Portland Oregonian -- Friday, June 27, 1997
Reprinted in The WAWLI Papers, Volume 2, Number 49
In those last moments, as the preacher preached and friends laughed about the old days, it was easy to remember the deceased as "The Crusher." The truth was revealed at the end, though, when attendants opened the casket and displayed an old man whose body had betrayed him. A couple of days ago, deep in the heart of St. Johns, they held a funeral for Stan Stasiak, a professional wrestler and a link to a past more innocent and raw.
Before the Blazers and Clyde, before golf and Tiger, before Nike and Phil, before cable television and compact discs and the assault of internet entertainment, there was Portland Wrestling and The Crusher. Bouts were held on Saturday nights in the Portland Armory. For a time they were broadcast live, in prime time, on KPTV. As the times shifted, so did the program and the sport -- to tape-delay and to the Portland Sports Arena in North Portland. The product -- and that's what it was, without apology -- was managed by Don Owen, a fast-talking, down-in-the-trenches promoter. He knew his trade: Crowds of 4,000 were not unusual -- kids, little old ladies, young toughs, wannabes and lots of cigarette smoke. Weekdays, Owen took his show on the road. Wrestlers barnstormed the state, hitting the hinterlands with glitz and guts and grudge matches.
Patrons got their money's worth at Portland Wrestling. Stars didn't lip off to the coach or refuse to play. No one showed disdain for the fans. For about two hours of an evening, good and evil battled it out in the ring. Fans roared their approval, except when one of those boring college wrestlers -- "scientific" grapplers, they were called -- trotted out. At the center of this whirlwind stood Stasiak, variously know as Stan "The Man" Stasiak or Stan "The Crusher" Stasiak.
He was one of the good guys.
Tough Tony Borne, Beauregard, the Von Steigers, Lonnie Mayne and Haru Sasaki -- they were the villains. Their talents leaned to hair-pulling, eye jabs, sand in the face and karate chops. With memories of World War II still fresh and the Cold War in high heat, the bad guys were often cast as German or Japanese. "People hated the Japanese," Sasaki recalled. "I got booed all the time. I got death threats, and in some small towns I had to leave hidden in a trunk. Even if I was a nice guy, I wasn't going to get any respect, so I figured I might as well be a bad guy." Tough Tony Borne relished the bad-guy role, although in later years he became something of a revered elder statesman of the ring. "I was not in there to make friends," said Borne, whose trademark was to grind his beard in an opponent's face. "I was in there to make money. Some guys got a flat guarantee, but most wrestlers fought for a cut of the gate. You had to have ring color. You had to be liked or disliked."
Shag Thomas was the lone African-American in the ring, a quiet man who seemed to sense how far he could go, or what he could say, without turning people against him.
Each match was one fall, except for the main event, which was upped to two-out-of-three falls or to a "TV time limit." A TV announcer interviewed the wrestlers during breaks. Threats and insults would be hurled their way, prompting a melee -- all part of the show. Lonnie Mayne ate light bulbs on camera. And when one of the bad guys got out of hand, or ganged up with his dirty pals to pummel some poor sap, it was Stasiak who rushed to the rescue.
He would charge out of the locker room, cheers propelling him onward. He used his fists, his feet, sometimes even a metal folding chair, to restore order. His big weapon was the dreaded "Heart Punch," a blow so severe that it was rumored to send behemoth men to the hospital, where they pondered a safer career, such as selling shoes.
So it was especially ironic that, when Stasiak died last week, it was because his heart gave out. Congestive heart failure. Age 60.
His real name was George Stipich. He left behind a wife and two grown kids. Although his family roots reach back to Croatia, he was born and raised in Quebec and was a good enough hockey player to be signed by the New York Rangers.
Instead, at age 21, he drifted to professional wrestling. He was spotted by a promoter, who said he looked like the original Stan Stasiak, a big-time wrestler from the '20s, and told him to change his name. He was a big man -- 6-5, 270 pounds -- and began his career as a bad guy. For a short time he even wore a mask, which made him a really bad guy. He was working the circuit in Texas when Owen discovered him and brought him to Portland.
"He wrestled rough at first," Owen said. "Then he had people cheering for him all the time. Here was a guy who never missed a booking. He tended to business. If he had to be in Klamath Falls, by God, he was in Klamath Falls. He did his stuff."
During the heyday of Portland Wrestling, in the 1950s and '60s, Stasiak won the Pacific Northwest title fifteen times. His prowess gained him national celebrity and meetings with President Kennedy, Morey Amsterdam and Moe Howard of The Three Stooges. He moved up to the World Wide Wrestling Federation, before Hulk Hogan made it famous, and was the house bad guy in Madison Square Garden. In 1973 he won the world title during a bout in Philadelphia, held it for three weeks, then lost it to good guy Bruno Sammartino back in the Garden.
He returned to Portland. But by then, local wrestling was on the wane. "It was that damn WWF bunch," Owen grumbled. "For a time in Portland you could get cable wrestling from Mexico and all over the damn country. You could see all of that for nothing until your belly was full. Who, by God, was going to pay $7 to see my stuff?"
So Stasiak did some color commentary for Portland Wrestling. Then Owen got him a job selling cars. "I told him because of the commentary he'd be the best-known damn salesman in town," Owen said. "He did that for six months, and then I didn't hear from him."
Stasiak's health began to fail about 10 years ago. First the heart, then a minor stroke. He divided his time between hospital and home. He became a religious man -- read the Bible daily and prayed for his friends.
Until the very end, he showed up and fought the good fight.
The crowd at his funeral numbered about 100, a smattering of colleagues, fans and relatives who seemed to miss those old days. "They don't come any better," Borne said. "Not as a man, not as a wrestler."
"He believed it was an honor being a Portland wrestler," nodded Johnny Eagle, who did battle with Stasiak in the ring back in the '60s.
Clifford Swiggum, 67, came to pay his respects to the man who had entertained him and his mother for decades of Saturday evenings. "My father didn't care for it," Swiggum remembered. "But Stan was one of my mother's favorites." His mother's devotion to the sport was deep. She was at a match the night she died, Swiggum said. She had excused herself to use the bathroom before one of Stasiak's bouts. Soon after she returned to her seat, she slumped over and never regained consciousness. "It wasn't the excitement of the match that caused it," Swiggum assured. "She had heart problems."
The preacher preached then, about being with God in the life beyond. Borne said it was an honor to call the departed his friend. They played a country song.
And it was over.
No one wrestles here anymore.
Portland Wrestling folded. The armory was absorbed by a nearby brewery. The Sports Arena was bought by a church that needed room to expand. Beauregard is rumored to be living the high life somewhere on the East Coast. He hasn't been heard from in 20 years, but it's a nice thought. Tough Tony calls himself "Not So Tough Tony Borne." He will soon be 71 and has his aches and pains. He putters in his garden and plays with his four grandchildren. Haru Sasaki is a baker's helper at a Lake Oswego grocery. He counts day-old bread and stacks boxes. Lonnie Mayne went out like everyone expected -- a spectacular head-on wreck on a California freeway. Shag Thomas died quietly in his sleep.
And on Wednesday, they held a funeral for The Crusher.
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