Duke Durrango calls it a day
Western Canadian veteran set to retire
JASON CLEVETT -- SLAM! Wrestling
|"Dirty" Duke Durrango
One of the best talents in Alberta is hanging up his boots. Whether called Dick Raines or Duke Durrango, Jordan Clarke has earned the respect of fans, promoters and fellow wrestlers during the decade he has been involved with professional wrestling. This weekend begins his farewell with two matches against TNA superstar and SLAM! Wrestling columnist "Hot Shot" Johnny Devine in Calgary and Edmonton.
"I don't know if Devine is supposed to be in town or is coming specifically for these matches. The phone call I got from him was 'I heard you are packing it in and I want to work with you before you're done.' It shocked me, he paid me so much respect that I was almost in tears. We have had a lot of different opinions on things, like how to run shows, train guys or put a match together. Anything in wrestling we have disagreed on at one point or another and have always come through it with the ultimate in respect for each other," Durrango told SLAM! Wrestling. "If he has to be here anyway, great, the fact that he said he wanted to work with me means a lot. He is a guy who could have said he wanted to work Apocalypse for the North American Title or Juggernaut, any guy on the roster and he picked me."
While only 33, Durrango is making the decision to step away from the ring now. As with anything in wrestling one can never say never, but at this point it's time to take a break.
"There are a lot of personal reasons and things going on with my family. It has been a long two years for me personally and then add on top of that three years of booking for PWA and a year of booking for Stampede. I started freestyle wrestling when I was 12, so 20 years of active wrestling has taken its toll and I think I am sort of burnt out. It's nothing other than the fact that at this point I am tired. At the same time I am in a bit of a bout of depression trying to figure out what I want to do, how do I identify myself after being a wrestler for 20 years?"
Durrango has four matches planned to close out his career. Saturday's show for the Prairie Wrestling Alliance will be his finale for the company, while he says farewell to Stampede Wrestling on September 22nd with a bout against his brother Dean. It's a fitting finale to their twenty years in amateur and professional wrestling.
The careers of Duke, Dean and former wrestler Greg Pawluk began in 1996. The three amateur standouts ran classes training Olympic wrestling and had a few future stars under their tutelage.
"We were coaching amateur wrestling at Mount Royal Collage in 1996. We did a lot with Harry Smith , TJ Wilson, Bruce Hart and his kids, even Ted Hart's sister Annie was out there for awhile. We had a pretty good group of guys. Bruce and Ross tried to recruit us into training as pros but it wasn't something we took seriously because we didn't think we were big enough. They sold us on it for a few months and finally got us up to the Dungeon and it was one of those things where we had one workout in the Dungeon, ran the treadmill and they said 'We will see you next weekend?' It wasn't really a thought we just said 'Yeah okay' and it took off from there."
The transition of styles the three adapted to easily.
"It is a big asset when you do legitimately know how to wrestle. Sometimes you are doing things in the ring that don't look plausible to the average fan. If you have a good wrestling background there is a way you can make look it better and like it takes more effort. There is also the tough side of that where amateur guys will go through the motions and not worry about the show aspect. A lot of guys can get caught up in just wrestling because that is all they have ever done. The toughest thing for me was leaving space for my competitor to work, because in amateur wrestling space is your enemy but in pro if you synch of up on someone the match is over. I think I heard Kurt Angle at one time say people shouldn't amateur wrestle first. Far be it for me to disagree with Kurt Angle at his success but I couldn't disagree with that more. The more of a legitimate fighting background that you come from, the easier transition it is to something you are trying to make look like you are fighting."
After eight months of training the trio debuted in separate matches at the annual Rockyford Rodeo. From there it was months of paying dues on the road. In 1998 Stampede Wrestling started touring, hitting every little town in Alberta, western Saskatchewan and a couple of towns in British Columbia before returning to Calgary at the legendary Stampede Pavilion in front of 2,000 fans in April of 1999. Christined Dick Raines, Durrango stole the show in his match with Greg Pawluk.
"Even talking about it I have goosebumps. It is hard to put it into words. Owen [Hart] had given me a medal once when I won the city championships, and I met Stu Hart while wrestling at the Nationals once. Growing up in Calgary, you know about the Hart house. You would go down to the Pavilion on Fridays and watch the shows and watch TV on Saturdays. As much as I wanted to make a living at wrestling, for me it wasn't a big dream to go to the WWE; it was just a matter of making a living at wrestling. To be in the Pavilion where the guys I thought were the best ever had wrestled, in front of a sold out crowd with Ed Whalen calling me an asshole, it was the best match I ever had and one of the biggest thrills of my life. I've torn down the house in a lot of matches with the guys I have been fortunate enough to work with since then but that match is the best as far as overall exposure, how hot the crowd was and who was in attendance. I looked out at the front row and there was Ed, Stu and Tor Kamata sitting together. I have never had another experience like it."
The honeymoon period didn't last as despite a strong start and TV show throughout Western Canada, things began to fall apart behind the scenes. In 2001 several members of the Stampede roster abruptly resigned from the promotion, kicking off the fledgling Western Canadian Extreme Wrestling and the birth of Duke Durrango.
"It had been a long haul and we had really paid a lot of dues. I don't know how to say this without causing trouble, but the truth is after Owen Hart passed away you could see that some of the passion was gone in people in the office. I can appreciate that because there was a big question of whether or not they wanted to go on. You have to give the office the utmost respect because they have given everything, literally, to this business so I don't want to take anything away from them. However we were working on the road and some of us had full-time jobs and were risking our health and our family. When I left I was about 24 shows in arrears. It was at the point where we had lost the TV and were doing the shows at the Ogden Legion with no real plans to move forward. Vince McMahon had just taken the WWE public and a businessman friend of mine thought it would be an easy thing to do. He tried selling me first, it was something I was interested in but I didn't know enough to run a promotion, but if I could get Jason Anderson involved maybe it was something I would look at. We sat down for a meeting to see if it was something we would like to do, and by the time we walked out we had a logo and a name."
It was not an easy decision but one that had to be made. "It was one of those things where the Harts had trained me for free and there was a lot of respect and loyalty. My friend looked me in the eye and said 'Jordy, when was the last time you dined on a healthy diet of loyalty and respect?' He was right, I was 24 shows in the hole and no end in sight to the current situation. So we took a risk and gave it a try and it was successful at first, yes. At the end of the day, was it as successful as it could have been or that I wanted it to be? No. But it was one of the most valuable learning experiences I have had in this business and I wouldn't change it for anything."
As with many promotions, WCEW became a case of too many people having opinions and the company being without a solid direction. With bookers having falling outs and leaving and promoters not wanting to invest in promoting the shows, soon WCEW was dead. For the first time Jordan Clarke was a man without a wrestling promotion, and he took a year off.
"There was a lot going on at that point personally and professionally. I had started a landscaping company and needed to focus there. I had received a call for work in Japan that I thought was going to lead to something and turned into nothing and that really disheartened me. I thought it was best to step back. When you retire you think 'This isn't really it.' What brought me back was I missed the locker room and the boys. I think I had matured a bit from my time in WCEW and being on my own for a year. My focus changed in that year and I was making money and had a good job so I didn't need to break my back to pay the bills. I thought about coming back to wrestle for a hobby. I went and talked to the Harts and said 'Let's let bygones be bygones, it's all water under the bridge so let's have some fun.'"
Durrango returned on May 2, 2003 for Stu Hart's 88th Birthday Tribute, a show that drew nearly 800 fans and featured Sabu and A.J. Styles in the main event matches. Durrango wrestled in a six-man tag teaming with Johnny Devine and Randy Myers against Rod Rage, Kwik Kick Kirk and The Turtleboy.
"It was one of those big events, especially to honor a guy like Stu, that are always fantastic. I was in a six-man tag, it wasn't the greatest match in the world but the atmosphere made it a hell of a show. Anytime Stu was around, the boys seemed to crank it up an extra notch for him."
The promotion could not capitalize on the momentum and at times once again seemed like a ship without a sail. Still, the wrestlers continued to work hard and everything for another two years until an incident that seemingly put the nail in the coffin of the Hart-run promotion and caused Durrango to vacate the British Commonwealth title and walk away for a second time.
"There were competing shows between Stampede Wrestling and PWA on the same night. A compromise could have been arranged where each roster had enough guys to run a decent show. Instead nothing was said until the week before the PWA show, when I was away from the locker room on vacation. Some of the guys were cornered and told if they went to Edmonton and did the PWA show their standing in the business could be affected. If you say that to me, you know what the answer is going to be. You say that to some of these younger guys who are just breaking in and you will get a totally different response. I felt that Bruce had tried to bully and take advantage of the young guys when there was no one there to stand up. I appreciate loyalty as much as anyone but at the same time this is independent wrestling. When I felt that they were trying to screw with guys or threatening guys it left a bad taste in my mouth. I said what I had to say about it and nobody ever replied. We went our separate ways and agree to disagree. It is veiled threats and I have been working long enough to know that nothing will happen. As long as anyone thinks they can use you for something in the wrestling industry the door is never closed. That said, without the Harts I wouldn't be in wrestling so I have nothing but respect for them. There are certain members I just care not to do business with."
Shortly thereafter Stampede was closed by the Harts. Long-time promoter Bill Bell took over and brought Durrango back to book his shows. Having worked in WCEW and PWA as their booker, Durrango was ready for the task and shared his thoughts on how to book.
"For me to say I was a successful booker, we would have to be pulling 400-500 people in per show, so I wouldn't call myself that. What I think makes a successful booker is being realistic about the talent he has. People get into the role and they like a guy because he works hard -- puts up posters, sets up the ring, comes to training and busts his ass, but the kid is the drizzling shits. Because the booker likes him they push him and he doesn't have the talent to be where they are putting him and falls flat on his face. There are not a lot of bookers who are realistic about guys that can carry main event matches. When a guy gets in their ear because he wants to be the next champion, you have to be realistic about who will be the guy who will sell the most t-shirts. There are people who get clouded judgment because of who their friends are but don't listen to how the fans react. It is a really fine line."
Durrango also doesn't watch wrestling so it doesn't influence his booking, as well as other reasons.
"Part of the reason I don't watch a lot of wrestling is I find myself easily influenced by what I see on TV. The fans that come to the shows are smarter than they were 20 years ago when you could take an idea, put a little twist on it and use it on your show. Part of it was that I know if I see stuff on there I will spin it somehow and start using it subconsciously. It is good for field research but I know it would let it influence me. Secondly most of what I see on TV as far as 'wrestling' is a disgrace. I haven't seen a solid wrestling match on RAW for months. Mostly if I watch wrestling I flip on and see Generic Guy A versus Generic Guy B wrestle for six minutes and get out of the ring. I watch wrestling because I like wrestling not for a 20-minute promo. One of the things that I think has hurt me in wrestling is not watching it enough."
Durrango also hears the fans talk about how talent should be flown in to draw.
"That is an argument we always have. Who do you bring in? As much as I love Duke Durrango, I am not crossing the street to see me. You bring up the names like Sabu, AJ Styles, Low Ki and Samoa Joe. But those guys cost at least $800 US, which means you need to draw 100 people just to cover his wage. Then it's a $1,500 plane ticket, so we need another 150 people. Then add in a hotel and you need to draw 300 people to pay for one guy. That is a tough sell. The people who would come to see a show for Samoa Joe, chances are they are coming already. As a booker as much as I would have loved to have brought Tiger Khan, God rest his soul, to WCEW or Stampede for another run, I have to be realistic at the expense of bringing guys in compared to the number of asses in the seats to cover what you laid out to get him. People complained about bringing in Abdullah the Butcher and Honky Tonk Man in May. People pissed on the match with Kid Nichols and Abby because it wasn't their style of wrestling. I was out doing commentary and I was watching the audience. As horrified as I was not one person left. People say Abdullah The Butcher isn't a draw, well I watched 500 people stand on their seats for 15 minutes and didn't walk out of the building."
Durrango in action in Cochrane.
It was at the May 12th "Cochrane Carnage"
show that Duke achieved another milestone, facing off against the legendary Honky Tonk Man.
"It was the easiest match I have ever had. People who are familiar with my work know I am very much about working the crowd. When you work a guy like that, we got so much out of the crowd with me leaving my feet once and him leaving his once. It was probably the second most incredible wrestling experience I have ever had. We were in the locker room going over the match and he said 'I'll give you a headmare and that will be your bump.' I was so shocked, I thought it was going to be the drizzling shits and it was one of the most fun matches I have ever had and he was the most professional veteran I have ever worked with. He was good for the locker room, he taught a lot of the young guys about things like what to travel with. He was so professional and any promoter who is thinking about it bringing him in should because he is fantastic just for the locker room. You hear so much about older guys believing their own bullshit, so you aren't sure how to take a guy that was the greatest Intercontinental champion of all time. You don't know what you are going to get. He doesn't take himself too seriously for the level of success he has had, which I can't say for a lot of the guys I have met that haven't attained that level of success. I couldn't be happier to have that as part of the wrap up of my career."
As someone who has the talent and charisma to be a big-time player in wrestling, it comes as a surprise to some that Durrango has not broken out of Western Canada like some other Stampede wrestlers. Durrango states simply that while he loves wrestling, he also has a beautiful wife and life in the real world to worry about.
"Wrestling for me was always about making money, which is always the wrong reason to get into it. The only reason I was watching wrestling was because we had met Davey [Boy Smith] and he was in WWF at that time. The Harts pitched us training and said we could make a living at this. That was all it was about to me, not about being a big superstar in the WWE but making money doing what I love. Pro wrestling 30 years ago there were probably 3,000 guys making a living at it, now there are probably 300. After I had learned about the business then my focus changed to it just being a hobby. I wasn't willing to take the risks. To make it in this industry you have to be willing to move to the States, go work illegally on the east coast or down south and get your name out there. Nobody is going to know who the hell you are outside of Western Canada."
With his talent, it would be easy for some people to get jealous of the success of others. Not so with Durrango.
"If I thought that guys like Devine, Apocalypse, TJ or Harry didn't work hard then I might begrudge their opportunities. I know those guys busted their ass just as hard if not harder then I did to get the opportunities that were given to them. I got into pro wrestling because I love wrestling. They got into it because they eat, breath, and sleep pro wrestling. TJ and Harry have forgotten more about wrestling than I know. For that reason alone they should make it. I had the opportunity to go to England but I am not going anywhere for 50 pounds a night. I have a mortgage and a retirement to plan for, that doesn't pay my rent at home and making a living. That is why I keep giving these guys so much respect because where I am not willing to pin my hopes on making $100,000 a year for ten years out of wrestling, I am willing to say 'As much as I would like to take that experience and go there, I have to be realistic and stay home and put money in the bank.' If I can make more money at home I am not leaving my wife for three months. It has always has been a business for me."
Part of Durrango's legacy will be as a teacher, friend and locker room leader. Ask any wrestler about Durrango's influence and the pride they have in having him as a friend and teacher immediately comes out.
"He is one of my favorite yet toughest opponents who is always professional in the ring and over the years has been my best feud to date," said "The Stampede Kid" TJ Wilson, who has feuded with Durrango over the British Commonwealth Midheavyweight Title in Stampede Wrestling and the PWA Tag Team and Heavyweight Titles. "He helped me out a lot with amateur, even though at the time I didn't really care about it. I am sad that he is retiring as our feud has come to an end but at least he is retiring on his own terms. I know he has a lot of passion and respect for pro wrestling."
Wilson has had many matches with Durrango, culminating in a steel cage match in July in PWA where he dethroned Durrango as champion. Wilson reflected on his favorite bouts.
"The cage match was a first for both of us and I think we went in there and gave it our all. Beating him for the Commonwealth Title is another, but the main one would probably be from 1999 in Innisfail. I was a lot smaller, and would usually only wrestle Harry and Teddy but that night I was against Duke in the semi main event. It felt good to be in there with a guy like him but I was nervous because I hadn't been in too many matches against the bigger guys especially to be semi main event but we went in there and had a really good match."
Wilson's former tag team partner Harry Smith was hugely influenced by Durrango. Prior to signing with the WWE SLAM! Wrestling spoke with Harry about his career, and one of the topics discussed with Duke.
"He has been a long-time friend of mine. We both started training around the same time, and he, along with Dean Durrango and Greg Pawluk, originally introduced me to amateur wrestling. They did a great job teaching me, and we both sort of helped each other along the way with the pro ranks. We have had a lot of great matches against each other."
Current North American Champion Apocalypse agrees. Apocalypse, who has wrestled in Japan, England and the East Coast of the U.S. currently is a member of "The Army of Darkness" stable with Duke and has nothing but praise for him.
"Duke, first off, has always been a friend to me in this business and a teacher as well. From the day when I started and he first ran me through the beating of a lifetime for a good straight 45 minutes in The Dungeon he always had my respect and never anything less. It has been an honour to work with him for the past six years and I know I will do what I can to get his ass back in the ring before you know it."
It would be easy to do an entire article with fellow wrestlers paying tribute, which speaks volumes about Durrango and what he has achieved.
"I appreciate that because when I am making a list of my favorite wrestlers they are all on mine. I remember training in The Dungeon with TJ, Teddy and Harry. We were grown men and Harry was ten. One of the things a lot of guys think is that I kiss Harry's ass because he is in WWE. I kiss his ass because I have the ultimate respect for the fact that at ten years old and weighing 80 pounds, I weighed 215 and he was training in the same room with me. They were teenagers training with grown men. I have been fortunate enough to have an effect on someone else's career, but I didn't get where I am on my own. Every one of those guys helped me develop. I came back because I wanted to work the best guys in the territory, and at that time Apocalypse, TJ and Harry were main eventers in Alberta. I came back because I wanted to work with the best, not be the best. In fact I was watching TNA the other night and how the hell are they not using TJ? Anybody out there not using TJ Wilson on their roster is a fricking idiot. This kid is starving for work in this country; I am watching TNA and, no disrespect to the guys they have, but TJ was just as good if not better than every guy on that show. Part of it is the Western Canadian curse, the biggest part of it is like any promotion, as much as I love TJ Wilson and will wash and wax his car he is not going to put 300 asses in the seats to make it worth flying him down there. I am sure if he was there he would be one of the top guys on their roster but he's not."
Looking back on his career, there are a lot of memories. He is one of the most decorated wrestlers in Alberta in the past decade, having been held the PWA World and Tag team titles as well as three times as Stampede International Tag Team Champion and a two-time British Commonwealth midheavyweight champion.
"I have so many memories, like sitting with Rhonda Singh at the Strathmore rodeo. In PWA we got to do some amazing matches there. I had never seen a 60-minute tag team iron match anywhere else before, and that was one of the most fun matches ever. I had a 16-month run as British Commonwealth champ, which is one of my defining career moments. You see things in this business you will never see anywhere else like when Johnny Devine and me were chased out of Hobbema, Alberta by the Indians. People were throwing full cans of pop and beer at us and rioting, that stands out. My first match against Teddy Hart I was told to be heelish, and on my way out of the ring a kid threw garbage at me. That is what hooked me to wrestling. If you can screw with one person that is fun, if you can do it with 1,000 people, that's even better. People pay $15 to sit in the front row so they can call me an asshole and I can call them one back. It's the greatest and worst business in the world."
If this truly is the last time Jordan Clarke steps into the ring, he wants to leave a lasting impression. As both Duke Durrango the wrestler and character, and Jordy Clark, the man behind him, it is all about respect.
"I want to be remembered as being respected by the boys. I was very fortunate to have some success and that promoters thought enough of me to promote me as a champion and have a main event role. I would like to leave a legacy that I deserved to be in that position and that I leave the business better then I found it. Unfortunately I don't think that I can say that because of the way the business has gone, but I would like to know that when I leave the locker room that I have taught the new generation of guys a little bit about being professional. The first word in professional wrestling is professional and there are a lot of guys that seem to forget that. That is what I want to be remembered as, respected and professional."
Duke Durrango Guest Column, Sep. 19, 2001: Struggles on the indy circuit
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Jason Clevett has been involved in the Calgary independent wrestling scene since 1996 and writing for SLAM! Wrestling since 2003.