Posts Tagged ‘Verne Gagne’

When We Were Kings, A Vintage Pro Wrestling Story

June 4, 2010 9 comments

Matt Wells Belt (LOC)

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

All right, enough with the boxing stories for now. Keeping with the martial arts theme, however, try this pro wrestling story on for size.  Growing up, my brothers and I religiously watched the televised pro wrestling matches from our living room’s ringside seats in front of the old Zenith. Omaha pro wrestling cards had the usual lineup of villains and heroes and their cheap theatrics. We loved the bravado and silliness of it all, right down to the animated pitch man hawking elixirs between matches.  About 10 years ago I finally caught up with a few of the wrestling stars I used to gawk at on TV, including villain extraordinaire Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, for the following story I did for the now defunct Omaha Weekly.  I had great fun working on this piece, which I think comes out in the writing.



Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon giving an opponent the business



When We Were Kings, A Vintage Pro Wrestling Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

“Like with any performer, we fed off the crowd and they fed off us. There’s nothing more difficult than wrestling in front of empty bleachers. But if it’s packed, it’s easy. The people do the work for you. They either love you or hate you,” said former profesional wrestling king Maurice Vachon, better known by his stage name — Mad Dog.

There was a time when Mad Dog and his old cohorts inside the ring lorded over the pro wrestling world.

For decades Omaha was a wrestling hotbed where matchmakers Max Clayton and Joe Dusek annually staged dozens of live cards featuring stars with monikers like Butcher, Bruiser, Crusher, Killer. Omaha produced wrestling greats of its own in The Baron, Dr. X, The Dirty Duseks, Iron Mike DiBiase and Jumpin’ Joe Scarpello. Rabid fans came out in droves. Locally televised All-Star Wrestling matches further stoked the fire of fans for upcoming arena bouts. It was a simple, grassroots thing. Then it all changed, and a way of wrestling passed with it.

Combining the comic mayhem of Jackie Chan, the pop flamboyance of Little Richard and the dynamic derring-do of the Flying Wallendas, pro wrestling today rules as the new Greatest Show on Earth. Long an over-the-top attraction, it has in recent years assumed a whole new theatricality courtesy of the World Wrestling Federation and its flashy costumes, inflated muscles, martial arts moves, elaborate sets, suggestive routines and intricate storylines. Depending on who you talk to, it is either a vulgar spectacle or a colorful romp. However you feel, there is no denying it is plugged into this era’s in-excess culture. “Sports and entertainment have become more extreme products. Like it or not, that’s the way it is. And the WWF has embraced and perfected that,” said lifelong wrestling fan Ray Whebbe, Jr. of Minneapolis, MN, where he is a veteran wrestling promoter, manager and agent.

Extreme has not always been part of the scene, however. Before the WWF became The Bomb, pro wrestling operated via regional promoters whose old school product, while wilder and woollier than its amateur counterpart, remained far tamer than today’s heavily scripted showpieces. Wrestlers of yesteryear were showmen too, just not cartoon action figures. Bouts were calculated for dramatic effect, just not off the charts crazy. In short, it was a lot of corn, just not borderline porn. It was a grittier, less-adorned brand of action in which the primal physical challenge of the ring, pitting heroes and villains in classic good versus evil duels, took center stage. Strip away the pay-per-view hype and that is still the essence of this popular sport-entertainment hybrid.

Whebbe, who admires the contributions made by wrestlers from the past, agrees the sport used to be “a lot less contrived and a lot more reality-based,” but adds, “it was also a lot more boring. There were fewer charismatic performers.” For fans like him, the Golden Age of pro wrestling is passe. Old time wrestlers, meanwhile, consider today’s new age product a travesty and dismiss it as coarse, brazen, rude, artificial. They rue the decline of their halcyon days, when they commanded huge, enthusiastic crowds with a mix of good old fashioned hand-to-hand combat and theater. These legends remind us they too were once wrestling kings.

Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon was the prince of villains in the old American Wrestling Association (AWA), a Midwest federation run by Vachon’s main ring rival — clean cut Mr. Good Guy Verne Gagne. The man who made the sleeper hold famous, Gagne was among the few wrestlers of his era to cash-in as both a performer and an entrepreneur. After a stellar amateur career in his native Canada, including competing on the Canadian national team as a 174-pound freestyle wrestler in the 1948 Olympics, Vachon wrestled pro from 1951 to 1986. His early years in the business were a struggle. Before becoming Mad Dog, he had no real niche, no catchy nickname, no signature hold to establish himself. He was just another rough guy leading a gypsy-like existence from one bout to the next.

His breakthrough came during a stint on the Pacific Northwest circuit when a Portland, Ore. promoter suggested the short but stocky Vachon do a makeover emphasizing his fierce, dark looks. The plan was for him to act the bit of “a wild man from Algeria.” The promoter added, “And you better do something loud, otherwise you’re going to be hard to put over.” Vachon took the advice to heart.

“I knew I had to do something different, so five minutes before my first match I got the idea of attacking my opponent before the bell sounded. I was supposed to be this wild Algerian and I wanted to show the image I was trying to project. As soon as my opponent showed up I jumped on him and gave him a couple of body slams and then threw him out of the ring. The referee came over and I did the same to him. Then I dropped down out of the ring and gave them both a body slam on the floor. A police officer showed up and I threw him in the third row. Everybody thought I was crazy. The referee disqualified me and I got fined and suspended for two weeks,” said Vachon, a gentle, cultured man away from the mat.

“When I got back to the dressing room the promoter said, ‘You look just like a mad dog.’ And I said, ‘You know what? That sounds good.’ There’d never been a wrestler with the name Mad Dog and I took advantage of it. I would have been crazy not to. Plus, it fit my image. I had quite a few teeth missing, complements of my opponents, which made me look like I had fangs. My (guttural) voice was courtesy of injuries to my vocal chords and larynx. And I was born with hair on my chest. So, I looked like the Mad Dog, and when I was in the ring I acted like one.”

As part of his transformation Vachon perfected the snarling bad guy routine, complete with mean catch phrases (“It’s a dog eat dog world”) and dastardly maneuvers (like the pile driver). His publicity photos captured him straining to break free of chains wrapped round his hairy torso. One thing Vachon did not have to act was being tough. He grew up fighting in a Montreal ghetto. Before going pro he worked as a nightclub bouncer and punched-out more than his share of challengers. He said during his pro career he often had to prove himself off the mat, as his rep followed him wherever he went — like a gunslinger.

“I had to live it inside the ring and outside the ring. It was hard, but I was prepared for it. I could really wrestle. I had a lot of dog in me. Believe me. I had to do it. I had to do it for real. I had to be the Mad Dog to survive.”

For Omaha native Jim Raschke, a former collegiate wrestler and school teacher, the conversion from his normally mild-mannered self into the fearsome Baron Von Raschke, applicator of the dreaded Claw hold, was life-changing. “I started out life as a very shy, introverted person and when I became the Baron it kind of opened up doors for me. I could be what I wanted to be. Even if it was obnoxious, it was better than what I was. I enjoyed that part of it — letting my alter ego go,” said Raschke, who typically ended interviews with his enigmatic “That’s all the people need to know” declaration. His career floundered until he teamed up with Mad Dog, who convinced the imposing Raschke to discard his vanilla persona for the imperious Baron.



Baron Von Raschke


The tag team pair first made a splash in Quebec, where fans had never seen anything like them before. According to Raschke the two did not set out to be bad guys — it just worked out that way. “We walked out to the ring and the crowd started hissing and booing. It was just because of our physical appearance — a big ugly guy and a little ugly guy. It wasn’t anything we’d done. Neither of us had appeared in that area for awhile. Well, when they reacted that way we just reacted back and by the end of that first night we were made as villains. Our reputation spread throughout the province. We just went with it.”

Raschke said what helped keep the grind of wrestling fresh for him was the excitement generated by the fans and, in turn, playing to them. “The more excited they got, the more excited you got. That’s where a lot of the energy came from. It was the crowd’s response that determined what we did. It was always changing. That was part of the fun of it. You were always improvising.”

Raucous crowds worked into a frenzy are a hallmark of pro wrestling. Vachon recalls being spat on, punched and hit by beer bottles from overzealous fans. George Murphy, a former broadcaster who worked as ring announcer and timekeeper at Omaha Civic Auditorium matches, said of the fans, “They were passionate. They would throw things, they would stomp their feet, they would shout profanities, they would choose sides. Fans came there to get involved. I think that’s part of it. We had regulars, too. There was an older lady who sat in the same spot every week. She cursed and banged a beat-up umbrella on the floor. She wanted a piece of those wrestlers for some reason.” Verne Gagne recalls Omaha fans as generally knowledgeable — “they appreciated the wrestling side of it, not just the hammering” — which is not to say the town didn’t have its nuts too. Once, a crazed fan scaled the chain-link fence around the ring to enter the fray: “Jerry Blackwell, a mountain of a man, was waiting for his match to start one night when a little fella from the audience jumped over the fence and came after him,” Murphy said. “Wrong thing to do. Blackwell just grabbed him by the hair and punched him in the face. The police tried grabbing the guy by the legs to pull him out and Blackwell just kept hitting him. It took six police to put the guy out.”

The mayhem was not always confined to fans and performers. Murphy said he sometimes became an unwitting part of the act. “I never worked from a script. Whatever happened, happened. Once we had a Battle Royal where Mad Dog threw his opponent over the top rope and, as the ring announcer, I said, ‘Mad Dog Vachon is out of the match,’ and he hauled off and hit me right in the jaw. He was the only wrestler who ever hit him, and he was a friend. I didn’t know it was going to happen. If I did, I would have nixed it right away. Another time, The Crazy Polock carried one of his mother’s homemade sausages in the ring and shoved it in my mouth. I could either choke on it or eat it, so I ate it.” Then there was the time Murphy was prepping for a TV interview with wrestler Chris Markoff. “I said to him, ‘I’m going to say the way you won that match was terrible, Then I want you to get upset with me.’ He said, ‘Okay, George, I do that.’ So, we’re doing the interview and I begin, ‘Chris, the way you won that match was terrible…’ and he gave me a shove and I sailed about 15 feet. The director said, ‘Cut, we’re going to do it again,’ and I said, ‘No, we’re not.’”

Gimmicks, Vachon said, have always been part of pro wrestling, which traces its roots back to when carnivals still featured “freaks.” One tent invariably housed a ring inside which a burly, well-trained grappler took on locals sufficiently goaded by a barker to test their manhood. When this sideshow curiosity turned legitimate arena attraction it pitted genuine combatants in competitive matches long on technique but short on action. A few wrestlers, like Ed “Strangler” Lewis, became celebrities with their colorful nicknames, mysterious holds and exotic alter egos. Wrestling, once sanctioned by state sports authorities, began operating without restraints when it dropped all pretense of being real. Midgets, females, tag teams, cage matches and tantrums were added to the mix. The arrival of TV only loosened the reins more on wrestling, which embraced the medium with an over-the-top style that made instant stars of some performers. As Vachon said, “If you wanted to make it, you had to know how to talk when the mike was turned on.”

Among the most image-conscious performers then was Gorgeous George, who rose to stardom on the strength of his pretty boy image, complete with coiffured hair, flowing robe, vanity mirror and valet. “He was 40 years ahead of his time,” Vachon said. Indeed, many wrestlers in the ‘50s and ‘60s anticipated the personalities seen today. “It’s all been done before,” Whebbe said. “It’s just done differently now — a little more dramatically and with a little more depth of character.”

The men calling the shots behind the scenes then were a disparate band of independent promoters whose territories formed a loose circuit nationwide. Ruling their territories like czars, the promoters directed everything — from marketing campaigns to payouts to schedules. There were no standards for things like performance fees, although the general rule was each wrestler got paid based on the size of the gate. “Everybody had a reputation,” Vachon said. “Some were good, honest pay off men and some were crooks. The promoters paid you what they wanted. If they didn’t pay you right, you didn’t wrestle for them again. It was to their advantage that you were an attraction and that they treated you right.”

Still, wrestlers had little recourse or protection. They had no labor agreement, no arbitration board, no insurance. They still don’t. Vachon said he and his brother Paul (who wrestled as The Butcher) once led a bid to organize the ranks, but got no where due to fear of reprisals. “We called a meeting in Chicago and maybe only a dozen wrestlers showed up. The others were scared to death. They were afraid for their jobs. The promoters told them if they came they would never wrestle for them again. They wanted nothing to do with it. We tried, but it didn’t work out.”

Nebraska was considered “a hot territory” and its main promoter from 1957 until the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, the late Joe Dusek, enjoyed stature as one of the best payoff men in the business. Joanne Dusek, who kept books for her father, said, “People didn’t have to have a contract with him. If he told you something, you’d shake on it and that’s the way it was going to be.” Verne Gagne said, “Joe Dusek was one of the most honest guys I ever met. It was a delight always to work with him.” Jim Raschke said Dusek brought “the top stars of the time” here: “They would make more money in one night here than they would the rest of the week.”

During wrestling’s peak in Omaha, Joanne Dusek said her father held as many as 30 shows a year at the auditorium. Most, she said, were near sell-outs. “For those Saturday night shows we averaged 8,000 to 9,000 people, which for a town the size of Omaha was great. I think we had as many as 11,000 there once.” Crowds filled even bigger arenas in other cities, with overflow fans watching matches on closed circuit TV. In the summers before the Omaha auditorium was air conditioned, outdoor shows commenced at Rosenblatt Stadium. In two of the most famous matches wrestled there Verne Gagne won the AWA heavyweight title from Edouard Carpentier and beat the mysterious masked Dr. X, whose mask was removed to reveal he was none other than Dr. Bill Miller of Omaha. Then there was the stadium show that a heavy rainstorm halted only to see the entire program moved to the auditorium thanks to the foresight of its late manager, Charlie Mancuso, who had rigged the arena for wrestling in the event of just such an occurrence. “Everybody marched from the stadium down to the auditorium. We held up the show until they got there. And, by golly, they all went. It was really something,” Joanne said.




Verne Gagne


Besides Nebraska, Joe Dusek also handled parts of Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota. Before turning promoter he wrestled professionally with three of his brothers (Rudy, Ernie, Emil). Billed as the Dirty Duseks for their unruly demeanor in the ring, they often performed together — forming a wrestling dynasty. Joanne said the Duseks first hit it big on the east coast, where all four were often on the same card, and later “drew big crowds in Omaha” too.

The Duseks, said Vachon, “were legends.” As a boy, he saw two of his idols perform during their prime. “Ernie and Emil were the first tag team ever to come to the Montreal Forum. They came with their brush cuts and big cauliflower ears and stubby hands. They looked like the dirty, rowdy Duseks. When things went wrong in the ring they started fighting each other. It was no act, believe me.” The ornery brothers grew up on the banks of the Missouri River south of downtown Omaha. Their father was a commercial fisherman and employed his boys in hauling huge catches of catfish and carp. The oldest brother, Rudy, was the first and probably the best wrestler of the bunch. A former YMCA champ, he came under the tutelage of the renowned wrestler Farmer Burns. “Rudy built a ring on the river bank and Farmer Burns would bring his pupils down there. He’d lecture and Rudy would demonstrate the holds,” Joanne said.

Rudy turned pro in 1922, Joe followed him in 1932. Ernie and Emil came later. The Duseks long association with pro wrestling spanned most of its evolution in America. Rudy was the epitome of “scientific wrestling,” which emphasized technique over showmanship. “Back in those days everything was very scientific,” Joanne said. “They didn’t move around and have all the action like they did later. They might get a hold and lay on the mat for several minutes. I’m told one of Rudy’s matches lasted five hours.” As wrestling morphed into more of a no-holds-barred show, the brothers adapted with it and played their feisty, roughhouse roles to a tee.

Veteran Omaha sportscaster Joe Patrick, who worked with Joe Dusek on local wrestling telecasts and promotions, said, “You know, Joe swore there was nothing fake about it. He would always say, ‘This is all legit.’” As if to prove the point, Patrick said, Dusek once “invited anyone from the crowd to come up in the ring and wrestle one of the guys. A big kid who’d been a pretty tough college wrestler came up one night and the pro he wrestled almost crippled him. Afterwards, Joe said, ‘Well, the guy wanted to show the audience he could handle some of these pros but it didn’t turn out that way.’ Dusek was a throwback to the original tough guy. He used to say, ‘I’m one tough Bohonk,’ and, boy, he was.” But there was a kind side to the man, too. Patrick has fond memories of fishing with him. Jim Raschke recalls how Dusek “would pamper wrestlers. He’d sometimes drive us in his car to the next match. He’d feed us on the way up and on the way back. He was a big rugged guy but he was a real teddy bear of a man. A real sweetheart.”


The Duseks


Long after wrestling became a TV staple, the industry remained defensive whenever someone questioned its authenticity. In an infamous incident, ABC reporter John Stossel got rudely cuffed on the ear when he challenged wrestler David Schults with, “It’s all fake, isn’t it?” According to Whebbe, “At the time, David Schults did the right thing. He protected the business. It was pounded in people’s heads — you’ve got to protect the business.” Then, a funny thing happened. The old promoters were pushed aside in the mid to late 1980s by aggressive upstarts like Vince McMahon, Jr., who ignored the territorial fiefdoms to raid talent pools, buy TV time and exploit wrestling for all its dramatic worth. As the industry became a franchise, it started “letting people in on the joke.” Whebbe explained, “It’s an unusual business practice when you’re trying to trick the fans into believing you’re something you’re not. Everybody knows it’s fake — to a certain extent. It’s a pre-rehearsed match. In the end, the business bloomed a lot more when nobody worried about protecting the business and instead just sold the damn show.”

Asked what Joe Dusek would make of today’s product, Whebbe said, “He would be repulsed by it.” Joanne confirmed as much. Vachon and Raschke dislike what they see too. Vachon said, “It’s garbage. Indecent.” In Raschke’s view, “It’s gotten to be one of the lower forms of entertainment. It’s not wholesome. They should expurgate the name wrestling from what they do now because they do very little of what even looks like wrestling in those productions. I don’t have much respect for the business anymore.” In Gagne’s opinion, “There are hardly any real wrestlers in wrestling anymore. It’s just showbiz. Glitz.” However they feel now, Vachon and Raschke have participated in WWF events honoring their legends status.

More than the presentation of wrestling has changed, though. The whole way the business operates today is bigger, louder, more extreme than before. As Joe Patrick said, “It was a whole different atmosphere then.” Indeed, where today’s top wrestlers travel first class as part of huge entourages, the old time stars usually drove themselves by car. Vachon said, “We were on our own. We provided our own transportation. Always by car. For over 20 years I probably traveled 100,000 miles a year by car. People talk about how tough professional wrestling is. Never mind that. The traveling alone would kill the average human.” As Raschke said, “It was grueling all the time. We traveled every day.” Both men averaged 250 to 300 matches a year, forcing extended separations from their families. Vachon, who is married to his third wife, saw his first two marriages end in divorce. And where star wrestlers today may have agents, managers, handlers and personal trainers, old timers did it all themselves. “Everybody was a free agent,” Vachon said, adding the difficulties of that life had him “close to quitting” many times.

TV made celebrities of some wrestlers, but most languished in obscurity. “Mad Dog and I were among the lucky ones,” Raschke said. “We made a good living, but it wasn’t a fabulous living. We weren’t living the lifestyle of a rock star or anything like that. I’m sure it’s the same way today as it was then. There’s a handful of stars or featured wrestlers making the majority of the money and the rest are hanging on and probably not even making a living at it. In our time, there were a lot of part-timers. They were never going to make it. They just liked being around it.”

Despite hardships, including myriad injuries that still bother them, the old time wrestling kings cherish their glory days. They would not change a thing. “It was a wonderful life. I got to see the world. It was my ticket to freedom,” said Vachon, whose wrestling career took him to many far-off places (Japan, Europe, South America, Alaska) he dreamed of traveling to as a starry-eyed boy collecting stamps. “If I had to do it all over again, I would.” For Raschke, too, “it was a great experience that can never be duplicated. I met a lot of great people from all over the world. It was just fun.” By the end of their careers these two arch-villains became beloved figures, which they remain today. They are recognized wherever they go. Vachon, an icon in Quebec, enjoys the attention. “I’ve met so many nice people all over the world who tell me they grew up watching me wrestle.” For a wrestling king, the adulation never grows old. “We didn’t really do it for the money, you know. We did it for the applause,” said Vachon.

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