One By One, Wrestlers Leave The Ring

The Oregonian – May 15, 2001
By Steve Duin

There’s not a lot of give in the mat when you’re 70 years old, so, no, Haru Sasaki did not bounce back from his final fall. He couldn’t jerk on the shorts of the brute pinning him to gain a little time. Nor could he slip away with the wily escape that typically outraged the Portland Armory throng and forced the promoters to bring him back for a rematch.

Thus, the family of Stanley Haruo Sasaki — “Sak” — gathered Monday morning to memorialize one of the grand old villains of Portland wrestling.

Back in the day when “Sinister Cinema” was the scariest thing about Saturday night, Sak — who died May 5 — was the Japanese boogeyman. Odd Job without the razor-rimmed hat. “He was a rascal, a rogue, Mr. Bad Guy, the dastardly, underhanded World War II holdover,” said Dan Spiering, Sak’s son-in-law. “That was his game. That was his act.”

“He brought the ‘Oriental’ style into the ring,” said Tough Tony Borne, meaning (if you missed the show on Channel 12) that the 5-foot-6, 230-pound Sak specialized in sneak attacks and karate chops. “He played the part to the hilt. He could really get the crowd worked up and that was the name of the game back then.”

Such clumsy stereotyping wouldn’t play today, but 35 years ago Pearl Harbor was an open wound, not a Jerry Bruckheimer production. And the carnival promoter Don Owen brought to the Armory or the Sports Arena for 38 years featured the most basic bad guys: the German Von Steigers, the Japanese, and Mutt-and-Jeff acts like Borne and Lonnie Mayne, who was dimmer than the light bulb he was invariably chewing on camera.

When Stan “The Crusher” Stasiak died in 1997, Sasaki recalled the passions outside the ropes. “People hated the Japanese,” he said. “I got booed all the time. I got death threats, and in some small towns I had to leave hidden in a trunk.”

But when he got home — Lake Oswego, for the last 32 years of his life — Sak was a celebrity. “Everyone loved these guys,” said his widow, Mary. “They were characters. They were local. People knew them by name. And they loved their villains. The little old ladies couldn’t wait to sit in the front row and poke him with their umbrellas. He really got hurt one time. He was aching for weeks.”

That was much of the old wrestling crowd on Saturday nights, little old ladies and teen-agers enchanted by their first tame brush with seediness. Even in the clouds of cigarette smoke, good and evil were easy to pick out. Sex and Vince McMahon weren’t part of the package. Those blatant caricatures? “If that was the worst thing out there now,” said Sak’s daughter, Darcy, “the world would be great.”

There wasn’t much of a wrestling crowd at Grace Lutheran Church for Monday’s memorial service. Borne, his wife, Nona, and his cauliflower ear dropped by, but most of the assembly related less to the black-and-white stills of Sak’s wrestling career than to the color shots of the golfer, the patriarch, the old man trying not to cry when he is surrounded by grandchildren and birthday presents.

Owen once estimated he used Sak in 5,000 matches, but Mary, his wife of 37 years, insists she never saw once her husband play the bad guy inside the ring. (“And you know what?” she said, “I’ve been a bartender all my life and he never took a drink.”) He quit the sport in the mid-’70s, after all, and sold cars for a time, then worked the seafood counter and bakery aisle at the Safeway on Lake Oswego’s A Avenue.

Sak kept the pictures of his old life packed away in a box he pulled out only when The Crusher’s heart failed him or Mayne died in that head-on collision, or he caught one of his old opponents, Andre the Giant, in “The Princess Bride.”

He had the good fortune to love what he did, Mary said, even when he played the bad guy. But he had the good sense to surround himself in the end with those who never bought his act, and endeavored to tell him so in ways that left more lasting marks than the ends of those umbrellas.

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