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July 12, 2014

DODD: A gentle giant

“Professional wrestling is the only legitimate sport in America. It’s the only sport on which you cannot get a betting line in Vegas.” — Anonymous

Mike Doggendorf had accepted a part-time position to act as studio security for locally televised studio matches. He was to keep Randy “Macho Man” Savage safe from the often over exuberant fans, like the one which had recently slashed the wrestler’s forearm with a knife during the frenzy of a match.

A couple of months into the assignment, Savage offered Doggendorf a chance to join his professional wrestling troupe.

“He taught me about the business and showed me a couple of moves and that night I wrestled Randy’s dad, Angelo Poffo, in Maysville, Ky. I lost.”

It was in 1979 and he was to be named the ICW Rookie of the Year in 1980, which led to a 20-year run as a professional wrestler.

The schedule could be grueling physically, with an average of anywhere from seven to 10 matches a week with paydays from $200 to $300 per match and up to $2,000 to $3,000 per performance. Nonstop travel included small out-of-the-way venues and larger shows, such as those held every Tuesday night for years at Louisville Gardens.

There were weekly television studio matches many local fans remember being shown every Saturday morning. Doggendorf stayed with Savage’s company until Randy left for the WWF and Vince McMahon. He then spent some time wrestling for the WCW, which was owned by Ted Turner Productions. His high profile matches were with some of the sport’s biggest names, such as Sting, Lex Lugar, Dutch Mantell, Tojo Yamamoto and Jerry “The King” Lawler.

Pain and injury were simply part of a professional wrestler’s life. On one occasion during a routine over-the-ropes-and-to-the-floor maneuver, his ankle stuck in some artificial flooring. His knee was totally destroyed. When a surgeon tried to determine the total damage, at one point he was able to touch Doggendorf’s foot to his shoulder with no resistance.

The surgeon at first informed his mother that he wanted to amputate the leg due to the extent of the damage. After 13 hours of surgery, the leg was saved. Doggendorf spent six months on crutches and six more using a cane before he resumed working out. Savage gave him work as a “manager” for several wrestlers during his recuperation period. Incredibly, after 18 months, Doggendorf resumed wrestling and spent another 14 years in the ring.

On one particularly memorable overseas trip, he was to fly on a final leg of the flight from Hamburg, Germany to Durban, South Africa. His originating flight from Lexington to New York was canceled. The Hamburg to Durban flight crashed in the ocean, killing all aboard.

When Doggendorf arrived on his later flight in South Africa, he called his mom to tell her he had landed. It was the second shocking news she received, as she had not known of his canceled flight and had mourned what she thought was the death of her son.

The South African trip found Doggendorf wrestling before a crowd estimated at 100,000. In Dubai, he wrestled in front of one of the world’s wealthiest oil sheiks. A tour he spent in Japan illustrated one of the truisms of professional wrestling and involves the old debate of the sport being “fake.” I preferred to describe it as scripted, while Doggendorf seemed to bristle a bit at that terminology saying to me, “You want me to reveal wrestling’s secrets?”

Doggendorf was to face off against a big name Japanese star named “BaBa,” who stood 7 feet 4 inches and weighed 375 pounds. The Japanese giant was supposed to win the match being the star draw for the tour. During the match, Doggendorf picked him up ramming him into the corner post, breaking three ribs on his opponent, which put him out of action. The entire American team was the target of a lot of animosity from the Japanese wrestlers during the rest of his Japanese stay.

Doggendorf stated he never took a lot of pharmaceuticals for pain, but steroid use was very common among the competitors. It was not just for the size and strength, but allowed professional athletes’ injuries to heal much quicker and destroyed or damaged body parts to regenerate faster.

“I personally don’t have a problem with any professional athlete using steroids if it’s how he makes a living,” he said.

Prior to a law being passed in 1990 placing steroids under the category of a controlled substance, their purchase and use was not illegal in any form.

During his final match at Louisville Gardens in 1999, Doggendorf was in a tag-team match and he was standing on the ropes when his partner lifted him up in the air, and during a failed move Doggendorf went airborne and landed uncontrollably on his head and neck. It was his worst concussion ever, and left him in a mental fog for several weeks. He and his then wife decided he would not return to the ring.

Doggendorf ran several health clubs during his wrestling days and owned a very popular gym in Louisville called Mike Doggendorf’s Southside Barbell Club. Through several fortuitous events not of his own fault, he eventually lost his business and a large part of his retirement dream.

Doggendorf also endured three failed marriages to which he only partially blames the wrestling. He laughs when he explains some bad judgment such as “my stripper wife.” He also has learned during his life that, “Marriage is not my best sport.”

I have known Mike Doggendorf for more than two years. The outrageous wrestling caricature is nothing like the soft-spoken big man with a very welcoming smile and genteel nature. I have recruited him often on a “mission of mercy,” where he accompanies me to deliver an unfortunate soul to a voluntary rehab facility, a halfway house or a homeless shelter.

I can assure you he has an overabundance of caring compassion, an understanding nature, and a very big heart to match his physical stature. The former bad boy of wrestling is in reality just a gentle giant.

— Lindon Dodd is a freelance writer who can be reached at lindon.dodd@hotmail.com

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