VAN — When Forest Harless was a child, he didn’t participate in many team sports, but he found wrestling to be something at which he excelled.
“I thought that I was going to be a Harlem Globetrotter at one point,” he said, laughing. “That didn’t work out very well for me.”
Prior to his family settling in the Van area when he was 12, Harless, now 57, lived in the Kentucky cities of Russell, Flatwoods and Worthington.
His father, Alfred “Buck” Harless Sr., a railroad worker, passed away with a sudden heart attack in 1972 when Forest Harless was 10 years old. Witnessing his father’s death left an imprint on his life.
“He was two years from retiring and when it happened, I didn’t know what was going on and we lost him right there in front of us,” he said with great emotion. “It happened so fast.”
He said that a police officer later came by to check on him and it was something he never forgot.
“You don’t forget a gesture like that when you’re a child,” he said. “It meant the world to me that he thought of us to come back and make sure we were OK.”
An uncle, Quention White, served as a male presence in his life after the loss of his father. His mother, Emma White Harless, passed away in 2014, 42 years after her husband.
White took his nephew to his first wrestling match.
“I just loved it,” Harless said. “I loved everything about it. I fell in love with it. I couldn’t stand in the audience section any longer.”
Harless remembers one particular teacher and coach very well.
“Bob Mullett and I used to wrestle a lot back then” he said. “We had a lot of fun going at it back then, just playing around, but he had a positive influence on me. We didn’t have a wrestling team at Van, which would have been wonderful.”
Harless said moving to Boone County from Kentucky wasn’t a hard transition for him.
“I didn’t feel like I was leaving home,” he said. “I felt like I was coming home. I love this place and the people. I was thinking about all of the good people, who I consider family that I’ve come to know.”
At 19 years old, Harless began his professional wrestling career. He started training and began working with promoter Larry Bowling, who was, interestingly, from Flatwoods, Kentucky.
Harless’ biggest grappling influence was the legendary Johnny Valentine.
Harless struck up a conversation with the legendary grappler Ángel Acevedo, known professionally as “The Cuban Assassin.” The professional wrestler pointed the young man in the direction of Bowling.
“He told me to go talk to him,” he said. “I made my way to him and before I knew it, I was training.”
At 5-foot-9, 200 pounds at the time, Harless wasn’t a large physical specimen compared to his counterparts, but he was athletic and he was passionate.
“My enthusiasm and natural athleticism and work ethic was what I had to rely on,” he said. “I worked out the old-fashioned way and worked on fundamentals.
“I can remember in my training, which I’m sure nobody does anymore,” he said. “They would put an egg on the mat and when you were body slammed and you broke the egg, you were doing it wrong because you have to land with your feet and the top of your shoulders and upper back. This prevents you from hurting your back but gives the illusion of your back slamming into the mat.”
In Kentucky, Harless trained in a boxing gym owned by Oscar “Corky” Salyer.
“We learned how to take falls which is very, very vital,” he said. “Body slams, arm drags and back drops all require technique.”
Taking on the stage name, “Rusty Harless,” his professional career took flight with his closing move anointed the “Sleeper Hold,” which gave the illusion of cutting off the oxygen of the opponent to induce them to pass out.
“There would be talk in the ring,” he said. “Sometimes you worked things out ahead of time if it was your first match with each other but if you had worked together before, you could go in there and put on a show because of your familiarity with one another.”
In a time when it was acceptable for wrestlers to cut their own foreheads to put on a real, live, bloody show, Harless never engaged in self-mutilation.
“They would tape their fingers and have the end of a thin blade in there and they’d cut themselves with it,” he said. “I just couldn’t take it that far. I never did steroids. My routine was somewhat comedy-based and acrobatic and (steroids and self-mutilation) really didn’t fit my persona, anyway.”
Harless grappled for American International Wrestling and World Professional Wrestling. His matches were both live and televised. He said props in those days weren’t nearly as sophisticated as today.
“We worked with what we had at the time,” he said. “You made the most of pretty limited resources.”
His career spanned five years from 1982-1987. He likened his stage act to what would hoist legendary wrestler Terry Allen to fame as “Magnum TA” in the 1980s.
Jeff Lane was a judge in Logan County in those days and he ran World Professional Wrestling and worked to put it on the regional map.
The grappler also spent time in Dan Christian’s Big Time Wrestling and served as an announcer with International Championship Wrestling (ICW).
His most memorable match was at the Marmet Community Center on Oct. 22, 1982, when he wrestled Gorgeous George. It was 10 years to the day after his father’s passing.
“I went into the match knowing that I was to lose,” he said. “He was the former champion at that time. I had no idea, but I won the match that night. I won on a disqualification after he was choking me with a belt. I was double-teamed and the women in the crowd were very angry. Larry Bowling was doing the announcing that night and I was so shocked when he announced me the winner. Normally, we knew the winner before the match began. I think George liked me a lot and wanted to give me a boost. I just don’t know why he did that. My friends told me they thought my dad saw me that night and I’ve always hoped and believed that he did.”
In those days, he earned just $25 per match and if he were lucky, could get a meal or two out of an appearance.
He left wrestling for good in 1987 after what he described as, “being called to ministry.”
He earned multiple Bible-related certificates and spent time preaching. Additionally, he made a living as a handyman and working with individuals with special needs.
“What I loved the most was working in a Christian youth ministry,” he said. “Physically, I’m not able to get around as well as I once did and I’m just not active like I once was.”
Harless said he has fond memories of being a young man chasing a dream.
“As we get older, we have time to reflect,” he said. “I had a really good time and I learned a lot about life that I may not have learned otherwise. I’ve been blessed in so many ways.”
Reporter Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com or at 304-307-2401.