Brave the intense heat and acrid air that welcomes you upon entry into the underworld as we bring you a conversation with one of the most diabolical minds in wrestling: Kevin Sullivan. From his opponent walking out on him during his first-ever match to memorable tales from the road, The Prince of Darkness sure has some great stories to share.
A Conversation With Kevin Sullivan
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the west side of Boston in 1949, Kevin Sullivan grew up during the heyday of territorial wrestling. The NWA had established itself as the most significant player in the country in those years. Paul Bowser had a local branch located in the Boston area and also ran shows in Canada. In my conversation with Sullivan, I asked him about his early influences in the business.
"Killer Kowalski was one of my favorites. There was a great double-cross between Gorgeous George and Don Eagle. Bruno, of course, Don Leo Jonathan, Antonio Rocca, and Pepper Gomez. I saw some of the best talents in the world compete when I was a kid. It was Studio Wrestling on Channel 4 from 4:30 to 5:30. You name them, and they all came through there."
His Unforgettable First Match Not Going To Plan
In those days as a kid, the seeds of his wrestling future would be set into place, and Kevin Sullivan built on them as he grew into his teenage years. He was successful at the high school level, always showing well at the New England Championship tournaments he competed in as he represented the Cambridge YMCA. He also took home the AAU New England Title during that time. He would also spend time wrestling for the YMCA Union.
While he was there, he would see the wrestlers coming in to workout. He was approached by one of the members of the Barry family, known for their diamond mines in South Africa and other ventures. He took Sullivan to Montreal and gave him his first experiences in the world of professional wrestling.
The first show he worked on was run by a local promoter named Pat Curry, who had gained acclaim in Europe’s wrestling business in the ’40s. He even wrestled in front of the queen of England at the Royal Albert Hall. Curry operated the small promotion in Montreal and was allowed to run due to the respect he had earned in his early days overseas. The NWA affiliate in Montreal would lend over wrestlers to work his events, and it was at one of these that Sullivan got his feet wet for the first time in a proper wrestling match. Kevin gave me a little insight into how that first match went as we talked.
"So, I’m out there at the venue waiting for someone to tell me what to do. I’m wrestling with one of the main guys from the Montreal office named Fernand Frechette. Now, we’re working into the ring, I gave him a hip toss, and when he landed, I stomped him on his face. Why he didn’t get up and kill me, I don’t know. (Chuckles) He rolled out to the apron and was holding onto the ropes, and I had seen that spot where they would slingshot a guy back into the ring, back in those days, but it didn’t equate to my brain. I came off the ropes as hard as possible and hit him off the apron into about the third row. He got up and said, ‘The hell with this!’ and headed to the dressing room. I jumped up on the ropes yelling for him to come back. I knew I was going to be in trouble when I got back there."
After making it to the back and being grilled out ("What were you thinking out there in the ring!"), he told Fernand that this was his first match, and he was never told what he was supposed to do. Frechette sought out the referee that was supposed to take care of the green Sullivan and let him have it with both barrels. Sullivan and Fernand developed a long-lasting relationship after that and remained friends for years after.
Sullivan also trained and wrestled in Brooklyn at 231 Broadway, which was frequented by greats like Pete Sanchez, Johnny Rodz, Pedro Morales, Victor Rivera, and Ramon Perez. He avidly worked out there, sometimes being the only white face in the gym.
He never let fear or intimidation serve as a setback to his career. Moreover, he would learn to use them to his tactical advantage years later when he sat at the head of the table of some of wrestling’s most feared factions by becoming the Manson-esque leader to various gatherings of lost souls.
Sullivan learned everything he could while he was there. In those days, it was about taking to the roads to widen your horizons. It was also about networking your name throughout the business.
Making a Name For Himself
In the pre-Internet days of the territories, most fans in the various markets had no idea what was happening across the country. By traveling, wrestlers familiarized themselves with a broader audience. The only real way to keep in tune with the working of the business was to read wrestling publications like Wrestling Weekly, PWI, or the Wrestling Observer. These "dirtsheets" tracked the entire wrestling landscape and allowed those in the know to follow their favorites no matter where they may be working at the time.
Sullivan would go to Florida, South Carolina, then to Georgia and Nashville. He took the Southeast on by storm and made Florida his home base for many years. He also worked the panhandle area with Bobby Shane, whom he reminisced about for a moment.
"Bobby got me booked in the Gulf Coast area because he was going there. Bobby thought I had some ability, and I went there. So, I was lucky."
We talked for a time about the West Coast and the Roy Shire territory as well. We spoke of Bruno Sammartino’s time there and how he could draw no matter where he went due to his pull with the Italian and Latin American communities. We invariably talked about Ray Stevens and his impact on the business, when he shared a great story about doing business the old school way.
"I came to San Francisco in 1977 when Pat Patterson, Stevens, and Peter Maivia had left, and the territory was starting to die. Bob Roop and I did an angle, and it popped. We drew in about fourteen thousand people, and they brought in Ray to be my partner.
"I walked up to him, and I said, ‘Mr. Stevens, how do you want me to get the heat to give you the hot tag?’ He said, ‘Son, this your town now. I’ll give you the tag, and you can finish with your hold.’
"That was one of the biggest moments of my life," admitted Sullivan. "For most of the people of my generation, it’s either Johnny Valentine, or him, and for him to say, ‘It’s your town now, I’m gonna be selling for you,’ was just…uh… Many guys didn’t do it, and a lot of guys didn’t do that for years later. But, he knew that he wanted the business to be healthy, and he knew he wasn’t going to be back for a while. So he really put me over, and with all of his ring intelligence, he could have buried me, but he didn’t. He made me look much better than I was."
Kevin Sullivan Turns To The Dark Side
At this point in our conversation, I wanted to stare into the dark heart of the master and ask him about his decision to take the path of the heel. Kevin Sullivan told me that it was shortly after his time in Knoxville when he traveled to the Continental Wrestling territory that he really started to embrace the idea of being the antagonist.
"I always thought that the heel was the ring general, and I wanted to do that. I went into bodybuilding and won a few contests, so I became like a narcissistic heel for a while. That didn’t work, so I started working on a few different ideas."
Sullivan continued, "I took a lot from pop culture, and I knew, in essence, any story passed down is always the ultimate good against the ultimate evil. Good has to triumph, but it has to go through trials and tribulations along the way to be victorious. The twelve labors of Hercules, the Iliad, you know where he had to leave his family for seven years and go through all that, but when he came home, he made the ultimate comeback. I’ve always believed that to be the knight in shining armor, you have to slay a fire-breathing dragon, not a salamander. It has to be where he overcomes a lot of problems."
Our conversation would roll into one of my favorite factions of all time — Varsity Club. I loved the way they came to the ring in their college gear and how they would grind their opponents into the mat, beating them mercilessly into submission. When Rick Steiner, "Dr. Death" Steve Williams, Mike Rotunda, and for a while, Dan Spivey, came to the ring in their leather jackets, showing that they were true amateur wrestlers and shooters, it intimidated most opponents. But when you added Kevin Sullivan under the black cloak to the mix, it took things to a whole different level.
Sometimes, however, it isn’t up to the talent whether or not they stay a heel. We talked about that as well and how it specifically affected Rick Steiner during his Varsity Club run.
"It usually happens when the guy has the background of being a heel. This goes back to Ronnie Garvin, Steve Austin, The Rock, and Hogan. They were entertaining in the ring and their interviews that the people actually turned them babyface. Another example is when Dusty turned [babyface] in the Pak Song match. That was probably the biggest turn of all time from heel to babyface. The same thing happened to Rick Steiner. I remember going to Dusty and telling him that we couldn’t keep Rick a heel much longer, and the Dream agreed. The next week we had to change directions with him because he was so good. It was because of the people that he turned. You couldn’t keep him heel anymore."
Kevin spoke of his memories of the business’s history and what it meant to earn the respect of the older generation of workers that came before him. These older workers guarded the business and protected its heritage by not letting just anyone in. They put you to the test.
"Right from the beginning, I fell in with the right people. They had the patience to put up with my limited ring ability and help me along."
Sullivan continued, "Back in those days, the old guys used to help the younger guys, but it wasn’t easy. They’d book you for twenty minutes in the first match, and they’d scuff up your knees, and you’d come out of there with a scuffed up face. They’d stretch you during the match. Those old guys were shooters or amateur wrestlers, and as long as you kept coming back, little by little, they’d ease up on ya. I lucked out; I was blessed."
Kevin Sullivan also spoke of how some men in the business exuded their stature and standing, merely with their presence.
"I always thought pro wrestling was entertainment, but I didn’t know how they did it. But the first time I saw The Sheik, the whole building shook. I said to myself, this may be created, but this guy’s the real deal.
"People also ask me the question all the time on who was the greatest champion. Well, even if you didn’t know anything about wrestling, when you saw Bruno walk down the aisle, you knew he was the World’s Heavyweight Champ. I’ve heard many people say he was maybe not the greatest technician, but he was a god in the northeast. He took on that role, and he went with it."
Kevin Sullivan has a depth of knowledge that may go to the dark side, but you will walk away smarter than when you found him if you listen.
Ribs in the Florida Territory
As my conversation with Kevin Sullivan drew to an end, he shared a few stories showing the lighter side of being on the road.
"We were always ribbing each other in Florida. I brought Rick Martel to the United States. I met him in Calgary and said, ‘Naw… you need to go to the United States.’ So I got him sent to Florida.
"He was a young boy down there, and The Briscos took him under their wing. This is before I-75 was completed from Tampa on down to Miami, so you used to have to take this long road down 60. From there, when you caught 75, there was this place called Yee-Haw Junction. The only thing that Yee-Haw had was a little restaurant opened up during the day and a Stuckey’s, which was open twenty-four hours. So families going to Miami and truckers getting gas stopped there all hours of the day and night because there was nothing to eat for hundreds of miles after. It was always packed.
"So the Funks went by the Briscos and mooned ’em. Then the Briscos pulled off to the side of the road and told Rick to get naked and hide in the trunk, and when they caught up to the Funks, they would honk the horn, and he would jump out and run around the car. There was a stoplight in Yee-Haw Junction, and they told him when they passed the Funks, they would stop at the light and hit the horn, pop the trunk, and he was to jump out. So they were all set.
"Well, when they got off of 75 and onto 60, what they did was back up to the big windows in the front of the Stuckey’s. When they honked the horn and pressed the button, Rick jumped out naked in front of the whole restaurant, and the Briscos took off, leaving him there. Ricky had to run for a mile half-naked! Eventually, he had to hide in a ditch until he saw another car full of wrestlers drive by."
Having difficulty due to laughing as he shared his stories from the road, Sullivan had one more tale under his belt.
"One time, I was traveling with Roddy Piper and Bill Alfonso, and we were going down alligator alley. Piper said he would sure like to shoot one of them to make them into a pair of boots.
"Roddy took a shot at one of the big ones, and it slid off into the water. So I told Roddy to get in the water, and I would beat the water with a branch to keep the other gators away like the Samoans did when they caught fish. He went in until he was waist-deep, and if he took another step, he woulda went from waist deep to about twelve feet in. Roddy stopped and turned to me and said, ‘You’re talking about Samoans, and I just shot at an alligator. Let me get the hell outta here!’ He drove us the rest of the way to Miami, soaked with his boots full of water!"
This interview would not have been possible if it weren’t for our mutual friend, Bruce Tharpe. When Bruce connected us, I told Kevin how much I valued my friendship with him, to which he replied, "Tharpe’s brother was the State’s Attorney. His father also had been the television announcer for Eddie Graham for years. The family was a great, great family."
"It’s that sense of family that I refer to when I call people my brothers and sisters. It’s not just a catch-phrase, and I feel blessed that I’ve able to add to my family each and every day."
Kevin Sullivan recently launched a podcast entitled "Taskmaster Talks." You can listen and subscribe to his show here.
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