By Mike Mooneyham
Jan. 11, 2004
First of a two-part series
Ole Anderson’s not out to win any popularity contests. He’s opinionated, abrasive and contentious.
And those are his good qualities.
But they’re ideal for someone who’s writing a book about professional wrestling.
His new page-turner, “Inside Out: How Corporate America Destroyed Professional Wrestling,” shows what a cutthroat business the industry can be. It also shows that you have to possess a mighty strong constitution to survive in it.
Not only did Anderson survive, he was a major power broker who successfully wore many hats during a 30-year career in the business.There aren’t many who would dispute the fact that the burly Minnesotan was one of the toughest grapplers to ever come down the pike. As part of the famed Minnesota Wrecking Crew with “brothers” Lars and Gene, he helped re-write the book on tag-team wrestling. Just as importantly, he helped shape the business as booker during key periods in wrestling history, overseeing the offices in Charlotte (Jim Crockett Promotions), Atlanta (Georgia Championship Wrestling) and later for the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling.
By the early ’90s, however, it was clear to Anderson that the business – or at least the business as he had known it – had passed him by. Like Verne Gagne, Bill Watts and other “old-school” traditionalists, Anderson could not accept the fact that professional wrestling had gone the way of modern-day sports entertainment.
Years after his retirement, Anderson remains an intriguing, almost mythical, figure in the wrestling business.
Some see him as a stubborn, embittered old-timer who has a myopic, outdated view of the profession.
Others see him as a throwback and symbol of what tough guys were like “back in the day.”
Ole Anderson was, however, an unorthodox but savvy booker and businessman who stood up to the establishment and waged his biggest battles not inside the ring, but rather in the halls and offices of corporate giants such as TBS, and with the likes of Vince McMahon, Jim Barnett, Eric Bischoff, Jim Herd and Bill Shaw.
“The wrestling matches may have been staged and scripted, but there was nothing fake’ about the corporate and legal battles,” says Anderson.
Anderson admittedly was one of the last defenders of the legitimacy of the business. During his ring career, he approached every match as if it were a shoot (a real contest), worked tight with his opponents and went to great lengths to make everything look believable.
That facade, however, officially came down when WWF owner Vince McMahon made the once unthinkable admission that wrestling was fake so he could get his company exempted from a 10 percent tax on tickets sold to legitimate sporting events. Fifteen years later, Anderson still has a hard time “breaking kayfabe,” divulging inside information about the business.
“It took me a long time to come to grips with that,” says Anderson. “I told the Turner people back in ’90 or ’91 that I was of the opinion that the suspension of disbelief was so important that it was necessary to maintain that. I would be more than willing to bet you that I could get in the ring with somebody and convince you after 10 minutes that what you had just seen was a shoot.”
Anderson, who began his career in 1967 under his real name, Al “Rock” Rogowski, makes no apologies for his obstinate disposition. In fact, there’s little difference between the Ole Anderson fans despised in the ring for so many years, and the Ole Anderson outside the business. Like so many others from his era, he lived his gimmick. And, love him or hate him, he still has that intangible quality that separates the men from the boys in the wrestling business: He can evoke emotion at the drop of a hat.
The 381-page autobiography steps on a lot of toes, but Anderson spent an entire career doing just that.
“Seems to me 2,000 years ago there was a pretty nice guy who was crucified, and he tried to get along with everybody, so you just can’t please everyone,” Anderson notes wryly. He’ll also be the first to tell you that he wasn’t in the business to make friends or cultivate legions of fans. He was in the business to draw money, pure and simple, and everything else took a back seat.
Including winning the world heavyweight title.
Working for the owner of the territory, Anderson wielded considerable power as booker, hiring and firing wrestlers, planning the matches and television programs, and deciding who was going to win or lose.
“If I had realized that you people would be so damned stupid as to give the world champion $750,000, I would have made myself the champion,” Anderson once told executives at WCW and TBS.
“Ric Flair talked to me before they (WCW) offered him all that money back in 1989 or ’90, and asked me what I thought about it,” says Anderson, an original member of the legendary Four Horsemen along with Flair, Arn Anderson (Marty Lunde) and Tully Blanchard. “I told him that they had to be crazy. The people running the company didn’t have a clue about what to do. I got Vader (Leon White) a (three-year) contract for $2.2 million. He had been wrestling for me for 600 bucks, and was happy with it. How stupid was that?
“I got Marc Mero a contract for $50,000 that he was overjoyed to get because the most he had ever made in his life was $17,000 a year, and the office calls me later that afternoon, and offers him $275,000 plus a $75,000 clothing allowance, with all his travel expenses taken care of. These guys would have worked for far less, and did work for far less at one point, and it was only our (WCW) own stupidity that we drove these salaries out of sight. I didn’t have anybody making a million dollars like Vince did, but they were all making reasonable amounts of money.”
What you see is what you get with Ole Anderson. Never one to mince words, his argumentative, confrontational personality has left a sour taste in the mouths of some who have taken a different approach to the business. Case in point: a recent radio appearance by Anderson to plug his book created a furor when the grappler engaged in a heated discussion with host Dave Meltzer on the Wrestling Observer Live show.
Anderson, whose name thus far has been excluded from Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, called the list a joke. The show sparked a deluge of e-mails, with most agreeing that Anderson could have done a better job of promoting his book.
“What a bitter, jealous, tortured soul. Poor Ole,” wrote one listener.
“I learned so much about professional wrestling tonight,” another fan sarcastically wrote. “I learned that Ric Flair was not a good worker. I learned neither Flair nor Hogan drew money. But most importantly, I learned that Ole Anderson is the ultimate grizzled veteran.”
Anderson, though, stands firm in his belief that wrestling is in much worse shape now than it was years ago. He points to the fact that employment opportunities in the business are at an all-time low. According to Anderson, cable TV didn’t cause pro wrestling to nosedive. It was, he maintains, due to a lack of ability by the wrestling talent to perform and entertain, while at the same time, suspending disbelief.
“Inside Out” contains some great stories in which Anderson “tells it like it is,” but could have benefited from more of his personal dealings outside the business. He doesn’t discuss his 23-year marriage that produced seven children (four sons, three daughters, ranging in age from 21 to 33) but ended in divorce, nor more recent relationships, including one with former WCW executive Sharon Sidello. He’s reluctant to show the reader anything but his gruff exterior, but he jokes that there’s a reason for that. He doesn’t have a kinder and gentler side, and isn’t fond of warm and fuzzy stories.
Anderson says he intentionally left out any highly personal tales that might adversely affect other wrestlers. “We had to leave some of that stuff out. If it in any way infringed upon a person’s family life, then I took it out. If I called someone a jerk, that’s OK, because they were.”
“I guess anybody on the outside can look at me and say, you tired, 61-year-old, miserable (so-and-so),” he says. “You’re mad because you’re not taking bumps. You’re mad because you weren’t world champion. You’re mad because Ric is a star. No. I’m happy because, at the age of 40, I could tell everyone to go to hell, and have enough money to live on. That’s what makes me happy.”
Life, says Anderson, is what you make it. And right now he has no complaints. As he looks out from the second-floor keeping room of his nearly 9,000-square-foot home in Toccoa, Ga., directly across the South Carolina border, he sees 2,000 feet of shoreline, a portion of the 14 acres that he owns on Lake Hartwell, with a couple of mountains completing a beautiful picture in the distance.
“I love where I’m at right now. I love it. I really love it.”
One of the highest-paid personalities in the business during the 70s, he first retired from the game in 1979, and hasn’t had a job where he had to make money since 1994. Only a few months away from Social Security eligibility, he insists he has more money than he needs. You won’t find any signs of past glory in his spacious home – there are no pictures, no belts, no posters, no clippings. “There’s nothing in my room, here or anywhere else. I could care less if anybody remembers me,” he rattles in typical Ole fashion. “I mean, it’s true. All I wanted to do is make money. I had the side benefit of being in a job where I made a lot of money and I loved it.”
A typical day now consists of working out every morning at the gym, reading and sometimes a little shopping or having an occasional lunch with his girlfriend, 17 years his junior, or one of his sons who live nearby. He once owned a sawmill in Wisconsin, and still likes working with his hands. He has a workshop in his 3,000-square-foot basement where he makes tables, bookcases and does refinishing. He watches little television, with the exception of the Fox network in the morning and an occasional episode of “Seinfeld.” He says he never gets bored.
Anderson, who’s down to 225 pounds from his peak weight of 280 and stands a shade under six feet tall, feels the effects of his former career every day. He needs shoulder replacements, knee replacements and neck surgery, but he’s living with the pain for now. He fell off his roof last June, broke his hip and had to have it replaced. His knees and shoulders have affected his ability to move around, but it could always be worse, he says.
“The person with no shoes thinks he has it bad until he meets the guy with no feet. That makes me a lucky guy.”
Ole Anderson wrote the self-published “Inside Out” along with Whatever Happened To …? magazine editor Scott Teal. The book can be ordered for $19.95 (plus $3.85 postage) through Teal at P.O. Box 2781, Hendersonville, Tenn. 37075, or go to the Web site at www.1wrestlinglegends.com.
NEXT WEEK: Ole Anderson describes what it was like to be part of one of pro wrestling’s greatest tag teams.