I have a hazy memory of a rainy Saturday afternoon, when I was maybe four years old. I couldn’t go outside to play, so I was watching television. Suddenly, shockingly, a massive man, so wide that he filled the screen, erupted into the picture, bellowing. I didn’t quite understand what he was saying, but I saw bright red blood dripping down his face. Someone said, “That’s The Crusher.”
I was stunned.
And I was hooked.
Something about the spectacle fascinated me, and made me want to see it again.
The Crusher was a legend in Minnesota, where I grew up. He was right up there with Paul Bunyan, and was even more recognizable than members of the local baseball and football teams. The covers of AWA programs declared that this was “Crusher Country,” and no one in their right mind would dispute that.
A band comprised of local teenagers wrote a song called “The Crusher,” that charted at number 88 on the Billboard Hot 100, sold over a quarter million copies, and, more importantly, pleased the grappler to no end.
Our local paper, The Pioneer Press-Dispatch, published a photo of The Crusher with centenarian Saint Paul resident Mary Kowalski, whose only wish on her 100th birthday was to meet The Crusher. And he kindly granted that wish, thrilling her by surprising her at her home one afternoon before a match, to sign an autograph and drink a few cans of beer. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
As a boy, I noticed that even grown-ups could be overheard talking about The Crusher. Some of them would laugh about his interviews, and the comical things he said. He was well known for the nicknames he’d give his opponents, some of which stuck. The tag team of Larry Hennig and Harley Race were “The Dolly Sisters,” Nick Bockwinkel was “Jerkwinkel,” and his manager Bobby Heenan was clearly a “Weasel.” The feared Dr. X wore a “Mickey Mouse mask.” One thing they all shared was that they were nothing but a bunch of bums to The Crusher.
The legend of The Crusher was replete with lore of brutal matches he endured with Verne Gagne, the Vachon Brothers, the Kalmikoffs, Mitsu Arakawa, Pampero Firpo, Dr. X, Superstar Billy Graham, Ivan Koloff, and many others. The Crusher came out on top, eventually. He had to have been the toughest wrestler in the world, having begun his training at the age of 13, “throwing bums out of my old man’s saloon,” he reported.
In addition to bum throwing, The Crusher pitched products, doing commercials for liquor stores, and televisions, among other things. As recently as last year, footage of The Crusher was used in a spot for potato chips, which got people talking about him once again. At work, co-workers mentioned seeing “The Wrestler Who Made Milwaukee Famous” in that commercial, and asked where he was. They recalled matches he had with different opponents over the years, and interviews he gave. Many of them were children when they first saw him, but they remembered him vividly, and excitedly shared their memories.
As I grew up, The Crusher was a constant in my life, and as I watched his matches over the years, I watched the curtain fall on his career. He and Baron Von Raschke held the World Tag Team titles for a while, eventually losing them to the Road Warriors. But this time, there was no regaining the belt for The Crusher, as there had been in the past. It didn’t matter. I knew that he was just as good as ever, and he didn’t need a belt to prove it to me. I believed in him. Arenas would still shake with the chant, “We want The Crusher!”
I guess I didn’t want to see The Crusher get old, and didn’t want his talent to fade. Maybe, somehow, that would mean having to grow up. The Crusher provided an escape, some enjoyment, to take attention away from all of the obstacles life presented at times. The Crusher bestrode his world like a colossus, without fear, ultimately victorious. If a blue-collar, beer-drinking guy from Milwaukee could do that, so could we.
The Crusher was a superhero to me, and I knew that the most dangerous villains would be dispatched once they crossed his path. But he was more than just a wrestler. He was a part of my social fabric for decades, crossing over into so many areas of life.
With that in mind, it isn’t so surprising that I felt such sadness when I heard that he had died. I miss The Crusher, and I wish I could see him climb into that ring, just one more time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Visitation for The Crusher will be from 4-8 pm Thursday and 9:30-10:30 am Friday at Molthen-Bell & Sons Funeral Home, 700 Milwaukee Ave., in South Milwaukee. The funeral will be at 11 am Friday at Divine Mercy Catholic Church, 1304 Manitoba Ave., in South Milwaukee.