By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 23, 2005
Fourth in a series
The wrestling business was a close-knit fraternity when Tony Atlas began mastering the craft in the mid-’70s. The “boys,” as they were known in the wrestling trade, knew which highways and back roads to take, which restaurants to stop in and the names of ring groupies in every town.
“We all got a piece of the American dream by being wrestlers. We traveled from state to state and probably got to see more of the country than any athlete on the planet.”
It was simply, as Atlas says, “the greatest show on earth.”
He can’t name his favorite memories, because they’re too many and too hard to choose. “It was all so good,” says Atlas. “It was almost like kids. You don’t favor any one child over another. That’s how wrestling was to us. We didn’t favor any match, any town, any memory over another. I don’t think any wrestler could honestly answer that question. Considering our backgrounds, we would never in a hundred years figure that we’d be on TV, on the front of magazines. I’ve been in every state in the country. I’ve been all over Europe, the Middle East, the Orient, Australia, New Zealand. It was a paid trip around the world. We lived the life.”Today Atlas lives in a three-room apartment in Auburn, Maine, where he continues to work in the wrestling business, mostly running his own small independent shows in the Northeast but also finding time to get into the ring on occasion. He also works as a certified personal trainer.
Atlas is enjoying life. He’s married to the same woman who rescued him 16 years ago. She’s 64 and 13 years his elder. “I’m very fortunate that I met this woman. She saw a man sleeping in the park and she didn’t like it.”
They married shortly after Atlas got the stint with McMahon as Saba Simba. “She figured I was going to run off and leave her, so I told her that to prove it to her, we’d get married before I left. We’ve been together ever since.”
She’s an artist, a singer, songwriter and seamstress. She got her citizenship a month ago, although she’s been in the country since 1960. Atlas also is an accomplished artist who paints portraits and enjoys cooking in his spare time.
Due to their schedules and work patterns, the two maintain separate residences, but only about a block from one another. They’re looking to save enough money to buy a farmhouse that will accommodate each other’s belongings.
At age 51 his strength continues to amaze onlookers. He can still bench over 500 and squats at around the same number.
“I think I could do more, I’m just afraid of getting hurt. I don’t have medical insurance. A personal trainer is a good job, but it would be very hard to make a living off of it.”
The 6-3 Atlas, who had 22-inch pythons before Hulk Hogan did, now weighs 280, not far from his peak at 297. “I carry a little more body fat than I did then,” he admits.
He still has muscles of steel, but his faith in God has become his enduring source of strength. He sometimes ponders why George Scott would often ask him why he gave his money away so freely – to family, friends and those even less fortunate.
“He didn’t understand. The reason, and I found this out later, is because I’m a Christian. Even though I grew up dirt poor, I feel real guilty living good when somebody else is living bad. I can’t enjoy what I’ve got unless somebody doing less than me is enjoying it too. I didn’t blow most of my money – I gave it away. When I saw poor people, I saw myself. And I wish that somebody who had a dollar would have come and bought me a sandwich or a bowl of soup.”
Atlas has been far from perfect, he admits, but he blames no one but himself. “It’s all about self-responsibility. If I hadn’t done that coke and missed those shows, I would have never gotten fired. I wouldn’t have been there for Vince to say, ‘You will be my example.’ I had to be doing the same thing everybody else was doing in order for him to do that. A lot of guys were doing it. Me, (Jimmy) Sunka, (King Kong) Bundy, we all were doing it. They were missing shows, but they weren’t Tony Atlas.”
There’s no bitterness. No regrets.
“Vince still likes me today, and I like him.”
Atlas scoffs at those who make themselves “victims.”
“Who makes the last decision in everything we do? You do. The final say was mine. Klondike Bill used to say to me: ‘You are the captain of your own ship.’ And I believe that. We have the final say-so in every decision we make in life. I was 297 pounds with four percent body fat and a 650-pound bench press. I’m very sure there weren’t too many people during those days who could make me do anything I didn’t want to do. I had a choice of making Madison Square Garden or laying up in a room with some old hooker. That was my decision. Vince gave me an opportunity to make some money. I chose to do the opposite.”
For all the times he’s fought legendary figures like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Jesse Ventura, Atlas’ name rarely pops up these days. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he hasn’t even been signed to a WWE legends contract.
“It would shock me if they did. You have to understand McMahon. When he says something, he means what he says. And like he said, I’m the example. He hasn’t gotten over that yet. We were like brothers. Vince likes closure. Bringing me back wouldn’t cause closure.”
“There’s no crying over spilled milk,” he adds. “If you look back, you can never look ahead. If we’re looking back, we’ll never see what’s in front of us.”
Atlas says he prefers to accentuate the positive rather than look back at what could have been.
“I’ve got my health, I’ve got my strength. The good Lord’s allowed me to stay here on this Earth for 51 years. (Road Warrior) Hawk didn’t see 50. Big Bossman didn’t see 50. Right now I’m sitting here looking at what I’m going to do tomorrow. As long as I’m above ground and horizontal, I’m OK.”
Atlas enjoys running his small wrestling events throughout the region and is booked on shows every weekend to December.
“The good Lord blessed me real good. God always took care of me, even for all the Vince McMahons and everything else that tried to stomp me under. God just didn’t let them do but so much. He’s only going to let you do so much to his people.”
DEATH OF BRUISER BRODY
Atlas has seen his share of wrestling-related tragedies, but none come close to one he witnessed firsthand at a show at Juan Lobriel Stadium in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, in 1988. It was the fateful night wrestling star Bruiser Brody (Frank Goodish) was stabbed to death in a locker-room shower. Atlas credits grappler Juan Rivera (also known as TNT and Savio Vega) with saving his life. Rivera told Atlas to get out of town after the incident. “Go to the airport. Don’t even go to your room. Get on the first flight out of here,” Atlas recalls Rivera warning him.
Atlas was the only individual who spoke up about the incident. He was never called to testify when a trial was held, and the suspect was acquitted.
“That man got stabbed for doing absolutely nothing,” says Atlas.
Atlas recalls Brody speaking some of his final words to him. Just minutes before the stabbing, Brody had been admiring a portrait Atlas had been painting of Chris and Mark Youngblood, who also were on the card that night.
“Brody liked it. He asked me to do a picture of his young son. He told me he had a picture done before, but it was a caricature. I told him I could have that done before he left. He handed me the picture.”
Brody, who was on the last day of a four-day tour of the island, was then summoned into the shower by another wrestler. That’s when the stabbing occurred.