This weekend’s Sandor Kovacs tribute means different things to different people. For some, it is the opportunity to show final respects for a man that loved the sport of wrestling nearly as much as his own family. For others, the tribute will be a reunion of sorts — the chance to catch up with people they haven’t seen in years.
Either way, the Sandor Kovacs tribute — being held at the Shark Club Sports Bar in Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, June 25th — will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Sandor himself was the same way. All wrestlers are unique — it is a prerequisite of the craft that they be this way — but Kovacs was an enigma among the extraordinary. Not only was he a brilliant and gifted wrestler, but he also possessed the rare mind of a businessman — twin talents that would take him from inside the ring directly into the promoter’s chair.
The upcoming tribute provides an opportunity to the people who knew Kovacs to not only pay their respects but also to inform those who didn’t know him just how unique and special he was.
Like his wife, Betty, for instance. It was Kovacs’ mind — not his body — that came to attract her interest back when she was a young ballerina who thought all wrestlers were nothing but giant apes. Sandor changed quickly changed that perception.
“Wrestlers were intrigued by us ballerinas because we were always doing classes and were in great physical shape,” Betty remembered during a rare interview with SLAM! Wrestling. “They wanted to be on our level.”
During one of her shows, the stage manager approached her and explained that there was a wrestler outside that wanted to meet her. “I told him to forget it, but the manager said that this guy was different. That he was very gentlemanly and that he actually had a brain. So I finally condescended to meet Sandor and I realized he was reading Spinoza and Nietzsche. He was a real intellectual and had more of a business mind. And he was a gentleman. A real gentleman.”
Born in Hungary, July 7th, 1920, Sandor would eventually make his way to Canada where, after serving as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, he would hook up with the Canadian legend Stu Hart, who would come to both train and battle Kovacs. Sandor’s first documented match — way back in 1946 — was a bout against Stu Hart, which he won. He would go on to wrestle in at least another 420 matches and probably more that were never properly documented.
“He wrestled all over the country,” said Gene Kiniski, another wrestling icon, who first met Sandor in San Francisco back in 1954. “He was a talented guy.” Although Kiniski and Kovacs had a bit of a falling out as their wrestling relationship progressed as co-owners of the All-Star Wrestling promotion, Kiniski still has some respectful words for the fallen legend. “He got along very nicely with the fraternity of wrestling. He was able to take care of himself in the ring well. And his wife is a beautiful young lady.”
While Kiniski himself is unlikely to appear the tribute for Sandor, there is one man who will most certainly be there. “I am planning to come — the only thing that will keep me away is a doctor or a hospital,” said Don Leo Jonathan, the former wrestler who tag-teamed with Kovacs back in the 1960s in Montreal.
“I enjoyed his company. I enjoyed being around him,” Jonathan remembered. “He knew a lot about the sport. Unfortunately, I never got to see him as much I would have liked. He was a good guy and we ate up a lot of miles of road together. It will be nice to pay a tribute to someone who did as much as he did.”
Jonathan remembers a man who was tough and tenacious. He was generous to his friends but was also single-minded in his purpose, a skill that would come in handy when he started promoting All Star Wrestling. “Everybody likes it when a plan comes together and Sandor was the man that forced the plan to work.”
Both Jonathan and Kovacs would be haunted by injuries that would eventually remove them from the sport they loved so much. But despite the distance, the two men continued to keep in contact with one another. “We’d still call each other and chat,” Jonathon recalled. “He’d tell me about his knees and I would tell him about my back.”
As the years progressed, Sandor eventually succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. His close friends and family watched the great wrestling hero transform into an aging wheelchair-bound man, who despite his disability, continued to display a passion for the sport he loved.
Mick Sahota, the main organizer of the upcoming Sandor Kovacs tribute show, was one of Kovacs’ close friends who watched the man change. The two men met back in the early ’70s, when Sahota was working at Olympic Gym in Vancouver. Kovacs was a frequent visitor of the gym, where he would work out, but Sahota was struck by Sandor’s generosity, not his wrestling mind or body.
“Sandor was one of our premier members,” Sahota said, “but he was also a true gentleman. He’d always come by and give us tickets to the wrestling shows. We never asked for them – it was just his common courtesy.”
Sahota would follow Kovacs’ career after the two men became friends. He has many memories of the man, the favourite of which is a wrestling show in Japan, where perhaps the truest illustration of the type of man Kovacs was took place.
“It was his show and one of the headliners didn’t show up,” Sahota recalled. “Sandor was 55 at the time, so what did he do? He throws on his trunks and goes in the ring. The young stud guy he was wrestling thought that was pretty funny. ‘This old guy is going to fight me?’ Well, Sandor straightened him out. He put the kid in an abdominal stretch and put him out. That’s a true professional.”
Sahota’s father developed Parkinson’s disease, a tragic circumstance that would help Betty Kovacs deal with Sandor’s own situation. But even though Sandor fell under the dark influence of Alzheimer’s, he still clung to the life he once led. “Even near the end, he was still talking like you and I are today,” Sahota said. “In the care home, he would tell us he was getting set to go to San Francisco for some matches.”
Back in 2000, when Bret Hart was in town for the WCW pay-per-view, New Blood Rising, Sahota decided to drop down and pay a visit to Bret when he was doing an autograph session. When Sahota told Sandor he was going to see him, Sandor indicated he planned on coming along as well. Due to his disability, that was of course impossible, but he was still able to have an impact.
“I spoke with Bret briefly after he was done signing autographs and told him I had met him and his dad a few years ago,” Sahota said. “And I said, ‘oh, by the way, Sandor says hi.’ And Bret looked up at me and said, ‘Sandor? How’s he doing?’ I had an instant connection with Bret right there and then.”
Sandor knew the end was near, and was very specific about what he wanted done when he finally passed away. “Sandor didn’t want any funerals,” Sahota explained. “He said when he was gone, take a few dollars and go have a party. Have a few beers.” When he finally passed away on June 30, 2004, his wishes were honoured. There was no service. Only a few words appeared in the newspaper concerning his death.
“There were a lot of his friends that didn’t know he had passed away,” Sahota realized. So he got to thinking — a man that had done as much for wrestling as Kovacs had surely deserved something more than that. “So I said to Betty, let’s do something for Sandor and if only two or three of us show up, that’s cool.” Sahota knew the owners of the Shark Club in Vancouver and when he pitched the idea of the a tribute to the late Sandor Kovacs, the owners signed on and at the tribute — once just a concept from an old friend — became a reality.
Set for Saturday, June 25th, the tribute will bring together many wrestlers from Canadian history, as well as other men and women who knew Sandor personally. It’s a massive task to co-ordinate something of this magnitude, and Betty Kovacs, who also plans to attend, says the fact that such an amazing event is even happening is all because of one man.
“This tribute is all because of Mick Sahota,” she said. “Without him, we would have had nothing. It’s very nice that this is happening. I’m calling it a reunion, because a lot of the wrestlers are getting together, and some of my dancer friends who really respected him will be there too. Once you knew him, he just commanded your respect. He was such a gentleman.”
For Betty, the tribute marks the end of a mournful year. She did not deal well with Kovacs’ passing, and could not even bear to have Sandor’s ashes in the house. Mick Sahota has been in possession of the ashes for the past year. “So sometimes Sandy’s at the gym, sometimes he’s in the back of Mick’s car, sometimes in his garage.”
When Mick called to ask how Betty was doing, she said she wasn’t doing so well and Mick offered to pick up the ashes from the crematorium where they have been ever since. “I knew it was over, but I couldn’t believe it was over,” Betty remembered. “Death is something I can’t quite fathom – it’s like someone vanishes. I had five years to rehearse it but that didn’t make it any easier.”
Maybe this tribute will. The event will start at 4 p.m., and anyone who knew Sandor and wants to pay their respects is invited. The actual tribute will take place at 5:30 p.m. Tickets to the show cost $20, which will include a burger and basket of fries, and something much more magical as well.
“We’re looking to have a piper bring in the wrestlers into the club,” Sahota explained, adding there is also a plan to do a ten-bell salute to the fallen wrestler as well as a 50/50 draw to benefit the Pro Star Sandor Kovacs scholarship fund. “Anyone that wants to come is invited. There should be a lot of impact. It should be a good time.”
It will be a unique day to say the least. Men and women will gather to pay respects to a man who wrestled through history. But the end of Kovacs’ history is not the end of his story. That much is ensured by the Kiniskis, the Jonathans, the Sahotas, and of course, the Kovacs.
“I will always remember Sandor as an adoring husband, a true gentleman, a gentle soul and a good father,” Betty said. Then she laughed. “And I think he was a pretty good wrestler too, but what do I know?”
The tribute will also be the culmination of a lot of work from his longtime friend, Mick Sahota. “It’s the least I can do,” Sahota remarked days before the tribute. For Mick, this is the opportunity to give a man who did not want any recognition for his mark on the sport of wrestling a small moment in the spotlight. It’s ironic, though, that Sandor would still have preferred to be remembered in a quieter fashion, like he did behind the scenes when he was both wrestling in and promoting local shows.
“Sandor was a man of many talents,” Sahota said. “If he hadn’t got Alzheimer’s, he’d still be running the show.”
The Sportsmen’s Tribute to Sandor Kovacs takes place Saturday, June 25, 2005 at the Shark Club in Vancouver. The Shark Club is located at 180 West Georgia Street. Doors open at 4:00 p.m. For more information, please contact Mick Sahota at (604)324-8776.