As hot as the nightclub had grown, as late as the hour had drawn, Mike Herbert wasn't ready to begin the long drive back from Tulsa to his home in Rogers, Ark. Not just yet, anyway. Not so long as there remained a chance he would be invited into the ring with this creature that had hitherto whupped all comers of the Homo sapiens persuasion.
Victor the Wrestling Bear, Herbert remembers, "smelled pretty strong. And he was pretty strong." Herbert isn't given to uttering many more words than that about any subject, least of all himself, so let us interject a few of our own about him. At 5'11" and 188 pounds—roughly two feet shorter and 500 pounds lighter than Victor—Herbert is nonetheless pretty strong in his own right. Few people are as good at moving a kayak over flat water as Herbert, who at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul missed a medal in the 500 meters by inches. As it happens, one of those few people, Norman Bellingham, a gold medalist in the 1,000-meter two-man event in Seoul, is Herbert's countryman, and Olympic rules allow a nation to enter only one paddler in each event. Thus Herbert's bid for a medal in Barcelona figures to come in cither the 500-meter two-man or the 1,000-meter four-man. Herbert, now 31, took firsts at the 1987 Pan American Games in the two-man 500 and the four-man 1,000 and at the '91 Pan Ams in the one-man 1,000. The latter was such an achievement that it moved Fidel Castro to salute the American flag.
Yet none of these feats can compare to the victory of which Herbert is proudest. It was seven years ago that he heard the come-ons over the radio: "Pin Victor the Wrestling Bear and win a Camaro Z-28!" He turned to his wife, Christel, and said, "I can do that." Once he had assayed the supposed requirements—get all four of Victor's paws in the air and hold him down for a full second—he told Christel, "Damn sure I can do that."
There were more than a thousand names in a barrel at The Great Escape nightclub that evening. But at about 1 a.m. someone drew Christel's, and she sent her husband into the ring. In an instant Victor was on his back. When the bear's owner began pulling him away, Herbert assumed it was to halt the match and hand him the keys to the car. But the rules were in flux. Herbert was told that he would have to pin Victor square to the mat, shoulders included, a virtual impossibility given the pronounced curvature of a bear's back.
July 21, 1992
The challenge of pinning Victor one more time intrigued Herbert enough that he stifled the urge to protest. Soon he lay atop Victor for what Herbert remembers to be about four seconds. Yet the bear's owner pulled him away once more. This angried up those patrons who remained. They drafted petitions of protest on soggy cocktail napkins. A couple of high school wrestling coaches in the audience offered to sign affidavits on Herbert's behalf. But on this evening there would be no victory, much less a car, much less anyone to appeal to. Herbert got himself an attorney, who reached what Herbert refers to as a "satisfactory settlement," from the owner of The Great Escape, a portion of which constituted a chance to wrestle Victor again.
"I was wanting to wrestle him again," says Herbert. "Whether it was for free or anyways. That just sweetened the kitty."
Before he became an Ozark mountain daredevil, Mike Herbert had been a junior high cross-country prodigy who for kicks would do things like run laps around the gym. On his hands. All that ended soon after his family moved from downstate Illinois to Rogers, a chicken-producing town near Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas. Rounding a bend on a motorcycle, Herbert was struck head-on by an uninsured driver who had strayed into the wrong lane. The accident left him in a body cast for six months, short-circuiting his growth and leaving his left leg an inch and a half shorter than the right. "I laid there for pretty near a year," Herbert says. "I had to learn to walk all over again."
Now Herbert had to channel his sporting energy up through his arms rather than down through his legs. He and his father, Bob, began canoeing together and were soon winning regional doubles titles. In 1981 Mike won the first of several state and national championships in marathon canoeing. By 1985 he had moved over to kayaking, a sport that would allow him to paddle without kneeling, thus lessening the burden on his legs.
The reigning American 1,000-meter flat-water kayaker, Greg Barton, has a similar lower-body disability. Barton, who won two gold medals at the 1988 Olympics, was born with club feet. Herbert idolizes Barton, whom he saw on TV during the 1984 Games, a sighting that Herbert credits with touching off his own Olympic kayaking ambitions. A favorite Herbert training garment is a raggedy yellow Ozark Canoe and Kayak Club tank top that Barton signed for him after winning his two golds. In 1989 Herbert won the U.S. 1,000-meter trials for the worlds—the first time in five years that an American had beaten Barton at that distance—and he did it while wearing that tattered, Barton-autographed singlet. "We're both an inch and a half short in the left leg," says Herbert, who paddles a kayak customized for his disability. "We could get into the same boat."
Indeed, their handicaps would seem to put them in the same figurative boat. Yet few kayakers propel their vessels more dissimilarly. Barton's technique is so studied and precise that paddlers watching him swear they can see the four discrete phases of each stroke—the catch, the "power," the exit, the recovery—as he races. "Greg's a real precise person," says Bob, who supervises Mike's workouts on Beaver Lake. "He's a mechanical engineer. Mike, he doesn't have Greg's style. He never could."
Mike has a degree in heavy-equipment operation from Twin Lakes Vocational Technical School in Harrison, Ark., and somehow that's apropos. Leslie Klein, a former paddler who's now associate executive director of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team, remembers the first time she saw Herbert. He was practicing starts at the 1985 National Sports Festival in Baton Rouge. "The boat didn't go anywhere, but there was so much incredible power. He'd had zero training, no coaching. It was like someone had thrown a running Rototiller into the water."
By the U.S. Olympic Festival the following year in Houston, Herbert had improved enough to win the 500 and the 1,000. He qualified for the worlds the next season, only his third of competitive kayaking. But the strain of suddenly training at a world-class level left Herbert with back trouble, and before the Seoul Olympics his coaches sent him to Colorado Springs to see the finest orthopedists at the U.S. team's disposal. "Where does it hurt?" they wanted to know. They might as well have asked him something in Etruscan. "I don't think pain is part of his realm of feeling," says Klein. "The spasms were so bad he couldn't rotate his upper body. But it wasn't the pain that was preventing him from paddling. It was the tightness. All he wanted was to relieve the tightness so he could stroke again. The doctors didn't understand the animal they were dealing with."
Herbert's fellow national team kayakers call him Mikey, after the cereal commercial in which a couple of older brothers doubt their finicky sibling will eat a bowl of good-for-you gruel. Twisting around the ad's punch line, Herbert's teammates like to say, "Give it to Mikey. He'll eat anything."
And Herbert will. "It was hunting season, middle of the winter, maybe 20 degrees out," he says, reluctantly recounting one of the stories that have coursed their way through the clannish ranks of the kayaking world. "I'd just gun hunted that morning and hadn't done any good. I was paddling back of a cove, and I seen something swimming. It was a buck. And I just been out hunting. Paddling pretty quick, I got real close, not wanting to take any chances with the freezing-cold water."
Herbert grabbed hold of the buck's horns, whereupon the animal jerked him clear of the boat and onto the bank. Then it whacked him with a hoof. "Deer kicked me," Herbert says. "Made me mad." So Herbert mounted the buck's back, trapped its front legs and twisted its neck. "Got me a deer anyhow." He ate the brain, the tongue, the heart, the liver. "Everything," Herbert says. Then he had the skin tanned and gave the bones to his dog, Pepper. "Ain't nothing left."
Mikey once caught a 65-pound catfish from his canoe by jamming a hand through its gills and flipping it up into his boat. ("Scraped my arm up pretty good.") A rabbit he espied dashing through some tall swamp grass in Florida during a team training camp met up with a well-thrown stick. ("I'd been living off canned goods," Herbert says, "and I was hungry for some meat.") Sometimes he'll scramble up a tree and shake it until a squirrel or two falls out. "I shake 'em out and let Pepper catch 'em down below. She catches and kills 'em. I strip and eat 'em."
Herbert will eat everything he kills, but he won't kill everything. There are bear in the hills around Beaver Lake. "I never would want to shoot one," he says.
But beat one, that's another matter.
They called the rematch the Bad News Bear Grudge Match and booked it into Tulsa's Expo Square Pavilion for two gigs. Herbert would receive $1,000 per pin—but he would have to hold Victor down for three full seconds.
Man versus Bear at Expo Square generated all sorts of pre-fight hype, during which someone asked Herbert if he was doing it for the money. "I'm not doing it for the money," he said.
So you're doing it because he's never been beaten?
"He has been beaten. I beat him twice. And I'll beat him again."
The first night Herbert was smarter than the average human. Which is to say, too smart. He oiled himself up, figuring a slippery opponent would be tougher for a declawed bear to have his way with than a dry one. Turned out Victor liked the taste of oil, and he threw Herbert for a loop by slobbering all over him.
The next night Herbert did succeed in lifting, laying out and holding down Victor for one second...two seconds...another three fourths of a second...before Victor rolled free. "The bear's owner was the referee," says Herbert, shaking his head. "If it had been anyone else...." And so Victor the Bear was still billed as Never Before Beaten. But it's a measure of something that, after the rematch, the announcer suggested over the public-address system that Herbert might like to take up a career as a pro wrestler. Herbert passed. "That," he explained then, as he'll tell you now, "isn't really my goal."