By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
When I saw Halloween approaching this year, I knew I had to do something special for the series, and, as the thoughts of possibilities began to race through my head, I realized that there was only one conceivable person to spend Samhain talking to. With the images of all things evil that Halloween invokes, it seemed only fitting to brave the intense heat, and acrid air that welcomes you as upon entry into the Underworld to bring you a conversation with one of the most diabolical minds the business has ever let escape out of the cracks to invade out psyche. I’m speaking of the Architect of Destruction, The Emissary of Evil, the The Scourge of the Southern Territories…..Kevin Sullivan.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., on the west side of Boston in 1949, Kevin Sullivan grew up during the heyday of territorial wrestling. The N.W.A. had established itself as the biggest player in the country in those years. Paul Bowser had the local branch located in the Boston area and also ran shows in Canada. I asked him about his early influences in the business:
“Killer Kowalski was one of my favorites. There was a great double-cross between Gorgeous George and Don Eagle. Bruno of course, Don Leo Jonathan, Antonio Rocca, and Pepper Gomez. I saw some of the best talents in the world compete when I was a kid. It was Studio Wrestling on Channel 4 from 4:30 to 5:30. You name em’ and they all came through there.”
It was in those days as a kid that the seeds of his wrestling future would be set into place, and he built on them as he grew into his teenage years. He was successful at the high school level, always showing well at the New England Championship tournaments he competed in as he represented the Cambridge YMCA. He also took home the AAU New England Title during that time. He also spent time wrestling for the YMCA Union.
While he was there, he would see the wrestlers coming in to workout. He was approached by one of the members of the Barry family, known for their diamond mines in South Africa, and other ventures. He took Sullivan to Montreal and gave him his first experiences in the world of professional wrestling.
The first show he worked was ran by a local promoter named Pat Curry, who had gained acclaim in the wrestling business in Europe in the Forties and had even wrestled in front of the queen of England at the Royal Albert Hall. Curry operated the small promotion in Montreal, and was allowed to run due to the respect he had earned in his early days overseas. The NWA affiliate in Montreal would lend over wrestlers to work his events, and it was at one of these that Sullivan got his feet wet for the first time in a proper wrestling match. Kevin gave me a little insight into how that first match went as we talked:
“So, I’m out there, at the venue, waiting for someone to tell me what to do. I’m wrestling one of the main guys from the Montreal office named Fernand Frechette. Now, we’re working into the ring, I gave him a hip toss, and when he landed I stomped him on his face. Why he didn’t get up and kill me, I don’t know. (chuckles) He rolled out to the apron and was holding onto the ropes, and I had seen that spot where they would slingshot a guy back into the ring, back in those days, but it didn’t equate to my brain. I came of the ropes as hard as I could, and hit him off the apron into about the third row. He got up and said ‘The Hell with this.’, and headed to the dressing room. I jumped up on the ropes yelling for him to come back. I knew I was going to be in trouble when I got back there.”
After making it to the back and being grilled as to what he was thinking in the ring, he told Fernand that this was his first time in the ring and he was never told what he was supposed to do. Frechette sought out the referee that was supposed to take care of the green Sullivan, and let him have it with both barrels. Sullivan and Fernand developed a long lasting relationship after that and remained friends for years after.
Sullivan also trained and wrestled in Brooklyn at 231 Broadway, which was frequented by greats like Pete Sanchez, Johnny Rodz, Pedro Morales, Victor Rivera, and Ramon Perez, just to name a few. He worked out there avidly, sometimes being the only white face in the entire gym. He never let fear or intimidation serve as a setback to his career, moreover, he would learn to use them to his tactical advantage years later when he sat at the head of the table to some of wrestling’s most feared factions, and become the Manson-esque leader to various gatherings of lost souls.
He learned all he could while he was there, but in those days to was about taking to the roads and widening your repertoire, as well as networking your name throughout the business. In the pre-Internet days of the territories most fans in the various markets had no idea what was happening across the country, and by traveling, wrestlers familiarized themselves to a wider audience. The only real way to keep in tune with the working of the business was to read the wrestling publications, like Wrestling Weekly, PWI, or the Wrestling Observer, that tracked the entire wrestling landscape and allowed those in the know to follow their favorites no matter where they may be working at the time.
He went to Florida, South Carolina, then to Georgia and Nashville. He took the Southeast on by storm and made Florida his homebase for many years. He also worked the panhandle area with Bobby Shane, whom he reminisced about for a moment:
“Bobby got me booked in the Gulf Coast area because he was going there. Bobby thought I had some ability and I went there. So, I was lucky.”
We talked for a time about the West Coast and the Roy Shire territory as well. We spoke of Bruno’s time there and how he could draw no matter where he went to because of his pull with the Italian and Latin American communities. We invariably talked about Ray Stevens and his impact on the business, when he shared a great story with me about doing business the old school way. It resonated with me and I want to share it with you as well:
“I came to San Francisco in 1977 when Patterson, Stevens, and Peter Maivia had left, and the territory was starting to die. Bob Roop and I did an angle and it popped. We drew in about fourteen thousand people and they brought in Ray to be my partner. I walked up to him and I said, ‘Mr. Stevens, how do you want me to get the heat to give you the hot tag?’, and he said, ‘Son, this your town now. I’ll give you the tag, and you can finish with your hold.’ That was one of the biggest moments in my life. For most of the people of my generation, it’s either Johnny Valentine, or him, and for him to say “it’s your town now”, I’m gana be selling for you, was just…..uh… A lot of guys didn’t do it, and alot of guys didn’t do that for years later. But, he knew that he wanted the business to be healthy, and he knew he wasn’t gana be back for awhile. So he really put me over, and with all his ring intelligence, he coulda buried me, but he didn’t. He made me look much better than I was.”
It was at this point in our conversation that I wanted to stare into the dark heart of the Master and ask him about his decision to take the path of the Heel, and manifest the palate that he painted so many works of art with in this business. He told me that it was shortly after his time in Knoxville, when he traveled to the Continental Wrestling territory that he really started to embrace the idea of being the antagonist:
“I always thought that the Heel was the ring General, and I wanted to do that. I went into bodybuilding, and won a few contests, so I became like a narcissistic heel for a while. That didn’‘t work and I started working a few different ideas. I took alot from pop culture and I knew, in essence, that any story you read or has been passed down it is always the ultimate good against the ultimate evil. Good has to triumph, but it has to go through trials and tribulations along the way in order to be victorious. The Twelve Labors of Hercules, The Iliad, you know where he had to leave his family for seven years went though all that but when he came home he made the ultimate comeback. I’ve always believed that to be the knight in shining armor, you have to slay a fire breathing dragon….not a salamander. It has to be where he has to overcome alot of problems.”
Our conversation rolled into one of my favorite factions of all time, and especially because the Taskmaster was it’s leader. I told Kevin how I used to watch the Varsity Club and loved the way they came to the ring in their college gear and ground their opponents into the mat, or beat them mercilessly into submission. When Rick Steiner, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, Mike Rotunda, and for awhile Dan Spivey came to the ring in their leather jackets, showing that they were true amateur wrestlers, and shooters would intimidate most any opponent, but when you add Kevin Sullivan under the black cloak to the mix…it takes things to a whole other level that leads to you telling yourself, as a fan, that this cannot be good.
Myself, I relish in the heels and loved those moments when you knew it was about to be unbridled carnage and that the little pretty boy, fan favorites had nothing they could do about it. So yes, the heels always drew me in, but isn’t that the great thing about the bad guys? It’s the swagger, the cockiness or in Kevin’s incarnation of The Masked Lucifer, it was his profound hatred for everything holy or sacred to the fans that really marked me out and drew me in. I love what he has given us and the innovations he brought to the psychology of the storytelling aspect of professional wrestling.
Sometimes, however, it isn’t up to the talent whether or not they stay a heel. We talked about that as well, and how it specifically effected Rick Steiner during his Varsity Club run:
“It usually happens when the guy has the background of being a heel. This goes back to Ronnie Garvin, Steve Austin, The Rock, and Hogan. They got over so strong and were entertaining in the ring and interviews that the people actually turned them babyface. Like when Dusty turned in the Pak Song match. That was probably the biggest turn of all time from heel to babyface. The same thing happened to Rick Steiner. I remember going to Dusty and telling him that we couldn’t keep Rick a heel much longer, and the Dream agreed. The next week we had to change directions with him because he was so good. But it was because the people turned him. You couldn’t keep him heel anymore.”
One of the reasons I enjoyed talking to Kevin so much, aside from his limitless knowledge of the psychology of the business, was his love of history. We share not only a love of the history of wrestling, but U.S. History and World History as well. I found our conversation straying away to the historical South, that we both love, and some of the great cities that are there. We talked about Savannah and the Civil War. Being able to see these different facets of the personalities of the celebrities I interview is one of the personal rewards that I get out of this. I always liken these interviews to the Native Americans that would gather around to hear the Elders speak and tell them the stories of their past. If we lose our connections to this verbal storytelling of our history, then we are leaving it up to the interpretation of those that may not have been there or know what the Hell they’re talking about.
Kevin spoke about some of his memories about the history of the business and what it meant to earn the respect of the older generation of workers that came before them. They guarded the business, and protected it’s heritage by not letting just anyone in. They put you to the test:
“Right from the beginning, I fell in with right talent, and they had the patience to put up with my limited ring ability and help me along. Back in those days, the old guys used to help the younger guys, but it wasn’t easy. They’d book you for twenty minutes in the first match, and they scuff up your knees, and you’d come out of there with a scuffed up face. They’d stretch you during the match. Those old guys were shooters, or amateur wrestlers and as long as you kept coming back, little by little they’d ease up on ya. I lucked out….lucked out. I was blessed.”
He also spoke throughout our conversation, at different times, about Bruno Sammartino and how some men in the business exuded their stature and standing, merely with their presence and how they were perceived:
“I always thought pro-wrestling was entertainment, but I didn’t know how they did it. But the first time I saw The Sheik, the whole building shook, and I said to myself this may be created, but this guy’s the real deal. And also, people ask me the question all the time about who was the greatest Champion. Well, even if you didn’t know anything about wrestling, when you saw Bruno walk down the aisle, you knew he was the World’s Heavyweight Champ. I’ve heard alot of people say he was maybe not the greatest technician, but he was a God in the Northeast. He took on that role and he went with it.”
Kevin Sullivan; the Taskmaster, the Great Wizard, the man whom he made the world believe he was the Devil is truly a living legend in this business with a depth of knowledge that may go to the Darkside, and take you to the edge of the comprehension of your own personal sanity, if you listen, you will walk away smarter than when you found him.
I’m glad I was able to have the opportunity to talk with Kevin and hope to again in the near future. I’m very thankful for the friendships that I have been fortunate enough to make along my travels and inroads into this business over the years. Once you establish yourself a someone that truly loves wrestling and the preservation of it’s history, the friendships become like dominos in that one always leads to interaction with another. This interview would not have been possible if it weren’t for our mutual friend, Bruce Tharpe. When Bruce connected us, I told Kevin how much I valued our friendship, to which he replied:
“His brother was the State’s Attorney, and his father had been the television announcer for Eddie for years. The family was great…great family.”
“I couldn’t agree more and it’s that sense of family that I refer to when I call all of you my Bruthas and Sistas. It’s not just a catch-phrase, and I feel blessed that I’m able to add to that family each and every day.”
I’m going to close here, wrestling fans. I hope you enjoyed this interview with Kevin as much as I did. I’m going to leave you with a couple stories from his Florida days that had me laughing to near tears. I’ll talk to you next time, but never forget……Bruthas, Sistas, Marks, and Maniacs…..no matter what you do to get your foot in the door, when you’re given the opportunity, break it down!! Peace
“We were always ribbing each other in Florida. I brought Ricky Martell to the United States. I met him in Calgary, and said, ‘Naw… you need to go to the United States.’ So I got him sent to Florida. He was a young boy down there and the Briscos took him under their wing. This is before I-75 is completed from Tampa on down to Miami, so you used to have to take this long road down, 60, from there, and where we caught 75 was this place called Yee-Haw Junction. The only thing that Yee-Haw had was a little restaurant that was opened up during the day, and a Stuckey’s which was open twenty-four hours. So families going to Miami, and truckers getting gas stopped there all hours of the day and night because there was nothing to eat for hundreds of miles after. It was always packed.
“So the Funks went by the Briscos and mooned ’em. Then the Briscos pulled off to the side fo the road and told Ricky to get naked and hide in the trunk, and when they caught up to the Funks, they would honk the horn and he would jump out and run around the car. There was a stoplight in Yee-Haw Junction and they told him when they passed the Funks they would stop at the light and hit the horn, pop the trunk and he was to jump out. So they were all set. Well, when they got off of 75 and onto 60, what they did was back up to the big windows in the front of the Stuckey’s. When they honked the horn and pressed the button, Ricky jumped out naked in front of the whole restaurant, and the Briscos took off leaving him there. Ricky had to run for a mile and a half naked and eventually had to hide in a ditch until he saw another car full of wrestlers drive by.”
I thought I was going to die laughing until he layed this on me and made me damn near fall out of my chair.
“One time, I was traveling with Piper and Bill Alfonso and we were going down alligator alley. Piper said he would sure like to shoot one of them and get a pair of boots. Roddy took a shot at one of the big ones and it slid off into the water. So I told Roddy to get in the water and I would beat the water with a branch to keep the other gators away like the Samoans did when they caught fish. He went in until he was waist deep, and if he took another step he woulda went from waist deep to about twelve feet in. Roddy stopped, and turned to me and said, ‘You’re talking about Samoans, and I just shot at an alligator,…let me get the Hell outta here!!’ He drove us the rest of the way to Miami, soaked with his boots full of water. (Big laughs from Sullivan)