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Tuesday October 12, 2010

The man of a thousand grotesque faces

He took on many a nasty persona in the ring, but when it came to being a villain, his heart wasn't in it

Special to The Globe and Mail

VICTORIA -- The family's paid notice announced the death of Michael P. Shaw, aged 53, a family man who worked the pits for his truck-racing son and encouraged his daughter to become a nurse.

The ordinariness of his midlife was all the more surprising given his youthful career as a professional wrestler, during which he portrayed deranged and dangerous villains.

His gimmicks were many. He portrayed Makhan Singh, a turbaned bad guy; Man Mountain Mike, a hillbilly; Norman the Lunatic, an asylum escapee; the Mad Monk and Friar Ferguson, unsympathetic holy men; and, infamously, Bastion Booger, a grotesque character with a name to match.

As the latter, he wore skimpy, stained tights, the grease spots said to be remnants of spilt food. The costume barely contained his reported 401-pound mass, ample bosoms hanging over straps crossing his chest.

With a shaved head, a fuzzy goatee, and eyebrows shaved to half their normal length, he presented a fearsome image. He was said to stink "like old stale chili" in the memorable description of one television announcer.

Bastion Booger also possessed a lump between his shoulder blades. During one match, the female wrestler Luna Vachon rubbed the protuberance, an affectionate gesture that caused the fleshy monster to become smitten.

Alas, Vachon had professional and romantic ties to Bam Bam Bigelow, so Bastion Booger's unsubtle advances were parried. The rejection fuelled his ill temper.

(Vachon, who possessed one of the most impressive mullets seen outside a hockey rink, died on Aug. 27 in Florida. She was 48. Born in Georgia, she was raised in Quebec after her mother married the wrestler Paul Vachon, known as the Butcher.)

Fans remember such capers as Booger stealing an ice cream from a spectator at ringside to rub the frozen dairy treat into the face of his opponent.

His trademark move was called A Trip to the Batcave, a humiliating attack in which he dropped to both knees over a supine victim's face. The hold was not unique to the pro rassling repertoire, where it is described as a Crotch Squash, or a Sitdown Splash, or, more descriptively, a Stinkface. For Booger's hapless opponents, the ensuing olfactory unpleasantness was likely a secondary concern to the real danger of suffocation.

Though he often portrayed bad guys, known as heels, in the ring, the wrestler never felt comfortable with his best-known gimmick.

"I think the Booger character would have worked if I got over as a heel, but my heart wasn't into it," he once told wrestling chronicler Scott Teal. "I didn't like the character. I didn't like the outfit."

Like many pro wrestlers, his career began in sporting arenas with less choreography.

He was born on May 9, 1957, to Josephine (nee Robinson) and Edward Shaw at Marquette, Mich. His father worked as a labourer for a lumber company. Mike was raised in Skandia in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he was a star athlete for the Modeltowners of Gwinn High School.

He earned varsity letters in football, track and field as a shot putter, and wrestling. He won a regional heavyweight title as a senior. On graduation in 1975, he was hired as the school's wrestling coach.

In summer, he was a slugger for the Milwaukee Schlitz, a professional slo-pitch softball team playing on a circuit in the American Midwest. The uncertainty of employment in a sport yet to find its niche led to a decision while at spring training in Florida to abandon softball.

Instead, he enrolled at a wrestling academy in Massachusetts headed by the famed Killer Kowalski, a Canadian-born heel whose professed vegetarianism did not prevent some fans from believing he had once bitten off Yukon Eric's ear.

With a brawny 275 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame, Shaw wound up being promoted on the All-Star Wrestling circuit out of Vancouver. The newcomer fought as Klondike Mike, a bearded Yukon prospector.

It was while fighting as Man Mountain Mike on the Grand Prix circuit in the Maritimes that he briefly left the wrestling ring to present a wedding ring to Kelly Crosby in a ceremony at Guysborough, N.S., on May 2, 1987.

After joining the Stampede Wrestling stable in Calgary, Shaw joined forces with the villainous Great Gama Singh with whom he battled as a team known as Karachi Vice. The despicable, rule-flouting duo were jeered in public even away from the ring, and were so despised, the Calgary Sun once noted, that they generated vile chants from enraged spectators.

Shaw wore a turban and billed himself as Makhan Singh, his pale complexion and American birth certificate no distraction for those eager to vilify Indo-Canadian scofflaws.

As a solo fighter, his chief rival was up-and-coming Owen Hart with whom he swapped the North American heavyweight championship belt in a series of much-appreciated bouts. (During one match, Hart bushwhacked Singh by beating him over the head with the heavy, bejewelled belt.)

During this period, Shaw developed great skill at ballyhoo, whipping crowds into a frenzy with his patter on the microphone.

Even on the street, he was a target, as open cans of pop were hurled at him and his wife. The intense animosity his character generated only eased after he took part in such community events as flipping flapjacks during the Calgary Stampede.

"He walked a fine line between love and hate," Kelly Shaw said recently.

A move stateside led to the adoption of a new gimmick - Norman the Lunatic, a wild-haired asylum escapee who wore an institutional smock with the number 502 stencilled on the chest.

Originally a heel, Norman became a baby face as fans showed sympathy for a character taunted even by his own manager, who waved an oversized key as a threat Norman might be again incarcerated if he did not perform well.

Sympathetic fans showered Norman with stuffed teddy bears, which he donated to local children's hospitals.

The World Wrestling Federation offered him a tryout, saddling him with unsuccessful religious gimmicks before conjuring Bastion Booger, who was supposed to be a sewer-dwelling creature but found a following as a simple slob.

In a career that saw him fight in all 10 provinces, Shaw also performed in Mexico as Aaron Grundy and in South Africa as Big Ben Sharpe.

It was widely thought that Shaw suffered from never having a character to match his ability in the ring. Pro Wrestling Digest summed up his career as being one when "bad gimmicks happen to good wrestlers."

Shaw operated a wrestling school, did promotional work for a casino, and, most recently, supervised security of Michigan mines and ports for the General Securities Corporation.

Michael Paul Shaw died of a pulmonary embolism at his home on Sept. 11. He leaves Kelly (née Crosby), his wife of 23 years; a son; a daughter; a brother; his mother; and, a grandmother.

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