The Minneapolis Star – August 29, 1964
Amateur athletes and teams in the Twin City area will benefit from proceeds of tonight’s professional wrestling card matching Vern Gagne against The Crusher in St. Paul’s Midway Stadium. Continue reading
The Minneapolis Star – August 29, 1964
Amateur athletes and teams in the Twin City area will benefit from proceeds of tonight’s professional wrestling card matching Vern Gagne against The Crusher in St. Paul’s Midway Stadium. Continue reading
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal – April 26, 1962
Sir Nelson Royal won over Ricky Romero in the big main event here Wednesday night only to see the decision withdrawn. As it turned out, the third fall was fought over and ended in a draw.
In the semifinal match, the tag team of Dory Funk and Eric Rommel won in two straight falls over The Viking and Crybaby Cannon. Continue reading
The Minneapolis Star – June 22, 1965
GOP, Look Out
Watch out Republicans, the DFL may start applying wrestling holds to you next.
Vern Gagne, professional wrestler will demonstrate some of his “bone crushing” tactics at a DFL “fun festival” Saturday at Excelsior Park. Continue reading
Springfield MO Daily News – November 21, 1963
Trickery backfired for Al (Bolo) Lovelock and Tony Borne in their wrestling match with Joe McCarthy and Irish Mike Clancy, with the result that the partners battled all the way to the dressing room after the feature at the Shrine Mosque. Continue reading
Milwaukee Sentinel – April 14, 1966
Big time wrestling will return to Milwaukee after a three year absence Apr. 23, with five bouts scheduled at the Auditorium starting at 9 p.m.
A double main event will highlight the card. Continue reading
Milwaukee Sentinel – May 1, 1968
Saturday night’s professional wrestling show at the Auditorium, which is topped by a tag team match, was completed Tuesday with the signing of two more bouts.
The Milwaukee Journal – December 27, 1967
Two more acts, added Tuesday, complete the professional wrestling card to be staged Saturday night at the Auditorium. Reg Parks and Doug Gilbert will meet Black Bart and Barron Von Roschke in a tag match and Eddie Sharkey will pair off with Johnny Kace in the curtain raiser. In other exhibitions, Harley Race will meet Igor Vodik in what is billed as the main event and Hard Boiled Haggerty will appear with Rene Goulet in the semifinal.
City Pages – November 15, 2000
By Mike Mosedale
“Okay guys,” barks Eddie Sharkey. “Let’s start taking some bumps!” Taking a bump–learning how to fall without getting hurt — is the most basic lesson in professional wrestling. Eddie Sharkey, the self-avowed Trainer of Champions, is a believer in the basics.
“You gotta get ’em so it’s second nature,” he explains during an afternoon lesson at his Pro Wrestling Camp. Sitting ringside in a folding metal chair, Sharkey is content to let Charlie Norris demonstrate. Norris, a veteran headliner and a longtime Sharkey protg, climbs into the ring, and a dozen or so wrestlers — fat and skinny, old and young — form a line to wait their turn. One by one, the brawny Norris hurls them to the mat, which produces a loud thud, metallic clank, and a critique from Sharkey. “See how them people hit the mat? Look how they break their fall with both arms, how their chins are tucked on their chests,” Sharkey says with a note of pride. “We protect ’em real well. Have to. This can be a dangerous business.”
In the warm months, Sharkey’s students take their bumps in the back yard of a 1940s-style bungalow, tucked in a quiet residential district of the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. But with a cold front blowing in, Sharkey and his partner, Terry Fox, agreed it was time to move the ring into a two-car garage behind the house. “I hate it when we gotta move inside,” Sharkey grouses. “It’s just depressing.” A short, muscular man of 63, Sharkey looks like an ex-wrestler straight out of central casting. He has a meaty face, an unruly shock of reddish hair, broad shoulders, and a barrel chest that speaks to a lifetime spent in the weight room.
A few exposed light bulbs dangle from the ceiling. There is not a lot of clearance between the rafters and the ring. So until outdoor practice resumes in the spring, Sharkey says, his wrestlers will simply have to forgo the high-flying, off-the-ropes stunts that are a mainstay of the contemporary game. “They can do mat work, learn how to sell,” he says, finding the silver lining. “There’s always things to work on. And we can practice later because we don’t bother the neighbors as much when we’re in the garage.” The chipboard wall at the back of the garage is plastered with dozens of wrestling bills, advertising shows at bars, VFWs, and high school gyms. Some of the cards are promoted by Sharkey, under the banner of Wrestle America 2000 or Pro Wrestling America, others by Fox. It is strictly small-time, straight-to-cable-access stuff. But for students at Sharkey’s camp, the shows provide a valuable opportunity to practice their craft in front of a live audience. Some even hope they will get good enough to win an audition with a bigtime outfit like the World Wrestling Federation.
In his four decades in the wrestling business, Sharkey has worked in surroundings more humble than Terry Fox’s garage. A few years back he taught lessons on a makeshift boxing ring that sat on some railroad ties. For a while, he trained in the basement of Calvary Baptist Church in south Minneapolis. He didn’t even have access to a ring, just a small padded mat. If a wrestler miscalculated while taking a fall, Sharkey says, a hard concrete floor did the teaching: “It’s amazing how good they got. And how quick they got good.”
Sharkey’s prize pupil from that era, “Luscious” Lenny Lane, landed a contract with World Championship Wrestling — wrestling’s number two company — less than two years after he began training with Sharkey. Graduates of Sharkey’s other camps include some of the best-known names in the game: the wildly popular tag team the Road Warriors, the late “Ravishing” Rick Rude, even Jesse “The Body” Ventura. “A couple of years ago, I tried to sit down and count ’em all, but I couldn’t,” Sharkey says proudly. “There’s been so many. I’m pretty sure I’ve had more world champions than anyone else.”
In the past, Sharkey’s camps (he resists the use of the term school) generally consisted of one, two, sometimes four guys. But since he partnered up with Fox, who grew up watching Sharkey wrestle and has been a nut for wrestling ever since, enrollment has boomed. Currently there are some 30 regulars at camp, each of whom shelled out $3,000 for the tutelage. “Nobody’s getting rich off this,” Sharkey insists, pointing out that tuition entitles wrestlers to participate in camp as long as they wish. Some come for three months. Others hang around for years.
Most days, camp is casual. Wrestlers drift in and out and work at their own pace. But today, Sharkey is looking for a more regimented workout. For most of the past year, Sharkey has promoted a monthly show at the Main Event sports bar in Fridley. A few weeks ago, following a disappointing turnout, Sharkey lost the gig, and he has no interest in begging for its return. “I wanna let ’em run it themselves once or twice. And if they go down the toilet, maybe we’ll come back,” he says. As luck would have it, Charlie Norris, who regularly headlines Sharkey’s cards and occasionally co-promotes them, has lined up a show at a Grumpy’s sports bar in Coon Rapids. Sharkey is hoping to parlay a success there into a gig at a Grumpy’s in downtown Minneapolis. Sharkey wants to get back downtown. That’s where he cut his teeth. And, he says, that’s where he could make a few bucks.
Growing up in south Minneapolis, Eddie Shyman (he didn’t become Sharkey until he began his pro career) was a big wrestling fan. His father, Tom Shyman, was a first-generation immigrant from Poland who worked in the liquor-display business. On weekends in the late Forties the elder Shyman often took young Eddie to the old Minneapolis Auditorium for the regular shows. A wide-eyed Sharkey soaked it up. “There was a lot of great wrestlers in those days. Sometimes I just hung around outside the auditorium and hoped that somebody would let me in.” At the time Sharkey harbored no desire to wrestle. But he always knew he wanted to be a tough guy. Undersized, he took to weightlifting. He also took to the streets, dropping out of HopkinsHigh School in the tenth grade. Much to the disappointment of his parents, Sharkey’s taste for street brawling led to two stints at the boys’ reformatory in Red Wing. Sharkey looks back on the experience fondly: “That was my education. I made lifelong friends there with kids and staff. I don’t have any feelings for Hopkins High. But I’ve got emotions for Red Wing. I learned everything I needed to know there: hit hard, talk fast, and never forget what honor means.”
By the time he was 17, Sharkey was full of wanderlust. Even then he didn’t care for the cold, so he spent his winters in Hollywood, where he got by working a succession of menial jobs: washing dishes, painting cars, moving furniture, even hawking watches on the sidewalk. When he wasn’t punching the clock, he sought out adventure in whatever form he could find it. He worked as a bouncer at a strip bar and, for a spell, lived with one of the dancers. “That was back when stripping was an honorable profession,” he cracks. He also got an eyeful of the Hollywood street life. He remembers being awed at the sight of the legendary gangster Mickey Cohen, a diamond-flashing dandy, stepping from nightclub to limo. “I wish I had gone up and talked to him,” he says wistfully. “That would have been something.” In the summers Sharkey always returned to Minneapolis, where he rubbed elbows with a colorful cadre of con artists and muscle men who hung around the downtown bars, restaurants, and gyms. “It was wonderful,” he says. “Nobody worked. We had the boosters. We had the shoplifters. We had ’em all. And everyone was a character. There was no weak guys. There was just the tough and the tougher.”
Reform school had not cured Sharkey of his street-fighting ways, and, deciding it was time to put his fist and chin to work, he took up boxing. Planning to go straight to the pros, he trained at the now-defunct Mill City Gym in Minneapolis, where he got some valuable experience working as sparring partner with the great middleweight Del Flanagan. But as it turned out, Sharkey’s efforts to make a name for himself came just as the Twin Cities boxing scene took one of its periodic and catastrophic downturns. After the only active promoter in the Twin Cities died, Sharkey started casting about for an alternative. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. But he was sure about one thing: He didn’t want to work a straight job.
Carnival wrestling seemed a natural fit. By the late Fifties the carnival era was drawing to a close, but Sharkey managed to hook up with a few of the remaining outfits, including one called Chief Little Wolf’s Athletic Show. Wrestling as many as 12 times a day, he barnstormed across the state, mostly working county fairs. Sometimes he served as a jobber; the guy who would come out of the stands to take on and lose to a champion. Other times he would grapple with authentic challengers from the audience. (“Usually it was just some guy who drank too much, and he’d wind up throwing up all over the place. But sometimes they’d have pretty good amateur wrestlers come up.”) He also wrestled in a pure novelty act. His adversary? A baboon known as Congo the Ape. “That ugly little son of a gun was real fast, and he had sharp fingernails,” Sharkey laughs. “He scratched me a couple of times. But I smartened up. I would just bend down and let him play with my hair for a minute. I had to be careful. The promoter would always say to me, ‘Don’t lay on the ape!’ He didn’t give a shit about me — he just didn’t want me to hurt the baboon. It would actually be kind of boring, but you know what they say: There’s a sucker born every minute.”
While the money was decent ($30 to $40 bucks on a good day), the carnival hardly provided steady work. Sharkey began to wonder if there might be a better way to make a living. At the time, professional wrestling in the U.S. was split into some 20 territories, which regional promoters operated like personal fiefdoms. Minnesota was one of the hottest territories in the land. In 1960 Verne Gagne — once a golden-boy halfback at the University of Minnesota and a standout amateur wrestler — broke from the National Wrestling Alliance, which then held the Minnesota territory. In partnership with the late Wally Karbo, Gagne formed the American Wrestling Association, which televised its regular cards from a studio in the Calhoun Beach Club. Soon Gagne (who was also the AWA’s longtime champ) was routinely packing auditoriums throughout the state. Minnesota became a national wrestling mecca.
Around the same time, Sharkey met Lenny Montana, who would later achieve cinematic fame playing the role of mob hit man Luca Brasi in “The Godfather.” Montana was a popular wrestler, a fast-talking East Coast guy. After striking up a friendship, Montana clued Sharkey in on the then-unacknowledged truth about professional wrestling: The outcomes are all predetermined. “Everyone suspected it, but there was always an air of mystery, and you never quite knew,” Sharkey remembers. A strict code of silence among wrestlers helped foster the illusion. “You’d talk to your fellow wrestlers about it. Anyone else, you’d die first. You wouldn’t tell your own mother. And if you smartened anyone up, you’d get fired. Right away. That’s just the way it was.”
For contemporary viewers of professional wrestling, it is hard to imagine anyone would be suckered by the sport’s obvious choreography. But wrestling fans, young and old, were a less skeptical bunch back in those days. Even the great orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini was among the millions duped by the spectacle. “He would be backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, watching the matches on TV, and he would be shouting, ‘Keel heem! Keel heem!'” recalls wrestling historian Bert Sugar. “And he believed it was real. He absolutely believed it. That’s the way it was.”
Ironically, Sharkey got his toehold in the world of staged combat as a result of many bona fide brawls. As Sharkey tells it, back in 1961 Verne Gagne was on the lookout for genuine tough guys to round out the AWA roster. One night Sharkey was dining with a handful of AWA wrestlers at Luigi’s Caf, a favorite hangout of the group, when a fellow patron sucker-punched a woman sitting nearby. “I got up and knocked him out with a left hook, and then his buddy came running at me and I hit him with a right-hand. Boom! He went down.” Word of the smiting spread, and two weeks later Sharkey was offered a fill-in spot on an AWA card in Fargo.
Despite his carnival experience, Sharkey was pretty raw. And his debut, he allows cheerily, was lousy. But he soon became popular among fans as a good guy or a “face,” which in wrestling parlance is short for “baby face.” “Eddie was a real popular face. I used to watch him all the time when I was a kid,” remembers Mick Karch, a longtime Twin Cities wrestling announcer. “About once a year he’d get to wrestle Danny Hodge, who was an Olympic champion wrestler and very, very popular. Of course, Eddie would always get beat. But he was a good, solid wrestler.”
For the next decade, Sharkey honed his craft; usually in Minnesota, but also in San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Denver. If his act got stale, he would hit the road and work another territory. In the ring, Sharkey was almost always a face. Outside the ring Sharkey continued to scrap whenever the opportunity presented itself. “I think I knocked out more guys on Hennepin Avenue than anyone in the history of Hennepin Avenue,” Sharkey says. “I was young, in shape, and I didn’t give a shit about anything. I thought it was wonderful.”
Sometimes, Sharkey’s altercations were with wrestling fans. And sometimes, he says, a matter of self-defense. “Nowadays, you can associate freely with the fans, but back then it was a totally different story. They could be a scary bunch of people because they believed it was real,” he says. “Wrestlers got stabbed sometimes, and they got attacked a lot. And we could fight back, because there weren’t any lawsuits.” In one memorable albeit gruesome episode following an event in Denver, Sharkey rushed to the defense of well-known champion Harley Race, who was mixing it up with an agitated fan. “The guy was biting Harley’s finger, and so I grabbed him and I was gonna stick my hand in his eye, on the outside corner. But when I reached down, I stuck my finger in an empty socket. Harley had pulled the guy’s eye out. So off they went to the hospital. They stitched up Harley’s finger, and put the guy’s eye back in the socket, and that was it.”
Ron Peterson, a former wrestler turned boxing promoter, first met Sharkey in the mid-Sixties. Sharkey was already established and Peterson knew him by reputation alone. “He was my role model. I was a starstruck, stupid kid, and I’d seen him on TV. On TV, he was the quintessential good guy: all-American, rough and tough, always ready to climb in there with the monsters,” Peterson says. “But in truth, he was just a tough prick. He was a little man, and he had that little-man complex, and he started the fights and he beat people up to earn recognition. That was the story. He was to be feared because he wasn’t afraid of anybody.”
As the years wore on, Sharkey grew weary of the constant travel. Looking for another source of income in the late Sixties, he partnered up with Peterson on the first of several mutual business ventures, opening a massage parlor in downtown Minneapolis. Around that same time he became smitten with a woman wrestler named Dixie Jordan. Like Sharkey, Jordan worked for the AWA, wrestling under the name Princess Littlecloud. In the early 70s, an episode involving the Princess cemented Sharkey’s reputation as a wild man. According to Peterson, it all began when Sharkey caught wind of the AWA’s plans to send Princess Little Cloud to Japan. As Sharkey, the Princess, and Peterson sat at a downtown tavern discussing the matter, Sharkey grew convinced that Gagne had improper designs on his girlfriend. Incensed, he marched down to the old Dykeman Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, where the AWA had its headquarters, and proceeded to shoot up the empty offices with a 9 mm pistol. (Sharkey confirms the story, but prefers not to discuss the details. Gagne, who insists he doesn’t remember Princess Little Cloud, says he was never certain who shot up his offices, though he always suspected Sharkey.)
Whatever the truth of the matter, the incident ended Sharkey’s career with the AWA. He and Peterson went into the gym business for a couple of years, training boxers and wrestlers. But after marrying Princess Little Cloud and having a son and a daughter, Sharkey decided it was time to settle down. He sold his interest in the gym, began dabbling in antiques and military collectibles, then quit the wrestling business for eight years.
By the early Eighties, wrestling was beginning to change radically. A tag-team duo known as the British Bulldogs, influenced by the pioneering acrobatics of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, began incorporating risky, high-flying, off-the-ropes stunts into their act, spawning a slew of imitators. Wrestlers were also becoming stronger and sporting bigger muscles, in part because of an increase in steroid use. Meanwhile, wrestling’s old order was upset by the brash, scorched-earth tactics of the New York-based World Wrestling Federation. The WWF spent much of the decade raiding Gagne’s AWA of its top talent and built its brand by syndicating shows in every major television market in the country.
WWF president Vince McMahon further shocked the wrestling establishment by publicly declaring professional wrestling “sports entertainment.” The move laid to rest the conceit that wrestling was an honest contest, freeing promoters from the watchful eye of state athletic commissions. It also paved the way for the bombastic plot lines and rock ‘n’ roll production values that would become staples of RAW IS WAR and Smackdown!, currently cable TV’s highest-rated programs. “Now, of course, nobody will defend wrestling as ‘real.’ But it was McMahon who pulled the thorn out of the paw,” observes writer Bert Sugar. As the WWF, and its chief rival the WCW, ate into the fan base, the old system of territories began to wither. As it turned out, the WWF’s ascent, and the accompanying decline of the AWA, created an opening for small, independent promoters.
In 1982 Sharkey drifted back into the squared circle. Like his initial entry into the business, the return came by accident. At the time, he was tending bar at a northeast Minneapolis establishment called Grandma B’s, when two young bouncers who were aware of Sharkey’s wrestling background came calling for some tutelage. Looking to make a few bucks, Sharkey agreed. As it turned out, he had stumbled on to what would become the hottest tag team of the Eighties: the Road Warriors. Back in action as a trainer, Sharkey decided to cash in on the wrestling boom by putting on his own indie cards at bars and nightclubs under the banner of Pro Wrestling America (PWA). He also began supplying talent to other small-time promoters.
“Eddie had his hands in a lot of different shows. In the mid-Eighties he was doing phenomenally well at a place called George’s in Fridley, and a lot of the guys he was training were getting tryouts in New York and Atlanta,” says TV’s wrestling announcer Mick Karch. “And a lot of the guys he trained over the years became superstars, guys like Rick Rude and the Road Warriors and Jesse [Ventura]. I don’t know how much of that had to do with Eddie’s training. I just think that he’s been around long enough that he has a lot of established contacts and respect. And when he’s had talent on his hands, he’s been able to point them in the right direction.”
He also was willing to take risks, says wrestler Lenny Lane, who began his career with Sharkey. “Eddie got me the third match of my life in front of 17,000 in Des Moines. It was WWF show. Pay-per-view,” Lane recalls. “Eddie told me, ‘They’re gonna ask you how many matches you’ve had. Tell ’em you’ve had 200. This is wrestling, so you have to exaggerate.'” The match was a disaster. While Lane already had the talent to wrestle, Sharkey hadn’t instructed him on the fine points of industry lingo. In television tapings, referees routinely instruct wrestlers to “go home,” which means finish the match. “Eddie never told me any of this. All I’d ever done was two independent shows,” Lane remembers with a chuckle. “So all of the sudden the ref keeps telling me, ‘Go home! Go home!’ I didn’t know what the hell it meant, so I just kept wrestling.” In the locker room afterwards, Lane’s opponent berated him mercilessly. As it turned out, the setback was only temporary. Lane, who ultimately signed on with the WCW and earned enough money to quit his day job in construction, remains loyal to Sharkey. To this day he occasionally wrestles in his shows and gives tips to students at Sharkey and Fox’s camp.
Sharkey’s successes as a trainer, meanwhile, gave him an in with the WWF, for whom he periodically works as a referee and talent scout. Unlike many old-timers, Sharkey regards today’s wrestlers as superior athletes and showmen. “When I was wrestling, a match might last an hour, and you might spend a lot of the time working on an arm hold,” he says. “Each generation is better than the next.” In addition to putting on his own shows, Sharkey regularly supplies talent for other promoters, occasionally traveling as far as Japan and Kuwait. He says he has no intention of leaving the racket again. “It’s all I do. I don’t even fight it anymore. It’s pretty hard to do anything else after you’ve been in this business,” he says. “Kinda ruins you for anything else.”
According to Sharkey, the PWA now stands as the longest-running indie wrestling promotion in the country. There have been occasional disruptions since his comeback, the longest of which came in the wake of a row with a fellow promoter in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “He [the other promoter] shorted us a hundred dollars, so I punched him,” Sharkey explains matter-of-factly. “Then, just to be cute, I broke a beer bottle over his head. If I had just behaved myself, I would have gotten simple assault, but instead I got a felony.” At trial, Sharkey cracked a bottle over his own head in an effort to prove that the particular brand of beer bottle was unlikely to cause serious injury. The judge was not impressed, and Sharkey got a six-month sentence, which he served at the Hennepin County Workhouse. “It was a terrible inconvenience and it cost me a ton of money, so that was pretty much the end of my brawling days,” Sharkey says. “I was just sticking up for the boys. I sure hope they appreciated it.”
It is November 4, a little after 6:00 p.m., when Sharkey arrives at Grumpy’s in Coon Rapids. Dressed in jeans, a leather sport coat, and a canary-yellow shirt, he is a bundle of nerves. “I’m up to my neck in shit as usual. Story of my life,” he sighs, sidling up to a barstool. He explains that he just sold his home in Edina. His divorce from Princess Little Cloud has just been finalized, and he has been scrambling to find a condo or an apartment by the end of the month. For now, though, he is worried about the bottom line.
A good turnout could mean a regular gig; maybe here, maybe at the bigger Grumpy’s in downtown Minneapolis. As usual, Sharkey has enlisted his wrestlers from camp to sell tickets. Ten bucks a pop. “I’ve got a lot of new guys on tonight. New guys sell a lot of tickets,” he explains. “The old guys don’t, and they shouldn’t have to.”
Terry Fox, Sharkey’s partner, is already on hand, busily assembling the ring with the assistance of a few wrestlers who are paying off their camp tuition with a little sweat. The ring is wedged into a corner of the bar, pressed up against a pair of big picture windows. Because of the room’s long, narrow shape, the best view is from the parking lot. This worries Sharkey. “We gotta make sure the crowd gets in a good mood from the start,” he says, assessing the situation through his thick wire-framed glasses. The wrestlers have a more pressing concern than sightlines. A section of suspended ceiling hangs dangerously low over the ring. In one corner, a metal fire sprinkler mounted to the ceiling looks particularly hazardous. “Five to one somebody’s gonna hit their head,” offers Patrick Cooper, a camp regular who has come to man one of the television cameras for a cable-access taping. Sharkey eyeballs the ceiling: “The guys better be careful tonight. Damn careful.” Of course, Sharkey notes, anyone who has wrestled in the garage at camp ought to know a thing or two about working around a low ceiling.
Sharkey is carrying a note pad on which he has scribbled tonight’s card: Seven matches, mostly guys and gals from camp. The wrestlers arrive in dribs and drabs. Mitch Paradise, a strapping six-foot-five-inch, 27-year-old farmer from New Prague, ambles in an hour or so before show time. Sharkey is optimistic about Paradise’s chance to make the big time. “He’s got the look, and he’s natural,” he says, meaning that Paradise has the sort of bulk and cut the WWF looks for, without the use of steroids. Another Sharkey student, “Doctor” Darin Davis, arrives a few minutes later. In real life The Doctor is a soft-spoken computer programmer who bears a striking resemblance to actor Timothy Busfield. And he has the gimmick to end all gimmicks, one that has made him a fan favorite. He’s a proctologist. In all his matches, Davis inevitably produces a rubber glove, which he waves about with a devilish smirk. And, invariably, the crowd loves it. “It’s funny, when I started out with Dr. Darin, I was definitely a heel. But the fans turned, and so now I’m usually a face,” the Doctor says, pointing out with an amiable grin, that the glove is not his finishing move.
One by one, the rest of the wrestlers lope off to a corner of the bar’s kitchen, which serves as tonight’s locker room. It is cramped, but Sharkey has seen worse. In a recent show at another north-metro bar, Sharkey says, there was absolutely nowhere to change, which forced the wrestlers to don their spandex outside by a dumpster and a grease bin. By the time the show begins, the tiny bar is packed with some 250 people, standing room only. After tweaking the lineup one last time, Sharkey plops down in the middle of the crowd to watch as his students take to the mat.
Helmut, actually a 22-year-old video-game magazine writer named Justin Leeper, incites the crowd with classic, old-school shtick. “I am from Germany! Germany!” he bellows in an accent that appears to be derived from repeated viewings of Hogan’s Heroes. His opponent is a security guard from the Little Earth Housing Project in south Minneapolis who uses the stage name Stormwolf. Stormwolf and Helmut wage the usual battle, face versus heel, ending with Stormwolf’s inevitable, come-from-behind triumph. Then Lacey, a 17-year-old high school student and camp regular, sashays to the ring for the second bout. She’s leggy. Blonde. Pure face. Her opponent is Ashley, a bulky brunette. To signal that Ashley is tonight’s heel, the ring announcer introduces her by saying that she is “from Canada.” The crowd boos. Another seesaw battle. Another victory for the face. And so it goes for nearly two hours; a mix of the amateurish and the professional. Much care is exercised to avoid the low ceiling.
Finally, the main event. Charlie Norris — Sharkey’s star pupil, the guy who puts the rookies through their paces at camp — is the star attraction. The two go back to 1989, when Sharkey spotted the hulking Norris at a wrestling card at the AmericanIndianCenter in Minneapolis and offered to train him gratis. Growing up in Minneapolis and on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, Norris was always a big wrestling fan, so he leaped at the opportunity. Within a month, Sharkey got Norris his first show, in front of 950 rabid fans. Norris never looked back. During the last decade he has wrestled everywhere from New Guinea to Texas to Japan. He had a brief taste of the big time in the mid-Nineties, when he signed a contract with World Championship Wrestling and fought for a pay-per-view audience. The WCW gig ended poorly, with Norris ultimately suing for discrimination. “They wanted me to act like a goofy Indian from F-Troop,” he complains. The suit, he says, was settled for $50,000, but the experience left a sour taste. After a few years of bouncing around on the independent circuit, he returned to Minnesota. Although Norris often wrestles on Sharkey’s cards, he also acts as a partner, occasionally lining up lucrative shows at Indian-run casinos in the state.
Norris’s match is a tag team. He is paired with a kid named Nick Mondo, who pulls off the night’s most expertly executed stunt. Standing on the second rope, facing a corner post, Mondo flips backward and then lands perfectly flush on top of his opponent, a kid named Primetime. The move is known as a moonsault. After the crowd cheers, Norris and Hellraiser Guts are tagged in, and Norris delivers some stiff forearms and clotheslines, and the crowd is riled. They chant “Char-LEE! Char-LEE!” over and over. Finally, Norris lands with a thud on top of Primetime and the ref bangs the mat three times. Show over.
As the fans begin to file out of the bar, Sharkey heads to the kitchen, where a small desk serves as the payout table. The cash ($30 to $70 dollars for most of the wrestlers) is quickly dispensed. “I love these bar shows,” Sharkey says. “We get the gate, they get the drinks, and everybody leaves happy.” He crams a wad of bills into his jeans. He is circumspect about tonight’s profit margin but insists it is modest, a couple of hundred bucks at best. And then he returns to the barroom. Finally starting to relax, he takes a seat at an open table and begins to tell war stories. He talks of his juvenile incarceration at Red Wing, his winters in Hollywood, and the wrestlers from the old days: guys like his old friend Harley Race, who pulled out the fan’s eye in Denver, and Badman Jose Quintero. The Badman was a classic, he says, “crazier than a shithouse rat.” He also reminisces about more recent times, his admiration for the WWF’s Vince McMahon, and his contempt for the WCW, the outfit that dumped Charlie Norris and screwed Lenny Lane “just when he was starting to get some heat.” But mostly Sharkey talks about the beginning, about hanging out downtown with the boys.
“If I could only go back and stand on the old street corners. The old great Hennepin Avenue, not the shithole now,” Sharkey says, letting the thought trail off for a moment, taking a sip from yet another brandy, sent over by an admiring fan. “I miss it. Every day of my life, I miss everything about it. Learning how to cheat. How to spot a cheater. It was all just so wonderful. Everybody was a character. Nobody was normal.” Sharkey pauses again. He lets the thought sink in. And then Norris ambles over to the table with a final round of drinks. Full of high spirits, Norris declares the show a great success. “I had people hugging and kissin’ me in the parking lot, and I didn’t hardly do a thing,” he says with a broad smile. “Eddie, you’re my best friend, brother. We always have fun. We always have laughs.”
Sharkey nods in agreement, then leans back in his chair, stuffs his cigarette into the ashtray and dips a stalk of celery into a cup of blue-cheese dressing. “We put asses in the seats, Charlie,” he says, gnawing on the celery. ‘That’s all that matters. Asses in the seats.”