Eddie Sharkey Interview

"Just look for the beat-up-looking old wrestler," Eddie Sharkey advised me over the phone as we set up our 1991 breakfast meeting at a Denny's restaurant in Minneapolis. Sharkey has just about done it all in professional wrestling: grappling, training, refereeing, and promoting. Sipping cup after cup of coffee, Sharkey's tall tales of wrestling as it used to be more than made up for his smallish stature. He continues to be active in professional wrestling in the upper Midwest to this day.
I'm the end of an era. I'm the last of the carnival wrestlers. I stated in the carnival. See, we used to have carnival wrestling that would go around from town to town, to fairs and carnivals. And we'd get, probably, on average, three dollars a match, four if it was really good. But, if you wrestled maybe 4 times, 10, maybe 15 times in one day, an afternoon show and an evening show, you'd come home with $40 or $50, which, back in the early 1960s, was an awful lot of money. I remember one time I wrestled in Minnesota, and I hadn't become a real professional wrestler yet. But I knew all the wrestlers, and they knew I was a wrestler, and I dressed in the same dressing room with them. And they were kind of kidding me: "How much did you make?"

I said, "Well, I made $45. How much did you guys make?"

They said, "$25." Which was a lot of money. You're talking about 1960 now, maybe 1961. That wasn't bad. Compared to today, that wouldn't pay for the gas. Gas was like 29 cents a gallon then. You actually made more money then than now. Everybody made money. Everybody always had a house and a new car. And now there's just a few that are making it. The rest are just waiting their turn. Maybe in the long run it'll come out even. I don't know. I hope so. It's a lot tougher now.

To tell the truth, I wanted to be a professional fighter. I trained most of my life to be a boxer, and then the local promoter died, and that was the end of boxing for about 10 years. I hung out with all the wrestlers. We used to kinda run around together. And they said, "Why don't you become I wrestler?" Starting in the business with a lot of friends helped a lot. So, I did it, back when times were good, so I made some money out of it.

I've been here in Minneapolis all my life. I've wrestled here most of my life, except when it would get real cold. Then I'd go to Phoenix or Salt Lake City, and I wrestled a lot in San Francisco when Roy Shires had it. That was the second biggest territory in the world. Minneapolis was the biggest.

[There was] a lot of traveling. It was horrible. It still is, it's still horrible. Now our trips, we fly everywhere, but that's even worse. That's the worst way of traveling. You have no one to talk to, you're up in a plane by yourself. Where, in a car, sometimes you have some real long trips–we still got long trips–but you got four guys and you just ride with people you like. And that's not near as bad, but it's just the flying is hard. We got long trips coming up now. We go to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the second of August. On the third we go to Munison, in northern Michigan, which is way up on Lake Superior. I don't know how far that is. Chicago, places like that, it's all freeways. Just go right down the freeway, there's nothing to it. Can you imagine what it was like when you had to go through every small town? It's easier now. Nicer restaurants to stop in. Truck stops are classier. We live a better life now, really.

I referee a great deal, but I don't wrestle anymore. Too many injuries. And the guys these days are so much bigger, you know. My time, there was a lot of guys my size. Especially down South. Well, still there are guys my size down South. But up here, too big. Actually, when I say "wrestling up here," I refer to the PWA [the Professional Wrestling Association, which Sharkey promotes] or the WWF. I still work for the World Wrestling Federation. I referee for them. I just kind of stay around home right now, though. The size of the guys there are really something–the Road Warriors, tough old people like that. But then again, most of them are from Minnesota.

Everyone in the world wants to be a Hulk Hogan or a Road Warrior. I really have problems training guys, because everyone wants to be like the Road Warriors, and there's only gonna be one Road Warriors, and there's only one Hulk Hogan. Just like there's only one Gorgeous George. There'll never be another, so why copy it?

I had a school, a very successful school. Well, I was extremely lucky, you gotta realize that. I trained more main-event wrestlers than anyone in the world, and not because of me or what I've done right, it's because of them. They were so good, and I was at the right place at the right time. I went to work one time, in a bar, and there was Rick Rude and the two Road Warriors. It was a very tough bar, real tough. They had a crew of bouncers that was just unbelievable. Toughest people that they could find. And they would just wipe out motorcycle gangs. Finally the bar was closed because there was too many beatings, and a guy was just beaten to death there in the parking lot.

But now there's too many schools. We've saturated the market. There's not enough work anymore for anybody, so now's just a good time to let it go for a while. I do the promoting. It's working really good. It seems we're all making a few dollars working together.

[In school], the first thing is you teach them how to fall so they can protect themselves. One wrong move and you can fall on your head and break your neck. So we spend a lot of time just learning how to fall. And you've got to harden up your body, toughen yourself up to take that abuse, slamming yourself on the mat all the time. So we work a lot on that. That's real important, and they'll use it the rest of their lives. If you notice, the Road Warriors, for instance, very seldom go off their feet. It's very seldom that anybody throws them or anything like that, but when they do, they land perfectly. They never get hurt. Everyone gets hurt, but they didn't get hurt falling wrong or anything. If you hit your hip, you can hurt yourself real bad. You've gotta land so your whole body hits at the same time. If you hit your heels first, you could break an ankle. It's just really hard. There's still a lot of wrestlers that haven't been trained properly, that can't take a good bump. You see that quite often.

Up here, we don't use referee bumps. We don't knock the referees down and all that. In my organization, we don't do that, and most organizations don't. In fact, the only place you'll really see that is in the NWA. I've been thrown across the ring maybe once a year or something with the World Wrestling Federation. Every once in a while, for some reason, an old and good friend, like Mad Dog Vachon, would like to throw me.

To be a referee is very, very hard. Especially in a TV taping. Sometimes you'll have 20 or 25 matches and only 2 referees. It's a son-of-a-gun. Now the last time I had a job with the LPWA, the Ladies' Professional Wrestling Association, I went out to Nevada and we had two tapings. We didn't get time for intermission, and it was six hours straight of refereeing. That was hard. You gotta stay out of the way, stay the hell out of the way [as a referee]. Some guys actually will up and just run over them. You see the guy, maybe he's gonna go into a tackle. You can see it in enough time. You got that second to get out of the way, and some guys aren't smart enough. They just stand there. Well no wonder they get knocked three rows back. What makes it easy to referee is if you've wrestled. If you've never wrestled, it makes it hard. But it's just a very, very, very hard business. It's a lot harder than people think it is.

A good referee is really never seen. If you see him too much on television, that's not good. Stay about three or four feet away from the wrestlers all the time. And make sure you don't get in the way of the camera. You see a referee sometimes–you wanna see a match, and you're looking at the referee's back, he's in the way. Always stay away from the cameras, and just generally stay out of the way. Nobody says, "Jeez, there's a good referee tonight, let's go to the matches."

What really bothers me, I've seen referees leave the ring, and some villain has pinned a good guy, and they're hollering at the referee. So they've divided the heat between the villain and the referee. It's supposed to all be on the villain. Maybe all the heat is on the referee and not on the villain. That's not good either. Just get in and get out.

But still, some of the referees like to be involved in some of the–well, midget matches, for instance. You gotta chase the midgets. They bite you in the ass. Jeez, last time down in Chicago, one of them gave me an airplane spin. Jeez, it was a hell of a match. It was totally all just tormenting the referee through the whole match. It was really kinda fun, you know? How bad are them guys gonna hurt you? They're really not gonna hurt you. They're not strong enough to. But in those, the referee's just as important in the midget's match as the wrestler.

The PWA, we have no television, we do no advertising. People come to us. I think mine was about the second wrestling school in the country. That's why I made so much money. I had it all to myself, the whole area. I think Killer Kowalski had the first one, but that was way out East somewhere. I was also the first independent–the only independent promotion–never to lose money. The PWA has never lost money. But I'm training guys now differently. I'm retraining wrestlers. Things are different now. I don't even call them wrestlers anymore, I call them sports hustlers, because wrestling isn't enough. To be a good wrestler right now, unless you're with the World Wrestling Federation, you're not gonna make a living. You have to go out and promote talents. I gotta get publicity in different ways. I got them working with other independent groups. So all we are is just a bunch of hustlers. Sometimes we work the boxing matches. My friend who sets up the ring for me is a boxing promoter here. He's got several good fighters. So sometimes we'll go work the fights, do security work there. We have to handle the crowds. I'm learning to be a boxing referee. You have to be a judge and everything there. So, anything for a buck is about what it is.

The times are tough for the independent wrestler right now. Anything we can do to make a couple of dollars–we have different things like selling pictures. Babyfaces will always make over a hundred dollars selling pictures. We have a big homeless show every year where we let everyone in free. We draw thousands of people, of course.

When I worked for [the now-defunct American Wrestling Association, owned by Minnesotan Verne Gagne], they were the biggest in the world. It was unbelievable. But the pressure of the business got to Verne, and he just quit paying. Actually he cheated everybody. That's why he's got such powerful enemies. You get a guy like Hulk Hogan or Jesse Ventura, and the list goes on and on, they'll come to Minneapolis and they'll wrestle free just to hurt Verne. They came in when the World Wrestling Federation first started here. They didn't care if they got paid or not. They just wanted to hurt Verne.

And then I went back to Verne-of all people, because we were enemies for years. I really did him a hell of a favor after Hulk Hogan and everybody else. I brought the Road Warriors in. I brought the Road Warriors back, and I had a real good crowd. You think maybe the guy would appreciate it a little, but he got us all again. Me being a little older–the younger guys, like the Warriors, they were still pretty young then, you can understand that–but you'd think I'd be a little smarter. But Verne was so charming. He's very charming, when he wants to be, but then he's got us again. It's kind of pathetic now. It is too bad. He could have given Vince [McMahon, owner of the WWF] a run for his money. Probably would have been the only one in the country today who could have when he was younger.

See, I had quit wrestling for about 10 years. I just walked away from it. I felt sick of it. I was just totally burned out. Then I came back because of the Road Warriors. I put them in the business, and they brought me back. So we all helped each other. We still work together and help each other. So I came back to the business, and at that time Vince McMahon called me up and wanted me to work for him. Which I did for a while. But then I quit Vince and went to Verne. Which is the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life. I've made some bad decisions in the last 10 years, but that was the worst one. I probably could have got the Minneapolis/St. Paul/Milwaukee [territory] to run. I could have had it all. I'd be a very rich man today. I'd be working in the office with all my old friends. I'll never forgive myself for that.
In the mean time Vince offered Verne $6 million for this territory here. And Verne got real nasty with him. I don't know what he said. I had only talked to Vince once in my life, and he was telling me that he hated Verne. Verne can really be an ass. So [Vince] just took it from him. Town by town by town, he took all the big cities, and I took all the small towns. What we'd do is we'd throw very good matches. We were always invited back. Just being nice to people, I think, being good to the fans, especially good to the wrestlers. That's why I'll never really be a great promoter, because I'll always be a wrestler. You know, some people are born to be promoters, like Vince McMahon. He had never wrestled, but his father was a promoter. So rather than hanging out with someone in a business suit, I want to sit in the dressing room and drink beer with the boys. Just hang out. I like it, I'm happy with it.

There's big headlines in the sports sections [these days]: "Don't let your kids be like Hulk Hogan." "Hulk Hogan's on steroids, he's selling steroids. Keep your kids away." "He's not a hero, he's not a role model for your kids." I know there's a lot of steroid abuse. I'm anti-steroids, I'm anti-drugs, I'm anti-everything. I hear the conversations, I know it's around, but I don't know who's taking them and who's not taking them. But I'll tell you one thing, we're gonna see a lot of small wrestlers. I might make a comeback except I'll be too big. The problem here with taking steroids is that the guys are on the road–the guys that work real hard, like in the WWF, they're on the road and they can't train properly.

I don't care if a guy wants to go out drinking after the match and get in a barroom brawl, because my generation was like that. We'd go out and, jeez, we'd get in fights, some notorious barroom brawls that are legends. I don't care. But I just don't want no drugs around or steroids, because you're in the ring with a guy, and if the guy's on drugs, you don't know what he's going to do. You just don't know. It's bad, it's hurt far worse than the people know, and it's not over. The FBI's in on this. They might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating the steroid situation, and they're not gonna spend all that money for nothing. They're gonna nail somebody. They've already started searching different wrestlers' homes, cars.

It's interesting because I follow it real closely. I don't want to see anybody get in trouble, but if they do, I want to be the first to know. You know, wrestlers are terrible gossips. They have nothing else to do. You sit all day in a car, you sit in your dressing room, what else do you have to talk about but other wrestlers? So we do gossip a bit, call each other on the phone. If people only knew how bad we are....

[Hulk Hogan] don't deserve [the bad publicity]. Why him? Because he's in the main event. He's on top. He's gonna carry the heat, because he plays to the kids, and the kids love it. And the guy is a legitimate nice guy. He's not a bad guy. You know, there's different guys who want their own dressing rooms and that because they're stars, and he don't. He dresses with the guys. He's one of the boys. He's, in my opinion, the greatest world champion that ever lived. I go by the box office. And I've known some great champions, like Harley Race and Gene Kiniski, and some other champions who were terribly overrated and never drew a nickel.

But steroids, I'm glad they're cleaning up their act. Otherwise, we're not gonna see any old wrestlers anymore. They'll be dead by the time they're 50. It's true. And they still don't know what it's gonna do in another 10 years, to the guys who took them 10 years ago. I think it's a scary thing. The football players–it's a terrible thing with Lyle Alzado–it's just all athletes. Now I guess it's time to blame wrestlers.

We did have a lot of fun. The fights were classics. I remember one time–see, I used to hang around with Harley Race. I bought a house here in south Minneapolis, and he lived with me. Harley's a tough son-of-a-gun, you know. He can fight in the street like you can't believe. Harley's tough. Our fights were classics. He was in court all day. It wasn't a question of if we'd win or lose, it was how quick we could knock the guys out. And we went out for years like that.

Never run, you never run. You'll panic the crowd, you know. You'll never see a guy run from the ring with a crowd after him. You see, in those days we didn't have the police protection we have now. There were no barricades, there was one cop. Now there's barricades and a dozen cops. We never had that. I remember one time in Denver, I was standing around talking to some girl or something, and Harley Race came out. Somebody got the crowd mad, so they said, "Let's grab Harley." Now a guy grabs him around the waist, and somehow they were down. And in the meantime a woman was hitting him with a high-heeled shoe, and I'm only a few feet away. So I took about six steps and kicked the guy as hard as I could, right in the head. And it didn't move him. So I said, "We're in trouble. I'm just gonna stick my finger in, and pull this guy's eyeball right out." I reached down, stuck my finger in his eye, and I stuck my finger in an empty eye socket. Harley had already ripped his eye out! The guy bit through Harley's finger. I'd never felt anything like that in my life. It was just unexplainable, how that felt. And I looked down, and the guy's eye is ripped out, and by this time, you know, we're out of there. We were both barred for about three months. We couldn't go back to Denver.

I've had times when I've been hurt in the ring. In Dubuque, Iowa, we just hooked up in a tag-team match, and the two [bad guys] had me in-between them, and an old man was gonna save my life and threw his cane. They never hit the guy they aim at, you know. It just split my head wide open. There was blood all over. You break a finger, the bone comes right through the finger, you gotta keep wrestling with the bone sticking out of the finger. How we did things like that, I don't know.

Finally they got so many lawsuits and so many people getting hurt that they spend thousands of dollars now for security. We had terrible fights, constantly. But we had so much fun in those days too, we were laughing all the time. I tell the new guys one thing: "Have a good time, I don't care, just have a good time, because you're never gonna remember what you got paid tonight. Twenty years from now, all you're gonna remember is the good times. That's all you're gonna have left in this business. You're gonna have good times, good memories, and a bad back, and nothing else." They're all comic book characters, they're all half-nuts, or they wouldn't be in this business. We've been accused of many things, but never of being dull people.