Beneath bright lights, the two wrestlers clashed in the middle of the ring.
Jacques Rougeau Sr., wearing black trunks, repeatedly slammed his fist into his opponent’s face. It may have been a show, but soon the man’s eye turned black and his face red. Neither seemed to be acting.
“Unbelievable!” the commentator roared as Mr. Rougeau pummelled the other man through the ropes.
The hometown crowd roared. This was Montreal, where, in the early 1970s, wrestling matches at the Montreal Forum and other arenas frequently sold out. At the top of the game were the Rougeau brothers, heads of a dynasty of wrestlers whose family name is synonymous with wrestling greatness.
“The Rougeau family is considered the royal family of Quebec wrestling. They’ve been on the wrestling scene for over 70 years,” said Patric Laprade, a play-by-play announcer for wrestling on TVA Sports, historian and author of multiple books on the subject.
On July 1, Jacques Rougeau Sr. died of pulmonary fibrosis at a palliative care centre in Saint-Jean-de-Matha, surrounded by family. He was 89.
He was born in Montreal on May 27, 1930, and was raised in the Villeray-Rosemont neighbourhood. His mother, Albina Auger, was a businesswoman who operated a hat store and a salon. His father, Armand Rougeau, worked in the meat industry.
When Jacques Sr. was a boy, his father taught him to box and he picked up the sport quickly, winning the coveted Golden Gloves title as a young teen. But the pugilist chose to make the change to wrestling.
His uncle, Eddy Auger, introduced Jacques Sr. and his brother Jean – known as Johnny – to wrestling. They trained in a basement academy run by Tony Lanza, a bodybuilder, wrestler and photographer. It was there that the two brothers learned to lift weights and throw other men around the ring.
In the mid-1950s, a star wrestler named Yvon Robert ran the wrestling scene in Montreal. At the time, Mr. Robert was almost as popular as famed hockey player Maurice (Rocket) Richard, according to Mr. Laprade.
“It was very hard for French Canadians to actually break [into] that roster,” he said.
Mr. Robert chose Johnny as his successor to follow in his footsteps as the local wrestling star. Johnny was charismatic, and his wrestling was flashy and elegant, in contrast to his stoic and quieter brother Jacques, whose tough-guy attitude was more of a personality trait than an act.
Johnny, with his greased hair and handsome face, went on to become Montreal’s star wrestling personality. Jacques Sr. quit the sport soon after he started in the 1950s. Promoters were less willing to take a chance on the quiet tough-guy. He also injured himself while practising; Jacques Sr. was spinning in circles with another man on his shoulders – to disorient him – when his leg caught on a mat and broke in three places.
His leg healed but he stayed away from the sport for a time, instead working odd jobs, including a doorman gig at his brother’s nightclub, the Mocambo.
“He was one of the best doormen in town. You wouldn't mess with Jacques Rougeau or you would regret it,” Mr. Laprade said. “That reputation followed him when he came back into wrestling.”
In 1965, Johnny started a promotion called All-Star Wrestling and asked his brother to wrestle with him.
“My father, one of his greatest qualities is that he’s loyal and if he loved you there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for you,” his son, Raymond, said.
So began the next chapter of a wrestling career that took him across Quebec, Ontario and the Northeastern United States, and even to Japan.
One of his tag-team partners, Gino Brito, remembered those days and the long drives from show to show alongside the stoic Jacques Rougeau Sr.
“We got along good,” Mr. Brito said. “Sometimes we’d drive to Chicoutimi, [Que.]. Maybe out of the five-hour drive, we were lucky if we spoke half an hour.”
The Rougeau Brothers were headliners at a time when wrestling was booming in Montreal and Quebec. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in to watch wrestling on television.
“We were on TV Sunday mornings and nobody was in church. Everybody was watching wrestling,” Mr. Brito said.
Thousands turned up weekly at the Montreal Forum to watch the Rougeaus battle against the likes of the Russian Bear (Ivan Koloff), the Sheikh (Ed Farhat) and Abdullah the Butcher (Lawrence Shreve).
One of Jacques Sr.’s rivalries was more violent than the others. Dick (Tugboat) Taylor, a U.S. wrestler, battled Jacques Sr. twice in heated bouts. A rubber match was scheduled for the Montreal Forum in 1973, but Mr. Taylor didn’t show up.
The resulting frenzy is the stuff of legend. According to Mr. Laprade, to prevent the 20,000 fans from rioting, Mr. Taylor’s manager stepped into the ring as a sacrificial lamb. Jacques Sr. gave him a theatrical walloping.
The fans went home somewhat appeased, but the story goes that Jacques Jr. heard a rumour: Mr. Taylor was lounging in a bar downtown with his championship belt.
“He took the Leduc brothers with him and went to that bar … he waited for Taylor … and beat the heck out of him,” Mr. Laprade said. “Taylor was never seen in the wrestling business in Montreal again.”
At the height of their popularity, in 1972, the Rougeau Brothers sold out Jarry Park stadium, then home of the Montreal Expos baseball team. More than 26,000 fans turned up.
Jacques Sr. battled against the Sheikh that night and won the Montreal title in front of the roaring crowd.
His son, Raymond, was the third Rougeau on that card. He remembered his father as someone who always made good on his promises.
When Raymond was just a boy, Jacques Sr. asked him if he wanted to be a wrestler.
“I said I don’t know,” Raymond said. “It intrigued me, but I never thought I could compete with those guys and my father asked me, ‘Do you trust me?’ ”
Jacques Sr. promised Raymond that with the proper training he’d compete in his first wrestling bout by the age of 16. He delivered on that promise. Raymond had his first match three months after his 16th birthday.
Jacques Sr. had five children, four of whom went on to become heavily involved in the world of professional wrestling.
Raymond and Jacques Jr. became popular wrestlers in the World Wrestling Federation, competing together for a time as the Fabulous Rougeaus. Armand’s wrestling career was cut short by an injury. Joanne, Jacques’s daughter, worked as a promoter for the WWF in the 1990s.
Jacques Sr. retired from the sport in 1976, but he occasionally returned to the ring. He wrestled with his sons in 1984 and continued to be involved in the sport through them.
Jacques Jr. continued wrestling until 2018. His sons Émile, Cédric and Jean-Jacques also wrestled.
“Jacques Rougeau Sr. is probably why the family is considered a dynasty,” Mr. Laprade said.
After wrestling, Jacques Sr. ventured into real estate, buying and selling property. He spent his summers in Rawdon, Que., where his family lived, and his winters in Florida. He and Mr. Brito remained friends.
Jacques Sr. leaves his wife, Louise Parizeau; three sons, Raymond, Armand and Jacques Jr.; two daughters, Joanne and Diane; 10 grandchildren, including former NHL player Denis Gauthier Jr. and 12 great-grandchildren.
Jacques Sr. was a quiet man, according to those who knew him, but he was dependable, solid and honest. Despite the fame he achieved as a wrestler, he preferred to stay out of the spotlight.
“He had a presence. When he entered a room, even if he didn’t speak, everyone turned,” Raymond said. “He was a success but despite all that he stayed very reserved, very simple, very humble.”