Many of them are now broken men — both physically and financially — but in the 1980s they were like rock stars, lured by a lifestyle of big money, fast women, drugs and steroids.
A new documentary entitled 350 Days explores their lives and what is described as the “golden era” of professional wrestling.
The 1980s saw a surge in its popularity in the United States and Canada. Contributing to its success was the expansion of cable television and pay-per-view and a period of cross-promotion between the WWF and elements of the music industry, including singer Cyndi Lauper.
The documentary is a co-effort of Vancouver-based actor Fulvio Cecere, who is the director and co-producer, along with producer Darren Antola.
“I did wrestle in high school so I appreciate the sport of it, but the entertainment part of it I didn’t know anything about it,” said Cecere, 54, who grew up in Montreal and has a long list of TV and movie credits.
Cecere said he and Antola were working on reality TV show proposals. When those didn’t work out they found the world of professional wrestling provided another opportunity.
An interview with Superstar Billy Graham, who was a champion in the late 1970s as well as an award-winning bodybuilder who trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger, was an eye opener.
“He was just so nonchalant. He said, ‘I’d get up in the morning and shoot my speed and I did this and this and that’ and just rattled it off like a grocery list,” said Cecere.
“The honesty, the openness, the stuff that was coming out, I knew I was on to something. From then on we started going to as many people as possible.”
The title, 350 Days, refers to the amount of time many of the performers wrestled every year.
Bret (The Hitman) Hart made his in-ring debut in 1978.
The Calgarian gained popularity and championship success throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE), where he headed The Hart Foundation.
What Hart remembers most about the 1980s was the upsurge in the use of steroids.
“You really didn’t know how good you could wrestle in 1984. It mattered how big your arms were and how you looked under the lights with baby oil all over you,” he said with a chuckle.
Every single one of them talks about the same thing … the steroid use, the alcohol abuse, how being on the road affected their family life
“No one said you have to take steroids, but the truth is that’s what it was. If you wanted to be a star you’d take steroids because everybody else is taking them. It kind of got, like, if you want to keep your job you’ve got to get competitive with everyone else.”
The wrestling world banned steroids in the early 1990s and that’s what Hart considers to be the real golden age of wrestling.
“We really raised the bar in the ’90s and wrestling moved away from the steroid guys and body builders and the power lifter guys like (Hulk) Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior,” said Hart, who is now 56.
Bill Eadie competed under the names Ax as part of Demolition and The Masked Superstar before retiring in 1982.
“It was difficult on us mentally and physically,” said Eadie, 66, who was on his way to Niagara Falls, Ont., from his home in Atlanta for an autograph signing session.
“There’s probably well over 60 per cent who are broke and it’s not only guys who never made any money. There were friends of mine who if they made $1,000 they spent $1,200. They’d think it was never going to end.”
Hart said recreational drugs were plentiful in the ’80s as were the so-called “Rink Rats,” the name given to wrestling groupies.
Hart is grateful he has access to Canada’s universal health care.
“The injuries do catch up with a lot of the wrestlers and guys I talk to today are all battling injury problems. I’m lucky I’m Canadian. I’ve got two knee replacements, had surgery on my elbow and I’ve had two hernia operations — all since I retired,” Hart said.
“I don’t have any regrets, but I think there’s a lot of wrestlers from my era who wake up each day and feel like Quasimodo. We’re all feeling the pain from all those falls and all that fake wrestling that we did.”
Cecere, who hopes to have the film completed by the end of the year, said the 60 wrestlers he talked to wanted their stories to be heard and not “sugar coated.”
“Every single one of them talks about the same thing … the steroid use, the alcohol abuse, how being on the road affected their family life. The mistresses along the way,” he said.