By Andrew Berg
(Special thanks to Nikita Koloff, for his contributions to the research behind this article.)
The Hart Dungeon. The WCW Power Plant. The West Texas State football team. There are numerous hotbeds of professional wrestling talent and success around North America, but one of the unlikeliest catalysts gave rise to perhaps the most impressive list of professional wrestlers to ever come out of one area.
In a three year span, Robbinsdale High School in the suburbs of Minneapolis produced Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig, “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Tom Zenk, Dean “Battle Kat” Peters, “The Berzerker” John Nord, Nikita Koloff, and Barry Darsow (alternately known as Krusher Kruschev, Demolition Smash, and the Repo Man). That’s not to mention Verne and Greg Gagne and Gene Okerlund, who graduated from the same high school years earlier. Mere miles away, neighboring Cooper High School produced “Mean” Mike Enos and Wayne “Beau Beverley” Bloom around the same time.
Jerry MacFarlane was a gymnastics teacher at Robbinsdale High School in the 1970s, which placed him about as far away from the cultural archetype of a professional wrestler in that era. While he did not have roots in the wrestling business, what he did have was a connection to a renowned bodybuilding gym nearby, named simply The Gym. With the respect of a group of teenagers in the mid-‘70s, he transferred his interest in weightlifting and bodybuilding to several of the more athletic students from the high school, including the group that would later go on to become successful professional wrestlers.
Naturally, no individual factor could single-handedly produce so many pro wrestling success stories simultaneously- there had to be a perfect storm of circumstances to line up at just the right time. The true story is a complicated network of personal connections, athletic achievement, and plain dumb luck. But those circumstances started to coalesce long before any of the future wrestlers set foot in a ring.
Robbinsdale High School
Likely the most famous alumnus in the history of Robbinsdale High School is Verne Gagne. After he graduated, Gagne won two NCAA wrestling titles at the University of Minnesota and served as an alternate on the 1948 U.S. Olympic team. Gagne took his amateur achievements to the professional wrestling world and immediately became one of the biggest stars in the country. When he got stuck in a power struggle between promoters who were split between whether he or Lou Thesz should carry the NWA Title, Gagne took a version of the belt back to Minnesota to launch his own promotion. Thus was born the American Wrestling Association.
With the AWA still in a position of national prominence in the 1970s, it is no surprise that wrestling was popular in its home base of Minnesota. Even so, the athletes at Robbinsdale High School were more interested in football than wrestling. As Nikita Koloff explained, “I just wanted to get a helmet and some shoulder pads and knock somebody’s block off. I didn’t need to grab sweaty guys for an audience of 12 people.”
Curt Hennig, with his father Larry “The Axe” Hennig starring in the AWA, joined the wrestling team, but the rest of the athletes who would go on to careers in grappling had no interest in the sport at the time. Koloff went on to say that, “None of the other guys even talked about it. Nobody ever said, ‘I can’t wait to be a pro wrestler one day.’ It wasn’t even on the radar.”
With football as a priority over wrestling, it would take time before this group learned the fundamentals that would be necessary to become champions in professional wrestling. In spite of the inexperience, their shared interest in body building provided one of the building blocks to a wrestling career.
Shared acquaintance Jim Younger ran The Gym and brought powerlifters and bodybuilders from across the Midwest to the area for elite training. Many of the Robbinsdale football players developed an interest in weight lifting as part of their football training and carried it beyond their playing careers. The strapping physiques certainly would not guarantee success in the ring, but they would eventually catch the eye of a trainer who helped a large portion of them get a foot in the door of the wrestling world.
Eddie Sharkey was a grizzled former professional wrestler by the time he crossed paths with several recent Robbinsdale graduates. Sharkey had come up on the carnival circuit (in an odd twist, Sharkey was “smartened up” about the wrestling business by the actor who would go on to play Luca Brasi in The Godfather) in the Midwest and wrestled in the AWA through the 1960s. He was not a major star, but he was established enough to feud with the legendary Danny Hodge when he was in the territory. By the 1970s, Sharkey had a falling out with Gagne that caused him to leave the AWA and it appeared that he was done with professional wrestling.
In the late ‘70s, Sharkey was tending bar in a Minneapolis watering hole known as Gramma B’s. He noticed that a few of the bouncers at the bar had more youth, hunger, and size than the usual bar toughs. One of the bouncers, Joe Laurinaitis, asked Sharkey to train him to be a professional wrestler. Laurinaitis and his friend Mike Hegstrand- both of whom grew up in the Minneapolis area- joined Richard Rood and Barry Darsow in training with Sharkey. He realized he had something special on his hands and soon launched his own wrestling promotion with the Road Warriors Animal and Hawk, Ravishing Rick Rude, Demolition Smash on the roster.
Sharkey himself was surprised that he got back into wrestling, let alone that he found such success with this group. “I had quit wrestling for about 10 years. I just walked away from it. I felt sick of it. I was just totally burned out. Then I came back because of the Road Warriors. I put them in the business, and they brought me back. So we all helped each other,” Sharkey said in an interview. While the development might have been unexpected, Sharkey made the most of it.
Sharkey did not stop with those four. He continued to train wrestling prospects from the Minneapolis area, including Curt Hennig, Brady Boone, Tom Zenk, and John “The Berzerker” Nord from that era of Robbinsdale graduates. In the following years, Sharkey also trained and helped launch the careers of Jerry Lynn, X-Pac, the Steiner Brothers, and the aforementioned Enos and Bloom. Sharkey has remained active and even helped train modern wrestlers like Austin Aries, Erick Rowan, and ODB.
One reason that Sharkey had so much success breaking young wrestlers into the business was that he had a pipeline to a national promotion in his backyard. Although he was not as close with Verne Gagne as he had once been, he was able to refer many of his best wrestlers to Gagne and most of them spent at least some time in the AWA.
Despite the disagreements between Gagne and Sharkey, Gagne became an important figure in the development of many of the wrestlers, as well. As Tom Zenk recalled in an interview with Marcus Madison of WrestlingEye, “Verne Gagne told me when I was starting out “you should get down on your knees and thank God there is such a thing as a ‘work’.” Because, once they let you in on the con, it was all money for nothing.” Hennig and Rude, in particular, made national names for themselves in the AWA in its waning years before they went on to even greater success with the WWF and WCW.
Nikita Koloff’s Strange Path to Stardom
Contrary to popular belief, not all of the wrestlers who came out of Robbinsdale High School were trained by Sharkey. In fact, not all of them were trained to be professional wrestlers at all. Nikita Koloff had such a unique and interesting introduction to the wrestling business that it warrants a retelling of its own.
Although Koloff came through high school with several of the wrestlers who already started to train with Sharkey, he never worked with Sharkey personally. Koloff was working out for a pro football tryout when he got a call from football buddy Road Warrior Animal, who had started working for Jim Crockett in the Southeast.
Although Koloff (then Scott Simpson) had no wrestling training, Don Kernodle and Sergeant Slaughter came up with the idea to pair a new wrestler with Ivan Koloff and Kernodle’s team. When Koloff called Crockett to discuss the job, “I told him that I had never been in a wrestling ring and had no training. He didn’t bat an eye and told me to be in his office with my head shaved bald on June 4. That was our whole conversation.”
Koloff shaved his head, picked up some tights and boots from Animal, and showed up in Charlotte. Ivan Koloff taught him some extremely basic wrestling holds and helped him come up with the name Nikita Koloff. He stood mute in the background of several pre-taped interviews, but the next night in Raleigh, he wrestled and won his first match. One day into his wrestling career, he had a win under his belt. From there, Ivan Koloff and Kernolde taught him the basics on the road until he knew enough to wrestle full matches. He went on to win the NWA United States Title, all without any formal wrestling training.
Not only did Koloff quickly pick up the in-ring portion of his job, he became one of the strictest protectors of the business outside of it. He legally changed his name to Nikita Koloff and refused to speak English in public in places where it might expose his character.
When the rest of the wrestlers would hit the bars, he would stay in. “They thought I was weird because I would go back to my room, eat a can of tuna and an apple, and watch TV for the rest of the night,” Koloff said. Much like his unique introduction to the business, Koloff left on his own terms. He retired at 33, two years before his self-imposed deadline of 35, rather than rehabilitating some serious injuries. After his retirement, he went to what he calls “the polar opposite end of the world” and became an evangelical Christian minister.
The list of names to come out of Robbinsdale High School is impressive in its own right, but the accomplishments they compiled are staggering. Rude won world championships in the WCW and WCCW. In the WWF, he won the Intercontinental Title and headlined SummerSlam 1990 with the Ulimtate Warrior.
Hennig won the AWA’s version of the world title and enjoyed prominent runs as the secondary champion in both the WWF and WCW on his way to a WWE Hall of Fame Induction.
Darsow won a variety of championships around the country, but achieved his greatest fame as a member of three-time WWF Tag Team Champion Demolition, which still holds the record for longest tag team title reign. Koloff had a notable run with the NWA U.S. Title and several other minor belts. Zenk and Boone held various titles around the country, and even Nord won Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Rookie of the Year Award.
Incidentally, several of the wrestlers crossed paths as their careers developed. Darsow played a character named Krusher Kruschev alongside Koloff and the other “Russians” in Jim Crockett’s territory. They also overlapped in Crockett’s promotion with Zenk, who arrived shortly after them. Rude and Hennig paralleled one another in sequential WWF runs as long-running heel champions with the Intercontinental Title.
As Darsow explained, it was not uncommon to cross paths traveling around the country, “we all went to different places, and then we would see each other once in a while at the airport or if we were on the same card in some towns. It was pretty exciting to see each other because we were all good friends.”
Altogether, it was a collection of talent like no other group in the world. The football team at West Texas St. has produced a number of great professional wrestlers- Tully Blanchard, Ted Dibiase, Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, the Funk brothers, Tito Santana, Dusty Rhodes, and Barry Windham-, but all of those wrestlers chose to attend the school. Moreover, wrestling schools like the Power Plant or the Monster Factory get credit for producing championship wrestlers, but the shock is tempered by the fact that it is their job.
At first glance, the circumstances in Robbinsdale seem very random. The football team, the bodybuilding, the connection to Larry Hennig, the association with Eddie Sharkey, the pipeline to the AWA, and a tremendous amount of natural talent were all independently essential to the overwhelming success. The odds of that ever happening again are extremely slim. As Koloff explained, “I just don’t see how the situation could ever be repeated with the group all coming from the same place. Plus, without territories now, it makes it even harder to come up. They aren’t going to bring seven guys in from the same high school to the same training facility at one time.”
Nikita Koloff, Interview with Author
Tom Zenk, Interview with Marcus Madison of WrestlingEye
Barry Darsow, Interview with Josh Modaberi of Wrestling 101
Eddie Sharkey, Interview with Lee Benaka of MinnesotaProWrestling.com
“Sharkey Mania!” Minneapolis City Pages, http://www.citypages.com/2000-11-15/news/sharkey-mania/
“The Original Power Plant: Robbinsdale High School,” Retroist, http://www.retroist.com/2014/04/23/the-original-power-plant-robbinsdale-high-school/