Little did Ed Leslie know when he was a young boy watching wrestling with his older sister at Tampa’s National Guard Armory that he would some day carve out his own legacy in that very business.
Quite literally, actually, as the man known the world over as Brutus (The Barber) Beefcake.
But in those days, Leslie said during a telephone interview from his Florida home, wrestling for a living was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I never really thought about doing any wrestling on my own,” he said ahead of his appearances at Great North Wrestling’s coming shows in Smiths Falls and Ottawa, Ontario. “As far as being a wrestler, the thought had never entered my mind.”
But that would soon change. In fact, Leslie began a long and storied friendship with the man who would single-handedly propel pro wrestling to new, mainstream heights. Leslie went to school with Terry Bollea, better known by his trademark yellow and red tights and by the name Hulk Hogan.
“Hulk Hogan went to the same high school as me and all of my family,” Leslie explained, adding they were Little League baseball rivals. “I got to know him when I was in high school. He was a few years older than me and he was a musician.”
“(Hogan) was the one who really recruited me,” Leslie said. “We worked out together for several years. He actually tried to break in in the Florida territory, Eddie Graham’s territory. The first day in training camp, the Japanese trainer, Hiro Matsuda, broke his ankle, broke his leg basically. In other words, ‘Hey, we’re discouraging him from wanting to be a wrestler,’ ” Leslie revealed. He added that Hogan would eventually return to the school, where they later agreed to train him, but refused to book him.
“He couldn’t make a living so he came back to Tampa and was looking for someone to train with him and go into wrestling,” Leslie said. “Nobody wanted to quit their jobs or anything like that, so he called me and I said, ‘Yeah sure,’ so we went to Cocoa Beach, Florida, and trained for 18 months.”
Eventually, the duo would find wrestling work.
“We basically got booked as a tag team, Terry and Eddie Boulder were the names we started wrestling under,” Leslie said, adding they cut their wrestling teeth working in Pensacola, Fla., in the north Florida-Georgia-Alabama Gulf Coast territory.
Hogan would soon break away, find his way to New York, where Vince McMahon Jr. and he would go on to revolutionize the business, on the broad shoulders of Leslie’s longtime friend.
But the bleach-blond Hulkster wouldn’t leave his friend behind for long.
“Right after he came in, probably within six months, he got me a tryout,” Leslie said. “I came into a meeting and we cooked up this Brutus Beefcake name and I got my chance. He got me that tryout.”
Asked if he ever felt any professional or personally jealousy over his friend’s fame and fortune, Leslie says he was always happy for Hulk.
“He found his niche,,” Leslie said. “He worked hard to get where he got. Going to work in New York with Vince McMahon Jr. after senior died, it was right place, right time. Some people say, ‘Oh, yeah, Hulk got you this, got you that, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ Well I worked my ass off and made my own character and got over. Brutus (The Barber) Beefcake at one time was one notch under Hulk Hogan.
“I have no hard feelings against (Hulk) doing well because I made it pretty big on my own, just the same. Maybe I didn’t get as rich as him,” he said with a chuckle.
Leslie has a point. While Hogan was amassing a Hulkamania empire that thrives to this day, Leslie’s Brutus Beefcake character, which later evolved into a hugely popular haircutting barber gimmick, also found great success in an era that featured several iconic characters.
As Beefcake, Leslie cut more hair than he won championship gold, but so over was his character that he was on the cusp of the WWE title picture when a horrendous accident not only derailed his rising career, but nearly killed him.
“I was scheduled in the next month to get the Intercontinental belt and hold that belt for at least a year and work with Mr. Perfect and try to go around the whole territory with Mr. Perfect,” Leslie revealed. “And getting that belt is like they’re grooming you for eventually the world title belt.”
Title runs become very secondary very quickly after a freak parasailing accident nearly killed Leslie. While helping a parasailer prepare for takeoff, the boat’s driver mistook a cue to take off and did, pulling the parasailer into Leslie’s face with tremendous force, crushing his entire facial skeleton.
“(That accident) basically changed all that,” Leslie said of his life and career. “It took me out of the game. Really I wasn’t ever supposed to go back to wrestling.” It was only because of incredible surgeons that he would eventually resume his once promising wrestling career.
With the WWE today a global empire as opposed to a wrestling company, Leslie feels at least partly responsible for helping the company get to where it is today. And he did so during a time when wrestlers worked pretty well around the clock.
“We were wrestling about 45, 50 dates every month,” he said. “We did television tapings on Monday and Tuesday, in which we’d wrestle, at least I did — not everybody — four times at least each day. Sometimes I’d even have to stay around and there was a dark match at the end of the night. If you got stuck doing a dark match, then you had to wrestle five times during that day.
“Every three weeks, you’re wrestling eight times in one day. You’re travelling back and forth across the country. I’d dress up 99 days in a row when Greg Valentine and I had the (tag-team) belts, without a day off. I worked for 12 years, basically, wrestling 400 times every year at least, if not more, from the early ’80s into almost ’94-’95,” Leslie said, adding he would follow his friend Hogan as he crossed over into the television and movie industry.
“Hulk and I got out of WWF and made a movie, made a television series. I did all the stunt work and doubling him.”
In his prime, Beefcake’s bread and butter was finishing his opponent with his patented sleeper hold, rendering them unconscious so he could bring his scissors and razor to the ring to render them hairless following their loss. So popular did the gimmick become that there would later become hair vs. hair matches, in which the loser agreed to have his hair cut in defeat. Beefcake’s cuttin’ and struttin’ was as popular as anything in wrestling in his heyday.
Looking at the business today, Beefcake takes issue with how those who helped build the current empire are rarely if ever called upon. When Leslie broke in, you learned the business from those who came before you.
“I attribute (my success and knowledge of the business) to years of experience,” he said, and to “wrestling and working in the ring with veterans like Ivan Koloff, Mr. Wrestling II, Stan The Man Stasiak, who I spent time with as a young wrestler and who mentored me and helped me. Even Curt Hennig’s father, Larry (The Ax) Hennig, guys like that who when I was coming up, you had veterans with a vast knowledge of our business who would mentor younger guys. That’s sorely lacking now.
“Now they say, ‘Oh, you’re too old,’ and they’re not utilizing a lot of the guys who have real experience in a role of helping the young guys. Why I don’t know. They have guys doing the schools and doing this and that, but none of them were really ever top guys. You can have a guy teaching wrestling all day and all night, but if they don’t learn psychology from somebody who knows psychology, it’s useless. It’s a shame. Greg Valentine, myself, there’s a lot of guys who could lend their knowledge of the business and who are sitting at home. Most of us, we’re half broke. We’re all living month by month,” Leslie said, criticizing the current legends contracts handed out to former stars. “It’s a joke. Guys should be getting $100,000, not $10,000 or $5,000 or $2,000 for the time and the dues we paid, putting our asses out there and bleeding for these people. It’s a shame. They don’t repay your loyalty when it gets down to it.”
Leslie also feels the rigours of working as they did to help the company grow played a role in the struggles of so many former stars, both living and dead.
“So many of my friends are all gone,” he said, the conversation turning very serious. “Curt Hennig, Rick Rude… guys who were not victims of failure, but victims of success. A lot of guys fell to drugs and alcohol. Jake (Roberts) was right there with one foot in the grave at one point. I never thought he’d make it this long, but it seems like he got himself straightened out finally and now he’s doing better. Most of the guys from our era are all crippled or their bodies just can’t do it anymore. I’m one of the lucky ones. At least I can still go out on the road, and go to the gym four or five days a week and can still pull off a wrestling match match. There’s not too many of us left.”
For his part, Leslie believes he’s still alive and well because he took care of himself, then and now.
“I’ve trained my whole life,” he said. “I was smart in the way that I worked. I didn’t do a lot of the high-risk stuff, with jumping off the top ropes to these concrete floors and smashing through tables and all this gaga. I worked smarter, not harder. My body’s not all beat up,” he said, referencing Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan and Jim Duggan as examples of guys from his era who have gone through a lot of surgeries and health scares from years of working in the business.
“My accident, it’s a miracle I survived and it’s a miracle that I had no permanent brain damage or neurological damage,” Leslie said. “I could have been in a wheelchair and they could have been watering me like a tulip for the rest of my life. God smiled down on me about three or four times in that thing. I was blind. It didn’t look too good for me and somehow I ended up walking away from that. It took a few years to recover. It took five years for the swelling to go out of my head.”
Despite his strong feelings about the treatment of former stars, Leslie said he holds no personal grudges against WWE and remains thankful to WWE Chairman Vince McMahon for the opportunity he got.
“I’m absolutely grateful for my career,” he said. “I have nothing bad to say about Vince. I’m definitely grateful. It is a shame certain things are the way they are, but it’s not a perfect world. I’m definitely grateful to Vince McMahon and his family for giving me the tryout and then even bringing me back after my accident.”
All things considered, Leslie said, life is good.
“I’m recently divorced and I got married again. I have a great wife, her name is Melissa. I’m enjoying my life here in Florida, going to gym, living in the sun. It would be nice to have a million bucks in the bank and never have to worry about those things, but that’s not the way it is and I still put my wrestling boots on once in a while and I bring out the scissors and go to work. I do conventions. I still do a lot of fundraisers, charity work for the Cancer Society and all kinds of different Wounded Warrior projects. I try to give back to the community. I speak to kids in schools. I’m still pretty active and doing a lot of things and trying to help in our community and help people, maybe inspire people to go out and get whatever they want in their life because I’m a great example of that.”
Leslie also remains hopeful that he’ll one day join the ranks of his immortalized brothers an sisters in the WWE Hall of Fame, a place he also believes should be reserved for those who worked directly in the business.
“I think there are definitely some more guys who should be in there,” he said. “I’m disappointed to see how it’s being watered down with these entertainers and politicians or what have you, being put in before really dedicated, lifelong wrestlers. Pete Rose is a nice guy, don’t get me wrong. I like Pete. I played baseball from the time I can remember. I was a big baseball fan. But Pete Rose in the hall of fame before the Macho Man?”
Leslie hopes he and others from his era get the call sooner than later.
“I haven’t made it yet, but I’m still hopeful that they’ll consider me and I’ll get my chance.”
For the time being, Leslie enjoys working a part-time schedule that still allows him to travel and climb inside a wrestling ring now and again. That opportunity comes May 29 and 30 in eastern Ontario.
“I enjoy getting out, going on the road. I don’t really go out but a couple of times a month, mostly exhibition stuff. I’m pretty much retired. But I enjoy it. I always enjoyed getting out to meet the fans and just being around the wrestling business. I’m going on 39 years and it’s been my whole life. Wrestling’s been my life since I was a teenager. I don’t really know much of anything else. It’s all I know.”
Great North Wrestling
What: GNW holds two shows, May 29 at the Smiths Falls Memorial Centre, 8 p.m. and May 30th at Earl Armstrong Arena in Ottawa, 7:30 p.m.
Who: Card features legendary Brutus (The Barber) Beefcake, Canadian champ Hannibal, The Hart Throbs and more.
Tickets: $15 in advance at www.ticketweb.ca or $20 at the door.