Wrestling Then and Now

by Dale Pierce

DALE PIERCE: You have been around for a long, long time. How has wrestling changed from when you started?

ROBBIE ELLIS: Not as long as you might think. Though I turned 60 this year and am still wrestling several times a month, I didn't start in any meaningful way until 1985. I had had some (very little) training as early as 1965, but then only ten or twelve matches in the intervening years. There was WWF and, as far as I knew, Tony Santos, in Boston. A Sports Illustrated with a couple of pictures followed by surprisingly extensive news stories on all the networks appeared in 1985, the Today Show story in the mid-90s; and both events led to my wrestling more than I had before. The stories happened because the local Portland paper did a front page story with big headlines and a huge picture of me in wrestling trunks standing over a fallen opponent, my fist clenched. That story happened because my family is a well-known Portland family, and my wife and I were the proprietors of a fine art gallery and auction house. Big deal, right? Well, I guess my local "image" contrasted with the image of me in a pro wrestling ring struck them as a story! Changes I've seen since 1985? Many. But the indys are getting back to basics, so is the WWE though more slowly. But we'll never get back to wrestling old style completely. The big and dangerous moves are here to stay, up to a point though I think there will continue to be adjustments (more than real changes) in style, speed, equipment (and even ring outfits) that, in some cases, will moderate things in general. The national scene will continue to look like a monopoly to the world in general for a long time to come unless WWE sinks under its current weight. Then, maybe the cycle will start again.

DP: For the most part, do you see these changes as good or bad?

RE: Change in style is good. When boredom sets in, well, we've seen what happens when the same old faces do the same old moves. Even spectacular moves become commonplace eventually. Specific changes, like really gross attention-getting tactics, are not good in the long run. They're the reasons I am still sometimes uncomfortable when customers and friends ask me about that world. On the other hand, it sure hasn't hurt overall.

DP: Where were you trained?

RE: In Boston by Bill Graham, a cop, not the Superstar, under Tony Santos. Maybe six lessons, all Sunday mornings. But it only cost a couple hundred dollars. I had told my wife before we were married that I wanted to wrestle pro (I was wrestling for Amherst College at the time.) She said, if I did, we'd never get married or, if we were married, we would soon be divorced. So, when I started wrestling school after we were married, I made up lies about where I was on Sunday mornings, the only time I ever cheated on her (or felt like I was cheating on her!) I was travelling two hours each way to the school in Boston from Portland, Maine. But that was almost 40 years ago, so I don't remember the actual excuses. Then one day, I was feeling so guilty, I told her we had to discuss something important. She thought I was going to ask for a divorce, which was strange because we were incredibly happy, but maybe she thought it had been too much of a good thing, so, anyway, she was so relieved she just said, "Oh, that. That's ok." And it was.

DP: Where did you have your first bout?

RE: Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mt. Tom amusement park. Against Pepe Perez. No English spoken. I was in white and was featured as a babyface. But the audience, like Pepe, was 100% Puerto Rican. They booed like crazy when I came out. When the bell rang, I took off, every flashy move I knew (they weren't so flashy by today's standards) but two minutes later, I was dead and couldn't move. We were supposed to go broadway, but I couldn't get up. So Pepe kept picking me and bodyslamming me . . . again and again. I was pretty nearly out cold, but managed to whisper to the ref, who was very close to my ear looking for the count, that the match had to be over. Finally, he fast-counted.

DP: With the name Robbie Ellis, did anyone every confuse you with "Cowboy" Bob Ellis, and did you ever meet?

RE: Not as often as you might think, though even today, at Cauliflower Alley Club conventions especially, people ask me if I am his son. Which is okay, because at least they don't ask if I am his father. Or even brother.

DP: Who have been some of your most important opponents over the years?

RE: There were many famous names, but most were on the way up at the time. But Bob Orton, Sr. early on, Taz(maniac) in the middle, and "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan recently, among the many.

DP: In spite of age, dare we say, you were still very active for indys in new England in the 1990s. How do you rate these indy groups?

RE: I'm still very active. I hold lightweight titles for three indys in New England. Some of the groups here are much better than others, but since I'm still wrestling, I'd rather not put them in categories at this point. Of the ones I don't work for, New England Championship Wrestling, Chaotic, and Ring of Honor (though not based here) are probably the best. But I don't know them all, by any means.

DP: How do you stay so fit?

RE: By working out two hours four times a week with weights and stretching, and running on a treadmill or outside, nine to ten minute miles for a half hour. I like to run with Buzz (my dog) outside. Lately I've been going to a personal trainer just to break through some barriers. It has helped a lot. My body fat is down to 11% (some tests have been less.) And I'm in overall much better condition now than at any other time in my life, including when I wrestled in college.

DP: Are you still wrestling on occasion?

RE: Uh, yeah.

DP: Don't you also work as an art dealer?

RE: Yes. We buy and sell paintings. Important ones. Yeah, really. Old Masters, American Hudson River School, Impressionists.

DP: What is your Web page?

RE: For our business, it's http://www.barridoff.com. For wrestling, it's http://www.robbieellis.com.

DP: Over the years, have you had any major injuries?

RE: I'm very lucky. My father was an athlete, one of the best Maine ever produced. All state football quarterback in high school at 111 lbs., a diving champ, track champ, wrestling champ (alternate to Olympics in the Thirties), boxing champ, basketball, baseball, and on and on. He's 90 and doesn't hurt. So I think it's genetic that I don't either. The worst thing happened a year and half ago. Rotator cuff tear after dislocating my shoulder during a match (but finished the match with a splash off the top, though I looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame at that point.) Operated on in April of 2002. Hit rehab as soon and as hard as I could. Back to wrestling last October. Remember, I've been working out since 1965, running and lifting. Back then I was pretty much the only guy I ever saw running around Portland's Baxter Boulevard. Today, it's pretty crowded. Point is, it's been my lifestyle for a very long time, and you heal faster if you're in shape. Annette's a jock, too (my wife, in case that isn't obvious.)

DP: What has been the attitude toward you by younger wrestlers in the locker room?

RE: Very good question. I was invited to work down in Pennsylvania a few months ago for Chikara, run by Mike Quackenbush. I urge you to read about that experience on my home page, because it was incredible. It's the only thing that prompted me to write something on my own. (My son handles most of the two home pages for us.) I felt at home from day one. Mike himself is only in his twenties, but he is a close friend now. It was an amazing experience. Some of my best friends are pro wrestlers, many of them a lot younger than me, and a lot, of course, are the same and older, though I get to see them for the most part only once a year at the CAC convention in Vegas. I also wrestled in Vegas while I was there, another great experience, and a lot of guys who are new friends and also much younger. Hey, I don't have any more interest than they do in becoming best buddies. We lead different lives. But I respect and like them and feel I get the same in return. Some do become close. I get along great with my peers at any age with two exceptions: young guys in my hometown area and another group in New Hampshire nearby. All my life I worked to open doors to pro wrestling for young guys around here. Some of them went on to be major superstars. But, when I wrestle around here, there is some real hard feelings (not universal, but definitely there) because I get an unfair amount of publicity, both local and national, and should also move out to make room for younger guys. Attached is an article that appeared in the July 2003 issue of The Wrestler and another that appeared on the front page in the local Portland newspaper, Maine's biggest, just recently. In fact, here's Mike's article, followed by the newspaper article. Probably too long for you to use, but feel free to use all or part or none of them:

"From Bell to Bell"
The Wrestler (magazine, July issue with Steve Austin on the cover)
May 2003
By Mike Quackenbush

Taking a stroll through Barridoff Galleries of Portland, Maine would provide you with a chance to see some of the classic American paintings you otherwise might only glimpse in an art textbook or on the cover of a magazine. Passing through the halls, you might survey Rockwells and Wyeths alongside Homers and Eakins. The acquisition and sale of fine pieces of art is a high-stakes business that requires not just a great knowledge of art, but discretion, cunning, and foresight. Maintaining it all is Barridoff President Robert Elowitch, a pillar of Portland's cultural community, and one of the world's most renowned art dealers.

When the lights dim in the gallery, and the Barridoff staff calls it a night, it's easy to imagine Surrealist, Cubist, and Impressionist visions bouncing in their heads. After hours, though, is when Elowitch gets the chance to dabble in a decidedly different artistic pursuit. After his ascension in the art world, Elowitch worked diligently to keep his professional life and his secret hobby separate, but a front page expose cast a bright light on the art dealer extraordinaire. For years, Elowitch only indulged his secret passion while on business trips far from home, but one night's work at the Portland Expo was all it took for word to get out. Robert Elowitch had been leading a secret life--as a man named Robbie Ellis.

Until the story that exposed Elowitch as professional wrestler Robbie Ellis saw print in 1985, Portland's art kingpin had avoided accepting bouts that could reveal his secret identity. Pro wrestling, arguably America's most unusual form of low art, certainly seemed like an unlikely pursuit for a man in charge of New England's most prestigious art gallery. Fearful of damaging the reputation of his growing business, Robert Elowitch made certain that Robbie Ellis would never be seen on the Maine independent circuit. Eventually, his position softened, and all it took was one appearance in his hometown to make headlines.

Robbie Ellis broke into pro wrestling in 1965, and he managed to avoid that inevitable conflict between his divergent lives for 20 years. Elowitch was a quick study in wrestling, thanks to his natural athleticism, a trait passed down from his father, Yudy. Yudy Elowitch was one of Maine's finest amateur athletes, and a 1936 Olympic wrestling alternate. He was a skilled golfer, championship football player, and national wrestling standout. Yudy's son proved to be an excellent amateur wrestler as well; even after turning pro, he stayed on as wrestling coach at his alma mater. Although never a full-time pro, Robbie Ellis has wrestled sporadically in five different decades in various roles, opposite men ranging from Perry Saturn to Jim Duggan.

When news broke that Ellis and Elowitch were one and the same, it wasn't confined to Maine newspapers. Features ran on ABC news, The MacNeil Lehrer Hour, The Today Show, and on the pages of Sports Illustrated. Robbie Ellis was interviewed ad nauseum as the movie rights to his life story were negotiated and he became more than just a regional sensation.

That was 1985, of course, but 18 years later, Robert Elowitch is still president of Barridoff Galleries, a business that he and his wife, Annette, have nurtured through all its ups and downs. The publicity that emerged in the wake of the Portland Express expose only helped business, and perhaps even afforded the upper-crust art business a bourgeois charm it previously lacked. That's far from the most amazing part of the story.

What is truly astonishing is that Robbie Ellis is still active to this day, a 60-year-old grappler with some 38 years of in-ring experience. He's a mainstay on the roster of such independent companies as Ultimate Championship Wrestling, Midwest Pro Wrestling, and Maine Event Wrestling. At an age that finds most pro wrestlers withered and hobbled (if they're still active pro wrestlers at all), Ellis is still out there nailing his signature tip-rope splash and running circles around a few wrestlers half his age.

Not long ago, I spent an exhausting weekend in Maine, wrestling five matches on two shows in a span of 29 hours. As the weekend came to a close, luck found me across the table from Robbie Ellis at a small diner buried in the town of Saco. Robbie is among the most polite and likable fellows I've come across in this business, and that stands in stark contrast to the cocky and overbearing ring persona he has perfected over the years.

Most of the publicity has come and gone, the championships have been won and lost, but Ellis hasn't grown bitter like so many of his contemporaries. Robbie Ellis, art dealer by day, pro wrestler by night, hasn't lost a bit of passion for what he does. His zeal for life seems boundless, contagious even. He is truly that rarest of things in the world of wrestling. I don't know quite how he does it, but I suspect that hidden away somewhere at the Barridoff Galleries the dark area where Robbie Ellis keeps his trunks and wrestling boots is the same spot where Robert Elowitch finds his fountain of youth. END


Joshua L. Weinstein, staff writer
Portland Press Herald

Look at the old guy strut, watch him snarl. He's too tough to wear a shirt, too mean for the poor young fellow unfortunate enough to be in the ring with him.

Robbie Ellis may be a whisker away from 60, but he's still cracking in the wrestling ring.

Sunday night at the Portland Expo, he dispatched K.I.D.D. U.S.A., a 26-year-old who is two inches taller and 30 pounds of mostly muscle bigger than him.

He did it with swagger. That's how the 5-foot-7-inch Ellis is.

At least, that's how he is in the ring. During the rest of his life, when he is Rob Elowitch, owner of Portland's Barridoff Galleries, he is significantly different.

There is a hint of swagger, a touch of self-promotion, but he's an art dealer whose auctions routinely do millions of dollars of business. In the ring, it's all show.

Before Sunday night's event, he sat downstairs in the Expo, nervous about playing before his hometown crowd - he wrestled at Deering High School back when he was a teenager. he was good-natured, kidding with his impending opponent.

"I'm proud to wrestle him," K.I.D.D. U.S.A., whose real name is Jay Jaillet, said before the match. "To be honest with you, when I'm his age, I hope I look that good."

A little of the cocky Ellis entered the conversation.

"If you could look this way now, my friend, you'd be happy," he said.

Ellis/Elowitch knows it's funny, what he does. He sees the humor in wrestling guys who are half and even a third his age.

"Each year, of course," the gap gets wider, he said.

And it never gets particularly easy. Whether the punches always connect does not matter. These guys get thrown around.

Annette Elowitch, the wrestler's wife, can't stand to watch. She quit attending matches years ago.

Ellis likes and respects the other wrestlers immensely, and the feeling clearly is mutual. Before the match, he asked the promoter if he could change the lineup to accommodate another wrestler who needed to be back in Massachusetts by midnight.

"Lightning" Mike Quackenbush, who wrestled with the Maine Event Wrestling show Sunday and who runs Chikara Wrestle Factory, a school in Allentown, Pa, says that having Ellis in the locker room is good for his students.

"He has years and years of experience, he has seen generations of wrestlers come and go," Quackenbush said.

Paul Adams, who promoted Sunday night's event, says he loves having Ellis on the bill.

Even when Ellis loses, Adams says, the wrestler is happy.

Ellis likes being nearly 60, likes training, likes working out, likes telling people, "Damn, I look good." He likes shaking his way into the ring to the strains of "I'm Too Sexy."

And the art dealer-wrestler has no plans to stop. END

DP: Among the newer people, whom do you rate most highly?

RE: On the indy circuit in New England, not including guys I work with most of the time, Mike Quackenbush, Reckless Youth, Alex Arion, Maverick Wild, Dr. Heresy.

DP: What was your favorite office to work for over the years?

RE: Well, despite all the guys getting worked all the time, and despite a product that got bad reviews from insiders, I have to give a lot of credit to Mario Savoldi and ICW. He put me over based on publicity rather than ability. I was such a mark, I hardly knew what was happening. I thought it was the natural order of things. In the long run, all the publicity and pursuant success of our art business had a lot to do with Savoldi's ICW. I had a great time.

DP: Is there any group you would flat never work for again due to bad treatment?

RE: Nobody ever treated me unfairly enough to hold a grudge forever. I had a really horrible match with a very young kid, who was very good, and I got smacked hard in the head by a dumb mistake, no one's fault. I lost it completely, almost had no idea where I was. The final minutes of the match were a disaster that was my fault, but unavoidable. My partner told everyone he worked for that I couldn't wrestle a full match anymore or remember much of anything. He knew the truth, but he was close friends with the same guys in the local promotion who were giving me trouble about my age. Since I was and still get booked more often than I can make it, it really doesn't matter. But it's kind of "Twilight Zone"--like to have this pocket of adversity that makes no sense at all. Otherwise, small quirky things, of course, but I was happily never dependent on any of it, so I was not open to some of the stuff that hurt others.

DP: What advice would you give people wanting to get into wrestling now?

RE: Train with the best. Kowalski's was great, probably still is. Chaotic, too, has a good school. I suspect Steve Bradlee's new school in New Hampshire is good because he is so great and a good guy. (I still think very fondly of the only match I ever had with Steve. A real pro even early on and a great pleasure to work with in and out of the ring.) Be prepared: it isn't easy. And, like all show business, get a good day job.

DP: What wrestlers, if any, did you grow up watching and admire?

RE: Lou Thesz, Lou Thesz, Lou Thesz (later, and just as obvious, Ric Flair who is a few years younger than me, and Chris Benoit who is a lot younger than me.)

DP: Do you like wrestling's present trend or wish it would go back to like it was in times gone by?

RE: I like them both. Different things for different times. It just great times for me and always was. I look forward to the next big upswing in popularity, though that will probably mean a downswing among the indys. What and who will make it happen?

DP: Closing comments?

RE: I have a a daughter, a son, a daughter-in-law, a grandson, and a wife who are the five smartest, nicest, most beautiful, honest, funniest and overall best people I know. They are my world and will be my world forever. They "get it." (The great thing about other pro wrestlers is that they get it too. And I'm not even sure what I mean.) It's still a great ride. . . .

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