AS FAR BACK AS I CAN REMEMBER ...
"Just when I think I'm out, they keep pulling me back in." — Michael Corleone
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Those words, from The Godfather III, just about say everything you need to know about my affiliation (some would say affliction) with the business of professional wrestling. Sometimes it's been an exhilarating joyride; other times it's been a daunting descent, a ride down the highway to hell. Many times I figured I'd abandoned wrestling but invariably I would find myself somehow being drawn back — like a rationalizing junkie needing just one more fix.
My earliest recollections go back to when I was a wide-eyed kid of about four or five when my dad, who was promoting shows then, would invite aspiring prospects, or "wannabes" as he called them, up to the house to test their mettle in his infamous "Dungeon." My brothers and I would sneak down the basement stairs, pry open the door and watch with morbid curiosity as the sessions unfolded.
The trainees were generally big, imposing-looking types — football players, bouncers, bodybuilders and that sort — and most of them would swagger in cockily, figuring it wouldn't take them long to master pro wrestling, which most guys thought was little more than glorified play fighting. They were in for an extremely rude awakening.
My dad — a benign version of Cerberus, the three-headed dog at the gates of hell — would usually start the proceedings by putting the neophytes over, alluding to their awe-inspiring physiques or their vaunted reputations as one-man wrecking crews, street fighters and forces to be reckoned with. At the same time, he'd further disarm them by claiming to be nursing an injury, or that he'd just eaten or some such thing, and beseech them to take it easy on him. At this juncture, the cocky, self-absorbed rookies were licking their chops and contemplating that after they'd cleaned up the mat with this phony, flaccid old pretender, they'd be able to quickly ascend to stardom in the wrestling business. By this time, the trainees were figuring this would be a cakewalk. They were chomping at the bit to chew him up and spit him out and get on to bigger and better things.
Once they did get on the mat, my dad — appearing to be powerless to repel their onslaught — would allow the overzealous trainees to push him all over, which of course served to bolster their confidence even more. All of a sudden though, my dad would turn the tables on the unsuspecting wrestlers and in a flash, they'd find themselves trapped in some excruciatingly painful submission hold. From that point on, it was all downhill, with the suddenly not-so-bombastic newcomers being put through the wringer, as my dad used to call it — enduring one torture hold after another, and wondering what this sadistic psychopath had in mind next. During the course of their introduction to wrestling, the rookies abandoned most of their dignity — as well as, I might add, assorted bodily fluids — before they were finally allowed to limp off the mat with a decidedly different perspective about what it took to make it as a pro wrestler. Some would come back, but most would never be seen or heard from again.
At the time, being a wide-eyed and impressionable little kid, I found it quite horrifying to see my father — who ordinarily seemed to be a mild-mannered, easygoing sort — transform, down in the Dungeon. It was sinister, a Jekyll and Hyde thing. I often wondered about the demons lurking within him and it wasn't until several years later that I came to understand the method to his ostensible madness.
I would discover that when Stu Hart was first introduced to the wrestling business as a teenager in the 1930s, the inner workings of the sport were a closely guarded secret — kind of like in the Mafia. It was widely thought that the best deterrent to anyone exposing them was to make them pay their dues the hard way — in the tender of blood, sweat and tears.
Although pro wrestling was a work (pre-arranged) even that far back, for public consumption, it was still perceived to be a shoot (real). Within the inner sanctum of the wrestling fraternity, it was considered the ultimate transgression to expose it, and someone who was found to have violated that sacred covenant was dealt with quite harshly — in the form of having the living shit kicked out of them by shooters and/or by being permanently blackballed.
I was later to discover that my dad's own initiation into the wrestling fraternity was, by all accounts, every bit as harsh — if not worse — as what his Dungeon victims were put through. During the Great Depression of the '30s, his family, like many others from the prairies, had been hit hard and had lost everything, including their house and all their belongings. During this stretch, his mother died and he, his father and his two older sisters, who lived in a makeshift tent on the outskirts of Edmonton, were forced to eke out a meager existence, living off the land and getting by on whatever they could beg, borrow or steal.
As most Canadians can attest, it gets bitterly cold in the prairies in the winter, so on many a cold winter's night my dad, as a means of seeking refuge from the frigid temperatures, took to hanging out at the local YMCA and in due course, a group of grizzled old pro wrestlers who worked the circuit and trained there invited him to join them on the mat. From what he told me though, they were anything but gentle with him — using him as a sparring partner or human guinea pig, applying submission holds and essentially chewing him up and spitting him out. I can still recall my dad ruefully reflecting how on some occasions he'd leave the sessions so stiff and sore he could barely limp back home. In time, the sessions toughened him, both physically and mentally, to the point that he eventually began to hold his own against the shooters. Later he came to dominate them and to give them a dose of their own bitter medicine.
While at the YMCA, my dad made the acquaintance of Jack Taylor, a vaunted old shooter who was then in the twilight of a wrestling career that had begun back in the1890s. Taylor — a protégé of the legendary Farmer Burns, who was the founder of modern pro wrestling — gained a reputation as the toughest wrestler of his era. Many considered him to be even tougher than his stablemate and fellow Burns pupil, the iconic Iowa Assassin, Frank Gotch.
In any case, my dad would spend several years training with Taylor in the YMCA and would go on to become Canadian amateur wrestling champion. By all accounts, he was considered to have been a serious contender for Canada's first ever Olympic gold medal in wrestling at the 1940 Olympic Games, which were scheduled to take place in London.
His Olympic dreams were unfortunately derailed by a slightly deranged megalomaniac with aspirations of taking over the world — no, not Vince McMahon, but a heel named Adolf Hitler. With the onset of the Second World War, the Olympic Games were canceled and instead of shooting for glory on the mat, my dad found himself instead shooting for survival against the deadly Nazi U-boats in the North Atlantic as a member of the Canadian navy.
When the war finally ended in 1945, my dad found himself at a crossroads; he was nearly thirty and the next Olympics, which were then still up in the air, wouldn't be staged until 1948 at the earliest. Since there was no money in amateur wrestling and he'd put everything else on hold to pursue his Olympic dream, he wasn't sure if he could afford to wait that long. He asked his mentor, Taylor, for advice. Taylor told him that even if he did win the Olympics, it wouldn't necessarily translate into any monetary windfall and he advised him to turn pro. Taylor mentioned that back in 1910, when he and Frank Gotch were barnstorming on the carnival circuit with Farmer Burns, he'd been challenged by a brash young redneck from Colorado named Joe Mondt. Taylor said that he'd been able to vanquish Mondt, but that he and Burns were impressed with his cockiness and tenacity and decided to take him under their wing and have him join their touring troupe. Fast-forward a couple of decades: Mondt had gone on to become the most powerful promoter in the United States — heading up the New York–based Capital Wrestling Promotion, which would become the forerunner of the present day WWE. Taylor told my dad that if he'd like, he could arrange to get him a tryout with Mondt, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Old-school types and those who've delved into the golden age of the business are likely familiar with "Toots" Mondt — one of the most influential figures in wrestling history. Even though he'd been introduced to the business by shooters like Taylor, Burns and Gotch and later gained his reputation working with and promoting shooters like Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Stan Zbyszko and Joe Stecher, Mondt saw the potential in spicing things up a bit. He is credited with having introduced concepts such as heels (bad guys) and babyfaces (good guys), working angles and "high spots" (spectacular moves) — all of which contributed to wrestling enjoying a huge surge in popularity, and made Mondt the most powerful promoter in the business. Even though Mondt is the one credited with introducing "working" elements to the wrestling business, because of his shooter roots he was nonetheless fiercely protective of wrestling's supposed integrity. He went to inordinate lengths to maintain the notion that wrestling was real. To that end, he always had a coterie of legit tough guys on hand, just in case any of the skeptics had the audacity to suggest wrestling was "phony" or rigged.
From what my dad told me, Mondt's inner circle of shooters, or "policemen," as they were called, was also deployed, on occasion, to keep in line any of his potentially recalcitrant "stars" who had read too many of their own press clippings or had misgivings about doing a job, dropping a strap or anything like that.
Because of Mondt's affinity for shooters, my dad was welcomed with open arms and his career quickly took off. By 1946 his stock had risen to the point where he was being pushed as one of the top "faces" in the promotion, working with some of the top heels in the business at the time, including the likes of Buddy Rogers, Baron Leone, Bibber McCoy and Abe "King Kong" Kashey.
During his stay in New York, my dad made the acquaintance of Jess McMahon and his son Vince Sr. — both of whom worked in the office and lined up towns for Toots. From what my dad told me, both were nice, unassuming guys, who went out of their way to make things better for the boys.
In addition to the McMahons, my dad had a chance to rub shoulders with other notables from the New York sports and entertainment scene, including boxing legends Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and the "Raging Bull" Jake La Motta; baseball immortals such as Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth; entertainers Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart; as well as iconic writers Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Daley — all of whom were avid wrestling fans.
Without question, though, the most noteworthy acquaintance my dad would make during his stay in the Big Apple was one Helen Smith, whom he met in the resort town of Long Beach through one of the other wrestlers, Paul Boesch, who also moonlighted as a lifeguard on the beach. They say that opposites attract and that certainly seems to have been the case here, as she was cultured and well educated — into books, the theater and art, while he was a rough-hewn country boy, mainly into sports and animals. Somehow, they hit it off and, after a whirlwind courtship, got married in 1947. This, of course, was the genesis for the so-called Hart Foundation, which would spawn not only twelve kids who were all eventually tied to the history of modern wrestling, but a myriad of bizarre and improbable story lines that no scriptwriter in his right mind could have ever dreamed up.
In 1948, my father, who was still working for Mondt, received a phone call from the mayor of Edmonton, who was a huge wrestling fan. He informed him that they'd just built a new arena and wanted to know if my dad might be interested in coming back and opening up his own wrestling promotion. Never one to turn down a challenge or an adventure, my dad decided to take him up on the offer. He and my poor mother — who probably had no idea of what she was in for — were soon heading back to the "great white North," about to launch one of the most storied and colorful promotions in the annals of wrestling.CHAPTER 2
BACK IN THE DAY
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When my dad first opened his own promotion, the wrestling landscape was different from today's. Now, there are only two active promotions remaining — the almighty WWE and the Tennessee-based TNA. Back then there were close to thirty regional promotions or "territories" in operation across Canada and the United States, ranging from big promotions such as Toots Mondt's New York outfit, Jim Crockett's sprawling operation in the Carolinas and Aileen Eaton's Hollywood office, to smaller ones such as Mike London's Albuquerque promotion and Cowboy Len Hughes' Halifax operation, which ran only in the summertime.
Being a wrestler was different in those days as well. With over thirty promotions operating full time, there were many more wrestlers plying their trade. Wrestlers of that era rarely stayed in one place for more than a few months at a time and would travel around, like gypsies, from one territory to another — wherever their services were in demand and business was good. Because the promoters were regularly in touch with each other, it was obligatory for the wrestlers to maintain a good reputation by honoring their commitments, working hard and behaving themselves. By all accounts, however, there was no shortage of outrageous characters and behind the scenes hijinks, invariably perpetrated by pranksters and card-carrying degenerates like Ted and Vic Christy, Tommy O'Toole, Buddy Rogers, Frankie Murdoch and Paul de Galles.
While the wrestlers were obliged to keep their noses clean, so to speak, the same was true for promoters. If promoters screwed the boys on their payoffs, failed to honor their commitments or ran a sloppy operation, it didn't take long for word to spread that their territory wasn't a good place to work. Although it wasn't a perfect system by any means, it nonetheless served its purpose. The "territories" would be the mode in wrestling for the next several decades — until the scorched earth onslaught of Vincent the Conqueror in the 1980s.
When my dad was getting his own promotion off the ground in the late '40s, wrestling was in a period of flux. With the rise of television — which was just coming into vogue at the time — wrestling had enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, with acts like Gorgeous George, lady wrestlers, pseudo-Nazis and insidious Japanese villains taking center stage.
During the early stages of the television era, business was good, but many of the promoters began to take shortcuts and cut back on wrestling. They resorted, instead, to gimmicks — freaks, geeks and bullshit — and the business soon became the object of ridicule and derision, especially among traditional sports fans. Making matters worse, many of the cutthroats and shysters masquerading as promoters began stealing each other's talent, running in each other's towns and doing whatever they could to undermine each other.
As a result, the business, in general, suffered. With the future of the sport in peril, the promoters of the various territories, my dad included, convened an SOS (save our sport) meeting in St. Louis. The offshoot of that meeting was the formation of a promoters' cooperative called the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), which established territorial boundaries and interactive guidelines — not unlike a wrestling version of the United Nations. My dad later told me that the first meeting reminded him of that scene in the movie The Godfather where the heads of all the crime families came together to supposedly work together. While apparently there was no shortage of cutthroats, charlatans and con men among the rank and file of NWA promoters, the NWA nevertheless accomplished its goals of unifying and stabilizing the sport.