Bizarro Back Issues: Superman Vs. Wrestling — And Wrestling Wins (1962)
I don't think this is going to surprise anyone, but over the years I've built up a pretty solid collection of comic books about superheroes fighting pro wrestlers. It's one of those things that I'll always go out of my way to read, because they're almost always pretty amazing, especially in the Silver Age. I mean, who could forget the time that the Caped Crusader took on a masked heel called the Hangman in order to settle the age-old question of whether or not Batman could beat a pro wrestler in his own element, and got his utility belt handed to him in the process?
But of all the superhero-versus-wrestler battles that I've seen in my time, I don't know if I've ever encountered one quite as weird as 1962's "The Downfall of Superman," which starts off strange and gets just gets more and more complicated as it goes on --- largely because it involves Superman actually taking on a real-life pro wrestler, and losing.
The wrestler in question is Antonino Rocca, who in real life was one of the most famous wrestlers of the '50s and '60s. He was a pioneer of the acrobatic style, wrestling barefoot and taking down his opponents with handstand head-scissors and victory rolls, and in 1995, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. That might not seem like much when you consider that Drew Carey also made it in there somehow, but keep in mind that the accomplishments that made Rocca eligible included a seven-year streak of headlining every main event in Madison Square Garden.
And, you know, there's also the fact that he's the only pro wrestler to hold a victory over Superman. That probably didn't hurt either. But then, I'm probably getting ahead of myself.
The bookers for this titanic main event were Jerry Siegel and Curt Swan, and we open at a press conference where Antonino Rocca --- having just recently left Vincent J. McMahon's Capitol Wrestling Corporation --- is promoting an exhibition match against Superman that's meant to raise money for charity. He offers to show off some moves for the benefit of the journalists in attendance, and no prizes will be awarded for guessing which mild-mannered reporter is chosen to be his volunteer.
It's a pretty nice touch in this story that even without his glasses, Clark is so awkward and terrified that nobody --- not even the guy taking a picture of him that will run in the newspaper --- has an inkling that he's actually Superman.
If beating up a milquetoast like Clark Kent isn't impressive enough, then don't worry. The next day at the arena, Rocca proves his pretty incredible talent for grappling by wrestling an octopus underwater in a giant tank set up in the ring.
Now, I'll admit that I only have a very cursory familiarity with Rocca, but I didn't find a single mention of him wrestling an octopus in real life. I mean, I can't really say he didn't, since wrestling in the '50s was a pretty bizarre carnival sideshow most of the time, but that's the sort of thing that you'd think would probably be on Wikipedia.
Superman, however, presents a challenge greater than even the most accomplished wrestling octopus. Or at least, he should. What actually happens when he steps into the ring with Rocca is that he's immediately thrown out --- not over the top rope, but through it!
Yes, it seems that Mr. Mxyzptlk is up to his old tricks again, and has granted Rocca the power of super-strength in order to publicly humiliate Superman by having him lose a wrestling match to a pro wrestler. This is, at best, not a great plan, but I suppose when you have to come up with a new one every 90 days, you end up putting a few off until Day 89 and have to throw something together at the last minute.
In order to prove Rocca's strength, Mxyzptlk summons Hercules and Samson from the distant past (just go with it, we'll all be happier), and we get to see Rocca trounce them as well. And the crowd, despite seeing Superman beaten, is totally into it. Especially Duke Marple, the rather unfortunately named wrestling fan who also happens to be a career criminal.
It seems that he has realized that Mxyzptlk gave Rocca super-strength, but didn't supply him with the rest of the usual power set, which means that he can still be threatened by something as simple as a pistol. And since Marple has a stash of loot hidden in a cave that was blocked by a boulder, he has decided that Rocca's ability to lift up heavy things while still being vulnerable to bullets makes him the perfect patsy to get it all out. Which he does.
And this is where it gets complicated.
See, Rocca isn't really Rocca at all! Rocca is actually Superman, and Superman is actually Rocca, and Hercules and Samson are actually Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy (who are from the future, not the past), and Mr. Mxyzptlk is actually a flying dog in a horrifyingly realistic costume who is "speaking" through the power of super-ventriloquism, because this whole gimmick was a work, brother!
And to be honest, my reaction to this reveal was the exact same as Marple and his henchmen's:
Dude on the right could not be more over this.
But yes: It was all a setup. In what has to be the most convoluted bit of entrapment in the history of Metropolis, Superman and Rocca arranged for the whole thing, because while he knew about the crime and the missing (unspecified) loot, Superman didn't know where it was. Obviously, he figured that the only way he could get Marple, who he knows is a wrestling fan, to lead him to the loot was to stage a public humiliation and pretend to give a pro wrestler super-strength on the off chance that the bad guys would realize that this didn't make him invulnerable to bullets and that they should go threaten a dude who just threw Superman a good thirty feet.
So once again, the day is saved by professional wrestling. Well, that and the fact that the crooks in Metropolis are almost unbelievably bad at committing crimes, but mostly pro wrestling. I'm calling it a win.