CALGARY — It was August of 1969 when former Stampede Wrestling star Dan Kroffat went up to the Dungeon for the first time. Stampede Wrestling started their TV tapings in September, and Stu, then 54, started his training camp in early August to prepare those who survived for the show. And it truly was a case of survival.
“There were 14 of us. I was 23 and considered myself in good shape. I had heard the stories of the Dungeon so although I was reluctant, I wanted to wrestle so bad my tolerance level was beyond my common sense level, because if I had known what I was about to see in the next four weeks I wouldn’t have traveled from Vancouver,” Kroffat remembered as if it was yesterday.
“After a couple of nights, Stu made all of us stand off to the side of the mat and takes one of the guys by the wrist to the middle of the mat. The next 10-12 minutes was like watching The Exorcist. The guys head turned completely around, he was looking at parts of his body he probably didn’t know he had, his face changed colors. Stu was like a cat playing with a mouse. I watched this horrified, thinking ‘thank God it is not me.’ After about 12 minutes, this sweet voice, like an angel from the top of the stairs ‘Stu, you are wanted on the phone.'”
That voice belonged to a woman he hadn’t met yet, but grew to love and respect: Stu’s wife Helen.
“Stu unwound the guy like a rope and went upstairs. All of a sudden the guy in the middle of the floor bolted for the door, grabbed his clothes, and ran out of the house, and we never saw him again.”
This scene quickly became familiar to Kroffat.
“This happened about every three days, and each time Helen called for Stu after 10 minutes. Each guy that got stretched didn’t come back. After two weeks and six guys, I became aware of the fact that Helen could hear the guys screaming from upstairs, and couldn’t stand it anymore. So Stu would realize that was when to call it quits. I thought if I could hold out for 10 minutes, until I heard that angelic voice, I would be okay. But I decided I couldn’t take it. Fortunately, I never did.”
As more and more tough men, football players and smart-alecks lost their will to wrestle (and sometimes their will to live) to the meaty paws of the master, Kroffat debated internally what he would do if Stu ever grabbed him, fearing he couldn’t take the torture. He never had to.
“After four weeks, I decided this was the meanest bully I have ever met in my life. At the end of it was myself and Gilles Poisson … were told we were going to start with the promotion and I knew I would never have to go back to the Dungeon again.”
Stu Hart used stretching as a test in his youth. The smart ones managed to avoid Stu’s grasp.
“The Dungeon in Stu’s house was famous. He tried to lure me in but I wouldn’t take the bait,” said former NWA World champ Jack Brisco.
‘Hellraiser’ Jason Helton has many stories about his time training in the Dungeon and many will be included in his planned autobiography. He shared his thoughts with SLAM!
“Stu never broke anyone down emotionally, he broke them down physically. In Paul Jay’s documentary Wrestling With Shadows they showed Stu stretching Carl Leduc. In the film they only showed 10 seconds’ worth. Stu would stretch you for 10, 15, 30, or 45 minutes. How ever long he felt like stretching you. The more you screamed the more he stretched you out.”
It was a sign of respect if he didn’t stretch you, because he saw something in you. He used stretching to weed out the loudmouths, the cocky, and those who thought wrestling was fake. The Great Gama said he was “lucky” to have never been on the Dungeon mat with Hart.
“Stu used it as a test for people he didn’t think could handle it. I was an amateur wrestling champion, and he respected that, that may have been part of why he never taught me a lesson.”
“He never stretched me once. I asked him half a dozen times why it is I survived that camp. He never told me. He always commended me on being a unique wrestler, and that he knew I had the potential to go far. Other then that I have no answer as to why,” said Kroffat
Bad News Allen also had similar respect from Stu. Allen broke into the business in Japan and was a judo expert, so Stu never seemed to need to get him on the mat. That didn’t mean he was safe.
“I had just worked a tag match with the Bulldogs, and the ropes broke and I had to get 20 stitches. I was heading back to Japan and went to up to the house to get my cheque. He said ‘Hey big guy you had an accident.’ He started telling me about this Russian he worked with years ago. I turned away for a minute and he hauls off and hits me with an elbow, sending me ass over tea kettle out of the chair,” Allen laughed as he recounted the rest of the story. “I sat back in the chair and I could see that he wanted to give me another one. I moved my chair, and he moved over close to me again. We went halfway around that big dining room table before I finally bolted out of there.”
You definitely didn’t have to be in the Dungeon to be grabbed by Stu. Backstage at WWE shows, he could be seen demonstrating headlocks or moves on wrestlers, or you could be talking in his kitchen and he would suddenly get his hands on you, as he did up-and-comer Randy Myers.
“One time I was just standing in the kitchen and he grabbed my arm and started twisting it. He started yelling at me telling me how to reverse it on him and I tried doing what he said and of course he didn’t let me reverse it, he just held on tighter,” said Myers.
As Stu became older it was considered a compliment if he stretched you, because although you were in pain, he didn’t take it quite to the levels he did in his younger years.
Duke Durrango considered it an honor to have been stretched by Stu and fondly recalls when he and fellow amateur wrestler Greg Pawluk were in Stu’s clutches for the first time.
“Greg Pawluk and I had just met him in the kitchen. Within half an hour, he got us down to the Dungeon and simultaneously nearly dislocated my shoulders; just as they were about to pop out he let me go. After me he got hold of Pawluk and put him in some kind of armbar that I have never seen him do again. Then Stu stuck his chin in Greg’s eye.”
Ah, the chin. One of the constant topics that came up among nearly every wrestler was Stu’s habit of grinding his chin into your eye. Stu always kept a little bit of stubble on it; 80-year-old stubble is the equivalent of having a wire brush jammed in there. Stampede star Apocalypse laughs when he recalls Stu getting his hands on another poor sucker.
“Mauro Ranallo, who did commentary for Stampede’s syndicated TV show when it aired in 2000, got stretched one day. Stu ground his stubble into his eyes and when Mauro stood up, he looked like a raccoon. It was pretty funny.”
Johnny Devine was a stubbling victim many times, and shared some other tidbits about Stu.
“Stu’s nose had no cartilage, so you could pull it over to his ear and he wouldn’t feel it. It was ineffective to grab his nose. You couldn’t do anything to that guy. There was absolutely no way to avoid the pain of being stretched. You may have thought you could do it, and then he would find a new way to twist you. He probably knew more ways to cheat then I knew to legally maneuver someone,” he laughed, adding, “Every time I got stretched by him was an honor.”
There were other trademarks that Stu had. When a person says Stu stretched them, fellow alumni ask if they were snared in Stu’s favorites — the thread-through and the sugarhold. There is a kinship among those who have been stretched. They are brothers in pain, and have each other’s respect.
“Wrestling in the Dungeon, you really learn to face your physical limitations and mental boundaries and overcome them. You have to fight through pain and fatigue everyday,” said Helton.
Stu had the ability to sense what your limits were physically, and take you to them but never past them. Many a tough guy would cry and think “He’s going to seriously hurt or maybe even kill me” as their bodies contorted. Stu always released them before that would happen. WWE superstar Chris Benoit commented on this in his tribute on wwe.com.
“I feel Stu enjoyed putting me in different holds, listening to me moan and watching me suffer. I think I caught the tail end of Stu’s good years doing all that. It hurt, but he never hurt me. He made you feel the pain, but he’d never break my arm or dislocate something,” Benoit wrote.
“The impressive thing about him was that he could take your body to the point that he knew he could injure you, and just when you thought it was going to he let you go. He would push you to see how much you could take. If you could take a lot, you got less, because the guys who really moaned got it worse,” Durrango recalled. He has seen Stu stretch hundreds of guys and remembers one wrestler who was really overdramatic. “The guy was really screaming, and Stu wasn’t impressed. He said ‘Stu, Stu my neck cracked.’ Stu snickered and said “Don’t worry, it’ll crack a couple more.'”
Even those that Stu never got his hands on have their own tales to tell. “Turtleboy” Jason Carter saw the drastic contrast of Stu’s toughness and frailty during one session.
“I remember watching him stretch Tiger Khan. It was amazing because Tiger was screaming for Stu to let him go because he was in so much pain, and Tiger is a pretty tough guy. But after he was done, Stu had to have Bruce help him stand up. He still had all that strength and power, it was just his joints that were bothering him.”
Stu got a thrill out of getting his hands on big men. Apocalypse recalls him getting a giant on the mat in front of a crowded Dungeon.
“Bruce [Hart] offered one of us to Stu, and at the time there were a lot of bigger guys down there, but this guy was one of the smaller ones. Stu looked at him and said ‘What’s the point of stretching a guy like this, that doesn’t show anything.’ Then he looked over at 7-foot-tall Cyborg and said ‘but a guy like this now that is something else.’ So Cyborg went on the mat and Stu turned his face red and tied him up. It was funny because Cyborg was being so respectful. Stu would say ‘When I do this the pressure to his head forces his eyeballs to nearly pop out.’ And Cyborg was saying ‘Yes, Mr. Hart’ while trying not to scream in pain”
“He had a mesmerizing way of getting guys on the mat. He would seduce you into getting down there and all of a sudden you were screaming for your life,” said Kroffat.
It means something in wrestling to come out of Hart House. To Durrango, it means you have trained to be one of the best.
“If a guy I don’t know says he trained in the Dungeon, I expect a lot from them. Even if they don’t go far or aren’t very good, I still expect them to be better than the average worker.”
It is all part of the reason why those who come out of the Dungeon have so much respect. Whether they have wrestled around the world, just locally, or never made an impact, a Dungeon grad, especially one who survived Stu, had a kinship with his fellow men and women whose screams echoed off the wood panel walls of the legendary room in the Hart basement.
— with files from Greg Oliver & Mike Altamura
Jason Clevett has also been in the Dungeon, and is glad that Stu was 81 when he was stretched by him, and not 54.