Dutch Savage is breaking my arm.
Looming over me like a windmill, he's got my forearm bent back against my shoulder so that my elbow's tight as a drum. One more ounce of pressure and it's going to snap.
"I could pop that joint in a second," he says, grinning at the startled expression frozen on my face.
My forehead prickles with sweat. Sure, Savage retired from the pro-wrestling ring three decades ago, cleaned up his act and is now in real estate. Sure, he's a born-again Christian. Sure, he's pushing 70.
But there's still enough menace in those steely blue eyes that I can't be certain he won't squeeze that extra ounce--just for fun--and crack my arm like a chicken bone.
The first time Savage stepped into the squared circle was in Macon, Ga., in 1963. He was 28 years old.
He had held a conventional job at DuPont Chemical until his brother talked him into trying his hand as a professional wrestler.
Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing in at a burly 250 pounds, Savage was a natural choice. He had played baseball and basketball for the Air Force, and had some experience in amateur wrestling.
His first opponent was Al "Spider" Geletto, a withered relic with the face of a gorilla, who sported wool leggings. "I thought, this'll be a piece of cake," Savage remembers.
Moments later, Geletto had him trussed up like a turkey.
"He walked me up and down the ring like a lawnmower for eight minutes," Savage says. "He kept asking, 'Do you love me? Do you love me?' And I'd have to yell, 'I love you, Spider!'"
That night, as Savage was carried from the ring, he made a solemn vow never to wrestle again.
But two days later, a check arrived for $800--and he was on his way to becoming a star.
Savage moved to Portland in 1966 and built up a reputation as one of the nation's toughest grapplers. Then as now, wrestlers came in two flavors--baby-faces and heels. Savage was a heel.
"He looked the part," says retired promoter Ivan Kafoury. "He had a mean-looking disposition."
Savage tangled with all the old greats--Tony Borne, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Playboy Buddy Rose and Jimmy Snuka. He was crowned Pacific Northwest champion 16 times. He wrestled in Tokyo. He wrestled in Seoul. He once wrestled a bear. He broke in a young kid named Jesse Ventura.
Wrestling matches were often fixed but seldom choreographed--and there was nothing phony about the injuries. Savage killed the pain with booze and pills.
"You have no idea," he says, "what I had to take just to get into the ring at night."
By 1977, he was drinking two gallons of wine a day, his marriage was a wreck, and his children weren't speaking to him. One night he stuck a gun in his mouth but didn't have the guts to pull the trigger.
"I looked in the mirror, and I saw a drunk and a drug addict looking back at me, and three words came out of my mouth--God help me."
Savage began the slow, arduous trek back to sanity. Quit wrestling. Joined the church. Started speaking out against alcohol and drugs. Put together a touring show to bring his anti-drug message to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren around the Northwest.
Today, Savage works as a real-estate agent with Prudential Northwest Properties in Battle Ground, Wash. He lives with his wife, Willa, on a 30-acre spread verdant with apple, pear and Sitka spruce trees. Their house is a cozy retreat stuffed with wrestling memorabilia and Victorian lampshades. Its inhabitants include a cockatiel named Shadow who sings the theme from Batman.
After wrestling, he says, real estate was a snap. "I had the hook," he grins. "People recognized my name."
Although he never went to college, Savage is perfectly comfortable discussing Hebrew scripture, allodial land patents, and the Council of Trent. In fact, he hosts a show on Portland Cable Access, Dutch's Corner, where he quotes the King James Bible, chapter and verse.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of Savage as a born-again baby-face. He still radiates a gruff, restless energy. During our interview, no sooner had he twisted my elbow with an overhand lock than he demonstrated another Savage special--the sleeper hold.
Standing behind me, he loops a beefy forearm around my neck and squeezes my head with his other hand. I am pretty much immobilized--but there is no pain. So far, I think, I'm holding my own.
"That's the amateur version," he explains. "Nothing special. But if I shift my arm here..."
Now he slides his elbow up toward my ear, and squeezes my head again. This time, the pressure is intense. The guy's going to break my neck! I can feel it cracking... The blood is ringing in my ears and geometric shapes blossom in my peripheral vision...great--I'm dying on assignment for WW....
Savage releases me with a shrug. "Takes about five seconds to make 'em faint," he chuckles. "That was two."
In the world of wrestling, baby-faces can become heels--but heels can never become baby-faces. The remarkable thing about Savage is that he managed to transform himself from hard-talking heel to a lovable old rogue who wouldn't harm a fly.
But don't test him.
Originally published WILLAMETTE WEEK 11/10/2004
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