Thirty years ago, a young kid from Thunder Bay, Ontario, made his pro wrestling debut in Quebec. He later became one of the most popular non-Mexican wrestlers in the history of Lucha Libre. This Saturday, at IWS in Montreal, Vampiro is coming full circle, coming back to where it all started for him.
As big of a star Vampiro was in Mexico and as well-known as he was when he worked for World Championship Wrestling (WCW), few people know that Ian Hodgkinson actually started his professional career in 1986 in the province of Quebec.
“When I decided to become a professional wrestler, International Wrestling was on television as well as the AWA and when I saw International Wrestling was on tour in Ontario, I decided to take the bus there, to talk to them to see how do I become a professional wrestler,” Hodgkinson told SLAM! Wrestling. “So I showed up and nobody would talk to me.”
Nobody but one man: Louis “The Farmer” Laurence.
Laurence was a seasoned veteran working in the business for 10 years. On top of his wrestling duties, he was also a one-man crew, as he had to set up the ring for every house show International Wrestling was doing and he got to sell the merchandise as well.
“The first time I met Ian, it was a Sunday night in Sault Ste. Marie,” Laurence remembered. “Pierre Mad Dog Lefebvre, Adrien Desbois and Tarzan Tyler had just died in a car accident and Abdullah the Butcher, who was often driving with them, wanted to drive with me, because he knew I was safe.”
“So we get to Sault Ste. Marie, it was January or February 1986 and here comes this young kid, with his hair dyed like Billy Idol, who looked pretty much like a beach bum. Abdullah wanted me to get rid of him, but instead I started talking to him and I told him, ‘If you are serious, every time you’re going to see an International Wrestling show nearby, come in the afternoon.’ At the time, we were going to Sudbury, North Bay and those towns every two weeks or so. He did come back and soon after he moved to Montreal.”
At the time, Hodgkinson was only 18 years old, soon to be 19.
He had played hockey and even got drafted in the 10th round of the 1984 Ontario Hockey League draft by the Kingston Canadians. He had been playing goalie for the Thunder Bay Beavers midget team.
But hockey didn’t work and he turned himself to his other passion, professional wrestling.
“Like every kid, I was a big fan growing up. Mad Dog Vachon was one of my heroes back then. Maurice Vachon was the man. He was a f—ing animal and acted as he was gonna f— you up! His promos were the best,” Hodgkinson recalled.
Thunder Bay wasn’t close to any cities International Wrestling was running at the time. It was seven hours from Sault Ste. Marie, 12 hours from North Bay and a whopping 17 hours from the office in Montreal. So Laurence took a liking in the kid and took upon himself to make sure Hodgkinson had a place to live.
“He stayed three months in my basement in Chateauguay, 15 miles south of Montreal,” said Laurence. “I had asked my wife and even if she was not 100% okay with it, we made compromises. I didn’t charge him anything. I was giving him some money so he could take the bus and buy himself a Coke or something.”
In the meantime, Laurence was teaching him the ropes.
“Louis would teach me about the business. I would set up the ring with him, sell the programs, sweep the floor and that’s how I started. Louis helped me. I stayed at Louis’s house and learn about the business,” recalled Vamp.
Since Abdullah was driving with Laurence and the latter needed to get to the venue early in the afternoon to set up the place, Hodgkinson was able to get advice from the Madman of Sudan himself.
“Abdullah was teaching me stuff behind-the-scenes, but most of my training was Louis,” Hodgkinson affirmed.
“I showed him the basics,” said Laurence. “Some Mexican moves as well, that I had learned myself when I went to work there for Salvador Lutteroth in 1977.”
Soon enough, Hodgkinson would have his first match.
“After a few months of training, the office made him wrestled on a TV taping in Cowansville, Quebec against Steve Strong [Steve DiSalvo],” Laurence recalled.
Hodgkinson took the name of Billy Fury for his pro wrestling debut, a name that only the hardcore music fans out there might have heard of.
“Billy Fury was a rockabilly singer in England at the time and I just thought it was a cool name,” said the 48-year-old Hodgkinson.
Even after his ring debut, Laurence continued to coach and train Hodgkinson.
“He continued to wrestle until the office closed in 1987,” said Laurence. “He was more outgoing than I was. I was more a straight type of guy. But we respected each other and that’s why I kept helping him.”
After International Wrestling closed shop in June 1987, Hodkinson went back to his native province of Ontario and from there, quit pro wrestling and went to Los Angeles, playing in different bands and trying to find his way.
That would also mark the last time that Laurence saw his protégé in person.
“Some people wrote that I was like a father to Ian,” said Laurence. “I prefer to say that I was more like a big brother to him. We had a great chemistry together, we were talking a lot, he always respected me and I have great admiration for him.”
It’s in La La Land that he became one of the bodyguards for the pop music duo Milli Vanilli, Rob and Fab. The duo had many hits that still play to this day like “Girl you know it’s true” and “Blame it on the Rain.”
“I really enjoyed it. I got to see the world. I learned a lot,” said Vampiro. “I saw what fame can do to you. I saw drugs and fame destroyed those two young men. I was there when they won the Grammy and when they had to give it back. It became maybe the biggest scandal in pop music history. I was there for the whole thing. Still, I had a great experience and I just learned a lot of things about show business from just watching.”
The scandal Hodgkinson is talking about happened in 1990 when it was discovered that the duo was actually lip-synching their songs and were not the actual voices behind them. Their best new artist Grammy award was withdrawn from them soon after Rob and Fav had confessed about it.
As their bodyguard and working so closely with these guys, was Hodgkinson in the know?
“Yeah, of course,” he quickly answered. “Very few people knew, but I was so close to those guys. We were together 24/7 and I was right on stage. There were maybe four or five people who knew and I was one of them.”
In 1991, he left show business and wanted to get back in pro wrestling and he remembered something his mentor had told him a few years back.
“I remembered Louis had told me the best place to go would be Mexico City and since I couldn’t find anywhere to become a professional wrestler, I went there.”
Being loyal to the promoter he had worked for in Mexico, Laurence remembered what he told Hodgkinson about Mexico.
“I had given him the contacts for Lutteroth,” he said. “I told him, ‘There are other promoters, but you’ll have to find them by yourself. But whatever you do, start working for one, be loyal, honest and everything will go alright.'”
And alright it went. Using the name of El Vampiro Canadiense, or as we would say here, The Canadian Vampire, he became an instant hit. He became a major drawing card for CMLL, headlining many shows, including hair versus hair matches. In 1992, he was one of the top drawing cards in the world.
After seven years in Mexico, in 1998 he came to WCW, a new face to North American fans. But like for so many other wrestlers, it was not a good experience for him.
“I didn’t enjoy it. I think that’s what kind of ruined my career. I was at the right point in my life to be a main player in a big company. I could’ve done better in Japan and probably could have done better in WWE, but I went to WCW and I had great expectations and I was very disappointed. It was just a really bad experience behind the scenes with some of the bigger stars, the politics, the arrogance, the lying, the deception, the corruption. I really really have nothing good to say about it. The only good thing about it was the interaction with the fans. My greatest memory is that’s when my daughter was born around that time, so I remember being so excited to get off of the road to go home and see my daughter. So those are the kind of memories I have but the company really sucked.”
After he left WCW in 2000, he went back to CMLL for a few years before jumping ship and joining AAA in 2005. There, his feud with Konnan drew record attendances especially in Guadalajara, drawing more than 20,000 fans on two occasions, in 2005 and 2006, both years being the second biggest crowd in the world.
Since he had wrestled so much in Mexico over the years and maybe because of the sour taste WCW left in his mouth, he only had short runs in the United States, for such promotions like TNA and Wrestling Societey X. But in 2014, the Los Angeles-based Lucha Underground came calling and asked him to become its colour commentator, both for the English and Spanish airings.
Being so different than most of the other wrestling shows out there, it became very popular among the wrestling fans.
“Well first, it’s a television show, so it’s scripted and written like a television show,” Hodgkinson explained. “The production values and levels are completely different because it’s not made from a wrestling point of view but from a cinematography point of view. It’s made my movie people. But the big difference is here the talent is allowed to give their inputs towards their characters and the matches. So they just don’t get some guy who’s never been a wrestler telling them what to do. We kind of see what they want to do and we kind of tailor it to that. That’s why it’s so smooth and fun to watch.”
The commentator gig came at a right time in his career. But Hodgkinson is even more involved with the company.
“I fooled around with commentary doing different TV shows. But it feels natural, I have fun. It just seems like the next step for Vampiro, right? I really enjoy it. I love the commentary thing, it so much more fun for me. But I’m also producing on the show and I’m one of the agents.”
This coming Saturday, International Wrestling Syndicate is presenting its first show since working of a partnership agreement with Lucha Underground. And being from Canada and having started in the province of Quebec, it is only natural for Vampiro to be on that show. Known as an edgy promotion that still flirts with a hardcore style of wrestling — a style which put the company on the map 15 years ago — IWS seems like the perfect fit for Vampiro, especially after his hardcore match against Pentagon Jr. on the season finale of Lucha Underground just a few weeks ago. He’s also working in Toronto on Sunday, September 20th for the Lucha T.O. show.
“It’s gonna be fun. I’m just gonna do my thing. I just like getting in the ring for the fans now. It’s not about Vampiro. It’s about the company, it’s about the show, the young talent, the new guys coming up, the promotion has been there for a lot of years, it just nice to be part of a family, you know what I mean. I’d like the fans to understand that I’m not going there to be the star. There are other guys on the program, the next generation, that’s more important. I’m just happy to be part of it.”
IWS’ Scarred for Life 2015 is at 9 p.m. this Saturday, September 5th, at Corona Virgin Mobile Theatre in Montreal. In addition to Vampiro, Lucha Underground and AAA’s Jack Evans will also be on hand as well as all the IWS’ regular crew, such as Mike Bailey, Mathieu St-Jacques, Thomas Dubois and The Green Phantom. Tickets are available through www.iwswrestling.com and www.evenko.com.