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  May 17, 1999



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Vachon's bark worse than his bite
By CLAIRE BICKLEY -- Toronto Sun
'Mad Dog' Vachon: Fans adore the "gruff" wrestling legend. -- Norm Betts, SUN
"It's bad when the dog has to get up before the chicken," Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon was complaining about his dawn wake-up call for a TV appearance.

 But then he smiled, an angelic, gap-toothed grin cancelling out his mock gruffness.

 So softspoken is the old-time wrestling champ, in fact, I asked him to speak up for the tape recorder.

 "I can raise my voice ve-ry fast and ve-ry easily for the least pro-vo-ca-tion," the 69-year-old growled, here to promote a TV biography, Wrestling With The Past, airing Wednesday night on The Comedy Network.

 "You don't have to push me too far or you'll find out real soon," he cautioned, but this time the warning came with a wink.

 A notorious villain in the ring, known for eye-gouging, ear-biting and spitting on opponents, Vachon remains adored by fans who saw through to his true sweet nature.

 So familiar is their affection that they treat him like a member of the family. Or sometimes like the family pet.

 A senior citizen from North Bay interrupted our cafe interview to request he pose for a photo with him, then enthusiastically rubbed his bald head. A moment earlier, it was a stylish, fortysomething French-Canadian woman who could keep her hands but not her admiration to herself.

 "Sorry to disturb," she apologized, not taking her eyes from him. "I was his big fan when I was very small."

 "All the time. Everywhere I go," Vachon reflected afterwards, then quipped, "Mostly the women who come up and talk to me, they look like me."

 It's not entirely clear to me how Wrestling With The Past qualifies as a comedy special, nor is it to its subject.

 Much of it is simply Vachon and little brother Paul "The Butcher" Vachon reminiscing. Vachon represented Canada at the 1948 Olympics and the British Empire Games two years later, then climbed into the ring as a pro until 1986.

 Contemporaries Killer Kowalksi, Baron Van Raschke and Intelligent, Sensational Destroyer also appear in the show, but there's no sign of old friend and foe Jesse Ventura. The show does recall how a boozy Vachon once opened the door of the small plane they were sharing on the way home from a wrestling match. "Oh, I was having fun, you know," Vachon told me. "You know what I mean, when you're young and foolish."

 Before the emergency landing, Vachon's soiled trunks and jock strap blew out the broken door and sailed down on the people of Minnesota -- the people Ventura now serves as governor.

 "You know they have T-shirts now, 'Our Governor Can Beat Up Your Governor?' I had a T-shirt when I went on TV there, 'I Beat Up Your Governor.' "

 Wrestling beat Vachon up pretty bad. The low voice comes from a larynx fractured several times. He has a cauliflower ear, can't fully extend his arms and his hands are as gnarled as an old witch hazel tree.

 The last of three major car accidents -- "I spent 20 years of my life travelling over 20,000 miles a year by car in any kind of weather. Forget about the wrestling. Just the travelling would kill the average person," he said -- delivered the worst body blow. In 1987 in Iowa city, he lost a leg.

 Fans sent 25,000 cards, Brian Mulroney phoned, a gas company president sent the corporate jet to carry him home.

 "You think other people, they really don't hate you," he said chuckling, and if he can laugh at his life -- ups, downs and all -- he hopes TV viewers can as well.

 "That's what life is all about. Some people give up easy. I have too much dog in me."

 Mad Dog, you're a pussycat.

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