By Mike Mooneyham
Nov. 6, 2005
Final in a series
Tony Atlas spends much of his time talking to youngsters, mostly middle school students, about important principles in life and real role models. He hammers home what constitutes a true hero and what true power really is.
He asks if there any tough guys in the audience.
“A tough guy is the guy who does all the right things,” Atlas says. “A tough guy is the guy who listens to his parents, does his homework and doesn’t miss school. From the moment you come here on Earth, no one has to teach you to be bad. That’s easy. It’s easy to jump on some kid half your size. It’s easy to skip school and not do your homework. But to do all the right things, you have to be tough.”
The supposed tough guys, says Atlas, are wimps – “they wimp out on life.”
“They’re not tough guys,” Atlas tells his audience. “The ones who run around with the baggy pants and listen to all the rap music and can’t even spell their first name are really wimps and not tough guys. A tough guy does all the right things. You have to be tough to stay sober. Most people do drugs because they can’t face life.”Bringing it all into perspective, Atlas asks about heroes. Some point to Michael Jordan, others mention The Rock. Then Atlas throws out some questions that force the youths to think long and hard.
“Did Michael Jordan ever cook you any pork chops? Did he fry you some chicken? When you got sick, did Michael ever come by and help get you well? If you have trouble with your schoolwork, did Michael Jordan ever help you with that? Then guess what? Michael Jordan isn’t going to do it, and neither is Tony Atlas. You’d starve to death waiting for me to make you a bologna sandwich. Your real heroes are the ones who make sacrifices for you – like your mom and your dad.”
Atlas holds an autograph session for the youngsters after his talk and quizzes them one more time.
“Who’s your hero? What’s a tough guy?” The responses suddenly change.
The mild-mannered strongman talks about a young man raised in a poor neighborhood working a 12-hour shift in a factory and making little money, but preserving his dignity. He describes another youth standing on a street corner making a thousand dollars a week selling dope. “He’s a wimp because he’s not tough enough to put in a 12-hour shift and live on $200 a week,” says Atlas. “You have to be tough to do that.”
Atlas admits to employing old-school ring psychology in discussions with his young audiences. Pointing to a passage in Genesis, he stops short of telling kids to stay off drugs.
“God told Adam and Eve not to mess with that tree,” he says. “That’s all they thought about after that. It’s human nature when you tell people not to do something – it makes them want to do it.”
Atlas, instead, shows them alternatives. “Then they don’t look to do wrong,” he says. He tries to let the youngsters work it out for themselves. He wants them to be tough guys who want to do the right thing.
What really gets their attention is a tape Atlas shows of him beating Hulk Hogan. The method is especially effective in talks with the older youths. The 6-3, 290-pound Atlas stands in front of his audience, flexing his arms and demonstrating his strength. He shows them, he says, what they perceive as power.
He then asks them if hoisting Hogan like a rag doll and bench-pressing 650 pounds are real power. Most answer in the affirmative, but he quickly tells them they couldn’t be further from the truth. The audience becomes quiet.
“Real power,” he explains, “is education, because with education you can tell the guy with the 22-inch arms, the guy who pressed Hulk Hogan, and the guy who bench-pressed 650 pounds what to do. The guy that does that will come to you asking for a job. All that weight lifting and 25 cents will get you a cup of coffee.”
Atlas ties it all together with a wrestling-related exchange he witnessed firsthand some years ago. He tells a story about Hogan asking Vince McMahon’s son, Shane, how he’d like to have 24-inch “pythons” like the Hulkster. “No,” the junior McMahon replied, “I’d rather be like my dad so I could tell guys with arms like you what to do.”
LEARNING THE HARD WAY
Atlas speaks from experience – some painful. Privately, if older youths ask, Atlas will talk about his own past and offer some fatherly advice, encouraging them to avoid some of the pitfalls in life he stumbled across. It was a hard childhood for Atlas, but in many ways it made him stronger and wiser, he says.
“When I was a kid, I’d see these winos laying out on the corner. It made me not want to be one. As for drugs, nobody ever sees an addict. As soon as one appears, the cops would throw him in jail so fast nobody would ever see him. If you saw somebody strung out on crack lying on the corner sleeping in the ditch, that would be the last thing you’d ever want to do in life. Kids never see the effects of that in this country. They don’t see the damage that it does.”
Atlas’ father, who passed away five years ago, was in and out of his life. He left when the youngster was 2, came back when he was 8, left again and returned when he was 12. He didn’t see him again until Atlas was 21 years old. His father told Atlas’ mother that he had fathered 36 kids before he met her. “I’ve got 30 or 40 siblings out there that I never met,” Atlas says.
Atlas’ mom, though, would tell him, “He’s still your father.”
“George Scott is the only father I’ve ever known,” says Atlas, who was “discovered” by George and brother Sandy at a YMCA in Roanoke, Va., during the early ’70s. “He’s a wonderful man. Everything I learned I learned from him. He always took care of me. He and his brother are both wonderful people.”
Atlas says Scott smartened him up to many realities concerning the wrestling business. He harkens back to something Scott told him nearly 30 years ago. What Atlas had considered confidential information was somehow getting back to Scott. He asked Scott where he was getting the tidbits. Scott asked him one question: “Who do you ride with?”
“Anything that came out of George Scott’s mouth was gold to me. I was like a son to that man. He did things for me he did for nobody else in this business. He stuck his neck out on the block many times for me.”
Atlas quickly learned that the business can be extremely cutthroat.
“Hulk Hogan is McDonald’s, Ric Flair is Wendy’s and Tony Atlas is Burger King,” he says. “You’re self-employed (in wrestling). It’s not like basketball or football or baseball. No matter how you slice it, you’re an independent contractor. Anthony White is who I am. Tony Atlas is the corporation that I own. You never hear a wrestler call wrestling ‘wrestling.’ My first day, they said, ‘Welcome to the business, kid.’ It’s a business. I was a jock then and didn’t know any better. I took wrestling for real. When guys would try to help as I press-slammed them, I told them not to do it, I got mad. I wanted people to see that I could really lift them. If I had been smart, I wouldn’t have worried about who I could press, I would have done business.”
Veterans like Scott and Ole Anderson helped Atlas along the way.
“‘Take care of yourself, kid,’ Ole used to tell me. The ‘boys’ (wrestlers) are the most dangerous. I chose to be one of the boys rather than make money.”
Atlas says wrestling back then was like magic. “You know there’s a trick to it, but you don’t know how it’s done. What we used to call a ‘worker’ is the person that could make the people believe. There really was no art to it. They were just tough as hell. They just did it.”
Atlas recalls wrestling Gene Anderson one night, and Anderson telling him they needed to get “a little juice” (blood).
“I asked him if he had a blade. He said no. He proceeded to bust me in the head with his fist until he cut me open. That’s how it was done. I’ve seen Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat hit each other so hard that they’d have blood blisters on their chests. It wasn’t fake. Gene Anderson and Karl Gotch were the worst. Gotch would get you down on the mat and hook you. He would say, ‘Let me see you get up from that, muscleman.’ The more you tried to get out, the tougher he would apply the pressure. People out in the audience would say, ‘He’s a good seller.’ Right. You had to sell when guys like Gotch and Ole got a hold of you.
“These guys were like brutes. It was like the Twilight Zone. Anytime they wanted to hurt you it was absolutely no problem. They didn’t have the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but they were wrestlers. They lived wrestling, they ate wrestling, they slept wrestling, they didn’t think about anything but wrestling. An old-time promoter once told me that he wanted me to hit my opponent so hard that the people in the cheap seats could hear it. I watch it (wrestling) today and cringe. The guys barely touch each other.”
Atlas remembers the first time he broke his nose. “Good for the business, kid,” was the first thing other wrestlers told him. “It was a celebration.”
Atlas’ injuries include a broken neck, several broken noses, broken hand, and dislocated elbow, shoulder blade, hip, knee and back. “From head to toe.”
“Wrestling was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Atlas. “With my background, what would I have done? It helped me make my mark in this world. We had a lot of injuries, but the rewards were far greater.”
THE RIGHT STUFF
“Your manners and your behavior will take you where money never can.”
It’s one of Atlas’ favorite sayings, especially since the wisdom was imparted by his mother when he was very young. He still follows those words to this day.
“That’s what she told us boys every day of our lives. If you had the right attitude, people would like you. If you didn’t, they wouldn’t like you. We always showed people the utmost respect, and they always did for us. If you’re nice to people, people will treat you the same way. If you walk around with a chip on your shoulder, people don’t want anything to do with you. I’m 51 years old, and I’ve never even experienced racism.”
It was never about race, Atlas says, but rather about attitude.
Atlas’ mother was the backbone of the family.
“I remember the suffering she went through. It was hard on my mom,” says Atlas, who was born in Clifton Forge, Va., and grew up in a one-store town called Low Moor in the Allegheny Mountains. “That woman really had it rough. She would come home at night, throw herself on the bed and ask the good Lord to take her life. It was that bad.”
Atlas respectfully pauses and then recites her words.
“Please, Lord, take me, take me, take me, take me, take me.”
Atlas went to what was then known as the Virginia Negro Baptist Children’s Home at age 12. It was the first time he ever had a full meal.
“My mother felt bad about sending me there. I celebrated. Three square meals a day, a nice building to sleep in. I cried when I had to go back home (at 15).”
Beatrice White raised her children to have solid work ethics. She was 59 when she died after two heart attacks. She lived long enough to see her son make a name in the wrestling business, and would see him every time he wrestled in Roanoke.
He doesn’t go back very often these days. The memories are too painful.
“It’s hard. There are a lot of memories. A lot of people expect me to be bigger than I am, so I kind of hate to go back and disappoint everyone. Last time I went down there, I had a rent-a-car and everybody wanted to know where my limousine was. They have the impression that all us guys are millionaires. I could have been. But I had an opportunity that most people never get in life.”
Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected] He is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment.” For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at 937-6000, ext. 3090.