Age doesn't count when you're tough!
By DAN PROUDFOOT -- Toronto Sun
Fred Atkins as photographed by Dan Proudfoot during the interview for this story.
CRYSTAL BEACH, Ont. -- If you were to visit this Lake Erie tourist town and
for some reason arise
before the dawn and walking along Oxford St., meet Fred Atkins on his way to
the beach, your first
impression might be the same as mine or any Toronto Maple Leafs who've made
his acquaintance in the
past week: If this guy looks this baleful when he's being pleasant, what can
he be like when he's mad?
At an age somewhere on the grey side of 70, his impact is such that one
makes his hair so black.
Long retired from the wrestling profession, he's anything but retiring.
Here he is at 5:30 a.m. On his way for his eight-mile run along the beach,
as he has since the
days when he would encounter brontosauruses along the shores and take them
two falls out of three.
Tough? Ask the Whip, who would never lie.
"Even today I would say that Fred Atkins would defeat 90% of the wrestlers
in the business,"
testifies Whipper Billy Watson, whom Atkins beat for the British Empire
championship in 1949. "He was
the toughest, best-conditioned wrestler I ever saw."
This is one reason the Leafs employ him to show their players a thing or
two about fitness each
year at training camp. He may be an old-age pensioner from Australia who
never learned how to skate. No
matter, for Fred Atkins' reputation is such that athletes flock to his
basement gym for workouts.
What kind of guy makes Borje Salming sweat? "The Wild Buffalo," according
to a dispatch from
Japan that's among the many clipping on his gymnasium wall, "is a rough,
tough wrestler because he
comes from the coal mines."
Atkins harumphs at this. "Never been in a coal mine in my life." He
chuckles. "Wild Buffalo?
Hmph, I don't even come from Buffalo!"
Until he's taken your measure, Atkins is a man of few words. "You'd never
get Fred telling
stories the first day you meet him," explains Peter McNab of the Boston
Bruins. "With me, I wasn't worthy
of the tea and cupcakes upstairs until I'd stuck it out in that basement for
a lot of workouts. That's
when the stories start."
And so Fred will offer as simple fact that wrestlers have come around the
world to train with him
in the little bungalow with "The Atkins" painted on the sign. But he doesn't
tell you, as he has an old
friend, that "more than once blood flew off those basement walls, and it was
He does say the great Shohei Baba, now the major domo of pro wrestling in
Japan, brought a film
crew to document the cramped but neat (one supposes the walls have been
washed) basement. But it's for
the Whip to note "Jeet Singh was nothing until Fred got him and made a
wrestler of him."
He doesn't train the Leafs to wrestle, and he's certainly not there to make
them more muscular.
Atkins' fame as a trainer is in producing stronger, more agile, less
"A hockey player is the same as any other athalete," he says, and his idea
of a true ath-a-
is as special as his pronunciation. "The trouble with a lot of them
is, they've never been in shape.
They've concentrated on building muscles, you see, when in athaletics you
have to be quick -- and you lose
quickness by lifting weights. I turn 'em around, get 'em stretching ligaments.
Naturally, not every hockey player agrees. One Buffalo Sabre hotshot, a
scoring ace when that
team employed Fred fulltime a decade ago, went beyond refusing the off-ice
drills. The critic made
mention of cauliflower ears, Australian accents. "You do not push Fred, he
will not take it," says Peter
McNab. "Fred said, 'Oh, that's enough of that,' gave him a good quick cuff,
and the guy, who I'm not
about to name, found himself on the floor. You could just feel everybody's
respect perk up."
Those were the years when Sabres appeared as Stanley Cup contenders, with
Punch Imlach as
manager and Joe Crozier coaching. Most of the players privately gave much of
the credit to Atkins, while
not taking any away from their coach. "The year they went to the finals
there wasn't a single knee injury,"
says Pat Hannigan, then as now a Sabre television broadcaster. "That was
because of Fred."
It was Hannigan who tipped Sabres off about the old wrestler from Crystal
Beach. As American
Hockey League players from the years before Sabres entered the big league,
Hannigan and Billy Dea had
known about the Atkins basement for a long time. "Wish I'd know him in 1960
when I was going to the
New York Rangers," says Hannigan. "With Fred I'm confident I could have had
10 years in the NHL
instead of three and a half.
"Look what he did for Peter McNab. Peter was a weakling when he came to
Buffalo, you could
push him off the puck in the corners. He's been just the opposite ever since
he went to Boston."
Says McNab: "I didn't start working out seriously
with Fred until
the year I came to
Boston. It was the turning point of my career. It's a shame the Leafs only
have him for training camp,
because in a mass training situation like that you don't get to know the
guy, and he has so much to offer."
The Leafs will not get to know Atkins because he dislikes Toronto, or, for
that matter, any city. "I
guess it's because I'm from the bush, a little town in Queensland," he says.
"So I commute to training
camp from here. I bought this house in 1948 after I'd come to America to
wrestle. A perfect location. In
the country, but easy to get to the Buffalo airport, then Los Angeles, then
Japan. Or, the other way to
Toronto and Europe.
in Toronto? Nossir, not even for training camp. I don't
stop for nothing, not
even a cop, it's back to Crystal Beach for me."
Even Fred's memory of Toronto's wrasslin' Fans is vaguely negative. "They
were sort of wishy-
washy: whether they were with me or against me depended on who I was
wrestling. I wasn't a villain,
didn't gouge anybody in the eye or anything. Don't know why they didn't like
me more, maybe I was too
aggressive for them."
The problem, in Whipper Billy Watson's opinion, was that Atkins was
underestimated. He was
among the top 10 wrestlers anywhere, the Whip says, but never showy. "You'd
never see Fred do a
dropkick, never a flying tackle. That was not his style. His was a
Greco-Roman style, closer to Olympic-
type wrestling than anybody else."
He remains just as straightforward. Within minutes of your reporter's
arrival Atkins takes me to
the basement. "Get down on your back on the mat," he directs. "Take one of
these sticks: there, get it back
behind your neck."
You do not think of saying no to Fred Atkins. Soon he has me lifting my
legs, bending my knees,
straining my guy. In five minutes he's got a catalogue of my weaknesses. In
10 minutes he's demonstrating
what everybody has already told me: he must be the strongest man, for his
age, in the world. He learned
everything he knows, he says, from "Herzog, an old German who moved to
Australia and started teaching
me when I was around 12."
Two hours later, he returns to the mats, picks up the coins that had
dropped from my pockets
during the exercise. "This is how I get my tips," he chuckles. "See, you
never get rich training ath-a-