Only in America

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From a Mr. U.S.A. title, to wrestling superstar, to sleeping in Kennedy Park, Tony Atlas has run life’s gamut.

LEWISTON – Sports, entertainment, politics and even your neighborhood are heavily populated with people whose life story started at rock bottom.

Tony Atlas – champion bodybuilder and professional wrestler, certified personal trainer and adopted Mainer – made the climb twice.

“This is America. You can go all the way down to nothing and come all the way back,” Atlas said. “I started down, went up, went down again and back up again. You do have to work harder the second time around.”

Last month, Atlas accepted overdue adulation for the sacrifices made and successes enjoyed in that first chapter. The 52-year-old grandfather of five joined legends Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Sgt. Slaughter in the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.

As anyone who has met the fun-loving but old-school, outspoken Atlas probably suspects, he gave promoter Vince McMahon and the present performers in his carnival an earful in Chicago.

“They probably won’t show much of my speech on TV,” Atlas said.

Atlas is openly critical of the WWE’s evolution since his heyday, when it was known as the World Wrestling Federation.

Although pro wrestling has always been equal parts acting and athleticism, there was more emphasis on the “competition” and on conventional good-versus-evil story lines when Atlas and partner Rocky Johnson (father of current wrestling superstar, The Rock) wore the tag team championship belts in 1983.

“You can watch wrestling and see where the world is at,” said Atlas. “In my day, you had the good guys and the bad guys. People loved the good guys and hated the bad guys. Today, people love the bad guys and hate the good guys. And wrestling is setting women back a thousand years.”

Another paradigm shift in pro wrestling came when the WWE emerged as a virtual monopoly, put smaller promotions out of business and abandoned some of the stars that put it on the map. Atlas, one of those pioneers, nearly became a casualty of the game.

Near-death experience

Prominent wrestlers Big John Studd, Rick Rude, Curt Hennig, Eddie Guerrero, Owen Hart, Crash Holly and Road Warrior Hawk all have died in the last dozen years. Most were in their late 30s or early 40s. Not one made it to 50.

Atlas nearly preceded them in death, and he carries a four-inch scar halfway between his left hand and elbow to prove it.

“Lucky for me, I didn’t know which way to cut,” Atlas said of his suicide attempt approximately 16 years ago. He was unemployed and penniless after losing what remained of his assets in a divorce settlement.

Atlas was living on the streets of Lewiston, where he relocated in the late 1980s while working for New England promoter Mario Savoldi of International Championship Wrestling. Opportunities had stopped knocking for the forgotten grappler. Atlas says he slept in Kennedy Park when the weather allowed and in an abandoned building he calls “a crack house” when it didn’t. That tenement at 40 Knox St. has since been demolished.

A German-born woman named Monika heard of Atlas and went to check on him in the park one January day.

“She invited me to her house. She was afraid I would freeze to death,” Atlas said.

They became a couple and married later that year. At the same time, Atlas enjoyed a second brief stint in the WWE.

Reinventing himself

In 1993, Atlas returned to Lewiston for good and began planning his life after the so-called squared circle. While trying his hand as a local wrestling promoter, he became certified as a personal trainer. Atlas, whose bodybuilding credentials included the coveted Mr. USA title, taught his trade at several area gyms before settling at Fitness World.

“I have an apartment, a car, and you can see I don’t miss many meals. I have everything I need. That means I’m rich,” Atlas said.

Atlas’ childhood contributed to his perspective. Born Anthony White in Clifton Forge, Va., Atlas was one of nine children raised by a single mother and grandmother.

His mom worked two jobs. At the end of her final shift as a cook each night, she was allowed to take leftovers home to the children.

“We lived in what they called a slave shack,’ because it was left over from the days of slavery. It had dirt floors. We would stuff mud into the holes in the wall to drive out the cold during the winter,” Atlas recalled.

Much like the Mr. USA persona he carried into the ring, Atlas is proudly patriotic. He also is proactive in addressing his concerns about wrestling.

Atlas founded his own promotion, Atlas Championship Wrestling, and is planning its next event in June. The wrestling is throwback fare, minus the salty language and partial nudity.

The showman never lost his passion for the half-sport, half-sideshow that made him a global celebrity before steering him to hell and back.

“Wrestling was a paid trip around the world, and (it has made me) very proud to be an American,” Atlas said. “What would have happened to Tony Atlas if he was born in Africa? If I can make it, anybody can make it. And if anybody doesn’t make it in this country, it’s because they don’t want to make it.”

koakes@sunjournal.com

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