Decades before young people associated the name Steve O. with the reckless antics of MTV’s Jackass, a clean-cut kid from Edina, MN — Steve Olsonoski — used the same handle as one of the top junior heavyweight wrestlers of the 1980s.
Today, Olsonoski is a family man and still somewhat of a hometown boy. After a life in wrestling that took him around the world, he now resides minutes outside of Minneapolis suburb Edina in Bloomington. While talking to him recently, SLAM! Wrestling learned that Olsonoski, age 57, has well transitioned his time in the wrestling world by working in the financial sector as an investment advisor for the last several years.
“It’s almost like a tale of two lifetimes,” said Olsonoski about his time in, as well as beyond, the ring. “I taught school one year and got laid off. Verne Gagne and my dad were buddies. My dad — Larry Olsonoski — played football at the University of Minnesota with him. Verne was the guard and my dad was the tackle. I had gone to school, graduated and gotten laid off when Verne asked my Dad what I was going to do. He told Verne I was looking for a teaching job and so Verne told him to send me up to the wrestling camp.”
Olsonoski is best remembered by wrestling fans for his years of work in Gagne’s Minneapolis-based AWA territory. As a young gym teacher looking for another line of work he was trained by the gruff AWA patriarch (also Olsonoski’s godfather), who taught his buddy’s kid the ins and outs of pro-wrestling. Training commenced at the infamous Gagne wrestling camp, which Verne ran out of a working barn located on his sprawling estate.
“There were about 10 guys going through there the same time I was. Brian Oldfield, the Olympic shot-putter was there, so was Buck Zumhofe, Brad Rheingans, a young Curt Hennig and a bunch of guys I didn’t know,” Olsonoski remembers. “You had a wrestling ring in there and under it was a bunch of geese that had taken to home. The first thing they would do was throw you out over the top rope. You had to roll to keep from killing yourself when you flew out of the ring and you also had to watch out for the geese trying to bite you in the ass. If you didn’t get nipped by a goose, you made it to the next day.”
Olsonoski debuted for the AWA in 1978 and perennially competed there until his retirement a little over 10 years later. His training experience was memorable, in large part, because of the intimidating company personnel hired to weed out those deemed unfit for the ring and rough-handedly train the rest. Along with Gagne, Olsonoski also had to keep up with camp hands Billy Robinson and a young Khosrow Vazeri, some time before the Olympic grappler became the Iron Sheik.
“Billy was good, but he didn’t want you to look too good because he was Billy Robinson. However, he could still get in there and we would have a match to where I wouldn’t even know what I did. I was just hanging on and being flexible. With Khosrow, you had to be careful because he was going to beat you up just to see if you’d come back.”
From there, Olsonoski received a crash course in how the wrestling business operated, at least in Gagne’s territory. “It was either Verne’s way or the highway,” he remembers. “Screw you, I’m Verne Gagne,” is a phrase that Steve O. remembers hearing on more than one occasion. “I had to pay him 10 percent of what I made for five years,” said Olsonoski. “On the other hand, it wasn’t a grind like a lot of other places. The payoffs were a lot better and the TV was usually pretty big-time. He also paid for your travel, too, which is something most other areas didn’t do. So, I realize why I was paying the 10 percent.”
Olsonoski’s fellow Minnesotan and one-time teammate Paul Ellering remembers the two teaming in the early ’80s.
“Steve and I were tag team partners and we’d wrestle Jesse Ventura and Adrian Adonis. They were called the East-West Connection. Whenever we had tag matches, it would be Steve and I against Jesse and Adrian,” said Ellering. “He’s just a great guy, a really nice guy. He was a solid wrestler. Anybody who came through Verne’s camp had to learn how to wrestle. He wasn’t flashy, but he had a good build. He was tall, smart; he was good looking — a heartthrob — and could wrestle any style. He was a real, all-around athlete. He came from a very athletic family.”
As part of a talent trade between Gagne and Jim Barnett, Olsonoski also had an almost two-year run in one of the NWA’s hottest Southern territories, Georgia Championship Wrestling. There, he captured that region’s junior championship and held the National TV Title on two separate occasions. Steve O. even grappled Georgia’s flagship National title away from “The Mongolian Stomper” Archie Gouldie in 1981.
“Up here [in Minnesota], they really preached the belief that wrestling was real. We could work 20-minute matches and still be in a headlock for five minutes. They wanted you to believe it was a mighty, mighty effort to get out of a headlock from that guy,” said Olsonoski. “Down there [in Georgia], you had to be doing something all the time because it was a faster style. You had to be kicking and punching and biting right from the first couple of minutes. But, you had to learn different styles so you just went with it.”
Different wrestling styles aside, the all-American kid from Minnesota was not exactly a hit with Georgia fans. “I was a Yankee to them and if I was wrestling somebody from down south, like Bobby Eaton or some of the guys from Florida, the people would just love it if they kicked my ass. I probably would’ve been suited better there as a heel, but it just never happened.”
Olsonoski remembers being sent to New York by Barnett to compete on a WWWF card at Madison Square Garden. He soon found out that the Georgia promoter often had an ulterior motive behind sending his talent up north. “The real reason I was up there was because Mr. Barnett wanted me to go to this liquor store not far from Madison Square Garden to buy him a $500 bottle of brandy,” laughs Steve O. today. “Whenever somebody came up from Atlanta, all these guys in New York knew the guy was probably going to have the bottle in his bag. I’m gonna go out there and wrestle and these guys are going to get the bottle out of my bag so they can drink the brandy! They tried to do it, too.” Olsonoski remembers that it was perpetual ribber Curt Hennig who stood guard around the booze bag and its prized contents that night in the Garden.
While working for Barnett, Olsonoski suffered a severe hand injury in a match against the Great Kabuki. Eventually, he contracted a staph infection that put him out of action for several months and, eventually, helped speed along his return to Minnesota. Olsonoski’s Georgia experience was tainted, somewhat, he recalls, not only by the different tastes of deep Southern fans, but also by hard feelings from persons behind the scenes at Georgia Championship’s broadcast station WTBS.
“Jim Barnett had enough of [announcer and office employee] Freddie Miller so he decides he’s going to fire him. He comes back to me and says [in Barnett voice] ‘M’boy, you are now the announcer for my TV show.’ What was I supposed to do? But, then, behind the scenes, all these people who worked for TBS liked Freddie Miller. They didn’t know me or if I even knew what I was doing. Thank God, Gordon Solie took me under his wing and told me what to do. He told them to help me out and that worked out for a little bit. Still, behind my back, they were sabotaging me. I never got my revenge match with Kabuki, either. It was time to go home.”
Shortly after he came back to Minnesota and just five months after he’d begun a self-imposed hiatus from wrestling after leaving Georgia, Steve O. was called on to do his only actual wrestling gimmick. The AWA office wanted the Minnesota native to work as a hooded ninja. “Larry Zbyszko was champion, then, and he was working against [Jimmy] Snuka and [Nick] Bockwinkel. Zbyszko had this Japanese kid with him at the time and he’d only been here for about four or five weeks. When he came to this country, he had his first experience with busty, blond girls. So, he kind of went in but never came out. It’s like he got swallowed up by busty, blond, American women. He no-showed and we never saw him again. So, they needed a ninja replacement fast.”
The Mr. Go persona might seem an odd fit for Olsonoski. However, he enjoyed working under the black hood. “All of a sudden, I thought I had given it up forever, but other stuff happened,” he said. “I ended up doing the ninja replacement thing for about five to six months and it was great. Suddenly, I’m slotted into main events and I’m making money again. People would say to me, ‘I know that’s you under that mask, Steve O!'”
Eventually, the AWA did become a grind for Olsonoski. The politics and dwindling revenue of the shriveling federation didn’t help any. He decided to seek out a ‘real job’ and left wrestling not long before Gagne’s once-powerful territory met its end in the early ’90s. “I went to work with my dad and saw that I liked getting a regular, steady paycheck. Also, my wife and my in-laws were not too pleased with me still being a wrestler at that point in my life.”
Olsonoski laughs while remembering how he finally decided to hang up his boots. “I was wrestling a Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura look-alike when my three-year-old looked up to my wife and said, ‘Mommy, what’s daddy doing out there in his underwear?'”
Olsonoski’s post-wrestling life is a refreshing flipside to the grim number of persons who have either passed away early or have never truly left the kayfabe life behind. He suggests that the oft-dramatized image of men in their 40s and 50s becoming addicted to the lifestyle can easily be more fact than fiction. “A normal job scares some of these guys to death,” Olsonoski said. “They get used to negotiating, the company covering the airfare and the hotels and things like that. Then, suddenly, it’s not about how much you will make, but what you can earn. Getting up early and working eight hours.”
Olsonoski will make his first wrestling-related appearance, as well as his wrestling convention debut, at the August 3- 7 NWA Legends Fanfest at the Atlanta Marriott Hotel. Says Stave O., he knew when the time had come to make the transition from wrestling to family life. But, he adds, “It will be fun to see some of these guys again.”
“I became a business man, settled back and now I have a real job and make sure that the kids do the stuff they’re supposed to. Now, I work a lot doing retirement plans,” said the father of three. “You can only (wrestle) for so long. Your body can only take so much. I just recently recovered from hip replacement surgery. I guess, sometimes, things work out for the best. Maybe I got out at a good time.”
— with files from Marshall Ward
Georgia newspaper reporter Michael Andrews was able to view both “Yankee” and “Deep South” wrestling during the 1980s with the help of clear skies and a rooftop antenna. Today, he wishes that cable offered programming half as interesting as the old territory TVs.