There are few names in professional wrestling as instantly recognizable as the man known as Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Whether it was his signature 2X4, riling the crowd up with a ‘HOOOO!’ or a ‘U.S.A.!’ chant, Jim Duggan found a way to stand out alongside a generation of legendary professional wrestlers.
Conincidentally, he almost never even made it to the squared circle.
“No. Not at all. Football was my main sport,” Duggan said when asked whether or not he watched professional wrestling as a child,” said the lifelong athlete. On this day, he’s promoting his latest career venture, acting. Duggan is one of the stars of Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies, which hits Kingston’s Screening Room on May 15 for a pair of shows that are also the national Canadian premiere of the movie.
In fact, football was quite nearly his calling, as he would play at Southern Methodist University, before later being signed by the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons, where he would be released due to knee problems. He also played pigskin north of the border for the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts.
“I was pretty highly recruited by Woody Hayes, and Joe Paterno, and I ended up going to Southern Methodist, down in Dallas,” he said. “(While there) I ran into (legendary wrestler and promoter) Fritz Von Erich on a fluke. And then that opened the door for professional wrestling.”
When football didn’t pan out, Duggan busted that door to professional wide open. The day he granted this interview was special in not only his personal life, but his professional one, too.
“(Nineteen-seventy-nine) was my first year (in wrestling). Actually, you know, it’s an unbelievable coincidence, but my first wrestling match was 35 years ago today,” he said over the phone. “And today’s actually my 25th wedding anniversary. Without even knowing! So obviously it’s a big day in my life.”
However, becoming Hacksaw Jim Duggan did not come easily. Like many wrestlers from his era, Duggan spent a number of years away from his family, honing his craft and paying his dues, for very little in return. It was through those experiences, and learning from legends such as Arnold Skaaland, Von Erich, and Peter Maivia (grandfather of Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson) that Duggan began to find success.
“Even though we ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches — and they were some pretty lean times — (we still had a lot of fun),” Duggan recalled with a laugh. “My mom got desperate in sending care packages of peanut butter. But it was still a lot of fun for a bunch of young guys. There are a lot of kids out there in (rock and roll) bands that are just one break away from being big superstars, but they’re sleeping in their cars tonight, you know? It’s a very competitive business. A lot of folks don’t understand that about wrestling. There are 1,500 NFL football players this year. There are 1,000 NBA basketball players. There are 120 guys on the WWE roster. It’s television, you know. It’s more competitive than professional sports.”
The idea for Duggan’s Hacksaw character came via a series of unusual circumstances. In fact, they brought him both his name and his trademark piece of lumber.
“I started wrestling with Fritz (Von Erich),” Duggan recalled. “I went down and talked to him, and then I broke in as ‘Big’ Jim Duggan. I had the short hair, (was) clean shaven and I wore a long ol’ bath robe. After I broke in in Dallas, I went and worked in the WWWF (for Vince McMahon, Sr.). Arnie Sckoland called me into the office and said “You know kid, you might actually have a future … but come up with something better than Big Jim, and get rid of that gold bath robe!” Duggan said, laughing. “So they sent me to Hawaii, where I worked for Peter Maivia.
“Over in Hawaii, I wore a mask, and I wrestled as The Convict. That didn’t work either,” he said, drawing a laugh from the reporter.
A series of matches with notorious wild-man Bruiser Brody would provide just the right circumstances for both a nickname, and his trademark 2×4.
“(After wrestling in) Hawaii, they sent me to Georgia Championship Wrestling, where I went back to (being) ‘Big’ Jim Duggan,” he explained. “From there, I went to the Pensacola territory, where I became ‘Wildman’ Duggan, and I wore fur with chains on it. Then I went to San Antonio for Joe Blanchard, and I had an opportunity to work with Bruiser Brody. And that’s when I became Hacksaw. And that’s actually where the 2×4 come into being”, Duggan recalled.
“Brody was a fan favourite, and I was the bad guy,” Duggan explained. “Just getting back and forth to the ring, out in west Texas, is pretty challenging. You know they just had ropes (holding the fans back), and they serve beer at the shows. You had to pretty well fight your way back and forth, to and from the ring. They would spit on you, and punch you, and kick you. So after I made it back, kind of beat up from fighting the fans, Brody comes in and he says ‘If you’re going to carry something to the ring, carry something you can use! Forget the feathered boas and sequined robes!’ ”
Duggan scanned the area where he would lay eyes on a simple piece of wood that would change his life, though he didn’t know it at the time.
“(I thought to myself) ‘Well there’s a piece of wood.’ I came out (of the locker room) screaming, and it was like parting the Red Sea,” he said, with a chuckle. “Those people just scattered, and I got back and forth to the ring without getting punched. And so, the 2×4 was born.”
That is just one of many tales of the big man’s toughness. In 1998, however, that toughness would would be put to the ultimate test. Amidst a successful run in World Championship Wrestling, Duggan was diagnosed with kidney cancer at just 43 years old.
“I was passing blood,” he said when asked how he knew something was wrong. “It wasn’t blood in my urine, it was pretty much just blood. And, right away, it wasn’t a week from my diagnosis to my surgery because they knew that speed (was key).”
Duggan’s cancer diagnosis changed his life.
“You know, if it’s outside your kidney, your odds are way down,” he said of the survival rate. “I spent that week in my daughter’s room, you know, crying and praying. It was a tough time for our whole family. But, by the grace of God, and the skill of the doctors, man, they saved my life. Not only did they save my life, but I was able to go back to the profession I love. It’s amazing. “
Duggan’s focus, as well as his outlook on life, immediately changed.
“You appreciate things much more. It puts everything in perspective. Until you face a life-and-death situation, you have an outlook, of course … But you know, your job, your financial situation, all of your petty little problems, you don’t realize how petty they really are when it comes to a health issue”, Duggan explained.
A return to wrestling wasn’t even a thought that crossed his mind in those days. His health and his family were his only priorities.
“I was just focused on surviving,” Duggan said. “I didn’t care if I wrestled or not. I didn’t want my daughters to grow up without a dad. That was my main concern. I just wanted to save my life. So to come back into it was a bonus.”
Duggan is very quick to note that while he survived cancer, he couldn’t have done it without his medical team’s quick diagnosis, and surgery.
”I attribute (my survival) all to the doctors,” he said when asked if he thought being an athlete helped him in his battle in any way. “They did it all. It had nothing to do with what kind of physical condition I was in. If it were years ago, it would have been a death sentence. Nowadays, with modern surgery, they cut it out of me, and saved my life.”
It has been with that new outlook on life that Duggan has survived and thrived since his cancer diagnosis, continuing currently to be active in the ring.
In 2011, wrestling’s highest honour was bestowed upon him as Duggan was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, alongside other legends including the Legion of Doom, Paul Ellering, Sunny and The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels. Duggan remains humbled by the honour.
“It’s always nice to be recognized by your peers,” he said of the induction. “And an opportunity like that to tell the fans thanks for all of the support. The fans make it all possible. Plus, it was in Atlanta. So a bunch of my family, and (a lot of my wife’s family) from South Carolina were able to come over. So, it was a lot of fun, and something I’ll always remember. Honestly, it’s great. “
Recently, Duggan put down his 2X4 in favour of an acting gig. Well, no, actually, he didn’t. Duggan keeps it and puts it to good use as one of a number of wrestling stars cast in a feature role in a new movie entitled Pro Wrestling vs. Zombies. The decision to join a cast that included the likes of Shane Douglas, Matt Hardy, Kurt Angle and Rowdy Roddy Piper, to name some, was helped along by Duggan’s friendship with Piper.
“It was just an opportunity … to have a lot of fun” Duggan said with a laugh, “And my good friend, Roddy Piper was in it.”
Duggan has no regrets about taking the role.
“(We filmed) it in Parkersburg, West Virginia,” he said, adding that the local residents were amazing. “The whole town turned out. We had, I think, 300 to 500 extra zombies. I mean, the restaurants were polite to us, the whole town. The police would stop by and say hello. Everybody was so friendly in that town. It was great. Not only did we have fun, but we did the movie!”
It was important that Duggan maintained his legendary character’s legacy on the big screen, as well. What you see from Hacksaw Jim Duggan in the ring is exactly what you see from the man on the big screen, save for maybe one scene. The film’s lone tender moment, sandwiched between a lot of blood, guts and laughter, is a scene between longtime friends Piper and Duggan when the former walks into a room to discover his friend and fellow wrestler has been turned into zombie. For a moment, when Piper realizes what has happened, and when zombie notices Piper in the room, there is a feeling of sadness.
“As we were doing the read through, at rehearsal, it says ‘Piper finds Duggan a zombie. Piper kills Duggan, but feels bad about it,” Duggan said through laughter, continuing “I said ‘That’ll be some great acting Piper, I’ll tell ya,’ ” Duggan said with a laugh.
While Duggan has enjoyed his foray into film and television, his true love remains pro wrestling, which he still does into his 60s.
“I still do (independent wrestling) shows. I’m pretty limited in what I can do, but, also, I show the kids a lot,” he said referring to young wrestlers. “It’s just not a physical business. You know, at 60 years old, I don’t have a whole lot of physical attributes. But I can still entertain the crowd. It’s just not all taking bumps, kids. You’ve gotta walk when you’re done.”
Even at 60 years old, there is no end in sight for ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan’s wrestling career.
“I get people asking ‘Hacksaw, don’t you get tired of it?’ I’d love to bring them back in the dressing room. No matter how many flights you’ve been on, or fast food dinners you’ve had….you’re in the back again, and you’re lacing up your boots. Then you go out, and you start hearing “HOOOOOOO!” then you come through the curtain, and all the lights, and even if it’s a small little gym packed with 300 people, everybody’s in the place is on their feet going ‘USA! USA! USA!’
“Get tired of it? Are you kidding? It’s my life’s blood!” I’m going to have to get a walker made out of 2×4’s!”
That’s great news for fans the world over.
— with files from Justin Cousineau
Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies
Where: The Screening Room
When: Thursday, May 15
What time: 7 p.m., 9:30 p.m.
Tickets: $9 general admission, box office is cash only. Prices include tax.
More information: http://www.moviesinkingston.com; https://www.facebook.com/events/1396823547268657/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming; https://www.facebook.com/Pro.Wrestlers.vs.Zombies