January 17, 2008
Sir Oliver Humperdink recalls career of yesteryear
By MATT MACKINDER - SLAM! Wrestling
Sir Oliver Humperdink had such a unique look that Bobby Heenan once quipped that he "looked like he fell out of a deck of cards."
With his long, frizzy red mane and beard to match, Humperdink was a natural for the wrestling business when he started out more than 40 years ago in Minneapolis as an usher. Fast forward a bit, and Humperdink shared the squared circle with names such as the Hollywood Blondes, Bam Bam Bigelow, Paul Orndorff and a version of The Fabulous Freebirds.
Humperdink, who turned 59 yesterday, chatted with SLAM! Wrestling from his Minnesota residence and recalled his career, its ups and downs (including a gimmick he'd like to forget) and the notion of having "mini red-headed freaks" running rampant across the United States and Canada.
Humperdink, born John Sutton, worked for an ushering company in his hometown back in the early-mid 1960s and used that job to get acquainted with the wrestlers that would come through the area. He eventually went on the road with the guys and was a pseuso-security guard at the shows in the pre-guardrail era and worked with AWA names such as Red Bastien, Ray Stevens, Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby Heenan and "Dr. X" Dick Beyer.
One of his first big breaks came a couple years later when Paul "Butcher" Vachon met Humperdink while he was still in Minnesota and working for the AWA.
"It was probably April or May 1973 and I went up to Montreal to work for the Vachons' Grand Prix Wrestling," remembered Humperdink. "They had shows at the old Forum and Le Colisée and just did unbelievable business. Johnny Rougeau was up there, too. It was a great time, as it always was, in Canada.
"Being in Canada, too, was a culture shock. It was different in every way I imagined Canada would be. I wrestled on occasion, but mostly I was a manager."
"(Humperdink) used to play Santa Claus at Christmas time," said Vachon. "A couple of Christmases in a row in Minneapolis, he came to our house in the night. We had pictures taken with Luna sleeping -- she was just a baby. We showed her the pictures the next morning and said Santa came during the night. That was Red Sutton, Humperdink."
Once in Montreal, a city Humperdink called "the New York City of Canada," he went with the manager role outright, according to Vachon. Humperdink also was a referee for a brief spell.
"The Hollywood Blondes were working for Rougeau and they switched sides," Vachon recalled. "I said, 'We're going to make you a manager.' They were very, very successful (in the seven years together) and he was good as their manager. He had his own personality, which is deadpan, perfect for Humperdink. I don't know who came up with the name 'Humperdink.' I think it was probably Dale Roberts or maybe Red himself."
The late Don Jardine, the original Spoiler, is the one credited with giving Humperdink his moniker. Roberts remembered how it went down.
"Jardine had seen Humperdink, looked at him, and we were trying to come up with a name for him," Roberts said. "He said 'Sir Oliver Humperdink.' So that was a Don Jardine thing."
"We were looking for a name that would get heat with the French Canadians around Montreal," said Humperdink. "Of course, they hated anything English so we went with SOH."
Roberts also remembered those early years with Humperdink.
"He brought the element of having a manager and he was a good talker," added Roberts. "His looks, he was a lot heavier back then, made him stand out. Mr. Humperdink stood out in a crowd. The outfits that he wore were outrageous, if you remember the hat and the jacket. The crowd didn't really like him. It just made it easier. We didn't want to be just a tag team. We wanted to be one with a manager."
The pay difference between wrestlers and managers back then, Roberts said, was probably close to equal.
"We all got pretty close to the same, I think," Roberts said. "But I think we made a couple of dollars more. I think (Humperdink) was treated fair."
Humperdink had some memorable times in Canada and one in Ottawa from several years back stands out as if not memorable, then definitely infamous.
"The fans were actually trying to beat down the doors to the dressing room to get at us," said Humperdink. "The problem was solved, however, when Mad Dog Vachon said to open the door. When it was opened, Dog grabbed the first one he saw, pulled him into the room and beat the s*** out of him. He said to open the door again, at which time he threw the guy out. The fans saw what happened to the guy and order was quickly restored. No more banging on the doors! It was like the old saying: 'Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.'"
Quebec was also a particularly rough place to wrestle.
"I remember working a lot of towns in northern Quebec where we would actually have to fight going to the ring," Humperdink said. "It would mostly be the same geeks we had to fight the show before. I remember one night up there when they rioted and began throwing chairs into the ring and before you knew it, there were chairs up to the second strand of ropes."
Humperdink and riots seemed to go hand in hand back in the day.
Canada has always held special place in Humperdink's heart and he touched on times in Toronto as well.
"Having started in Montreal and working as far west as Sudbury and North Bay for them, I have always liked Ontario," Humperdink recalled. "And the times I worked Toronto for JCP, WCW and the 'F' gave me a chance to spend a little time in the city. (I) remember going to the hotel after the matches for the ice cold bathtub beer (Sunday blue law) and checking out Yonge Street, the Howard Johnson's by the airport and, being from Minnesota, the thrill of the Gardens. Cool stuff!"
"I learned so much from him," said Humperdink. "Eddie Graham was a genius. He really had a mind for the business. Florida was great. We were right on the ocean, the people were great and so was the weather."
Humperdink was named Manager of the Year for 1980 by Pro Wrestling Illustrated.
But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when Humperdink entered the so-called mainstream wrestling circles with Jim Crockett Promotions and the NWA where he managed Valentine, Paul Jones (in his last stint as a full-time wrestler) and the One Man Gang. He left the NWA right before the company's first Starrcade event in 1983 and later returned in 1988 just before JCP folded. Humperdink, contrary to what other wrestlers have said about Jim Crockett, called him a "class act."
Times would change and during the early part of 1987, Humperdink was approached by the then-WWF about jumping to the Fed.
"I had never really met Vince (McMahon)," said Humperdink. "But they called me and had me go to a TV taping in Madison, Wisconsin. So I went."
"That was a busy time," Humperdink recalled. "We'd do two shows Saturday and then two shows Sunday -- coast-to-coast. I think it was there that I realized what I had accomplished. I was working the (Madison Square) Garden with (Hulk) Hogan and Andre (the Giant) and the place was sold-out. I took a step back and looked around and thought, 'Wow, you've done well.'"
Clad in a colorful jacket and carrying a scepter or cane of sorts, Humperdink added Orndorff to his stable in August of 1987 as "Mr. Wonderful" was entering a feud with the "Ravishing" Rick Rude, himself a WWF newcomer at the time. Humperdink said his wardrobe was not something he was fond of, but he rolled with the punches.
"No, that wasn't me at all," he groaned. "I was a baby(face) and that whole gimmick wasn't me. But hell, it was a very nice paycheck. Very nice. I can't complain about that."
Humperdink was a part of the inaugural Survivor Series where he managed Bam Bam and Orndorff in the main event as part of Hogan's team. Bigelow faced a 3-on-1 against Andre, Gang and King Kong Bundy, pinned Gang and Bundy, but was eliminated by the Giant.
At WrestleMania IV in Atlantic City, Humperdink was in Bigelow's corner as he lost via countout to the Gang in a first-round WWF World title tournament match.
Humperdink managed the Wild Samoans (Fatu, Samu and the Tonga Kid) back in the NWA and also Bigelow in his feud over the United States title with Barry Windham that culminated with Windham retaining via countout at Starrcade '88.
As the 1980s were ending and the 1990s were ushered in, Humperdink was repackaged as a biker-type in WCW and christened Big Daddy Dink. He was the manager of the Freebirds (Michael Hayes and Jimmy Garvin), but was never happy with this new look. It was a far cry to his days managing the likes of Koloff, Abdullah the Butcher, Terry Funk, Dory Funk Jr., Superstar Billy Graham and Ox Baker.
"I hated it," said Humperdink. "I was miserable doing that, but it wasn't because of the 'Birds. The office environment at that time was absolutely horrible. Jim Herd was a crook. Right around this time (1992), I decided I was at the end of my career and I guess you could say I retired in 1993.
"That phase of my career made no sense to me. It was something I wasn't familiar with."
Even though his in-ring career has come to a halt, there is no lack of outside the ring stories for Humperdink.
In 2001, Humperdink was transported from Key West to Miami by Aeromed to undergo surgery to replace his aortic valve. A pacemaker was installed and he was in the critical care unit, but he surpassed all expectations and made a very strong comeback. The CAC donated $1,000 to help offset his medical expenses, which amounted to a staggering total.
"I have been involved in the business in one way or another since I was about 17 years old and have always known and respected the fact that a lot of the time all we had were each other," Humperdink said in a letter to the CAC after getting out of the hospital after an operation on his femoral artery. "I had the great fortune of having the likes of Dick Beyer, Ray Stevens, Pat Patterson, Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby Heenan, Red Bastien, Pampero Firpo and all the other great talent that was in Verne Gagne's territory in the late '60s and early '70s as friends and mentors. What they taught me was a respect for the business and each other that has been lost along the way.
"I still love the biz, but it lacks the caring aspect that was there when I first started. I am so proud to be a part of an organization that still promotes those values that I grew up with. From the very bottom of my now repaired heart, I thank each and every one of the members of the CAC for their outstanding support in my time of need."
Early in 2008, Humperdink found himself hospitalized again with pneumonia, complicated by his earlier heart troubles. Again, the wrestling world sent its best wishes to one of their own.
"I had developed pneumonia due to complications from congestive heart failure," explained a recovering Humperdink. "That means that my heart isn't strong enough to rid my body of extra fluid. I had known since the valve replacement in 2001 that I had CHF. It just caught up to me and threw me for a loop. I am currently on a fluid restricted diet and low sodium as well. I am doing what the doctors want me to. I am also on new medication to help with my pulmonary function. Prognosis is good if I watch the fluids and salt."
"I'm pretty low maintenance," laughed Humperdink. "I fish, but it's hard to get out with all my health problems, but getting to CAC is a highlight for me every year. But I feel good. I mean, I might be getting older, but I'm not dead. My chest is open and I feel great. I love the summer time, too."
Humperdink never married and is also "pet-less." He said he has no kids that he is aware of and hopes there aren't any of the aforementioned "mini red-headed freaks" running around.
"I'd feel sorry for them," quipped Humperdink. "I really would."
But in reflecting back on his storied, and maybe somewhat not so well-known career, Humperdink said he is grateful for every opportunity and like he realized 20 years ago, "I think I did pretty well for myself."
This article could be Matt Mackinder's crowning achievement for SLAM! Wrestling. It has been a work in progress for a while now. Enjoy it? Email Matt at email@example.com. Matt will also forward any "Get Well" messages to Hump.