Portland, Me., Press-Herald – August 16, 2001
By Darla L. Pickett
SKOWHEGAN – Paul “The Butcher” Vachon once traveled the world as a professional wrestler in the days “when wrestling was real.”
He was at the top of his game as Canada’s amateur wrestling champion.
On Wednesday, the rugged, 64-year-old athlete who once wrestled the likes of Jesse “The Body” Ventura, now the governor of Minnesota, and Gorgeous George, was hawking magnetic wands to patrons at the Skowhegan State Fair.
Among his customers were fans, young and old. Some said they remembered Vachon at the height of his career and wanted to shake his hand. Others, especially younger wrestling buffs, were just excited to meet a “real” wrestler.
Anxious to shake Vachon’s hand, Edward Withee, of Waterville, remembered the wrestler as one of his favorites, like Jay Strongbow and George “The Animal” Steele.
Vachon said he was a wrestler back when “wrestling was real,” when the fight was really a fight, not just a show.
“Oh yes, we did outrageous things. But it was a family show that you could watch with your kids.
“Today, it is morally scandalous. They swear, make lewd gestures and every wrestler is a bad guy. That’s not the message to send.”
Vachon was 17 years old when he started his professional wrestling career, his ticket away from the mundane chores of the family farm in Canada.
Born Joseph Ferdinand Paul Vachon – “all French Canadian males for 350 years were called Joseph,” he said – Vachon set out to make a name for himself.
At more than 6 feet tall and with broad shoulders and powerful legs, Vachon said he nearly lost his chance at a wrestling career when a Detroit promoter said his blond hair and clean-shaven face made him look too young.
“I just about cried,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m not going back to the farm and milk cows.’ ”
So Vachon grew a beard and shaved his head.
“That was in 1956, when there was the Sputnik craze,” he said. “(Promoters) made a Russian out of me. I haven’t had a haircut since.”
His brother, Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, who was often part of a tag-team match with him, started his career as a wrestler in the 1948 Olympics.
Paul Vachon’s career spanned 31 years, from 1955 to 1986. It took him to India, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Great Britain, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Sri Lanka, which in those days was called Ceylon.
“Every two weeks they sent us off to Europe for two or three days – to Paris, Germany, Greece, Japan,” he said. “The way I did it, it afforded me a way to educate myself in the way of life in other places.”
He said he lived for months, sometimes more than a year, in some countries, which gave him a chance to be more than just a tourist. He said he averaged 200 matches a year.
“I even made some movies,” Vachon said.
He said the movie industry was big in India, “bigger than in Hollywood.” He said he met Indian Dara Singh in Canada when he was a professional wrestler in the 1950s. Singh later became a big movie star in India, taking roles such as Tarzan and the Gladiator.
“They were short of people to play villains and, of course, villains had to be white, so there I was,” Vachon said, smiling.
Vachon remembered wrestling in front of 85,000 people at a soccer stadium in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1963.
“It was the largest crowd ever drawn for a wrestling match worldwide,” he said.
Of Ventura, Vachon said he was a “mediocre” wrestler.
“I wiped the floor up with him,” he said. “But he’s a great governor for Minnesota.”
He said he and Ventura remain friendly, however.
Two years ago, when Vachon traveled to St. Paul, Minn., to promote a festival, Ventura sent his bodyguard and personal secretary to meet him.
Last year, Canada produced a documentary on Vachon’s life titled “Wrestling with the Past.”
Vachon’s daughter, Luna, became a wrestler, he said, “making more in three years than I did in 32.”
When Vachon retired at age 56, he did what he thought he would never do: He returned to the farmstead in Canada where he and his seven brothers and five sisters were raised. It is about a mile from the Vermont border.
But when Vachon sat to read and write his life story, he said he “got tired of sitting” and started printing T-shirts.
A wholesaler asked Vachon to go on the road selling his products. And now he is a long way from the career he started nearly five decades ago.
“I wrestled when wrestling was real,” Vachon said. “I can’t say I was fighting for my life; that wouldn’t be true. But I was fighting to win.”