Maurice Vachon, a man of limited formal education, pursued his vocation with canine ferocity.
Wrestling aficionados appreciated the scientific knowledge displayed by Mr. Vachon when exhibiting his athleticism. He hoisted leotard-clad rivals over his shoulder before calling on the laws of physics to deliver a crunching, head-first blow against a canvas mat. This move, called the piledriver, was the coup de grâce for its unfortunate recipients.
Mr. Vachon shaved his head to cue-ball smoothness, grew a beard tinted as black as the singlet he wore in the ring and grimaced fiercely so that his left eye shut and his mouth opened to expose his missing bottom teeth.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” he would rasp, “and I’m the Mad Dog.”
Mad Dog Vachon, 84, claimed to have fought 13,000 wrestling matches in 40 nations in a 44-year career. It is not easy (or necessarily desirable) to separate fictional fancies from quantifiable fact in the ballyhoo of professional wrestling. The villainous Mr. Vachon was one of the most hated characters in the sport’s colourful history. He was so hated for so long that he eventually became beloved.
Soon after retiring, he was struck by a hit-and-run driver in Iowa. Doctors fought a losing, week-long battle to preserve his right leg, which was amputated below the knee. He received more than 4,000 convalescence cards from Canadians, as well as dozens of drawings from schoolchildren, which especially touched him. He returned to a hero’s welcome in his native Quebec.
“When I was down,” he said, “all of Canada bent down to pick me up.”
He recorded a song (Le rap à Mad Dog), wrote an autobiography (Une vie de chien dans un monde de fous), and opened a Montreal restaurant (Mad Dog Burger).
Mr. Vachon enjoyed a late-in-life career as a television restaurant critic. Though he was a working-class son in a blue-collar sport, the wrestler was cast as Inspector Gourmet, turning an educated nose (though mashed by ring rivals) to fine wines and a discerning palate (though known to gnaw on the foreheads of opponents) to such fare as soup Parisienne and duck à l’orange.
To those who scoffed at his ability to judge dishes designed for the haute bourgeoisie, Mr. Vachon replied, “I’m one Mad Dog who knows his chow.”
Joseph Maurice Régis Vachon was born on Sept. 1, 1929, the second of 13 children of Margarite (née Picard) and Ferdinand Vachon, a former strongman who became a police officer. Like all but one of the children in the family, he was born at home. He grew up in Ville-Émard, a Montreal neighbourhood of factories bordered on one side by the Lachine Canal. The Vachon children played in uniforms cast off by the police department, the worn material cut down to their size by their mother. Not surprisingly, playing cops and robbers was a favoured neighbourhood pastime.
During the Second World War, the Vachon boys scavenged the nearby dump for tin and other scrap metal to donate to the war effort. They slept on shared mattresses stuffed with straw and it was Maurice’s daily chore to collect day-old bread at the bakery with a pillowcase. Though an indifferent student often punished for getting into scraps at school, where he faced the schoolyard taunt, “Vachon le cochon,” at home young Maurice collected postage stamps and dreamed of faraway lands. His father told him a wrestler might see the world, so the boy took up the sport at the YMCA at age 12.
He dropped out of school in Grade 8, taking a job in the Canadian National Railway shops in the nearby Point St. Charles neighbourhood.
In 1948, Mr. Vachon qualified for the London Olympics at age 18, competing in freestyle wrestling as a middleweight (up to 79 kilograms). His debut match lasted all of 54 seconds before a “lightning-like wrist lock” left Keshav Roy of India vulnerable, his shoulders soon pinned to the mat at Empress Hall. The Canadian dedicated his victory to a baby sister born since he had departed by boat for the Olympics.