Eddie Sharkey - the Twin Cities' mythic trainer of wrrestling superstars- Road Warriors, Rick Rude and Tom Zenk.
by Mike Mosedale
from City Pages"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 protégé, 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."
Backyard boys: When weather permits, wrestling camp is held outdoors
PHOTO BY MICHAEL DVORAKIn 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.
Ed Sharkey: "I've always been a lucky guy" PHOTO BY MICHAEL DVORAKGrowing 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 Hopkins High 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."
Next week "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."
This article first appeared in City Pages Nov 15, 2000
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