Mad Dog's Winnipeg connections
DOUG LUNNEY - Winnipeg Sun
|Mad Dog Vachon suits up for Schmockey Night at the Winnipeg Arena. Photo by Bob Holliday
I remember feeling awkward phoning Maurice (Mad Dog) Vachon that morning.
I was a big wrestling fan as a kid and the Mad Dog was a legend.
Winnipeg radio personality and former World Wrestling Federation announcer Joe Aiello was hosting a tribute show for Vachon in January 2002. He gave me Vachon's number in Iowa, so I could interview him in advance of the show.
I knew it was Mad Dog when he answered, recognizing the voice from all those colourful interviews in the 1970s and '80s, but I still asked to speak to Mr. Vachon.
"Ya, you got da Mad Dog," he said with his familiar growl, then he chuckled, instantly putting me at ease.
Vachon, who lived in St. Boniface during his American Wrestling Association days in the early 1980s, died of natural causes early Thursday at his home in Omaha, Neb.
He was 84.
Vachon was such a national icon, his passing drew a comment from the Prime Minister.
"My deepest condolences to the family of Maurice 'Mad Dog' Vachon, a Canadian wrestling legend," Stephen Harper tweeted.
Bob Holliday, a former AWA employee and longtime friend of Vachon's, spoke with Vachon's wife, Kathie, on Thursday. Vachon suffered from several health issues and passed away in his sleep, Holliday said.
Holliday recalled how former wrestler Jesse (The Body) Ventura called Vachon the toughest man he ever met. However, Mad Dog was very tame outside the ring.
"He used to sunbathe in my backyard and after he moved away I was still getting kids knocking on my door saying 'Can Mad Dog come out and play?'" Holliday said.
Holliday has fond memories of sharing meals with Vachon at St. Boniface's Red Top Drive Inn.
"He loved their chicken, but he didn't want fries," Holliday said. "That's why the Red Top has chicken and spaghetti on their menu."
Vachon grew up in Montreal and represented Canada as an 18-year-old amateur wrestler in the 1948 Olympics in London. He followed it with a gold medal at the 1950 British Empire Games, before working as a bouncer and becoming a professional wrestler. He was a 2010 World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame inductee.
In the ring, he would routinely bite and stomp his opponents, pull their hair and rake his fingernails down their backs. Vachon, along with The Crusher and Baron Von Raschke, were the last of an era before WWE owner Vince McMahon, who leaned more toward wrestlers with bodybuilding resumes, said Aiello.
"He was the one guy you didn't want to cross," Aiello said. "He was fair, friendly and always wanted to do business, but there was a certain respect about his legit toughness.
"Yet when we got to know him, you would never know he had a mean streak. He was just the nicest man."
Aiello enjoyed a week with Vachon leading up to his tribute show, including three well-attended autograph sessions. He was surprised when French media gave the event national coverage.
Aiello and Holliday recalled Vachon's sense of humour, which was evident at charity events as well as locally shot TV ads.
Vachon had a leg amputated following a 1987 hit-and-run incident while out for a walk in Iowa.
"They spent so much time working on his shattered leg that a blood clot formed in his good leg and they had to amputate his good leg," Holliday said.
"I remember talking to him in the hospital and he said 'Doc, I'm so lucky. There are people here with no arms and no feet. They are much worse than me.'"
Doug Lunney has been with the Winnipeg Sun since 1995, working as a sports reporter, news reporter, city editor and assistant managing editor before becoming a columnist.