It’s been a year since Mad Dog Vachon died, and SLAM! Wrestling asked Toronto filmmaker John Dolin to look back on his production of Wrestling with the Past, a one-hour special that focused on the Dog’s career and related misadventures. For Dolin, an unabashed wrestling fan during his public school years, the experience remains a professional and personal highlight.
I was a wrestling fan in the early 1970s and took a lot of heat from my father for it. My dad, a noted Canadian composer submerged in electronic music at the time, was openly revolted by my interest in what he felt was cheesy, useless pantomime. Dad was a scholar, I liked cage matches, wrestling was the wedge between us.
Among other things we argued about, we argued about whether or not wrestling was real. Like it wasn’t! “Gene Kiniski just flew through the air, Dad! Was that not high enough for you?”
The usher at The Gardens strongly advised Scott McCauley and I not to ask Lee Henning if it was real. Henning, from Boone, Iowa, who looked and moved like he was 85 years old at the time, had just lost the opening match and was approaching us on the ramp. If Henning had lost something that wasn’t real, why the hell would he not acknowledge it wasn’t? And if it wasn’t, Ron Morrier, the most honest man on television, was betraying shut-ins across the country whenever he signed off. And what about Firpo, the Wild Bull of the Pampas, who’d almost torn off The Sheik’s nose with El Garfio?
“Dr. Dolin, that does not happen if wrestling isn’t real and don’t you have a giant synthesizer to caress?”
Professional wrestling was officially declared sports-entertainment in 1992 when Vince McMahon Jr. outed the sport as a means of preventing State Athletic Commissions from getting their 10 per cent of the live gate. Without any financial incentive, my dad had attempted the same thing over 20 years before. But I wouldn’t have it. I was 10. I loved the action and chaos — very atonal come to think of it — but I’m pretty sure it was the interviews that got me hooked. Wrestlers spoke in simple non-musical terms directly to disconnected kids like me who lacked the tools to appreciate new music or 12 tone fog or whatever weird, sonic cheesecake made their parents tick.
All I knew was, without knowing why, I craved the madness and loved the Pearl Harboring and barking and was genuinely fascinated by Mad Dog Vachon. By 13, my interest piqued. I remember having to attend a concert at Walter Hall in Toronto, which featured several Canadian premieres on the same bill, including a piece my father wrote for 12 pianos and aluminium. What kept me from bolting from the hall was my copy of The Wrestler which featured the Dog bleeding like a stuck pig on the cover, likely the handiwork of Jos Leduc at the time. There was madness in Quebec, it was staring at me in the face. My sister Liz, then an aspiring cellist, turned a blind eye, bless her heart. R. Murray Schaefer, who sat directly in front of us, looked back at me at one point when he heard us discussing the Dog or Dad and saw the cover and promptly turned 40 shades of grey.
For the longest time, reading about the Dog in those crazy tabloid rags had been my only exposure to him. Should his piledriver be banned? Verne Gagne wants them both outlawed! Was he clinically insane, a shrink makes the call! Then in 1972, channel 79 in Toronto began carrying Grand Prix Wrestling out of Montreal. It was my first exposure to the Dog on television. His unrepentant bombast was hilarious and frightening and if there was a better wrestler at getting a kid primed for what I prayed would be a massive beating at the hands of Edouard Carpentier or Jean Ferre or whomever, I had yet to see him.
Twenty-five years later, in the winter of 1997, I was fairly unemployed when I learned Abdullah the Butcher ran a restaurant in Atlanta called Abdullah the Butcher’s House of Ribs and Chinese Food. I promptly called the restaurant, hoping the Madman from the Sudan might spare me a few minutes so I could see if there was a series in any of this. Abdullah was helping with the dishes. I pictured his restaurant: waiters with taped thumbs, autographed forks, blade steak; his gimmick personified. I was hoping for funny but that image vanished once he got on the line. He was gruff and unfriendly.
What did I want?
Call another time.
I did. Several times in fact.
When we finally spoke, Abdullah gave up little of interest, other than he took pride in being the animal people needed and that the Japanese bowed to him in airports. Then he asked for an advance of $1,200 against the next phone call. That effectively ended our contact. But the seed was planted. The name of his restaurant alone was enough. Who to find next? “Abby, one last question — what was The Sheik’s real name?”