Walter Paul Sieber was born on Oct. 2, 1933, in Toronto, an only child. His father Paul, who was from Germany, worked as a painter and decorator. He used to balance a ladder on his bicycle as he rode from job to job. His Romanian mother, Anna Yost, was spirited and strong-willed. For years, the couple was at odds. By the time Walter was seven, they had divorced. Walter lived with Anna until his early teens, and then joined his father in nearby Holland Marsh on a farm Paul had bought after he and Anna parted. Each of his parents remarried.
Walter’s strong body was fit for farming, but he preferred weightlifting. He spent hours at the YMCA with a brood of hulking young men. He could bench press-495 lb., just less than the quarter-tonne world record. Red Garner, a local wrestling promoter, divined Walter’s future in the ring, and trained him. At 17, he turned pro, initially wrestling under the name Waldo von Sieber.
One night, Walter was wrestling in the sleepy suburb of Richmond Hill, Ont. A petite, pretty brunette named Anne Elizabeth “Betty” Jones went to the match with her father, who then beelined to the bar. From inside the ring, Walter spotted Betty in the third row. Later, he asked if she had a ride home. Betty said no, so he drove her. By then he was successful and attractive, with bleach-blond hair and powerful legs. Waldo, as she called him, drove a limousine that had belonged to Lady Flora Eaton. Their driveway chat started a long relationship. In 1959, as Waldo ascended to wrestling royalty, they married, and soon had three daughters: Anne Elizabeth, Mary Jane and Barbara Jo.
As the family grew, so did Waldo’s notoriety. At six feet and 265 lb., his menacing stature made him the ideal villain, a role he relished. He wrestled under personas such as the Great Zimm, El Tigre, the Great Hornet and Mr. M, and held more than a dozen titles including heavyweight champion. As Waldo von Erich he won tag team championships with the renowned von Erich brothers, a wrestling dynasty popular in the ’60s and ’70s.
But it was his German Nazi persona that propelled Waldo von Erich into superstardom. With his monocle, helmet, armband and whip, Waldo incited rage among fans still reeling from the Second World War. They’d curse, throw beer bottles and shoot nail guns at Waldo, who’d flee the stadium in a car trunk. “The madder the fans got, the more satisfied he was,” says Betty. The few times his daughters were allowed to attend a match, they sat in a separate room for fear they’d be kidnapped or hurt.
This mean wrestler was the opposite of who Waldo was to his family. Loving, kind and fun, he’d take his daughters fishing and coach them on how to protect themselves. He enjoyed making stews and soups and restoring old cars. To Betty, he was faithful. “Number one, I knew he loved me,” she recalls. But wrestling often took him away from their home in Elmira, Ont.—once for six months. The neighbours thought Betty had a “gentleman caller” because Waldo showed up irregularly. Their independent ways led to a divorce in 1988, but they remained good friends, and neither remarried.
After Waldo retired in 1979, he focused on his inventions. His Inverchair, favoured by pro athletes, allowed him to hang upside down to alleviate back pain after years of performing his signature move, the Blitzkrieg, which was a knee-drop off the top rope. His daughters remember him dangling from it in the basement. He worked with Don Ranney, an orthopaedic surgeon in Waterloo, Ont., treating patients. Lately they were finalizing a stretching machine called ThePost. “He was a perfectionist,” says Ranney, and he was a caregiver. “This was supposed to be the bad guy, but in fact he was a pussycat.”
After he retired, Waldo trained young pros, many who say they owe him their careers. It was perhaps his way of staying connected to that world. About six months ago, Waldo and his old wrestling comrade, Billy Snip, known as Billy Red Lyons, visited Betty. They were using canes, and she had a walker. “We had a great laugh,” she says. “I said I could outrun them because I had wheels.”
Recently, Waldo was having a geriatric assessment at Freeport Health Centre in Kitchener, Ont. There, he ran into Billy, who had cancer. They spent time reminiscing before Billy died on June 22. One day soon after, Waldo took “a nasty fall” at Freeport, says Mary Jane. He never recovered. Walter Paul Sieber, 75, died from complications on July 5. Mary Jane remembers what he’d tell his daughters when they’d ask if wrestling was fake. It didn’t matter, Waldo would say, “It hurts when you fall.”