‘Tony Atlas is cold’ — an excerpt from a new wrestling road trip book searching for The Iron Sheik



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The following is excerpted from “THE SIX PACK: On The Open Road in Search of Wrestlemania” — a road trip story from Brad Balukjian as he seeks out the Iron Sheik (with whom he had a falling out in 2005), Hulk Hogan and more wrestling heroes from the 80’s. 

1989

Tony Atlas is cold.

Teeth-chattering, soul-rattling, breath-catching cold, the kind of cold that makes your skin feel like it’s on fire.

He’s been wearing the same sweatsuit since fall and hasn’t bathed in months. His black hair, short but thick, obscures the myriad sores covering his scalp.

For dinner, he dives into a dumpster behind a fast-food restaurant to scavenge pieces of hamburger and fries. The only way he can get warm is when he gets ahold of a glass pipe and takes a long drag, the freebase cocaine rushing into his system, an instant wave of warmth and energy that curbs the hunger pangs.

He’s just been kicked out of the latest flophouse, owned by a woman named Shirley, who let junkies stay there and cook their product in exchange for a hit. Tony, sick and tired of the grip of addiction, had flushed three and a half grams of the house supply down Shirley’s toilet, sparking a riot. Five of his fellow squatters attacked, livid that $120 of street value had just entered the Lewiston, Maine, sewage system.

But if there’s one thing Tony knows, has always known, will always know, it’s how to fight. Even in an altered state, his arms, twenty-three inches around at their peak, flexed with rage and his fists rained down like ham hocks as he fought off the squatters.

It took a visit from the police to keep Tony from annihilating his five assailants. Once things settled, Shirley said he had to leave.

With nowhere to go and desperate for warmth, Tony hugs himself under a bench in Kennedy Park, a nine-acre rectangle dusted with snow and named for JFK after he stopped there on the campaign trail in 1960. The twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn lie on either side of the Androscoggin River. Hydro powered textile mills sprang up during the mid-1800s, and by 1865 Auburn was producing six hundred thousand pairs of shoes, earning it the title of “Shoe Capital of the World.”

Later this week Tony will defend his International Championship Wrestling (ICW) heavyweight championship in front of several hundred fans, who would be flabbergasted to know that this six-foot three, 260-pound colossus is homeless. The ICW, struggling to stay afloat, is a far cry from the marquee at Madison Square Garden where less than a decade earlier he had pinned Hulk Hogan, the Hulk Hogan, the last time the Hulkster had been pinned cleanly.

Tony squeezes his massive forearms, part of the physique that once earned him the title of Mr. USA 1979, and closes his eyes. Maine may seem to be an unlikely place for a self-described Black hillbilly from 1950s western Virginia, but when the ICW called, he was pleasantly surprised by the progressiveness of the local community. Shortly after arriving, he saw a white woman and a Black man walking down the street and thought, “Oh, they’re gonna hang him.” But the locals just said, “We aren’t about that up here.”

As welcoming as Maine can be, there’s no getting around the gelid winters. He reaches up with an exposed hand and rubs the dent in the middle of his forehead, a permanent reminder of the day Anthony White died and Tony Atlas was born.

Anthony White was born one of nine children on April 23, 1954, in Clifton Forge, Virginia, and soon moved four miles down the road to Low Moor. He was primarily raised by his mom, Beatrice James, and his grandmother. His father, Norris, absconded to Richmond with his triplet sisters and twin brother and sister when Beatrice James tired of his nonstop drinking and carousing (Norris claimed to have fathered thirty-six kids before meeting her; she shooed him out of town with her .38 revolver). She was a tough, hardworking woman who weighed more than three hundred pounds and who did everything she could to provide for her family. Every morning she was at work at the Hotel Roanoke by seven o’clock to work as a cook, and then after a brief break, she went to her second job as a maid until eleven at night.

The family was short on money but long on faith; with no indoor plumbing, Anthony and his brothers had to defecate in a bucket they kept under their bed, and without heat, they built fires in the kitchen stove just to stay warm.

As a toddler, Anthony would sit at the feet of his grandmother and her friends and fall asleep under their shoes, where he felt safe and secure. To this day, he craves the feeling of a woman’s shoes on his face, smothering him, dominating him, even kicking him to inflict some pain. One of the strongest men in professional wrestling, a decorated bodybuilding champion with a physique carved from stone, he needs to have all that strength and power and white-hot rage subdued and contained. When the beast inside threatens to bolt out of its cage, he seeks out a woman to step on his face. Large tennis shoes are his favorite.

At age six, Anthony was walking behind a girl in Low Moor, admiring her shoes. As they crossed a bridge, he looked down and noticed that the creek bed, full of water only a few weeks before, had dried up. A boy named Spike, who was keen on the girl, walked up to Anthony.

“I want to push you,” Spike said, without explanation.

“Well, you better not,” Anthony replied, never one to shy away from a confrontation.

In the next instant, Anthony felt himself flailing as he fell ten feet from Spike’s shove, landing with a thud on his head on the bone-dry ground. His face was immediately covered in blood as he somehow staggered home to his grandma, who clutched him and rocked him and prayed so hard her hands hurt. When Beatrice James came home late that night Anthony had gone into a coma, and when she rushed him to the hospital, the doctors said they weren’t sure if he was going to make it.

“If he’s gonna die, let him die in my arms,” she told the doctors.

When he woke up, he was Tony Atlas. Beatrice James was worried his mind was never the same, but Tony was as determined as ever to get stronger, to get bigger, to become so powerful that the Spikes of the world could never hurt him again. He saw Steve Reeves in the movie Hercules and said, “I want to be like that.”

The dream came true. He started boxing at age eight and by the sixth grade was wrestling in the 155-pound weight class. While other kids carried basketballs around town, Tony piled giant weights on his shoulders. He got in his first fight at age eleven, against a nineteen-year-old, and when one of the few white families in town stiffed him for some fieldwork he had done, Tony took on both of their sons, who were four years older, and won. When their father, a farmer named Redeye Hinton, saw Tony getting the best of his sons, he jumped off his tractor and stabbed Tony in the back with a pitchfork.

But Tony kept on coming. When his dad (who briefly returned when Tony was twelve) took him down to Scrappers Corner in Low Moor, an intersection where locals would fight (with money at stake), Tony took on all comers, boy or man.

“If you lose, I’m gonna give you a worse whippin’ when you get home,” his dad warned.

By the time Tony graduated from Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke in 1974, he stood six foot two and could bench press five hundred pounds.

The beast wasn’t just out of the cage. He was bending its bars.


2022

With Tears for Fears’ “Head over Heels” blasting, I push the Ford Fusion almost eight hundred miles in a single day, by far the longest driving day of the trip. I travel many of the same roads that Tony Atlas traveled forty years ago, the roads he called home.

At age sixty-eight, Tony is still taking bumps. He’s coming back from a match in Minneapolis for an independent promotion much like Gino Caruso’s ECPW (he still wrestles regularly for Gino) and has set aside the next two days for me.

Not for free, however. When I got his phone number and called to set up an interview, I caught him on the road fighting with his GPS and we got disconnected. When he called back to hear me out, he said, “No freebies. I’m too old to do anything for free anymore.”

I explained that what I was doing was journalism, not public relations, and that he was just one of several wrestlers I was interviewing. Paying your subjects can color the interaction, I explained.

“The WWE gave me the same song and dance,” he replied, referring to a recent interview with them in which he demanded a fee.

I didn’t like it, but I understood. Tony still has to make a living, and the only thing he has ever known is wrestling. He was, and still is, a corporation of one.

“You have to understand, all these guys you’re meeting with, I’m different. I have to work for a living. My day starts at seven and ends at six,” he said.

I agreed to pay him $1,000 for two days of his time, with the caveat that I would disclose the arrangement to you, the reader.

From there I couldn’t get Tony off the phone. He took me on a wild ride through his life and career, a stream of self-help and regret and aphorisms that had my head spinning.

“Pro wrestling died in 1990,” he said, “when Vince McMahon said it was entertainment. Back in the eighties, especially the seventies, about 50 percent of what we did was real.”

The memory of Tony’s words ring around my head as the blackness of the Road engulfs me and the heavens begin spitting rain somewhere around Massachusetts. I flit around my Spotify playlist to stay awake, blaring Styx’s “Renegade” and AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” When I finally pull into the greater Lewiston area around midnight, a roadside motel rejects me with a “No Vacancy” sign, forcing me into neighboring Auburn and the glitz of a Hilton Garden Inn. I gingerly walk into the lobby, my quads and hamstrings stiff, past a pool crammed with college kids showing off their cannonballs. My budget is now out the window as I crave any horizontal surface. I approach a beanpole with floppy hair at the front desk whose name tag reads “Niall.” He’s wearing a mint-green sweater and doing his calculus homework. The lobby smells like chlorine and cucumbers.

“The only rooms we have are junior suites for $316,” he says apologetically.

“We have five weddings staying here,” he explains.

Right, a Saturday at the start of summer in a town that depends on summer.

Back out into the night, into the Fusion. I briefly consider looking for the park bench in Kennedy Park that Tony once called home. It’s warm enough, in the mid-fifties, and I brought a sleeping bag anticipating just such a dilemma.

My last shot is an eyesore called the Center Street Inn, whose front door is wide open but whose lobby looks like it was abandoned mid-renovation. I’m surprised to find a handwritten sign scrawled “No Vacancy” taped to the door.

I tap out, unfurl my sleeping bag, and zip up my black jacket in the driver’s seat of the Fusion. I try to recline the seat but am immediately betrayed by my own research archive, boxes of paper pushing back. I lean back, the smell of my own body odor wafting to my nostrils, and shut my eyes, grateful that it’s summer, thinking of Tony under that park bench down the street, at the height of winter.


Brad Balukjian, PhD [Bu-lewk-gee-in] has chosen two careers, journalist and scientist, which converge on pursuit of the truth. He has been published in Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and many others. His first book, The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife, hit #7 on the LA Times bestseller list and was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020. He is a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences, and he discovered 17 species of insects (green flash bugs) in Tahiti, one of which he named after Harrison Ford. He lives on the Road, where he’s in an open relationship with his VCR. Check out more of his work at thebradpack.com.

(Top photo: Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images; Hachette Books)





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