“You know something, Ax? We’re staying up here with these tag team belts, and that means we’re Number One! So that means that everybody on the totem pole wants us. And you know what that means? We can fight anybody we want, as long as they put their names on the dotted line. And if it’s the Rhythm & Blues, or The Rockers, The Hart Foundation, it don’t matter. Because we love a good fight, and we’re going to beat everybody!”
So sayeth a muscle-bound, long-haired grappler, clad in studded leather ring attire and bizarre white-and-red facepaint and a crazed look in his eyes, issuing an open invitational to all comers while holding his cherished world tag team championship alongside his partner. It was one of many promos that illustrated his fearsome reputation in the ring.
To millions of fans around the world, the man from Parts Unknown was, and still is, Smash. But when the bombast fades and the facepaint is gone, he’s a lifelong Minnesota boy named Barry Darsow. And he’s actually a pretty nice fellow.
“Your whole life was wrestling. It was 24 hours a day, and we were on the road sometimes 60 days in a row, before you’d go home and see your family,” said Darsow, 57. “And the (action figures) came out, and all of a sudden you have one, and it was pretty neat. But what was great was when your kid looks at the doll and goes, ‘Hey, that’s you, Dad!’ That’s what was neat … being a star on the road, but when getting home, you were normal.”
Today, Darsow’s life is far more low key than it was when he traveled the world as a professional wrestler. Currently living in Maple Grove with his wife Theresa, Darsow’s life revolves more around his family and his two businesses rather than going from town to town and putting on epic matches in armories and stadiums. Not that Darsow didn’t enjoy the hustle and bustle of the wrestling life, though.
“For me, it was fun,” he said. “Being from here in Minnesota, I never really traveled a whole lot. Then you get on the road with all of these pro wrestlers. You’re 21, 22 years old, making a lot of money traveling on the road, and it was just a lot of fun.”
And since Darsow got his start during a time when pro wrestling went from a regional business to a worldwide phenomenon, he got a front seat for one of the biggest shows on Earth.
Learning the ropes
Born in Buffalo, Minnesota, in 1959, Darsow moved to Brooklyn Park with his parents when he was a toddler. By first grade, he moved to Robbinsdale, where he also went to high school. During the 1960s and 1970s, a vast number of soon-to-be household names in wrestling came from the Twin Cities, especially from Robbinsdale.
“I grew up right down the road from Rick Rude, and we went to camp together,” said Darsow. “The Road Warriors grew up in different cities, but I knew who they were way back then. I went to school with Curt Hennig and John Nord. I was friends with all of them.”
Darsow found his footing in powerlifting, after which he became a bouncer at the Grandma B’s bar in Northeast Minneapolis alongside future tag team champions The Road Warriors – Michael “Hawk” Hegstrand and Joe “Animal” Laurinaitis. It was there that they met a bartender by the name of Eddie Sharkey.
“Eddie Sharkey was an old-time wrestler,” said Darsow. “We all worked at that same place at the same time. Eddie Sharkey one night said, ‘Hey, I’m going to train you guys in. I want you to be wrestlers.’ And we never even thought about it. And then we kind of laughed, and a couple days later, we said, ‘Okay, Eddie, let’s do it!’”
Sharkey, known in wrestling circles as “The Trainer of Champions,” trained Darsow, Hegstrand, Laurinaitis, Rude and others in a boxing ring in a Northeast Minneapolis church in the early 1980s. Eventually, Darsow made his first leap into the world of pro wrestling when he moved to Hawaii and worked in a promotion run by Lia Maivia, who was also the grandmother of future wrestler-turned-Hollywood megastar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“I absolutely loved it out there,” said Darsow. “I knew her very well. I stayed in Hawaii, I got an apartment there. I was in Honolulu for about a month, and then I went to Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, and then went back to Hawaii, so I was there for about three, four months.”
After leaving Hawaii, Darsow hopped from territory to territory on the mainland, wrestling in Georgia Championship Wrestling, Florida Championship Wrestling and Mid-South Wrestling. Darsow racked up a number of championship wins and main event bouts in the territories, eventually gaining a bit of infamy as a Soviet-style heel – a “bad guy” in wrestling parlance – named Krusher Khruschev. Because the scripted nature of wrestling was a closely guarded secret prior to the late 1980s, portraying a Russian villain in Cold War-era America was risky for Darsow.
“It was tough. You’d come out to your car some nights and all of the windows would be (broken), flat tires,” he said. “When you were the bad guy, you were the bad guy. When that happens, you did your job, and you did it well.”
Hitting the big time
Darsow then took the Krusher character to Jim Crockett Promotions, which was a major territory under the National Wrestling Alliance. Darsow would become a one-time NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Champion, a NWA World Tag Team Champion with partners Ivan and Nikita Koloff, as well as a NWA United States Tag Team Champion with Ivan. After his contract with Jim Crockett expired in late 1986, however, he made the biggest jump of his career when he signed with the Northeast-based World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, which was run by third-generation promoter Vince McMahon.
Unlike the promotions that Darsow previously wrestled for, McMahon’s company broke from the tradition of sticking to one region of the country, and instead expanded nationally, placing more emphasis on the entertainment of the product rather than the pure athletic aspects that southern territories were so well-regarded for.
“In Jim Crockett Promotions, it was still ‘real,’” said Darsow. “Up in New York, it was ‘entertainment.’ In New York, you’d film TV, and everybody would come out of the same opening of the stage, and the fireworks would go off. In Crockett’s territory, the good guys come out of one side of the building, and the bad guys out of the other side of the building. You never talked, and you never did anything together ever. You’d just get in the ring, and you’d have your match. But when you get to New York, it was really strange where you’re talking to everybody, and you’re with everybody all the time.”
Nonetheless, Darsow conceded that the jump to the WWF was a huge step compared to his earlier resume.
“When you were in Crockett’s territory, Ric Flair was there, and Dusty (Rhodes), and they were the big guns,” he said. “And I was partners with Ivan Koloff and Nikita Koloff. So you think that you’re on the top of the world. Once I left there and went to New York, the first day I went into the dressing room, here’s Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, Paul Orndorff, Don Muraco, Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka … you’re looking at these guys and going, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I’m just this little fish in this big old barrel. (But) I made the big time.”
Indeed, Darsow was eventually thrust into the national spotlight with a larger-than-life character that he would become most famous for. Teamed with wrestling veteran Bill “Ax” Eadie, Darsow became one half of the tag team Demolition, wrestling under the name “Smash.”
Originally booked as post-apocalyptic heels managed by the villainous Mr. Fuji, Demolition resembled a cross between the rockers from KISS and villains from the “Mad Max” movies, running roughshod over the WWF’s tag team division before winning their first of three World Tag Team Championships from the team of Strike Force at Wrestlemania IV in 1987, a reign that would last a then-record 16 months. Behind the scenes, Darsow enjoyed a great friendship with Eadie, whose years of experience helped Darsow immensely.
“We traveled every day together, and Mr. Fuji traveled with us,” said Darsow. “But it was just us three all the time, because we’d always talk about our matches: what’s good, what’s bad, what we’d need to do next.”
Demolition’s popularity soared when the Mr. Fuji character betrayed them, turning Ax and Smash into “babyfaces,” or fan favorites. Ax and Smash went on to win the World Tag Team titles twice more (the third time with a third partner, Brian “Crush” Adams). That third title win, which occurred on the huge stage of Wrestlemania VI in Toronto in 1990, was cited by Darsow as a career high.
“There were so many matches that were just phenomenal,” said Darsow. “Wrestling Andre the Giant and Haku in the Toronto Dome when we won the titles from them, that was big.”
His white-painted face plastered on T-shirts and action figures, Darsow’s time as Smash cemented his place in the annals of pro wrestling history. His WWF Tag Team title reigns in Demolition added up to a combined 698 days, a record which still stands to this day. However, after Eadie’s involvement with Demolition lessened, Darsow became a singles competitor in 1991, mostly wrestling as a “jobber,” or an enhancement talent meant to elevate up-and-coming stars.
From Repo Man to business man
After his time as Smash ran its course, McMahon repackaged Darsow as the Repo Man, a sneaky masked heel who obsessed over repossessing others’ possessions. Even though it was par for the course with the largely cartoonish character base that the WWF had in the early ‘90s, Darsow enjoyed his time as the character.
“I really liked it. (But) it didn’t go exactly how I wanted it to go,” said Darsow. “When I came up with the idea with Vince, the idea was for me to be a babyface, and then I was going to end up doing a lot of stuff for Make-A-Wish and going to hospitals and doing all that stuff. That’s how I wanted to end my career.
“The meanest bad guys, the worst bad guys usually end up being the best good guys,” Darsow continued. “And I had all these kids just hate me. So that was the key that when I turned into a good guy, they would have loved me. And it just never happened. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
With that, Darsow gave his notice to the WWF in 1993, eventually jumping ship to WWF’s then-largest competitor World Championship Wrestling (WCW) the next year. Darsow became a heel known as The Blacktop Bully and was managed by Col. Rob Parker. However, his initial run with WCW was cut short after a novelty “King of the Road” match in 1995 between Darsow and Dustin Rhodes saw both men get bloodied, which was against WCW policy at the time. Though some claim that Darsow and Rhodes purposefully “bladed” themselves to draw blood for dramatic effect, Darsow asserts that the bloodshed was entirely unintentional.
“We were hitting barbwire fences, and shovels, and it just got bloody,” said Darsow. “I thought we ended up having the best match I ever had in my whole life. I got home, and the next morning, (WCW President) Eric Bischoff called me up and said, ‘I got some good news, and I got some bad news.’”
The good news, per Bischoff? “What a hell of a match you had last night.”
The bad news? “I have to fire you … You guys had blood on TV. You can’t have blood on TV.”
Despite the unfortunate news, Darsow accepted his termination, and was eventually hired back to WCW in 1997 with a lucrative downside guarantee contract. He wrestled some matches as the golf-themed heel Mr. Hole-in-One, but rarely ever appeared on television.
“I was begging to work, and they were like, ‘Nah, take it easy,’” said Darsow. “And I had guaranteed money all the time. In fact, at that time, it was when all of a sudden, I said, ‘This is so ridiculous. I’m just going to take the money and run, and I’m done wrestling.’”
After his two-year deal in WCW expired, Darsow took several years off from the wrestling business. He started working for a printing company, but later began making appearances at independent wrestling shows signing autographs and wrestling the odd match or two in the mid-2000s.
Darsow still makes appearances to this day, sometimes with his old tag partner Eadie, but far more infrequently. Last month, Darsow underwent right knee replacement surgery after years of issues stemming from his career. As such, he’s effectively retired from active competition. Although fame and fortune made the wrestling life worth it for Darsow, he wasn’t without his fair share of injuries.
“I broke my leg on WTBS,” he said. “I was coming off the top rope against Sam Houston, and I broke my leg there. I tore my rotator cuff on my right arm a couple years later after that.”
But it was an incident in the late 1980s during a bout with Tully Blanchard that’s affected Darsow to this day. A full-force chair shot to Darsow’s head led to a severe concussion and a chipped vertebrae.
“That was the worst injury, because I’ve never been the same since,” said Darsow. “It’s hard to explain. I just don’t feel good. Ever since then, I’ve kind of had a ringing in my ears all the time. That was probably the worst thing that’s ever happened.”
That injury in particular was the impetus for Darsow recently becoming one of dozens of plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Vince McMahon’s now-renamed World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE, in which the suit claims that McMahon was negligent in educating his wrestlers about the long-term dangers of concussions and head injuries. But nonetheless, Darsow managed to start life anew after his wrestling career winded down.
“I was the luckiest guy in the world”
Today, Darsow enjoys a decidedly quieter but satisfying championship reign as a family man and business owner. Now living in Maple Grove for about 29 years with his wife, Darsow is the owner of the Brooklyn Park-based Added Value Printing, which provides printing on safety equipment, as well as TnB Holdings, which owns the building Added Value operates in. He has one son, Dakota, who briefly joined the wrestling business himself in the mid-2000s. The younger Darsow briefly worked in WWE’s developmental territory and the Florida-based Total Nonstop Action promotion, before deciding to retire early and focus on his future.
“He called me up and said, ‘Dad, what am I going to do?’” said Darsow. “I said, ‘Go back to school, finish your degree.’ He moved to Michigan, where his wife’s from, and went back to school. He became a deputy for the Sheriff’s Department in Roscommon, Michigan. He’s an instructor at the college now. He’s on the dive team. He’s the guy. I’m really proud of him.”
Even though he enjoys his current life as a businessman, husband, father and grandfather to Dakota’s three children, Darsow hasn’t left wrestling behind entirely. This spring, he’s planning on hitting the road with Eadie, who Darsow still enjoys a friendship with to this day. They’ll be signing autographs at fan conventions during Wrestlemania season, a time of year that Darsow was no stranger to whatsoever.
“I always tell my son that I was the luckiest guy in the world for everything that I’ve done,” said Darsow. “You meet friends that you’re friends with forever, you’ve traveled and seen the whole world. You really learn what life is really about as a professional wrestler.
“Everything is a work,” Darsow added. “You have to work to get the right job. Everything is just an act, and if you don’t do that, you don’t make it in this world. Things aren’t just given to you. You have to go out there and create something and take it. And that’s what wrestling really teaches you.”
Contact Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected]