The recent death of the professional wrestler Mad Dog Vachon (1929-2013) hit me like a metal folding chair or a flying drop kick. Vachon died quietly in his sleep in Omaha on Nov. 21 at the age of 84. He is survived by six children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. I hope they all suited up in trunks and high-top boots for the funeral, like a professional circus family, and I hope the obsequies were held not in a church but in the “squared circle” of a dank wrestling arena out near the stockyards. Rumors that the two officiating priests actually tagged off during the service have not been substantiated.
Mad Dog’s death set off a chain of bittersweet memories for me. Such names as Wahoo McDaniel, The Flying Frenchman Rene Goulet, The Crusher, The Bruiser, The Crippler, Nick Bockwinkel, The Very Capable Kenny Jay, Bobby Red Cloud, and Cowboy Bill Watts came flocking in on me for the first time in many years. If I close my eyes I can actually see Dr. X strutting around the interview area in his celebrated mask, hands outstretched like a cat, bawling and bragging and growling and threatening to break Vern Gagne’s legs one by one and throw him unceremoniously into the Mississippi River, while mild-mannered host and promoter Wally Karbo tries to talk him back to civility.
I can see Mad Dog and his brother The Butcher breaking the rules and double-teaming Dusty Rhodes and against an exposed turnbuckle, while the 123-pound referee, with an outsized expression of sorrow and disbelief, threatens them with immediate disqualification. Let’s face it. Now that he is dead we can for the first time safely declare that Mad Dog Vachon was a thug and a cheater in the ring. (I do not impugn his private life. I’m sure he was a model citizen outside the ring and a doting father who did not—as rumor had it—put his children in a Greco-Roman knuckle lock when they would not go to bed). But once he crawled into the squared circle he was a fleshy desperado with missing teeth, a bald head, and a goatee that made him look a little like Vladimir Lenin on steroids.
He bit. He scratched. He stomped. He choked. All that before the opening bell. And he had a penchant for raking a foreign object across the eyes of his opponents and then hiding the F.O. in his one-shouldered tunic in a way that everyone on the planet could see except the referee, who for some reason was momentarily distracted. Ah, the injustice of the world.
It is sometimes said that if we got back every hour that we have spent watching TV, we could walk around the planet. Forget that. If I just had every hour back that I spent watching the old All Star Wrestling show that emanated from Minneapolis, Minn., I could walk the planet several times.
Almost every Saturday night between seventh and tenth grade, my friend Robert B. and I made homemade pizzas in his kitchen two blocks from my home near downtown Dickinson. We called it All Star Pizza. Clever boys. One of us would knead and spread the dough while the other cut peperoni slices and sprinkled the powdered Parmesan over the canned tomato sauce. We had pretty good timing for a couple of knuckleheads, so the piping hot homemade pizza came out of the oven just about the time the AWA announcer Roger Kent introduced the show. It was broadcast in black and white, of course, and the camera work was primitive. He invariably began by saying, “Good evening everyone, this is Roger Kent ringside coming to you from the Minneapolis Auditorium…” He made it sound as if he had three names, Roger Kent Ringside, so that’s what we called him.
Actually, Roger Kent Ringside was a great sports announcer with a mock-heroic style perfectly suited to the … er, ambiguities of the sport. He expressed grave indignation when Pampero Firpo (The Wild Bull of the Pampas) raked another wrestler’s eyes against the long zipper on his tunic. At least once per show he’d say, “Ooooh, I hate to see that hold. Ladies and gentlemen, that hold is barred in many states.” When Iron Man George Gadaski made his characteristic move, Roger Kent would say, “That’s an Arm Bar with a Twist–sounds like a drink to me!” And we laughed every time. When Dr. X entered the ring, masked and menacing, stomping around and making mock runs at the shrieking folks in the first row, Kent would invariably explain: “As perhaps you know, Dr. X has deposited a $1,000 certified check in a Minneapolis bank for anyone who can break the Figure Four Leg Lock once it has been properly applied.” Oh, we knew! Even then, uneducated as we were, Robert and I knew that Dr. X had left himself an infinite amount of legal wiggle room in those words: “once properly applied.”
I’m guessing that Mad Dog was not Vachon’s given name. If you name your son Mad Dog, you can kiss the Senate goodbye. Or the Papacy or the ballet. Names matter. You name your son Mad Dog and you should not be surprised when he comes home from Head Start with a trio of pit bulls, or gouges the eyes of his third grade teacher with a number two pencil. Who names her son Mad Dog? Name your son Mad Dog and he’s almost certainly going to become a professional wrestler or perhaps night security at an auto wrecking yard.
But I am being facetious. Actually, the man who would later be crowned (well, actually, belted) one half of the Tag Team Champions of the World was christened Maurice Vachon in Montreal. That sounds more like an art historian or wine connoisseur to me, and it would not do for a sport in which the phrases “back breaker,” “the atomic drop,” and “pile driver” are mere routine. Vachon was actually a serious amateur wrestler before he crossed over to the dark side. He competed at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, and he won a gold medal at the 1950 British Empire Games.
After a long, brilliant, and criminal career, Mad Dog finally hung up his tunic in 1986 when he was pretty long in his remaining tooth. As MacArthur said, old wrestlers never die, they just slip under the ring. One year after his retirement, Mad Dog was struck by a hit and run driver in Omaha. His leg had to be amputated. I completely discount the persistent rumors that the driver was wearing a mask and that his vanity plates said FGR4LGLK.
I saw Mad Dog fight twice, once in Fargo in 1968 and a year or two later in the auditorium at Trinity High School in Dickinson. Robert’s father drove us to a match in Fargo for his eighth grade graduation present. We were thrilled to sit close enough to be spit on by several 300-pound nearly naked middle-aged men. I frowned at Mad Dog after a particularly egregious chokehold, and he smirked back in a sweetly menacing way. I felt we bonded.
How I feel about the death of Mad Dog was best expressed by the British literary dictator Samuel Johnson when the great actor David Garrick died on January 20, 1779. “His death,” Johnson wrote, “eclipsed the gaiety of nations.”
And I fervently hope when he entered the gates of heaven, Mad Dog and St. Peter enjoyed an arm bar with a twist. A double.
(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. Clay can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)