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WRESTLING COLUMNS

Stampede Wrestling Bloodbath
May 22, 2006 by Heath McCoy


Editor's Notes: Heath McCoy is the writer of the highly praised book entitled Pride & Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling and is also a writer for the Calgary Herald newspaper.

A Cochrane-based wrestling promoter is trying to recreate the glory days of Stampede Wrestling this weekend with a "supercard" to be held in his town. Devon Nicholson, 23, is bringing in classic Stampede villains Abdullah the Butcher, whose bloody bouts used to sell out the Stampede Corral in the '70s, and the Honky Tonk Man, a crooked Elvis impersonator whose schtick brought him fame in the '80s, for the May 12 show to be held at the Spray Lakes Arena. Other big names on the card include a brute known as Rhyno and Calgary resident Lance Storm, both of whom have grappled in wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon's WWE.

One of the night's biggest matches will feature Harry Smith, 19-year-old son of the late "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith. Harry, who's been taking his lumps in Stampede Wrestling rings since he was 14, has been recruited into the WWE, where he's set to make his world television debut in June. His Cochrane match with T.J. Wilson, the high-flying "Stampede Kid," will be his last Stampede Wrestling appearance.

In its classic era, Calgary's Stampede Wrestling was a Western Canadian institution that attracted thousands of fans across the prairies each week. But in 2006 the promotion is struggling, running two or three shows a month in local legion halls before meager crowds.

Surprisingly, no members of Calgary's Hart family are behind the supercard. Stampede Wrestling is synonymous with the Harts as Stu Hart was the promotion's founding father back in 1948. In the '80s, when Stu retired, his sons ran the business until Stampede shut its doors in 1990, unable to compete with McMahon's billion-dollar enterprise. Bruce and Ross Hart started the family business up again in the late '90s but without the television exposure of the past, when beloved newscaster Ed Whalen was the show's host, its been a losing battle to generate even a fraction of the support that Stampede Wrestling once had in the community. In the last year the Harts have stepped down, handing the reigns over to a family friend, Bill Bell. But it's Nicholson that's running the Cochrane show.

Hailing from Ottawa, Nicholson came to Calgary five years ago to work for Stampede Wrestling. He's moving on now - he has a tryout with the WWE next month - and before he leaves he wants to be a part of one unforgettable card. As he's financing the gig himself, renting an arena in Calgary wasn't feasible, so Cochrane's Spray Lakes Arena became the venue.

Nicholson didn't grasp how important Stampede Wrestling's legacy was until he began advertising for the show, putting fliers in shop windows in Calgary and Cochrane. "So many people were inviting me into their shops and telling me stories," Nicholson says. "They'd bring me into their office and just want to talk about Stampede Wrestling. That's the thing that makes me happy I'm putting on this show. . . . I wish I grew up with something like that." However, Nicholson doesn't think today's Stampede Wrestling can ever achieve the success it enjoyed in its heyday. "You need to be on TV," he says. "People need to be able to follow the stories. And you need to bring in stars every week. You need money to do that and the money's not there." But for the Cochrane gig, Nicholson was able to raise funds to bring in a few stars, including his idol, Abdullah the Butcher, who he's set to face in the ring.

When contacted at his Atlanta, Ga. home, the 69-year-old Butcher fell into character. "That little kid challenged me... and when I get finished with him, he's gonna wish he never met me," he rasps. "I'm bringing the heavy stuff back to Calgary. I'm gonna show 'em that Abdullah The Butcher still lives."

Abdullah has been in the wrestling business for 46 years, frightening fans around the world. But he says Stampede Wrestling was one of the best territories he ever worked in. "All the big names in the business came out of, or through Calgary," he says.

Given Abdullah's age, some may be skeptical that he can still deliver in the ring. Nicholson, who saw the Butcher in action recently in Puerto Rico, has no such concerns. "He's no senior citizen. He's one of the scariest men you can ever imagine," Nicholson says. "He might not be able to do all the moves anymore... but he's still got the forks and the fire and the thumb-tacks. I don't think I've ever seen an Abdullah match that wasn't a blood bath." But whether the Cochrane card recaptures the glory of yesteryear or not, promoter Bill Bell is determined to keep Stampede Wrestling alive for as long as he can. He will continue running shows every second Friday at the Ogden Legion Hall.

Most weeks Bell loses money. "The odd show I'll make a $200 profit, but the next week I'll lose $1,200," he says. But it's a sacrifice he's willing to make. "If I don't run the shows, no one will," he says. "It will die, and the Stampede Wrestling name has always meant too much in this community. My dreams have been dampened. But I'll carry on as long as I can."

by Heath McCoy
Calgary Herald ..


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