Friends remember Dave Sheldon's life
GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling
|The Angel of Death in Stampede Wrestling.
Photo by Bob Leonard
Dave Sheldon was buried on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas. His was a complicated life, and during the last week, colleagues over his years in pro wrestling shared their memories of "Angel."
Sheldon died on November 25th in his Bedford, Texas, home, at the age of 54, from complications of high blood pressure and clogged arteries. He was born July 20, 1953, in Buffalo, N.Y. When he was a year old, he and his mother, Barbara, moved to Miami, Florida. At North Miami High School, where he graduated in 1971, Sheldon played football and competed in discus and shot put. Football and basketball scholarships to Mayville State College in Mayville, N.D., followed, but he only lasted a year before heading back to Miami.
The 6-foot-6 Sheldon worked where he could, bouncing at Miami clubs and selling magazine subscriptions.
In California, he was recruited into a wrestling school run by Roland "Red" Bastien and Bill Anderson. Fellow students included future stars Steve Borden (Sting), Jim Hellwig (Ultimate Warrior), "Strangler" Steve DiSalvo, as well as lesser known grapplers Mark Miller and Garland Donoho.
"Dave was a very brilliant person. He did a lot things before wrestling, same thing as me," DiSalvo recalled for SLAM! Wrestling. "He just more or less said, 'Hey, it's a paycheque. Let's take it at that.' And that was about it."
Anderson was just 29, training men like Sheldon who were older than him. "That first training camp in '85, what I remember about Dave, and it was always the case, he was extremely respectful guy of his elders and of professionals in the business," remembered Anderson. "Very, very mature guy. He was a fun guy to be around. He had a great sense of humour."
California Training: Left to right, Mark Miller, Dave Sheldon, Bill Anderson (kneeling), Steve Borden, Steve DiSalvo, Jim Hellwig, Garland Donoho and Red Bastien.
Both Anderson and DiSalvo said Sheldon stood out for his athleticism, especially compared to his fellow students who had come out of the bodybuilding culture. "He was so big it was hard for him to do all the moves that I had everybody else do," said Anderson.
"He was a pretty good athlete. He could do unique things," DiSalvo said. "I liked him, of all the wrestlers that I never really liked, he was one of them that I hit it off with mostly, because you could have a conversation with the guy -- unlike listening to half the crap that comes out of their mouths."
Bastien called Stu Hart and got Sheldon and DiSalvo into Hart's Stampede Wrestling promotion in Calgary. Stu's son, Bruce, helped polish both Sheldon and DiSalvo into more competent professionals.
"He was very green. I donít think he'd been trained that much," explained Bruce Hart. "I talked him into shaving his head and rechristened him the Angel of Death." Hart couldn't remember exactly, but believes the name came from the nickname of Hitler's sadistic concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele.
The name would stick for the rest of his career, even though Sheldon would use other monikers. "Anyone who knew him after that called him Angel," said Hart. "When he'd call me, it would be, 'It's Angel,' not, 'It's Dave.'"
Sheldon would do three tours of Stampede Wrestling, and was there when the promotion folded. It's a frightening list of fighters from those final days who aren't alive any longer: Larry Cameron, Curtis Thompson, DJ Peterson, Lance Idol, Chris Benoit.
Hart was proud that he helped mould Sheldon into a decent pro wrestler, if not a headliner. "He had the personality. He wasn't the most graceful or athletic guy. He had a good handle on the psychology and was pretty good and manifesting the elements of a big, ugly heel," Hart said.
The Angel of Death twists Rick Patterson during a Stampede bout. Photo by Bob Leonard
In 1987, Sheldon made his home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and would stay there for much of the rest of his life. He competed for the local World Class Championship Wrestling promotion, as well as the companies that tried to pick up the pieces after it folded.
Further west, Sheldon caught the eye of Universal Wrestling Federation promoter Bill Watts, and Watts put Sheldon with the Fabulous Freebirds as an unofficial fourth member who provided muscle outside of the ring.
"He wasn't even our choice, it was more Bill Watts' choice," explained Michael "P.S." Hayes. "He was our outside guy." Sheldon was never as close a friend as other 'Birds Terry Gordy, Buddy Roberts and Jimmy Garvin, said Hayes.
And his role with the Freebirds in the UWF was often perplexing, said Hayes. Sheldon would fill in when Gordy was on one of his frequent trips to Japan. At other times, he was used as fodder to keep the Freebirds themselves looking strong. One time in Houston, recalled Hayes, "Watts called him up and made him drive all the way down there from, like, Alexandria, just to come in the ring and take a backdrop and get clotheslined out. We were all like, 'Why's he making him come down here for that?' It was like a 911 as far as Bill: 'No, goddamn, we can't have Michael do it, we can't have Terry do it, we can't have Buddy do it. Good, we'll have the big guy come down here. Get a hold of him!'"
Still, Hayes being Hayes, he can rhyme off a good story about Sheldon. "We were in Pensacola, and he was down there, and we were working the Civic Center. I invited him to stay over at my mother's, because that's where I'm from. He stayed at my mother's, and me and Sunshine went out and took his car. Well, during the course of going out and getting drunk, her and I got into a fight, an argument. We ended up tearing the whole roof out of his -- and he had a nice Continental -- and we just tore the whole *&$% roof out of it on the inside. ... We went back, and we never told him. His reaction that morning when he woke up and saw his beautiful Continental was funny."
Buddy Roberts doesnít associated Sheldon with their time together in the UWF as much as he does with the incarnation of the Freebirds in the late stages of World Class, with Roberts, Iceman Parsons and Sheldon.
"He wasn't smooth smooth, but he was really impressive to look at," said Roberts. "He was huge, he was in great shape. He always tried his best. I just simply liked him."
Roberts and Sheldon lived close and often traveled to shows together. "He made many, many trips with me and my wife and my son," said Roberts. "My son, he was only, heck, he was only born when we were down there in Dallas. So he knew my son real good. He was great with my son. When we made trips, he'd stay with my son in the back seat. We became really good friends. He'd come over and visit -- we were staying in an apartment. We were friends immediately when he got to Dallas. He was a good guy. My wife liked him."
Jason Robertson, who worked as lightweight Jason Sterling, was dwarfed by the Angel of Death. He recalled the sheer physical presence of the man. "He was a football [guy] and he had these great, big bad knees, but he had these huge braces that he would hide with this long, padded, black spandex," Robertson said. "As big as he was -- the guy was almost 300 pounds, he was a pretty big man -- and then he would drop that big leg across. He almost broke my brother's nose, because he dropped it right across [his face]."
Sheldon's most successful runs would come in World Championship Wrestling, where he wore a mask as a Russian Assassin, usually partnered with Jack Victory. He would be used to prompt an Ivan Koloff babyface turn. Also in WCW, Sheldon was often used at house shows as The Black Scorpion, and was actually considered for the unmasked role that went to Ric Flair because of his legitimate past history with The Black Scorpion's target, Sting.
He also dabbled in acting, appearing on a few episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger.
Around 1989, Red Bastien and Karl Lauer started a promotion called the WIN promotion, with some Mexican partners, based out of San Bernandino. Bill Anderson was Masked Mercenary #1, and #2 was Ricky Ataki, and another was Louie Spicoli. Sheldon was brought in.
"Red asked me as a favour, he said, 'Dave Sheldon's looking for work, can you throw him under the mask?' I said sure, 'I'll have to have some stuff made for him. I don't have a mask big enough for that big head of his," said Anderson, launching into a memory of their first TV time together. "We're standing right in front of the cameras, getting ready for our first interviews. Dave is like, 'I know I'm Mercanary #3, and Bill, you're Mercanary #1, and Ataki, you're Mercanary #2' -- that was what we were calling ourselves then -- and he says, 'but don't we have names like Hawk and Animal, the Road Warriors? I'll tell you what, let's start some names! I'm going to be Gunner! That's my name.' ... Me and Spicoli, we had nicknames for each other. His nickname was Sparky and mine was Lucha. 'Not exactly the nastiest of names, when we're Gunner, Sparky and Lucha. That's not going to work, Dave!' He still went out and did the promo and said, 'This is Gunner of the Mercanaries."
Anderson also used Sheldon as a partner on cross-border trips to Tijuana. "What I remember is that those times were real rough for Dave because, at that point in his life, I'll never forget, he was smoking like crazy, drinking like crazy, and he had a stripper for a girlfriend that went with us. She was just like a wildwoman," explained Anderson. "I was really shocked because I remembered Dave as being a real athletic-thinking kind of guy, and I just didn't think that was part of it."
Roberts said that the Angel he knew wasn't a partier, but that could have changed over the years, he admitted.
Britt Britton was a friend of Sheldon's for a number of years, bringing him to autograph shows like his WrestleCon events. "I knew him until about 18 months ago, when he fell off the planet bad. He lost his job and everybody sort of avoided him," Britton explained.
Sheldon had been managing the Fantasy Ranch gentlemen's club in Arlington, one of the biggest adult clubs in the United States. The city of Arlington was trying to shut down the club, and business suffered. Apparently, Sheldon and the owner had a falling out over the downturn in business, and Sheldon was fired. A short stint at a lesser club didn't work out either. According to Britton, Sheldon got into a fight at that second club and lost badly; "Finally his mouth caught up with him a little bit." In essence, Sheldon went from a successful job, where he might have grossed six figures a year, to nothing.
Hart kept in touch with Sheldon over the years, and would hear from him every month or so. "He called me Thursday, a week ago. I didn't get the damn call, but I'd spoken to him about five days before," said Hart. "He wanted some number from me. He was talking about giving Michael Hayes a call and wanted to see about hooking up with WWF and becoming a spokesperson for saying no, educating kids about drugs and stuff, steroids, and all that. He said he was going to become some sort of a spokesperson because he'd been around that. He was a pretty good talker, so he thought he might be able to import that message." According to Hart, in recent conversations, Sheldon "was claiming to be in a lot of pain," and was having financial difficulties.
Roberts believes that Sheldon could have been a bigger success in wrestling than he was. "He never had the breaks that he should have gotten," said the former Freebird. "He wasn't a kiss-ass. Ric Flair? He's a kiss-ass. Dusty Rhodes is a kiss-ass. They know where their bread is buttered. I've got no time for those guys."
Dave Sheldon is survived by his mother, Barbara, and his sister, Gail Sheldon of Florida. His funeral was held at the North Hills Funeral Home in Fort Worth, and he was buried at the Bear Creek Cemetery in Euless.
Sign the guest book for Dave Sheldon
November 27, 2007: Dave Sheldon, wrestling's "Angel of Death," dies
Greg Oliver founded SLAM! Wrestling with John Powell way back in 1996, and has been writing about pro wrestling since 1985. His fourth book, Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport (with Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy and Irv Muchnick) has just hit shelves. Previous books include The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels (with Steven Johnson), The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams (also with Johnson) and The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians. Order them all from the SLAM! Wrestling Store. He can be emailed at email@example.com.