By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 2, 2005
First in a series
Tony White has lived the life of a pauper and a prince, and he’s done it more than once.
The wrestler known as “Mr. USA” Tony Atlas grew up literally dirt-poor in a two-room house with dirt for a floor. He’s also been a top-ranked athlete in bodybuilding and pro wrestling, making more money than he knew what to do with.
After years of success, though, he found himself broke and homeless, living on the streets and facing a future that most would consider incredibly bleak.
To see how the story ends, though, you have to know a little about Tony Atlas.
To say Atlas, born Anthony White on April 23, 1954, in Roanoke, Va., had a hardscrabble childhood would be putting it mildly.His mother worked two jobs and made $30 a week from both. Atlas had eight siblings that included a set of twins and triplets (four sisters and one brother) that he has never seen to this day.
“The state took them (the twins and triplets),” Atlas says. “Back in those days the state would just come and take the kids. I don’t even know who or where they are, because all the information no longer exists.”
His two-room home had to accommodate his mother, an elderly grandmother and four young boys. “My mother, my baby brother and my grandmother used to sleep in the same bed. I came up real bad.”
The family ate only one meal a day, and that was when his mother, who toiled as a maid and a cook, would come home from work around midnight, bringing food for the entire family. Since there were no dishes in the house, she’d bring a newspaper from the motel where she worked, and would give each of her children a sheet of the paper on which they’d eat their food.
“We’d dump the food on the newspaper and eat with our hands,” says Atlas, who says he never even brushed his teeth or washed his face until he was 12 years old.
The house rarely had heat, he says. When his mother went to work at 7 in the morning, the children were left to fend for themselves. “When we made a fire, we kept warm for a week or two. We didn’t know how to take the ashes out and clean the chimney, so the chimney would get clogged and then the stove wouldn’t work. My mother didn’t know anything about that kind of stuff. During the winter, we’d just put more clothes on. I looked like I weighed 500 pounds.”
Atlas remembers getting spanked once by his mom for not sweeping the floor, even though he thought he’d put one over on her since the floor consisted of dirt.
“She came home and the dust flew up. That’s how she knew. When you walk on a dirt floor, some of the dirt breaks loose. Every now and then you have to sweep it out until it gets smooth. But she could tell if the floor had been swept, because when she made a step, the dust flew up.”
Just how bad was life for Atlas? If he and his brothers saw a piece of candy lying on the ground, they’d pick it up, brush it off and eat it. It was easy to rationalize.
“We’d say you have to eat dirt before you die, and eat it.”
A NEW LIFE
Living conditions gradually got even worse for the strapping youngster, and he was sent to a state children’s home in Chesterfield, Va., at the age of 12. He remained there until he was 15 and returned home. But he knew he had to make another move.
“I moved in with this woman by the name of Loretta Myers, and worked odd jobs to pay my own way,” says Atlas. Working as a dishwasher for $60 a week, he got a deal with the local YMCA where he was allowed to work out free in exchange for keeping the weight room clean.
Atlas, who was becoming incredibly muscular in stature, started training in 1974 and was named Mr. Virginia the same day he won the state arm-wrestling and powerlifting titles. His big break was when he was discovered by pro wrestling stars George and Sandy Scott and recruited for the wrestling business.
With George Scott recognizing Atlas’ plight, he offered him $150 a week to train.
“I’m the first, the last and the only wrestler to be paid to train” back in those days, claims Atlas, who was mentored in the ring by Gene and Ole Anderson and Larry Sharpe. “I don’t think they did that for anybody else.” Officially the stipend was compliments of the Charlotte-based Crockett Promotions, but unofficially it was Scott, whom Atlas says became like a father to him, who orchestrated the benevolent gesture.
“George was like my father, and Gene and Ole were like my big brothers. Ole did a lot for me. I love that man to death.”
What really saved his life wasn’t wrestling, says Atlas, but bodybuilding. “If I hadn’t have had that body, the wrestling world would have never existed for me,” says Atlas, whose awe-inspiring strength and physique would earn him versions of the Mr. USA and Mr. Universe titles.
“For some reason, I’ve always been strong. Even when I was skinny, I was strong. Strength was something that I didn’t have to build. It was a natural thing. All my brothers were bigger than me, but I was stronger.”
Billed as the “Black Superman,” the 6-3, 297-pound Atlas’s strength was uncanny. He bench-pressed 650 pounds, while squatting 800 and curling 350 to go along with a 420-pound military press. By the time he was 19 he had set a Virginia weightlifting record.
WELCOME TO SOUTH CAROLINA
Atlas chuckles when recalling his first match in Charleston nearly 30 years ago. He didn’t own a car and rode with other wrestlers from city to city. Booker George Scott wanted the rookie to be self-sufficient, so he told Atlas to ride the bus to his next stop in Charleston.
When Atlas arrived at the King Street building then known as County Hall, the green newcomer went through the front door rather than the back entrance reserved for the wrestlers. Longtime Charleston promoter Henry Marcus had never met Atlas and didn’t recognize the hulking young man when he walked up to the ticket booth.
“Anyone who comes through this front door is going to have to pay,” declared Marcus.
“Does that go for me too?” Atlas innocently inquired.
“Henry had never seen me, because this was my first time working for him,” explains Atlas. “He said, ‘Yeah, you too, anybody who comes through this door has to pay.'” So Atlas bought a ticket.
“When I got back to the dressing room and Henry saw me, he asked me why I didn’t tell him I was one of the boys. Klondike Bill, Johnny Weaver and some of the other wrestlers asked him that now that he knew I was a wrestler, was he going to give me my money back.”
“No, he’s just learned a valuable lesson,” the promoter retorted. “They ribbed Henry forever about that one,” laughs Atlas.
The two would become close friends. “Henry and I rode together, we did things together. He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known.”
Next week: The Rise and Fall of Tony Atlas
– Tony Atlas will headline a seven-match CWA show Saturday at the Southern Methodist College gym in Orangeburg. Doors open at 6 p.m., with action getting under way at 7:30. Others on the card include Sonny Landell, JJ Jackson, Cali Cassanova, Juggalo Johnny Blaze, Xavier Knight, Malacai and The Widow Maker. Advance tickets are available by contacting Roger Gleaton at (803) 707-4072 or David Garrick at (803) 263-2385. Ringside seats are $12, floor seats are $10, and a special VIP package which consists of a ringside seat, buffet dinner at Ryan’s with Tony Atlas, and a Q&A session following dinner is $25.