Once we started shooting, our travel schedule loosely followed the same path as the Dog’s career. From the super heavyweight territory of Montreal, we’d stop in Trois-Rivières then move west to Calgary, followed by layovers in Vancouver and Langley, B.C. before heading south to Eugene, Oregon, to see promoter Don Owen, then 87 years of age. Post Don, we’d fly back to Minnesota with a final stop in New York. Incidentally, Mad Dog chose to pocket the value of his airline ticket and drive from Nebraska to Montreal for the gig. To quote The Destroyer, “You can take man out of wrestling, cut off his leg, but you can’t take the wrestler out of the man.”
The bulk of the Dog’s interviews were shot in the basement of Église St-Charles, a church in Point Saint Charles, which is a Montreal neighbourhood very close to Ville Emard where the Vachons had grown up. The condition was I’d get a discount on the location if the Dog made an appearance at a church sponsored wrestling show toward the end of the week. Deal done. The turn-out for that was phenomenal by the way. Around 500 people showed up for the matches and swarmed the Dog for autographs. Now 71, 15 years after his retirement, he was exceptionally gracious about the attention and very generous with his time.
On the first day of production, The Dog and his brother arrived on time and it was strange since he was so low key. The drive from Nebraska had been difficult, the Dog’s new prosthesis was uncomfortable and neither brother brought their lumberjack shirt, which I’d requested, and I didn’t have the money or manpower to run off and replace them. Plus the Dog was tired. I panicked a little — maybe Father Time had caught up to him. But the second the cameras rolled, the Dog lit up like a Christmas tree. He was charming, candid, funny, spontaneous and willing to play no matter what I threw at him. Over the course of the next four days, I blew several takes from breaking out in hysterics once he got rolling. And my losing it would send him over the edge as well.
One event stands out — we were shooting in a busy tavern in Montreal and I asked the Dog to give me a comment about a Tony Lanza photo that would set up his decision to turn pro. The picture was taken at ringside and featured him tossing a table on his opponent and I suggested something about not wanting to spend his life at a desk job. I can’t do it justice but his answer, which is below, brought the entire tavern to its knees.
MAD DOG: I never wanted to work at a desk, on a desk, behind a desk, I hate desks!
As for the work being challenging, it wasn’t, despite the long hours. Full credit to Butcher Vachon through all of this — he was there to make sure his brother looked good and got the story straight. I’m sure Butcher is feeling the Dog’s loss with a very heavy heart a year later — they were very close and had a remarkably healthy relationship over the years.
BUTCHER: In the ’60s, Mad Dog and I were wrestling in Winnipeg, at the Winnipeg Auditorium, I got thrown out of the ring and a fan jumped on my back. And he’s choking me from behind so Mad Dog jumped down and he pulled the fan AND punched the guy out: bing, bang, bing bang!! And finally after the match we got back to the dressing room and the Commissioner, the Athletic Commissioner, Triffenoff his name was, he says you can’t punch any of our fans and Mad Dog says, “Even if he’s hitting my brother?” He says for no reason at all and Mad Dog says, “To hell with you, if somebody’s gonna jump on my brother I’m gonna punch him.” Triffenoff says, “You know what I’m gonna do to you if you do that?” And Mad Dog says, “Yeah, suspend me.” And Mad Dog says, “You know what I’m gonna do if you suspend me?” And Triffenoff says, “Yeah, you’ll sue me.” “No I’LL KILL YOU, YOU SON OF A GUN!!!” And he jumps on him and he’s chokin’ him and he’s an old guy and I’m pullin’ him off and I says, “Mad Dog it’s the Commissioner, it’s the Commissioner!” (MAD DOG IS LAUGHING IN THE BACKGROUND) Finally I pulled him off and many times I pulled him off guys he was gonna kill — I kept him out of trouble that way. He seemed to have enough trouble to go around.
MAD DOG: Don’t stretch the truth. I took you out of trouble many times myself from the English in Quebec, like that one that tried to stole your barrel!!
During the production, we ate lunch at a small diner just up the street from the church. When the Dog walked in, it was like Jesus himself had risen from the dead and dropped by for a burger. People just stopped eating and stared and it grew quiet until The Dog smiled and waved and took his seat. On home turf, the man’s own vapour trails still burned white hot. It was very moving to witness. As for why the depth of love, Yvon Robert Jr. put it best:
YVON ROBERT, JR:Mad Dog was the symbol of the French Canadian fighter who would take on anybody, any size, anywhere for any reason, he was not afraid of anything. This is what French Quebecers think what they are — they’ve been doing for a hundred years — he was the image the symbol of our personality, our mentality. As much as I had problems with Mad Dog, he represents me; in the street he represents me, everywhere. We believe in Mad Dog and the people of Quebec believe in Mad Dog and what he stands for there’s nothing phoney about this guy. So that’s why we always stood behind him because he represents us, he’s a symbol for us.
Robert, who graduated with an MBA from UCLA before turning pro, was very candid about his relationship with Vachon. Their backgrounds were different: Jr. came from relative privilege, he was educated, he felt there was animosity there. The Dog remembered it differently. But during their Grand Prix run, serious problems in the boardroom were acknowledged by both parties and Robert did suffer a serious back injury in a match with the Dog at the height of their trouble. Grand Prix closed shortly thereafter.
Yet years later, at that same tavern I mentioned earlier, which Yvon had secured for me for free, the Dog and Yvon greeted one another like lost brothers. I’m fairly certain that they hadn’t seen one another or spoken since Grand Prix. And Yvon was remarkably gracious — he showed nothing but respect for the Dog’s place as a hero in Quebec’s mythology. He knew the Dog’s history, his accomplishments as an amateur wrestler, his reputation as a streetfighter and that his own father had hired him as a bouncer to keep the peace at his nightclubs. And that had meaning since Yvon’s father, also a wrestler, had enjoyed a similar level of adoration among Quebecers, the Dog being no exception.
MAD DOG: With Yvon Robert, it was like God Almighty just walked into the ring, and not only for me, but all the people in Quebec, we thought that Yvon Robert was God Almighty.
Given the trade, that a professional wrestler could ascend to any level of cultural importance was initially baffling to me. They provided entertainment. It was pantomime. But Yvon was shedding light on Quebec’s spiritual fabric. The Dog’s fire was what mattered; it had powered him through imaginary as well as real obstacles and fused a lasting connection with the province and certainly with anyone I ever saw him interact with. And that connection likely became unbreakable in 1987, in Iowa City, when Mad Dog lost his right leg after being hit by a car during a walk.
BUTCHER: (After the accident) I spent two weeks right outside Mad Dog’s hospital room. The hospital had set me up with a desk there, answering telephones, cards, letters and everything and we got over 4,000 pieces of communication: cards letters, mail, telephone calls, the first person to call was Ed Broadbent, the head of the New Democratic Party, Prime Minister Mulroney called, Bourassa, the head of the Expos, the head of the Canadiens hockey team in Montreal, everybody. And Mad Dog said, “We’re going to answer those cards,” and I was busy for two weeks just answering telephones.
MAD DOG: They even sent, Petro Canada, the President, sent his own private jet that took me from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I was back in Montreal in two hours.
BUTCHER: It was as if, when Mad Dog fell, the whole country stooped to pick him up. It was the most inspiring thing that I was ever a witness to.
MAD DOG: I spent the next eight months trying to get back on my feet, more or less. But you know what I say, I spent 44 years in wrestling, I did everything I could so the people could hate me, and it looks like I failed miserably.
BUTCHER: They love you brother, they love you.
MAD DOG: Thank you, Paul.
In retrospect, the whole experience feels like a giant swerve that exposed misconceptions I’d had about wrestling itself. The Dog’s story had little to do with those dubious accomplishments I’d expected to hear about again and again when I first got started. Yes, there are some sketchy parts to it but it also went to the core of French Canadian identity, which is a complex subject I feel I understand a little more clearly now. Incidentally, some of the Dog’s symbolism may have actually been some of Stu Hart’s doing. In 1959, when both the Vachons went west to wrestle for him in Calgary, he suggested they come out as French Canadian lumberjacks.
STU HART: Back in the late ’50s, and even before that, there was always a little rivalry between French Canadians and English speaking people. If you fanned it a little bit, it was a fertile field to work and the Vachon boys as French Canadian lumberjacks sort of fit into a situation. There’s a lot of fairly educated people up here still burning about how our energy policy, there was billions of dollars went into — the energy policy there and it almost bankrupted Western Canada. Yeah it’s a thing that can be fanned — Trudeau did a good job of the National Energy Policy where he almost bankrupt Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, having all the money go down to Ottawa and down to support the fantasies in Montreal or Quebec.
I never asked him but I’m sure Mad Dog loved the idea of drawing heat by disparaging the English. That deep-seeded English/French conflict was built into the Dog’s DNA and I’m sure it figured into the heat he enjoyed during the earlier stages of his career. (Note to self — if only The Dog taught Two Solitudes, I might have stayed awake long enough to finish the book …)
MAD DOG: Yeah this park is Angrignon Park, at one time when we were growing up, when we were kids it was all woods, real thick woods. It was real dark in the summer, with all the leaves. Sometimes on a sunny day you could hardly see any daylight. But this is where we had the most fun — this is where my brother Marcel, Guy, my older brothers and myself and my younger brothers and my friends — our gang more or less — almost like Robin Hood, this is where we’d catch the English and teach them a lesson. Sometimes we were good to them and we let them go after a couple hours after a couple hours we released them. Sometime we kept them a little bit longer we put them to work — we taught them how it was done.
What impressed me most about Vachon was his strength of character. He bowed to few obstacles: his own temper, the loss of a leg, another brutal car accident in ’67, relatively small physical stature by pro wrestling’s standards — the man had serious backbone. Despite Olympic and Commonwealth success as an amateur wrestler, Maurice Vachon could not get a break in his own hometown. In 1952, Montreal was a super-heavyweight territory and Maurice was a 5′ 7″ junior heavyweight with a hard earned reputation as a streetfighter.
According to the Vachons, promoter Eddie Quinn, an image-conscious Boston ex-pat who’d somehow hijacked the territory from Paul Bowser in 1939, didn’t like Vachon’s size, he didn’t like him, his working class background and it was suggested that Yvon Robert may not have either. Where others may have quit, the Dog, “exiled like Castro,” hit the road to work the junior heavyweight territories for the next 10 years, raising havoc and building a reputation anyway he could.
MAD DOG:I loved it because it’s my job and when I go into the ring, it doesn’t matter how many people are there, they scream, when you — when the Mad Dog walks into the ring, the people go absolutely crazy, like I did when I went to the wrestling when I was a kid. I know exactly how they feel because that’s the way I felt, that’s the way I feel, when the people scream that’s our payoff really. That’s more important than the money and the glory and everything else. That’s our payoff, the applause, that’s what it’s all about.
In the early years, life sounded footloose and fancy free. The paydays were light, the driving absurd and there was plenty to complain about. But Mad Dog fondly recalled having only enough “money for a case of beer and a pound of baloney” despite promoters working the wrestlers however they could to keep fees as low as possible.
MAD DOG: It’s like when I went to wrestle for Burt Ruby, he was the promoter in Detroit in 1951, ’52 — in the early ’50s, I don’t remember what year. And he’d say, “I’ll give you $22.50, don’t tell nobody, don’t tell the other one.” Then he’d go to the other wrestler and say, “I give you $22.50, I gave everyone else $20.00 don’t tell nobody…”
ME: Then at the top of the card?
MAD DOG: That was at the top of the card!! (laughs)
Of course, as the Dog’s popularity grew, so did the paycheques. During a drive through his old neighbourhood, the Dog said at the top of his game, he made 150K a year with $8,000 being his biggest payday for a match against Dick the Bruiser. He was equally candid about the emotional toll he had to eventually pay.
MAD DOG: It’s not easy, we pay a price, we all pay a price, I was married three times, two divorces, I raised six children and the mother asks you, “Why don’t you stay? Can you come next week? They’re playing hockey, they’re playing baseball.” “I’m sorry I have to wrestle, I’m in the main event in Chicago; I’ve got to wrestle there.” I’m gone all the time, it takes a toll the kids, “Where’s my Dad?”
We stayed on the subject of Dick the Bruiser for quite awhile. Evidently, he was not all there, even when he was. “He didn’t care for nothing,” said the Dog candidly. “He was mean to himself, know what I mean? Drink all day, fight all night.” It was an interesting drive — one minute we’d be talking about headliners and bar fights, the next about early childhood.
MAD DOG: Remember Paul, we used to go and cut pussy willows and take them to the market? We went by there a few minutes ago. We used to sell pussy willows and people would put them in their flowerpots … beautiful.
The Dog had a soft spot for pussy willows; with no hint in his voice of teachers hitting him with a ruler for being left handed or being called “Vachon cochon” on the playground — this part of his childhood was hermetically sealed. In fact, he looked back on his home life with similar reverence. The kids slept on straw, they were well loved, well treated, well fed; the fundamentals were always provided for. For kicks, we pulled up to their old two-bedroom apartment at 6873 Jacques Street and I hopped out and knocked on their door. No one answered, no ghosts, a bit of a let down actually. But afterwards, the Dog recalled how their father Ferdinand, a beat cop, who made $122 every two weeks, which had to feed 13 kids plus whomever else happened to be living there, decided to move the family because their rent had been raised from $14 to $17 a month.
MAD DOG: Can you imagine, raising the rent from $14 to $17? We should have done a number on them, Paul!! Right there and then!! Maybe they’re still there, let’s go and see them!!
In 1962, after a tour of Hawaii, Maurice ended up in Portland, Oregon where he was famously baptised the Mad Dog by the promoter Don Owen after an infamous scuffle with a policeman. This was at a time when the television interview was about to take on serious importance and many say that’s thanks to the Dog. Up until then, interviews were earnest and low key. The hosts lobbed softballs and channelled Fred MacMurray, the wrestlers parried in measured tones as if interviewing for a job at the library. And then came the Dog, spitting and rabid and blowing VU needles to plus 11. Staring down the barrel, the Dog’s size became irrelevant. Viewers saw a monster, they feared his intensity, his manner, his well-spun threats; the man’s inner giant was more than enough to compensate for any physical shortcomings. And by the way, I’m not enough of an historian to argue whether or not the Dog single-handedly changed the landscape of pro wrestling but he likely played a big part in its evolution. The time had come for bigger-in-life to be replaced by bigger-than-life and the Dog was leading the charge. Within two years, this one-time junior heavyweight would be awarded the AWA Heavyweight title. And eight years after that, he’d be back in Montreal, headlining at the same Forum he’d been denied entry for being undersized.
MAD DOG: When I became Grand Prix champion it meant so much to me. When I look back when I used to run to the Forum to see professional wrestling and see Yvon Robert, Bobby Managoff, Jumpin’ Joe Savoldi, The French Angel, Gorgeous George; they were my heroes and I’d become what I used to worship. They were heroes, the big time wrestlers. I’d become one of them now, know what I mean? When I look back they are still my heroes but now I’m in the spotlight, I’m on a pedestal — I made it, I came back home, I conquered, after over 25 years. I went around all the world — and we came back we conquered our own province our home town, Montreal, Quebec City, the whole province of Quebec, we’re number one, the Mad Dog and the Butcher, we came back and took it all. (GOES FROM GROWL TO BIG SMILE, THEN WHISPERS) We took it all.
The end of the above interview hit is telling. The Dog had shifted from talking about himself to include his brother Paul. It was a nice gesture — Paul promoted Grand Prix and was excellent at it, proof being the Dog’s memorable feuds with Killer Kowalski and Edouard Carpentier, and of course the Match of the Century between Don Leo Jonathan and Jean Ferre, which had been masterfully built up for months, which I was dying to see … and actually saw on channel 79, one of the few main events that made it to air in those days.
MOOSE MOROWSKI: There was a couple times with Mad Dog in Minneapolis, we’re driving to Grand Forks, North Dakota, halfway there he wanted to he decided he wanted something to drink. Well, we pulled over to have something to eat and drink and next thing you know I says, “Mad Dog I’m gonna fill up the car with gas.” So I fill up the car with the gas and next you know I don’t see Mad Dog. Well, there he was he had six guys around him and he was challenging them all and I says, “Mad Dog, we better go before we get shot or killed!” He says, “Hey listen, five guys ain’t gonna kill me! Line’em up I’ll take’em all on one after the other!!” They backed off him because they realized who he was and he woulda done it because he didn’t fear nobody. He had the heart of a lion and was as tough as shoe leather.
In retirement, the Dog stayed active, as a TV personality, opening a burger joint, going to fairs with his brother, visiting family and friends, attending wrestling reunions, helping other amputees — he was kind enough to call Glen Hiyajo, a close friend of mine, who’d lost his legs, to wish him well and lift up his spirits, which it did. And from other reports and articles I’ve read, it seems the Dog spent a good portion of the rest of his life cashing a receipt for the good will he’d been shown during his injury. He was a good guy at heart.
As a postscript to all this, Wrestling with the Past was one of those rare projects that came packed with surprises, beginning to end. Early on, Butcher revealed something about the craft that was both obvious and invisible, that wrestling works when we project our lives into the battle. Thank you, Dr. Vachon, my childhood just became a little more clear.
Fittingly, Wrestling with the Past enjoyed some nice notices after it finally aired. It wasn’t perfect by any means; it was low budget and very simple but the Dog was still a draw and it got national coverage. And it led to a series which the Dog helped anchor and that meant periodic visits when he passed through town. Important for me was that he was proud of the project. My dad was as well and that had special meaning, especially given the timing of when he last brought it up. He died in 2002. Roughly four hours before he passed away, also at the age of 84, at a hospital in Midland, Ontario, through his delirium, my father took my hand and said, “See if there’s wrestling in town.” Say what? Dr. Samuel Joseph Dolin, serious musician and intellectual snob, who’d become my best friend once I’d waded through the quagmire of adolescence, finally wanted to go the matches, because he knew what wrestling meant to me.
MOOSE MOROWSKI: He was a credit to the wrestling business; he was main event material and the arenas were always full which meant an awful lot to the rest of the wrestlers.
DON OWEN: Tell him I love him even with one leg. We turned out to be real good friends and I always admired him and had a lot of fun too.
THE BARON: He was a special person.
KILLER KOWALSKI: I met some wonderful, wonderful wrestlers. Every once in a while I met a real schlep you know so that’s the way it goes — you meet both sides — but most of them, I’m happy to say are wonderful people. And one of them is Mad Dog Vachon — that’s why I told him I loved him — he was a great guy. If he knew you, boy what a match you’d have with him and he goes out of his way to protect you.
BUTCHER: Actually people ask me how come your brother was a villain a dirty wrestler all his life, how come the people love him? Well what happens if you’re around long enough you become — you’re still a villain you remain a villain but you become their villain, sort of like the devil you know — he’s our nut, he’s our villain, he’s our Mad Dog. The longevity, the 45 years he put in wrestling, my father had to tell Mad Dog, when he first started wrestling he said, “Maurice, if you go to the Olympics and win a medal for Canada, the Canadian people will never for get you.” And he was right. He became the devil they know. And they love him even if he is a dirty low down dog of a —
MAD DOG (raises his hand): Don’t go too far Butcher. (Butcher laughs and grabs his brother’s arm) don’t go too far, don’t push it too far.
Maurice Vachon had a way of reaching people. There was a reason we paid to see him or track him down or wish him well in a diner in Point St. Charles. Good or bad, the Dog was a force of nature; he was a hero, heel, mentor, ring general, showman, dreamer, friend, comic; a symbol, of many things, to many people. For me, it’s an endearing one, of a time in my life when there was a big void to be filled. I’ll remember him fondly and for good reason.
MAD DOG: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, it’s the size of the fight in the dog that’s in the fight that counts.
RIP Mad Dog!!