May 11, 2012
Butcher Vachon still going strong
By TIM BAINES - Ottawa Sun
Paul Vachon has beaten cancer twice, he’s got a steel plate in his jaw, his back is shot and he needs a walker to get around.
Overzealous wrestling fans have spit on him and tried to fight him.
The 74-year-old legend they called ‘The Butcher’ figures he’s travelled nearly 13 million km to wrestle in 6,000 matches.
But he’s loving life — with no regrets from a wrestling career that spanned 30-some years.
“People look at me and I’m a bit bent over,” said Vachon. “But even if somebody told me I would wind up looking like this, I would have (been a pro wrestler) anyway. Spending a life working on a farm, that’s a job. I loved every minute of this, being a wrestler, I would have done it for free. It’s been incredible.
“I figure, who do you know that’s fought in front of 85,000 people in Karachi, Pakistan? Who wrestled in a main event at the Royal Albert Hall, in front of the Duke of Edinburgh?
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
The Butcher’s colourful past is story worthy. He’s just put together his fourth book, Wrestling with the Past: Life in and Out of the Ring [Order here], following three instalments of When Wrestling was Real. “And I still have plenty more stories to tell,” he said.
Vachon, who grew up on a farm in rural Quebec, where his days began at 5 a.m., started as an amateur wrestler when he was 13, winning a silver medal in 1955 at the Dominion championships in Regina.
He had his first pro match at age 18, teaming with his brother Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon — facing Dory Funk Sr. and Tony Morelli in North Bay, Ont.
“I froze. I was on the apron, petrified and Mad Dog was trying to get me to go into the ring,” said Vachon. “Mad Dog said if I didn’t want to go back to the farm and milk cows and shovel manure the rest of my life, I had better get into the ring.
“My dream when I was working on the farm was to travel the world. I went to Australia for two and a half months in 1962 and came back five years later.
“When I came back, I flew into Kansas City. My brother met me and said: ‘Ever since I became the Mad Dog, I’ve been making nothing but money. We have to get you an animal name.’
“So I thought he would say something like Bull, then he said: ‘We’re going to call you Paul the Pig.’
“I said I wasn’t going to wrestle as Paul the Pig. Mad Dog said we had to come up with something bloody, so we wound up with The Butcher of Paris.
“U.S. immigration showed up after awhile and said if this guy was from Paris, where was his working visa? So we just shortened it to The Butcher.”
While The Butcher was 6-foot-1 and nearing 300 pounds, he laughs when he speaks of his brother.
“Mad Dog was eight years older than me,” said Vachon. “And he was the smallest of the boys in our family (of 13 children). He was 5-foot-7. That’s why they called him the Mad Dog ... he lived up to his name. I still call him Mad Dog. I’ve known him as that longer than his real name.”
A turning point in the younger Vachon’s career came when he teamed with Mad Dog to beat AWA tag champs Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher. Vachon remembered watching them at the Montreal Forum when he was 12. He would also wrestle against Edouard Carpentier, Don Leo Jonathan, Bruno Sammartino, Lou Thesz, Whipper Billy Watson and Gene Kiniski, all stars of the day. He would be inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“Outside of the ring, if we got into trouble, they would always pick on Mad Dog because of his size,” said Vachon. “What a mistake. I would throw two or three punches and my anger would be gone. But they didn’t call him Mad Dog for nothing. I had to pull him off guys. He would knock them down and be ready to pull their eyes out.
“One time, a couple of hundred guys followed us to the parking lot. We’re going to the car with them behind us. I said, ‘We’ve got to run.’
“Mad Dog said: ‘We’re not running anywhere.’
“He turned and went up to the ringleader and punched him right in the nose. And when the guy went down, Mad Dog kicked him. The rest of the guys all left.
“After awhile, being the villains in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa ... all across Canada ... we became their villains, the Vachon brothers. We became their favourites. We never changed our style. We wrestled for Stu Hart from January until the Calgary Stampede in 1959. He was fidgety about us. Things got out of hand. People would pay their 50 cents to watch the wrestling, then they figured they had the right to assault us. We wound up in court a couple of times.
“Me and Mad Dog always waited before we went into a building. I remember one time, in Ottawa, we were going from the parking lot to the tunnel and there’s a little kid, maybe seven, standing there. He’s holding a pen and piece of paper. He wants Mad Dog to sign it. Mad Dog said to him: ‘Get out of the way, I’m going to the dressing room.’
“The kid looked like he was going to cry. So I picked him up and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll sign it.’ I gave him his autograph and forgot about it.
“Five years ago, in Vermont, this guy, maybe 6-foot-3, comes up to me, looks at me and starts shaking his head back and forth. He told me the story, he was the kid, he remembered me picking him up.”
The Butcher would start up Grand Prix Wrestling, running shows across the country.
He would also bring 7-foot-4 Andre Roussimoff to Montreal. He became known as Le Giant Ferre. Later, when a Chicago promoter asked to use the big man, he asked what he was known as.
“I told him we called him Le Giant Ferre, in English that would be The Giant Ferre. The promoter said, ‘We can’t call him The Giant Ferre, and asked what his real name was. I said it was Andre Roussimoff and the promoter said, ‘We’ll call him Andre the Giant.”
These days, Vachon is married to Dee, a former U.S. marine staff sergeant who he jokes makes him salute every morning. They travel across the U.S. to wrestling shows and conventions, stopping by flea markets and fairs along the way. Vachon has also spent a decade playing Santa in a mall in Berlin, Vt. The couple lives in Dunkin, Que., but spends a lot of time in Newport, Vt.
The past few years haven’t been easy, but Vachon is still a fighter.
His sister Vivian and her 10-year-old daughter were killed by a drunk driver; his stepdaughter Luna died of an accidental prescription drug overdose and Mad Dog had a leg amputated after being struck by a hit-and-run driver.
Apparently, it’ll take a lot to keep The Butcher down.
“All the time I was wrestling, I never had health issues,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, I got colon cancer. All the wrestlers in my day smoked those big cigars. I got throat cancer. I had 40 radiation treatments. I went from 295 to 230 pounds.
“I survived all that, but the radiation treatments weakened my jaw. My jawbone was falling apart. (To fix it) they took a bone out of my shoulder three years ago. And they put in a steel plate, so every time I fly, I have to declare it.”
Tough as nails. Just ask all those tough guys over the years who dared challenge him or Mad Dog to a fight.
Tim Baines is the Sports Editor for the Ottawa Sun and can be emailed at Tim.email@example.com.