“Just look for the beat-up-looking old wrestler,” Eddie Sharkey advised me over the phone as we set up our 1991 breakfast meeting at a Denny’s restaurant in Minneapolis. As of 1991, Sharkey had just about done it all in professional wrestling: grappling, training, refereeing, and promoting. Sipping cup after cup of coffee, Sharkey’s tall tales of wrestling as it used to be more than made up for his smaller size.
CONTENT NOTE: Mr. Sharkey uses a derogatory term for Little People three times in this interview when describing particular matches in which people of short stature were involved. Rather than printing the word here, the editors have used brackets to indicate where the offensive term was used.
SHARKEY: I’m the end of an era. I’m the last of the carnival wrestlers. I started in the carnival. See, we used to have carnival wrestling that would go around from town to town, to fairs and carnivals. And we’d get, probably, on average, three dollars a match, four if it was really good. But, if you wrestled maybe 4 times, 10, maybe 15 times in one day, an afternoon show and an evening show, you’d come home with $40 or $50, which, back in the early 1960s, was an awful lot of money. I remember one time I wrestled in Minnesota, and I hadn’t become a real professional wrestler yet. But I knew all the wrestlers, and they knew I was a wrestler, and I dressed in the same dressing room with them. And they were kind of kidding me: “How much did you make?”
I said, “Well, I made $45. How much did you guys make?”
They said, “$25.” Which was a lot of money. You’re talking about 1960 now, maybe 1961. That wasn’t bad. Compared to today, that wouldn’t pay for the gas. Gas was like 29 cents a gallon then. You actually made more money then than now. Everybody made money. Everybody always had a house and a new car. And now there’s just a few that are making it. The rest are just waiting their turn. Maybe in the long run it’ll come out even. I don’t know. I hope so. It’s a lot tougher now.
To tell the truth, I wanted to be a professional fighter. I trained most of my life to be a boxer, and then the local promoter died, and that was the end of boxing for about 10 years. I hung out with all the wrestlers. We used to kind of run around together. And they said, “Why don’t you become I wrestler?” Starting in the business with a lot of friends helped a lot. So, I did it, back when times were good, and I made some money out of it.
I’ve been here in Minneapolis all my life. I’ve wrestled here most of my life, except when it would get real cold. Then I’d go to Phoenix or Salt Lake City, and I wrestled a lot in San Francisco when Roy Shire had it. That was the second biggest territory in the world. Minneapolis was the biggest.
[There was] a lot of traveling. It was horrible. It still is, it’s still horrible. Now our trips, we fly everywhere, but that’s even worse. That’s the worst way of traveling. You have no one to talk to, you’re up in a plane by yourself. Where, in a car, sometimes you have some real long trips–we still got long trips–but you got four guys and you just ride with people you like. And that’s not near as bad, but it’s just the flying is hard. We got long trips coming up now. We go to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the second of August. On the third we go to Munising, in northern Michigan, which is way up on Lake Superior. I don’t know how far that is. Chicago, places like that, it’s all freeways. Just go right down the freeway, there’s nothing to it. Can you imagine what it was like when you had to go through every small town? It’s easier now. Nicer restaurants to stop in. Truck stops are classier. We live a better life now, really.
I referee a great deal, but I don’t wrestle anymore. Too many injuries. And the guys these days are so much bigger, you know. My time, there were a lot of guys my size. Especially down South. Well, still there are guys my size down South. But up here, too big. Actually, when I say “wrestling up here,” I refer to the PWA [the Professional Wrestling Association, which Sharkey promotes] or the WWF. I still work for the World Wrestling Federation. I referee for them. I just kind of stay around home right now, though. The size of the guys there are really something–the Road Warriors, tough old people like that. But then again, most of them are from Minnesota.
Everyone in the world wants to be a Hulk Hogan or a Road Warrior. I really have problems training guys, because everyone wants to be like the Road Warriors, and there’s only gonna be one Road Warriors, and there’s only one Hulk Hogan. Just like there’s only one Gorgeous George. There’ll never be another, so why copy it?
I had a school, a very successful school. Well, I was extremely lucky, you gotta realize that. I trained more main-event wrestlers than anyone in the world, and not because of me or what I’ve done right, it’s because of them. They were so good, and I was at the right place at the right time. I went to work one time, in a bar, and there was Rick Rude and the two Road Warriors. It was a very tough bar, real tough. They had a crew of bouncers that was just unbelievable. Toughest people that they could find. And they would just wipe out motorcycle gangs. Finally the bar was closed because there was too many beatings, and a guy was just beaten to death there in the parking lot.
But now there’s too many schools. We’ve saturated the market. There’s not enough work anymore for anybody, so now’s just a good time to let it go for a while. I do the promoting. It’s working really good. It seems we’re all making a few dollars working together.
[In school], the first thing is you teach them how to fall so they can protect themselves. One wrong move and you can fall on your head and break your neck. So we spend a lot of time just learning how to fall. And you’ve got to harden up your body, toughen yourself up to take that abuse, slamming yourself on the mat all the time. So we work a lot on that. That’s real important, and they’ll use it the rest of their lives. If you notice, the Road Warriors, for instance, very seldom go off their feet. It’s very seldom that anybody throws them or anything like that, but when they do, they land perfectly. They never get hurt. Everyone gets hurt, but they didn’t get hurt falling wrong or anything. If you hit your hip, you can hurt yourself real bad. You’ve gotta land so your whole body hits at the same time. If you hit your heels first, you could break an ankle. It’s just really hard. There’s still a lot of wrestlers that haven’t been trained properly, that can’t take a good bump. You see that quite often.
Up here, we don’t use referee bumps. We don’t knock the referees down and all that. In my organization, we don’t do that, and most organizations don’t. In fact, the only place you’ll really see that is in the NWA. I’ve been thrown across the ring maybe once a year or something with the World Wrestling Federation. Every once in a while, for some reason, an old and good friend, like Mad Dog Vachon, would like to throw me.
To be a referee is very, very hard. Especially in a TV taping. Sometimes you’ll have 20 or 25 matches and only 2 referees. It’s a son-of-a-gun. Now the last time I had a job with the LPWA, the Ladies’ Professional Wrestling Association, I went out to Nevada and we had two tapings. We didn’t get time for intermission, and it was six hours straight of refereeing. That was hard.
You gotta stay out of the way, stay the hell out of the way [as a referee]. Some guys actually will up and just run over them. You see the guy, maybe he’s gonna go into a tackle. You can see it in enough time. You got that second to get out of the way, and some guys aren’t smart enough. They just stand there. Well no wonder they get knocked three rows back. What makes it easy to referee is if you’ve wrestled. If you’ve never wrestled, it makes it hard. But it’s just a very, very, very hard business. It’s a lot harder than people think it is.
A good referee is really never seen. If you see him too much on television, that’s not good. Stay about three or four feet away from the wrestlers all the time. And make sure you don’t get in the way of the camera. You see a referee sometimes–you wanna see a match, and you’re looking at the referee’s back, he’s in the way. Always stay away from the cameras, and just generally stay out of the way. Nobody says, “Jeez, there’s a good referee tonight, let’s go to the matches.”
What really bothers me, I’ve seen referees leave the ring, and some villain has pinned a good guy, and they’re hollering at the referee. So they’ve divided the heat between the villain and the referee. It’s supposed to all be on the villain. Maybe all the heat is on the referee and not on the villain. That’s not good either. Just get in and get out.
But still, some of the referees like to be involved in some of the–well, [derogatory term for Little People] matches, for instance. You gotta chase the [derogatory term]. They bite you in the ass. Jeez, last time down in Chicago, one of them gave me an airplane spin. Jeez, it was a hell of a match. It was totally all just tormenting the referee through the whole match. It was really kinda fun, you know? How bad are them guys gonna hurt you? They’re really not gonna hurt you. They’re not strong enough to. But in those, the referee’s just as important in the [derogatory term] match as the wrestler.
Thoughts from 2022: This was a really fun interview to conduct, totally worth the long drive from Chicago to Minneapolis. And it gets even better in part 2, when Sharkey describes a harrowing barroom brawl involving Harley Race.