The Legend of The Great Antonio

Imagine you are on a bus, ready for your commute to work. Suddenly, there is a commotion outside. A little alarming, right? Now imagine that commotion is a man who looks like he’s jumped out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and he is currently attaching a large rope to your bus. And now he has begun to tow your bus, full of your fellow passengers and you, with that very same rope. The police are nearby but they’re not about to stop him.

If this sounds fantastic and more than a bit odd, it is because it begins the career of one of the most extraordinary and unusual men that professional wrestling fans might only know a fraction of information about.

You see, in the world of professional wrestling, as in life, the legacies of men are often boiled down to snapshots of their careers in ignorance of the totality of them. A bad gimmick or a bad match can put a stain on a career and in the oft-shortened attention spans of wrestling fans, this is all that is needed to cement who a wrestler is and what he has done.

Such is the case with Anton Barichievich, also known as The Great Antonio. This was shown earlier in part one of our recent Psychology 101 feature, Inoki Shooto Edition, as the Great Antonio was beaten bloody by an irate Antonio Inoki in his seeming refusal to work with him, or even sparse grasp of the working aspect of professional wrestling itself. A cursory glance of the youtube comments, as well as similar postings of the video across the web to message boards, quickly shows you that Antonio is seen as a buffoon by most who have viewed it; perhaps a sideshow that was brought in for a match went awry. And just like that, the snapshot of his wrestling career is taken and the judgement is passed. But in focusing on this brief, haywire episode, many have overlooked the terrifically interesting life of what was a uniquely eccentric man.

Barichievich was born in 1925 to Russian immigrants in Zagreb, Croatia, during the time period the region was known as Yugoslavia. Such a mish-mash, multiple choice origin is befitting of a man who at various times claimed to be Russian, was billed as a strongman from Canada, later claimed to be Italian, and according to those around him spoke a mixture of Russian, French, Italian, Hungarian and English. Like many stories of The Great Antonio, the tales all seem tall yet are still somehow rooted in grains of truth.

Not much is known of his early days in Yugoslavia. His own descriptions of it centered around his youngest days, claiming to have gone to work at age 6 and having the ability to uproot trees with a cable around his neck by 12. His description of his adolescence is less-defined, as World War II fell upon the region. He was never known to talk about what might have occurred during the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 up until the time he had emigrated to Canada in 1945. Arriving by refugee ship, he set to work with the same type of hard, physical labor he described in his youth. By this time he was a 6 foot 4 inch, 450 pound man in his twenties, and had found employment in a scrap yard. In exchange for being allowed to make his own crude shelter on the property (said to consist of wooden walls with a car hood and planks for a roof), the future Great Antonio shifted around the various junk with his bare hands. This was something that would no doubt kept up the natural strength that a man of his size would have, as well as employ a variety of unorthodox motions to build muscles in ways no ordinary gym would have offered. Spending his days moving around cars using nothing more than his muscles and his will was a portent of things to come.

It is hard to say what happened first, if Anton Barichievich went to the wrestling promoters or the promoters came to him. What is known is that sometime in the late 40s, Anton took a strong rope and ventured onto Saint-Laurent Boulevard in Montreal and decided this was the day that buses were going to run on Russian power (or Yugoslavian, or Canadian, or Italian). Hooking it around the bumper, much to the protestation of the driver and perhaps horror of the passengers, Barichievich dragged the bus down the street until the police were called. After standing and watching him do this, the police requested that Anton not disrupt the bus schedule anymore with his antics. This was perhaps the best way to approach a monolithic man who had just pulled a city bus around for fun and attention. And attention did he receive. Percival A. Friend, manager for Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling in the 1970s, says that a local promoter promptly hired him on the spot. Paul “Butcher” Vachon, of the famous Vachon wrestling family of Canada, differs in saying Anton used the notoriety to put on his own wrestling shows. Barichievich was reportedly rebuffed several times by legendary Montreal promoter Eddie Quinn in his attempts to get on his wrestling shows, and this was perhaps Anton’s way of branching out on his own. Either way, this mythic stunt gave birth to the man now known as The Great Antonio.

Building on that fame, The Great Antonio began a dual career of strongman stunts and professional wrestling, becoming known for world records in the former and gaining an ignominious reputation in the latter. He moved up to pulling trains, setting a Guinness World Record in 1952 pulling a 433-ton train for 19.8 meters. Seeking to top himself in 1960, he set another Guinness record by pulling four buses linked to one another. These feats of strength were often the precursors to his wrestling appearances, pulling buses before a show and then taking multiple men in battle royals during the show. This sort of match would later become a staple for another, more famous wrestling giant. Antonio’s two-pronged act was the talk of wrestling magazines, and in the early 1960s Stu Hart brought him to western Canada for his Stampede Wrestling promotion. Of all the people Antonio impressed, perhaps he most indelibly marked a four-year-old Bret Hart, the future “Hitman” eventually considered to be one of Canada’s greatest wrestlers ever. In remembering Antonio, Hart remarked of the awe he was in when he first saw him doing his trademark bus-pull before a Stampede show. Despite Antonio’s imposing physique, Bret recalls that he later summoned up the courage to tell this gigantic, fearsome-looking man good night. This brought an unexpected smile out of The Great Antonio, showing a warmth that would be apparent to those who knew him throughout his personal life.

His professional life, however, is a different story. Not long after that, in 1961, The Great Antonio was booked on a tour of Japan against the father of puroresu, Rikidozan. Rikidozan had put Japanese wrestling on the map by first challenging NWA champion Lou Thesz, and followed by taking on successive foreign opponents and defeating them. In The Great Antonio, this presented a problem. Vachon notes “He was a Prima Donna (sic), and when he saw the big crowds he figured it was all because of him.” Antonio had refused to lose to Rikidozan, sacrelige in Japan given the way that Rikidozan was booked. Japanese wrestling crowds had been built up by Rikidozan proving too formidable for any outsider, a sorely-needed boost for a nation recovering from World War II. Despite the initial disagreement, the two parties seemed to come to terms on a finish as it is recorded that Rikidozan defeated The Great Antonio in a lone match on June 2, 1961. However, Vachon says that Antonio was given a beating afterward as a lesson, before being sent back to Canada.

It was Canada where Antonio found his next wrestling controversy, returning again to Stampede Wrestling in 1971. Although Percival A. Friend described him outside the ring as “loveable,” this was not the case inside the ring in his second stint with Stu Hart’s promotion. There were alleged riots the night that Stu had wanted to put the promotion’s top championship belt, the North American Title, on Antonio instead of a local favorite. No one knows the reason for the crowd’s raucous reaction. It could have been for a lack of ability in a wrestling territory known for producing some of the best workers in history. Or in a funny twist of fate, it could have been yet another situation of Antonio going over a hometown hero, much like it would have been with Rikidozan.

At this point a pattern emerges. Wherever Antonio went he seemed impudent in wanting to emerge the winner in his matches. Friend and Vachon differ in their viewpoints of the reasoning behind this. Friend claims that The Great Antonio was instructed in actual grappling, but chose to rely on his strength. At this point having a “fair” grappling match would probably not make much sense to a man of Antonio’s size. Vachon believes that Antonio did not quite understand how professional wrestling completely worked. Antonio was a man who came from very humble beginnings and was in fact illiterate, known to sign his autographs in big, block letters. Whether this means anything about his actual intelligence and understanding of things is debatable, as Antonio obviously showed a clever flair for self-promotion with his unorthodox feats of strength. Self-promoters are not uncommon in the world of professional wrestling, and after so long of being in a spotlight a man’s ego can be built to the point to where he does not understand anything else. At the very least, Antonio’s friendly personality behind the scenes did not balance out some of the contempt some of the other wrestlers had for his particular insistence on being the pre-determined winner for matches. Pranks, or “ribs” in wrestling jargon, are normal among all wrestlers, but in Calgary they were especially cruel toward Antonio. In one instance he was the victim of a “Mabel party”, wherein a woman poses as the wife of a man out of town looking to seduce a wrestler. After settling in with the woman, another wrestler would burst in angrily with a gun loaded with blanks to scare the “guest of honor.” Surprise, Antonio.

Although his wrestling career was full of conflict, The Great Antonio did well for himself outside of it. His strongman feats got him booked on many television shows, including the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where he revealed he wore size 90 suits and size 28 boots. He made enough money to buy himself a customized Lincoln Continental every two years. Being billed at up to 500 pounds at this point of his life, he obviously required many things to be custom-made, including a gigantic oversize rocking chair he claimed to be the largest in the world, with of course “The Great Antonio” emblazoned across the back of it.

This brings us to the incident that most wrestling fans, if any, know The Great Antonio for. In late 1977, The Great Antonio was booked for a card in New Japan Pro Wrestling against yet another Japanese legend, Antonio Inoki. Given the earlier debacle with Rikidozan of all people, it is a puzzle as to why The Great Antonio would be brought back to Japan against a man known for his excellent striking and grappling skill. As noted in our Inoki Shooto Edition article, Antonio Inoki had a penchant for bringing in varied acts to test against professional wrestlers, the previous year having had his infamous fight with Muhammad Ali. Earlier that evening Allen Coage, known as Bad News Allen to Stampede fans and Bad News Brown to WWF fans, had competed in a “judo jacket” match. Allen Coage himself was a legitimate Olympic bronze medal winner for judo. Perhaps this continued on to the theme of “strongman vs. wrestler” in Inoki’s main event match, or maybe Inoki was hoping to stack his wrestling card with a mainstream act to compete with burgeoning rival All-Japan Pro Wrestling. The match was a disaster, with The Great Antonio seemingly not understanding any of the spots and tactics Inoki was using. This finally culminated in an incensed Inoki administering a beating to Antonio, much like the ignoble end of The Great Antonio’s last tour of Japan. This seemingly wrote the final chapter of Antonio’s wrestling career, as there are no more notable appearances in the wrestling world to be found after this.

It is interesting that The Great Antonio should have such an event precipitate the end of his wrestling career. Nine years later in 1986, another giant famed for his battle royal ability and humongous stature would endure the same sort of event in Japan. Perhaps you’ve heard of Andre the Giant. It was a case of history repeating itself. Andre and his opponent, Akira Maeda, could not agree on who should win in the finish of their match. With the match underway, Maeda began to throw legitimate kicks at Andre’s legs while Andre batted him away. While Andre had decided discretion was the better part of valor and was prepared to lie down and let Maeda have the win, a livid match booker ran out and declared the contest ended, much to the consternation of the crowd. Akira Maeda was later suspended for his conduct in that match by the booker: Antonio Inoki. While the response was understandable because Andre the Giant had gained quite a measure of respect backstage in the world of wrestling, one can’t help but wonder if Inoki had remembered the similar situation with The Great Antonio that had occured years before.

But The Great Antonio, larger than life (and most of the living), did not fade away entirely. In the 1980s he found work in movies, making appearances in the acclaimed 1981 picture Quest for Fire as a caveman and in the independent film A 20th Century Chocolate Cake as the greatest character he could be, himself. As he aged, his worldwide fame slowly slipped away, as well as his money, and by his later years he had fallen into obscurity and was living homeless in his adopted hometown of Montreal. His eccentric personality still gave him some small measure of fame as he was voted “Best Montreal Weirdo” in 2002 by The Montreal Mirror and was mentioned in books and articles on colorful characters. Antonio became somewhat of a folk character, holding court in his favorite donut shop and carrying around massive garbage bags full of clippings and photos from his career. He sold pencils and pamphlets and postcards of himself. He would tape his long hair together with duct tape and claim to play “hair golf” using his locks as clubs. He claimed he had alien blood. He had yet one more parallel with the source of his modern infamy, Antonio Inoki. You see, Inoki is quite infamous in Japan for people approaching him and asking to be slapped in hopes of him instilling a “fighting spirit” within them. The Great Antonio was often asked if people could merely touch him for good luck. Such a parallel and yet a contrast of what a gentle man the people who met him outside of wrestling thought him to be. He was a man with tremendous heart. But as hearts of all sizes must do, his eventually gave out.

On September 7th, 2003, The Great Antonio had a massive heart attack in a Montreal grocery store and passed away. He had no known relatives at the time, and the possessions he left behind were his massive garbage bags containing the scattered snapshots and memories of a better life. Among those clippings were pictures taken with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, with Michael Jackson, with Liza Minelli. There was a letter from the office of United States President Bill Clinton. Hundreds, maybe thousands of words scattered about of a man who could not read anything other than his name and came to his eventual homeland of Canada with nothing more than his amazing strength and his equally amazing spirit.

Dusty Rhodes, the legendary wrestler and no stranger to self-promotion, once cut one of the most famous interviews of all time to a cheering audience. “I have wined and dined with kings and queens,” he said, “and I’ve slept in alleys and ate pork and beans.” While an apt description of himself that cut to the heart of those watching, I can think of no better quote from a wrestler to sum up the life of Anton Barichievich. I have mentioned some of the greatest wrestlers of all time in this brief biography. Stu Hart, Bret Hart, Rikidozan, Antonio Inoki, Andre the Giant. All of which you can pick out moments of wrestling triumph left and right, that are not boiled down to a singular moment. These men took the craft of professional wrestling in a much more serious way than The Great Antonio. But his life is arguably as varied, as world-traveled, as idiosyncratic and story-filled as any of them. Far beyond what any paltry clip on youtube can describe. It is in looking past one moment that we can discover a richer whole, and some men can be remembered a little differently. Thirty-five years later, I wonder if Antonio Inoki would remember him any differently. After learning a little, I wonder if more people could.


Psych 101: Hulk Hogan vs. Sting, Starrcade 1997 (Part Two)

The latter part of 1997 was an epic turning point in the world of professional wrestling. WWF mainstay Bret Hart had defected to “greener” pastures, deciding to take on a large contract rather than remain under the wing of Vince McMahon. Bret, who was WWF Champion at the time, had hoped to leave on his terms without having to put over and drop the belt to Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series in November. Instead, Bret would retain the title through some manner of schmoz finish and then drop the belt the following evening on Monday Night Raw. Vince McMahon had allegedly reluctantly agreed to this behind closed doors.

As the main event unfolded, Bret was put into a Sharpshooter submission hold by Shawn Michaels, which was Bret’s own finish, and cited much ire from the Montreal crowd. As the Hitman went to continue the spot as devised and reverse the hold, Vince McMahon came running to the ring, ordering the match to be called and for Shawn Michaels to be given the title. Bret stared in amazement and shock as Michaels fled from the ring in an aggravated and perplexed demeanor. With garbage beginning to flood the ring with a chorus of boos, Hart would spit on Vince McMahon and spell out “WCW” in the air towards the hard camera. In a highly debated “shoot,” Bret Hart’s legacy in the WWF was effectively put on hold and he would be mocked in the WWF/E for nearly a decade following.

Both the WWF and WCW would use this event to change the course of their companies. In the WWF, the “Mr. McMahon” character was ignited versus the rising “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the Shawn Michaels-led DeGeneration-X would gain more momentum heading into WrestleMania 14. In WCW, the tarnished image of Bret Hart would be used as a tool interjected into the nWo vs. Sting storyline. One company would grow stronger from their creative take on the situation, the other would begin a slippery slope that it would never quite recover from.

Starrcade 1997 was meant to be a turning point for the battle between the nWo and the WCW roster. With Sting returning to assert himself as the necessary combatant to Hulk Hogan, the remaining talent that hadn’t crossed to the dark side used The Stinger as a rallying point. If Sting can get past his demons to return to glory, then certainly the other talent can do the same. The two important clashes between nWo and WCW on the undercard to Hogan-Sting were Diamond Dallas Page versus Curt Hennig for the United States Title, and an encounter between Eric Bischoff and Larry Zbyszko with control of Monday Nitro on the line. Bret Hart would make his first impact on the show as special referee for that match.

From the in-ring standpoint, DDP defeated Hennig to bring the US title back into the realm of WCW. In the worked-shoot world, Zbyszko scored a disqualification victory over Bischoff (via ruling of Bret Hart) and earned WCW control once again of their flagship program. Momentum was clearly gaining on the WCW side and the tyranny of the nWo was heavily reeling. All that remained in their favor was the World Heavyweight Title that Hulk Hogan still had in his possession.

WCW certainly made a spectacle of Sting’s return to the ring. Following the typical entrance of Hogan, fans were met with a lightning show depicting a scorpion crawling its way around the skies of the MCI Center in Washington, DC. No longer an outcast to his home, Sting would enter to the ring through the entrance way, almost as if he had granted himself the privilege to finally exist among the rest of the wrestlers. In grand fashion and to much enthusiasm from the crowd, Sting entered the ring and finally stood face-to-face with the man that helped orchestrate the destruction of his character and the destruction of the only wrestling company he had ever known. It was in this moment that loyalty had to shrine through on either side of the coin. Whether it be from the man to the company, or the company to the man, Sting was owed his retribution, and the company owed it to themselves to let him have it.

Somewhere along the road, however, the company lost sight of what it was trying to accomplish. Whether it is attributed to the politics of Hogan, the naivety of the creative team, or the cockiness of Eric Bischoff as a competitor to Vince McMahon’s WWF, the conclusion of the Hogan-Sting contest would be nothing more than a let down to anyone who followed the masterful angle to that point.

The body of the match went along as typically would’ve been expected, even with the usual heel referee of Nick Patrick governing over it. With the limitations of a worker like Hogan up against the time off Sting had for the sake of the angle, there was really never any expectation of a knock down-drag out war that could really embody the nature of the angle. Hogan worked with his usual eye pokes and back rakes, and Sting worked in flares of emotion and babyface excitement to briefly burst out of the self-loathing character he was portraying. If anything, Sting’s subtle bursts were very well done by situating himself still within the context of his character, but also exposing glimpses of the old Sting to those that wanted to see him burst from his shell.

The build of the match fell apart following one of Sting’s only true hope spots. After hitting Sting with a vertical suplex, Hogan attempted to heel up the crowd and rile them by turning his back to the babyface and giving them a double bicep flex. Sting, meanwhile, had no-sold the move, returned to his feet, gave the icon a crotch chop gesture and proceeded to beat Hollywood down in the corner. As the fans rallied behind Sting, Hogan would end the barrage with a simple eye poke, followed by dumping Sting outside the ring.

Hogan would then take Sting around the ring and put more and more heat on the situation. He whipped Sting into the post, mocked him with his own t-shirt, beat him with his own bat, sent him reeling over and over again. In one shining moment, Sting reversed an irish whip, sending Hogan into the steel barrier. With a running start, Sting took flight to attempt a Stinger Splash on the champion, but was instead met with the cold steel as Hogan ducked away at the last second. The beating continued on the floor until Hogan decided to bring the match back into the ring.

Here was the moment for the tables to turn. Here, after over a year away from the ring and after over a year of the nWo crushing the WCW roster, here was the moment for Sting to break free from the pit he was stuck in. After being beaten down and mocked all the way around the ring for the past 5 minutes, a journey that summed up the character’s journey over the past year, now was the time to fire back. This was the moment for WCW’s savior, for its’ conquering hero, to return to form, howl at the rafters and once again assume his role as WCW Champion and for WCW to assume its role as the dominant faction.

Just as the moment was right to allow the crowd to become unglued and cheer on the man they had wanted to see destroy Hogan for 14 months, Hogan would hit Sting with a big boot. Hogan cupped his ear at each side of the ring as Sting was motionless on the mat. As Hogan bounced off the ropes, everyone assumed Sting would move out of the way and then begin the epic comeback that was due. Instead, he was met with the same leg drop that other competitors to Hogan had met metaphorically in the past. Hogan went for the cover as the crowd awaited the gigantic kickout that Sting was sure to do. Nick Patrick went down for his patented fast three count, except this time it wasn’t fast at all.

1 …2 …3. Hulk Hogan had just pinned Sting or, the company man that was due his title run was sabotaged, or the damned babyface that was to the conquer the unstoppable evil was silenced. The crowd was confused, as was anyone else who understood how effective story telling should unfold.

With Bret Hart still at ringside, the Hitman interjected once again to stop the time keeper from ringing the bell. Audibly screaming “I’m not gonna let it happen again” in reference to both Nick Patrick’s fast counts and his own Montreal Screw job, the Hitman laid waste to Patrick and threw Hogan back in the ring for the match to restart with himself as the new referee. Two minutes behind schedule and finally occurring at a time where whatever happened was essentially worthless, Sting roared with a Stinger Splash on Hogan in the corner. Buff Bagwell and Scott Norton of the nWo ran out to intervene, with Sting dropping both with hard right hands, and Norton having noticeably no enthusiasm to be featured for a brief appearance.

With the henchmen done with, Sting hit Hogan with another Stinger Splash, then followed with a Scorpion Deadlock, seemingly in ode to Bret. Bret quickly checked on Hogan who then submitted in rather quick fashion. Sting was crowned the new WCW Heavyweight Champion as the entire WCW locker room made their way to the ring to celebrate their hero.

WCW caught a lot of grief back then for the booking of the match just as they continue to today. In context of the story, the obvious route was for Sting to return and overcome the oppression that Hogan and the nWo had been pushing on WCW for the past year. After a year of waiting, of zipping down from the rafters, of taking out the nWo during their beatdowns of others performers, this was the moment for the Sting character to finally win in an “official” standing in the world of professional wrestling. This was the epic, climactic battle that rather than assert Sting as the worthy victor, instead condemned him further as just another guy that couldn’t get the job done.

Imagine, if you will, that Rocky doesn’t win versus Apollo Creed. The underdog, spit on his entire way through, given grief from everybody and from all angles, comes to the climax of the biggest boxing match of his life, and fails to overcome the odds. This was WCW’s “Rocky,” and rather than put the crown on the character in the most logical manner, they instead opted to screw the character over and deny both that character of his proper retribution, and the fans of the ending that they couldn’t wait to see happen.

Assuming the finish was done at the behest of Hogan, either for his own political propaganda or the fear of his character looking weak, everything that occured after the first pinfall could’ve happened logically without needing that first pinfall to occur.

– Bret Hart had no reason to be involved in the match, period. He was useful for the Bischoff-Zbyszko match to help WCW reclaim Nitro, but the only purpose he served in the Sting-Hogan match was to simply be used as a reminder of what occurred in Montreal a month earlier. He offered no real advantage to the WCW side of things in that context. Any WCW talent could’ve been appointed in the role that he was if they had really believed in working that into the finish of the match. In fact, in context of the year-long story arc, it would’ve made more sense to have a “true” WCW talent as Bret should theoretically have no moral interest in either side of the battle at this point.

– The run-in from nWo talent would’ve been logical and expected before Sting would get his pinfall. That was the M.O. of the faction from day one. Sting could’ve easily thwarted their attempts on him during a comeback on Hogan, in fact it would’ve added to Sting’s prowess as a Super Babyface that was finally going to save WCW and himself. Furthermore, the laziness of the run-in is quite unsettling to watch. Scott Norton in particular is very clearly uninterested with playing his role for the run-in. He strolls slowly to the ring, enters extremely slowly through the ropes, takes one punch, bumps, rolls out, then is noticeably fine on the outside of the ring as he walks at an agonizingly slow pace and clearly watched Sting continue to finish off his faction’s leader. If this was done on purpose as a jab to WCW for his dislike of the match and angle, so be it, but there needs to be commitment to the story you’re telling, no matter how small your role is in it.

– The crowd erupts in a massive pop after Sting is declared champion. It could be pure speculation, but the pop seemed to be in reaction to the expectation that Sting was expected to beat Hogan anyhow. It doesn’t appear the crowd was going nuts for that entire finish sequence, but rather going nuts because they finally saw what they were waiting all night for: Sting to defeat his demons, defeat Hogan, and defeated the nWo.

The holes in the match and the story weren’t just noticeable to a keen eye, but also noticeable to the average fan. It was following Starrcade 1997, and also in conjunction with a number of other questionable booking moves, that WCW would start to lose its superiority over the WWF. While it would be unjust to purely peg the booking of this match as the sole reason for WCW’s decline, it did strike a major blow to their progress. From this point, the nWo just continued to exist in a limbo state, Sting’s character moved in an undefinable direction, and Bret Hart just existed on a roster of guys where a good percentage did exactly the same – just existed. The failure to progress led WCW into stagnation and stagnation was a trait that would cling to them until 2001.

– Nick