With the days of the wrestling territories long gone, many wrestlers trying to pay their dues on the independent scene are relegated to “weekend warrior” status, picking up matches wherever they can and cobbling together a schedule from any combination of promoters that would give them not only ring time, but a taste of the road.
In Canada, there is one long-running tour that has been considered a true testament to paying dues. Held each year in February in the northern Canadian Province of Manitoba, wrestlers are jammed into two vans and taken on a campaign into the wilderness far from paved roads and the luxury of hotels. Instead they will travel miles upon miles through rough tundra and across the ice surface of the frozen lakes to wrestle on reservations that are inaccessible by road for 11 months of the year.
The tour, alternately known as the “Northern Hell Tour” and the “Death Tour” is promoted by veteran Winnipeg mat impresario Tony Condello and has showcased some of the biggest names in wrestling, exposing them to some of the harshest conditions imaginable, just to pay dues in professional wrestling.
The following are 15 wrestlers who have survived the Canadian Death Tour.
15. Johnny Swinger
Fresh out of the Ron Hutchison/Sweet Daddy Siki training camp in Toronto, a young Johnny Swinger was among a contingent to brave the elements of the Manitoba winter. Keep in mind that with no hotels, wrestlers were required to bring their own sleeping bags with them on this trip and sleep on gym mats in the school gymnasiums where they had performed only hours earlier. Readers might consider the impact on the body of the physically punishing matches and a lack of good rest for three straight weeks – the tour is not for those without tireless focus.
When Johnny Swinger arrived in WCW, he was having a conversation with a colleague about his wrestling journey and he started to tell of his experiences touring with Tony Condello. Upon overhearing the conversation, Scott Norton stopped in his tracks and interrupted the conversation to shake Swinger’s hand and tell everyone within earshot: “This guy has paid some real dues!”
14. Tony Condello
While not a household name himself, promoter Tony Condello’s quiet claim to fame is as the trainer that first introduced Roddy Piper to professional wrestling. Contrary to legend that Larry Hennig was Piper’s first opponent, that honor was Condello’s. Now 74 years old, Condello has made that trip each and every winter, braving the elements, breaking up fights in the locker room when hostilities flared, and enduring the same rough conditions as the crews that he books each and every year. When you consider that he is often running the box office, handling the ring announcing, and occasionally getting mixed up in the action between the ropes as well, you truly recognize that this guy is a tough son-of-a-gun. Many on this list carry fond memories of their tours with Condello, not for the matches or the living conditions, but because of Condello himself. He is a legend in his own right.
13. Eddie Watts
World Wrestling Council fans in Puerto Rico might best be familiar with the work of “Evil” Eddie Watts, who toured there during the 1990s and 2000s. On his first trip, Watts captured the WWC Television title, and when he returned a decade later, he snagged the tag team titles. Watts, no relation to famed wrestler/promoter Bill Watts, was a bulldog of a competitor with stays in Calgary, Vancouver, the Maritimes, Mexico, and Japan. His lone WWE appearance came in 2004 when he was pitted against Luther Reigns in Spokane, Washington on a SmackDown broadcast. Watts was a unique sort, relishing the rough conditions of the northern hell tour to sharpen his teeth, while working nightly and preparing himself for his international excursions. A multi-tour survivor, many up-and-comers would learn at the hands of the ring general Watts on their maiden voyage into the northern wilderness. Talk about a tough guy!
12. Cyrus the Virus
Fans who know Don Callis only for his time in WWE and ECW might not realize that for close to a decade, Callis reigned as the franchise player of Tony Condello’s Winnipeg promotion, campaigning as champion for much of his time on the circuit. Callis would be pitted against a parade of credible wrestling stars such as Jim Brunzell, Rick Martel, Chris Jericho, Ultimo Dragon and more as he ascended through the ranks. While Callis abstained from many of the northern tours, he did appear on a few. There, his reputation as a prankster, particularly at Condello’s expense, served to build a strong rapport with his colleagues. One night, Callis sprinkled crumbled potato chips into a sleeping Condello’s hair and set loose “Snoots,” a pot-bellied pig that was touring as a mascot for another wrestler, for a midnight snack. Hilarity ensued, for all but the agitated promoter who received a sudden and rude awakening.
11. The Bollywood Boyz
Most recently appearing as part of the WWE Cruiswerweight Classic, the brother duo of Gurv and Harv Sihra wrestled some of their earliest matches as a team in the remote northern communities that host the annual Condello tour. Interestingly, the first year that he appeared, the clean cut Gurv (long before he sported the beard that has become part of his signature look) was actually billed as Billy Three Feathers, an attempt to help build a rapport with the locals. While he was cheered on to victory by the ringsiders, his brother Harv, wrestling under his own name, was harshly confronted by the locals who said of the Indo-Canadian: “You’re not a real Indian, get off of my land!” Knowing the legend of the tour to break talent, since many wrestlers who participated would elect to pursue a different line of work after returning home, the Sihra brothers returned to do the tour a second year to prove that it had only strengthened their resolve to make it to the top.
By the time he was first signed to appear on the Death Tour, Winnipeg’s Rick Patterson had already successfully campaigned around the world. He had wrestled in Australia, South Africa, Mexico, the United States and all parts of Canada when an opportunity arose to fill a vacancy in Japan after the incarceration of Mike Kirchner. Patterson became Leatherface and would compete in some of the most punishing hardcore matches in wrestling history against Cactus Jack, Terry Funk, the Headhunters and Atsushi Onita.
However, barbed wire and flaming rings could not prepare him for the frigid conditions of the Canadian north, where temperatures drop to lower than minus fifty degrees Celsius. Add to that the stabbing pain of the wicked Winnipeg wind chills and you get a better picture of how tough Leatherface truly is. While he would appear again on other cards for Condello, he would make only one tour on the northern route.
Few fans know that prior to getting into professional wrestling, which was a chance introduction, Sarah Stock competed in the sport of kickboxing. She was a fierce competitor and when she had the opportunity to try her hand at professional wrestling, she pursued it with the same intensity. In her first year, she toured from coast to coast in Canada and she knew if she wanted to see how far she’d come, that meant surviving Condello’s infamous tour.
The tour creates an interesting challenge for wrestlers like Sarita who are very disciplined with their diet. Because there are so few restaurants in the host communities and the prices in the local grocery stores are so inflated, wrestlers are required to haul in their own rations for three weeks – requiring an additional bag. Sarita emerged from the test ready to tackle her next challenge, going on to become one of the biggest women’s wrestling stars in Mexico, and a title-winning knockout in TNA.
8. Joe Legend
Perhaps Canada’s greatest gift to the European wrestling scene (aside from George Gordienko) has to be Joe Legend. A graduate of the Ron Hutchison/Sweet Daddy Siki school, some of Legend’s first matches outside of Ontario took place for promoter Tony Condello. Nobody could have predicted Legend’s eventual success, owed in part because his early years seemed to be riddled with a succession of ring names as bookers tried to figure out how to best showcase this versatile performer. Still, Joe Legend’s career has now spanned more than two decades and has seen him compete in about every corner of the globe, focusing primarily on Europe.
Let’s not forget his name is in the history books as a member of the WWE roster known simply as “Just Joe.” Legend was among many from the Toronto wrestling scene to pay their dues on this grueling tour, some of which would ascend all the way to the WWE Hall of Fame.
7. Lance Storm
If you ask promoter Condello about Lance Storm, he’ll tell you that from the very earliest matches, he could see that this smooth-moving technician had a bright future, if only he could learn to get comfortable in front of the microphone. Some of Storm’s earliest appearances for Tony Condello were with tag team partner, Chris Jericho, but he also showcased himself well in one-on-one competition. Storm was a regular co-conspirator of Don Callis when the two would get together. Storm tells a story about a second run-in between Condello and “Snoots” the pot-bellied pig.
Once again, they had let the pig loose, but not before dripping some green food coloring into Condello’s hair. When he awoke to find the pig on the loose, the crew convinced him that the animal had urinated in his hair. It is a wonder that Condello didn’t serve up a roasted pork to the crew before the tour was over.
“I don’t think I was crying, but [Edge] says I was. Whatever, his story is funnier, but my version is true.” Many wrestlers to have made the trip with Condello after the year that Rhyno made the trip have heard the promoter’s version of events that the stocky Michigan wrestler simply “cracked up” as many had before him. Given the circumstances, as shared in video accounts by fellow travel-mates Edge and Christian, we couldn’t hold that against him. As mentioned in the introduction, this tour requires travel over miles and miles of frozen lakes. The conditions need to be ideal so that the ice is thick enough to support the weight of the vehicle and the designated roadways are regularly flooded in the same fashion as a hockey rink to ensure their travel-readiness. However, when the ring van veered from the safe path and ended up cracking the ice and lodging its front axle into the lake, lives were in peril. Whether Rhyno cried or not, we’ve seen his resilience in his ascent throughout the years since.
5. Scott Norton
Rhyno wasn’t the only wrestler to have a moment of crisis while on tour among the ice and snow. Former world arm wrestling champion Scott Norton made an appearance on the Death Tour in 1989, not long after his professional debut. Both Condello and Norton have different accounts of the trip. Norton recalled in a shoot interview how it was the most miserable trip that he had ever endured and he couldn’t wait to get out of there. Condello, for his part, relates that there had been a similar situation to Rhyno’s in which the school bus that the wrestlers were riding had become stuck in the ice. He says that Norton, the 300-pounder with arms bigger than the promoters legs was nowhere to be found as the rest of the crew rallied together to try to push the bus out – he was found in a hysterical state inside the bus, praying to see his family again.
If you’ve never traveled on icy roads before, you don’t know which sounds signal danger and which sounds are harmless. Promoter Condello counted on this whenever he introduced someone new to the tour and he would have some fun at their expense. He recalls with great glee when he ribbed Christian on his first trip to the north. The ice roads, propped up by the water pressure below, actually work because the momentum of the traveling vehicle above creates a small wave below the surface, which pushes back against the ice to create steady pressure and a safe trip. However, this relationship between the vehicle, the ice and the water does create movement in the ice and a gentle crackling sound. It’s counter-intuitive for many of us who know the danger that accompanies cracking ice. Condello would open his window and say “Hear that? This is it boys, we’re not going to make it.” Condello reports that Christian sat perched with his hand on the sliding door handle of the van ready to launch himself clear of the vehicle if the van started to descend through the ice.
3. Baron Von Raschke
For Baron Von Raschke, who had headlined against Bruno Sammartino in Madison Square Garden and had been a headliner for Verne Gagne’s AWA for decades, he had nothing to prove. There was no reason for Von Raschke to endure the conditions that he would face at nearly 60 years of age when he braved the elements to appear on the Death Tour. Condello has nothing but praise for the former AWA World tag team champion, whom he said was a true soldier through the whole experience and weathered the harsh conditions of the trip better than wrestlers in peak condition many years his junior. Over the years, Condello has tried to attract many recognized names from television to bring something new to these ticket buyers that have turned out annually for more than a generation, but few would take him up on it. Von Raschke may be the biggest name (for the time of his tour) to have ever survived the trip.
2. Kenny Omega
He may be regarded as one of the best free agents in professional wrestling today, but that is a status that didn’t come as a result of bypassing every opportunity to prove himself. The leading villain in New Japan Pro Wrestling today, Omega’s name keeps popping up everywhere it seems, and for good reason. With less than two years experience to his credit, Kenny Omega committed to test his mettle on the notorious Condello Death Tour. It was a major step in a succession of milestones that would follow in the years to come as he has made his name in Ring of Honor, and more recently, Japan. This rare photo catches the young Omega engaged in a pose down with the promoter Tony Condello during a moment of downtime between the matches somewhere along the tour. His participation in this tour as part of his journey is often omitted from the transcript of his ascent to where he stands today.
The fact that any fans are even aware of the Winnipeg promoter and this brutal tour can be attributed in large part to the WWE Hall of Famer, Edge. The controversial star on camera was always humble behind the scenes and never forgot from which he came. When he won his first WWE title, Edge was quoted in a newspaper interview remembering that his journey to the apex of professional wrestling started with trips to northern Manitoba, eating macaroni and cheese in Oxford House, Manitoba. Edge’s account of some of the harrowing moments of his own Death Tour experience was included on his DVD and has been excerpted for play in regular rotation as a between-program clip shown on the WWE network. While the tour played a small part in Edge’s fame, Edge himself has contributed a great deal to perpetuating the legend of the trip that has made and broken many superstars in their pursuit of a career in wrestling.
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