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.