about the egg, and Gobbledy Gooker knew it was time to hatch.
“As I stepped down to talk to Gene, the more boos I hear,” he says. “You know, I can’t hear the kids screaming that they like it, but I can hear the people, because there’s more adults. And they’re booing the heck out of it.”
Okerlund put the microphone down, and said to Hector, “We’re going to put it over,” meaning they were going to try to make it work. They marched to the ring and Okerlund, to his credit, did his best Charlie Chaplin routine, stumbling, tripping, and falling. Someone later told Hector that Okerlund woke up the next day with bruises all over his body from trying so hard to sell the routine.
As the Gobbledy Gooker made his way backstage after his performance, Hector felt the stares and immediately felt like a pariah. “I worked pretty hard,” he says. “I put my 110, 115 percent, like all my matches. I put all of my ability into it.”
“It was an egg,” he adds, exasperated. “What’s going to hatch out of an egg?”
THE GOBBLEDY GOOKER'S END
Hector continued touring with WWF for a month without incident, save for one. Hector was again asked to do his Gobbledy Gooke routine, this time at Madison Square Garden. The crew told him they would shine a spotlight as he approached the ring. He agreed.
When announcer Howard Finkel called out the Gooker’s name, the familiar “Turkey in the Straw” beat dropped. Hector was ushered through the curtain by stage hands. That’s when he says he knew he was in for some trouble.
Hector walked through the curtain into pitch darkness. Suddenly, he was hit with a spotlight. It shined through the large white eyeballs of the costume's mask, and he couldn’t see a thing.
In his telling, he says he was hurried down the aisle by crew members, feeling his way as he went. He eventually got to the ring, busted his knee on the steel steps, climbed to the apron, and, unable to see what he was doing, flipped over the top rope and came crashing down to the mat with a thud.
“All I can see is white,” he recalls. “I can’t see where the ground is. I can’t land on the ground, because I see white. So I landed on my butt. “
The main lights were eventually turned on, and a frazzled Hector finished up his routine. Backstage, he was greeted by an upset Vince McMahon, who simply walked away from him. He was later approached by the legendary announcer “Gorilla” Monsoon.
“You couldn’t see, right?” Gorilla asked.
“Yeah,” Hector responded.
“We figured that out,” Gorilla deadpanned.
It was an impossible situation, according to Hector. About a month after his debut at Survivor Series, he was out of a job. He said there was no formal conversation. The company just stopped booking and paying him.
Looking back on the incident decades later, Hector isn’t bitter. This was not always the case. Losing the WWF opportunity was tough on him and his family, and he went to work as a gymnastics coach before wrestling again for other, smaller companies. Around Survivor Series 1991, he says he was again offered the Gobbledy Gooker gig. He did not accept.
As time went on, Hector’s outlook changed. He now considers any alleged slight as “water under the bridge.” His younger brother, the late Eddie Guerrero, and his nephew, Chavo Guerrero Jr., both went on to become WWF stars. He’s happy with the way his family was later treated by the company, has no ill will, and characterizes most of his experiences working with McMahon and others as very professional. After ending his tenure with Total Nonstop Action in early 2015, Hector started a wrestler consulting business and hopes to use the skills he learned under his father and through his more than 30 years in the business to help other wrestlers succeed.
In 2001, Hector even agreed to don the Gobbledy Gooker suit in Houston for Wrestlemania X-Seven, in a “gimmick battle royal” with 18 other gimmicky wrestlers from WWE’s past. It was an over-the-top-rope elimination match, and he was eliminated by Tugboat, a heavyset wrestler known in the 1980s for dressing like a sailor.
At the 2006 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, Hector Guerrero sat in the crowd to watch the induction of his late brother Eddie.
That same night saw the induction of “Mean” Gene Okerlund, who recounted that infamous experience he and the Gooker shared 27 years ago.
“Hector, we had a lot of fun,” Okerlund said. “But all is forgotten.”
Sorry Gene, but the Gooker lives on. And Hector wouldn’t have it any other way.