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Curtain closes on Winnipeg Arena
Ring kings ruled old rassle castle
By TAMMY MARLOWE - Winnipeg Sun


Nick Bockwinkel as AWA champion.


When the spotlight dims on the WWE Smackdown! event at the Winnipeg Arena this week, the curtain will also close on more than half a century of wrestling history at the celebrated "old barn."

"I remember fond memories of my dad taking me when I was seven or eight years old and watching the Nick Bockwinkels and Mad Dog Vachons of the world," said Don (Cyrus) Callis, who grew up in Winnipeg and wrestled in the WWF under the moniker The Jackyl. "It was a really great place to be. It was always a really great building to be in."

Tomorrow and Tuesday, the WWE will rock the Winnipeg Arena with its TV events Raw and Smackdown. The performances will mark the last time the wrestling franchise will appear in the old building, with the $133 million MTS Centre slated to open in November.

The Winnipeg Arena opened in 1954. Over the years, the WWE has filled the house dozens of times and tallied up hundreds of monumental matches.

Cyrus made his WWF debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1997. A week or two later, his new job brought him home to the old barn, and he said his local appearance made a lasting impression.

"Performing at the Winnipeg Arena was a much bigger deal for me personally than performing at Madison Square Garden," he recalled. "Having my dad in the audience ... having the crowd acknowledge that I was from Winnipeg -- it was one of the highlights of my time with the WWF."

The American Wrestling Association stopped at the arena 13 times a year during its heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Maurice (Mad Dog) Vachon, who wore the AWA championship belt five times during his distinguished career, said he has wild memories of Winnipeg's arena -- and the weather.

"One time I was going to the Winnipeg Arena and I was in the main event and I was running a little late," the 75-year-old reminisced. "It was like 40 below and on that main street (Portage Avenue) we ran out of gas.

"I had to push the car to get it around the corner and my gosh," said Vachon. "We looked across the street and saw the CBC television station. We called a cab and made it to the arena on time. It was so cold."

Vachon also recalled a time years ago he performed in Winnipeg the same evening as the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was making a visit. A newspaper article the next day said 5,000 people made it out to the wrestling event -- and only 500 to the PM's speech.

Well-known wrestling promoter Tony Condello said the arena match he remembers most fondly was a splashy one-hour draw in 1985 between then-AWA world heavyweight title holder Nick Bockwinkel and National Wrestling Alliance champ Ric Flair.

"They're both two technicians. They never repeated one hold that whole hour," he recalled. "It was an incredible match."

Bockwinkel -- who wrestled in the old barn for more than 15 years -- tells the same story when asked about his favourite Winnipeg bout.

"The fans in Winnipeg were very enthusiastic ... pretty much like the attitude they take in their hockey," said the 69-year-old. "It was a fun town because everybody there was always so upbeat."

Official AWA photographer Terry Machalek worked on promotion from 1969 to 1985 and has countless snapshots from Winnipeg -- including the Bockwinkel-Flair contest. Other Winnipeg fan favourites Machalek shot included a young Hulk Hogan, Andre The Giant, Angelo Mosca, Cowboy Bob Orton, Bobby Heenan and Jesse (The Body) Ventura in his prime.

The Winnipeg Arena served wrestling well for many years, Condello said. He's confident the MTS Centre will be a great place for the next generation of fighters and fanatics.

"I think it will attract more wrestling fans," he said. "It's gorgeous."