Eddie Sharkey - the mythic Twin Cities' trainer of wrrrestling superstars - Road Warriors, Rick Rude and Tom Zenk
Part 2 of a story by Mike Mosedale
from City Pages
Sharkey was sure about one thing: he didn't want to work a straight job.
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.
You'd talk to your fellow wrestlers about it. Anyone else, you'd die first. You wouldn't tell your own mother.
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 the day. 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."
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."
Eddie Sharkey hurls an opponent to the mat in the mid-Sixties
PHOTO COURTESY OF ED SHARKEY
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 Café, 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.
I stuck my finger in an empty socket. Harley had already pulled the guy's eye out.
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."
"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."
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