IN A CULTURAL climate where the tired notion that every life is deserving of a novel gives inspiration to millions (with predictably grim results), Ed Sharkey's personal version of the old when-giants-walked-the-earth story has all the makings of a doorstop blockbuster. For starters: Sharkey once rented a bedroom closet in his South Minneapolis home to a pro wrestler named Badman Jose Quintero.
"I bought this house and rented rooms to wrestlers," Sharkey says. "I gave Badman Jose the closet in Harley Race's bedroom for half price. Harley came home one day and there was a guy living in his closet. It was a walk-in so, you know, the guy had room for a little bed in there. The Badman was also a poet, and he'd sit in his closet and write dirty poems about me and then he'd go around to those coffeehouses near the university and read the poems in public."
Sharkey is a legendary character in professional-wrestling circles, a pivotal figure in the early Midwestern armory and auditorium crusades of Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo's American Wrestling Association. In the early 1960s Sharkey--conservatively outfitted in the snug, iconic trunks and plain black boots of the good guy--did battle with all the greats, and Gagne kept his troupe of wrestlers busy with intensive road work throughout the upper Midwest. There were regular frenzied programs at the old Minneapolis and St. Paul auditoriums, and a live TV show every week from the Calhoun Beach hotel.
"Gagne and Karbo were the biggest in the world at that time," Sharkey recalls, "and they had a huge territory to work. We'd work four or five days a week, different cities all the time. We'd go to Chicago, out to Omaha, up to Winnipeg. It was a crazy time; there was no police protection, no barriers, and some nights you had to fight like hell just to get out of the ring and get back to the dressing room, fans chasing you all the way. I remember one time Wally Karbo came running back to the dressing room in a panic, and all the wrestlers had to go out and form a wedge through the crowd to get Mad Dog Vachon out of the ring."
In those days there were pro-wrestling associations spread out all around the country, each with its own champion and a territorial imperative worthy of a National Geographic special. Sharkey did a tough apprenticeship with an outfit called Chief Little Wolf's Athletic Show, traveling the carnival circuit and taking on all comers. He'd wrestle up to ten matches a night, at three or four bucks a pop. "Usually we had a ringer in the crowd," Sharkey says, "but you'd also get the guys who'd been sitting all night in the beer garden, and those drunks would climb up there and try to impress their friends. It was usually pretty quick work, and you'd get these guys on their hands and knees barfing in the ring."
At that time Gagne and Karbo's AWA was notoriously difficult to break into. "They would usually take on one new guy a year," Sharkey remembers. "I got lucky. I had friends in the business, and a lot of wrestlers would hang out at Luigi's Cafe on Hennepin Avenue. That was a tough place, to say the least, and I had more than my share of fights along Hennepin. One night I mixed it up with a couple guys at Luigi's and did pretty well for myself. Vern heard about it, and the next week I was wrestling. In those days wrestling was a business for tough guys. You could go out and get into all the fights you wanted, but if you got beat on the street you might find yourself out of a job."
In 1968 Sharkey was wrestling out of Kansas City when he won his first title belt, beating Nature Boy Roger Kirby for the U.S. Heavyweight championship in Waterloo, Iowa. From time to time he'd wander out to smaller territories in search of work or a warmer climate and a suntan. Somewhere along the way Sharkey met up with a woman wrestler named Dixie Princess Littlecloud. The two married and settled in South Minneapolis to raise a family. Sharkey got into the first of his entrepreneurial rackets, running a wig studio with Harley Race. "It was a nice little business," he says. "Marty O'Neill would plug the wigs during the television broadcasts and, I'm telling you, we sold a lot of wigs to wrestling fans." Also around this time Sharkey opened the first of his massage parlors and saunas.
"I'd seen these places out in San Francisco," he recalls. "It was all very legitimate from the start. I'd hired these student nurses and we did real well initially. After a while, though, I could see where it was headed and got out. Now these guys are making money hand over fist and buying houses out in Arizona and I'm still going up and down the highway in the back seat of a car full of wrestlers."
For a time Sharkey tried to get out of the wrestling business, but in the early 1980s he was bouncing and tending bar in a tough Northeast club called Grandma B's, where he met a group of young bouncers who were gung ho to learn the ropes of the wrestling trade. Sharkey got himself talked into training these characters, and in the process helped usher in pro wrestling's '80s boom. Among those bouncers--the first prominent class to emerge from Sharkey's School for Professional Wrestlers--were the Road Warriors and Rick Rude, and later success stories included Jesse "The Body" Ventura.
These days Sharkey runs his own throwback association, Pro Wrestling America, training young wrestlers and staging shows in small towns around the state. He also does a little refereeing, which allows him the occasional trip to Japan or the Middle East.
"I'll tell you, I'm pretty much the last of the carnival wrestlers," he figures. "There aren't a lot of old wrestlers left, period. Ray 'The Cripple' Stevens is dead. Haystack Calhoun is dead. The Crusher, though, is still alive and looks great. Mad Dog lives in Council Bluffs, and the Baron is running a gift shop up in Bemidji. Every year we have a wrestler's reunion out in California, the Cauliflower Club, and it's always great to see the old guys. We lived together, traveled together, and wrestled each other, and none of us were ever considered normal people. But we sure were rich in characters."