Monday, July 02, 2007


Chris Benoit-Another Tragic Figure

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the city of Belleville came alive on Friday nights for a select group of citizens---professional wrestling fans.

They flocked to the Belleville Memorial Arena in droves, some arriving in the early afternoon for the evening tilts.

They were seldom disappointed. All of their favourites would arrive, prepare themselves for battle, emerging from the dressing rooms to wale away on each other for ten or fifteen minutes in the ring.

A side note about their dressing rooms: these were the same rooms that had housed thousands of hockey players---tiny tots to professionals. The same rooms that the Belleville McFarlands dressed in to prepare for their sojourn to Prague to win the World Championship.

The favourite wrestlers were cheered as they approached the ring. Whipper Billy Watson led the parade. He was Canadian, and he fought fairly. The good guy. He subdued his opponents with his “Canadian Commando” sleeper hold to gain victory. He was accommodating to his fans, he signed autographs for everyone, he was always pictured with a young crippled child on the “March of Dimes” posters.

He fought the meanies. There were plenty of them, and they were not nice. They cheated, they hid lethal objects in their shorts, they tried to hurt the good guys. When they approached the ring, they were booed, and often whacked with a stray purse.

Fritz von Erich was a bad guy. He epitomized all that was evil about the Third Reich. After all, we were less than a decade removed from the Second World War, and an imposing German figure was not going to win the hearts of many of the rabble at ringside. Hans Schmidt, the “Munich Menace”, was also one of the most-hated performers in the ring. He specialized in a back-breaker manoeuvre, and also resorted to eye gouging, hair pulling, choking and stomping to win his bouts.

Some wore hoods to disguise their identities. Most of the time, these hooded figures were well known to the fans, but came concealed to fill in for an injured or unavailable opponent.

They came from everywhere: Argentina Rocca from the Pampas, Bo Bo Brazil from Rio, Duncan McTavish from Glasgow, Gorgeous George, Lord Athol Layton, Yukon Eric, Georges Carpentier from Paris, Killer Kowalski. Supposedly from all over the world. In fact, most were from Cleveland, or Brooklyn, or somewhere in Quebec east of Montreal. McTavish lived on the Cold Creek Road in Hillier Township, Prince Edward County.

Wresting cards were issued by the Parkhurst Company in 1954, and contained a wealth of knowledge about the game. One of the cards features Roy McLarity, the Winnipeg Whirlwind. The back of the card tells us that he wrestled TV Champion Vern Gagne to a one hour draw! That must have been an entertaining event.

When they disagreed with the verdict, the fans would litter the ring. It would take the Gullivers, or Doug Murray, or one of the other rink attendants several minutes to clear the ring for the next bout.

Now and again, celebrities would join the throng of wrestlers for the trip. Angelo Mosca, the perennial All Star from the Hamilton Tiger Cats was on the circuit for a few years. “Bronco” Nagurski, the only Canadian in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio, also wrestled in Belleville.

One night, George Carver, the long-time sports editor of the Intelligencer, escorted his son Peter and me to the dressing room area. “I want you to meet someone,” he told us. We then stuck out our hands to meet Jack Dempsey. The legendary former Heavyweight boxing Champion of the World. He was a bit down on his luck, and needed to pick up some easy coin as a referee at these bouts.

It was a travelling circus. They would wrestle in Peterborough, in Kinston, in Cornwall. Their major sources of income came in Montreal at The Forum, and in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. Frank Tunney, the well known Boxing promoter, also orchestrated the wrestling fare.

After their bouts at the Memorial, these combatants, these hated foes, would shower, climb in their Cadillacs, and move on down Highway # 2 to their next venue.

Nowadays, the wresting game has changed significantly. It has become an empire, on the North American side, for Vince McMahon. He learned from his father, and from the Tunneys, to put on a show. He capitalised on the television market. He promoted in every way possible, he built an empire.

But that is an empire based on fantasy, on deceit, on hatred, and on drug abuse.

With the death of Chris Benoit, there are signs of deterioration in the wrestling world. There have been many horror stories related to professional wrestling. Stories of drug abuse, rage, many forms of nonsense. Benoit’s situation is even more tragic. He murdered his wife and child before taking his own life.

The down side of professional wrestling was well documented in “Beyond the Mat”, a 1999 study of the world of wrestling. Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who wrestled at the Quinte Sports Centre, and charmed the ladies, was shown to be a lonely cocaine addict estranged from his family.

Eddie Guerrero, another fan favourite was found dead in a Minneapolis hotel room, another victim to the anabolic steroids he had abused. In 2003, Curt “Mr. Perfect” Henning died of a cocaine overdose.

In 1999, Owen Hart, from the famous Hart family, fell to his death in the ring performing a stunt. The show continued on because wresting is always full of theatrics and gimmicks, and the audience had no idea they had witnessed his death. It was a Pay-per-view event.

Tom Billington, one of the British Bulldogs in modern wrestling, has chronicled his post wrestling woes in his biography Pure Dynamite. “He is now confined to a wheelchair as a result of damage to his back and legs. Years of steroid abuse have also done serious damage to his heart.” Quotes from the author, Dave Meltzer, who writes the Wrestling Observer.

It is not a pleasant time for the WWE. Somehow, it will survive, only because there is a segment of society that still believes that it is real, it reflects life, and it is entertaining.

Take me out to the ball game, if you don’t mind. Ten rows behind first base. Thanks.

James Hurst

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