“It's a dog eat dog world!” — Mad Dog Vachon

He growled. He barked. He even bit.

And, aptly enough, they called him the Mad Dog.

Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, one of the greatest heels in the history of professional wrestling, passed away Thursday morning at the age of 84. He died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Omaha, Neb.

Peaceful, though, would not be an adequate word to describe the colorful career of the 1948 Olympian who completely transformed his persona from an accomplished amateur standout to a brawling, tough-talking mat villain of the highest order.

“He was truly a mad dog in the ring and in his character,” said longtime friend Jim Raschke, who credits Vachon with helping him create his own Baron Von Raschke alter ego more than four decades ago. “He was a sweetheart outside the ring, but you wouldn't want to cross him because he was a really, really tough guy. He was a good friend, and I'm sure going to miss him.”

The Montreal native began his wrestling career as an amateur, representing Canada in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 1948 Olympic Games in London at the age of 18, competing as a middleweight and finishing seventh. He followed it with a gold medal at the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland, New Zealand, before working as a bouncer in Montreal, where he gained the reputation of being the toughest man in town despite his relatively small stature at five-foot-eight.

His entree into the pro ranks was rather uneventful. A decade of working the various territories helped him hone his character, which gradually morphed from a clean-cut, ex-amateur star into a vicious rulebreaker who got heat by using foreign objects and feared maneuvers like the piledriver to finish off his foes.

Vachon earned his nickname in 1962 in Portland, Ore., when he appeared to go berserk as he waited for his opponent to arrive and tossed him out of the ring when he showed up, along with a referee and a ringside police officer.

“You just looked like a mad dog out there,” promoter Don Owen told Vachon after the match. The name stuck. From that point on, Vachon was no longer Maurice Vachon, the French-Canadian from Montreal, but rather Mad Dog Vachon, the wildman from Algeria.

Filing his fingernails until they were razor sharp, Vachon bit, clawed and stomped his way through the wrestling landscape.

By the mid-1960s, the small but fearsome Vachon had established a solid reputation as a menacing, bloodthirsty brawler who posed the main threat to American Wrestling Association kingpin Verne Gagne (another ex-Olympian who recruited Vachon) and perennial favorite The Crusher (Reggie Lisowski). Vachon's wild and unpredictable style, along with his inimitable interviews, made him one of the hottest heels in the business.

Vachon, who brought in some of the biggest box offices the Minneapolis-based territory had ever seen, held the AWA world title on five occasions as well as a number of regional championships.

With his brother Paul “The Butcher” Vachon, Mad Dog collected a share of the AWA world tag-team title in 1969, engaging in a bloody series of matches with The Crusher and The Bruiser and holding the belts for two years.

“He drew a ton of money and had a great mind for the business,” says Raschke. “He was a terrific performer, a good guy and quite a character.”

Vachon was so effective in his role that one of his fans (she called him “violent and scary”) would eventually become his bride. As the story goes, Mad Dog accidentally hit the future Mrs. Vachon with a foreign object he had tossed into the crowd.

She was 30 and he was 49. The two immediately locked eyes, and it was love at first sight.

Mad Dog and The Baron

“He started out as a pretty handsome-looking guy,” Raschke says of Vachon, who initially sported dark hair and wore a simple jacket and trunks to the ring.

But when he hid his Olympic credentials, shaved his head, grew a black-as-coal beard and became the snarling, gap-toothed “Mad Dog” instead of Maurice, Vachon began his journey to pro wrestling immortality.

Raschke says his career turned around as well the day he met “The Dog.”

“He was the one who took me on the road to really learn the business. He made me his partner after a short time. He discovered me and he taught me the ins and outs of the business. He even gave me my character.”

“You'd make a good German,” Vachon growled to the then Jim Raschke, a Big Eight champion out of the University of Nebraska who was still green in the pro ranks.

Raschke, of course, was of German descent. But he'd later learn that Vachon was suggesting that he take it a step further.

“I had never met him, and I really didn't know that much about him,” says Raschke. “He didn't say another word to me, went in and did his thing, and did his interview.”

Vachon, though, would tell Raschke the same thing every time their paths would cross.

While Vachon, a main-eventer, delivered intense, money-drawing interviews, the timid and unimposing Raschke struggled to get the words out.

Raschke eventually formed a connection with Vachon, who asked him to join him in Montreal as his partner.

Both had Olympic backgrounds. “We kind of clicked,” says Raschke. “He took me under his wing.”

Raschke shaved what little hair he had left, and with his new bride, loaded up their small Mustang and headed for Montreal.

It's where Baron Von Raschke — another one of pro wrestling's greatest characters — would be born.

Before his first match in the new territory, Raschke was sent out to do an interview along with Vachon.

“Mad Dog was over like crazy. He was a French-Canadian, but they hated him more than anybody. He was hot, and I was going to be his partner. I automatically got that kind of heat.”

When Vachon finished his promo, the announcer turned the mic over to Raschke, who was now known as “The Baron.”

With the new name came the German accent and an interview style where he occasionally would actually sprinkle in at least a few German words.

The hulking, bald Raschke delivered his spiel — one full of anger and vitriol that would incite the fans — threatening to destroy anyone who got in his way.

It was an amazing transformation. The Baron became Jim Raschke's alter ego. His new persona unleashed a side of his personality that the withdrawn and introverted Raschke had never seen before. His portrayal of an evil German madman would make him one of pro wrestling's top heels of that era.

“He (Vachon) was a good mentor as well as a friend. He taught me everything I needed to know about being not liked in the business,” says Raschke.

Hated to beloved

One of 13 children of a Montreal police officer, including his brother Paul (stepfather of the late Luna Vachon) and his late wrestling sister Vivian Vachon, Mad Dog became a fan favorite during his latter years in the business.

His 36-year career came to an end in his native Montreal on Oct. 13, 1986. Vachon had joined the exodus of a number of AWA performers to the rival World Wrestling Federation two years earlier, but his stay with the organization would prove to be short-lived.

A year later, Vachon was the victim of a hit-and-run while jogging down a road in Des Moines, Iowa, and doctors were forced to amputate his right leg below the knee. He later lost the use of his other leg due to diabetes. He retired to Omaha where he ran a gym and lived a quiet life with wife Kathie.

With her help, Vachon continued to make appearances at various reunions and conventions around the country. As much as he was hated during the first quarter-century of his wrestling career, he was just as beloved for the remainder of his life, reaching an iconic level in his native Canada where Mad Dog Vachon would become a household name.

Vachon, who was inducted into the Quebec Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, was hired to hawk beer and chocolate bars, wrote a biography and even recorded a rap album in French.

His passing drew a comment from, among other notables, Canada's Prime Minister. “My deepest condolences to the family of Maurice 'Mad Dog' Vachon, a Canadian wrestling legend,” Stephen Harper tweeted.

In 1996, the 66-year-old Vachon appeared at a WWE pay-per-view event where his prosthesis was pulled off and used as a weapon by Diesel (Kevin Nash) in his match against Shawn Michaels. He was inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004 and WWE's Hall of Fame six years later.

“It's not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, but the size of the fight in the dog in the fight that matters,” Vachon would quip as he spoke to various amputee groups over the years.

Fellow French-Canadian and Montreal native Rene Goulet remembered Vachon as one of the toughest — pound for pound — performers in the business.

“He was a tough son-of-a-gun. For someone 5-8, he was one of the toughest guys you could find. He wouldn't back up for anybody.”

But Vachon also was a very caring and compassionate individual who helped Goulet get his first break in the business 50 years ago.

“He was a good guy who helped a lot of people, including me,” says Goulet. “When I first started out in the business, I didn't know what to do. I couldn't speak a word of English.”

After a match in Montreal, says Goulet, Vachon asked him about possibly working across the border.

“I told Maurice I didn't know anyone,” says Goulet.

Vachon immediately booked Goulet with Minneapolis matchmaker Wally Karbo, and Goulet went on to enjoy a long and successful run in the AWA.

“He helped a lot of guys in the business,” says Goulet. “Look what he did for Jim Raschke.”

Raschke recalls the many times the two would meet for breakfast.

“Do you want toast with those eggs?”waitresses would ask Vachon.

“Yes ... and burn it!” the quirky Frenchman would routinely reply in his gravelly growl.

It was that same voice that years earlier had sent chills down the spines of thousands of wrestling fans who believed every terrorizing word that came out of the mouth of one of wrestling's greatest bad guys.

Little did many know, however, that the Mad Dog, whose bark had become worse than his bite, was a gourmet and bon vivant, and at one time even served as a food and restaurant critic for a Quebec City television station.

“I worked my entire career to be hated and still the fans love me. I must've done something wrong,” Vachon would later joke.

“He was hilarious and a good guy to be around. He was the best. He truly was,” says Raschke, who, like the Mad Dog, would eventually shed the villain tag and become a fan favorite.

Vachon, who passed away in his sleep, had suffered from several health problems over the years, including memory issues.

“If it weren't for that accident, Maurice would have probably lived to be more than 100 years old,” says Goulet.

Raschke laments the fact that there aren't many legends left from the glory days of wrestling.

“He was a real character ... an original. There'll never be another 'Mad Dog.'”

Old School Wrestling

Old School Championship Wrestling will present its annual “Lord of the Rings” tournament featuring all of the group's champions on Dec. 1 at the Hanahan Rec Center.

Also on the bill will be TNA's Gunner going up against Brady Pierce.

Bell time is 5 p.m. Doors open at 4:30.

Adult admission (cash at the door) is $10; kids 12 and under $5. Half-price admission will be extended to each person who brings a new, unwrapped toy to donate to Toys for Tots.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.