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The Eighth Wonder of the World
Excerpt

 

Pontiac, Michigan, March 29, 1987.

 

The story goes like this…

 

André the Giant is challenging Hulk Hogan for the World Wrestling Federation title. 93,173 people are crammed together near the corner of Michigan Highway and Opdyke Road, in a town of 70,000, 30 miles North West of Detroit, to witness one of the biggest pro wrestling matches of all-time. Not only for the record-crowd size but for what the match represents, the home of the National Football League’s Detroit Lions and the National Basketball Association’s Detroit Pistons, the Pontiac Silverdome, is the place to be. Much like André, it’s the largest of its kind and a great fit for a match like this.

 

André versus Hogan is the perfect match on the perfect stage. The challenger, from Grenoble in the French Alps, stands 7 foot and 4 inches tall, weighing 520 pounds. The champion, from Venice Beach, California, is 6 foot 6 and 302 pounds. Both are undefeated and facing each other for the very first time. Will Hogan be able to slam the Giant, let alone beat him? Will the Giant end Hogan’s 39-month title reign? Every question is going to be answered at WrestleMania, the showcase of the immortals, the third such event organized by Vincent Kennedy McMahon, but the first to bring the company to this world-wide phenomenon level. WrestleMania III’s slogan “Bigger, Better, Badder” suits to a T.

 

Ever since arriving in North America, André had been the biggest attraction in pro wrestling. In almost every interview, readers and viewers have heard that André came from France in the early 70s, and after a brief stint in Canada went on to rule the wrestling world, managed by the biggest impresario in the sport, Vincent James McMahon: André was his vision.

 

A decade later, when McMahon’s son took over the company, he chose Hulk Hogan as the new future future of the business and, as the company’s history goes, André and Hogan were best friends. André was even part of the celebration when Hogan defeated The Iron Sheik for the WWF World Heavyweight championship at Madison Square Garden in 1984--he famously poured champagne on Hogan’s head.

 

Since becoming champion, Hogan had defended the title against almost every bad guy in the promotion: Rowdy Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, Jesse Ventura… the list goes on and on and on. A couple of times a year, Hulk and André would team to face adversity that one man alone could not overcome. André, it seems, was too much of a novelty to be considered for a championship match, and seven different wrestlers had won the crown jewel since he started working for McMahon. Hogan was simply the latest to jump ahead of him.

 

And this is what tonight is about: André being overshadowed by Hogan, not getting the respect he deserves. Fans in the Silverdome had already seen so much. Pretty boys Rick Martel and Tom Zenk opened Wrestlemania III showing real fire; Brutus Beefcake was evicted from the Dream Team, replaced by Dino Bravo; Ricky Steamboat defeated Randy Savage in a match no one will ever forget; and Jim Duggan and Nicolai Volkoff just had their own version of the Cold War. Even Edouard Carpentier, André’s old friend from France is providing commentary in French.

 

The building is rumbling as Mr. Baseball Bob Uecker introduces Entertainment Tonight’s Mary Hart as the guest timekeeper. With former enemy Bobby “The Brain” Heenan by his side, André comes down the very long alley between the backstage area and the ring to a chorus of boos on a motorized cart made to look like a miniature ring. He remains stonily indifferent to the debris thrown at him and once again enters his battlefield by stepping over the top rope. This is the pinnacle of his career. Backstage, Hogan is nervous. 

 

“What if André goes into business for himself? What if he decides he’s winning tonight?”

 

If that were the case, there’s nothing the Hulkster could do.

 

Hogan’s “Real American” entrance music finally hits. In better shape, he walks from the curtain to the ring, cheared on by the thousands of Hulkamaniacs in attendance.

 

The tension is real. The two biggest stars of the last decade are in the middle of the ring, and everybody in attendance or watching on closed-circuit TV around the world are on the edge of their seats. After just a few seconds, Hogan tries to slam the Giant, something that no one has ever been able to do. But he’s denied by André, who covers the champion for a two-and-three-quarter count by referee Joey Marella. After taking the beating of a lifetime, Hogan comes back from the dead, slams André and hits the leg drop for the one, two, three.

 

Not only did Hogan win the match and keep his title, but he also dealt André his very first defeat. 

 

Or did he?

 

“The Hogan-André match at WrestleMania III and the Bret-Shawn match in Montreal in 1997 are the two most important matches in the history of modern wrestling,” argues journalist and founder of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer.

 

Yet, this match and everything surrounding it is the culmination of every myth and legend you ever heard about André coming to a head, on the biggest stage he ever performed on.

 

André wasn’t 7 foot 4 inches tall, at any point in his life. He didn’t weigh 520 pounds. And he wasn’t from Grenoble or even the French Alps. This was not André and Hogan’s first match and André was lifted off his feet way before Hogan even stepped foot in a ring for the first time. Montreal was more important to his career than any other biography written or filmed has ever shown. Even the number of people in attendance that night in Pontiac was exaggerated.

 

However, one thing was true: the magnitude of that encounter was undeniable. Depending on age and knowledge of pro wrestling at the time, fans either loved it or thought it was a poor performance. Yet, everyone agrees that the influence it had on the future of the WWF is immeasurable. André’s health was declining and it was the right time to officially pass the torch, even if Hulk had already been in the driver seat for a while. André knew this match would make him a legend beyond his time. In a business where timing is everything, that feud opened the door to so many great things to come for the WWF, especially when everyone involved in wrestling was trying to come up with the next big idea in the ever-expanding beginning of the PPV era. The André and Hogan feud was, in fact, an important piece of what would come next—so much so that people may still not even realize.

 

In 1987, the biggest lie about André wasn't his height or his undefeated record. It was the fact that he had lost so much strength he had trouble catching a teenage actress in a movie. Even if photographs showing he could easily lift five women at the same time had made him a living mythical being, acromegaly, the ailment that had made him a superstar known around the world, was catching up to him. The body that made him famous was betraying him slowly and in pernicious ways every single day. Condemned to be André the Giant 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he was likely depressed. Sad, at very least, that he couldn't go anywhere without being looked at, touched, or pointed at. He was 40 years old and he knew that point he wouldn't see 50.

 

From Paris to Montreal, from Tokyo to New York City, he transcended the world of professional wrestling. The Seven Wonders of the World, like the Pyramid of Giza or the Colossus of Rhodes always had something mysterious about them, something mythical, a part of some legend or fairy-tale. André’s real life and true career were the same, filled with myths and overshadowed by his larger-than-life character and personality.

 

On March 29, 1987, André probably wasn’t the better, or even the badder, but he was definitely the bigger. Much like WrestleMania today, André René Roussimoff was at one point the greatest spectacle in sports entertainment.

 

He was, in fact, the Eighth Wonder of The World…

 

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Rowdy

Rowdy

The Roddy Piper Story
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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Excerpt

WCW had absorbed the old Mid-Atlantic Wrestling and turned Jim Crockett’s Starrcade into its own premier annual event. It took place in December, far from McMahon’s early spring WrestleMania. In the 1996 edition, Roddy Piper settled the old score once and for all. He caught “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan in a sleeper and won Starrcade’s main event. During the bout, Hogan had put him in an abdominal stretch, which made Roddy’s large hip-surgery scar fully visible to the cameras. Roddy had asked him to do that, and also to hike up his trunks to show it off clearly. At another moment, Roddy hopped around on that leg to further make an important point. Not McMahon nor any other promoter could ever cast doubt on Roddy’s ability to wrestle on that titanium hip.

Before Roddy put the sleeper on Hogan, an imposing new member of the NWO had tried to interfere in the match, attacking Roddy and lifting him several feet off the mat for his signature chokeslam. The Giant was the biggest wrestler to hit the big time since Andre (in fact, Roddy escaped his grasp by dipping into his old giant-fighting toolkit, biting him on the nose to make him let go). Behind the scenes, the seven-foot rookie and the much smaller veteran had made fast friends.

“There’s a story Big Show tells in front of God and everyone,” said Roddy (The Giant would change his name to Big Show when later wrestling in the WWE). Big Show told us the story himself.

“I was green as grass. I was driving in on a Sunday night into Wisconsin and I got in really late.” Tired from the road, he went to the hotel’s front desk. The lady working the night shift said, “You’re so big, I’m going to give you a suite.” Grateful, he went up to the room. It was large and full of amenities. He went to the bathroom and splashed his face with cold water. “I was drying my face and I look and there’s a leather jacket hanging on one of the chairs.” Figuring a previous occupant had left the jacket, he dismissed it and went to the bedroom. As he opened the French doors he heard somebody snoring, “like the entire room was being sawed in half.” On the nightstand was a bottle of NyQuil, and face-down on the bed, butt naked, was Roddy Piper.

Oh my God, he thought, that’s Roddy Piper. This is awkward. They’d never met, but he’d grown up watching Roddy on television.

“So I quietly shut the doors, took my bags, meandered back downstairs. I said, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but there’s somebody in that room.’” She apologized and gave him another.

The next day he went to the WCW Nitro set and saw Roddy backstage.

“I think nobody understands what an incredibly nice guy he was all the time,” said Show. “I mean so very humble, so very polite, and just set an example of what a superstar should be . . . the kindest, nicest person you could ever be around.”

“Hi, I’m Roddy Piper,” he said to the towering kid.

“I met you last night,” said The Giant.

“You did?! When?” said Roddy, slapping his head in embarrassment for forgetting.

The Giant told him the whole story and Roddy smiled at him. “Ah, brother, you could have had me last night!”

“I remember thinking to myself as a young kid, about twentyfour years old, I go, ‘Oh . . . whaaat?’” As The Giant settled into the business and got to know the habits of his fellow wrestlers, he realized what Roddy had meant. “I could have ribbed him to death. I could have stolen his jacket. I could have written all over him with a Sharpie.”

Every time they saw each other for the next twenty years, Roddy would wag his finger at him and smile, “Brother, you could have had me!”

“As I got older in the business, there’s no way in hell I would have ever ribbed Roddy Piper anyway,” he said, because the payback “would have probably put me in therapy! You don’t mess with the old-timers like that.”

A middle-aged wrestler, now, the kind of star who used to beat him up many years ago, Roddy was instead winning fans among the new generation, even as he was losing the very first of the generation that raised him.

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Soulman
Excerpt

After two matches with the WWF, Vince sent Dwayne to Memphis to get some experience with the United States Wrestling Federation, the promotion run by Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler.  Dwayne called himself Flex Kavana.  I asked him, “Where did you get that goofy name?”

He said, “There was a guy called Cabana in a bodybuilding magazine showing people how to flex, so I modified the name and put it together.”

Unbeknownst to Jarrett, Lawler, or anyone else, Vince sent Dwayne a $500 check every week.  It was a blessing because Jarrett was paying a measly $40 to $50 a night.

Dwayne worked in the USWA for a few months, at which time he was called up by the WWF.  Out of respect to his grandfather and me, he changed his ring name to “Rocky Maivia,” but I knew it wasn’t going to get over, and I told him so.  WWF fans didn’t like his character at all.  They weren’t sure how to identify with him.  Was he an African-American, a Samoan, a mulatto, or a Puerto Rican?  He was a babyface, but they would boo him and yell, “Rocky sucks!  Rocky sucks!”

He was really discouraged and the WWF seemed to be on the verge of letting him go, so he came to me and asked, “So what should I do?”

“Just be yourself.”

“Yeah, but what do I call myself.”

“That’s up to you.”

He said, “How about The Rock.”

As people say, the rest is history.  He shortened his name and turned heel.  The transformation — both Dwayne’s and that of the wrestling fans — was like night and day.  I also gave him the idea for billing himself as “the people’s champion.”  “Nobody can ever take the title from you.”  He took the idea to Vince and it got him over to a level he had never known before.

Wrestling fans today are a strange breed.  In my day, they hated the heels and loved the babyfaces.  There were no grey areas.  There was a clear, sharp line drawn between good and bad.  When Dwayne went to work in the WWF as Rocky Maivia, he was a babyface, but the people turned on him because they loved his opponent, Steve Austin … the heel!  When Dwayne changed his name to the Rock and became a dastardly heel, the people grew to love him.  What’s that all about?  We live in strange times.

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The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame

The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame

The Storytellers (From the Terrible Turk to Twitter)
tagged : wrestling, history
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Excerpt

 

Here we go, Jim Cornette thought. The manager was standing on the apron of the ring in the Richmond Coliseum, an early ‘70s construct with the interior décor of a UPS warehouse. Cornette draped his left arm around Owen Hart’s neck, trusty tennis racket in hand in case he needed to swat a few overexuberant fans. Across the ring, Shawn Michaels was lying face down, left arm shielding his face. A minute before, Hart had nailed Michaels with a kick to the side of the head. The Heartbreak Kid responded spectacularly by sending his foe to the arena floor with a clothesline, then flipping himself over the ropes to get back in the ring. He preened for a few seconds, put his right hand to his right temple, and collapsed as though he’d been flattened by some GIs.

 

Which he had been five weeks earlier. Michaels got the snot kicked out of him outside Club 37 in Syracuse, New York in the early morning hours of October 14, 1995. While WWE claimed ten vicious thugs attacked Michaels without provocation, most accounts say he was in a less-than-coherent state and had been hitting on the wrong woman. Michaels staggered outside to a car and passed out in the front seat when the tough guys — five is a commonly accepted number — dragged him to the ground, stomped on his face, and shoved his head into the bumper. The assailants nearly ripped off his right eyelid; Michaels said he didn’t recall the assault and declined to press charges. Unable to wrestle in the aftermath of the beatdown, Michaels forfeited his Intercontinental championship to Dean (Shane) Douglas a week later. But the fallout from the Syracuse incident was just starting. Maybe Michaels could fool the fans and create a little water cooler buzz in the pre-Internet days by fainting dead away in the middle of a match. “It was my idea and the reason for it was we had played up so much about Shawn’s concussion and there was a lot about this post-concussive syndrome,” WWE producer-turned-podcaster Bruce Prichard said in 2018.

 

In wrestling jargon, it is called a “worked shoot,” an angle that has some basis in real life but is engineered to trick an audience. It is a script that seeks to come off as unscripted by preying on fans’ knowledge of events like the one-sided skirmish in Syracuse. To be sure, Michaels’ collapse was hardly the first fictional wrestling blackout. Just a few months after brothers Mike Von Erich committed suicide and Kevin Von Erich legitimately passed out in the ring, their father-promoter Fritz collapsed on Christmas night 1987 in Dallas and was “critically hospitalized,” according to the promotion, which tried to pass off the flop as another Von Erich family tragedy.

 

The Michaels faint — call it the Richmond Swoon — had more going for it, though. Unlike Von Erich’s caper, it occurred in primetime on Monday Night Raw in front of about 2 million viewers. It was the first worked shoot angle of the three-month-old Monday Night Wars, competing directly against the marquee matchup of Hulk Hogan versus Sting on WCW Monday Nitro. And it opened the doors to a flood of worked shoots that continued for years as creative personnel spent considerable time trying to outsmart their smartest fans. “It became, ‘We’ve got this television show and we’ve got to outthink the guys who are doing the analysis,’ ” said Bruce Mitchell, a columnist for the Pro Wrestling Torch. “They got farther and farther off the track of what they were doing, which was to draw people to watch television.”

 

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Death of the Territories

Death of the Territories

Expansion, Betrayal and the War that Changed Pro Wrestling Forever
edition:Paperback
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Full Circle

Full Circle

The Remarkable True Story of Two All-American Wrestling Teammates Pitted Against Each Other in the War on Drugs and Then Reunited as Coaches
edition:Hardcover
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Mad Dog

Mad Dog

The Maurice Vachon Story
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : wrestling
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Excerpt

CHAPTER 1: A THUG IN THE MAKING

 

The epic story of Maurice Vachon starts in 1929 in Ville-Émard, a working-class neighborhood in Montreal. Ville-Émard is located next to the city boroughs of Verdun and LaSalle, between the Lachine Canal and the Aqueduc Canal. It was annexed to the City of Montreal in 1910 and is now part of the South-West borough. Other well-known personalities come from there, such as ice hockey legend Mario Lemieux, and many factories were built there in the early twentieth century, giving the neighborhood a working-class character.

Maurice’s father, Ferdinand Vachon, was born on March 7, 1905, in St. Raphael, a small Ontario village that no longer exists, a few dozen miles north of Cornwall and west of Valleyfield, Quebec. When Ferdinand and his twin brother, William, were ten years old, the family moved to Ville-Émard. Maurice’s mother, Marguerite Picard, was born on September 13, 1905, in the small Ontario village of Huntsville. The village has about two thousand inhabitants and is located some three hundred miles west of Ottawa and sixty miles south of North Bay. Her family moved to Montreal when she was just two months old, and she was already living in Ville-Émard by the time her future husband moved there. These two young Franco-Ontarians had connecting backyards, so they saw each other on a regular basis while growing up. They got married on October 29, 1927. Between 1928 and 1951, Ferdinand and Marguerite, devout Catholics, had a total of twelve children and adopted a thirteenth.

Maurice Régis Vachon was born on September 1, 1929, a little over a month before the stock market crash heralding the beginning of the Great Depression, and ten years to the day before the start of World War II. He was baptized at Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours Church, a parish with many English Catholic families, and was named Maurice for his godfather, Maurice Picard (his mother’s brother), and Régis for his paternal grandfather, who had died nearly two decades beforehand.

The firstborn in the family was Marcel. Coming next was Maurice, born in the first family home on Briand Street. By the time their third baby, Guy, was born in 1930, the family had moved to 6873 Jogues Street, where Maurice would grow up. This second-story apartment wasn’t exactly a penthouse: it was the upper half of a duplex, with a room for the boys and a double room for the girls and the parents. Considering the Vachons raised twelve children here (their last child, Diane, was not born on Jogues Street), the apartment must have felt cramped. But many other families in working-class areas of the big city had similar living quarters. The rent varied from $14 to $25 a month, not much in today’s world, but salaries were not what they are today.

Ferdinand Vachon, who was nicknamed Fred, worked as a dock worker at the Port of Montreal, then as a police sergeant, earning $75 every two weeks. During the Depression, this was good pay, although with many mouths to feed it wasn’t a fortune. The Vachon children made their own toys, and, as in all large families, the youngest of them wore hand-me-downs from their older siblings. Marguerite shopped for food at the grocery store, Blain, on credit, not so much because she had to but because it was convenient. The children went to a store in downtown Montreal where for just forty cents they could buy bread, cakes, and donuts fresh from the day before. Fred had a job that brought certain advantages. For example, when he recovered a truck full of stolen clothes, the store owner offered him a set of free clothes for all his children. Nowadays, such practices would be considered unethical, but during the Depression, any donation was welcome. All in all, every penny counted in the Vachon household, but the children never wanted for anything.

So for young Maurice, money was not a concern. In fact, he was busy getting into mischief, fighting with English kids, and hating school. The Vachon children all went to Saint-Jean-de-Matha elementary school nearby. This was not the right kind of place for Maurice, who later described himself as a shy child who had a hard time speaking and expressing his feelings.

Making matters worse, he was left-handed. This is considered normal today, but at the time, being left-handed was often seen as a handicap or an illness. Schoolteachers — often Catholic priests and nuns — forced several generations of youngsters to write with their right hands. And using the word “force” is not an overstatement: left-handed children had their knuckles rapped with a wooden ruler until they learned to stop writing with their cursed left hand. So, like many other left-handers, Maurice wrote with his right hand and did everything else with his left hand.

School discipline was harsh, and that didn’t exactly make him feel like attending on a regular basis. “I was scared when I went back to school,” Maurice recalled in the 1980s. “I wanted to die. I would go see the principal and get the strap. I felt like I was in prison. I was someone with lots of energy to burn off.”

And Maurice burned off a lot of energy.

Going to class was agonizing, but leaving at the end of the day was a different story. His day really got going once the final bell rang at 4:00 p.m. — that’s when the fights started. Sometimes they were triggered when classmates called him “Vachon le cochon” (“Vachon the pig”). Other times classmates threw out a challenge: “Why do you want to fight me? Why not take on Maurice instead? You’ll see it isn’t easy.” He usually wore a white shirt, frequently spattered with some other kid’s blood, and some of his own too.

Maurice told the story many times of how he would come home from school with blood on his shirt. “My father would ask if I had been fighting. I would answer yes. Then he would ask if I had won. I would answer yes. Then he would say, ‘OK, that’s fine then.’”

Fred Vachon was a loving father, but he was also a man of his generation. Without realizing it at the time, he embodied something dark that Maurice would later integrate into his own personality: Fred had a bad relationship with violence. With hindsight, the schoolyard fistfights of children can be downplayed, but being so close to violence became probably the most long-lasting aspect of Maurice’s life, apart from wrestling.

Once Fred Vachon the policeman had finished interrogating Maurice about his school day, the boy would head outside looking for mischief, and that’s when the real trouble would start.

The “Vachon Gang” became well-known in the neighborhood, and for good reason: they broke windows, they got into misadventures, they fought with English kids. There was no stopping them.

The gang consisted of Maurice, his brothers Marcel and Guy, and some of their buddies, the Fichaud and Bélec brothers. Marcel was born in July 1928 and Guy in December 1930: they were only two and a half years apart. Maurice was clearly the boss — he was the one developing new schemes. He was respected by the others as much as by his own brothers. “You couldn’t fight against Maurice for very long,” recalls Guy.

At the end of Jogues Street were “Crazy Field” — so named because it was close to the Douglas Psychiatric Hospital in Verdun — and a forest that would later become Angrignon Park. At the time, Ville-Émard was working-class but it still had a very rural character, as shown by the wooden boardwalks along the streets, from before the era of concrete sidewalks. For the youngsters, the forest was their secret realm. It was also the place where Maurice and his gang fought with English kids. As we will learn shortly, a better way of putting that would be: it was the place where Maurice and his gang beat up English kids. These fistfights no doubt reflected childhood rivalries, but they were also typical of the era. In the 1930s, there was a big divide between English-speaking and French-speaking Montrealers. People speaking English were perceived as belonging to the upper class of society, whereas people speaking French were an uneducated and exploited labor force. This divide affected not just adults but also children.

Parents are responsible for the values transmitted to their children. Marguerite Vachon never hid her deep hatred for the English, despite the fact she and her husband were both originally from Ontario. In a neighborhood with two communities living side by side, there was bound to be friction. “The English called us ‘French pea soups,’” Maurice later recalled. “We called them ‘blokes’ and ‘limeys.’” These were not exactly cruel slurs, but for children in a politically charged environment, it didn’t take much to come to blows.

No English-speaking residents of Ville-Émard have ever given their side of the story, but it seems clear the Vachon Gang treated beating up English kids as a blood sport — and the gang came out on top most of the time. The Vachon Gang claimed Crazy Field as their own territory, so no self-respecting English kid would venture there. The only exception was when an English kid could speak French. And if English kids were accompanied by their fathers, then the Vachon Gang would go into hiding and be proud of not getting caught. A few years later, Maurice’s brother Marcel was the first of the family to show an interest in girls, and he went out with an English girl from Verdun. Considering the territory, this meant, ironically, that the girl’s brother had probably already been a victim of the Vachon Gang!

But beating up English kids wasn’t the gang’s full-time occupation. Actually, they seem to have spent more time breaking windows. One school in Ville LaSalle had to replace its windows over and over again: Maurice had broken all of them three times in a row. The fourth time, the school janitor caught him in the act and wanted to call the police. Maurice then started to cry, vowing never to do it again so he wouldn’t have to face the wrath of his father. So ended his career as a window breaker.

Marguerite Vachon, a diminutive woman weighing just 105 pounds, had her hands full with such a turbulent brood. She was from a large family, and thanks to a strong character she didn’t overreact. She disciplined her children, though, bringing out the strap or a stick only to scare them. At the same time, she recounted only parts of their misadventures to her husband, which spared them far more severe punishment at his hands. The family hired a maid named Ross who helped around the house from time to time. At $3 per week, this was a luxury the family could afford.

Ferdinand played his fatherly role well, but the fact that he was a policeman meant his son could often wriggle his way out of facing consequences. Youngsters in Ville-Émard looked up to Maurice for all the wrong reasons, but more generally the Vachon brothers enjoyed special consideration because their father was a policeman. At the time, this position brought more respect than it does today. Even so, fathers came over to the Vachon household to complain about Maurice beating up their sons or to report on the latest mischief he had gotten into. Ferdinand sometimes took his son on patrol, probably to show him how easy it was to get out of line. This would be unthinkable nowadays.

The one time when the Vachon children didn’t make such a ruckus was when they were playing with their dog, a border collie named Mickey. The dog’s presence spread good cheer all around, and he often accompanied the brothers on their escapades. Mickey was a full member of the Vachon Gang. He was as impertinent as any boy, and he chased after other dogs on the slightest pretext. They paid him back in kind, however: Mickey died of wounds after being attacked by two rival dogs.

Whenever his children needed to burn off energy, Fred would take them, and especially his boys, fishing and camping on Lake of Two Mountains. At the same time, he was always ready to take out the strap when they got into serious mischief. Nowadays, child services would be brought in right away, but in those days corporal punishment was the norm in many families. Maurice later remembered, “At times, I would rather have gone to jail than face the brunt of my father’s punishment.”

The Vachon boys made a point of not telling their father everything. That proved to be a wise decision. “We got up to a lot of mischief,” Maurice later recalled. “We got some good thrashings, and I suppose we deserved them.”

But their father’s attitude was paradoxical. He was proud of his sons’ bad-boy reputation and he would immediately call them to order if they seemed cowardly. One day, while sitting on the balcony of the apartment, he saw his three oldest boys running home with their school bags. This time they were fleeing, with English kids close on their heels. Instead of demanding they return home immediately, he shouted out to them there would be no dinner unless they turned around and beat up the English kids.

Despite the fistfights and other misadventures, the Vachon family were devout and regular churchgoers, like most Quebecers of the time. Maurice went to Mass regularly, even becoming an altar boy. Early in the morning he would go to church, then come home again to change, then head for school. On Sundays, Marguerite would bring her children to St. Joseph’s Oratory, a Catholic basilica and Canada’s largest church.

Maurice didn’t like academic subjects, but he made an exception in the case of geography because he had big dreams of traveling the world. Ferdinand spent a lot of time telling his sons about the criminals he had arrested. Some were Italians, others were Poles or Americans, but all had a story and a particular path in life. Ferdinand probably had the most influence on his children through his storytelling, because most of them would go on to travel and work all over the world.

Maurice had two hobbies that enabled him to develop his passion for geography: collecting stamps and raising carrier pigeons. Everyone knows about stamp collecting, but raising carrier pigeons takes some explanation. Carrier pigeons were trained to routinely return to their dovecote, and they were used especially in wartime to send messages from one base to another. Maurice raised pigeons until he was twenty years old.

One day he decided to head out, carrying a dozen pigeons in a potato sack. Once he got near Châteauguay, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, he sent the following message home via pigeon: “Don’t worry, Mommy, I am going to the United States, I will be back in five years.” Marguerite got into a bit of a panic, but Fred remained calm. “There’s no cause for concern,” he said. “You’ll see! Maurice is bound to get hungry and then he will come home!” Around 11:00 p.m., Fred’s prediction came true.

Maurice fed his fantasies and dreams with stamps. They enabled him to travel the world while staying at home. Some of these stamps were from France, Belgium, or Germany, and they were a welcome escape from school, where he was unhappy.

Beyond hobbies and periodic misadventures, Maurice also discovered professional wrestling. At a quite young age, he accompanied his father to see “la p’tite lutte” — light heavyweight wrestling matches. In the 1930s, wrestling was undergoing a big revival in Montreal. Thanks to the French wrestler Henri Deglane, former Olympic champion in Greco-Roman wrestling, the sport was gaining in popularity. Light heavyweight matches were held all over the city in places like the Exchange Stadium, the Ontario Stadium, the Mile End Stadium, and many others.

One time, a wrestling show was held at the Saint-Jean-de-Matha Stadium, near Maurice’s school in Ville-Émard. His father introduced him to Paul Lortie, one of the stars at the time. Maurice was all of four or five years old, but he was already fascinated by the world of wrestling that would become his. From 1939, heavyweight wrestlers fought at the Montreal Forum under the rule of promoter Eddie Quinn. But light heavyweights wrestled in the city’s smaller stadiums, occasionally replacing heavyweights at the Forum (home to the Montreal Canadiens) or wrestling in the openers.

Maurice was obviously interested in the big leagues. He and his buddies would walk a few miles just to have a look at the stadium posters announcing the upcoming matches. They occasionally attended the matches and discovered the big stars of Montreal wrestling. Their favorites were the Dusek brothers, Lou Thesz, Maurice Tillet, and Bobby Managoff, among others.

“We bought tickets for seventy-five cents and then sat in the ringside seats going for $2,” Maurice later recalled. “We were always the first to arrive.”

There was nothing surprising about his love for wrestling. Once Maurice entered the fray, he would always showboat while fighting. He liked to humiliate his opponents before beating them. He would pull their shirt up over their head, then twirl them around in a circle. He loved provoking them just enough for them to lose their concentration. That’s when he would close in for the knockout. “Maurice developed his talents as an entertainer at a young age,” Guy Vachon recalls. And Guy had eye-witnessed quite a few of his older brother’s escapades. But Maurice was the only member of their group of buddies who truly loved wrestling — and since he was the leader, the others followed along, whether they wanted to or not.

Maurice also worked for a time for Elmer Ferguson, a well-known journalist who at the time covered hockey and professional wrestling. A reporter at the Montreal Herald, Ferguson employed Maurice as a clerk, paying him $10 a week for his services. But Maurice discreetly stole some of the best photographs, which he pinned on a wall at home that was already decorated with photos of wrestlers from the papers. Needless to say, Maurice didn’t keep the job very long.

Of all the wrestlers Maurice idolized, one stands out in particular: Yvon Robert. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Robert was exceptionally popular, although he would become even more famous later on. Clearly, he was the new darling of wrestling in Quebec. A native of Verdun, not far from Ville-Émard, Robert came from the same kind of social background as the young Vachon. Maurice considered Robert the perfect example of a man from a modest background who succeeds at what he does and travels the world. As Maurice would later say on several occasions, “Yvon Robert was like a god to us.”

Interest in wrestling flagged somewhat in the late 1930s, but all of that changed with the arrival of Eddie Quinn the promoter and the blossoming of local star Yvon Robert. Hockey was not as popular in Montreal as it later became in the 1950s, and baseball was even less popular. The Vachon boys knew how to skate, but they weren’t hockey fans. Wrestling, meanwhile, was gaining ground by leaps and bounds: in those days, wrestling matches were held in Montreal more times than there are days in a week.

Maurice found wrestling fascinating, but it would take a decade before he made a career of it. Robert’s popularity actually worked against Maurice in his first years as a wrestler, but then years later it would offer him a golden opportunity.

Meanwhile, his personal life seemed like one long series of misadventures and fistfights. Maurice often got away with it and spent only a few hours in jail. But having a well-respected father in the police force proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it prevented Maurice from getting into serious trouble, but on the other hand, his father was far from pleased with the situation, although paradoxically and without realizing it he encouraged his son to indulge in bad-boy behavior.

Two events then took place that would change the course of Maurice’s life forever.

Maurice had many flaws and he had gotten into a lot of trouble. But his heart was always in the right place. That’s the way he was. He had to channel that voracious energy of his one way or the other, but he wasn’t always sure how. When anyone took on someone from the Vachon Gang, it was like attacking Maurice himself. And this was even more the case when his own brothers were involved. He knew his role was to protect and to defend them. He hated acts of injustice: when one gang outnumbered another and abused its strength, or when the stronger attacked the weaker without the slightest pretext. He ended up defending others more often than he defended himself. These were the first signs of a character trait he would go on to demonstrate throughout his life: generosity.

Over the years, the Vachon family grew. After the first three sons (Marcel, Maurice, and Guy) came Jeannine, Régis, Marguerite, Paul, Arthur, Pierre (the son of Marguerite’s sister, he had been part of the family since birth), Claire, André, Lise, and Diane.

One time, the children were playing on the sidewalk when a local kid, who happened to be English, gleefully started shooting pellets at them with an air rifle. Another time, when Régis (or Paul, depending on the version of the story) went apple picking, the same kid stole his bag of apples. This was too much for Maurice. He followed the boy home, subjecting him to a storm of punches to teach him never to steal from a Vachon again. A few days later, as Maurice was on his way to school through the back alleys, the English kid’s father came after him on a bicycle and happened to kick him in passing. Maurice gave him everything he had: he showered the man with blows. The father nevertheless managed to escape and reached a clearing not far away. But Maurice hadn’t finished yet. He followed him, then jumped on him until the man begged for mercy: “Let me go, let me go!”

Giving kids his age a licking was one thing, but for thirteen-year-old Maurice to beat up an adult was another.

“That’s when I realized this made no sense,” he later recalled.

When Maurice and his buddies weren’t breaking windows or getting into brawls, they were attacking trains, especially by removing the seals on freight wagons. This was illegal, because without those aluminum seals, nobody could be sure of the freight loaded in the wagon. Maurice got arrested and was temporarily detained at the station. His father had to bend over backwards to get him out of trouble.

For Ferdinand, this was one misadventure too many. He had put up with straightforward mischief, broken windows, train damage, fistfights, and Maurice’s reluctance to apply himself to his studies. Ferdinand pictured what kind of future his son was headed for, and it wasn’t a pretty one. Maurice was developing the same profile as some of the bandits Ferdinand had to deal with on a daily basis.

“Maurice would have taken a wrong turn in life,” says Paul Vachon. “He was headed more or less for the life of a thug.”

“He liked fighting way too much,” adds Guy.

Maurice himself admitted he didn’t have too rosy a future: “I think I must have taken the wrong path in life. I got into more and more mischief, then I started doing stuff that was straight-out illegal.”

That’s when Ferdinand decided to sign his boys up for boxing at the YMCA. “If they have that much energy to spend, they might as well spend it in the right place without hurting anyone,” he told himself.

No one could have predicted what was about to happen, but this decision marked a turning point in Maurice’s life. The only time he would approach the criminal world again was while working as a doorman in private nightclubs.

For the police sergeant, the boxing lessons at the YMCA certainly came as a relief. But for Maurice, this was the beginning of a new life. He would discover the passion of training. Maurice would continue to train throughout his life. Training would open many doors and help him learn many things, but it would also have tragic consequences.

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