A match against Adil Candemir of Turkey went the distance, the judges splitting, by 2-1, in favour of Mr. Candemir. The verdict was controversial as many, including one of the judges, a South African, thought Mr. Vachon had won by a considerable margin. Two European judges favoured the Turk, who would go on to claim the silver medal. Mr. Vachon’s Olympic tournament ended when he lost on points a match against Paavo Sepponen of Finland.
Less than two years later, Mr. Vachon and another team of Canadian athletes set sail on the long voyage to Auckland, N.Z., for the first post-war British Empire Games. He long remembered the seasickness of many of the Dominion athletes. The Montreal wrestler won all three of his matches to claim the gold medal. He sent his parents a telegram: “Je suis le gagnant.”
Back home, the squat, 5-foot-8 wrestler found work as a bouncer at a nightclub, relishing the unpredictable challenge of street fighting and, by most accounts, beating the assorted drunks and wise guys who tested his strength. He was warned that his reputation was such he would soon be confronted by men armed with weapons other than just their fists, so he decided to pursue a livelihood as a player in the choreographed mayhem that is professional wrestling.
At first presented as a babyface (good guy), Mr. Vachon fought under his given name. He wore no costume, adopted no character. He also gained little attention. In time, he was joined by younger brother Paul, the pair growing mountain-man beards and wearing plaid shirts like backwoods lumberjacks, cartoon versions of the noble habitants.
Television gave pro wrestling a wide audience in the 1950s and Mr. Vachon’s charisma was readily apparent even in his second language. He broke the rules both of sports and acting by bragging about his abilities while speaking directly into the camera. After adopting the persona of a scofflaw heel (bad guy), he began to draw notice. A turning point came during a match in Portland, Ore. The scheduled bout degenerated into a wild melee with Mr. Vachon fending off all comers, including rival wrestlers, outraged members of the public and a uniformed police officer who sought to restrain him. Afterward, the promoter described him as fighting like a “mad dog.” A legend was born.
Mad Dog Vachon, at first billed as a vicious fighter from Algeria (the French colony was then in the news for a bloody war for independence), became the most feared delinquent in the sport. He put on weight, smuggled foreign objects into the ring and filed his fingernails to points to better scratch his rivals. He bit opponents on the forehead and choked them either with a single-arm lock or with such objects as a shoelace. When a rival got caught between the ropes, facing the audience, Mr. Vachon administered a move known as the “leapfrog body guillotine.” It was said that his finishing hold, the head-first piledriver, led to his being banned from competition in three states.
In 1964, he claimed the American Wrestling Association’s world heavyweight title against archrival Verne Gagne, a Minnesota farm boy who had met Mr. Vachon at the 1948 Olympics. Mr. Gagne, who owned the AWA, engaged in a series of memorable battles against the villainous Mr. Vachon.
Mad Dog was often joined in the ring by his brother Paul, by then known as The Butcher, the pair battling The Crusher (born Reginald Lisowski) and Dick the Bruiser (born William Fritz Afflis), a feared tandem. About 21,000 fans attended a steel-cage match at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1970 to see the quartet engage in battle, the hated Vachons emerging bloodied but victorious.
After another decade of inexcusable behaviour, Mad Dog was paired with Mr. Gagne, his old enemy. It was a brilliant move, as the animosity directed towards Mr. Vachon seemed to have been sated. He retained his notoriety even as fans now cheered for his success.