About the Author

Bertrand Hébert

Books by this Author
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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Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs

Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs

The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : wrestling
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Accepted

Accepted

How the First Gay Superstar Changed WWE
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook
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Excerpt

Accepted by Pat Patterson

 

Chapter 3: Straight Out of Montréal

When I first started to get paid for wrestling, promoters occasionally paid me by check. Because I was still very young and had no bank account, my dad cashed my checks for me. And, of course, those checks sometimes bounced. He would go crazy, telling me I should quit “that goddamn wrestling” and that people were taking advantage of me. He forced me to get a “real” job.

Well, I soon discovered I wasn’t cut out for traditional employment.

My first job was at a shoe factory. I would pile up boxes of shoes in the warehouse. I stuck it out for six or seven months, before I got pissed at everyone and told them to go to hell.

My dad was mad. “Tabarnak, tu peux pas garder une job.” Goddamn it, you can’t keep a job. He berated me, and I had nothing to say in my defense. I just hated working there.

After that, I went to work in a cookie factory. I lasted a month this time. I needed freedom. My boss was a crazy woman and we had a terrible relationship from the get-go. Cookies weren’t for me either.

I wanted to do what I wanted to do — I couldn’t work in that type of environment where each minute is counted, where no one laughs, and where people blame you to save their own asses. If I hadn’t found wrestling, I might have become a thief or something equally socially unacceptable, just so I could escape and have some fun.

Still, I was a good son and kept looking for the proverbial “real” job. I made at least twenty applications to a cigarette factory called Macdonald, which is still standing in Montréal today. If they hired you, it was for life, and you’d get a great retirement plan. We lived right next door. I went in almost every day to apply. The receptionist would say, “Sir, you just came yesterday.”

“I know, but I really need to get a job here.”

I don’t know if I would have lasted longer than at the other two factories, but at the time it was the job to get because you would be set for life. That being said, I am so glad they never called me back. It was good work, with a good retirement plan, but I would have worked there for thirty-five years and never have made it to where I am today.

Instead, I kept training to become a professional wrestler. And I was learning the business. Sylvio Samson had me help him promote shows on Saturdays; we put posters in every shop window in the city. Sometimes shop owners wanted tickets in exchange, but most of the time they let us do it for free. The first time I saw my name on one of those posters, it got me really excited about my future: Combat préliminaire: Pat Patterson vs. Cyclone Samson.

I always told my family when I was competing, but they never came to see me. I wished they had been there just like they were when my brother was playing hockey. The first time my parents saw me in the ring was many years later in San Francisco. It was quite the shock for them as I picked them up in a Cadillac and brought them to my big house. My mother kept crying in the car because she had never before even sat in a Caddie. And she could not believe my place was actually my house. I was headlining the Cow Palace, the Montréal Forum of San Francisco, at the time . . . But there I go again, getting ahead of myself.

My dad and I kept arguing about me getting a real job. Men didn’t show affection back then, not even fathers and sons. I had nothing in common with him anyway. We never found anything to bond over on any level. The reality was the family was just too big and everyone just wanted to get the hell out as soon as possible. Everyone was always invading everyone else’s space when we were together at home. Dad was strict and I hated all the rules. And I was always looking for affection — that was not his strong point.

The reality, too, was that on a personal level I still really didn’t know who I was. I’d tried going dancing with girls like any other boy, but I knew almost from the start that it wasn’t for me. I never knew why, but girls just weren’t doing it for me, even if I found them cute. I had a friend in my class who was gay. At the time, he knew where the gay tavern was, so we started going there Friday nights. When the waiter spotted us, he told us we were too young, but then he told us to be quiet and sit in the corner. I don’t know why he didn’t kick us out, maybe because he wanted to help. It was quite the sight — everyone in there was cruising me. I was a good-looking young man. After going a few times, I finally met a guy my age — I must’ve been sixteen, closer to seventeen — at this tavern. As they say, he was very good-looking, too. We started talking and one thing led to another.

He brought me to his place because his parents were out of town. It was incredible, and I felt so good afterward. There was tenderness and affection. We were just two people, together, sharing their feelings. It was a strange sentiment. In fact, I couldn’t think straight anymore.

I got back home around 1 a.m.; I had missed my curfew, so every door was locked and I had to ring the doorbell to get in. I knew I would wake up everybody but I didn’t care. My dad was doubly pissed — because I wasn’t home on time and now I’d woken him up — and my mom tried to play peacemaker. While I wasn’t completely drunk, I was still floating on the alcohol I’d had plus the incredible evening I’d experienced. That’s when, with the alcohol helping me muster my courage, I completely opened up.

“I need to tell you something: I think I’m in love.”

My mother was happy for me, telling me how good that was. Then I added that it was another boy who made me feel this way. More than likely it was the buzz speaking for me, but I felt too good to keep it a secret.

My dad was like, “Quoi?” What? “Don’t tell me you have become a tapette?”

I defended myself the best I could. “I’m not a tapette.”

“I won’t have a tapette in my home; you’re going to have to move out.”

My mother started to cry. “Gérard, you can’t do that to our son.”

He snapped: “I can’t have a tapette in my house. What will everyone say?”

This was the turning point. I’d wanted to leave home for the circus but hadn’t had the guts. I knew I had to get the hell out and the sooner the better. My mom ended up winning that argument and I was allowed to stay a little longer, but I had learned that Dad was not ready to share this with me. Things would get smoother as the years went by, but I was in New York before we truly spoke about that night again.

I was working at the shoe factory around that time and I gave all the money I made to my mother. She would give me back a little money, and with that I would go to the tavern. I had found a place where I could be myself, where people understood me, where we would talk until closing time.

Fast-forward a few years to the end of 1960: I was still working for Samson outside the city. The Boston promoter Tony Santos came to Montréal to check out the talent and he brought some people to his territory. One night, I got hold of him on his way out of the matches at Paul Sauvé Arena, on the corner of Beaubien and Pie-IX.

“Me. Talk to you. Want to wrestle for you in Boston. Give me start.”

To which he answered, “Argh, take my card!”

When I think about it now, he was trying to blow me off, but I took that as a yes. There was no stopping me; my mind was made up. I found an old suitcase in the garbage and put everything I owned in there. My mom could not believe I was leaving, but I was. When I finally left, my dad told me he didn’t want me coming back, knocking on his door ever again, and I never did. I promised myself not to. Strangely, that made him mad, even though he was the one who said it in the first place.

I wished I could have spared my mom from all the shit she went through when I left home. I borrowed twenty bucks (a lot of money at the time) from my sister Claudette and left for Boston on a Greyhound bus. I was nineteen years old, had no plan, and barely any money. What was I thinking? I guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t thinking too much, because today I’m glad I left. Little did I know, I was going to meet my soul mate and embark upon a career that, more than fifty years later, I still love.

 

Chapter 10: New York! New York!

As I’ve said, I craved a new challenge. Mike LeBell, the Los Angeles promoter, was good friends with Vince McMahon Sr. He suggested I contact Vince. I called and when Vince explained his plan for me I told him I would be there . . . tomorrow.

“No, no,” he said. “I don’t want any heat. Just wait. I will give you a date when I’ve talked it over with Verne.”

I had met Vince Sr. for the first time a few years earlier in Las Vegas. Roy Shire was never a member of the National Wrestling Alliance but, as a courtesy, every year he was invited to attend their annual general meeting. They were hoping he would change his mind and join them. At very least, it kept relationships good for everyone. One year, Roy brought me with him. But because having a top talent sitting with all those promoters in “important” meetings was awkward, I ended up befriending Vince’s wife, Juanita.

I was all dressed up and waiting for the last meeting of the day to end when I finally said, “We’re not going to wait on them forever. Let’s go to the bar and have some cocktails.”

The promoters’ wives all thought it was a fabulous idea. So we went to the bar and had a blast. I guess I was charming, and I was definitely making them laugh. I don’t know why, but I was always very popular with the ladies. Juanita never got involved with the wrestling business, but I was the exception to the rule. She spoke the world of me to Vince Sr.

When he decided to bring me in a few years later, he planned for me to wrestle Bob Backlund for the World Heavyweight Championship. That was a new and exciting platform: to be in the main event on the grandest stage of them all. Guys who were my size didn’t usually come to New York to challenge for the championship. As I said, I was not contacted directly. Back then, they were very cautious about things like that. That’s something that would change when Vince Jr. took over — but that’s a story for later.

When I first showed up in New York, Vince Sr. asked his right-hand man, Arnold Skaaland, to take care of me and show me around his territory. When André the Giant was on the same card, we traveled together. Talk about getting drunk — we were quite the trio. Arnold could really hold his liquor and even go toe-to-toe with André. He was one of the few who could honestly say that. Arnold could also find a place to buy beer in any town, any day, any time. One time, we drove up to a house in the middle of nowhere and I was sure we were just dropping in on a friend. No, he knew we could buy beers there. Those were the days: he had been in the territory for years, yet I was still impressed. I had been in San Francisco for close to fifteen years and I could not have done the same thing. Later on I did my best to take care of Skaaland, who was always afraid of being kicked to the curb by “the kid.” (That’s what he called Vince Jr.)

“I don’t want them to forget me,” he’d say.

“Don’t worry, you’re part of the family,” I’d reply.

I made sure that if he wanted to come on a tour, we always had a place for him. He was a true friend, and I appreciated what he did for me when I first came to New York.

As usual, Louie followed me into a new adventure. He never tried to involve himself in how I was used by a promoter or anything like that. He was just never into it. Some of the wrestlers or promoters were as much his friend as mine, but he had a rule: he never discussed the business. His line was always the same: “I didn’t see your match.” That way he’d never have to comment.

This might have been part of the reason that Louie was so popular among my peers. One time, André wanted to throw a big party in his home in the Carolinas. He invited Vince Sr., Eddie Graham, and Jim Barnett — all the big shots in the business were invited. I was also invited to attend, but I could not understand why. I still can’t figure it out, except André wanted me to be there with Louie. I was the only wrestler present besides the Giant. I wish I could have thanked him for being such a good friend to me and Louie.

Louie was not only popular with the wrestlers. Before heading home from André’s party, Vince Sr. asked us what we were planning to do, so we told them we were going to drive straight back to New York. Out of the blue, Vince’s wife invited us to spend the night at their beach house in Maryland. Later Vince Sr. came and said to me, “I don’t know what’s going on. We never have wrestlers at the house. Never. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you guys are coming, I’m just surprised she invited you.”

We went to their house, which was beautiful, and then headed out for dinner. Louie and Juanita talked while Vince and I discussed business. She loved to read, and she got Louie going about books. They could both talk a mile a minute. We had a wonderful evening. Before going to bed, Louie said that he was looking forward to her cooking us all a nice breakfast. She answered that she didn’t cook anything for anybody. Louie started in on her, joking in his way: “Well then, you’re not a really good hostess . . .”

I didn’t pay much attention to their conversation, and me and Vince were having a nightcap. Anyway, wouldn’t you know it, the next morning Mrs. McMahon was cooking breakfast for us. Isn’t that something?

I think we were different from a lot of people in the business; I wasn’t obsessed with wrestling, and Louie was a real gentleman who could talk for hours about anything and everything. It must have turned the image she had of wrestlers on its head. Vince Sr. also loved Louie just as much as anyone who ever met him.

The best story of them all, for me, happened a few months later when we were visiting Florida. Vince Sr. found out we were there and he invited us, as well as my manager, the Grand Wizard Ernie Roth, to join him on his boat. Vince had an incredible house by the canal and there he was, the biggest wrestling promoter in the country, out on the ocean with his three gay friends. That blew my mind. The 1980s were just around the corner and being gay was still not easy. All four of us went out to dinner after that. It’s amazing, and it’s the truth.

We would just enjoy ourselves and hardly talked about wrestling when we did something like go sailing together. I think Vince appreciated that I could talk about something besides business. Louie was good for me in that regard — he always kept me grounded in reality outside the wrestling world.

As I mentioned, when I came to New York in 1979, they wanted me to wrestle the champion, Bob Backlund. I challenged him for the title a record four times in a row at Madison Square Garden. It had never been done before and has never been done since. Back then, if you didn’t draw at the Garden, you wouldn’t stay in a main-event program no matter what the original storyline plan might have been. The champion would remain in place, of course, but they would move on to the next challenger. That’s how it worked. Vince Sr. liked my first match with Backlund so much we ended up having three return bouts.

The third match with Backlund along with the famous match with Slaughter I had later were my greatest moments as a wrestler. WWE has everything on tape except that third match with Backlund, and I’ve always been disappointed about that. In my humble opinion, we came up with one of the very best endings for a match ever. The old man — that’s how I sometimes refers to Vince Sr. — wanted a third match after I had won the first match by disqualification and the second by count-out. Backlund had never lost a match at that point and he had now lost two in a row. For the third match, it was decided there would be no winner.

It was my big chance — not a lot of main-event rivalries made it to a third bout in those days.

At MSG, managers would retreat to the dressing room after the introductions, because they got so much heat from the crowd and it often led to trouble, sometimes even rioting. We got special permission for our managers to be ringside that night. The Grand Wizard would be there for me and Arnold Skaaland would be in Bob’s corner. As the main-event bad guy at MSG, you exited the building hidden in an ambulance, and the driver dropped you off at your hotel. This procedure was put in place after a car was turned upside down by the crowd. On that night, we all knew that the managers’ presence at ringside was like throwing a match into a powder keg, and I truly hoped it wouldn’t explode.

Near the end of the match, I started to reach into my tights for the brass knuckles I’d hidden. Skaaland got on the apron to signal my cheating to the ref, and then the Grand Wizard jumped up as well. Of course, that distracted the referee who was busy telling both men to get down from the ring. I hit Backlund with the knucks and knocked him out cold. I went to nail Skaaland next, but he ducked and hit me with the championship he carried for Bob. So there we were, both the babyface champion and the heel contender side by side in the middle of the ring, out cold. The ref began counting us out, very slowly, hoping one of us would get to our feet before a count of ten.

By the time he got to six, the building was shaking. I was sure the roof was gonna come off — the fans wanted Backlund to start moving that bad. Everyone went on an emotional roller-coaster ride and the crowd was almost as tired as we were when the referee finally counted both of us out. After that, we had to have a final and fourth match, and I finally lost in a cage. But now that I think back, Bob Backlund never pinned me for a count of one-two-three . . . Isn’t that something?

In the middle of this series with Backlund, I was actually crowned the first ever Intercontinental Champion — this also meant I was the first Intercontinental Champion to challenge the World Champion. That reminds me: the Intercontinental Championship . . . I won it in Rio de Janeiro. Which surprises me, because for some reason I don’t remember ever going there. But since I am indeed the first Intercontinental Champion, and the internet says I won a tournament in Rio to be crowned the first champion, I must have been there for at least one night, right? It must have been one hell of a party with Arnold Skaaland and André the Giant if I don’t remember any of it.

After all of these trials and tribulations, Vince Sr. finally offered me the position of color commentator for televised matches and had me doing interviews ringside.

On TV, as a rib, they had me say “Rio de Janeiro” as much as possible because I never could say it quite right. Sometimes they would tease me even more and make me do a five-minute interview with a wrestler who only spoke Spanish . . . Vince Sr. would shake his head and tell me it was no good.

“Yeah, but you had me do it.”

So, I had become an announcer and I was now even a good guy. The Wizard had sold my contract to Lou Albano and we had a falling-out. It made my return to the Garden a big deal. I was already working as an agent at that point, because they wanted to keep me around without having me wrestling every week. They knew I could tell our audience the stories we needed to tell on television. And they didn’t even care about my accent, because Bruno was worse than me. And before Bruno, it was Antonino Rocca, so I was really an improvement. OK, we were all shit . . .

Let me tell you, when WWE inducted Bruno Sammartino into the Hall of Fame in 2013, I was very happy. Reconnecting with him had been a long time coming, and it was fun to sit together for two hours, reminiscing. We were both happy that all the bullshit of the past was finally behind us. Whenever we see each other now, we have a blast — I tell him all my old jokes and we laugh our asses off. When I was working with Backlund in 1979, Bruno was still hot in Boston and he requested that I work with him there, instead of Backlund. He ended up losing by count-out against me — and Bruno would never lose. I truly appreciated him doing that, and I still remember it as if it was yesterday.

Perhaps the most famous match I had in WWE, however, was against Sgt. Slaughter. When it happened, I was a full-time commentator and he was doing his $5,000 Cobra Clutch Challenge. The story of his challenge went like this: he would invite a wrestler into the ring and promise that if he could escape his sleeper hold, he’d earn the five grand. Of course, no one could break the hold. Sarge was managed by my former manager, the Grand Wizard, and he was the biggest bully in the business. Anyway, I was doing an interview with both of them after an opponent had just fled in fear. One thing led to another and then Slaughter slapped me, calling me “yellow.” (I had refused the challenge for weeks because I considered myself retired — even though Sarge was offering me $10,000, twice as much as a regular challenger. I figured I had nothing to prove.) Naturally, I got mad at being disrespected like that, so I challenged him to go right then and there. I took off my jacket, shirt, and tie, and I let him put the Cobra Clutch on me — and the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy. I fought like crazy, with maneuvers people had never seen, to get out of that sleeper. Knowing I was finally about to break his dreaded hold, he released it and then proceeded to hit me with a chair. People were freaking out. He picked up my bloodied body and put on the Cobra Clutch once again. I went completely out. He refused to release the hold even when others climbed into the ring to try to make him stop. It was quite an eventful evening and the WWE Universe clamored for revenge. (By the way, technically, Sarge never paid me for breaking the hold. With interest, I think I’m owed quite a bit of money today.)

We had the inevitable confrontation after that on April 6, 1981, at the Garden and then we toured our rivalry around the territory . . . No rulebook could keep us in check and we were both disqualified.

Our big night at MSG came on May 4, 1981. It was booked as an Alley Fight, and there was no referee in the ring with us. I won after repeatedly hitting a bloodied Slaughter with my cowboy boot, and the Wizard finally threw in the towel on Slaughter’s behalf. We won a bunch of awards that year for best match, and it also captured the imagination of the WWE universe for years to come. There is not a lot about the matches of that era that I remember, but these few are really special to me. Stories about what happened outside of the arenas — well, that’s what I look back on most fondly. There’s plenty of them, and they all still make me laugh.

I hurt my knee while working in New York, doing the same backflip over the turnbuckle I’d done a thousand times before. I needed surgery — I was getting older and my body was letting me know it. Luckily, I didn’t miss a lot of time, only about two weeks, because the procedure was arthroscopic.

Anyway, two days after I left the hospital, I got a call.

“Hello, sir, it’s Dr. Lewis.”

I could not remember if this was the doctor who had operated on me, because I had seen two. He said he had worked on my leg.

“I have to tell you something; we need you to come back to the hospital.”

“Why?”

“You see, sir, we left something in your knee during the surgery. It will take only twenty minutes and everything will be fine.”

I was really pissed.

“How could this happen, doc? What time should I be there tomorrow?”

“About ten should be fine.”

“But I can’t believe you screwed up like this, doc . . .”

The doctor burst out laughing — it was actually a friend of mine pulling a joke on me. I was relieved. If he hadn’t blown his cover, I would have gone to the hospital the next day for sure. “Dr. Lewis” was, in fact, WWE Hall of Famer Arnold Skaaland. That didn’t happen to me too often; I usually was the one pulling the pranks.

We were working a show in Portland, Maine, on a Sunday afternoon. Most of us were going straight back to Boston, I was driving the van and André was in the back near the big sliding door. I told him there was another car with some wrestlers just in front of us and when we passed them, we’d moon them. André was always in for a good laugh.

“OK, boss.”

So he opened the door, turned his ass toward the outside, unzipped his pants, and asked me to let him know when we were ready.

As André exposed his giant ass for the whole world to see, I blew the car’s horn. But, of course, it wasn’t a car full of wrestlers. It was an elderly couple in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was fucking mad. I’m still laughing about this one. Sorry, André.

Rene Goulet was a funny guy and a fellow Quebecer. He was another Mad Dog protégé and worked with me as a producer for WWE. We had a show in Hartford once, on another Sunday afternoon, and it was still day when we got on the highway to head back home to Stamford. We hit some major traffic and we weren’t moving. That’s when Goulet said, “J’ai envie de caca.” For those of you who don’t speak French, that means that my friend needed to go . . . now. But there was nowhere for him to go. Poor Rene. “I have to go now; I can’t hold it anymore. I’m going to do it in my pants.”

I told him to take a deep breath and be patient; we were nearing an exit. He kept telling me that he wasn’t going to be able to wait that long. At some point, he grabbed some Kleenex I had in the car and ordered me to stop the car right there. I pulled over on the side of the road and he jumped out, dropped his pants, and let nature take its course. Well by now, I hope you’ve figured out what my next move was going to be. Yes, of course, I drove off and left him all by his lonesome with his pants around his ankles. Everybody was honking their horns at him. When he was done he began to run after me, faster than a speeding bullet. I think he was even madder than André. But I would never have forgiven myself if I had missed that opportunity.

At one point, Verne Gagne began running opposition to Roy Shire. Verne was putting shows on in Oakland, and Roy had limited himself to San Francisco. Verne even took over the television in the Bay Area. I was in New York, but Verne was using Bockwinkel and Stevens in an attempt to hurt Roy and take over his cities. A week before Roy’s annual battle royal, Verne announced his own battle royal in the same market. He called Vince Sr. to have me in Oakland.

I was happy with the booking — I was going to see Ray, Nick, Greg Gagne, and Bobby Heenan, while getting paid to make a trip to California. As soon as my name was advertised, Roy Shire called Vince Sr.

“You motherfucker, you let fucking Patterson work for fucking Verne Gagne! I have my own battle royal a week after. Now I’ve got to have Patterson as well.”

Senior came to me and said, “You have to do me a big favor. You have to stay down there and work for Roy Shire in his battle royal after Verne’s show. He’s mad because I let you go.”

I said no, I’m not doing it. I was still mad about how things ended between Roy and me.

Vince Sr. then said, “You can’t do that to me. Roy’s screaming. You’ve got to go. Please?”

Reluctantly I said yes, on the condition that I would be paid in full before I even showed up. As far as I knew, Roy was still mad at me for leaving and I didn’t want him to screw with my money for revenge. I went and wrestled the battle royal in Oakland for Verne, and a week later I entered the battle royal for Roy in San Francisco. It was the last battle royal Roy ever ran.

And you won’t believe who won that match.

Yes. It was me.

I wrestled for opposing promoters in the same market one week apart.

Despite all of that shit we went through together, Roy and I, he was a smart man. Maybe he was still mad at me, but he gave the fans what they wanted to see.

 

Even my father had accepted who I was. Still, we had never discussed the issue between us since I’d left for Boston all those years ago. Now that I was living in New York, it meant I was just a few hours away from him again. For a good part of my life, I had been under the impression that my dad loved my brother Normand and that was it. But early in my run in New York, Louie and I had my dad over. I flew him to New Jersey and took him to Madison Square Garden. And then I arranged to sit and talk with him, one-on-one. It wasn’t an argument — I just calmly let him know how I felt when I was young. I just let it all out, in a nice way. We both cried and we held hands and hugged. And then I reached into my pocket and I gave him a nice little diamond ring. And oh my God, he cried like a baby. I had never seen my father cry . . . Damn, it felt good to let that burden go.

When I lost him on March 4, 1981, it didn’t register the way it did when I lost my mother. I saw him in the hospital, and then the family left to get something to eat and when we came back, he was gone. At the end, he was still the same: a very stern man. He was hard-headed and he always would be. I wish he were here to read this today. We ran out of the time we needed to get close, but at least we had closure.

On the business front, I was wrestling less and less. My friend Gorilla Monsoon was in charge of television and Lord Alfred Hayes worked as a commentator, so I kept working behind the scenes with my friends. On top of my duties as a commentator, Vince Sr. asked me to go on the road full-time as a producer. He needed someone to be in charge of the show, someone he could trust. I enjoyed that very much, and when George Scott quit, I moved up to working in the office . . . But that’s a story for later.

I think I had my last matches (until the Attitude Era and the stooges stuff I did with Gerald Brisco) around 1987, when I worked some of the WWE shows in Montréal. On August 31, 1987, I had a match against Brutus Beefcake with Mr. T as the referee at the Montréal Forum. It seemed like a fitting end to my active career, wrestling in the city where my dream had started almost thirty years before. And Mr. T was a big star. Not too bad for a local boy like me. (I lost some hair in that one, though.) The attendance was 14,624. Not bad either.

I wrestled all the top wrestlers in our business, so I must have been good, right? Being gay never had anything to do with it. It just meant I had to work harder and laugh in the face of abuse. I’m proud of the fact that I always left a territory of my own accord: I was never given notice.

That young kid from Montréal who loved wrestling had been in the main event at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and that still means something to me. When the old man thanked me and told me how good my matches with Backlund and Slaughter were, in my mind I knew everything had been worth it.

Sure enough, the wrestling business was not done with me. I was about to start the second part of my career, the one that is apparently never going to end. But before I get into that, I have a few more stories I want to share with you about my travels.

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