Everything I learned about geography, I learned from pro-wrestling. It’s true. Well, maybe not everything. Every time the ring announcer claimed someone was from Grenoble, France, or Kraków, Poland, or some other exotic part of the world, I had a sudden urge to know where these places were. The next thing I knew, I was consulting a classroom globe to find out where the hell the Sudan and Uganda were in relation to Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Delving further into geography, I learned more about Uganda, an East African country once ruled by an iron-fisted madman named Idi Amin (who could’ve easily passed for a pro-wrestler himself), and Sudan, a North African country with a long history of civil unrest and terrorism. It then made sense to my 12-year old brain that wrestlers as fearsome as Kamala the Ugandan Giant and as cruel and violent as The Wildman from Sudan, Abdullah the Butcher, could be citizens of such beleaguered countries.
So now I could match a face to a place anytime Uganda or Sudan was mentioned on the nightly news. These countries became as real to me as my neighborhood grocery store. The downside of this introduction to geography 101, via pro-wrestling, was the misconception that the citizens of Uganda were loin clothed barefoot giants with Day-Glo war paint on their bellies.
These kinds of horrible misconceptions, however innocent, can lead to racial stereotyping. And we can all agree, like many other forms of entertainment, pro-wrestling relies on its share of sexual and racial stereotypes to create its heroes and villains.
Ugandan Giant Kamala
Putting that topic aside, I can honestly say my cursory glances at the globe and the information I garnered afterward made the world a scarier place than Brooklyn or New York City ever had been to me. The main takeaway for me was that everyone came from somewhere.
There were no “parts unknown” – as many a weird wrestler claimed for them. It always sounded like a cop-out, anyway, to hear a wrestler was from parts unknown. What was supposed to add mystery and exoticism to the wrestler’s personality just wound up sounding very fake and lazy.
Tell me you’re from the Sudan or Uganda. Pick a place, any place: Madagascar, Bora Bora. If I can find it on a globe, I’ll buy your backstory. I’ll believe your character. I’ll know exactly who you are. Say no more.
And here’s the other element to exoticism: silence. That was a huge part of the Ugandan Giant Kamala’s mystery.
Never really saying a single discernible word during his fight promos, Kamala would speak through his huge swollen belly, beating it like a slap drum, with the occasional tribal howl thrown in for a good scare.
In just a few seconds, Kamala said more with his rhythmic belly slapping and howling than most heels said with words during the entirety of their blustering two-minute promos.
Now, as scary-looking as Kamala was, he was incapable of bringing the mayhem his presence promised to the squared circle. Like a lot of the oversized wrestlers of the ’80s and ’90s, Kamala just kind of imposed his will and size on his opponent. Not enough to be nightmarish. Not enough to keep fans begging for more.
Over time, without the edginess or the wrestling skill he could have displayed in the ring, Kamala’s novelty wore off. I can’t even remember if he actually feuded with anyone. Because he was pure spectacle and not much else, Kamala seemed less authentic than the other off-kilter heels from the far-flung corners of the world. The most authentic of these heels was Abdullah the Butcher — The Wildman of Sudan.
Abdullah the Butcher - The Wildman of Sudan
Abdullah was hardcore wrestling before anyone called it that. Like a misshapen cross between the Michelin Man and Jabba the Hutt, Abdullah the Butcher was definitely one ugly wrestler. Adding to his hideous look was the flabby chest fat that drooped below his armpits like human bat wings and a row of carved scars on his forehead deep enough to hold casino chips in place.
According to his wrestling backstory, the scars derived from some sort of tribal rite of passage during his childhood in Sudan. The grotesque scars were actually the results of years of blading – when wrestlers slice into their foreheads to produce blood for the fans.
Because I knew a little bit about the violence of Sudan, I bought the spiel about the tribal rite of passage. Proving the old quote right again, it really is all about location, location, location.
The Butcher's Scars
Abdullah was known to hide blades in his taped fingers, with which it was rumored he not only bladed himself, but his sometimes unsuspecting, unwitting opponents. Armed with an arsenal of kitchen utensils in his trunks, his weapon of choice was a common household fork he used like an excavator on his opponent’s faces and eyes.
Abdullah created murderous mayhem in the ring, usually leaving him and his opponents battered and blood-soaked. This vulgar display of brutality was way too much for the WWF to air. And I’m glad they didn’t. His matches really were too gruesome to be aired on prime time.
In a couple of years, the WWF would be on its way to kid-friendly status, anyway, pushing wholesomeness and American patriotism. You try getting parents and kids to rally behind a fork-wielding maniac with four divot-sized scars etched into his forehead.
Pro Wrestling Illustrated
So, to even know of Abdullah’s existence, I had to flip thru the pages of Pro-Wrestling Illustrated, the seminal wrestling magazine of the ’80s and beyond. Good luck discovering him anywhere else. At the time, PWI covered all the wrestlers you could never imagine and all the stats and rankings a budding twelve-year-old wrestling fan could ever want.
To be honest, most kids just read PWI for the blood and gore. I read it for the articles. Years later, by the way, I would do the same with Playboy. Read it for the articles.
So one day I came across this rarity of rarities in the magazine, a profile on Abdullah the Butcher. A woman, another rarity in PWI at the time, wrote the article. The way I recall it, she starts the article by telling us she’s alone in a stadium tunnel leading to the wrestler locker rooms, waiting for Sir Oliver Humperdinck, Abdullah’s latest manager/handler/mouthpiece of which there were many throughout the years (mostly to do the blabbing during promos because Abdullah couldn’t speak a lick of English.
Remember? Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.)
Humperdinck was supposed to have met the reporter in the tunnel over a half-hour ago, the last match of the night having ended a while ago. The cleanup crew had wrapped up for the night. She could hear stadium lights turning off, like a series of prison bars clanging shut one by one.
But there’s still no Humperdinck. Fresh out of cigarettes, she finally said f*#* this and decided to leave. But she wasn’t exactly sure how to do that. The door she used to get in the tunnel was locked. She tried another door, the one stamped TEAM PERSONNEL ONLY. Locked.
Okay. She thought she heard straggling stadium ushers laughing just beyond the black double doors at the end of the tunnel, the ones leading to the stadium arena. She walked toward those double black doors. Determined to have those ushers show her the way back to her car, even if she had to file a complaint against them for their negligence, and determined not to be locked in the stadium overnight.
How could they lock these places up without checking if anyone’s left behind? Isn’t that security’s job? Damn it, why had she bothered waiting so long for that fat British bastard Humperdinck?
Remember the silence I mentioned earlier? How effectively it conveys exoticism? How effectively it conveys menace and mayhem? That’s what the reporter saw in the vacancy of Abdullah’s wide-eyed Sudanese eyes: menace and mayhem, and maybe even a trace of murder.
She was now walking backwards. He had suddenly emerged from the black double doors. Just like that. She didn’t remember how. Was that a fork in his hand? “WHERE’S OLIVER?” she stupidly asked him, hearing nothing, but her cavernous echo answer back. The six-foot-tall three hundred sixty-five pound Sudanese madman was advancing. His long velveteen trunks as blood smeared as a butcher’s apron.
She was staring into the vacancy of his eyes when the reporter’s notebook in her mind started spitting out tidbits of unpleasant bio facts about Abdullah: his fondness for chewing off duck heads as a child; the match when he smashed a chair over his opponent’s head then beat him unconscious with the chair leg. She was now knocking on the TEAM PERSONNEL ONLY door with a ferocity she hadn’t known she possessed.
Humperdinck set me up, she thought. That fat British bastard set me up! He never meant to be the go-between for the interview. He wanted me to be alone with the butcher. He wanted to scare me to death.
Did I mention Abdullah was pretty light on his feet for a man his size? He was getting closer. She was knocking harder. She now caught a clear glimpse of the grooves on his head, how dark and meaty they were. Forget casino chips, they might be large enough to swallow her up whole as well. She knocked harder. A door opened up behind her.
The one she’d first used to access the tunnel. Humperdinck? No, a freelance wrestling photographer she’d seen around here and there. He swung his rapid-fire camera toward Abdullah and snapped away. Before she knew it, she was back in the safety of her car.
The article read like a scene out of a slasher movie. Who knows if it was even written by a real female journalist? The way I remember the photo, Abdullah was kind of just standing in front of the black double doors, no sense of motion coming from him, no fork in his hands.
Belief In A Backstory
Nevertheless, I was pretty shook up from the story. In my mind, this woman had come perilously close to some ignominious end – death by fork – or at the very least one hell of a tetanus shot.
I fell hook, line, and sinker for this story because I believed in Abdullah.
I believed in his “heat” – a wrestling term referring to the desired negative reaction a heel gets from the crowd when they do something awful. I believed in his backstory. I believed in his birthplace. All I had to do was listen to the nightly news to make a connection between this crazed sadist and the hardship in his country.
Which was really not his country at all because the man who played Abdullah the Butcher was actually -wait for it- Canadian. His real name is Larry Shreve and he was born in Windsor, Canada. Shocking because Canada is one of the most polite countries in the world. He supposedly retired from pro-wrestling in 2010.
Closing On The Butcher
But I don’t think that Wikipedia’s right about that. About three years or ago, my friend Sal -who still frequents many a local wrestling event in Catholic school gymnasiums in Brooklyn- met Abdullah backstage, where he and some other faded stars of yesteryear were signing and selling autographs and merchandise at exorbitant prices.
Abdullah, or Abby as his peers affectionately know him, was sitting at a table hawking forks. Not only did Sal shell out twenty bucks for one of those forks, he paid an extra ten to get head locked by Abdullah while Abdullah pressed the same purchased fork to Sal’s skull.
It was a great photo. And I totally envied Sal. It should’ve been me at the end of that fork.
I recently saw a shoot on YouTube of Larry Shreve demonstrating how he made his fork move look real. He put the guy he was showing the trick to -really just a nifty bit of sleight of hand- in a headlock and aimed a spoon at his forehead.
The guy winced before the spoon could touch him and Larry Shreve laughed. “You’re already making a face.” Looking a little embarrassed for flinching, the guy gave it another go and Larry patiently showed him the move, like some gracious magician reassuring a frightened audience member.
He barely grazed the guy’s forehead and the guy said: “You didn’t touch me.” Larry, who is surprisingly quite soft-spoken, said: “Of course not. That’s why I’m a professional.” Then the guy asked him if the scars on his head hurt. To which Larry shook his head and said: “No. They don’t hurt. That’s why I’m a professional.”
Now imagine playing the same character for more than four decades. That would probably be Kelsey Grammer’s worst nightmare but Larry Shreve has been Abdullah the Butcher since 1958. That’s one hell of a run for any performer.
It certainly requires one hell of a work ethic to exact the physical punishment Shreve has done to himself over time. There’s no hiding behind a mask for this guy. Larry Shreve is always Abdullah, through and through. You need only look at the permanence of his scars to know this.
Geography itself can’t claim that kind of permanence. People migrate, soil erodes, and even the names of countries change. Knowing Larry Shreve is really Canadian changes nothing. He will always be from a country rife with civil wars and severe suffering. It doesn’t have to be Sudan. It can be anywhere.
Okay, everybody, I’ll leave you with this completely apropos Yogism: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
See you in two weeks for another tiptoe through the tulips of villainy lane. But for now, I’m taking these heels off.
Hi everyone. My name is Ariel Gonzalez, originally from Brooklyn, now living in the Garden State and I have a new podcast called “Wrestling With Heels On.”
On the podcast, I get to reminisce about my favorite wrestling bad guys from yesteryear. Light on stats and heavy on nostalgia, this little trip down villainy lane gives me a chance to visit the dark corridors of my wrestling soul, and it’s also fun to have a podcast.