MONTREAL – Maurice (Mad Dog) Vachon wrestled for 44 years, had about 13,000 matches and once said he did everything he could to make people hate him.
“I failed miserably,” he grinningly admitted of his attempts to arouse dislike.
That’s probably an understatement for the growling tough guy who achieved folk-hero status in his home province of Quebec as he pioneered the now-familiar trash-talking of opponents straight into the TV camera.
Vachon died in his sleep early Thursday at his home in Nebraska. He was 84.
One of 13 children, including his brother and sometime tag-team partner Paul (The Butcher) and wrestling sister Vivian, Maurice Vachon went on to alternate between being a ring villain and underdog hero.
He also brought a degree of showmanship to his sport that has influenced the over-the-top antics of today.
“He was the first wrestler to understand the power of television,” said Yves Theriault, who confirmed his death. “He was the first wrestler to speak to the camera. That was never done before.”
Now everybody does it, the filmmaker added.
The death of the gap-toothed, bald brawler brought condolences from average folks on social media — the news was even tweeted in Turkey and Costa Rica— and from national political leaders.
“My deepest condolences to the family of Maurice ‘Mad Dog’ Vachon, a Canadian wrestling legend,” tweeted Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Sympathies were also extended by the leader of the Official Opposition, whose party counted Paul Vachon as a candidate in the 1980s and 1990s.
“A true legend from the glory days of wrestling has just left us,” tweeted NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. “My condolences to the family of Maurice ‘Mad Dog’ Vachon.”
Married three times and the father of six children, Vachon represented Canada at the 1948 Olympics in London. He was also a gold medallist at the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland.
“He quickly became one of the best wrestlers in Canada,” said Theriault, who made a documentary film about Vachon in 2009.
“It was to his great pride that he represented Canada at the London Olympics of 1948 when there was no tradition of wrestling in Canada and Quebec.”
Ironically, Vachon found it hard initially to get into the Quebec wrestling market.
Theriault said the sport in the province was dominated at the time by Yvon Robert, who was considered Quebec’s greatest wrestler ever. Instead, Vachon began his pro career in Sudbury, Ont., in 1950, winning a tournament.
From there, he went to other parts of Canada and the U.S. Midwest. He earned his legendary nickname in 1962 after a wild match in Portland, Ore.
Vachon appeared to go berserk as he waited for a late-arriving opponent, tossing him out of the ring when he showed up, along with a referee and a baton-wielding police officer.
Vachon insisted in a 1999 interview with The Canadian Press that none of it was scripted and he was disqualified, fined and suspended.
“You looked just like a mad dog,” promoter Don Owen reportedly shouted in exasperation backstage.
The rest is history.
Vachon, who was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment hall of fame in 2010, wasn’t always a pro wrestler. His father, a police officer, wanted him to become a boxer but a trainer recommended against it and suggested wrestling. He also worked as a longshoreman and in construction.
The five-time American Wrestling Association world champion was no stranger to fighting when he was growing up.
Teachers would rap his knuckles to stop him writing left-handed and schoolyard bullies in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood where he grew up used to taunt him with yells of “Vachon-cochon,” which translates as “Vachon-pig.”
“A lot of guys tried to beat the living poop out of me,” he said in 1999. “They thought I wasn’t tough.”
But for all his bluster in the ring, Vachon was known as someone more than ready to help young wrestlers with their career.
“One of Mad Dog Vachon’s great qualities was his generosity,” said Theriault.
“He was a man who gave without question. He was a man who loved his sport very, very much. He was a passionate man who was very invested in making his sport popular.”
He wasn’t crazy about the direction the sport took after his retirement in 1986. He didn’t want his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to watch.
“It has nothing to do with wrestling, it only has to do with making money,” he said. “All the sex and violence, now. . . .It’s becoming evil.”
In 1996, he did appear at a World Wrestling Federation pay-per-view event where his artificial leg was ripped off by one of the battlers and used against an opponent.
Vachon, who did some TV work after he left the ring, lost his right leg below the knee after he was hit by a car while walking down a road in Iowa in 1987. More than 4,000 Canadians sent him get-well cards and then-prime minister Brian Mulroney wished him a speedy recovery.
The loss of a limb didn’t sideline Vachon for long. He soon pondered climbing into another ring — the political one — with another gravel-voiced fighter, then-Liberal leader Jean Chretien, in 1993.
Vachon, who was a big admirer of Chretien, said in 1992 he wanted to do something meaningful with his life after his accident and that Liberal organizers had encouraged him to find a suitable riding.
But it didn’t pan out. In 1995, he ended up campaigning with his brother Paul, who ran unsuccessfully for the NDP in a byelection.
As his fabled goatee turned greyer, Vachon worked with amputee groups and delivered anti-drug messages in schools. He liked to quip that it’s good to be prepared in a dog-eat-dog world.
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters,” he said. “But the size of the fight in the dog in the fight that matters.”
While Vachon will be best remembered for his evil grins and grappling in the ring, Theriault said there’s a big difference between Mad Dog and the man himself.
“He wasn’t a bad guy,” he said. “He had a heart as big as the world.”
(With files from Lise Millette)