THEY HAD FACES THEN--FSM#127

The recent passing of Archie Gouldie, AKA The Mongolian Stomper, at the age of 79 not only takes away another legendary figure in our sport, but it also calls attention to a breed of pro wrestler that has basically disappeared in the modern era--the heel that you can actually, legitimately be scared of.

In Archie's case, there was no real reason to be frightened of him--unless you crossed him , that is. Otherwise, he was a kind and gentle person away from the ring. But in front of the cameras and fans? That, friends, was a different story. Standing over 6 feet tall and weighing a chiseled 275 pounds, with a shaven head and unsmiling, razor-sharp face and piercing eyes, he was a nightmare on two feet. No less a star than Bret Hart used to recall that one of the Stomper's promos against his father, Stu Hart, gave him nightmares as a child, when Stomper vowed to destroy Hart House brick by brick, break Stu in half and piledrive Helen in the driveway. When Archie did indeed come to Hart House later that week to pick up his check, a young Bret fled in terror.

After being broken in by Stu in Calgary, Archie was given the Stomper gimmick by former World Champion Pat O'Connor in the Central States in the mid-1960's, and spent the rest of his career as two different forms of "Stomper"--in Stampede Wrestling, where he was the territory's all-time biggest drawing heel, it was a nickname for a fearsome man that everyone knew was an Alberta native, a man who did world-class promos and then backed up his words in the ring. In places like Texas, Florida, Georgia and especially Tennessee, he was a Mongolian menace who spoke no English and let his various managers do the talking while he destroyed babyfaces in bloody bouts of chaotic cruelty, his million-dollar face never cracking a smile. One of the ex-wrestlers he convinced to become a manager was journeyman wrestler Jim Dillon, who as James J. Dillon became a Hall of Fame manager, professing in later years to owing it all to Archie.

When the Stomper entered the Tennessee territory in 1975, he found a home in the ring and out of it as well. Becoming a mega-hot heel in the Memphis territory, he main evented that circuit's cities all summer as Southern Heavyweight Champion, including a series of weekly sellouts of 11,500-plus against challengers like Jerry Lawler and the Magnificent Zulu. On the other end of the state, in the Knoxville area, he became a legitimate legend and a lifelong resident, wearing the Southeastern Heavyweight Title multiple times and feuding with stars like Ron and Robert Fuller, Bob Armstrong and Joe Leduc. In the mountainous towns of East Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky, Stomper had so much heat that often times, he was allowed no offense against the babyface and would just walk out of the match for a countout after several minutes of wild action, so that the fans wouldn't hit the ring or riot to save their babyface hero. The only thing that ever hurt Stomper's drawing power in these territories were the few times his manager would leave the area, and he would reveal that he could indeed speak English. This damaged his "aura", but would be forgotten by most fans when another great mouthpiece like a Ron Wright or Don Carson would take over.

With the death of the territories in the late 1980's, Stomper, already by this time a Knoxville resident, got a job with the Knox County Sheriff's department. While transporting prisoners or performing his other functions as a law enforcement official, he was almost always recognized by the men in his charge--how could you not know that famous face?--and there were not many examples of anyone trying anything they shouldn't while being guarded by the Mongolian Stomper. Even as he entered his 60's, Archie was a physical fitness fanatic, and to exercise his giant, ripped legs he rode his bicycle to work--10 miles each way--almost every day.

When I opened Smoky Mountain Wrestling in 1992, it was a no-brainer to feature the Stomper. This time, however, in keeping with his legendary status, it was as a babyface, as the nostalgia factor had taken over and everyone was just thrilled to be seeing this great star in person again. Changing absolutely nothing about his gimmick except the addition of the theme from "Halloween" as his entrance music, the Stomper would burst through the curtain to brawl all over the arenas with heels like Kevin Sullivan as the fans, reliving their childhoods, scrambled to get the hell out of the way. Despite being nearly 60, he looked like a 40 year old bodybuilder from the neck down, and my booking of him always complimented, never contradicted, the turning back of the clock. On the famous Night of The Legends event in 1994, with stars like Dory & Terry Funk, Lance Storm & Chris Jericho, the Heavenly Bodies, the Rock & Roll Express, Road Warrior Hawk and more on the lineup, the "sleeper" match of the night was the Knoxville legends bout with Stomper teaming with Ron Garvin to face Bob Orton, Jr. and Dick Slater. Later that night, Archie spoke the only English of his entire run in SMW when he accepted his placque as a legend of Knoxville wrestling and thanked the fans of the city he had come to call home for the previous twenty years. With his first words, there was an audible gasp from the crowd, many of whom were hearing him speak for the first time.

My first paragraph mentioned heels that you could actually be scared of. While Archie was one of the last remaining to fit that description, in his day he was one of a number of these unique individuals, men that just simply don't exist anymore in today's watered-down, choreographed and politically-correct "sports entertainment". These type of wrestlers were among my favorites as a fan, and I had more than a passing interaction with some of the best.

One of my alltime favorite pro wrestlers, and a man who fits the description of "frightening" better than almost anyone ever to step into a ring, was the Canadian Lumberjack, Joe LeDuc. While he had a number of successful runs as a babyface, including in his native Quebec, Canada, LeDuc's heel image, displayed without peer in Southern territories like Memphis, was awe-inspiring.

A giant of a man at over 6 feet tall and close to 300 pounds who could dropkick and take backdrops (when he wanted) like a lightweight, Joe had a scarred-up face not even a mother could love and a body, while devoid of any muscle definition, that housed one of the strongest men in the sport. LeDuc could show his strength in a wrestling match better than almost anyone ever, save Steve "Dr. Death" Williams, and one of his trademark moves with longtime Memphis rival Jerry Lawler was to backdrop the 230-pound "King" at least 6 feet ABOVE his head and better than halfway across the ring. In one of Memphis' most famous angles, LeDuc pressed Lawler over his head, and threw him over the top rope, out of the ring and eleven feet onto the ringside announcer's table--which was, unfortunately for Lawler, TWELVE feet away. He put his legs on the front bumper of a car which was then accelerated until the tires smoked, but never moved. He pit his bearhug grip against ten male fans picked at random, five on each side, with ropes trying to pull his arms apart, without success. But all this was child's play compared to his most memorable act.

One morning on live television in Memphis, in front of 300,000 viewers and an absolutely gobsmacked Lance Russell, LeDuc took his "blood oath". He explained that in the lumber camps, when a man wronged you like Lawler had wronged him, and you swore to get revenge, you would take an oath, and make a scar on your body to remind yourself of what you had vowed to do. He then took his lumberjack axe, the blade sharpened to a razor's edge, and sliced his forearm open to the gasps of the studio audience. I saw the cut days later--it was wide and deep enough to lay my middle finger in. You believed in Joe LeDuc.

Which made it all the more frightening to me as a 16 year old ringside photographer one night in Louisville when LeDuc was to face Jimmy Valiant in a Coal Miner's Glove match. The 10 foot pole had already been placed in the corner when they realized they had forgotten to put the glove on top. The referee, Paul Morton, barely stood 5'6" and was north of 60 years old, so in looking around for someone to place it, all eyes fell on the kid with the camera. Try as I might, standing on the top turnbucle on my tiptoes still left me a foot short, and I was not a poleclimber even in my younger days. Then, I heard that unmistakeable, gutteral voice with the french accent directly behind me saying, "Get on my shoulders!" It was LeDuc, and trying not to shit myself, I stood on his shoulders as he calmly hoisted my 200 pounds far enough to do the job.

Another scary heel, of course, was the hottest villain in wrestling history and one of it's biggest box office draws, the original Sheik. While a few insiders may have known he was really Ed Farhat who played for the University of Michigan football team in the 1940's, he was known worldwide as the crazed "Wildman from Syria, the Noble Sheik", who carved up and butchered opponents (and fans if they tried him) around the world for almost 40 years. The Sheik NEVER spoke English nor broke character in public--if you called his home and asked for Ed, he would say "There's no Ed here, this is Sheik", and as the Detroit promoter, if a babyface came to his house they never spoke to each other in front of most of Sheik's family. An iconic story describes Sheik's outlook towards his gimmick.

One night at Detroit's Cobo Hall, a smartass wanna-be showed up backstage demanding to see "the boss, Eddie Farhat". Someone went and buzzed Sheik, who emerged from the locker room, walked straight up to the guy, flashed those wild eyes, grabbed the victim's windpipe in a death grip, and said lowly, but convincingly, "My name is the Sheik, and I will kill you!" The instigator proved to be a better sprinter than wrestler and was never seen again.

My brief run-in with the Sheik came in Indianapolis' Market Square Arena in 1975, when he was main eventing against Dick the Bruiser--another guy, whether face or heel, that you could absolutely believe in--in a Steel Cage match. The Sheik came to ringside with an 8 foot snake draped around his shoulders, back before you saw anything like that in wrestling or anywhere else, and lunged at the front row. A dozen grown men leaped from their seats and went straight backwards, over the second row as well and almost trampling me and my Mom, paralyzed in our third row chairs. It's become common practice for ringsiders to laugh at the threatening motions of today's heels--I assure you, no one was laughing at the Sheik.

Even Terry Funk, a man not possessed of enormous size and certainly not ugly in the conventional sense, scattered fans around the globe with his insane facial expressions and believable body language. As recently as my SMW events in the mid-90's I have seen Terry back grown men down by getting nose to nose and just intimidating them. In the early 1980's, as a photographer, I would interact with Terry backstage, giving him magazines and shooting photos. But at ringside, when he fixed his gaze on me and started slowly coming toward me, I ran, and not just because I was working with him. Besides his maniacal expression that made me believe something really just may have come over him, I knew enough to know that if he caught up with me in front of thousands of fans, he was going to have to do SOMETHING, and I wasn't anxious to find out what that would be.

Of course, there was Abdullah the Butcher, a walking nightmare drenched in blood and covered with scars, who may really have been Canadian Larry Shreve, but you didn't question his identity if he was standing in front of you. And Killer Karl Krupp, whose giant frame topped with one of the ugliest, craggy-toothed bald heads of all time made him look like a man who ate children and picked his teeth with puppies. Where have all these faces gone?

Today's wrestlers not only wrestle alike, most of them look alike. Much of that can be attributed to the WWE's hiring methods, but a lot of it comes down to guys trying to look their best, instead of their worst. Yesteryear's heels wouldn't just embrace their ugliest qualities, they would accentuate them. There are still large men on Earth, but it seems a lot of them want to be UFC fighters and many more are discouraged from becoming wrestlers to begin with, unless they are the bodybuilder types who look "pretty", not scary. When I would conduct interviews in ROH or OVW, I often felt like a big bully, towering over "champions" that were supposed to instill fear and intimidation. I'm not a physique-fetishist like Vince McMahon, but pro wrestlers are supposed to look physically threatening, as if they can really beat someone up. Add to this the fact that in previous eras, if a legitimate injury happened, a la Stan Hansen breaking Bruno Sammartino's neck in 1976, those involved had the goddamn good sense to play it up as intentional, rather than tweeting apologies right and left accompanied by pictures of the transgressor groveling at the victim's hospital bedside. The lost opportunities sometime make me want to vomit.

All the men I have written about had careers lasting decades in which they drew more fans to see them in a weeks' time than some of todays's "stars" draw in a year. If anything, today's wrestlers are better athletes, but come up seriously lacking in the believability department, both because of their appearances, their choreographed tumbling routines and their insistence on letting everyone in the social media world know they're really gentle people who aspire to careers on the stage. What I would give in this day and age, if I was still promoting, for just ONE big, ugly, hulking heel who, when he hurt someone, could say, "If he dies, he dies!" and sound like he MEANS it--now THAT, my friends, could draw you some money.