WWE Hall of Famer George "The Animal" Steele on battling dyslexia, leading a double life as a wrestler and a teacher, his relationship with the McMahon family, Randy Savage feud
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On what inspired him to write his autobiography 'Animal': "Well, wrestling was very, very good to me and my family. But the book, the book really is wrestling. I think I give some good insight on wrestling. But it’s also an insight on my life. I open up some wounds that I probably could have done, well, without doing. But if the book helps anyone that’s having a learning disability, a health problem, financial problem, it’s all in there. So I just hope that it can really help somebody, if anything else."
On his struggles with dyslexia and the methods there were to rehabilitate it many years ago: "There was absolutely none. Zero. Nobody had an idea what it was. People that were dyslexic back then was just dumb, sit in the back of the room and be quiet. Especially if you’re bigger than everybody else, now you’re big, dumb, sit in the back of the room and be quiet."
On how hard it was to lead a double life of being a teacher and a wrestler: "Oh, that was…that wasn’t hard at all! My lifestyle because of the dyslexia and later on getting into a few street fights and so on, kind of opened up the door for that. Then when I got to Michigan State and they found out I wasn’t as dumb as they thought I was in high school and grade school, things started to blossom in that direction. And then as I grew as a wrestler in the WWWF and later on the WWF, my confidence grew which made me a better teacher and coach and better person probably. So it all kind of glued together. And the neat thing about it back then everything in the wrestling business was in territories. So when George Steele was wrestling in New York or in the North East, they didn’t know that back in Michigan. Back in Michigan he was wearing a mask and was a student. So you know the students really never knew what was going on. Occasionally, a student from the North East would move into the Madison Heights area and I’d see people gathered around him. And I knew what was coming. He’d have a program and say there he is. So they’d come to me and say is that you? You’re a wrestler, you’re George Steele. And I’d simply look at it and say do you really think I’m that ugly?"
On how George 'The Animal' Steele came about:
Well, the name is. I was wrestling around Michigan with a mask on. I was spotted and taken into Pittsburgh. And they didn’t want me to use my mask. I did not want to use my real name because of the teaching and coaching. So Johnny DeFazio, one of the guys there said well this is the steel city, let’s call him Jim Steele. I didn’t like the Jim, somebody else said George. So George Steele is only about 46 years old now. So that’s how I got the name. And then the character. You know now-a-days they have a creation team that develops talent. Everything that happened with me happened by accident. One of the things I’m always asked about is why did you have a fetish for turnbuckles? For lack of a better way of saying it. And what happened there, this is back in the black and white TV days in ’67. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania they had their wrestling promotion in a studio, channel 11 studio. And they would put plywood around the outside of the ring, sit people in front of it. Now the plywood was painted black and they had faces on it so it made the crowd look bigger. I mean we’re talking about old, old wrestling. Vince (McMahon) would die if they did that today. They would give away a gift now and then to get fans to come there for the promotion.
"This particular Saturday afternoon, they gave away couch pillows. Satin couch pillows from the ‘60s, packed real tight. So we’re in the match and somebody got mad at me, I think it was a lady and she threw her pillow at me. So what am I gonna do? If I sit on it, it’s going to be boring. If I throw it back, I’m gonna get bombed with 300 of them. So I took it and I bit it. And it exploded so I started throwing the stuffing up in the air and it come down and stuck. It’s lighter than air so it stuck in my hair, I looked like the abominable snowman. And then I put it over my opponents head and started choking him. When I pulled it off because the stuffing was lighter than air, it almost killed him.
"So I go to the dressing room and wrestlers being like wrestlers are back then, they all laugh and said Gee, you almost killed that one. If you get someone to throw a pillow sometime, that was really exciting. And about two weeks later, three weeks later, I was wrestling a guy you’ve probably heard of. He always had exciting matches. Our match was just boring, it was not working. Chief Jay Strongbow. How do you have a boring match with him? Anyhow. I looked over at the turnbuckle, I went over and there’s an old Everlast turnbuckle. I took a bite out of it, tore his head, rubbed it in his face, ran his head into the turnbuckle. From kind of a flat match, we had a riot. So from then on, the turnbuckles did become a bit of a fetish."
On his relationships with Vince McMahon, Sr. and Vince McMahon, Jr.: "Vince Sr. was one of the most honest, respectable people I’ve ever been around. Next to a father figure, he was it. I broke down and cried when I heard he died. We were very close. Whenever I came in, I would usually ride with him and Vince Jr. and Ernie Rob, who was the wizard of oz. The grand wizard of wrestling which is a wizard of oz. And we would sit and chat. I think the reason that Vince Sr. took a liking to me was because I was not just another wrestler but I was a teacher and a coach and was involved in other sports. One of our rides, the Washington Redskins signed a little guy by the name of Andre the Giant, to play football. And they wanted to use him in a cartoonish way to put him in the middle of the field on field goals and extra points and stand up and try to block em like he was, you know the guy hanging on the Empire State building, the gorilla hanging on there, swatting at things. That’s kind of what it was like, how they wanted to use him. And I told Vince Sr. I wouldn’t do that.
"Because of my football background, they know if you put a guy standing in front of me, swatting at extra points and field goals, I would take his knee out. It be very vulnerable. And the Redskins, I think wanted to use it as a gimmick, a good publicity stunt for wrestling too. But they never did it. And I think that was a good call. Those kinds of things are what we talked about when I was writing. Back then the business was a family type, out of the backroom type business. When Vince Jr. took over, things were changing drastically in the business world. So wrestling became part of the corporate world. Which changed everything. I was an agent after I quit wrestling and I really found it was all passing me by, I gotta be honest. As a corporate world, wrestlers were signing contracts so they become part of the company. We used to be—we never signed contracts. We were free agents. We had nothing except the payday of that show. And by the same token, we had a thing called kayfabe. And if somebody was doing something that would destroy our business in any way since it was our business, as individual wrestlers, that person would not last very long. He would probably get hurt in the ring, he’d get beat up a little bit, he would not be around very long.
"When it became a corporate world, it became more of a side contracts, not your business and I think a lot of the old school respect was lost. Vince Jr. didn’t destroy kayfabe, the contracts did. The times did. It could’ve been Vince, it could’ve been any one of the promoters at any one of the areas. It could’ve been WCW, anyone. When they went to contracts in the WCW, kayfabe was out the window. That happened across the board when guys started getting on contracts. I can remember the British Bulldogs. You remember they had a dog by the name of Matilda? And Matilda they would take her to the ring and she chase the bad guys. Ok, going into the arena the bulldogs didn’t like Matilda and the heels was the ones who brought her into the arena in front of everybody. That’s breaking kayfabe. And they’re using the dog to do it, but what can I say? But again, it was all passing me by. It was a totally different respect for the business. Not saying disrespect. Just a totally different business. I get asked a lot about the way it used to be and how much better it is now or how much better it was back then than it is now. And again, I don’t see it that way. I see that I was fortunate to be part of laying a great foundation for a great business. Vince McMahon Jr. is a great business man. A great promoter and a great marketer. In the ‘80s, the WWF were making more money on their merchandise than they were in the NFL. That’s huge. That’s really huge."
On the WWE now trying to please everyone and not succeeding by leaning towards being a family friendly product: "I don’t want to go quite that far with it because again they got a great following. What Vince Jr. did, and I remember Vince Jr. and Bruno Sammartino doing commentary together. And Bruno would refer to it as the world’s champion and Vince McMahon Jr. would say no, it’s the WWF champion. And they use to argue over that. Well what Vince Jr. was doing, he was setting up the brand. Now let’s look at wrestling from the way it is today. And this is not a knock. Cause I’ll talk about the athletes in a minute. Wrestling today, is like the circus coming to town. Instead of calling it the circus, they call it the WWE is coming to town. Whose wrestling is not always that important. It’s the brand name that is important now. Which is what I think is going on.
"They got everything you could have in the circus. They got their wrestlers—people ask and they go oh you guys were better than they are. No they’re better athletes than we were. Big time. You’re never going to see George Steele get on the top rope and do three flips. That ain’t going to happen. But we were tougher. Of course we had to be. It was a different business. I think that Madison Square Garden is a good example. How many times do they come to Madison Square Garden now over the course of a year? Maybe two or three times. That’s like the circus coming to town. Am I not right? Ok when I was wrestling and Bruno, Bobby Backland and Pedro Morales and everybody else in that era, we were in the Garden every three weeks. And selling it out. Why don’t they come every three weeks now? They probably couldn’t because it’s a different business. Totally different business."
On how someone as intelligent as Jim Meyers could create someone as opposite as George Steele: "Let’s say I was in a main event at Madison Square Garden on a Saturday night. I come home Sunday and I’m gonna be on the football field on Monday with a whistle around my neck. My wife had this process of we have to get George in the box and get Jim OUT of the box. And that mentally had to happen cause it was a huge swing in personalities. When I first came to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, the WWWF, I did my own interviews. And I was very articulate. Along the way they called me, the first year I was in there they called me I think it was George 'The Destroyer' Steele. And the next time it was George 'The Bruiser' Steele. I didn’t like either one of them. But the people, because of the hair, the body; I was pretty viscous looking, started calling me an animal. And I’d get on the microphone using my intelligence and say I’m not an animal, I’m a people.
"As soon as I did that, the more they would call me the animal. And finally about the third or fourth year the WWF picked up on the animal thing. So that was not created, it just happened by the fans. The fans are the greatest creation team. Now, take that to a step farther. The first year I came in they knew I was only going to be there two and a half months. I was going back and teaching. It was always a part time job with me. So they didn’t waste a manager on me. That’s why I did my own interviews, I didn’t have a manager. All the other heels had managers. The second time in I did not have a manager. The third time in they give me the Grand Wizard and the reason being was I was getting over so good, they wanted to keep the name hot while I was back teaching and coaching. So every once in a while something would be said about George 'The Animal' Steele when I wasn’t there. And then finally about four years later, Vince Jr. is now doing the announcing and he’s becoming part of the team. And I’m doing--I think it was with Freddy Blassie. And Freddy’s talking and I’m talking, we’re both being very articulate for two wrestlers. And Vince looked at me and said you’re making too much sense for an animal. Which kind of irritated me to be honest. So I looked at him and we’re gonna do a retake. I don’t like to do retakes. The camera comes on and I go (makes incoherent noises). And I make that face, look up like I’m nuts (more incoherent noises), just to rip him. And he said to me that’s what I want. So that’s how that was developed."
On if it was the right time to turn him face in the mid '80s:
"I’m not sure. I hear that all the time. I’m not sure if I ever really was a face. I mean I kept doing crazy things. Throwing the chairs in the ring, and getting disqualified and yada yada yada. I just did it in a matter where people felt sorry for me. And here’s the funny thing now. George Steele got me, Jim Meyers, in a lot of trouble. We were driving up, this is later on. I call it the cartoon George. We’re driving up to a show in California. My wife is driving. Four or five kids of eight or nine years old and kids used to see me as one of them, when I was doing that character.
"These kids come running up, ‘George! George!’ and then they looked at my wife and said ‘Is that your mother?’ Now we got trouble. My wife doesn’t like that at all. And then it got to the point where--I lived across the street from where I coached. The football field. So if all the legends of --the coach. Everyone knew who the coach was back there--Jim Meyers. Kids would come after I started doing the TV stuff and the cartoon character, would come to the door and ‘George! George! Can George come out and play?’ Right across the street from where I coached! So the kids really bought into it, the young kids really. I used to walk into arenas and they say don’t touch the chairs. You’ll get DQ’d. And I’d tell myself I have 6 year olds coaching me."
On how over the top Randy Savage was about the Miss Elizabeth storyline: "Well, yeah, he did but I think I made that pretty clear in the book. I recognize Randy as a pro. We worked almost every night for two years. So we had our spats, it’s a marriage. Every marriage has some spats. And again it was at the right time. Randy was the new era coming in. I’m the old school leaving. And that’s really what made it work. And Randy the first time ever we were gonna work each other, came up with about five pages written out of a match. Now I told you earlier I call everything in the ring. First of all, for him to give me that and tell me this is what we’re gonna do, I thought it was disrespectful. Cause I’ve been there, I’ve done it. You’re a new kid on the block, son. So that’s how I felt about it. So I took each page, I read it and threw it in the garbage can. He saw me do that and he was like hey! Hey! The more I did it, the madder he got.
"And then I said to him just listen to me in the ring, I’ll call it in the ring, and we’ll have a great match. And that didn’t sit real well with him. But that’s the way it was. Later on as two years go, we did a lot of things the same. The same things but maybe a different time in the match. It was never choreographed. He was very, very jealous about Elizabeth. So that made it work. I would look at--he would be saying something and I would say to him you know relax, randy. I got a daughter over there. And then as he would leave to go to the ring I’d say I have a great presence of these young broads around here. Just to get him fired up again. I played with him a little bit. He was really fired up for it. Really fired up. I hated to see the divorce and all that happened to Elizabeth. That was terrible. But both of them were a huge part of what I call my swan’s song. My run with Randy was really the end of my wrestling career. We had a little bit of a run after that, but basically that’s what people remember. That’s what I remember."
On if Randy Savage/ Ricky Steamboat at Wrestlemania III is one of the greatest matches of all-time: "You’re talking to the wrong guy. I’ll tell you why. I lived about 18 miles from the Silverdome. Do you think for one second that George 'The Animal' Steele at that big event wanted to be standing in somebody’s corner? No way, Jose. I wanted to be--I wanted to have a match. I didn’t care with who. It could’ve been with Vince. I didn’t care but I’d rather have been in a match than standing in a corner in my backyard. Does that make sense? So now when I watch the match. They had been talking this match for three weeks. I was sick of it. Because I don’t talk matches. It was probably the greatest match of all time for the fans. The only thing I liked about the match I got to stand across the ring and look at Elizabeth. People are always asking me why I was so smitten over Elizabeth. Its very simple. I’ve been married to my wife for 58 years. She is a beauty and she’s wonderful and she does not like to do windows. I was trying to get a window washer."
On what can be done to make the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame be a bigger and better thing for pro wrestling fans: "First of all, I gotta say upfront. We’re not competing with the WWE Hall of Fame. We can’t afford it. We are a non-profit organization. We are a grass roots organization. But like every other Hall of Fame, including baseball, basketball, boxing, you could go on and on and on. We do have a building. It is a museum. So we have two buildings actually. Four stories now. And we put paraphernalia in there. When the guys come--first of all, most of them just think that’s another one of those gimmick things. Once they see it, they’re a fan for life. Bruno went into the WWE Hall of Fame this year, recently. The year before he wet into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
"And he said now this is the real thing. He understood it. The first time he showed up was before he was inducted, a long time ago, but when he got a look at it, he knew what we were doing, he understood it. So it’s just totally a different thing. I don’t know if there is a way to make it more popular. I’m not even sure that it should be, to be honest with you. What I like about it is I see old timers come in, they see their pictures and they cry. Now we’re not just honoring Hall of Famers. I was one of the founders of this. And it’s my take that a wrestler, I don’t care how good they are or what name they’ve got. If a certain guy made them look good. A lot of guys call them jobbers and job men. I call them carpenters because they build the talent. And we respect those people too. We’ve got pictures of everybody in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. We’ve got a great website that we are still building but we got a great website that is www.pwhf.org. And I think anyone who takes a chance and goes over there and looks at it will be more interested in maybe coming to an induction or whatever."
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