What do Austin Aries, Bob Backlund, The Road Warriors, Rick Rude, Jesse Ventura, and Madusa (among others) all have in common? They were trained or helped to become professional wrestlers by the same man: Eddie Sharkey. From gladly making three to four dollars a match and sometimes wrestling up to 15 times a day in carnivals to gouging out fans’ eyes alongside Harley Race, Sharkey has stories that paint a picture about a life in wrestling that is almost but forgotten. He is the last of a dying breed.
Training Future Pro Wrestling Champions
Newer fans mostly know Eddie Sharkey (real name Eddie Shyman) as the person to discover the future Road Warriors Hawk and Animal when they were bouncers at a Minneapolis bar called Gramma B’s. The patrons of this local watering hole were known to be pretty rough, and Hawk and Animal’s way with them must have impressed Sharkey, who felt a need to train them to become professional wrestlers. Other sources have it the other way around, saying that Sharkey was reluctant until an amount of money he was comfortable with was offered.
Sharkey, whose involvement in wrestling was already years behind, found himself at the right place at the right time. Wrestling was becoming hot again around 1982, and he wanted to get involved once more. Along with Hawk and Animal, he would also have a hand in starting other future standouts in the business such as Rick Rude, Barry Darsow (Smash of Demolition), Scott Norton (who earned a spot in the Sylvester Stallone movie Over The Top and won the New Japan IWGP title in 2001), John Nord (Nord the Barbarian in the AWA and The Berzerker in the WWF). He has been instrumental in preparing careers and discovering a who’s who of talent in the wrestling business. The long list includes names like Teijo Khan (Tom Cassett), Ricky Rice, The Warlord, Rick Steiner, Charlie Norris, Lenny Lane, Mike Enos and Wayne Bloom (The Beverly Brothers in WWF), Tom Zenk, Debra Miceli (Madusa in WCW, Alundra Blayze in the WWF), and more recently Jerry Lynn, Shawn Daivari, Austin Aries, and ODB.
Several years before, Sharkey is also credited for training Bob Backlund for seven months, along with getting Jesse Ventura started in the business of wrestling (but not in politics later)!
Eddie Sharkey understood the importance of good mentors for a wrestler and said that "they were the reason he was able to make it in the business." Names such as Bill Miller, Joe Scarpello, Karl Gotch, and Boris Malenko all just a few legends he gives credit to for guiding him when he was first starting out.
His training was very focused on bump taking, working safely, and protecting oneself in the ring. As we’ll soon learn, where he trained his first students was not the most adequate of environments. Nonetheless, the methods he used worked, and it launched the careers of many wrestlers that ultimately were successful in the business.
Iron Sheik, who jokingly refers to Sharkey as an "intelligent Jewish man," admits that while starting out in the AWA during the early ’70s, Sharkey was the first to smarten him up to the inner workings of the business by explaining to him that it was all a work. Meanwhile, Sheiky Baby had been getting into fierce shoot-style contests with his trainer Billy Robinson where he claims that he’d regularly beat him too, or as he would later be known to say: "Make him humble."
The Early Days of Eddie Sharkey
Eddie Sharkey is the son of a first-generation Polish immigrant and grew up in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He worked several menial jobs as a youth in Hollywood, California, trying to stave off the bitter Minnesota winters. He painted cars, washed dishes, moved furniture, anything to make a buck. He even became a bouncer at a strip bar and shacked up with one of the dancers. "That’s when stripping was an honorable profession," he jokes. From an early age, Sharkey seemed somewhat aimless in his goals for his life and considered the Red Flyer boys reformatory, the first time he had a real education in life.
"I learned everything I needed to know there: hit hard, talk fast, and never forget what honor means."
Reform school didn’t curb his fighting ways as a youth. So later on, he decided to put his chin to the test and enter the world of boxing, training at the now-defunct Mill City Gym in Minneapolis, where he gained experience as middleweight Del Flannagan’s sparring partner. Unfortunately, the Twin Cities’ only active promoter died, and the sport took one of its periodic downward spirals.
Not really interested in "a straight job," his first taste of wrestling came at athletic shows and carnival circuit shows for Chief Little Foot in the Midwest. He even sometimes worked novelty acts where he "wrestled" a baboon. "That ugly son of a gun was real fast," he says. "The promoter didn’t give a shit about me, and he’d say, ‘Don’t lay on the ape!’ He just didn’t want me to hurt the baboon."
Many fans are quick to point out that professional wrestling started in the "snake pit," referring to the English home of catch-as-catch-can wrestling. But the opinion of it originating in the carnie circuit seems to be a valid one, too.
The AWA and the Dangers of Being a Wrestler
Eddie Sharkey had his professional debut in Verne Gagne’s AWA in 1961, where he mainly worked as a babyface (or good guy) for most of his career. He was small in stature but known for being scrappy and wasn’t afraid to take on larger men in the brawls outside of the ring.
Gagne is said to have always been on the lookout for genuine tough guys to add to his roster. Sharkey was discovered one night while dining with a handful of wrestlers from the AWA when a fellow patron sucker-punched a woman sitting nearby. As Sharkey tells it, "I got up and knocked him out with a left hook, and then his buddy came running at me, and I hit him with a right hand. Boom! He went down." Word about the altercation spread and Sharkey was offered a fill-in spot at an NWA card in Fargo, North Dakota.
"You just had to be such a tough person in those days. You could get no respect unless you were really tough, and I just had to fight my butt off," admits Eddie Sharkey in The Minneapolis Wrestling Club documentary.
The Harley Race Incident
Eddie Sharkey is one of the last throwbacks to a time when wrestling was looked at as "real," and fan’s passions and emotions many times put the performers in unsafe situations. As Sharkey tells it, being a professional wrestler became dangerous on almost a nightly basis.
"People used to get heart attacks during the matches. There would be an ambulance parked outside of the venues. Back then, people really believed." Sharkey further recalls, "They’d tell me, ‘Congratulations, good match… someone died during your match.’ It was common."
There was one incident involving Harley Race in Denver, Colorado, that neither he nor you, the reader, won’t soon forget.
"We didn’t have police protection like today or barriers that protected us from the crowd- there was maybe one cop in the whole venue. When we had to get a wrestler [the heel] that was in trouble, we had to form a "V" to go through the crowd and save him. Harley Race and I were very good friends. In one such incident, in Denver, I was a good guy minding my own business, and some guy grabbed him like in a death grip and was biting his finger, and some girl was hitting him with her high heeled shoe to boot. So I ran over about two feet away and kicked the guy in the head that was holding Harley, but he didn’t budge. Since we really needed to get out quick, I decided that I was just going to pull this guy’s eye out. So I stuck my finger in; it was the worst thing because I had stuck my finger in an empty socket. Harley had already ripped his eye out, and it was hanging on the side of the guy’s face, blood everywhere. The few policemen there were all throwing up, and we all thought this was normal, just another day at the shop. That’s how strange we were!
"Wally Karbo (co-founder of the AWA with Verne Gagne and someone who Sharkey says ‘knew the wrestling business’) always said the toughest time in wrestling was the sixties," Sharkey says. "It was always out of control; a week didn’t go by when we didn’t have a riot in one town or another." Sharkey adds, "It got real bad. People would pull guns on wrestlers, and we, of course, had our stabbings."
Sharkey certainly was from an era that you had to prove yourself, or you wouldn’t last too long in the business. "I remember in Dubuque, Iowa, we just hooked up in a tag-team match, and the two heels had me in-between them, and an old man was going to save my life and threw his cane. They never hit the guy they aim at, you know. It just split my head wide open. There was blood all over."
Another example, "You break a finger, the bone comes right through it, you gotta keep wrestling with the bone sticking out. How we did things like that, I don’t know."
Eddie Sharkey Sabotages His Career
Eddie Sharkey’s in-ring career ended in the early ’70s when he allegedly had a pay dispute with Verne Gagne that ended in Sharkey shooting up Gagne’s office located at the old Dykeman Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Another version speaks of Sharkey convinced that Gagne had improper plans for his girlfriend at the time, lady wrestler Princess Little Cloud (real name Dixie Jordan). He ended up marrying her, where the two would have a son and daughter, but they eventually divorced. Sharkey doesn’t deny the shooting but doesn’t like to detail the reason behind it.
"They were 13 shots with a 9MM, and nobody got hurt. The story follows me wherever I go; it’s an oldie but a goodie." This essentially blackballed him in the inner wrestling circles and left him no place to work.
He and Verne were on bad terms for a while after Sharkey left wrestling, but when he got back in the game in 1982, he and Verne made up when Sharkey was able to send the newly formed Road Warriors to the AWA. Many consider them to be one of the last main event acts the promotion had before closing in 1990. But the relationship soured once again when he implies that Verne didn’t pay his talent. "The AWA at its apex seemed too big to fail, or that’s what we all thought," comments Sharkey. "At one point, it was the biggest territory in the world. If you could work in Minneapolis, you could work anywhere."
In the last dying years of the AWA, Sharkey was running shows of his newly formed promotion called Pro Wrestling America and said that in many suburban towns, he was outdrawing Gagne and didn’t lose money for several years; a huge accomplishment for any wrestling organization and especially an independent operating on a shoestring budget. Most of his students passed through the AWA, however. He would have working agreements with other promotions scattered throughout the country in the aftermath of Vince McMahon’s WWF empire practically swallowing the competition. After 1993, he partnered with trainer and former wrestler Terry Fox, who had been part of the AWA since the mid-’70s. He opened their own training camp, helping many young athletes achieve their dreams by moving on to more lucrative opportunities throughout the country.
Watch: "Fast" Eddie Sharkey as a manager of The Russian Crusher and Riggs The Terminator
Road Warrior Woes
As recounted in his autobiography, The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling, Joe Laurinaitis, who would be known as Animal in The Road Warriors, doesn’t deny that Sharkey helped him and Hawk (Michael Hegstrand) get their start, but he was not impressed with the facilities in which Sharkey trained them.
"I still remember my overall excitement about the possibility Eddie’s school offered. When we got there, though, I had more than a few doubts. Eddie’s school wasn’t really a school at all. It was the dank, cold basement of a church in south Minneapolis. Once inside, we saw the omen of things to come: an old, broken-down boxing ring with stuffing coming out of the pads. It was nothing more than four posts with railroad ties lying across a metal framework with a sheet of plywood and canvas covering the top of it." He continues, "The mat was shockingly hard. I’d thought it would feel like a trampoline. To put it mildly, the ring totally sucked and was an absolute death trap with no give whatsoever."
Take a Look at The Road Warriors in Georgia Championship Wrestling Before the Face Paint and Spikes:
"Taking a bump onto your back in Eddie’s ring had all the charm of falling off a building. The Empire State Building" – John "Animal" Laurinaitis
So it seems like Eddie Sharkey’s methods went beyond old school and weren’t exactly state-of-the-art facilities comparable to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. Nonetheless, many wrestlers got their first exposure in the sport thanks to Sharkey’s many contacts with promoters throughout the country, and they respected his eye for talent. He, in turn, was able to point them in the right direction. Even though perhaps the facilities were not up to par, he is very proud of the accomplishments of The Road Warriors and considers them a "Once in 30 years type tag team," and that there will be nobody else like them.
He continues, "I had quit wrestling for about ten years. I just walked away from it; I felt sick of it. I was just totally burned out. Then I came back because of The Road Warriors. I put them in the business, and they brought me back. So we all helped each other."
Love and Hate Relationship With Wrestling
"Wrestling will wear you down and drive you crazy," says Eddie Sharkey in a 2014 interview with PWTorch editor Wade Keller. "People tell me, ‘My God, you’ve been in the business for over 50 years, you must love the business.’ I answer, ‘No. I hate the business; it’s a horrible business; it’s just terrible. I love the people in the business. I’m here because of the nice people I’ve met, the good friends. As far as the business, it’s an awful business, long trips; you might die on the road. As you get older, if you live that long, you’re plagued by injuries, arthritis sets in. Oh, I wouldn’t recommend anyone going into the business. But it’s just so much damn fun, and you meet so many nice people, and you get to see so many interesting places.’"
In an interview with Bruce Hart’s Hart Beat Radio, Sharkey comments, "I’m not sure if wrestling now is better or worse. It’s just different. It’s a different world, but I’m fortunate that I was able to meet so many great people. I can sometimes just sit there and laugh at some of the things we did. I really do miss the people I worked with. Almost everyone is gone now from my generation, and that’s very sad. That’s what bothers me more than anything."
Sharkey continues, "[When I used to train wrestlers], I used to tell the new guys one thing: ‘Have a good time, just have a good time because you’re never gonna remember what you got paid tonight. Twenty years from now, all you’re gonna remember is the good times. That’s all you’re gonna have left in this business. You’re gonna have good times, good memories, and a bad back, and nothing else.’
"I hear a lot of talk about storylines. To me, the best storyline is a good wrestler. The best gimmick is a good worker. My advice to young wrestlers would be to slow down, but enjoy yourself."
In regards to the high-risk maneuvers and high spots that are saturated in today’s product, he fears that "we’re not gonna see any more old wrestlers because they are gonna be all injured."
As of 2014, Sharkey was still involved in some capacity with PWA in Minnesota but is now contentedly retired and "living a boring life." He tries to frequent Poor Richard’s Commonhouse in Bloomington, MN, at least once a month and is very happy to be able to see and talk to people he’s met in wrestling throughout the years.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- It’s a Work: Becoming a Wrestler the Hard Way
- The Road Warriors: The Back Story Behind Their Formation and TV Debut
- When Did Wrestling Begin? What Were the Very First Wrestlers Like?
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