IN THE FALL OF 1994, when I was 21, I made the trip south from Iowa down I-35 to Texas. I was starting my wrestling training on Commerce Street in downtown Dallas at Doug’s Gym.
What I wasn’t expecting were the financial lessons I picked up from some of the colorful professional wrestlers of that era.
Doug’s Gym wasn’t air-conditioned. It had a classic collection of weights and machines. I felt transported back in time, using the same equipment that Jack LaLanne and Steve Reeves would have used decades before.
Doug Eidd still owned and ran the old-school gym, which he opened in 1962. The building was across the street from the police station where Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald days after President Kennedy’s assassination.
I was there to meet Doug’s cousin, Skandor Akbar or, as we called him, Ak. His real name was Jim Wehba, and he was 60. He had the brawn, broken-down knees and walk of a retired professional wrestler.
As I began to train and spend time at Doug’s Gym, we would get visitors. They all came to hear Ak’s stories. It became clear that Ak was good with his money. He was not wealthy. But over the years, he had made a good income working in some of the major wrestling territories.
He’d spent time in New York working for Vince McMahon Sr. He’d made a good living there, despite missing out on the chance to have a Main Event program with the Italian-born strongman and champion Bruno Sammartino. Fellow Texan Stan Hansen broke Sammartino’s neck in Madison Square Garden, costing Ak his big payday.
Instead of New York glory, Ak had extended stays in Georgia, Australia and the Dallas office of a promoter who had wrestled under the name Fritz Von Erich. But his home base became Mid-South Wrestling. Mid-South was a big territory that covered the states of Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of Texas.
Eventually, in the late 1970s, Ak transitioned out of the ring to become a manager. He participated in a great era of wrestling and made good money until the oil bust of 1987. That’s when Vince McMahon Jr.’s national expansion caused the old territory system to dry up.
Unlike most wrestlers of that era, Ak saved his money. He lived frugally, though he always spent money on quality cars. He explained that he depended on a car’s reliability to get him to his bookings. Besides, he spent so much time driving, he wanted to be comfortable.
A second big expense for Ak was taxes. Many wrestlers of that era failed to pay their quarterly taxes, so they often fell behind. Fines would follow from the IRS, so they would dig themselves into an even deeper hole.
Since Ak paid his Social Security payroll taxes, he received benefits in his golden years. He also made a little cash from small wrestling bookings and the students he trained. Ak lived in a paid-off house, so he was comfortable.
On the wall of Doug’s Gym was a tattered picture of another legendary wrestler, Bruiser Brody. Doug told me on my first day at the gym that he missed his deceased friend Bruiser, whose real name was Frank Goodish. Bruiser was another grappler known for his frugal ways.
Bruiser ate tuna fish right out of the can to provide cheap, quality protein to his massive 6-foot 5-inch, 300-pound frame. If he was paying for a hotel room, Bruiser shared it whenever possible—along with the car rides to the next town.
On the income side, Bruiser insisted on getting his full value when it was time to get paid. He often butted heads with promotors over his demands. He made a fortune for that time, earning more than $15,000 a week during tours of Japan. Tragically, Bruiser was stabbed to death backstage at a wrestling event in Puerto Rico in 1988.
The final Texas wrestler who gave me a lesson in finance was John Layfield. In January 1995, Layfield came into the gym to work out with us. He wanted to keep his cardio in shape for his weekly title matches at The Sportatorium, an old Dallas wrestling venue.
Layfield was flat broke then. He was signed as a free agent with the then-Los Angeles Raiders, but was released before the season. A year of football in the World League hadn’t amounted to much. Independent wrestling in Texas wasn’t paying well at the time. As he approached 30, Layfield was banking on his athletic background—and his 6-foot 6-inch frame—to make it to the big time in professional wrestling.
The transformation he made from that first day in Doug’s Gym was amazing. After that practice session, I saw Layfield climb the ranks to WWE Champion, earning six figures. That was impressive but not surprising, given his talent and drive.
It was his stock-picking abilities and business mind that transformed Layfield into a wealthy man. He’s been a featured financial commentator, first on CNBC and later on Fox Business Network. He began to run in circles that allowed him to meet his current wife, Meredith Whitney, a prominent investment manager.
Those of us who enjoy reading and discussing money can find lessons in frugality and creating wealth everywhere. Even in a dusty old iron dungeon like Doug’s Gym, surrounded by sweaty, professional wrestlers living the circus life.
Juan Fourneau’s goal is to retire at age 55. When he isn’t at his manufacturing job, he enjoys reading about personal finance and investing. Juan, who is married with two children, can still be seen in the ring on the independent professional wrestling circuit. He wrestles as a Mexican Luchador under the name Latin Thunder. Follow him on Twitter @LatinThunder1. Juan’s previous articles were Why I Won’t Wait and Taking on Tenants.