Al Tomko gave me my first break into pro wrestling while promoting Canada's All Star Wrestling based in Vancouver, BC. Al was very good to me, even though he would jokingly say to his own son on the road, "if you're eating steak, I must be paying you too much." Al had a good heart though.
When we came off a long road trip and rolled into town early on Saturday morning, with the weekly show in the small town of Cloverdale, BC, on that night, instead of making me go 100 miles or so back home or getting a hotel, Al would just let me stay at his house. He welcomed me into his home, gave me a nice room to sleep in and I had meals with the family. From what I understand, most of the boys had never been to Al's house.
Don't get me wrong, I spent most of my time with everyone else in crowded hotel rooms and many nights at the ferry dock sleeping in the cab of the ring truck with Al's son Todd and Mike Edwards, who is a very big man. Al would tell me before a trip, "Huh, huh, Oly, if Todd falls asleep at the wheel, just slap him in the head." I also slept in Al's van on many nights. The sight of Al sleeping face down with a pillow on the steering wheel is easy to remember.
Al started showing me the ropes right away, and I mean more outside the ring than in it.
This was before it was so common for every promotion to have a wrestling school. I contacted Al via the All Star Wrestling TV show and he invited me up to Canada for a meeting. I met him in November 1983 at Cloverdale. I was standing outside in the cold with the marks until I saw Al walking up to the building. I walked up to him and introduced myself and he said, "Huh huh, what are ya doin out here? Come on in." I don't know why I remember what he said so well, but I guess it's because he sort of showed me some concern and respect right away by quickly separating me from the marks. I was in the ring that night flexing my muscles and a month or so later I was training in the Cloverdale ring. When it was time for my first match, Al sort of let it be known that he would like the veterans to take care of me in the ring, and they did. There were a lot of really good professionals working for Al in the mid-'80s.
As time went on, I learned from Al and the other wrestlers, six nights a week on the road. In the beginning, I would meet Al at his house in Blaine, Washington, and ride across the Canadian-American border with him. Al would stop and get a bottle of whiskey at the duty free store for the TV crew. I was a weightlifter so he would often talk about other wrestlers who were weightlifters like Superstar Billy Graham. He would say, "Huh, Oly, let me tell you about this guy, I don't know if you know him, auh, Superstar Billy Graham". I laughed inside myself because in the '80s everyone who knew anything about wrestling knew who Superstar Billy Graham was. He might as well have said, "Huh, Oly, let me tell you about this guy, I don't know if you know him auh, Hulk Hogan."
As I gained experience, I started seeing things Al did that just didn't seem right.
At TV tapings, for example, he would book the shows, but he never watched the monitor as the camera was rolling. He just stayed in one of the rooms at the studio and booked the show from there. I also know from being a guest in his home that the All Star Wrestling TV program was never watched in the household. Al virtually never watched the show. When I stayed at his house, I wanted to see the show and see how it looked for that week and he would let me watch it but he told me, "Huh, Oly, auh, we don't watch the show here usually, auh, but it's okay you can watch it if you want to."
Al had all the knowledge and experience that made him a long-time promoter in the wrestling business and he was an expert at going into a town and working everything for publicity. However, in the end he would sit at his kitchen table and send out rolls of posters to towns hundreds of miles away, trusting someone who he may not have even met to put out the posters and promote the shows. I watched him do it.
Al seemed to reach a point that maybe he was tired of it all, but couldn't break away from it until he had to.
Al was a true classic in professional wrestling.
Many may think that there wasn't much to learn from Al, but there was for sure. There were also some things that I didn't understand, such as where did the money come from to pay the boys and expenses, etc. There were still some big houses in the mid-'80s, but for the most part it was a time of transition for the old independent wrestling promotions. Sometimes we would come off of a bad week on the road and the math just didn't seem to add up. I guess a few years later when Al no longer had the nice house that he invited me to many times, was when I realized where some of the money must have come from.
Some who came before me have spoken badly about Al. I have nothing bad to say. I saw Al as a shrewd business man and I saw him as a father to his four children. One night at TV, Al's son Terry had been in a bad motorcycle accident, and Al sort of went about business as usual. One wouldn't have thought that Terry had life-threatening injuries, but on the way home from TV, Al looked at me, eyes watering, and said, "I hope I don't lose that little guy." I'm glad I got see that side of Al.
Wrestling was in Al Tomko's blood. Wrestling is in my blood. Thanks for everything Al.
August 6, 2009: Al Tomko -- a true original -- dies
Al Tomko Career Record
Previous SLAM! Wrestling obituaries
Al Tomko in the Canadian Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame
The Canadian Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame
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Todd "Oly" Olsen wrestled professionally for 15 years. He runs the website www.blackbootwrestling.com.