Rick Martel is a familiar name amongst most wrestling fans, but you would have to dig a little deeper to learn about the "other" Martel that started him out in wrestling — his brother, Michel Martel. Tragically, Martel would die at the age of 33 in 1978 after wrestling a match in Puerto Rico that included the man later accused of murdering Bruiser Brody, Jose Gonzalez (aka Invader #1).
Starting in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, in 1973 as a last-minute replacement wrestler and later formally in 1975 in Florida under the Grahams, Rick Martel had a career spanning almost 25 years filled with stellar career highlights. He held the World Tag Team Championship on two occasions in the WWWF with partner Tony Garea and the AWA World Title in 1984 after defeating Jumbo Tsuruta. In the WWF, he teamed with Tito Santana to form Strike Force until they parted ways, later evolving into the disdainful "The Model" Rick Martel, where he exuded arrogance everywhere he went. He would have a memorable blindfold match vs. Jake "The Snake" Roberts at WrestleMania VII. For five years in a row from 1989-94, Martel became somewhat of a Royal Rumble legend, consistently drawing very early spots but still standing as one of the six remaining competitors. Newer fans might recall his brief appearance during Vengeance: Night of Champions 2007 when he and former partner Tony Garea teamed up one more time to face Deuce and Domino.
In 1980, Rick Martel tasted success very early in his career when he and Roddy Piper held the Pacific Northwest and later the Canadian Tag Team Titles. Piper explains in his autobiography In The Pit With Piper by Robert Picarello that Martel had a bright future even if he would have chosen not to stay in wrestling after his brother’s tragedy that befell him in 1978.
"Rick ended up becoming one of my best friends. He is not only an amazing wrestler but also a truly amazing man. The fact that he looked like Sylvester Stallone didn’t hurt either, as we had the girls by the dozens when I was with Rick. Because of his looks, Martel had so many options other than wrestling- there was Hollywood, where he almost became Stallone’s double in a couple of movies- and there were also modeling agencies knocking on his door. But for some reason, he chose to stay in wrestling, and selfishly I was glad because I loved the time we spent together." Piper adds, "When we moved in together in Portland, Oregon we would come home, and there would be girls there making food for us, sleeping in our beds, girls on the porch… a local appliance store owner asked us to make an appearance, and four thousand people showed up with only three tables set up against the wall in the back."
Rick certainly earned the opportunities he obtained in wrestling. Still, his older brother who got him started is now, for many, the "forgotten" Martel and lives mainly in his younger sibling’s shadow.
"Michel was my idol, my teacher, my mentor,” Rick Martel shared with Greg Oliver of SLAM! Sports back in 2004. “He was everything to me. He started me. In fact, he made a point of making me get in touch with the wrestling world. I remember when I was 12 years old, he would bring me with him to the wrestling, bring me into the dressing rooms, make sure I met the guys." He adds, "If I became any good at all in this business, it’s strictly because of Michel."
Michel Martel, real name Michel Vigneault, became interested in powerlifting and met future tag partner Frenchy Martin (Jean Gagné) while working in Quebec’s bars and local clubs. Once establishing himself in wrestling, Michel convinced Martin to get into wrestling by taking him to see a match between Jos Leduc vs. Maurice Vachon. A couple of years later, they formed a successful tag team called The Mercenaries. Martin would be tasked by Michel to eventually help him train his younger brother, Rick Martel.
"Cowboy" Dan Kroffat became Michel’s mentor when starting in wrestling, and his career got a boost in Calgary working for Stu Hart in Stampede Wrestling. Leo Burke, a wrestler who came out of the Maritimes and would later book Stampede, complimented Michel for being an excellent technician on the mat, albeit a little less flashy than his younger brother Rick’s style would be known for. "He was very solid; you couldn’t see through his work."
Did you know?: Some fans might remember Dan Kroffat (Phil Lafon) teamed with Doug Furnas as the Can-Am Express in the WWF in ’96 and the early years of ECW. He is not the same person as "Cowboy" Dan Kroffat, Michel Martel’s mentor. Also, when André The Giant (wrestling as Jean Ferre at the time) debuted on the American continent in June of 1971, it was in Quebec, Canada. His first handicap match, now known as two-on-one matches, was against Michel Martel and Jean Vigneault at Pont-Rouge.
In 1971, Michel Martel and Danny Babich became Stampede Tag Team Champions. But it is with his friend from the bar scene, Frenchy Martin, who joined him to become The Mercenaries, where Michel obtained his greatest success. The idea of wearing black berets was inspired by a highly debated nationalistic movement out of la belle province. Frenchy Martin became Pierre Martel, and together the two ‘Martel Brothers’ traveled the world with them becoming regulars in Puerto Rico from 1975-78, where they would become one of the top heel tandems on the island. Bret Hart goes as far as calling them "the hottest heel team the territory had ever known."
"We went down there, and it was nothing but success because we popped the place right out," recalls Martin. "The Martel Brothers just kept on going a long time. We just clicked together. There was no animosity, no competition at all… he was very intelligent."
A Tragic End For Michel Martel
On Friday, June 30th, 1978, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, The Mercenaries Michel Martel and Pierre Martel (Frenchy Martin), along with Jack LaFarb, would be going against Carlos Colon, Invader #1 (Jose Gonzalez), and Invader #2 (Roberto Soto). The arena was hot and humid, perfect for the grudge match that awaited. Dick Steinborn remembers and describes the memorable match. "There was so much action and fast moves that I believe they were all trying to outdo each other with fast tags and a lot of high flying maneuvers,” wrote Steinborn on the Georgia History Message Board, according to Slam! Wrestling.
In his autobiography, Bret Hart also claims that he was in Ponce when tragedy struck, and this is how the events occurred according to him:
"I was standing in the dugout in Ponce watching when Michel Martel dropped to one knee and gripped his chest. Something was wrong, for real. Frenchy (Pierre Martel) worked the rest of the match and took the fall. He slung Michel’s arm over his neck and carried him back to the heel dressing room, doing his best to protect Michel from the flying debris. Frenchy laid him out in the shower, letting the cold water run over him, and he suddenly sat up and said he was fine, chalking the episode up to indigestion from some Chinese food he’d eaten too close to match time."
Bret continues, "They dressed and hurried to beat the crowd. They were heels, so they had to park far away from the building, running with their bags, zigzagging the fifteen blocks to their car. Michel felt sick again as they were driving. Frenchy pulled over to the side of the road so Michel could stick his finger down his throat to throw up. But he collapsed again. Frenchy lifted him back into the car and raced to the nearest hospital. The orderlies who put Michel on the gurney told Frenchy, ‘Your friend is dead.'”
Frenchy Martin told a different story. One of the main differences is that inexplicably, Bret Hart claims that he and older brother Smith Hart faced The Mercenaries that night (Jack LaFarb isn’t even mentioned), and not Carlos Colon and Invader 1 and 2. Every other source we checked has no records of The Mercenaries with Jack LaFarb facing Smith and Bret Hart in Michel Martel’s final match.
Frenchy explains that the routine used to deal with the oppressive heat and humidity in Puerto Rico was to shower twice with a 10- minute rest between the second time. He claims that this was when Michel admitted to him, "Jesus Christ, I thought I was going to fuckin’ die!" Frenchy offered to take Michel to a hospital, but he brushed it off and said he was alright. They hopped in their car, and on the way to San Juan, Michel, all of a sudden said, "Stop the car, stop the car, I need to puke!" He tried, but nothing would come out. Then according to Frenchy, Michel got back in the car, and "blue [color] started coming to his mouth. The hospital was maybe five minutes from there, and he didn’t make it."
"He died in my hands, really. They took him into the hospital, they tried to re-animate him, and they couldn’t do it," laments Frenchy, recalling the tragic incident with Michel.
In the book Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling by Pat Laprade and Bertrand Hébert, Frenchy recounts the last part differently by saying that the doctors asked him to leave while they tried to save his friend. In a later phone call, he was told that Michel had died, but that isn’t what he was hearing because, at the time, his brain was refusing to make the connection.
When he had received the call, Rick Martel didn’t understand that Frenchy was trying to tell him that his brother had died and thought that he was maybe talking about a car accident. Flights from Atlanta were all booked, but Jim Barnett was able to get him on a flight even though it was supposedly full. Mostly in the dark with the whole situation, Rick called Frenchy right when he was about to board his flight, and this is when Rick was told the news: His brother Michel was dead.
Michel died at 33, and it was up to his 21-year old younger brother Rick Martel to bring his older brother’s body home. Upon arrival to Puerto Rico, Martel couldn’t locate Frenchy but fortunately did the next day. Frenchy, trying to deal with the situation, had taken to heavy drinking. "I just drank myself to death. It was terrible."
Martel went with Carlos Colon to identify the body. "You should have seen the hospital where he was. Unbelievable. Unreal," recalls Rick. "First off, I was in shock from the whole thing. Then when I walked into this hospital, and they opened the freezer where he was to get him out of there, it was like a thing for veterinarians. I couldn’t believe where they had him. And also, when they got him embalmed, he was all white… it was horrible. We had to have people work him over a little bit before my mom saw him."
"Frenchy told me that he apparently ate just before he went in and his main artery blocked, and he suffocated." They both dismissed the possibility of drugs or alcohol being a factor because, "Michel liked to have a good time, but he wasn’t like a partier every night to excess. He was strictly a guy who liked to have a few drinks once in a while."
Later in the mail, the coroner’s report arrived, but it was written in Spanish. “Frenchy translated it. I didn’t really have any confidence in what they said, so I just let it go," says Martel, who admits being in shock for years afterward and especially the weeks that followed.
It was quite the ordeal trying to get the body back to Quebec City, with various mixups by different airlines. Some had muddled up where his destination needed to be, and another had no records of Michel at all.
Remembering Michel Martel
"He was the first of my wrestling brothers to die," says Bret Hart. "I was finding out that the wrestling business would always be about the things I learned along the way."
"He was a very passionate guy. That’s the one word you can use to describe him best," proclaims Rick Martel. He remembers when booking Hawaii in ’79 at the young age of 22 that a lot of what Michel had taught him was used successfully in the management of men much older than him.
Rick Martel’s parents urged him to desist from wrestling, but he pushed forward despite the heavy heart. "It was very difficult to go back on the road after the tragedy," Martel admits. "But I found the strength to continue because of all the things he did to help launch my career." He has nothing but positive things to say about his brother, adding, "He was dynamic. And when cutting interviews, he just got it. He drank and ate wrestling all the time. A real student of the game."
Frenchy Martin also regrets that Michel was unable to grace us with his presence for more than the 10 years that he wrestled.
"I know having been around him, and now, with all the experience I have in this wrestling business, having been on both sides as a promoter, booker, and wrestler, I know that Michel would have been a great asset for this business. His discipline and his ideas would have been great for the business; he was an innovator."
On February 9th, 2014, Frenchy posted on his Facebook page a picture of himself with Michel enjoying drinks with the caption, "I would like to thank the staff at Ponce Hospital, they did their best on that tragic night."
In Puerto Rico, Jose Gonzalez didn’t hesitate to use the death of Michel Martel as an angle where the main culprit became Invader and his “deadly” heart punch. Frenchy Martin continued the feud to "avenge Michel’s death,” hoping to quench his thirst for revenge against Invader while often teaming with Rick Martel. "We were right in a big program, and we were drawing money, so naturally, that’s wrestling… In wrestling, they take every opportunity they have to make a dollar," remarks Frenchy. He adds, "Gonzalez (Invader), he just took the gravy out of it. He didn’t push the boat. He just got on the boat when it was going." He believes that if not for the death of Michel Martel, The Mercenaries could have gone so much further. "We were THE team then." Pierre Martel and Invader had one of the bloodiest feuds seen in wrestling up until that point.
Frenchy Martin continued working for WWC in Puerto Rico, even wrestling Ric Flair in a 60-minute draw and later becoming a three-time North American champion in WWC, which was the main title before the Universal belt unveiled. He battled Carlos Colon on numerous occasions.
He later became the manager for Dino Bravo in the WWF and also had a match against The Ultimate Warrior in late 1987, where he was dropped awkwardly and broke his collar bone. In the early ‘70s, he wrestled Bruno Sammartino in Roberto Clemente Coliseum in Puerto Rico. In a 2015 interview with Devon Nicholson on The Hannibal TV, Frenchy Martin said, "I had a hell of a life with the wrestling, I enjoyed it, I loved it. Today I don’t hate it, but I wish I had made a little more money."
Sadly, Frenchy Martin died on October 21st, 2016, at age 69, after battling bladder cancer for nearly a year.
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