Wrestlers Jesse Ventura and Adrian Adonis Discover the Good Life as Bad Guys
"We can slice 'em and dice 'em like Veg-O-Matics," says Adonis with unconcealed pride. "I got charisma, I'm arrogant and I know scientific holds." He concedes that fans "think we're queer" because of the team's provocative professional garb, but offers no apologies for his work in the ring. "We're unbeatable from Oakland to New York," he says. "Supreme."
In fact, Adonis and Ventura do win most matches, but what counts—and pays—in the ring isn't win-lose but love-hate. "We're the rule breakers," says the gregarious Ventura. "It's something a wrestler finds out early, an inner ability to piss people off. I do it easy." Such abrasiveness, of course, has its drawbacks. "I've had knives pulled on me and been spit on," says Ventura, "had cigarettes mashed into my skin, eggs thrown at me, my tires slashed, threats against my life. I took a BB shot near the eye once. That just pumps us up."
The passion that produces such violence also swells wrestling purses. The East-West Connection, as Adonis and Ventura call themselves, earns "well over a hundred thou a year each," says the Body. "I'm in it for the money, no question." As a team, the two receive fees of up to $10,000 a match, and, like only a very few top-draw stars, each gets a cut of the gate. "We need the fans," says Ventura, "but that don't mean I gotta like 'em. I've grown a great dislike for 'em." So, it appears, has Adonis. "Money's tight," he says with a shrug. "People need to take out their frustrations. The American people are sickos who love violence and the sight of blood."
As for the charge that pro wrestling is fakery—a subject most safely broached with wrestlers by phone—Ventura is quick to deny it. "Seven years ago the Body didn't have a scar," he maintains, displaying a battle-marked torso. "When I bleed, it's my blood. I wish there was a way to fake a body slam." Golden Boy, too, has taken his lumps—five nose breaks, battered vertebrae and torn knee cartilage. "One thing is sick with me," he concedes. "I'm starting to squeeze my stitches. I'm beginning to enjoy the pain."
Adonis' battles began early in life. Born on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he was raised in the Buffalo area by his adoptive parents, Kenneth and Kay Franke. The Golden Boy, then known as Keith Franke, hated schoolwork, had the grades to prove it, and engaged in gang fights every day after school. Giving up on school during his senior year, he played semipro football in Canada before setting off to learn his trade as a wrestler. For several months the migrant muscleman offered $5,000 to anyone in arenas in Texas who could pin him in under 10 minutes. He never lost. His pursuit of glory finally took him to Portland, Oreg., where he met the equally hungry Ventura.
Born Jim Janos, Ventura, the son of a Minneapolis municipal worker, was a local record holder in the 100-yard butterfly for his high school swim team before graduating in 1969. He then joined the Navy's elite Sea, Air and Land (Seals) unit after completing rigorous underwater demolition training. He survived 34 parachute jumps, worked as a frogman, and went on missions behind enemy lines in Vietnam, where in all he served 17 months. "What I did there," he says, a tad ominously, "is between me and the Man Upstairs."
Returning to Minnesota in 1974, he tried a year of college but quit. After straying into his first wrestling match—"in the front row with all the nuts"—he stepped up his weight training to acquire his 56-inch chest and 21-inch arms, sent out photos to promoters, and shrewdly settled on his new name, Ventura. "It sounds California," he explains. "People generally hate California." Soon he was heading to Kansas City to launch his career, down to his last $200.
More prosperous these days, the wrestlers live minutes apart in southern Connecticut, though Adonis has a house near Bakersfield, Calif. and Ventura still calls Minneapolis home. Each is married, has a young child, and works out daily in a local gym. But East and West rarely connect socially. "We have our ups and downs," says Jesse. "And different life-styles." Besides, says Adrian, "We see enough of each other on the tour."
Adonis' taste in out-of-the-ring entertainment runs to rock music and "violent" films, either on cassette or on cable TV. Ventura, who bodyguarded part-time for the touring Rolling Stones last year, keeps up with the news and works with an antidraft group in the Twin Cities. He has a glib, growling and broadly informed political consciousness. ("Al Haig scares me; he's like Darth Vader," he says. "They should put him on grass for a year.")
Whereas Adonis feels he needs wrestling ("If I left the contact of the game, I'd end up a maniac on the street or in a bar"), Ventura does not. He'd rather be home watching son Tyrel, 2½, grow up, and running the Minneapolis gym he named after himself. "The Body won't be wrestling two years from now," he vows. Still, if Vietnam helped turn Ventura against war and the draft, wrestling has instilled in him—and in Adonis—a passionate fondness for the free enterprise system. "Kids always ask me at draft rallies if I'm a Communist," he says. "I tell them, 'No way.' My partner and me are exploiting the capitalist system to the max."
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