In the sport of professional wrestling, particularly in the era prior to guaranteed contracts, wrestlers were paid based on the attendance in the arenas. A sold out show meant a great payday, but the fluctuation from one week to the next could always be a gamble. Additionally, in that period, wrestlers were faced with the very real peril that an injury would impact their ability to provide for their families. If you didn’t wrestle, you didn’t get paid.
It was in this culture of ‘life and death’ survival in the grueling sport of wrestling that many wrestlers adapted survival strategies to save their money on the road in case they should need it for a rainy day. There are many common ploys that have been openly discussed in interviews and documented in wrestler biographies about ‘heeling’ a hotel room – checking in as a single guest, then sneaking in a colleague (or more) to split the cost. But some wrestlers took saving money to a whole other level. This list explores some of the most creative and daring strategies employed by professional wrestlers to save money on the road.
15. Steve Austin – “Raw Potato Diet”
Steve Austin’s success at the height of the WWE’s “Attitude Era” as the anti-hero battling the administration cemented his legacy as one of the sport’s all time greats. However, for Austin, whose exploits since his ring career came to a close have included acting assignments as well as television and podcast projects, his wrestling income didn’t always leave him in a favorable situation.
In his book The Stone Cold Truth, Austin recounts his days wrestling in the Memphis territory, when the pay was as low as $40 per night. From that, covering road expenses for gas, meals and possibly hotel rooms, that payday didn’t stretch very far. Austin admits that in the interest of pursuing his career with all he had, he sometimes sustained himself by buying a bag of potatoes and eating solely spuds on the road. His fortunes have certainly changed from those early years.
14. Al Tomko – “Soup Of The Day”
Al Tomko is perhaps best known as a promoter, first serving as a local agent for the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association in Winnipeg then later buying out Sandor Kovacs to serve as the leader of the Vancouver territory for more than a decade. But Tomko was also a wrestler himself, appearing not on his own events, but grappling for Stampede Wrestling, the AWA and more.
Among the wrestlers under his employ in Vancouver, he was known to follow the philosophy: It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you save. It was a guiding statement that he practiced religiously in his travels. One Tomko favorite was to attend restaurants and order just a bowl of hot water, which was often provided for free. He would complete his meal by pouring ample amounts of ketchup into the hot water, then grabbing some crackers and salt and pepper, which were also offered complimentarily for patrons. Voila … homemade tomato soup.
13. Michelle Starr – “Classic Mis-Direction”
As the promoter and often headliner for his own circuit on Canada’s Pacific Coast, Michelle Starr has seen the ups and downs of the wrestling business. From selling out arenas, to trying to make payroll some nights from his own pocket, Starr cleverly assessed that the best chance of success was by reducing the overhead expenses to present a travelling wrestling show.
For events held on Vancouver island, that required that Starr transport the crew of twelve wrestlers and the wrestling ring across the ferry. Pulling up to the ticket terminal, Starr would direct the wrestlers to duck down in the fifteen passenger van so that only the driver and front seat passenger were seen. When the attendant would ask him about the trailer, he would mis-identify that the 20-foot trailer was actually 12 feet. The attendant would become so distracted to disprove Starr’s measurement, and satisfied to see the promoter pay full price for the full length of his vehicle and cargo, that he wouldn’t even look in the windows where he would have discovered more than $200 worth of tariffs that would go uncollected.
12. Terry Funk – “The Key To A Good Night’s Sleep”
Terry Funk is a second generation wrestler, raised by a father who first carved out his living in the sport of wrestling on the heels of the great depression. Terry often travelled with his father to various wrestling territories as a kid and no doubt received a veritable education from the school of hard knocks in the process.
In his autobiography, Terry Funk related a tale about a trick he used while travelling on the weekly circuit in his home territory in west Texas. When checking out of a hotel, he would sometimes neglect to return the room key (in a time that physical keys were still issued by the hotel industry). When his travels would bring him back through that town throughout the week, he would covertly roll up to the hotel and try his key on the room. If the room was vacant, he would enjoy a second night’s accommodation on the house.
11. Roddy Piper – “This Meal Is On The House”
In his book In The Pit With Piper, Roddy tells a tale of how a ring veteran showed him a method to secure a free meal in any town that a wrestler’s travels would take him. In the scenario, the elder wrestler would go into the diner first and sit down to order a meal at the counter. The younger wrestler would follow him in a short time later, sitting a few seats away ignoring his partner as if they didn’t know each other.
Near the end of the meal, the senior wrestler would feign a medical emergency – choking, heart attack, anything which would create an immediate scene and create alarm. While the wrestler was on the floor and onlookers frantically swarmed in to assist, when the need was identified to get the ailing customer to a hospital, the younger wrestler would step forward to identify that he had a car and would escort the ailing man to the car and both would make their get away without paying their tabs.
10. Abdullah the Butcher – “All Nighty Party”
One of the most notorious villains of his generation, Abdullah the Butcher enjoyed headline status not only in North America, but also Japan and Puerto Rico. Following his ring career, he has gone on to operate a successful restaurant in Atlanta from the spoils of his years of blood and guts between the ropes. However, Abdullah’s net profit comes as no fluke … but rather a very calculated design.
On the road, Abdullah liked to stay out all night, often in night clubs and venues where he was sure to be recognized. This wasn’t just about soliciting free drinks from diehard fans. Instead, his schedule of staying out all night allowed him to save money on hotel accommodation, electing to check in to the next arena as early as possible in the morning where he could sleep, shower and prepare for that night’s match.
9. “The Baloney Blowout”
Despite the over-the-top grandeur of spectacles such as $10,000 Battle royals, professional wrestlers often earned very modest incomes during the territory days of professional wrestling. Particularly when a wrestler might be on t short stay in a company that was far from his home – being away from one’s wife and children required that money be sent home and any additional cash left on hand to support a second residence and basic necessities for the athlete themselves was often a sacrifice.
The term “baloney blowout” was somewhat of a wrestling tradition among those who endured the gruelling schedules to entertain the fans. This exercise often involved a carload of wrestlers pooling their money to collectively buy supplies to feed themselves – a loaf of bread, a package of bologna, and a case of beer might be all the nourishment that the wrestlers could afford between the big paydays that accompanied successful showings in larger cities.
8. Gene Kiniski & Lord James Blears – “Fracas On The Freeway”
Canadian football player-turned wrestler Gene Kiniski was regarded as one of the top villains in California when he traded his shoulder pads for a pair of wrestling trunks. Some of his earliest success came in tag team action with his partner Lord James Blears. Travelling up and down the busy freeways of California often required the duo to put the pedal to the metal to make it to their scheduled appearances on time. Not all were impressed with their high speeds on the highway.
On one particular occasion, James Blears was at the wheel when the familiar red beacon and siren appeared in the rearview mirror. Looking at the speedometer and realizing that this would be a stiff ticket, Blears lamented the unanticipated expense which would eat into that week’s pay. Kiniski had an idea and assured his partner to follow his lead. Before the highway patrolman could reach the vehicle, Kiniski bounded out the passenger side door and around the car, pulling Blears out of the driver’s seat and onto the shoulder of the road. Kiniski began to paintbrush the English wrestler with open handed cuffs about the head, chastising the driver for his disregard for American rules of the road. The patrolman was so stunned at the perceived violence between travelling partners, that he focused on breaking up the melee and ended up not issuing a speeding ticket.
7. Bull Bullinski – “Manifold Pot Roast”
Frank Shields was a long haul truck driver by trade, so the transition to become a travelling professional wrestler wasn’t a hard culture shift to make. Aside from hotels, often the most costly expense on the road was meals in restaurants, which can add up quickly for those whose appetites were equalled only by the reputation in the sport.
Many young wrestlers, including Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne recall that a common tactic for Shields, who wrestled in the Minneapolis area as Bull Bullinski, particularly on the long drives between cities in the AWA territory was to wrap up a beef roast tightly in tinfoil, along with potatoes and carrots. By the time he arrived at his destination, the heat from the engine had thoroughly cooked his meal and he was able to avoid spending money in the restaurants alongside his colleagues.
6. Roy McClarty – “Great Deal On Carpet”
Canadian wrestling great Roy McClarty had a lengthy career in the sport, starting just after the close of the second World War and wrapping up after thirty years between the ropes. However, despite his international travels and his championship success in many places where he appeared, McClarty’s lasting legacy is as one of wrestling’s most reserved when it came to spending money.
There is a legendary story about McClarty watching television and seeing that a local carpet store was advertising that they were offering free carpet remnants for persons with a disability. McClarty looked to those with him in the room and said: “Hey, I can be handicapped.” Soon after, McClarty visited the store and made an elaborate production of appearing to not have all his faculties about him. After some discussion with a sales person, McClarty secured a volume of carpet, which he intended to use in his home. The mission felt like a success until the sales person said, “Have a great day Mr. McClarty, I enjoy seeing you wrestle each week on TV.” Sheepish to have been caught in his deception, McClarty was relieved to have been let off the hook by the salesman, “I’m a big fan of yours, I would have given the carpet to you for free anyway.”
5. Jake Roberts – “How Do Ya Like Them Apples?”
Jake “The Snake” Roberts was just reaching his stride as a headline wrestler in the late 1970s when his travels carried him to the Canadian west coast to wrestle for promoter Al Tomko. As a young guy working his way up the ladder, he soon found himself travelling with experienced journeyman Roy McClarty, himself a celebrated wrestler and now winding down his career as a referee and the ring crew foreman.
One night, while wrestling in the British Columbia interior, McClarty pulled over and pointed out the roadside apple orchard, directly Jake to take a bag and head into the trees to collect some apples for him to take home to the children in the McClarty household. However, while Roberts and co-conspirator Kevin Jefferies were in the trees, the owner of the property discovered them and scurried after them through the orchard, screaming at the trespassers and hoping to capture them before they could reach the safety of the truck. McClarty started to roll away down the road in the truck, urging Roberts (who might not have evaded capture) to throw the apples into the truck and ensure the mission was completed.
4. “What Kind of Cargo Are You Haulin’?”
Whether it was a means for the wrestlers to avoid wear and tear on their own vehicles while touring, or a strategy employed by a promoter to save on expenses, it was not an uncommon practice for the truck hauling the wrestling ring to carry more passengers than legally intended.
There are numerous tales of wrestlers stowing away across the top of the ring in the back of the ring truck for long hauls between cities. In one infamous story, this cost-saving measure backfired when the driver of the truck fell asleep, rolling the vehicle with the referee asleep in the cargo hold. Luckily, nobody paid with their lives in this incident, but the accident wasn’t without costly ramifications.
3. Promoter Crashes A Wedding
A common lament among professional wrestlers of any generation is that the promoters seem to have short arms and deep pockets. This was certainly the case for one Canadian wrestling tour of Saskatchewan in 1984, when after an abysmal turn out at the matches, the promoter convened all of his talent into a single hotel room and while apologizing for the disappointing turn out, assured his disgruntled wrestlers that to ease their frustration, the evening’s meal would be on him.
The promoter departed only to return a short time later with a tray of sandwiches for the famished wrestlers. Apparently, there was a wedding being celebrated in the same hotel and the promoter slid into the reception and helped himself to the catering table to save his bacon with a roomful of angry grapplers.
2. Chris Jericho – “Hands In All Supporting Documentation”
Many a wrestling promoter has lamented the price of gasoline when settling up with wrestlers imported for an event or a tour. Particularly when the distance between cities is long, sometimes the costs of transit to import the talent are so prohibitive that it dissuades event organizers from seeking out talent.
Winnipeg promoter Tony Condello had hired Chris Jericho to travel from Calgary to participate on his tour. Jericho, to ensure that he completed the tour with the strongest return for his investment, devised a strategy that worked in the short term. Paying for his gas purchases by direct debit, Jericho had two receipts – the till receipt, and the transaction receipt from each fuel up. He submitted both copies of the receipts for his travel to Condello to double up on his travel allotment.
1. Three Poffos In A Station Wagon
A thousand miles away from home and on tour for an entire season, Angelo Poffo had the opportunity to teach both of his young sons an important lesson in saving money on the road. While touring for promoter Emile Dupre in the Canadian Maritimes, a schedule which featured nine events per week for the entire summer, offered a great opportunity to earn a handsome sum, but it was important to mind their money as Angelo, Randy (later Randy Savage) and Lanny were a long way from home.
To save money on accommodations, the three Poffos showered in the arenas where they appeared and lived out of their family station wagon for the entire summer. It saved them a lot of money, but one must commend their family closeness to be able to cram three full-sized wrestlers into a vehicle for an entire season – working, travelling and living together without erupting into a family feud.