Public Health July/August 2012

Wrestlemaniac

A close encounter with the sport’s most authentic madman
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.

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Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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