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Maurice (Mad Dog) Vachon gets the Olympic Torch during the run through downtown Montreal here December 12, 1987. (REUTERS)
Maurice (Mad Dog) Vachon gets the Olympic Torch during the run through downtown Montreal here December 12, 1987. (REUTERS)

Obituary

Mad Dog had a lot of bark, but a big heart Add to ...

Mr. Vachon retired from wrestling in 1986, easing into life outside the ring with his third wife, the former Kathie Ustohal, a wrestling fan whom he had married in 1980. The apocryphal story of their first meeting is that Mr. Vachon had been choking his opponent with a long, white shoelace, which he then hid from the referee by stuffing it into his mouth. When his rival smacked him in the back, Mr. Vachon spat up the foreign object, which flew into the crowd, landing in her lap. The incident is true in all details but one, Mrs. Vachon insisted recently. It was not their first meeting.

The couple met when she was still a schoolgirl. Her first impression: “Mad Dog was scary. Not somebody you’d cheer for.” They maintained a long platonic relationship, she says, which only later turned romantic.

She would be by his side as he recovered after being struck by a car. He endured four operations to save the leg. A fifth operation resulted in amputation. “It was a dark time for him,” she said recently. “What was he going to do? How was he going to support his family?”

In great pain, Mr. Vachon despaired about his future. It was a rare defeat for the athlete, but a short-lived one, as he found renewed purpose in the wake of the outpouring of support.

He returned to Quebec for a painful regimen of rehabilitation, a man who once earned his living by hitting other men over the head with a folding chair now needing a wheelchair. He was hailed as a folk hero, a champion athlete overcoming adversity.

A self-taught man, Mr. Vachon was courted to run for a seat in the House of Commons as a Liberal. Paul Vachon had earlier stood for the seat as an NDP candidate, raising the entertaining possibility the wrestling Vachons would do battle on the hustings. In the end, Mad Dog declined and The Butcher lost.

His outlandish behaviour in the ring overshadowed Mr. Vachon’s talents as a pitchman (notably for Labatt light beer, until such celebrity alcohol endorsements were banned) and as a creator of stories wrestling fans would find compelling. He helped turn a quiet grappler from Nebraska named Jim Raschke into the feared and despised Baron von Raschke, a goosestepping villain with a hold known as the Claw.

Like many of his contemporaries who had been legitimate athletes before adopting the stagecraft of pro wrestling, he had little to say in favour of the modern version of the entertainment. “It’s not wrestling,” he complained. “It’s striptease.” His own final appearance in a televised wrestling match involved sitting as a spectator at ringside as one wrestler ripped off his artificial leg before another used it as a club.

The loss of his leg made Mr. Vachon a more patient and compassionate person, Ms. Vachon said. He took it as his mission to visit every new amputee at the hospital in Omaha, Neb., where he made his home and where he died on Nov. 21. He leaves his wife, four sons, two daughters, five brothers and three sisters, as well as many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

He was predeceased by two brothers and two sisters, including Diane Vachon, herself a celebrated wrestler who fought as Vivacious Vivian. She and a daughter were killed in a car accident in 1991. He was also predeceased by his niece Luna Vachon, a wrestler who died in 2010, at 48, who was his brother Paul’s stepdaughter.

His death prompted a rare show of political unity in Ottawa, as both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader offered tributes to a wrestling legend.

As Mad Dog once told the CBC: “I spent 44 years of my life trying to get people to hate me and I failed.”

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