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Thursday June 28, 2012

'The Teuton Terror' was French Canadian

The wrestler fans loved to hate pretended to be German: 'I don't like ze fans. As a matter of fact, I hate zem.'

Special to The Globe and Mail

In the annals of wrestling villainy, few were hated as deeply as Hans Schmidt.

A bullet-headed man of fierce visage, he wore a German army helmet while flashing a stiff-armed salute at a time when memories of the war were still fresh.

Schmidt spoke openly of his contempt for sportsmanship, vowing to break any rule standing between him and a world championship.

This often involved smashing a folding chair over an opponent's head. He was said to have sent 40 men to hospital.

His signature finishing move was known as the Backbreaker, as vicious as it sounds.

"I wish everyone would understand that I must defend myself," he said, grinding his consonants. "This isn't a ballroom dance."

Schmidt courted the enmity of spectators by turning his back on the American flag and sitting down during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner.

He became sport's Public Enemy No. 1 with an unrivalled reputation for wickedness. He was called the Horrible Hun, the Teuton Terror, the Munich Menace.

The great New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, known for his boxing expertise but not above chronicling the sweaty, Manichean realm of pro wrestling, described Schmidt as "a horrid Nazi villain." He also let his readers in on a secret: The Teuton Terror was in fact a French Canadian.

Guy Larose, who died on May 26 in Joliette, Que., at 87, was one of the early stars of televised wrestling. At 6-foot-4 and a muscular 240 pounds, with "arms like sledgehammers" in one colourful account, he presented an imposing figure in the ring. Such roughhouse tactics as hair pulling and groin kicking improbably escaped notice of the referee. A favourite Schmidt ploy involved swinging rivals by the arms into the turnbuckle, leaving them woozy and vulnerable to further unsavory punishment.

A 1953 television interview with announcer Jack Brickhouse, broadcast on the DuMont network, cemented Schmidt's reputation.

"I am going to win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs," Schmidt growled in a cartoon German accent. "I vill never give an American a crack at it."

He continued: "People who teach sportsmanship to zer children are crazy. The only answer is to vin at any cost."

And, finally, he added: "I don't like ze fans. As a matter of fact, I hate zem."

The outcry was immediate, as Brickhouse related in his 1986 memoir, Thanks for Listening! The station got 5,000 letters and telegrams overnight. Others urged Washington to deport Schmidt as an undesirable alien.

Psychiatrists offered to examine the clearly deranged wrestler, while undertakers in three cities promised to perform their services for free in the happy event they would be needed to deal with Schmidt's remains.

So great was the outcry, Schmidt appeared on a later broadcast to deliver an apology. As he finished speaking, he tore the written note with his meaty hands, tossing the shredded paper with haughty disdain.

The theatrics made him one of the best paid athletes of the era, as booing partisans filled the Montreal Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens and Madison Square Garden. Many hoped to be witness to Schmidt getting a deserved comeuppance.

Schmidt's fake German accent was more Laurentian than Bavarian, but fans did not seem to care.

Born in Joliette on Feb. 7, 1925, Guy Larose began his wrestling career as a babyface (good guy), only becoming a heel (bad guy) a few years into his career on the suggestion of a promoter.

(To confuse matters, another Quebec wrestler borrowed the Guy Larose name. On more than one occasion, the two wrestlers faced off in the ring. In a 1960 match in Florida, the ersatz Guy Larose put the real Guy Larose, fighting as Hans Schmidt, in a hold known as the "airplane spin" before losing the bout. Boxing historian Greg Oliver has identified the faux Larose as Ovila Asselin.)

A 1953 cover story for Wresting magazine carried the headline, "Hans Schmidt - He can annoy you." It was perhaps the kindest words he received from the press in his heyday.

He joined a pantheon of 1950s wrestling knavery with the likes of Killer Kowalski, and Mean Gene Kiniski.

In 1959, Schmidt sparked a near-riot in Milwaukee after smashing a folding chair over the head of the beloved Verne Gagne, whose status as Schmidt's tag-team partner that day did not protect him from mayhem. Fans chased Schmidt to his dressing room and police had a tough time forcing the crowd to disperse. Wrestling was banned from the city's arena for a period.

His battles against Whipper Billy Watson in Toronto were legendary. Part of the ballyhoo for a 1953 showdown included the hiring of a second referee to prevent a repeat of such shenanigans as the time Schmidt bopped Whipper over the head with - you guessed it - a folding chair. The miscreant was fined $200 for that violation of mat etiquette.

After two decades in the ring, Schmidt gave an interview in which he blamed a decline in the sport's popularity on a lack of discipline by up-and-coming wrestlers.

"The young punks coming up today are all fakes," he complained in 1969. "They're overweight and out of shape and they never work out because they're out all night and sleeping all day. What really gets me is that they think they're tough guys. If they were around in the old days, somebody like Lou Thesz would have taken them by their scrawny necks and ... snap! The phony young punks have put wrestling in the sad state it's in right now."

Schmidt greatly limited his appearances by the mid-1970s, settling into a comfortable life at his home in the Laurentians. He occasionally would be lured from retirement to help a promotion. His final match came at the age of 59.

A resident of Entrelacs, Que., he had been in poor health for many years, having long ago abandoned his favourite sport, skin diving, a pursuit he enjoyed in part because when he was underwater no one could yell at him.

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