Retro Sun story: Baron von Heczey recalls ring life
JEAN SONMOR - Toronto Sun
"It's really not a sport. It's gladiatorial display. The blood is the ink of the ring."
-- Baron von Heczey, retired pro wrestling champ.
It is not the sort of thing one feels, well, comfortable doing, asking this stern and battered veteran of the grappling wars if he thinks wrestling is, um, phoney.
"Not on your life," says Baron von Heczey, as his eyebrows threaten to head for the stratosphere.
"You think these rock 'n roll wrestlers don't get hurt?" demands the 65-year-old retired Asian and European champion. "I'm an old cripple now because of wrestling. I've no knees, no elbows, badly-fused vertabrae in my back and a broken nose. Every slam comes back to haunt you years after."
Von Heczey's barony may be dubious and he's the first to admit there's a broad streak of "showmanship" in professional wrestling. But there's a big difference between "showmanship" and "phoney".
"These young boys today? Of course they get hurt -- all those bumps, flying in and out of the ring. They won't be around in 10 years. Why should a wrestler be any different from other people?"
But a wrestler is different. First, he's likely in magnificent shape and second, he's learned tactics for self-protection. He knows how to get thrown and land on his feet. But still he must have that first quality of a pro -- not speed, not strength, but a high pain threshold, says von Heczey.
"Wrestlers are so tough they aren't stopped even by a broken nose," he says. He once went four rounds in a southeast Asian match with blood streaming down his face from just that very thing.
"An ordinary person could not do that. But I had to because my opponent was more sick than I was. I was going to win the match."
The extraordinary resilience of wrestlers comes from the training, explains von Heczey, who wrestled as an amateur in Hungary before turning pro in Asia. Six months of "neck strengthening" is necessary before a prospective wrestler even thinks of getting near a ring.
In wrestling circles, it's bad form to admit you're hurt. Suffering in silence is the code.
"Lots get hurt, seriously hurt, even broken necks," explains the Baron. "There's no time to heal. They just disappear. It's really not a sport, it's gladiatorial display. The blood is the ink of the ring."
As we talk, this huge wrestler-turned-restaurateur calmly oversees the operation of the Coffee Mill restaurant in Yorkville, owned by him and his wife, Martha. His bracelets and his size are the only tip-offs to an exotic past.
The bracelets are gold, facsimiles of elephant hair bracelets worn by some African tribes. For the Baron, they are a reminder of his great love for Africa. Much of his energy in recent years has gone into conservation efforts to save the cheetah from extinction. In the '70s, he kept two of the animals in his home in the Annex. But one afternoon while he was napping one of the cats accidentally clawed his wife's face and the experiment in co-existence was over
This restaurant business (he owns two) is a tame second career for a man who was once considered among the most "brutal" wrestlers on the Asian circuit. He had 200,000 spectators watch a match in Lahore, India; in Karachi, there were 165,000. In the early '60s, his picture was on every Indian schoolboy's notebook and he pulled down $100,000 in one 10-month period.
Von Heczey is not surprised by the sudden emergence of wrestling as mainstream entertainment.
"Wherever you go in the world, you always find wrestling," he says. "It waxes and wanes but it always remains."
The difference today is in the marketing, he says. The flashy dressing and the fantasy appeal to little kids through the Saturday morning cartoons.
"Wrestling is one of the best spectator sports there is. Watch the crowd. It's a hell of a study in how people can get carried away. They scream and shout; it's a psychological release."
He admits there are "impurities" in wrestling, but no more than in other pro sports.
"When there are big bucks, it's big business and it can't be pure."
Those impurities wouldn't keep the Baron out of the ring today if he were younger.
"I'd have to change my style but I did that many times before I moved through Asia."
Could he wrestle Hulk Hogan?
"I've beaten better guys," he says with a little shrug and a smile.
He knows many wrestlers of his era knock the rock and roll connection and feel the sport is drowning in the hype. Not the Baron.
"It's the same as when I wrestled: I always thought if I could entertain hundreds of thousands with my strength and speed, I did something good.
"But I'll tell you what I don't agree with," he says, dropping his voice to a whisper. "Today, they bring in foreign objects -- nails and chains. The public wants more blood and the referees are lenient."
But even in his day, when weapons were forbidden, there were acts of horrifying brutality. Nobody yelled "Fake!" when Mad Dog Vachon bit his opponent's finger off.
And even if your reporter might not be completely convinced on every point, she's not about to challenge a 65-year-old who still stands 6-foot-4, weighs 240 pounds and has rock-hard muscles. When he wrestled, he carried another 30 pounds, but he's still a huge man even standing beside Paul (Mr. Wonderful) Orndorff, the 6-foot-2 one-time meanie who was one half of the bad-guy team that faced Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the first Wrestlemania.
As the two kibbitz for our camera, Mr. Wonderful compliments the Baron on his strength and fitness.
"I hope I'll be in as good shape when I'm your age," he says.
In fact, he's a little offended when we suggest he pick up the Baron for an airplane spin. The Baron looks willing but Mr. Wonderful is too respectful to oblige.
"I'm not doing that, Miss," he says quietly.
Ladislaus Von Heczey died May 24, 1991 at the age of 70.
Mr. Wonderful is 36, six years younger than the Baron was when he retired.
"You have to pick your moment," the Baron advises. "You have to know how to bow out gracefully. I was offered a great amount of money to wrestle at the end, but it's a terrible thing to see an old wrestler in the ring for the money when he isn't capable anymore."
At 42, the Baron knew his knees couldn't take more punishment. No amount of money was worth the disgrace of losing.
And finally, that's his beef with the wrestling fans who come to laugh and dismiss the show: Nobody else feels the pain.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally ran in the Toronto Sun on Tuesday, July 15, 1986.