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Wolfman Sanderson wrestles with fame

World's richest grappler chases ring dream after hitting $66.4-million U.S. lottery jackpot

By THANE BURNETT - The Toronto Sun
Bossman ... Jason Sanderson, a.k.a. Wolfman, arranges upcoming bouts for his All Star Wrestling Association.
Photo: Ken Kerr, Toronto Sun
 He's selling $10 tickets to his $66.4-million American Dream.
 It's a cool Friday night in small-town U.S.A. -- and things are all backed up on Wakefield's main street.
 Under rippling red, white and blue star spangled banners, volunteers stand right in the middle of the road, loudly hawking Kiwanis peanuts. Traffic is at a crawl, but people only seem to gripe about how few nuts you get in each pack.
 Across the street, Jenny's Nail shop is closing up early because business is slow -- again.
 Most residents are heading toward the fairgrounds, to ride the Zipper, order up huge wads of deep-fried dough and spend too much money trying to win something -- anything.
 Or they're lined up next door at what used to be Wakefield's military armouries -- to see the Wolfman, along with the rest of his outlandish crew in the All Star Wrestling Association.
 They may be disappointed with how many nuts were stuffed into the small Kiwanis packs, but they'll get more than their money's worth out of the tickets the Wolfman is selling.
 "Ladies and gentlemen, please make way for the Convict, being led into the ring in chains."
 It may be small New England potatoes next to the big outfits which fight for a world-wide TV audience, but Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling can't boast what the small town AWA has got -- Wolfman, the world's richest grappler.
 Jason Sanderson -- a 33-year-old, 300-pound, big, hairy deal who looks like he just walked off a north mountain range -- could probably buy the armouries, the carnival next door, Jenny's Nail shop and the rest of this New Hampshire town.
 In December 1997, he and his wife, Mary -- who played a hunch after dreaming about a series of lucky numbers -- struck it rich in the Powerball Lottery. Not just rich, but -- with more than $66.4 million on the line -- filthy rich.
 Suddenly, Mary didn't need to work for the phone company anymore. And Jason quit being an offset press operator.
 But he wasn't ready to step away from the minor-league wrestling matches. In fact, during the lottery press conference, he considered having a rumble with the Lobsterman and Captain U.S.A. Mary said no.
 "I lost that one," Wolfman notes. "Would have been good."
 So instead of globe-trotting in splendour, he tours with a bunch of largely pudgy, always sweaty guys, around the corner of America his family's been part of for hundreds of years. Instead of tipping some waiter on a tropical beach, he's here in Wakefield, handing out ticket stubs, looking for change and chewing on charity nuts and some of that greasy carny dough.
 "What's this? The ref's back is turned and the Convict is now strangling Blitz. This is madness."
 Not that there haven't been luxuries. Mary bought an expensive Dodge Prowler, which sits in the barn because it still hasn't been registered for the road and there's a bunch of construction material blocking its way.
 They moved to an 1830-built ranch called Dungarvan. The house has 24 rooms. Their diningroom table seats 10.
 Like Americans do, the Wolfman walks the immaculate wood floors and plush old carpets with his size 12 boots still on.
At left, Lobsterman puts the claw hold on reporter Burnett.
Photo: Ken Kerr, Toronto Sun

 New money, old habits
 The place is a combination of new money and old objects, new things and old habits. There's a library that's sparse on books, but Mary's trying to collect every type of tomato plant -- so far she's up to 75 varieties.
 In another room, on a shelf, are plastic models of super heroes. They don't belong to his infant son, Colin.
 "I always wanted to be Thor -- now I really do play a comic book hero," Wolfman explains. "I can't give that up."
 "Wait, Captain U.S.A. is on his way in to help out Blitz. Old red, white and blue is out to wallop the Convict."
 Across the street, as the Wolfman poses for a photograph on a tree branch barely able to hold his mass and the giant $66.4-million cheque he and Mary were given by the lottery commission, a well-to-do neighbour gets out of his luxury sedan, looks over and shakes his head before walking off.
 "I guess they're used to me," Wolfman explains, strands of long, unkempt hair dangling over his face.
 He officially started his wrestling career in January 1996, after admitting to Mary he'd always dreamed of being a wrestling star. She told him if he didn't try, he'd regret it.
 That first match, against Loverboy Dave Baron in a Lions Hall on a dirt road in Hudson, N.H., lasted less than three-minutes. The six-foot-one Wolfman was so nervous he dropped his startled foe with a straight arm to the throat.
 "Suddenly, you're the home-town hero," he says.
 After the lottery, he and Mary could afford to do anything -- become anything. But all he wanted to do was keep rasslin'.
 "Why would I do anything different, when I already found something I love to do -- I have it all," he tries to explain.
 When he was a kid in Vermont, just across the tracks from Canada, he wasn't allowed to watch cartoons. Instead, his carpenter father and school bus driver mom put on wrestling beamed in from Montreal. A Wolfman was born.
 All Star Wrestling, which Jason is now president of, is just one of a dozen or more grappling organizations in the northeast. It's all about metal chairs, gravel roads, home-made popcorn and the guy you recently saw at the gas station now wearing lobster claws and socking it to Capt. U.S.A.
 "I don't have any foreign object," Lobsterman yells at the fans. "I use only American-made objects."
 "We're the minor leagues, but we're proud of that. We try hard at that," Wolfman says, explaining his grapple fests are a throw-back to the glory days of wrestling. That means no swearing, no sexual content and even precious little blood.
 Here anyone can become a Starman. Justin McIssac is a 21-year-old sheet metal worker who weighs less than 190 pounds. He's asthmatic. He's a vegetarian. But dressed in a costume that's slightly too big, he's the AWA's Starman.
 "You ever want to be famous?" McIssac asks from the wrestlers change room, where grapplers tend to real wounds, repair costumes, recall glory bouts and go over upcoming fights with the ref.
 "I'll distract you and he'll start pounding Captain U.S.A. when your back is turned.
 "Some kids want to be Babe Ruth. I loved Hulk Hogan," McIssac says.
 Deliveryman Chad McCarthy used to be called Thunderstorm. Now he's Prince Charming -- oddly, a bad guy.
 "On a night like this I'm the centre of attention, then during the week it's, 'Hey lady, did you order the Maytag?'"
 McCarthy's father died when he was just nine years old.
 "He'd buy me all the wrestling toys when I was a kid. I told him that's what I was going to do when I grew up."
 At almost 40, balding, portly, and wrestling since 1979, Dan Pettiglio doesn't know how many more body slams Capt. U.S.A. has in him. The outcomes of the matches may be fixed, but when two huge guys in tights crash into each other, it makes an impression.
 "No more high impact -- way too hard," says Captain U.S.A.
 His ring nemesis Lobsterman is also looking for another job.
 He wants to be a U.S. president. A whale of a man, Jeff Costa campaigns with claws and a lobster crest on his belly.
 "It's not a gag anymore -- I have plans," he explains, his 36-year-old hairy, pink form pushing the limits of his spandex suit.
 "I'm going to send you back to Mexico in a pine box," Maverick Wilde yells at Super Santo as he flies from the top rope.
 A day after Wakefield, the Wolfman would announce he is backing the Lobsterman's dream. Then, following speeches and baloney sandwiches, everyone went back to fighting.
 "This is a throwback. We don't hang people or put them in body bags," the Lobsterman says as kids, parents and grandparents filter into the card at the big, brick armoury.
 As he speaks, a group of teenagers stands in the front hall, deciding if they'll steal the wrestling posters now or later.
 While $66 million couldn't stop the Wolfman from wrestling, for now, an abscessed tooth has him pinned. The tooth burst, causing an infection to spread. Officials decided in March he'd have to take a break -- though it meant giving up his title.
 "There were medics right there and the local undertaker bought five ring-side seats. I said I had all my bets covered, but they still wouldn't let me wrestle," he says.
 Tonight the $66-million wrestler is taking tickets at the door.
 His fighters get between $25-$75 to pull on leggings and attitudes. They make more if they help set up the ring.
 "Ladies and gentlemen, bow your heads for a ten-bell salute to Ravishing Rick Rude, who passed away last week."
 The Wolfman wants to take the show to Canada. But for now, Wakefield, New Hampshire will do.
 Which is just fine with five-year-old D.J. Arsenault, who leaps onto his father David's lap with a mighty grunt.
 Boo the bad guys  
 "His mom's across the street waitressing, so we're here for some fun," David explains, his two large front gold teeth reflecting his boy's anticipation.
 With the bell rung by 14-year-old Brian Patterson -- a kid who got the job by knowing someone who was related to one of the officials -- D.J. and the entire room roars to life.
 For hours, Wolfman's men do battle in the armoury. Bodies hitting the mat sound like gunshots. Kids yell for their champs. Adults boo the bad guys. Everyone is captured as sure as if the Lobsterman himself was using his famous claw hold on them.
 Inside the ring, the Lobsterman is pinned by the World Famous Clown -- whose makeup is flaking. Heavyweight champ Maverick Wilde beats up Super Santo. Captain U.S.A. loses when the Convict cheats. Tarzan Taylor damages his elbow. Slash doesn't break his nose, as he often does.
 "Don't forget about the upcoming Mother's Day Massacre show," says the announcer. "Have your picture taken with the Mummy."
 In the end, D.J. and his dad leave the armoury happy.
 So does the Wolfman -- a guy who can live off caviar, but still chooses to invest in a small pack of nuts.