Veteran’s Day 30 yrs ago…Sharkey’s Shmazz

In honor of Veteran’s Day on November 11, I’ve decided to write about the 30th anniversary of a wrestling card I attended in 1979.   I started to notice more about that event and how many things related to veterans weaved in and out of my life, both then and now.

Two years earlier, I first became aware of professional wrestling by seeing it on television at my grandparents house on the occasion of my grandfather’s funeral (my mother’s stepfather).  My eyes widened as Angelo “King Kong” Mosca appeared in an AWA studio bout and began the match by throwing his opponent directly out of the ring!   It was now early November 1979 when we received word that Mom’s biological father had died in their Marble Falls, TX home.  Professional wrestling intertwined with someone’s passing once more in my life.  With our tickets already purchased for the event, and Mom heading down to Texas for the funeral, Dad made the decision to keep his word and take me to the arena.  I believe he had some guilt initially over doing something fun while his wife was going through a grieving process.  Mom and her siblings were going to travel together, and someone needed to stay behind and watch the kids.  So it went, and Dad and I went to the appropriately-named Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena in Green Bay, Wisconsin on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1979 for a night of AWA All-Star Wrestling action.  

There were five preliminary bouts scheduled to whet the appetite of the eager wrestling fan, before giving way to the main event, a 14-man, $50,000 over-the-top-rope battle royal.   We took our seats on the east side of the arena and soon, the night’s action was underway!

The curtain-raiser was a 15-minute time limit matchup between Paul Ellering, the muscular powerlifter-turned-pro-grappler and a relative newcomer to AWA rings in the Golden Boy, Adrian Adonis.  For the duration of this bout, Adrian’s new tag team partner sat in his corner, the flamboyant Jesse “The Body” Ventura.   Ellering and Jesse had recently finished a series of bouts that began after an in-ring skirmish on television where Ventura had refused to release his opponent from a bearhug after gaining the submission victory, and Ellering interjected on the fallen wrestler’s behalf.  Their feud was largely inconclusive, as both men had gained important victories.  But now Adonis represented an extension of his partner, and Ellering battled Adrian with much of the same intensity as he had against “The Body”.

time limit draw.  But as Ellering prepared to try a finishing maneuver, Ventura climbed to the ring apron as a distraction.  Before Ellering could approach Jesse, Adonis rose from the mat in time to roll his opponent up from behind.  A small bit of chicanery,  indicative of the kind of tactics we would come to expect from The East-West Connection Ellering drew close to gaining the victory on numerous occasions, but it appeared the bout might reach a en route to their tag team title run.

Match two was also 15 minutes in length and went the duration in a contest between Greg Gagne and Steve Olsonoski.  Considered allies throughout the past few years, Greg and Steve were proverbially “putting the friendship aside for the match” as was the usual mantra repeated by wrestlers who faced each other despite being friendly. The sport of wrestling and staying competitive within its ranks surpassed all other motivations, a goal-oriented focus of professional success leading  the pack.

Gagne used the opportunity to demonstrate his scientific skills on the mat and in the air, while Olsonoski met Gregâ??s onslaught with a deft series of counters that resulted in several stalemates.  At this point, Gagneâ??s tactics became somewhat less sportsmanlike.  Upon a rope break, Gagne slapped Olsonoski in the face.  Steve O was up to the task and was ready to return fire.  The majority crowd selected Olsonoski as their favorite going forward.  Gagne had not completely changed his tactics, just enough for the crowd to notice, subtleties that ring generals honed to a fine art.    As the time-limit expired, all was forgiven between the two wrestlers, and a handshake cemented the â??no hard feelingsâ? that both Olsonoski and the audience had expressed earlier.

A relatively quick match followed, with the monstrous Super Destroyer Mark III (Neil Guay) unable to meet the challenge of the smaller yet always tenacious Mad Dog Vachon.   The Dogâ??s usual wild tactics were tamed to a dull roar here, as I recall many moments where the Super D was grounded by Vachonâ??s mat skills.  Not to fear, for Mad Dogâ??s trademark brawling was being saved for later, I would soon learn.

Newcomer Dino Bravo had gained a quick following among AWA fans for his initial television appearance, ending the long streak of TV victories earned by Super Destroyer Mark II.  This card and other stops on the circuit at this time marked the first look at Bravo up close.  His aerial displays were augmented with explosive power.  His opponent on this night was Buddy Wolff, only a semi-regular in AWA territory at the time.  Bravo dispatched Wolff on his climb up the ladder of AWA contender rankings. 

The fifth bout was a chance for me to see the much-heralded appearance of Andre the Giant, billed as the King of Battle Royals due in large part for his 484 pounds and 7-foot-4-inch frame.  Whatever his true stats measured, this was one large countenance of intimidation.  Jesse Ventura drew the short straw among the locals who would endure the Giantâ??s wrath.  To his credit, Ventura made a game effort of tactics designed to take Andre off his feet.  Thunderous punches, headbutts and playful maneuvers confounded Jesse at every turn, though.  Frustrated and facing further humiliation, Ventura turned on his heels and fled for the confines of the dressing room, losing via countout.   Intermission followed the match, and the wrestlers used the rest period to prepare for the main event.

The much-anticipated battle royal finally arrived!   Fourteen grapplers entered the arena and surrounded the ring, each entering upon introduction of their name.  Ten men from earlier bouts on the card (Andre the Giant, Jesse Ventura, Adrian Adonis, Paul Ellering, Steve Olsonoski, Greg Gagne, Super Destroyer Mark III, Mad Dog Vachon, Buddy Wolff and Dino Bravo) were joined at ringside by four additional grapplers (Chris Curtis, Buck Zumhofe, Billy Robinson and The Crusher).  In no time at all, the intros were completed and the bell sounded. 

After just a few minutes of jockeying for position, Greg Gagne corralled another crowd favorite, Buck Zumhofe, by the back of the neck and with great aplomb, pitched Buck over the top and to the concrete at the feet of the front-row seat holders.  Was Greg once again turning against men previously considered his friends?  No.  Again, the professional thirst for competition was presumably fueled by a desire for the cash prize, and the promise of a title match against champion Nick Bockwinkel to boot.  

On interviews leading up to the card, tag team partners Steve Olsonoski and Paul Ellering discussed a possible strategy to eliminate Andre the Giant, the tallest hurdle to navigate.  A proposed Ellering bearhug and Olsonoski dropkick combo made the airwaves in design only.  The execution of teamwork dever got off the drawing board, as Olsonoski was tossed out second.

Chris Curtis was an upstart talent who was earning his oats on television, dropping numerous matches to established stars.  He became the third man eliminated after a clumsy-looking sequence that made him appear to be escaping the battle willingly.  His chance to improve would have to wait until another day.

Billy Robinson was eliminated fourth.  Somewhat of a surprise elimination, as Robinson was a top contender and one of the favorites to win.   Now the adept audience recognized a trend at this point in the match: three of the four â??freshâ? wrestlers with no earlier match scheduled all met with an untimely exit from the ring.  Should the fans take that to mean that going in â??coldâ? was not a sound strategy?

Paul Ellering soon followed as the battle royalâ??s next victim.  His prodigious strength was soon to be plied in Southern rings; his early 1979 push had slowed to a crawl on his way out of the territory, yet he capably showcased the newcomers and those who would remain.   Elimination number six was the tweener for the night, Greg Gagne.  Perhaps his change in tactics cost him the trust of some previous allies; perhaps his regular foes capitalized on his embrace of the â??every man for himselfâ? philosophy.  Whatever story was being told, it resulted in an early night for Gagne.

The ring now thinned out, some more spectacular antics and eliminations were free to occur.  Andre tossed out Super Destroyer Mark III next, swatting the 300-pounder away like a fly.  We were down to seven men, halfway through the challenge.

A mangled mass of arms and legs convened on one side of the ring, as the collective mindset of most grapplers seemed to be that Andre would be too difficult to eliminate without help.  Thus it became Andre versus five men.  But why was it not Andre versus six?

The answer to that question could be found in a corner far away from the rest of the participants.  It was one smirk, one point to the noggin to symbolize his intelligence, one man strategizing to work around the rest, rather than through them.  One Buddy Wolff.
This posturing went on for thirty seconds or so until Wolffâ??s ploy was noticed by his own brother-in-law, Mad Dog Vachon.  The Dog decided the time for Wolff to compete was immediately!  And so, emerging from the pile, Mad Dog snuck around the back of Andre, who fended off attackers against the ropes.  With a deft motion, Vachon applied one of his patented back-rakings with fingernails no doubt sharpened pre-bout.   Enraged, Andre turned to face his assassin. Now, the collective smirk of 5,000 plus fans emerged, as Buddy Wolffâ??s jaw dropped to the floor, his eyes widening with every passing second.    Andre versus One Buddy Wolff became the lopsided matchup of the night, and within 15 seconds, the Giantâ??s wolff hunt was completed with a tanned hide and hurt pride for Buddy.

Next, the partnership of Ventura and Adonis came into play, and some of their actions earned numerous boos.  They tossed The Crusher between the ropes to even the odds a bit; Crush was down but not out.   They pounded The Giant in machine-gun-like rhythm to the beat of their own fists.   Dino Bravo suffered a similar fate as he fell almost over the top, only to be saved by Crusherâ??s helpful hand from ringside.
Vachon was next to go, as Ventura did the deed with a deliberate forearm to the backside of Mad Dog.  Seemingly unaffected, Vachon proceeded to dismantle the ringside barrier and lambaste Ventura in the back of the head with a portion of the pole removed. Before departing to the dressing room, Vachon unearthed a bucket containing metal fasteners for turnbuckles and other metallic goodies.  The bucket was promptly tossed into the ring, contents and all.  Vachon received the crowd pop of the evening.

Ventura and Adonis continued fire on both Bravo and Andr; meanwhile Crusher struggled to return to action near the apron.  Together, the East-West Connection finally got under the Giantâ??s considerable structure, leveraging it to near-elimination.  Finally with a mighty roar, Venturaâ??s muscle provided the oomph to send Andre to a crash-landing and out, only to find himself teetering to Andreâ??s totter.
Dino Bravo alertly used this opportunity to help Jesse complete his forward progress, and Ventura found himself deposited on the floor seconds later.   But just as quickly, Adonis was had the presence of mind to catch Bravo from the blindside and eliminate the Canadian star.  The last man in the ring was Adrian Adonis!
Or was he?

Slowly, from the depths of ringside, The Crusher crept back into the ring.  His ring time was lessened toward the end of the match, but not his eligibility to win.  As Adrian Adonis paraded around the ring, unaware of the work still to be done, he drank in the crowdâ??s reaction.  Then, the inevitable: KAPOW!   Rat-a-tat-rat!  There was some joy left in Mudville!  Crusherâ??s megaton biceps moved in rapid succession as the punches befell the Golden Boy. Then, to cap off the eveningâ??s events, Crusher tossed Adonis over the top rope, to a heap at ringside. No gimmicky paycheck was awarded, but surely Crusher would be collecting his fifty grand later.   The promise of a title shot against Nick Bockwinkel on next monthâ??s card would have sufficed.   And so it went.

On this Veteranâ??s Day, I recall the great stars of the squared circle who put forth an incredible effort for a young ten-year old newly interested in the mat sport.  I recall Mom receiving her fatherâ??s American flag from the funeral. And I recall Dadâ??s decision to honor his father-in-law by keeping a promise to those grandchildren he only saw a handful of times. In different ways,  on this Veteranâ??s Day, I can appreciate their personal struggles. And I thank them all for their service.

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