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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 ...

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.

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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.

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.

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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