• Photo slideshow: Maurice "Mad Dog Vachon, 1929-2013.
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Wherever he traveled as a snarling pro wrestling villain, Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon drew raucous boos.
Away from the ring, he could be sweet and kind. But in front of a crowd, he drew hisses and even some thrown objects.
Ah, what a showman.
The bald but bearded French-Canadian died Thursday at his home in Omaha. He was 84.
My favorite Mad Dog story occurred years after he retired from a well-traveled career of some 13,000 matches.
In real life, he had lost the lower half of his right leg after he was struck by a car. In 1996, he sat at ringside at the Omaha Civic Auditorium before a packed house of 9,563 and a nationally televised pay-per-view audience.
The TV announcer noted his presence, mentioned his accident and said it was great to see him.
Mad Dog, then 66, soon would play one more starring role.
In the main event, a villain named “Diesel” leapt from the ring and headed for Vachon. He dragged Maurice into the aisle, pulled off his artificial leg, returned to the ring and began beating his opponent — with the prosthesis.
It was one of pro wrestling's greatest bits. I called Maurice the next day, told him how awesome it was and said, “I know I shouldn't ask you this, but you were in on that, right?”
“Are you kidding?” he replied in his French accent. “I'm a senior citizen now. I went there to enjoy myself.”
OK, Maurice. Who is pulling whose leg now?
Jim Raschke, the Omaha native who became a star wrestling villain known as “Baron Von Raschke,” chuckled Thursday at the memory of his friend Maurice's last great bit.
Yes, he said, it was all the idea of the Mad Dog.
“He had all the instincts and was one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time,” Raschke said by phone from his home in the Minneapolis area. “He did everything really well and had a great mind for our business. I learned a ton of stuff from him.”
Raschke had been a star amateur at Omaha North High and a Big Eight champion at the University of Nebraska. He made the 1964 U.S. Olympic team but couldn't compete because of an injury.
He became “the Baron” at the suggestion of Vachon, who had wrestled for Canada in the 1948 Olympics and won a gold medal at the 1950 British Empire Games in New Zealand.
As a professional, Vachon often visited Omaha on the wrestling circuit. But it was in Minneapolis where he saw Raschke and shouted, “You'd make a great German!”
In 1967, Vachon asked Raschke to be his tag-team partner, suggesting “Baron” as part of his ring name.
Raschke was shy, and by his own estimation not a good TV interviewee at first. But Maurice helped nice-guy Jim learn to be a hated villain who played off the crowd — and his career lasted for 25 years.
In their later years as wrestlers, both shed the villain tag and became heroes beloved by fans.
“ 'Dog' was just a very nice person,” Jim said. “He liked to talk to people, tell jokes and play cribbage. He was very personable. I loved the guy.”
Jim and his wife, Bonnie, are longtime friends of Maurice and his wife, Kathie. Jim spoke to Maurice by phone two days before he died.
Kathie, from Omaha, was a longtime fan of pro wrestling and recalls booing Mad Dog when he was choking an opponent. She said, “He was violent and scary.”
She first saw Maurice when she was 15, and eventually met him with a couple of her girlfriends. The couple married when she was 30 and he was 49.
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They have lived in Omaha south of 60th and L Streets since 1983, and traveled often to Canada — where he grew up as one of 13 children — and to Hawaii.
He retired from the ring after his final match in his native Montreal on Oct. 13, 1986. The next year, he was struck by a car near Des Moines and part of his leg was amputated.
“The older Maurice got, the more gentle he became,” Kathie said on Thursday. “I think losing his leg made him a better man. He had more understanding and compassion.”
In 2009, Maurice Vachon was inducted into the Quebec Sports Hall of Fame.
About 9 p.m. Wednesday, Kathie said, she told her husband good night. He seemed fatigued.
“I held his face in my hands.” she said, “and told him what a wonderful husband he was and how much I loved him.”
At 4 a.m., she checked on him and he was not breathing.
A funeral, she said, will be held early next week.
After an Omaha match long ago with the popular Verne Gagne, The World-Herald reported that Mad Dog left the ring “with assorted post-bout lumps, surrounded by angry, debris-tossing fans.”
But by the mid-1990s, people in Omaha would stop and shake his hand.
“People are so nice to me,” Maurice told me then. “They say, 'Mad Dog, I used to watch you when I was this high, when I was very young.' I tell them, 'When you were watching me, I was very young, too.' ”
With a tone of sincerity, he proclaimed that he was “shocked” at ringside when his prosthetic leg was pulled off and used as a weapon.
Mad Dog always stayed in character, even in later years when he no longer made fans mad. By then, everyone loved him.
“I was in wrestling 44 years,” he said. “I tried everything to get people to hate me. I failed miserably.”