Tony Atlas had the pro-wrestling world in his hands — and let it slip away.
A star from the late 1970s through the early ’90s, Atlas faded from the spotlight because of personal problems. His issues became so severe that he became homeless.
But unlike many of the drug-addled grapplers who have died prematurely, Atlas’ story seems headed toward a happy ending. He got his life in order, remarried and even returned to World Wrestling Entertainment for a 21-month managerial stint that ended in April.
Atlas chronicles this roller-coaster journey in his new autobiography, Atlas: Too Much . . . Too Soon (Crowbar Press).
“My life has been one big learning experience,” Atlas said in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted to write about something that nobody on the planet knows more than I do — self-responsibility. All my success in life I owed to thousands of people. The failures in life I owe to one person. I have to look at that person in the mirror every day.”
There was no physical specimen better to look at than Atlas in his prime. He wasn’t just a world-class bodybuilder before the pro-wrestling industry became flooded with them. The six-foot-two, 275-pound Atlas was athletic enough to throw a mean dropkick. He also embodied the “Mr. USA” nickname earned by winning the renowned bodybuilding competition of the same name.
Atlas, whose real name is Tony White, became a true American success story. He emerged from poverty in the rugged rural town of Low Moor, Va., to become one of wrestling’s top headliners. Atlas even scored a pinfall victory over a pre-Hulkamania Hulk Hogan at Madison Square Garden in 1981.
But just when he seemed primed for a world-title run, Atlas squandered the opportunity. At one point, Atlas admits to being more interested in doing hard-core drugs and satisfying his sexual addiction than wrestling. Atlas became so out of control that he acknowledges brandishing a gun in the WWE locker room after a spat with the late Andre the Giant.
Atlas would often miss bookings and the lucrative payoffs that came with them. Atlas wrote that WWE actually paid him not to attend the landmark Wrestlemania I pay-per-view show because of fears he would do something irresponsible with celebrities in attendance (S.D. Jones took Atlas’ place in a quickie loss to King Kong Bundy).
Atlas finally hit rock bottom in the late 1980s when work dried up with the independent promotion where he was performing. For six weeks, Atlas lived on the streets of Lewiston, Maine.
“When you’re homeless, you’ve got a lot of time to think,” Atlas said. “There’s nothing else to do.”
Ironically, Atlas was sleeping under a park bench when he met the woman who would turn his life around. Monika De Rance took Atlas to the hospital and allowed him to live with her — provided he stopped doing drugs and gained meaningful employment. Atlas did what she said and the couple later got married. When his WWE return under the name of Saba Simba ended in the early 1990s, Atlas became certified as a personal trainer and resumed part-time work on the independent circuit.
Atlas was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2006 and returned to the company the following year as a “goodwill ambassador” for public appearances. Atlas was later promoted to serve as a real-life caretaker for WWE grappler Mark Henry, who has long struggled with his weight.
Atlas appeared on WWE telecasts with Henry and Abraham Washington before being released in April. Atlas hopes to return to the company in some capacity, but is grateful to WWE owner Vince McMahon for giving him yet another chance to earn a living.
“I was only back for two years, but how many people in the world didn’t even have two years (with WWE)?” said Atlas, 56. “I went to France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland and England. Somebody paid for my expenses and I got paid to go. How can I complain?”
Admittedly one who responded well to authority figures in his youth, Atlas said one of his biggest regrets is his own lack of self-discipline. Atlas roared when asked how big a star he could have become if in his prime today and working for a WWE that now expects far more regimented behaviour for its talent through drug-testing and conduct enforcement outside the ring.
“Oh my goodness,” a laughing Atlas said. “Not to try and blow my own horn, but I would have been the most phenomenal thing this world has ever seen.”
“Atlas: Too Much . . . Too Soon” was co-written with renowned pro-wrestling historian Scott Teal. For more information, visit www.crowbarpress.com.
Alex Marvez writes a syndicated pro-wrestling column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at alex1marv(at)aol.com or follow him via Twitter at http://twitter.com/alexmarvez