Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon, a colorful character during pro wrestling's golden age and longtime fixture on household televisions across Minnesota, died Thursday morning in his sleep at his home in Omaha, Nebraska. He was 84 years old.
The "Mad Dog" schtick was one of a gravelly voiced, barely hinged French-Canadian prone to temper tantrums, but he was just as well known off the air and out of the ring for his compassion.
“He was known for helping others," says an author who wrote a book on Quebec wrestling, via CBC News Montreal. "He recommended wrestlers to new promoters. He helped wrestlers relaunch their careers."
He first rose to prominence in Verne Gagne's Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association, which in the 1960s and '70s was the premiere pro wrestling territory in the United States, with a nationally syndicated television deal. That stable grew to include, among many others, Gagne, Vachon, Baron Von Raschke, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Jesse "The Body" Ventura and Hulk Hogan.
Vachon, who was born in Ville Émard on Sept. 14, 1929 as one of 13 children, was a fixture on the professional wrestling circuit for 40 years, reports the Montreal Gazette.
At 5 foot 7 inches and weighing 231 pounds in his prime, he was built like a fire plug and his signature wrestling move was the “piledriver.” With his shiny bald head and black-as-coal beard, he was a striking figure.
He wrestled alone and in tag teams with his younger brother Paul “The Butcher” Vachon.
Vachon started his career as an amateur before becoming an international star, taking part in the 1948 Olympics in London at the age of 18.
"It was to his great pride that he represented Canada at the London Olympics in 1948 in an era when there was no tradition of wrestling in Canada and Quebec," one observer tells CTV News out of Quebec.
During those Olympics, Vachon also met an American Olympic wrestler from the University of Minnesota – Verne Gagne – which began a decades-long association with the Gopher star-turned-entrepreneur.
The wrestling site Slam! notes Vachon was a veteran of 16,000 bouts over 40 years and that during his farewell tour of Quebec in 1986, "Mad Dog" made the remarkable transformation from despised wrestler to beloved popular icon.
"Interviews both in print and on the air praised his contribution to society," says Slam! "He was hired to hawk beer and chocolate bars. He wrote his autobiography and made a rap album in French."
He was no stranger to endorsements in the Twin Cities, as this ad for Chicago-Lake Liquors in south Minneapolis from 1984 attests:
He picked up the moniker "Mad Dog" after a match in the early 1960s when he was wrestling in Oregon, after a wild bout that saw him attack a referee and a police officer. At least, that's how one legend of pro wrestling goes.
After a long career with the AWA, Vachon moved on to the World Wrestling Federation, now known as the WWE. He finally retired in 1986. He was a pedestrian victim of a hit-and-run in Iowa in 1987, and lost his lower right leg.
The CBC also reports that on July 14, 1973, Vachon fought opponent Wladek “Killer” Kowalski in front of 29,127 spectators at Montreal’s Jarry Park.
He was the AWA’s World Champion five times in the 1960s.
He and his brother were inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004, and into the Pantheon of Quebec Sports in 2009, according to CTV News.
“He’s the best-known Quebec wrestler outside of Quebec," one author tells the CBC. "A legend.”
Here's Mad Dog at his dramatic best in a classic AWA clip: