Public Health July/August 2012

Wrestlemaniac

A close encounter with the sport’s most authentic madman
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Graeme Wood

Wrestling fans know Abdullah the Butcher as the most extreme independent-circuit wrestler, a 400- pound hairless blob of muscle and fat whose presence at a match guarantees gouts of blood from at least one wrestler and possibly both. His weapon of choice is the fork, but he improvises when cornered. In Japan, where Abdullah is a beloved figure who visits retirement homes to cheer up the elderly, two skeptics once spotted him in a hotel lobby and remarked loudly that his shows were fake. Without hesitation, Abdullah shattered a glass against his scalp, then picked out the shards, produced a needle and thread, and stitched himself up.

Dubbed “wrestling’s Methuselah” by The New York Times, Abdullah has fought for the past 50 years as “the Madman from the Sudan,” a billing his opponents say is at least half true. Born Larry Shreve in Windsor, Ontario, 71 years ago, he has never visited the Sudan. But some of his wrestling colleagues—they would say victims—claim his madness is genuine, and needs to be stopped. When the WWE Hall of Fame inducted Abdullah last year, Hulk Hogan and “Superstar” Billy Graham, two venerable masters of the mat, objected on the grounds that Abdullah had supposedly cut opponents without their permission, drawing blood for the audience’s entertainment. “Abdullah really is obsessed with cutting people,” says Devon Nicholson, 29, a 265-pound fellow Canadian who wrestled Abdullah and is now suing him for alleged injury in the ring. (The suit is still in its early stages; Abdullah denies the charges.) “He is like a monster movie come to life.”

Nicholson, known to wrestling fans as Hannibal, wrestled Abdullah the Butcher in 2007 and claims that his opponent cut them both with the same razor. He blames the subsequent commingling of fluids for giving him hepatitis C, a disease that has ruined his pro-wrestling career. (He remains an alternate for Canada’s Greco-Roman Olympic wrestling team.) Graham backs Nicholson’s campaign against Abdullah. “I would love to talk to you about that pile of dung,” he wrote when I e-mailed him. “Abdullah the Butcher is possessed like a demon.” Graham says he has seen Abdullah blade other wrestlers—usually younger ones, like Nicholson, too naive to stop a match and object—until their faces were fountains of blood.

Does Nicholson have a case? Video of one match clearly shows Abdullah flicking at his own head and Nicholson’s until blood flows. Graham and others say that during his fights, Abdullah has used precisely this motion to draw blood with a razor concealed under a thumb bandage. But wrestling is an inherently violent sport. And Gabe Feldman, a sports-law expert at Tulane University, says the law makes it hard for plaintiffs to collect damages for injuries that athletes could reasonably be expected to incur: stepping into a ring with a fork-wielding maniac named Abdullah the Butcher could constitute a kind of liability waiver in itself.

As for hepatitis C, late last year, a number of wrestling Web sites reported that Abdullah had “tested positive,” though Abdullah denies that he has it. (Many wrestlers, including Billy Graham, have the virus. It is a silent legacy of “double-blood” matches, wherein both wrestlers shed blood—or, in wrestling’s carny-inflected lingo, “juice,” “color,” or “claret.”)

Over the years, Abdullah has punctuated encounters with unsuspecting journalists with some claret-shedding. After checking to see whether my shots were current, I asked him for an interview. He agreed, and told me to present myself at Abdullah the Butcher’s House of Ribs and Chinese Food, his restaurant in southwest Atlanta. Its walls feature portraits of Abdullah, rival wrestlers, and assorted luminaries (including Rosa Parks and Jimmy Carter, who once called Abdullah “my favorite wrestler”). From there, I was to follow Abdullah’s driver, Phyllis, as she delivered her boss’s daily dose of medicine and fried food in the restaurant’s hand-painted BBQ-delivery van. After careening through a tasteful, wooded neighborhood at nearly 60 miles an hour, we arrived at Abdullah’s one-story ranch house, and Phyllis ushered me into a pink-walled room where Abdullah was watching a Jerry Lewis movie at high volume.

An incorrigible entrepreneur, Abdullah demanded that I pay him $20 for the car chase and a taste of his food. (Out of politeness, I took a fried shrimp off his plate and drank a ginger ale.) He sat slumped and shirtless in a blue easy chair, his flab pouring over the edges like a gastropod’s. He can barely walk nowadays; half a century of body slams and recreational phlebotomy have left him weakened and in need of a hip replacement. (For their 2007 matches, Nicholson had to hoist Abdullah into the ring. Although Abdullah is not currently able to wrestle, he vows to return.) His left armpit is discolored from a burn sustained when a fellow wrestler spat gasoline on him, and self-slicing has left his scalp rutted with grooves so deep, he can (and does) stick quarters in them.

When I asked him about Nicholson’s hepatitis allegations, he grew impatient. “My blood is clean,” he said testily. I was suddenly grateful that he was stuck in his chair, and that I was just out of reach of his big, bare arms. “How many times has [Nicholson] wrestled other people?,” Abdullah asked. “There are lots of wrestlers who don’t know they have [hepatitis],” he added; the disease could be from any of them. Nevertheless, he insisted that the ritualized self-bloodletting for which he is famous is “real.” You can fake a body-slam or a face-stomping, he pointed out, but you can’t fake bleeding. In his view, this is one of the reasons fans love him.

He told stories merrily, clearly relishing the chance to confirm various extreme rumors. “What I do,” he said matter-of-factly, “is stab people, and eat snakes and chickens onstage.” Finally, he directed me to a briefcase across the room and told me to bring him one of the forks inside. The utensil’s handle was wrapped in dirty athletic tape, and when I got close enough to hand it to him I immediately regretted the decision.

“Come closer,” he said, and I inched near enough to his chair to smell his scorched armpit. “If I stab this in your head, what happens?” he asked, tapping the fork against his brow.

“I’d have four little holes in my head,” I answered uneasily.

“Four deep holes!” he corrected me. “Come here. You’re afraid.” As if hypnotized, I obeyed. He grabbed my neck, pressed the tines hard enough to dimple the skin of my forehead, and ordered me to make a face. I grimaced, just the way Abdullah’s opponents do when they’re headlocked and about to be skewered. Then he raked the fork across my head, past my hairline and over my scalp, hard enough to hurt a little but not to break the skin.

“See?,” Abdullah said. Getting stabbed with a fork was an illusion, he implied. When the audience sees someone poking a horrified man’s face with a fork, they’re ready to believe that the fork is really sinking in, even if it’s just disappearing into his hair. Abdullah said that he had cut his opponents only three times in his career—and then only because they were young wrestlers who didn’t know how to cut themselves and had asked him to do the honors: “I never cut nobody unless they say ‘I don’t know how to do it.’” He then sold me the fork for $10.

That was enough. I left Abdullah’s house and drove back to the rib joint, more curious than hungry. The restaurant had few customers, perhaps because it was decked out with photographs of the owner drenching people with blood. A giant portrait of a young Abdullah, wearing a leisure suit and smoking a cigar, overlooked the register. The sanitation certificate next to it indicated a grade of 97, or A.

Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.
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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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