Body slams in the barbershop

The door on the front of Emerson Studio opens with a light jingle, but it might as well be the ringing of a bell. When you step inside this Hamilton barbershop, you’re entering the squared circle with one of Canada’s iron men of professional wrestling: Terry Morgan.

I sit down and patiently wait my turn to get in the old-school leather barber chair. This gives me a chance to survey the unpretentious little shop in the heart of McMaster University’s off-campus housing neighbourhood.

Along the shop’s front window ledge is a line of hard rubber wrestling figures circa 1980-something, which share the space with a traditional red, white and blue barbershop pole. Inside, there are two big chairs, but only the one in front of the wide mirror is ever used. The other is usually taken up by a friend of Morgan’s, someone from a long, wildly varied list of cronies, cohorts and contacts. Empty wall space is minimal; most of it is taken up with framed wrestling event flyers, newspaper articles and autographed, sealed wrestling figure packages, signed by superstars like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan. A large humidor, a bookcase stuffed full of wrestlers’ autobiographies, a giant steel cash register which, judging by the wear and tear, might be pre-war – the popular Emerson Studio is a curious mish-mash, one part barbershop and several parts professional wrestling museum.

At the center is Morgan himself, a former professional wrestler who still maintains a Hamilton celebrity status. His career spans two and a half decades, the bulk of which was spent performing backbreaking labour over countless exhausting hours.

It began nearly 35 years ago when Morgan, a 15-year old kid, met the late Dewey Robertson, the legendary Canadian wrestler known as The Missing Link. Robertson convinced Morgan, who had just started lifting weights at nearby McMaster, to come to Burlington and work out at his gym.

Morgan, who still speaks with the dramatic flair that he no doubt honed from years of jabbering on the ring mic, recalls those first days in The Link’s gym.
“I used to go there all the time to work out. But in the center of that gym was a big wrestling ring. There were guys there from all over, y’know. Dewey was one of the big, top wrestlers in Canada at the time.”

“He had two young boys that were the same age as me and off we’d go into the ring. We’d duplicate what the wrestlers did to each other in there until we got really good at it. Once it got into my system and I was in the ring, it was really neat.”

By now, it was the late 70’s. Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation was emerging from the inter-promotional scuffle at the time as the premier professional wrestling
organization. But before Morgan could move up to the big times, he had to cut his teeth in Texas where he worked with the now defunct Wild West Wrestling. At 18 years old, Morgan had already trained with some of the best in the business and had gained invaluable in-ring experience. So it wasn’t long after he moved back to Canada that the WWF called him right back down to the States.

“The WWF needed guys to come in and work with the bigger guys, to do their dark matches and their TV matches,” Morgan explained. “So off I went. I was working with guys like Randy Savage, Jake Roberts, Adrian Adonis. And a guy like me, that’s what these guys wanted. A guy who wasn’t gonna hurt them and they knew they weren’t gonna hurt me.”

It was grueling lifestyle, not nearly as glamorous as it seemed to the fans. Injuries were commonplace, almost expected to happen every time a wrestler stepped in the ring. This is in direct contrast with the widely perceived notion that wrestling is somehow “fake.”

“Well, first off, what people don’t understand is that it’s not acting,” Morgan said, becoming a little more animated than usual. “We’re professional athletes. We train for this every single day. We train for years even before we get in the ring. None of it is fake at all. Our bodies take a beating. My body now as I’m getting older in my life, hurts a lot more. I find that it’s breaking down a lot more. I’ve got to train every day.”

Morgan recalls taking his fair share of the bumps.

“I’ve had my legs broken, fingers broken, nose broken six times, numerous amounts of concussions, bruised kidneys, ribs cracked, teeth knocked out… There was always a doctor on staff. We had access to a doctor that looked after us, did enough for us guys so that we could get ourselves going back in the ring or get to a hospital. But as for [major medical attention], that was all on our own.

“I came off the top rope in an arena once, jumped off the top rope onto the concrete floor and landed with both feet at the same time. Smashed both the balls of my feet. Down on the floor I went and I was in excruciating pain. And I still had a couple more weeks of the tour to go, but I couldn’t even walk. So me and the guy, we continued the match. I had a pretty hard time doing it but as a professional, I had to entertain everybody.”

Touring was rough on the wrestlers, too. After a night of body slamming and drop kicking one another, they’d head back to their motel for a short sleep and then it was off to another venue in the morning. Back then, hopping on a plane and zipping off to the next city wasn’t an option for everyone; if it was the early 80’s in the WWF and your name wasn’t Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant or Randy Savage, chances are you’d be cramming yourself into a vehicle with 5 or 6 other tired, beat-up men and driving a few hundred kilometers to your next show.

Morgan, the designated driver amongst a small group of wrestlers, would collect gas money in the locker room, pack all the guys into a van and drive “200-500 kilometers every single day” just to get to the next arena so they could perform the same show as the night before all over again.

The injuries. The traveling. Being away for Christmas every year. What kept Morgan coming back was a sense of dedication to the nameless masses that cheered his name.

“It’s the people,” he said. “That’s what it was. Once it gets into your belly, and you hear it from probably 99% of the guys, it’s all the people. We’re entertainers first. We’re professional athletes and we love to entertain.”

But after taking so much punishment for so long, even the roar of the crowd couldn’t keep Morgan coming back forever. All the stress of leading the life of a professional wrestler got to him and after over a decade of headlocks, he called it quits and retired.
It was the first of three retirements.

A year later, Morgan was back in Hamilton, lopping off hair with scissors instead of heads with clotheslines. Despite being on the road for so long, he had still managed to keep alive the barbershop he owned back home. But for whatever reason – maybe he had just seen enough messy mops of hair on lazy McMaster University students – the call of the wrestling ring brought him back to the fray yet again.

This time, it was with World Championship Wrestling, an organization owned by billionaire Ted Turner that gave the WWF a run for its money in the early 90’s. Morgan wrestled there for eight years, leaving just a few months before the WCW folded and was bought up by Vince McMahon and the WWE (formerly the WWF, which had changed its name after a lawsuit from the World Wildlife Federation).

At the time, the only other notable wrestling organization besides the WWE was the infamously hardcore Extreme Championship Wrestling, the promoter of which approached Morgan sometime in the mid-to-late 90’s.

He recalls that encounter with a laugh. “They asked me to come into the ECW. I ended up talking to a buncha guys in the ECW and they said, ‘you know, that’s a rough place to go. You’re a good lookin’ guy and once you finish with the ECW, you’re not gonna be a good lookin’ guy no more.’”

Morgan retired again, only to be lured back into the ring a short time later. He wrestled on the indie circuit for a few years before deciding that at age 40, he really, finally had had enough. He Morgan retired again, only to be lured back into the ring a short time later. He wrestled on the indie circuit for a few years before deciding that at age 40, he really, finally had had enough. He Morgan retired again, only to be lured back into the ring a short time later. He wrestled on the indie circuit for a few years before deciding that at age 40, he really, finally had had enough. He Morgan retired again, only to be lured back into the ring a short time later. He wrestled on the indie circuit for a few years before deciding that at age 40, he really, finally had had enough. He says the decision to hang up his boots after 25 years in the business was a defensive strategy.

“By the third time, I had enough. My body had enough. My body was breaking down really bad. I didn’t want to be the guy in the locker room that everybody said, ‘phew, I hope he’s going soon.’”

Now, ten years later, Morgan runs a successful business, has a wife and two children, and he’s never been happier. His kids, too young to have ever seen him in action, ask questions about the pictures of their dad being Tombstoned by the Undertaker or locked up in the Sharpshooter by Bret Hart. For Morgan, he wishes he could have shown them the real thing.
“I would love to get back in the ring,” Morgan said with a wistful smile. “I have a 5 year old and an 8 year old now. I’d love to be able to take them to the arena, to go out as myself with my wrestling gear on, and wrestle a match to show them what I did. But I don’t think my body could handle it anymore,” he laughed.

After Morgan and I spoke, and as I was leaving his barbershop, I was struck by a new understanding of what Emerson Studio represents. It’s not a professional wrestling museum, as I first theorized. It’s a way for Morgan to stay connected to his past, and to promote the future of an industry for which he still holds a great deal of passion. It’s a way for him to show his unending respect for “the guys,” the wrestlers who worked tirelessly to get fans out of their seats and cheering (or booing). For Morgan, I think that barbershop embodies all the things for which he bled and sweat over two and a half decades of his life, from the indie circuit championship belt that he still has to the wallet-sized picture of his two kids that he keeps taped to the cash register.

When I asked if he’d ever consider getting back in the ring, he flashed a knowing smile and told me that his body couldn’t handle it. Maybe he was just messing with me; it wouldn’t be the first time. But something tells me that even after all these years out of the business, his body may have given up, but Terry Morgan’s mind refuses to let the ref count to three.

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