Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Greatest and Wrestling “Extras:” Dave Meltzer comments on connection between Muhammad Ali and Gorgeous George

Dave Meltzer, publisher and editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and probably the most well-known journalist covering wrestling, has been nice enough to give mention to both of the larger pieces I have done so far for my blog in the “Updates” section of his website F4WOnline.com. After attaching a link to the latest one (The Greatest and Wrestling), he commented:

Everyone always talks about Ali learning from Gorgeous George.  The week in question was a show in Las Vegas where George vs. Fred Blassie was the main event that sold out the same building Ali drew only a few hundred people at for a real fight.  Ali's interview style is so much more patterned about Blassie than George that I've always been skeptical, although Ali was at the show and people say he was backstage with George.  When Blassie was put together with Ali for Japanese and American purposes as his manager and Ali saw him, he immediately thought he was Gorgeous George that he learned his interviews from.  In 1976, Ali publicly claimed he learned interviews by watching Blassie, after always saying George before that time.  After 1976, Ali went back to saying George while Blassie always claimed it was him.  And Blassie's friends always spoke that it was a given it was Blassie.

Further scouring the internet for information, I found this fan report from a 1991 Freddie Blassie appearance in Boston:

He said that it was he, and not Gorgeous George, that Muhammad Ali patterned his act after. He said that Ali went to a wrestling match on a night that Blassie had sold out the place, just 3 days after Ali had drawn 1/3 capacity in the same arena. A few days later, Ali asked a sportswriter about the guy he had seen fighting in the arena a few days before. The sportswriter assumed that it was Gorgeous George and told Ali that. Ali believed him. When Blassie heard Ali talk about the night that he saw this wrestler, Blassie knew that it was he and not George that Ali had seen (according to Blassie, George really couldn't speak too well). When Blassie told Ali that it was he who Ali had seen, Ali agreed that he was right. Ali and Blassie became friends; Blassie was even in Ali's corner for his "fight" against Antonio Inoki. For a while, said Blassie, Ali did change his story and admitted that it was Blassie who influenced him, not George, but then Ali either started getting a little forgetful or just never bothered to correct people when they said George.

Could it have been Freddie Blassie selling wrestling at that Las Vegas radio station in June 1961?

While I am incredibly intrigued by just the whole theory of this, I still think the influence being Gorgeous George has at least a few things going for it. As Meltzer mentioned, it has been reported over and over that the two were backstage together after the card (and that they'd met at a radio station beforehand, something Blassie does not mention in his version of events). There’s also the very simple fact that Ali only really credited Blassie during the short period he was working so closely with him. Unless I’m mistaken, many of these accounts (at least the verifying of them) come from John Capouya, Gorgeous George’s biographer. Capouya conducted research that included interviews with George’s first wife, Betty.

Back to the other side, George’s meeting with Ali would have been ten years after he had divorced Betty Hanson. Capouya also felt it necessary to include in his “About the Author” for Harper Collins that, “he knew nothing of wrestling and didn’t see his first pro match until he became intrigued by the story of Gorgeous George.” I read the book and thought that apparent disinterest showed, so who knows how far past the hearsay he really looked.

I suppose I had blinders on to a degree myself. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t include something about this opinion on the matter and Blassie’s claims in the piece. Then again, this kind of stuff is one of the reasons I write in the first place: to get a conversation going, find out new things about wrestling and learn.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Greatest and Wrestling

“You ever see the wrasslers? How there’s always a good wrassler, and a bad one? And he sticks his finger in his eye, and the guy shakes it off. In two minutes, his eyes clear up. And he sticks it in again, and he hits his back….and everybody hate him. He’ll win the first round. And in the second round, the good fella wins and that’s what everybody come to see: the bad villain be beat up. I like to be the villain.”
-Muhammad Ali

It is the fourth week of June 1961. Two athletes who are starkly different for the moment, but won’t be for long, are on the bill for a popular radio station in Las Vegas. Their careers have come to a fitting intersection, both of them there to promote their latest endeavors which will take place at the same building just three nights apart. One of them, young, fit, if somewhat reserved, stands off to the side. He is mesmerized the same as everyone else in the room by what he sees and hears. At the microphone, the other, older, heavier, but not lost on animation, is in the midst of a bombastic tirade. He yells endlessly of his superiority to the listeners at home. He is a television icon, one of the highest paid sports figures in the country, and he knows what he is doing as he uses his mouth to fill the Las Vegas Convention Center. Back standing in the wings, the younger man can only imagine what would happen to him should he ever be so brash. He had done everything by the book, achieved things in competitive sports that this loudmouth probably couldn’t imagine, and he was only halfway welcome in his own hometown. Then the interview finishes and the station goes off air, and “Gorgeous” George Wagner, a 46-year-old who will drink himself to death in less than three years, takes a breath, gets up, and invites Olympic champion Cassius Clay to a wrestling show.

------------------------------------------------                     ----------------------------------------------

The boxing event at the Convention Center in Las Vegas on June 26, 1961 went pretty much as planned. In his seventh pro fight, Cassius Clay cruised to a unanimous decision victory over 15-11-1 Hawaiian journeyman Duke Sabedong. There was a first round KO on the undercard, Sabedong made things at least a bit tense by once hitting on the break, and the mostly tame crowd at the Convention Center did get a peek at a planned future champion, but it was an overall uneventful night at the fights.

The wrestling show three nights earlier was a spectacle. Clay was there as a fan. In the main event, he watched as a raucous, much larger crowd screamed for Gorgeous George’s head while he and Freddie Blassie wrestled to a draw. The two larger-than-life stars manipulated the emotions of the packed house with their every expression. But that’s not all Clay saw that night. He saw the Torres Brothers, Alberto and Ramon, minorities like himself, welcomed by thousands as fan favorites. He saw the “Zebra Kid” George Bollas, a legitimate NCAA wrestling champion, don striped spandex and a full mask - whatever it took to stand apart. His eyes were opened to a world in which if you evoked emotion, positive or negative and for any reason, you were worth something. Backstage after the matches, “Gorgeous” drove the point home by telling the gold medalist the secrets of the trade to his face, "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous."

Also on the card the night a young Cassius Clay  went to  see Gorgeous George.

It may have been have been Muhammad Ali’s most influential experience with professional wrestling, but it certainly wasn’t his first. Victor Bender has been a friend of Ali’s since they were 12-year-old classmates in Louisville.

“He was fan” remembered Bender. “Of course, he loved wrestling, and I liked wrestling. Wrestling was heavy in Louisville, Kentucky at one time.”

The Columbia Gym, the very place Muhammad Ali was introduced to boxing in 1954, was a haven for pro wrestling throughout much of his childhood. Promoter Heywood Allen, and later Francis McDonough Jr., ran shows there and at the Jefferson County Armory in the 1940’s and 50’s – both venues less than four miles away from Ali’s childhood home. Featured wrestlers included Bill Longston, Bobby Managoff Jr., Lou Thesz, Freddie Blassie, Primo Carnera, “Whipper” Billy Watson, Vic Christy, Mae Young, and “Negro Champion” Buddy Jackson.

Nowadays, most are probably familiar with Ali’s boisterous 1974 quip, “I done something new for this fight: I done wrestled with an alligator.” What they may not know is that five days after the champ’s fifth birthday, Gil Woodworth caused quite a stir in the Louisville area, drawing almost 8,000 people to the Armory to in fact watch him wrestle against a live, seven foot long alligator.

Bender couldn’t specifically recall the two of them ever attending one of these big events but offered, “That might have been something our parents would’ve brought us to.” They would have had plenty of opportunities. In addition to their proximity to the buildings, a card on December 18, 1947 headlined by Bill Longston versus the Volga Boatman let the first five hundred neighborhood children in for free. A few years later, the Louisville Police ran a wildly successful benefit wrestling show headlined by Lou Thesz versus Enrique Torres that welcomed in another 500 orphans and underprivileged children as their guests.

Distance from Ali's childhood home to the Columbia Gym, where he was introduced to boxing by a local police officer in 1954. The Columbia Gym also frequently hosted wrestling events in the 1940's and 50's. 

If Gorgeous George was a revolution in wrestling, a similar force in boxing was bound to follow. The two avenues have a long interconnected history, and Muhammad Ali is far from the first pugilist to have a reverence for wrestling not shared by many of his sport’s non-competing enthusiasts. Whether it be as special referee, training partner, wrestler, or performer, the list of boxers that have done pro wrestling includes Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, “Jersey” Joe Walcott, Primo Carnera, Leon Spinks, Chuck Wepner, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, and Floyd Mayweather. 

Most of these athletes have expressed having a passion for wrestling even away from it paying them. There exists a mutual respect between fighters and wrestlers that has survived professional wrestling evolving to be a hybrid of sport and theater. In any sport, there is the fight and there is the show, and it seems that when an athlete’s body becomes their business, as it did for Ali most especially when he started talking, respect grows immensely for the latter. So it is that the fighter is respected for the rawness of his fight, and the pro wrestler for the keenness of his show.

After that weekend in Las Vegas, Muhammad Ali took his rawness and keenness and became the biggest star boxing has ever seen. Much of what he did during this time was more “pro wrestling” than it was boxing. He started calling rounds and writing his opponents poems. He fell in love with microphones and, just like Gorgeous George before him, boasted of his good looks and started giving enticing ultimatums (George: “If I lose, I'll crawl across the ring and cut my hair off!” Ali: “If this bum goes over five rounds, I won’t return to the United States for thirty days. That’s final!”). He always thought the race war was a money angle. During the lead up to his 1975 fight against Chuck Wepner, he found time to approach his real life challenger privately and suggest, “I want you to call me a nigger.”

The Human Orchid himself.

The original professional wrestling was almost destined to come back into Ali’s life at some point. How exactly it came about - and really every detail there afterward - is both murky and perpetually disputed, but the year was 1976.

After two heavyweight crowns and four mega-fights, Ali was running through a string of tomato cans and, perhaps looking to land himself another, made the characteristic offhand comment to some Japanese officials, “Isn’t there any oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.” The challenge got back to the Far East and blew up in their press. But in Japan, the fighter with the money and the name to actually make it happen wasn’t a boxer – he was a professional wrestler.

Antonio Inoki was a student of Rikidozan, who was to some extent the equivalent of Gorgeous George in Japan (in the way of the era he wrestled in and popularizing the sport, not flamboyance). As a wrestler, Inoki was a hero to the Japanese people and every bit as revered in his country as Ali was in the United States. He was also always a go-getter and trailblazing promoter. Fired from one Japanese wrestling organization in 1971 for planning a takeover, he started his own, New Japan Pro Wrestling, which is today the most prominent wrestling company in the country. He also brought the first pro wrestling cards to the Soviet Union, Taiwan, China, and North Korea. If Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan are two sides of the same coin in America, Antonio Inoki is on both sides of the coin in Japan.

Inoki pursued a match with Ali relentlessly. Eventually, his backers came up with six million dollars (and another four million for Inoki) that did the trick. The match was set for June 26, 1976 in Tokyo, Japan. Unfortunately for the history books, everybody wants to be a part of a ten million dollar professional wrestling match.

In addition to Inoki’s entourage and financial backers, and the Nation of Islam on Ali’s side, there was Bob Arum promoting for Ali, Vince McMahon Jr. brought in to make up for what Arum didn’t know about promoting professional wrestling specifically, and a contingent from McMahon’s rival American Wrestling Association who would also assist in the promotion. Amongst them, to this day, nobody can really tell you what happened with Muhammad Ali versus Antonio Inoki.

What did transpire on June 26 (June 25 in the United States) was not a traditional pro wrestling match, and is widely talked about as a black eye on Muhammad Ali’s legacy. The best, most credible, most believable accounts go something like this:

For the duration of the build-up, at least Muhammad Ali was under the impression that he had signed up for professional wrestling – albeit he was to play the “boxer.” It would be pro wrestling in the spirit of what Gorgeous George or Bill Longston had performed. Then, on the day or days leading up to the match, things changed. Someone got cold feet. One party had second thoughts.

One report has it that Antonio Inoki had never planned anything to be “faked” from the minute he saw Ali’s challenge, and that this only became apparent when Ali approached and asked, “When’s rehearsal?” Another suggests that Ali had agreed to a plan, and then at the last minute either he or his backers decided he couldn’t go through with it and that a fight was the only way to go. All the confusion led to two separate camps desperately trying to protect the images of the proud men they represented rather than work together to put on the show they had promised. Supposedly, rules were haphazardly thrown together for a legitimate “mixed match.”

These rules, of course, severely limited what the man going up against the American Heavyweight Boxing Champion could do. Ali the boxer could box, but Inoki the wrestler could not wrestle. The result was a bout that saw Antonio Inoki lie on his back for fifteen rounds and viciously kick up at Ali’s legs. Muhammad Ali threw six punches. The fight, which was deemed a draw, was a dud, and both the live crowd and those watching on close-circuit television around the world walked away unhappy.

Had dealings been left to just Ali and Inoki (and perhaps Vince McMahon Jr., who at one point allegedly drew up a plan for the match that won Ali over), it is possible that, not only the match itself could have been entertaining, but the whole saga could not be as widely viewed as an embarrassment all these years later. Because in the whole confusing period, one thing was actually pretty clear to see: Muhammad Ali was having fun.

Muhammad Ali, "Classy" Freddie Blassie, and a young Vince McMahon Jr.

When asked what “The Champ” was really like, corner man and friend Drew Bundini Brown once replied simply and definitively, “like a big kid.” He seemed to exude this childlike nature more genuinely in his pro wrestling appearances than he ever did at the podium selling fights. He rarely ever conceded being beatable in boxing, even after losses, but after riling up one WWWF crowd in Philadelphia, he allowed the massive Gorilla Monsoon to pick him up, give him the airplane spin, and slam him to the mat where he then laid dazed and in defeat as the crowd went wild.

In addition to the public confrontation with Monsoon, Ali had two exhibition “boxer vs. wrestler” matches, and made numerous appearances with wrestlers during the lead up to the match with Inoki. Kenny Jay, a mainstay in the American Wrestling Association throughout the 1970’s, was Ali’s opponent for one of those exhibitions. He insists that on the night of that match (which he describes as the highlight of his career), he showed up, got knocked out by Ali, took some time in the dressing room, and then left, and was only ever face to face with The Champ in the ring. Even still, in that short span Ali’s passion was obvious.

“Yeah, you could (tell he loved wrestling)” said Jay. “He did really hit it off with Freddie Blassie, who became his manager. The other one I saw him with a lot was Dick ‘The Bruiser.’”

“Classy” Freddie Blassie did in fact serve as Ali’s manager and coach during much of this period (because, as Ali was fond of saying, “he wrote the book on dirt.”). He was also a figure that appeared in every stage of Muhammad Ali’s fascination with pro wrestling, from wrestling mere blocks from the heavyweight champion’s childhood home, to that influential card in Las Vegas, to appearing with him on talk shows to help hype the bout in Japan. In Joe Frazier, Ali met a match in the ring, but he never found one on the mic – in boxing, at least. Thus the reason it was ever more striking to watch Ali have to turn his face from the cameras and host of the Tonight Show McLean Stevenson (guest hosting for Johnny Carson) in order to not be seen cracking up as Blassie went on and on, unflinchingly, much the same as the great heavyweight had seen done once before at a certain radio station in Las Vegas.

Muhammad Ali was a perfect fit in this parallel universe, and by all accounts he loved every minute of being there.

Then with the Inoki match it ended, and it was back to the cruelest sport once more.

Whether ultimately real or worked, Muhammad Ali’s legs took a real, serious beating in the fight with Inoki. Many pundits theorize now that it took something from the rest of his boxing career, that he was never the same, and they lazily tie this unfortunate occurrence to pro wrestling. It is as if to say that had he not signed on for something as ridiculous as a wrestling sideshow in the first place, he would have been a better fighter for his next few fights, or further, he would not have taken quite the same level of punishment he did in the final stage of his career. This is a perverse argument, because it wasn’t pro wrestling that got his legs kicked to shreds. In fact, quite the opposite, it was the same type of foolish pride that resulted in him not being able to cut a wrestling promo today.

Ali’s boxing career stretched another five years, in which time he lost his titled, regained it for an unprecedented third time, retired, and then came back, before retiring again. The end, as it often times is, was ugly. He made no appearances in pro wrestling during this period.

If sporadically, he has kept up an association since his retirement from the ring. In 1985, he gladly accepted the call from the man introduced to him by Bob Arum nine years before, Vince McMahon Jr., to be a special guest referee for the inaugural WrestleMania and its main event of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T versus “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. During the match, he was as enthusiastic as ever as he once more jumped up into the ring, bounced around, worked the crowd, and took swings at the bad guys.

He made several appearances for World Championship Wrestling in the 1990’s, including sitting ringside for the Hulk Hogan versus Ric Flair “retirement” steel cage match in 1994. He appeared with Diamond Dallas Page for the cover of their magazine in 1998.

Muhammad Ali also continues a lifelong friendship with - of all people - Antonio Inoki. In 1995, Ali was again ringside for pro wrestling when Inoki brought him to the card he had put together for Kim Jong-Il’s Pyongyang International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. The wrestling portion saw nearly 400,000 people (over two nights) forced to attend by the North Korean government – the largest audience for wrestling ever. Three years later, Inoki invited his old foe to his retirement match and the two embraced in the ring after Inoki had disposed of Don Frye.

Old friends.

Now as Muhammad Ali enters his seventies, timelines are being composed of everything “The Greatest” ever did – who he fought, what he said, his views on race, his cultural impact, his work for peace, etc. His time in professional wrestling should not be overlooked. It sparked him to talk, which made him a hero. And more intimately, no one should discount the things that are important to important people.

“He learned from some of the wrestlers how to entertain” finished friend Bender. “He became very active and vocal about selling boxing like the wrestlers sell wrestling.”

Indeed, he did. Muhammad Ali took a lot from professional wrestling, and gave a lot back, too. For many, this counterpart to sports, this pageantry as a means for promotion, Gorgeous George and his strut, will never be anything more than a lowly carnival act. Fans of how big fights got in the seventies, or Muhammad Ali the character, however, are in this case simply just forced to tip their caps. Such is the legacy of The Greatest and Wrestling.

Acknowledgments: I owe a big thanks to both Victor Bender and Kenny Jay, who were gracious enough to talk with me about Muhammad Ali and pro wrestling. The historical pieces of the work were only made possible by J. Michael Kenyon's cataloging of wrestling results and Tim Hornbaker and his awesome website LegacyofWrestling.com.

The following web addresses were also crucial to the completion of this post:


As with any of the posts here on the blog, please feel free to e-mail me any comments, suggestions, information, or just to talk wrestling at heartpunchwrestling@yahoo.com. Also follow me at Twitter.com/ElliottMarquis for updates on upcoming stories.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wrestling and Hockey Collide on Cape Cod "Extras"

Thanks to everyone that wrote to me or gave a favorable review of the Cape Cod Buccaneers piece. Here are some cool things I found while researching the topic that I wasn't able to fit in anywhere else….

The beginning (1972), and the end. Today the old Coliseum serves as a receiving warehouse for two companies.

Readers may have noticed from the team photo that, yes, the Bucs did in fact have a mascot. The Buccaneer, Jay Nolan, doubled as Vince McMahon's first ever PR director.

Wrestling runs at the Coliseum on August 3, 1979, just four months after McMahon takes over. Andre the Giant and Chief Jay Strongbow versus the Valiant Brothers is the feature attraction. Other matches include Greg Valentine versus Bob Backlund (WWF Champion), Steve Travis versus Bulldog Brower, and the Fabulous Moolah and Kitty Adams versus Vivian St. John and Joyce Grable. The fact that the writer focused a great deal on Andre's size and pro football offer, as well as getting in the obligatory, "Many people think that wrestling is a form of acting," might suggest to you that he wasn't the biggest fan of pro wrestling. Just wait.

Globe Trotters brought in to the Cape Cod Coliseum, December 10, 1979. 

Here's an interesting one. Vince McMahon continues to play around with close circuit television/pay-per-view during his time on the Cape. This advertisement appears as an aside in an article about Marvin Haggler preparing for an October 3, 1981 bout against Mustafa Hamsho. Haggler made famous training for his fights in the seclusion of Provincetown, MA.

Here it is, "a subliminal suggestion." Can you imagine if something like this was written today?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wrestling and Hockey Collide on Cape Cod

(These documentary-style features are what I aim to be the real "bread and butter" of the website. The human interest story should have a place in wrestling, and I lead today with one that really interested me personally, the story of Vince McMahon's little-known hockey franchise)

It often takes the inventive a few tries to find exactly their “schtick.”

Vince McMahon, Chairman, CEO, and founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, made his millions promoting wrestling, something he was born into, and born to change. The same creativity, though, that inspired him to introduce Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and the other larger-than-life characters that would eventually take wrestling out of small arenas and into being the perennial box-office smash it is today, also led, and continue to lead, him down other avenues. Over the years, he’s tried his hand at promoting the motorcycle jumps of Evil Knievel, boxing, bodybuilding, football, and movies, amongst other things.

It is unlikely his main passion has ever been anything but pro wrestling and the universe he has created – at least for any extended amount of time. Even still, knowing the creative mind rarely sees past the venture it is within, one must wonder about those times where, even if for just a passing moment, McMahon saw himself as the future of, not the squared circle, but the gridiron; not Slammys, but Oscars. By this way of thinking, the early eighties for Vince McMahon would mean those brief seconds in which he may have contemplated himself the next big name….in professional hockey.

It may sound crazy – it is not well known – but before the WBF or the XFL, before fetching Terry “The Hulk” Boulder from Minneapolis to be his wrestling champion, McMahon was striking deals and drawing up contracts with Paul Mooney, Harry Sinden, and the brass of the Boston Bruins. Using the B’s, he created such momentum on the small, scarcely-populated peninsula where he and his young family made their home from 1979 until he bought the then World Wrestling Federation from his father in 1982, that they in consequence eventually landed a hockey team of their own.

A fuzzy photograph of Andre the Giant, some local character calling himself "The Cape Cod Cowboy," and a very young Shane-O-Mac.

McMahon’s years-long foray into hockey all started in April 1979, when he began talks with a man name Ed Fruean to bring in one of his father’s wrestling shows to Fruean’s small local arena, the Cape Cod Coliseum in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He found in Fruean a man who had come to own an arena, but with no real interest in running events himself, and having had no real luck with the people he had brought in to do it for him. As such, what had started as a conversation about a single event on Cape Cod, turned into a dream deal for a young promoter looking to make a name for himself and step out of his father’s shadow. Fruean and McMahon agreed on a pact that would essentially allow McMahon, paying nothing up front, to lease the Coliseum.

And for what it was, the future “certified billionaire” succeeded where others had failed. The building to this point had a fraught history of being too-often empty and unused. But McMahon did well by bringing in different and eclectic acts, including Jeff Beck, the Allman Brothers, the Boston Pops, the Harlem Globetrotters, boxing cards, and of course, pro wrestling.

Hockey, on the other hand, was a different story. In the communities surrounding the Coliseum, there was skepticism abound, because of all the building’s past failures, disastrous experiments in semi-professional hockey had been the most epic and documented. The structure was built to house a hockey team, the Cape Cod Cubs of the Eastern Hockey League, in 1972. When they folded, the Cape Codders were brought in….and then the Cape Cod Freedom. Going into 1980, all three had failed, none seeing past two full seasons, and all leaving a trail of bankrupted investors in their wake. The warnings were clear and harsh, as one local columnist wrote, “When will people on Cape Cod, investors and creditors alike, finally realize and accept the fact that there is not enough year round population to support a professional hockey team here on our peninsula? You could wallpaper the cavernous confines of the Cape Cod Coliseum with IOU's and debts incurred by previous combines that will never be paid.”

Perhaps the way to discourage an entrepreneur the stature of Vince McMahon is to do anything but tell them they can’t make something work. In any case, the Boston Bruins were no semi-pro team, and in early September 1979, there he sat at a press conference alongside Brad Park and Rick Middleton to brashly announce “the event that would put the Coliseum on the map.” He had landed a Buffalo Sabres versus Boston Bruins preseason game to be played in the Coliseum on October 6. Whatever the history, the structure was rocking on that night, a sellout, 5-4 win for the Bruins, and one that would come to be viewed in many circles as McMahon had earlier predicted it would be, “the greatest event in the building’s history.”

Through his efforts to bring in high-level professional hockey to his little building, McMahon had forged such close ties with the Bruins that they were back the next year to announce a preseason game against the New York Rangers, and also that a Cape Cod Coliseum exhibition would soon become an annual tradition. The real impact that these successes had on the region, however, was to again start the talk of Cape Cod having a team of their own.

Vince McMahon brings in the B's for a press conference at the Cape Cod Coliseum.

They got their chance in the summer of 1981 with the formation of a new semi-pro league, the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. When the Boston Bruins were approached about possibly fielding a team, though not interested in direct involvement, they did know just the man for the job. McMahon welcomed the proposition, and found his coach and general manager for the newly dubbed Cape Cod Buccaneers in a 28-year-old enforcer whose own pro career had just been cut short due to injury.

Jim Troy was a standout athlete at Boston College, where he played football and baseball. Afterwards, he made his living playing hockey. He had some success, playing for both the New England Whalers and Edmonton Oilers of the WHA, and working as a scout and assistant coach within the New York Rangers system after a thumb injury curtailed his playing days. Like the Mr. McMahon character launched two decades later, Troy’s character seemed to have its’ own conflicting traits. His reputation in the game was of a raucous fighter and tough guy, yet he idolized the introverted and even-tempered Fred Shero, and expressed publicly goals of wanting to coach similar to the legendary Flyers and Rangers coach in his newest endeavor. 

Troy, perhaps sticking with a theme of that era, comprised for McMahon a team made up almost exclusively of players from areas surrounding Boston, Massachusetts. Training camp began on October 12, 1981, and two preseason games, both wins, followed shortly thereafter.

The ACHL launched amongst great fanfare with seven teams scattered about the Eastern seaboard. In addition to the Bucs, there were the Baltimore Skipjacks, Fitchburg Trappers, Mohawk Valley Stars, Salem Raiders, Schenectady Chiefs, and Winston-Salem Thunderbirds. The Buccaneers opened the season in Schenectady, dropping a 5-2 decision. They won the next week at Fitchburg, but again lost in the home opener at the Coliseum.

In addition to the less-than-favorable results on the ice, it wasn’t long before the curse of Cape Cod hockey reared its’ ugly head once again. McMahon, showing some of the “ruthless aggression” he’d later become so famous for, requested that the league investigate the finances of both Fitchburg and Schenectady. He was rumored to be upset about both teams being owned by the same man. Whatever was truly the case, neither club let the investigations get too far, both folding before ten regular season games had been played.

The Buccaneer's Preston Boudreau looks for a goal versus Fitchburg.

The boss had made all fair, and gotten rid of two opponents, but ultimately the move may have proved a bad one. Fitchburg and Schenectady were two of the Buccaneers’ closest opponents. Travel expenses for his team would come to be an issue for the 36-year-old McMahon, who was nowhere near in as good financial standing as he is today. In addition to the money problems, which all of the teams seemed to face in some regard, the league losing two teams so early on seemed to shake an already weary public’s confidence. Media coverage for the small league dropped off notably at this point in the season.

The league forged on, though. A new schedule was drawn up and the Buc’s split the freezing cold East Coast winter months between playing in front of unexceptional crowds at the Coliseum, and road trips to Utica, Baltimore, and North Carolina.

The team’s roster had a hometown flavor from top to bottom, but the one real local product was a 22-year-old former star player for Provincetown High School named Larry Meads. Nicknamed “Mr. Desire” by Troy, Meads had grown up on Cape Cod, and after high school was a goal-scorer for Salem State College before turning pro with the Buccaneers. Meads, who retired from hockey after a few more seasons in the minors and has since made his living as a painter and tuna fisherman, remembered the Buc’s fondly as a good team to be on, and one in which the Boston dynamic made comradely easy.

For McMahon’s part, Meads describes an owner who for the most part kept separate from the players, and offered, “nothing bad to say about him, he was a class act – him and his wife.” Though tamer than what many wrestling fans might expect, he did offer one memory of the boss. McMahon apparently showed outward gratitude to the guys doing the work on the ice at least once that season, as in between one December road trip to Baltimore and home game at the Coliseum, the young McMahon family threw the boys a nice Christmas party at their home with, as Meads keenly remembered, “lots of shrimp.”

As for his coach, the former left wing seems to further the polarizing contradictions. Meads credits Troy with building more of a “college all-star team,” plucking talent from Boston College, Boston University, Brown, New Hampshire, and the like, different from what some of the other teams were doing by building their rosters out of rough and tumble junior players ready to kill. Yet, he also offers a telling story of the former fighter turned coached not ever being able to fully break from his roots and embrace his inner-Shero.

Meads recalled one incident of having been called into Troy’s office before an early season game and told, “We’ve got to cut one more player, and that player is you.” Then his coach offered him an out. His mind could apparently be changed, should the first-year pro cut the skates out from under a particularly troublesome opposing player, and start a brawl with him to get the energy up. Meads decided that night to keep his job. Throughout the season, McMahon and Troy became close, and though it would be a reach for anyone besides them to say what the attraction was, or what qualities they admired in one another, it is interesting that years later, in the wrestling realm, one of McMahon’s employees would describe, “Vince wants you to fight, Vince wants you to claw, Vince wants you to dig….show him your passion.”

The flagrant penalty and resulting fisticuffs Meads describes wasn’t an isolated incident that year, for the Buccaneers or the league, as the teams plugged on through the rest of December and January. In an abridged season (Winston-Salem ended up playing the most regular season games with 50), the five remaining teams finished with an average of 1,312 combined penalty minutes. That’s more than 28 NHL teams had in an 82 game schedule in 2010-11. So, in a sense, the World Wrestling Entertainment headman has also promoted mixed martial arts.

McMahon’s first and only professional hockey team never got above .500, or had the opportunity to prove themselves in a playoff. Come the end of January, attendance at the Coliseum wasn’t cutting it and the financial strain had become too much. McMahon asked for a loan from the league to keep their hopes alive, but when that was denied, he folded the franchise on February 1, 1982. Several players, including Meads, were shipped off and allowed to play elsewhere to finish the season. The Cape Cod Buccaneers final record in their only season was 17-21-1.


The ACHL, now having lost half the teams it had started with in less than four months of play, decided to cut games short and move right into a playoff with the remaining teams. The Mohawk Valley Stars defeated the Salem Raiders in a best-of-seven series to become the inaugural champions.

Vince McMahon didn’t look back to hockey again until introducing The Goon, a man who was “thrown out of every hockey league he ever participated in,” and a character that would have fit right into the ACHL, to the World Wrestling Federation in the mid-1990’s. Almost four months to the day after folding the Buccaneers, he went with his associates, of whom now included new right-hand-man Jim Troy, to New York to buy out his father and take ownership of the WWF. Throughout his days on the Cape, McMahon had been involved in the company, both behind the scenes and as an on-screen commentator, but now he had what he wanted and a platform for his true vision.

In their book on McMahon, Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, authors Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham suggest that the young promoter studied  every act that came into the Coliseum at that time, watching “how they set their lighting rigs, wired their sound, placed their T-shirt stands.” Nobody can say for sure what lessons Vince McMahon still carries with him from his time in Massachusetts, but it also would be foolish to think that one doesn’t learn something from every stage of their development as a person. Jim Troy, introduced to him at the start of the 1980’s as a young man that could effectively steer his attempt at owning a sports franchise, went on to work closely with McMahon and the WWF for the next several years. Another player, Mike Breen, who had 16 points that season as a defenseman with the Bucs, was also brought in as an early-WWF employee. Hockey is a culture, and that culture was represented in the building of a wrestling empire. In the thirty years since, Vince McMahon has employed people from all walks of life, wild characters and down-to-earth businessman, introverts and extroverts, wrestlers, models, and attractions. It is fun to wonder what else he may have taken from the only thirty-five hockey players, who at one time spent their days living and fighting on Cape Cod.

This work is largely incomplete, and there is a lot more about this story that could be uncovered. I urge those involved in the Cape Cod Buccaneers' inaugral season, or anyone with anything to contribute to write me at heartpunchwrestling@yahoo.com for possible inclusion in an "Extras" section to be posted later this month.

Acknowledgements: Most of the information and many of the photographs were found via combing through old newspapers, namely the Cape Cod Chronicle and Cape Cod Times. Additional thanks to Larry Meads for allowing me into his home, the interview, access to his memorabilia, and pictures, Mike Breen, and Ralph Slate of hockeydb.com. As mentioned, Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham's book, Sex, Lies, and Headlocks gave me a starting point. The quote about Vince McMahon loving his employees to fight was taken from a interview with the Big Show on the McMahon DVD. The following websites were also helpful in the completion of this project: HockeyDB.com, Corporate.wwe.com, NHL.com.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Welcome to my new blog, Heart Punch Wrestling Essays

Welcome to the blog.

As many of you probably already know, I love professional wrestling. I grew up with it, and I can't get enough of the stuff. I love the five-star matches, where the best performers anywhere in the world go out and really make the audience believe. All the same, I love watching Harvey Whippleman try and teach Kamala to bowl. I love the creativity involved. I love learning the history. I love that no matter how crappy the week or what is going on, at least wrestling will be on, every Monday night. I’ve never really wanted to do anything but be involved in wrestling, but I guess no one falls into it, or breaks in without going for it. And thus the first reason that I’m here….

I have a few goals for the site starting out, but from a personal standpoint, I want it to serve as a portfolio of sorts. I want to build a body of work creatively, and hopefully an audience. I want to get my ideas out there. My thought was to use a familiar outlet, writing, to more fully involve myself.

My next goals are in regards to who’s going to be here checking things out. I want the site to be readable, and interesting, to diehards like myself and casual supporters, or even non-wrestling fans, alike, equally. Really, this is just a blog about being passionate for something.

So here goes nothing. I have some big plans, but this is probably not going to be a five-posts-per-day kind of blog, so I encourage anybody and everybody to get the latest updates by either following posts by e-mail via the little box in the bottom right hand corner of this page, or following me on Twitter @ElliottMarquis. And of course, e-mail me about pro wrestling anytime at heartpunchwrestling@yahoo.com.