Blood, sweat and fears

Wrestling legend Abdullah the Butcher may cut himself, but he claims he didn’t give rival Devon Nicholson hepatitis C

Blood, sweat and fears

Darren Brown/QMI; Courtesy of Devon Nicholson

His large bald head is covered with scars. The deep vertical grooves on top were self-inflicted—or at least, consensual, by the sure, drive-my-head-into-the-ring-post standards of his profession. Others testify to the passions Larry Shreve, a.k.a. Abdullah the Butcher, a.k.a. the Madman from the Sudan, a.k.a. Kuroi Jujutsushi (the Black Wizard), was able to arouse outside the squared circle. Like the pink line linking his temple to his left ear, courtesy of a folding metal chair thrown by a fan of one of his opponents. Just don’t ask to see where the little old lady once stabbed the blubbery 400-lb. behemoth with a hatpin.

In a career that has stretched 50 years, the Windsor, Ont., native became a superstar in professional wrestling, frightening crowds from Truro to Tokyo with his predictably unpredictable behaviour. Wild-eyed and gibbering in pidgin English, he’d eat paper, bite the heads off of snakes and chickens, and stab opponents with his trademark fork. But mostly Abdullah—Abby to his friends—would bleed. Copious amounts of what wrestlers call “the juice,” set free by surreptitious razor nicks to his head. By the end of a match, Shreve was almost guaranteed to be a gory mess, slick and glistening under the TV lights. So too his grappling partners. Now 70, he can’t really remember the first occasion—or even guess how many times—he cut himself for an audience. He just knows his entire career was based upon such mutilations. “I did it because I wanted to draw people. To give them a good match,” he says from his Atlanta home. “Violence: that’s what they want.”

Lately, however, blood has come to represent something else to the Butcher—an all-too-real threat to his finances and faux-sporting legacy. This past spring, just before his induction to the WWE Hall of Fame, an Ottawa wrestler alleged that he contracted hepatitis C during a 2007 match against Abdullah. Devon Nicholson, who had been building a following as another madman, “Hannibal,” claimed Shreve had cut him without permission, transmitting the disease via a razor blade he had already used on himself. In June, Nicholson filed a $6.5-million negligence suit in Ontario Superior Court, saying the illness cost him a shot at the World Wrestling Entertainment big time, and prematurely ended his career. This past week, Shreve’s Ontario lawyer filed a defence denying the claims and countering that Nicholson, who staged the bouts, not only consented to his injuries, but is himself responsible for the illness through his own negligence.

Over the phone, professional wrestling’s most-feared villain can still bring the bluster. The accusations are all lies, he says; wrestling is a jealous business. People know that he has been smart with his money, and now owns a little restaurant in Atlanta—Abdullah the Butcher’s House of Ribs and Chinese Food (plastic cutlery only). If there is hep C in his body, Nicholson gave it to him. (Over the past months, he has told other reporters that he would send blood tests to Ottawa to prove he doesn’t have the disease. They have yet to materialize.) And he was just following orders. “Devon’s the promoter. He’s the one who told me what to do,” Shreve says. “I’m a professional. If somebody did not want to do nothing, then I did not do nothing to them.”

Devon Nicholson has been obsessed with pro wrestling for as long as he can remember. By the age of six, he was putting on shows in the family backyard in Orleans, Ont., charging neighbourhood kids 25 cents admission. When his hero “Macho Man” Randy Savage started feuding with Hulk Hogan, he used to pray every night for their tag-team partnership to be restored.

He took up grappling in high school and excelled, once going through an entire season without having a point scored against him. He won two Ontario titles, and was the 2001 junior national champion. He received scholarship offers from two universities and an invitation to join Canada’s national team. But he turned them all down to follow his dream of becoming a pro. “I trained with [Olympic gold medal winner] Daniel Igali,” says Nicholson. “He has no money, is driving a beat-up car, and nobody really knows who he is. No thanks.”

At 19, he moved to Calgary and started training at the Hart family’s basement “dungeon,” debuting as a bit player for Stampede Wrestling in 2001, working the small-town circuit. “I was lucky if I was getting $20 a match, and that included driving four hours in a snowstorm, setting up the ring, and getting my ass kicked.” When he fought Abdullah in Cochrane, Alta., in 2006, it was his first-ever match against a “name,” and he was star-struck. “For me, it was like meeting Wayne Gretzky,” says Nicholson. The old pro became his mentor, and they ended up squaring off nine times over the next three years—spilling blood all but once. While on the road, Nicholson would carry the increasingly decrepit Shreve’s bags, fetch him milk and even lace up his boots.

The apprenticeship was also frequently painful. Sitting in an Ottawa restaurant, Nicholson points to the ugly pink lump on his forehead, where Shreve smashed him with a glass coffee pot, opening up a gash that took 52 stitches to close. The damage was so severe that local cops showed up in the dressing room looking to press charges, but were ultimately convinced it was part of the show. It wasn’t until Shreve left town that Nicholson, who was also acting as promoter, realized he’d taken the carafe from his hotel room, leaving behind an unpaid $40 charge.

The stunts got him noticed, however. In the spring of 2009, Nicholson was invited to a WWE tryout camp. Impressed with his shtick and size—six foot four, 285 lb.—they soon offered him a three-year contract, pending a physical. Shreve was one of the first people he phoned with the news. It seemed Nicholson’s childhood fantasies were finally coming true, until the blood tests came back positive for hep C. The wrestling company rescinded its offer.

Nicholson spent months trying to figure out where he might have contracted the disease, ultimately deciding it was during a match with the Butcher. Shreve has long had a reputation for cutting others without their permission, Nicholson claims. “He’s basically been getting away with injuring people for real in a fake sport since the 1960s.”

The diagnosis left the Ottawa wrestler disconsolate. At just 28, his career is over. He has trouble sleeping, suffers headaches, and is being treated for depression and anxiety. He has even considered suicide. These days, “Hannibal” is working part-time at a health club. “I see my buddies living my dream and I’m filling water bottles and training overweight people,” he says, as tears fill his eyes. “All I ever wanted to do was be in the WWE.”

Judging by the moans that float over the phone line when Shreve puts down the receiver to go look for a piece of paper, the Butcher’s wrestling days are over too. The arthritis in his hip is so bad that he now uses a walker, and the pain so severe he sometimes wakes up screaming at night. Years of abuse in the ring, and his considerable bulk—the term “moobs” hardly does justice to the stingray-sized flaps of flesh dangling from his shoulders—are to blame. He’s in line for a hip replacement, but not until he drops at least 100 lb. The wild man reputation he nurtured for five decades now haunts him, making it all too easy to believe he might have crossed some lines in the ring. But Shreve protests that it was all a show. “I never ate a snake in my life. I never ate a light bulb. Everything is a gimmick.” Friends who have known him since he was an ambitious teen, running his own janitorial service and teaching karate in Windsor, will vouch for his honesty. So will the fans. “The people know who Abdullah the Butcher is. I have respect,” he says. “I have never been in jail. I never took drugs. I’ve helped wrestlers and the homeless. Nobody can say nothing about me.” The truth, he says, will eventually all come out in court.

Until then, it’s just another bloody mess.

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