Wrestling legend still lives for the ring

Josh Pennell Josh.pennell@thetelegram.com
Published on September 18, 2013

When Hacksaw Jim Duggan answers his hotel room door, he looks like a wrecking ball that’s plowed through one too many buildings. He still cuts an impressive figure, but there’s more than a few scars in the shadow he casts. His right arm hangs limp and bends in at an odd angle. When he walks there’s a tilt in his step that suggests the cartilage in his knees looks more like shrapnel after a lifetime of hammering blows from the top rope. Still, there’s a smile on his face and an ease about his personality that seem to carry the legendary wrestler through the pain that must come this far into a pro-wrestling career.

“Have a seat, brother,” he says.

James Duggan had his eye on a football career when he was young. He put in some time with the NFL and even played with the Toronto Argonauts for half a season in 1978. Before he ever threw down on the wrestling ring mat, he had two major knee surgeries and realized the NFL wasn’t in his future. He had a chance encounter with Fritz von Erich, a wrestler and wrestling promoter, when he was still playing football. Von Erich suggested he might do well in that field of sport entertainment.

“So I moved back to Dallas, gave Fritz a call and started to learn the ropes,” he says.

It’s hard to imagine, but the 2x4 wielding giant with the battering ram personality had a tough time in front of the crowd when he started out. The wrestling ring was a touch different than the football field.

“All of a sudden I’m in short shorts, patent leather boots and the fans are right there. I was very, very self-conscious.”

A piece of advice he gives young wrestlers today is to get comfortable in the ring first.

Duggan went through a few incarnations trying to find the character that suited him well and that the fans went for. Thirty years ago he came up with “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and he’s been swinging a 2 X 4 ever since.

The lumber was actually more for protection than spectacle, but not from the other wrestlers.

“It was a very rough business back in the 1980s. Just getting back and forth through the crowd was dangerous. I was a bad guy in the early days and the crowds would spit on ya and punch ya and kick ya and stuff,” Duggan remembers.

Fellow wrestler, Bruiser Brody, told him to forget the feather boas and sequined robes and to carry something to the ring he could use.

”So I’d come out and I’d be waving that 2 X 4 screaming and it would be like parting the Red Sea.”

There was a time he used to carry his signature piece of wood in a felt case when he travelled. These days he’s less picky and picks one up wherever he’s performing.

But the gimmick of the 2 X 4 and Duggan’s flare for taking on the character have been important factors in him remaining a name who people still want to come out to see. He comes from what most people refer to as the peak of pro wrestling and his name is held high with such other colourful characters as the Junkyard Dog, Jake the Snake Roberts and Coco B. Ware.

“I can usually protect myself pretty well out there and I know that I’m limited. And that’s what I tell a lot of the young guys. Obviously it’s not just a physical business because I have very few physical attributes that I had 20 years ago, but I can entertain a crowd. So it takes more than just taking bumps,” he says.

The over-the-top characters are a thing of the past, Duggan says, but the local Legend City Wrestling (LCW) that brought Duggan in is actually looking to keep that aspect of it alive.

Dan Bjorkdahl with LCW says this tour especially is a throw back to the days of yore.

“Here in Newfoundland it’s kind of gone back to how it was back in the 1980s, expecially with this tour now,” Bjorkdahl says. “You have the guys like Mr. Fantastic and the Kongo Kong and (Kowboy) Mike Hughes.”

Duggan says the theatricals make it more competitive than any sport.

“It’s much more competitive than sports. It’s a television show,” he says.  

And while a national hockey league or football league will have hundreds of players, the top wrestling league has about 120. When you get to the top level of wrestling, it’s a cut-throat, back-stabbing business, Duggan says. He shakes his head at people who assume that all the wrestlers are friends.

“Oh yeah, we all compete for the same money. We’re very good friends,” he says laughing.

Of course, he was close with a lot of people who are no longer here. Wrestling is a gruelling business full of drug abuse and body-pounding action. Many of Duggan’s friends and co-workers have gone before him.

“I’m kind of like a race car driver. I don’t go to the funerals,” he says.

It’s just his way of handling it, he adds. In addition to those emotional wounds, Duggan has his share of physical ones, too.

“I’m pretty tore up physically. I got a knee replacement coming. I tore a rotator cuff a month ago. I got a torn pec, a torn bicep.”

He was scheduled for surgery to repair the rotator cuff last month, but put it off until December so he could make this tour and do one other. He also lost a kidney to cancer years ago. He says he made it through the heyday of wrestling and partying because he had a strong family support system. Besides his parents and sisters being there for him, he’s been married for 30 years and has two daughters. He’s never been to rehab, never been divorced and never been arrested.

And he can still bring in the fans, too, which is why Bjorkdahl brings him and other hall-of-fame wrestlers like him up for the LCW circuit.

“When you bring in someone that we grew up watching when wrestling was what we call at its peak, those are some of the memories we try to rehash,” Bjorkdahl says.

There’s plenty of new talent too, he adds, and bringing in the big names gives the young guys a chance to show that to a bigger crowd. LCW has made some good growth in the last few years.

“Outside of the WWE and the TNA we’re the only professional wrestling promotion in North America with a nationwide TV deal,” Bjorkdahl says.

And that can be appealing for a guy like Duggan who likes to keep an eye on the new talent.

”I’m always looking for the kid that might have a chance in the big leagues,” he says.

But make no mistake, Hacksaw still lives for the ring, too. Economics are part of the reason he still wrestles. There’s no pension plan for pro-wrestlers and the health insurance providers won’t look at you when you tell them what you do, he says. Years ago, if you didn’t wrestle you didn’t get paid. He once went 54 days straight without a day off. Still, he feels it’s a business that’s been very good to him. He has a new book out that tells the story of a wrestler happy with his life, he says, rather than the familiar tale of tragedy.

“No matter how tired or how beat up you are, you’ll be in the back in the dressing room. You’re sitting there and you’re lacing up the boots. All of a sudden you hear the people chiming in and they’re all ‘HAOOOOOOOOOOOOO’, you know. You come out of the curtain and it’s all lights and people and you forget about everything. You got a 2 X 4. You stomp down to the ring. It’s just a shot of adrenaline. I love it. I never get tired of it.”

For all LCW dates, go to www.legendcitywrestling.com

Hacksaw Jim Duggan shows he still has the attitude despite carrying a few more years and more than a few injuries.

©Josh Pennell