|Marty O’Neill with Nick Bockwinkel
A sold out throng of fans packed Staples Center last night for the WWE’s annual SummerSlam event. It was a glitzy affair, attended by many athletes and celebrities – including NHL defenseman Sheldon Souray sitting in the front row.
It wasn’t that surprising really, as there’s always been a loose link between hockey and wrestling – after all, they at the very least share the same arenas in most major markets.
One of the building’s normal residents, the Los Angeles Kings, have their own ties to the squared circle as well. Ted Irvine, who helped set up the first goal in team history, is the father of former WWE champion Chris Jericho.
However, years before Jack Kent Cooke brought the NHL to Los Angeles – and a lifetime before AEG helped revitalize downtown – one of the hottest tickets in SoCal was for events held just a few blocks from the city’s showpiece arena now located on Figueroa Street.
One man who helped make that much smaller venue an icon among sports buildings was Nick Bockwinkel. For those not familiar with the rich history of pro wrestling, he’s a mulit-time world champion, Hall of Famer and had many classic matches with the fellow legends, such as Verne Gagne, Dick The Bruiser, Terry Funk, Larry Zbyszko, Andre The Giant and Hulk Hogan.
“Before I came back to the Midwest, Los Angeles was where I first started wrestling and that’s where my father wrestled for a number of years,” said Bockwinkel. “A lot of my early matches were at the old Olympic Auditorium, back in 1955. The dressing room there was like a dungeon.”
Like any good pro wrestler, Bockwinkel was able to describe things more vividly when given the chance – “You’d go down these steps in the back and then you’d either turn right or left. Then, you go down these long, narrow hallways and it seemed bigger than hell. I remember the first time that I was going to wrestle. My dad was not wrestling that night. But, he was there upstairs and as I went down to the dressing room, I walked down that long hallway, passing all these tiny little dressing rooms. I saw Frank Jares, Wee Willie Davis, Mr. Moto – legendary names. And as I went by each door I could see them looking at me like, ‘You’re that fresh meat!’ Those guys didn’t show any emotion on their face back then. A few of them had lovable personalities though, like the Christy Brothers. But, the Olympic Auditorium was a real teaching tool for me.”
Unfortunately, that place was turned into a church a few years ago, I shared with Bockwinkel. “Well, it had a lot of sinners there beforehand!”
Growing up, he also spent a lot of years in Minnesota, a place billed as ‘the state of hockey.’ So, did he ever lace ’em up and give it a try?
“Well, I put on ice skates one time and maybe made a couple of laps around the rink before I slipped and fell on my ass,” recalled Bockwinkel. “It’s tough enough just to get to where you’re going when you’re in the ring, let alone on the ice.”
In Jericho’s book, A Lions Tale, he wrote about watching some of Bockwinkel’s matches in an equally famous arena north of the border, the Winnipeg Arena. The ‘old barn’ hosted wrestling for more than half a century before closing in 2004. Over the years, one match even featured former Jets GM John Ferguson as a guest referee.
Bockwinkel says it wasn’t uncommon to see hockey players at the matches back then, especially up in Canada. “I can see a lot of similarity between wrestlers and hockey players too. When you’re out there in front of a crowd and your persona is as strong as it is, I can see the correlation. I always had the feeling that a lot of the hockey players would have loved to have been able to speak a little more freely though. But, for whatever reason, I guess they never relaxed enough. There were about a half-a-dozen hockey players that I met over the years and they as much as told ‘Man, I’d like to say it just the way I could, if I could.’ I think the game would be a lot more fantastic if they played up the personal issues a little more.”
He also, specifically, has fond memories of Winnipeg – “I had probably 100 matches there. They had a tremendous wrestling crowd and a tremendous wrestling audience. I’d imagine a good number of them crossed over from being hockey fans too.”
When Bockwinkel wasn’t challenging for or defending a world title, he was often teamed up with Ray ‘the Crippler’ Stevens in a tag team match – someone he still speaks fondly of after all these years.
“Ray Stevens was probably one of the most lovable, fun, ingratiating individuals that I could have known. He was actually a couple years younger, but he still had a couple more years experience than I did. When we tag teamed, we really clicked. Then, of course, that all happened to take place in the Midwest.”
They also added a third man to the mix, “Bobby Heenan became our manager and I was one of the most fortunate individuals in the world. I could not have wanted a better partner. And I could never have been more appreciative than the dear Lord giving us Bobby Heenan as our manager. As far as I’m concerned, Bobby Heenan was not only the greatest manager who’s ever lived, but he was so good on that microphone. It was unbelievable. I had to really step it up when he was our manager because he was so quick, so fast – his mind, the way it went.”
One story he shared involving Heenan and the Crippler had a minor hockey note mixed in – “Usually the way we would start the interview was Ray Stevens would start things off, I would pick up the middle of it and Bobby Heenan would finish things off. I remember one day, I could see Bobby had a wrestling magazine in his hand. We were wrestling live later that night, I think it was over at the St. Paul Civic Center. So, we were going right from the TV station over to the arena. That day, Bobby said, ‘I’ll start the interview.'”
“Marty O’Neill was a former hockey announcer who was also the local sportscaster and did interviews with wrestlers,” continued Bockwinkel. “He was an elderly gentleman and he was treated with much respect. So, Bobby has the magazine rolled up in his hand and he said, ‘I’m going to tell you Marty O’Neill why Nick Bockwinkel and Ray the Crippler Stevens are going to be totally successful in their match tonight. But, I have to have your word that as an announcer you will not reveal what I’m about to show you.’ Marty said, ‘I give you my word.’ So, Bobby opens up the magazine and what it was was the centerfold out of Hustler. Marty O’Neill then said, ‘Ladies and gentleman let me tell you right now, we’re going to take a break and we’ll be right back. But, for sure, absolutely, they will be successful tonight if they apply this secret!’
“We were allocated about four minutes for that interview. The guy who stands alongside the camera with a clipboard and gives you the hand signals – he’s frantically motioning, like ‘come on, you have to keep going.’ But, there was nothing they could do after Marty said, ‘We’ll be right back after this quick message.’ Bobby threw the magazine on the floor when they cut away and all the tech guys started laughing.”
A little more hockey linked to this story is that famous wrestling interviewer ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund actually got his start in the business by occasionally filling in for O’Neill in the early ’70s. A little known fact is that Gene’s son played on the U.S. hockey team at the 1998 Olympics and briefly with the New York Islanders.
Late in his career, Bockwinkel also had several contests with another second generation wrestler, the late, great Curt Hennig.
“He had all the talent in the world,” Bockwinkel started with. “I knew him well and I knew his father well too, Larry the Ax Hennig. Most of the athletes you had a lot of respect for and everybody knows which ones you don’t. There was no question, Curt Hennig was a dynamite young buck. He was fulfilling all the things a father would like to see, just like my father had done the same thing.”
So, he had no problem dropping the title to him in Minnesota one night in 1997 – “When you’re doing the right thing for the business, you don’t worry about it.”
Another multi-generation guy tied to the wrestling world is WWE head, Vince McMahon.
“There’s no question, as far as I’m concerned, Vince McMahon, what he did and how he gave the profession the national glow that it’s constantly had, that was just something special. There wasn’t a promoter in the entire country who wouldn’t have wanted to do the same thing. All of them, all of them, would have liked to have walked down that path. Vince Jr., as a third generation guy, he’s been around the business forever. Everybody may think Vince is a villainous individual or whatever. No – he’s somebody who knew the business, understood the business, still understands the business. Damn it hell, he’s done with it what others would liked to have done, but they did not have the ambition to sit down, think about it, work it out, carry it out and move on.”
The fact that bloodlines run deep in wrestling, like they do in hockey, is yet another link between the two sports. However, in both genres, it’s not always a guarantee of success. Why do some second or third generation guys make it while others crumble?
“It’s a tough challenge,” Bockwinkel said. “There’s not a father who wants to see his son fail. There’s not a son who wants to embarrass the family name. They take pride in what they do and how they do it. They all take pride in what they do. But, do some people want to see them fail? Sure – people who are jealous and can’t cut their own swatch, want to see those types fail.”
One guy who Bockwinkel was rumored to have disliked many years ago was Shawn Michaels – at least the earlier version.
“He was, like a lot of young guys in any profession, a little smart ass,” said the Hall of Famer. “But, never a smart ass that I couldn’t admire or even see a part of myself. He was enjoying the profession. He was enjoying the popularity. Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty were little hell raisers when they were in the AWA. But, I understood them and I knew exactly where they were coming from and where they were going to. So, hell, I couldn’t begrudge them – there were shades of my own mentality.”
Like in hockey, sometimes the person fans perceive to be the toughest, is actually a quiet, mild mannered gentleman in the ‘real world.’
Was there one guy away from the ring who truly scared Bockwinkel?
“If he wanted to, Billy Robinson. Yet at the same time, one of the greatest matches I had was with Billy Robinson. He was truly tough away from the ring though.”
Those days are long behind him now. These days, it’s nothing but rest and relaxation.
“I live out in Las Vegas now,” Bockwinkel explained. “My wife beats me on the golf course every time we step out there – like Sod Buster Kenny Jay, a jobber from back in the day. He took a lot of matches, but he just didn’t win at all. That’s what my wife does. She just beats my butt something fierce.”
As a child, he rarely called any place home. In fact, he says he went to “four high schools six times.” Basically, his father about a six month staying power in any wrestling territory, recalls Bockwinkel. Thus, they were constantly on the move, back and forth between a handful of cities.
“I had a father who was really down to earth. In promotional circles they would say he was a ‘very usable piece of talent.’ He was, absolutely, an outstanding preliminarily wrestler. He was an excellent semi-final guy. And when the scenario was correct and right, he was a hell of a main event. At the same time, he was a humble man.”
Like father, like son.