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The Balancing Act of Wrestling Legend Rick Martel

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Belief in fiction becomes fact.

At least that's how it commonly plays out in the lives of professional wrestlers.

"It is hard for guys to balance their personal and professional life," said Rick Martel, who coolly maintained his equilibrium over the course of a 26-year professional wrestling career.

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Wrestling is a fantasy version of events and its participants are performers vulnerable to its spellbinding temperament.

"You have to come back to your normal life," said Martel, 58. "It's hard to separate the two. People that all of a sudden become stars and become well-known, they believe their own publicity, and they can't separate reality and fiction."

The nature of wrestling is like rock and roll, the buzz, all of the fans screaming. The very nature of the business hands you a lot of difficult decisions to make. Guys in the 1970s and 1980s, they didn't want that night to end -- or the character to end.

Martel played the scoundrel and the 'baby face' with equal aplomb.

"Wrestling has a lot of parallel to life," said Martel.

It's a lot like in the movies, too. There are hero characters, the good guys are in white, and the bad guys are in black. Now it's very murky. Today, the good guys look like the bad guys. The Rick Martel from the AWA days as a baby face, he wouldn't do so well. Maybe "The Model" would do well as a baby face.

Born Richard Vigneault, the French-Canadian made his professional entertainment wrestling debut at age 16 when his brother, Michel, asked him to replace an injured cohort.

At age 19, even though he couldn't speak more than a few basic words of English, Martel was determined to obtain a visa to wrestle in the states.

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I wrestled in Calgary for Stu Hart, and that's where I met Kevin Sullivan. A lot of guys went to the states to wrestle, and I was told that Kevin could get me to Florida. Back then, you needed a visa, and that was pretty hard to get.

In 1975, I couldn't express myself very much. When Gordon Solie talked to me, I answered yes or no, and that was it.

Martel received his instruction from iconic names in the business such as "Superstar" Billy Graham and Jack Brisco -- the men he had read about in the wrestling magazines.

"There were always frustrated old-timers, who wouldn't make it easy on the new guys, but I never had a problem with that."

Death of Brother, Mentor

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His brother and best friend, Michel, died under unexplained circumstances in Puerto Rico in 1978.

In the 1970s, there were so many riots, people fighting. My brother had been shot. When you wrestle in Puerto Rico, you had to fight your way out of there many times. Tough things happened to heels back then, people waiting for the heels, fighting them at the bars. People would want to try you. In Puerto Rico, my brother passed away after a wrestling match, on the way to the hospital. Puerto Rico was one of the toughest places in the world to wrestle.

Michel's death left his sibling with a gaping sense of hollowness.

My brother was a big influence, a mentor. It was through him that I had many of my values transmitted. He taught me to be honest about what you do. Michel taught me to keep going. When things were going bad, I would call him up, and after he died, I didn't have that afterwards.

With a heavy heart, Martel broke in on the regional circuits in Canada and the United States.

In the early 1980s, Martel made a number of appearances with the WWF, winning the Tag Team Titles twice with Tony Garea. Martel signed with the AWA in 1982, winning the AWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1984.

In the mid-1980s, Martel returned to the WWF, teaming up with Tom Zenk (pictured together below) to form the Can-Am Connection and later Strike Force, with Tito Santana.

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"My philosophy is to focus on what you are doing now and on the future," said Martel.

With wrestling, there are good memories, bad memories, and that's what they are. I used to enjoy wrestling, and traveling with Tito. I remember once when we were tag team champs, it was New Year's Eve, in Detroit, at midnight, and we were washing our trunks in the bathroom, laughing. Having a family, it was tough for him. I'd listen to him talking to his kids over the phone.

Brother's Advice: 'Don't Believe Your Own Stuff'

Martel later turned into a bad guy, or 'heel,' assuming the narcissistic identity of "The Model." Accessorized with his own brand of perfume stored in a large atomizer doubling as a blinding weapon, Martel cockily strutted around in a turquoise sport coat.

My character turned into "The Model," and with that personality, you sometimes start believing it.

Luckily, I was around wrestling when I was young, and my brother wrestled. I'd travel with him. He always said, 'Don't believe your own stuff. Don't believe you are something else. Be down to earth.' I looked at it as if I was an actor. I tried my best to be who I was and not be who I was in the ring.

Martel saw the switch to villain as an experiment, a personal test, a new way to be new.

When I switched from the baby face to the heel, it was time to experience a new challenge. I was the one who went to Vince, and, at first, Vince couldn't believe it. He said, "Rick, I don't see it." He had to be convinced. But I told him, "Vince, if you don't do it, I'm going to do it somewhere else." I quit, and a few weeks later, he called, and he said, "OK, let's give it a try." I fell right into it. I loved doing that character.

Martel turned to the role of the heel at a time when its associated risks had decreased.

"By the time I switched roles in 1987 and 1988, the fans had changed," said Martel.

You have to remember that in the 1970s, people used to fight people when they said that wrestling was fake. It was a taboo. But in the 1980s, Vince McMahon said it was fixed and it was entertainment, because he didn't want to deal with the commission. After that, the attitude changed. People saw it as entertainment. From then on, if you were at the airport, people would come and say, "wow, what a match." They saw it as a character, like how you see a movie and see an actor, like Breaking Bad.

Ad-Libbing with Jake "The Snake"

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One of "The Model's" greatest feuds was against Jake "The Snake" Roberts. While the outcome of their matches was predetermined, the ebb and flow of the action was ad-libbed.

"Back then," said Martel, "we used to know what the finish was, and that was it. We would feed off of the crowd and go with the momentum. In the 1990s, you had to know every single move. That was one thing I didn't feel comfortable with, knowing every single move and talking about it. With Roberts and other matches, the best part was that it was improvisation. Back in those days, you were allowed to have the people get into it, to feel the crowd. And one guy who had that psychology was Jake Roberts. He had a good psychology, a guy who could really get the pulse of the crowd.

If the crowd felt a certain way, it made for better creative possibilities. The other way, with each and every move being planned is kind of stiff. But when there was no choice, and it's all been agreed on, I didn't like that. It's parallel with the movies, back then, you could take your time, establish a story and characters, and then big things happened. Today, it's high-flying, with no meaning and explosions, and nothing means nothing. Just fireworks with no story.

Late in his career, Martel badly damaged his right knee and leg. He stayed away for several months, but then suffered a neck injury in his first match back. At 42, his body was trying to tell him something: retire or else. Not wishing to end up as a discarded mass of pins and screws and wounds, he exited in 1998.

I wrestled with a lot of injuries, but the show must go on, and you continue. I didn't have any major injuries, except in the last six months of my career. One thing people forget is that, opposed to other physical sports, wrestling was all-year round. Other sports would get two, three months for the body to repair. If you took two weeks off to nurture an injury, you would come back and your spot was taken.

Frightened by memories of a permanent injury sustained by fellow wrestler Paul Orndorff, Martel once demanded that he be allowed to take time off to heal his own sore shoulder.

I was wrestling as "The Model" against Hercules Hernandez, and I pinched a few nerves in my neck. My body went numb and limp. I asked the referee to roll me outside to evaluate what I could and couldn't do. Next day, I just kept going. After four days, I couldn't raise my left arm. I had a nerve stuck in the vertebrae.

I witnessed Paul Orndorff having a similar injury, and he kept going, and the nerves just died on him. You could see the difference in his arm. I said, 'Vince, I can't keep going, I can see Paul's limp arm in my head.'

Post-retirement, Martel was hobbled by chronic pain in his lower back and hips. It turned out that both of his hips were shot and needed artificial replacements.

"I had them done at the same time," said Martel.

Similar to a health-conscious ex-boxer or former football player, Martel is careful to eat cleanly and exercise regularly.

"I do a lot of bicycling," said Martel. "I use lighter weights than I used to. I used to be 235, but my weight now is about 200. It's better not to have more weight on the hips, less pressure on the artificial joints."

Culture of Self-Destruction

Reflecting on the rise of professional wrestling, Martel said that Vince McMahon truly transformed it.

Before McMahon, I had witnessed some bad stuff as far as promoters, on the regional circuit there were some tough regimes. And if the promoter or his son didn't like you, it didn't matter if you were the greatest wrestler on earth, you were done. I saw lots of injustice in the small territories. Then came McMahon, in the mid-'80s, and you could have a family, a decent life, money-wise, and save some money.

I'm not saying Vince has a clean record. Overall, I think he's good. In wrestling, it's practically impossible to treat everybody right. It's a different kind of world.

The internal ugliness of that world includes suicides, drug overdoses, and the grim familiarity of premature deaths.

I remember seeing the list of wrestlers who died at a young age, there were friends or guys I worked with, traveled with. The army sees guys like that die at a young age -- and in wrestling there are that many of them. You don't see that anywhere else. Luckily, I survived. I remember Curt Henning, I traveled with him, and I got him booked in Oregon for Don Owen. He called me up before he died. It was a nice phone call. He said, "I appreciate how you helped me." I knew his kids and his wife.

"Very Risky Sport"

Strange is one of the rules of the road in wrestling. There were nights when Martel would have to face a foreign wrestler whom he didn't share a common language with, and the two would wordlessly cobble together the script. Martel wrestled men who had less than sterling personal reputations, men who were noted for substance abuse, laziness, or a general dereliction of duty.

"You have to have the trust for the fan's sake," said Martel. "And you go out and you hope for the best. But you still had to be careful of guys that were not to be trusted. It's very risky. That is the nature of the sport."

Saying that 'the show must go on' is no trite adage; in wrestling, it's a matter of life and death, of working or being fired, of eking out of a living or witnessing the end of your formerly promising career.

Once, Martel and his roommate "Rowdy" Roddy Piper slid beneath an 18-wheeler while traveling outside Seattle in a new Trans Am.

Mount Saint Helens had just erupted. They opened the highway right after the eruption. It was all gray, ashes on the ground. The ash would rise like a snowstorm. All of sudden, we hit right underneath an 18-wheeler. We were trapped in the car, and got out from the t-top.

Knowing that they had business to attend to that night, Martel and Piper spoke with the police before quickly hightailing it back on the road, duffel bags slung over shoulders.

"Another 18-wheeler picked us up," said Martel. "We were late. The promoter, he started yelling at us for being late."

Martel, who has been married for 30 years, manages the commercial real estate properties he invested in with his earnings from wrestling.

Recently, his 13-year-old daughter questioned him about his previous profession after her teacher brought it up in class.

"I tell her it was difficult," said Martel. "But I tell her it was a great life that I was able to live. There were great moments and interesting places, and she sees both sides of the story. She likes it."

Brian D'Ambrosio's next book, "Life in the Trenches," detailing the lives and careers of 35 legendary boxers, entertainment wrestlers, football players, musicians, and actors, will be available in the fall.

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