Even Superstars Have to Start Somewhere
by David Kozbial
Professional wrestling, particularly local wrestling, has been in the news a lot lately. Between the re-emergence of Stampede Wrestling, the Hart family's land related disputes with the city, and the tragic death of Owen Hart, everyone seems to have something to say about wrestling. And I'm no different.
My "two cents worth" comes in the form of a trip down memory lane that will, I hope, bring a smile to a few faces, and maybe even a slightly embarassed grin to one of the Calgary Sun's regular guest columnists.
Cast your imagination back a couple of decades. The year is 1976 or '77. A ten year old boy, his eight year old brother, and their father attend one of the Stampede Wrestling cards staged monthly at the Exhibition Pavillion in Lethbridge. This was during the heyday of Stampede Wrestling, when stars such as Dan Kroffat, Leo Burke, George Welles, Hercules Ayala, The Cuban Assassins (both of them), Mr. Hito, Kasavubu, and occasionally even John Foley entertained us with good ol' fashioned wrasslin'. It featured up-and-coming stars like The Dynamite Kid, Davey Boy Smith, Chris Benoit, Jake Roberts, and Honkey Tonk Wayne. There was also a handful of interesting but quickly forgotten characters like Bellomo Salvatore, Mike Hammer, and Magnificent Zulu, whose autograph I was lucky enough to get one night in Lethbridge. There were also, occasionally, heavily disguised glimpes of future superstardom, but more on that shortly.
Another wrestler you never hear anything about anymore is a fellow named Paddy Ryan. Not too tall, and quite stocky, Ryan was the very image of a mischevious leprechaun in wrestling tights. In younger years he must have had quite a career in Europe, because I used to have an autographed picture of him with a championship belt of some sort. That evening in '76 or '77, Ryan, in the twilight of his career, was scheduled to wrestle in one of the matches leading up to the main event.
Now, matches in Lethbridge were usualy referee'd by a tall, skinny youngster with big dark fuzzy hair who looked, from a distance, a lot like Wayne Hart. Wayne was one of the referees on the televised Stampede matches, along with Randy (insert "butt" joke here) Jackson, Cedric Hathaway, Rod Hater, and others. We never got close enough to see him clearly, and didn't usually pay much attention to the ref anyway, so we assumed Wayne was refereeing the matches in Lethbridge as well.
Anyway, when the time came for Paddy Ryan to enter the ring, it was announced that his scheduled oppponent was not able to appear. Taking his place as Ryan's opponent would be... and the announcer read off a name. My dad, my brother, and I, along with the rest of the crowd gave a collective, half-interested "Huh?" and the announcer added, almost apologetically, "...the referee". It was NOT Wayne Hart.
Out strolled the tall, skinny youngster with the big fuzzy hair. In place of the baggy referee shirt, he had on plain looking wrestling boots and trunks. He seemed a little nervous, unsure of himself, and maybe a bit in awe of the wily veteran Ryan. But he gamely climbed into the ring and the bell rang.
The match only lasted a few minutes, and it was truly a case of the veteran giving the novice a wrestling lesson. Paddy Ryan completely dominated the poor kid who seemed to have more hair than muscles. It ranks as one of the shortest matches I've ever seen, and the only one in which a side-headlock was used SUCCESSFULLY as a SUBMISSION HOLD!
It was one of the last times I saw Paddy Ryan wrestle. And it was, I believe, the first time anyone, anywhere, saw that skinny mop-headed kid go to work in the ring. Paddy Ryan's name lives on now, only as a footnote in wrestling history, but his opponent that night went on to much greater things. Who was that poor kid who said "Enough!" as his head was squeezed by the pudgy arm of an ageing leprechaun? It was the referee, of course. Not Wayne Hart, but yet another in the long list of names from the Hart clan.
He wasn't much of a "Hitman" back then, more like a tackling dummy, and it was more a case of "Ease of Extermination" than "Excellence of Execution". But everyone has to start somewhere, and like the mighty oak from the acorn, Brett Hart's rise to international stardom had a very humble beginning. One that I now feel honoured to have been a small part of.
One has to wonder, though, just how many acorns would give up after a few minutes pummelling and a side-headlock from a leprechaun?
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