THE 1987 PAN AMERICAN GAMES : Loaded for Bear : Canoeist Also Did Pretty Well in His Short-Lived Wrestling Career
There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. There’s also one pretty good one in little Rogers, Ark., home of Mike Herbert, canoe-kayak racer for the United States and double gold medalist in the Pan Am Games here.
Herbert, legend has it, is the only man who ever beat Victor the Bear in a wrestling match. He took this 8-foot tall, 725-pound monster and, right there in front of 4,000 people, pinned him. Not once, but twice.
A story for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not? A story too good to be true, too impossible to be real?
After all, everybody knows that Victor the Bear has been wrestling humans at sports shows and such for probably 20 years and the way his trainers and the promoters talk, nobody has ever beaten him.
“I have,” Herbert says.
And so, right there, only moments after he won his second gold medal of the day in the Pan Am Games, and while people surrounded him for autographs and stuffy officials in sport coats talked to him in $50 words, Herbert smiled a wide country smile and told the story of Victor the Bear.
“This was a few years ago, after we had moved from Maschouta, Ill., down to Rogers,” Herbert said. “That’s where I got into this canoe racing stuff. My dad and I were floating rivers down there and we seen this sign for a canoe race. So we jumped right in and I’ve been doing it ever since.
“Anyway, I’m riding around and I hear this guy on the radio say that they’re looking for people to wrestle this big old bear named Victor in Tulsa. And he says anybody who beats him wins a Camaro Z-28.
“Well, I really wanted one of those, so I figured I’d drive up there. Tulsa is only something like 85 miles from Rogers.
“They had this at a place called the Great Escape. It was kind of a nightclub and showplace. They had rock concerts and things like that there.
“The night I went, they had something like 4,000 people and the bear was going against the strongest man in Oklahoma and some guy who used to play pro football for Miami. I don’t remember either of their names. I don’t follow that stuff much.
“After the bear beat both of them, they said anybody who wanted to take a shot at it could put his ticket stub in a hat and they’d draw out some names. Pretty soon, they drew mine. It was about 12:40 at night by then.
“I watched the other guys, and it looked to me like the best thing to do was just kind of pick the old bear up and toss him down, then plop on him. So that’s what I did.”
Just like that? Pick him up, all 725 pounds, toss him down and plop on him?
“Yup, pretty much just like that,” Herbert said.
A word of elaboration is needed here. Herbert, 26, is listed as 5-11, 185. But his racing uniform reveals an upper body that would get him a tryout on the Raiders’ defensive line, right there next to Howie Long.
So what happened after that?
“Well, I got up and had my arms up in the air just walking around the ring like boxers and wrestlers do. The crowd was going crazy and I kind of was liking that.”
“Well, the trainer was pretty peeved because nobody had ever beaten the bear before, so he let him loose and he attacked me from behind. Hit me a good whack. Good thing they take their claws off and put a muzzle on him.
“That old bear was pretty mad. They don’t like to be on their backs, I guess.”
So what happened then?
“Well, I picked him up again, tossed him down and plopped on him. I beat him twice in one night. The place really went crazy then.”
So you got the car?
“Naw, the promoter and the trainer took off. But I had all those witnesses and a bunch of people signed petitions and so they set up a grudge match. But this time, I had to pin him for three seconds to win. The other times I only had to do it for one second.
“So I wrestled him again, and the first time it was a draw and the second time they said I only had him pinned for 2 1/2 seconds.”
So you never got your Z-28?
“Nope, but I wouldn’t trade all that fun for anything in the world. Heck, they even made T-shirts about me beating the bear. I don’t know. They said Dick Butkus had wrestled the bear and Clint Eastwood and they never beat the bear. I don’t know. But I know I did.”
So, that brought the interview to the crucial point, that moment when the real issue must be broached. Herbert stood, Pan Am gold medal hanging around his neck, glittering in the late afternoon sunlight.
What was a bigger moment for you then, winning two Pan Am golds or beating Victor the Bear? “Well, that’s a pretty hard question to answer. I’d say these gold medals mean an awful lot. But beating that old bear, well . . .
Whatever Herbert was thinking prompted another huge country smile.
One couldn’t help but think that it was probably the last thing poor old Victor saw before he was plopped on his back.