By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 6, 2005
Second in a series
Tony Atlas was once a big-money player in the wrestling business. He had the build and the look of a champion. Vince McMahon called him “a promoter’s dream.”
During the late ’70s and the first half of the ’80s, Atlas headlined in the major arenas throughout the country against such top acts as Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant.
Vince McMahon Sr., father of wrestling’s current kingpin, paired Atlas with Rocky Johnson (father of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and put the company’s tag-team belts on the popular duo. Son Vince, who admired performers with chiseled physiques such as Superstar Billy Graham and later Hulk Hogan, saw big money in Atlas.
Atlas was quick in the ring and arguably had the best body in the business at the time. The muscleman had beaten Hogan on numerous occasions during the early ’80s, shortly before the Hulkster’s ascension to the World Wrestling Federation throne. The cover of a 1981 Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine shows Atlas pressing Hogan high over his head.
But Atlas had a drawback, and it cost him dearly.
He started missing shows. He wasn’t the only one, but McMahon wanted to put an end to it. And he did.
“Vince McMahon told me: ‘I’m going to make you the example,'” says Atlas.
It was a direct warning to others on the roster that if McMahon would fire Tony Atlas, he would fire anybody. Other promotions became reluctant to take a chance on him.
“Nobody missed a show after they got rid of me,” he laments.
McMahon gave Atlas a painful parting shot: “Every time you see Hogan, I want you to remember these words: That coulda, shoulda, woulda been you.”
His dalliances with drugs, Atlas admits, didn’t help his cause. While many others in the business partook in recreational substances, Atlas says his body wasn’t used to them.
“When I did cocaine, it took me a week to get my life back together. One night would put me out of circulation for an entire week. It didn’t take much of that to mess old Atlas up. My body wasn’t used to drugs. I’d smoke one joint, and it was like me smoking 10.”
Back then most wrestlers worked an average of 355 days a year. Some might get 10 days off in December. “There was no vacation time. That was primarily the main thing for us. We could have done drugs and still made the shows. We didn’t have to take time off for that. We just wanted some time away, and we took it. Just to lay back and relax. But there was always another town to go to. We just wanted that one day to enjoy life. Everyone was getting enjoyment from us. The only ones who weren’t receiving any type of enjoyment were the performers.”
Atlas also took human steroids – not illegal at the time – through a doctor’s supervision. “You don’t know what you’re taking. My mama didn’t raise no fool. One thing about steroids, if you have something already wrong with you, it’ll make the condition worse. In my day, all the steroids were for humans. You can’t get human steroids anymore. They’re using veterinarians. You’re going to take something that’s made for the metabolism of a horse? Of course something’s going to happen. That’s just plain stupidity.”
FROM HERO TO HOMELESS
Atlas’ departure from the WWF paralleled a descent that he was fortunate to survive. In his mid-30s, the stark realization that he was wasn’t going to be the next big thing and that his options were limited became a major personal setback. McMahon had gobbled up most of the regional territories by then, and good work was becoming scarce.
“It was such a wonderful life that a lot of people shared. And Vince came in and took all of that away. He crushed everybody.”
“Everyone worked together,” he says. “It was a respect thing. It was the way Americans should have been. And this guy came in with no regard for anybody and put so many people out of business. We had kept a lot of buildings and venues and establishments going. Vince starved a lot of people so he could eat. He put thousands of people out of work to get 100 workers for himself.”
There also were pressing tax issues that Atlas had to deal with. The IRS wanted their money, and they wanted it immediately. Like many wrestlers of that generation, keeping up with tax forms was never a priority.
“We never had time to sit back and worry about taxes. We were making a lot of money, but we didn’t know we were making a lot of money. I was walking around with S.D. Jones once and he asked me what all those checks were for. I had nearly $16,000 worth of checks that I hadn’t had a chance to put in the bank. We were so wired up that when we did cash the checks, whatever somebody put in front of us, we would do. We didn’t know what we were taking half the time.”
Although Atlas admits some wrestlers during the ’70s and ’80s “smoked more pot and snorted more coke than you could shake a stick at,” he says “nobody died.” It wasn’t until the late ’80s and ’90s that “they started popping pills and dropping dead.”
“It wasn’t that we were doing that much of it,” he says. “It was usually in hotel rooms after a show. If somebody had a joint, six guys were smoking from it, so you could only get so high. If somebody had a gram of coke, you had six guys snorting it. You didn’t have to worry about OD’ing because you didn’t have enough to OD on. My bench press was 650 pounds, so obviously I wasn’t doing a whole lot of stuff.”
Atlas says he never bought any drugs. There were always doctors in the locker room to hand out the “candy,” or wrestlers passing around joints on the road.
“When I got an attitude, that’s when my trouble started. A guy once asked me about my career. My success I owe to thousands of people. My failures I owe only to one. We make the last decision in everything we do. I can’t blame anybody for any failure in life, because I always had the final decision. Everything in life I had a choice.”
Atlas, who was fired by McMahon on three different occasions, was making a mere $300 a week in the Dallas-based World Class Wrestling promotion when he moved back north to wrestle for promoter Mario Savoldi. He arrived in Maine, ready to work, but with only 500 dollars to his name. Savoldi, however, went out of business shortly after Atlas touched down.
– New Beginnings Community Church, 849 Fort Johnson Road, James Island, will hold its Harvest 2005 program 3-6:30 p.m. Oct. 22. Several wrestling matches will highlight the event that includes a free kidsfest, Southern gospel concert, food, games and prizes. George South will defend his Exodus Wrestling Association title against The Masked Superstar in the main event. Also featured will be “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant against Mike Lee, and Ricky Morton against EWA cruiserweight champ Jason Jones. There will be an additional tag-team bout with a special guest. A free drawing for an authentic championship belt that will be signed by all of the wrestlers will be held at the conclusion of the event.