Strange but true: Mark Hildreth never wanted to be a wrestler.
He wasn’t a fan as a kid, didn’t watch it as an adolescent. But given Hildreth’s proportions as an adult — 6-feet-6-inches, 290 pounds — the subject was bound to come up sooner or later. When it did, he became proficient and famous under the name Van Hammer.
After 12 years it was through with him — or he was through with it.
Mark Hildreth is 53 now, lives in Boynton Beach and runs Madaris Windows and Siding, a home improvement company serving southeastern Florida. That is a long way from what the announcers refer to as the Squared Circle, but it is wrestling that has somehow defined his life, both for the things it gave him and the things it took away.
To reclaim those things, Hildreth had to earn them back. Neither the giving or the getting back was easy.
“Let’s just say that the locker room was a hard place to live,” he says.
A slim chance at success
Born and raised in Maryland, Hildreth’s father was at Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Nevada. Hildreth also went into the Navy after high school and worked as a machinist. After a period of youthful drift he got married, began working out and got big — very big, the sort of big that only benefits a wrestler or a football player. “I was in my late 20s at the time, and it was too late for football.”
People told him he looked like a wrestler and had a wrestler’s build. He had a meeting with Sting (the wrestler, not the singer), who tried to tell him the unpleasant facts. “This can be difficult,” Sting said. “Many people want to get into it, and there aren’t a lot of spots. You drive 300 miles a day and eat tuna out of a can just to have a chance to pay your dues.”
Hildreth didn’t know just how slim his chances were; there are only about 200 jobs out there paying decent money, and thousands of guys are competing for the slots. “I didn’t really understand the nature of the supply and the demand,” Hildreth says.
But, as is often the case with the young and the blessed, ignorance worked to his advantage. He went to Tampa and trained with the retired wrestler Boris Malenko. There were about 20 other men in the class, among them another aspiring talent named Marc Mero.
“It was grueling,” says Hildreth. “They try to run you off. They want to weed out people who are in it for the glory or the money. And they do it by literally beating you up day after day, so that the only ones left are the ones that want it bad enough to endure.”
After completing Malenko’s school, Hildreth figured he’d have to work the independent circuit — the minor leagues of wrestling — for at least a few years. He did a single match for an outfit called North Georgia Wrestling, booked by Dusty Rhodes, the battle-scarred veteran of ten thousand matches. Rhodes liked what he saw.
Rhodes also thought that Mero’s resemblance to Little Richard could be spun into a viable wrestling character. Rhodes set up a tryout for Mero at Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling in Atlanta, and Hildreth went along to job — i.e. make the other wrestler look good.
Shortly after the tryout, there was a meeting with Hildreth and Dusty Rhodes, followed by a contract offer for $156,000 a year to wrestle for WCW under the name Van Hammer. They liked Mero, too — he would wrestle successfully for years as Johnny B. Badd.
WWW: Weird world of wrestling
Just like that, Hildreth had entered a strange alternate universe, with its own ethics, its own rules, its own vocabulary — a hero is a “face,” short for babyface, a heavy is a “heel.” Then there’s “kayfabe,” a word with a hopelessly obscure derivation but a very specific meaning: kayfabe defines the ongoing wrestling fantasy — the characters, the storylines, the idea that the outcome is up for grabs.
Hildreth could handle most the aspects of the job but one. As he puts it, “I still wasn’t any good. Dusty was asking wrestlers like Arn Anderson and Larry Zbyszko to make me look good. Guys that had 20 years in the business and had paid their dues many times over were being asked to put me over, a guy who hadn’t paid his dues at all.
“Dusty introduced me to people by saying, ‘This kid is the next Hulk Hogan.’ Dusty’s a good man, but he wasn’t doing me any favors. A lot of the guys were second- and third-generation wrestlers, and along I come Forrest Gumping my way into it.”
Others say that Hildreth is being way too hard on himself.
“That’s where confidence comes into it,” says Mero, now a minister in Orlando. “What we perceive is what we believe. We were both green — two new guys getting out there with these veterans and it didn’t sit well. Mark was so big and so good looking, and getting a whole lot of attention. A lot of guys were just plain jealous.”
“They pushed him really hard,” says Diamond Dallas Page, another star wrestler who joined the ranks about the same time as Hildreth. “He came in with fanfare and a lot of attention. Mark was just shredded, and he never even worked out that hard. He was a genetic freak. Yeah, guys were jealous. One day he’s walking around the locker room like anybody else, the next he was bounced right up the line because his work was amazing. There was a tremendous amount of pressure.”
Hildreth’s sense of unease, of not fitting in, never really lifted. Rookies in wrestling are like rookies in football; they’re supposed to keep themselves small in the locker room, be respectful, shake hands with their elders. Don’t try to be embraced, because you won’t be. But Hildreth was trying to be liked.
This undercurrent accompanied Hildreth for the next 12 years. Not that he spent a lot of time brooding about it. At first, the life was great. “It’s an intoxicating mixture of power and prestige and preference and partying. It’s like being a rock star with an ass-kicking built into it every night. I bought into all of it. I indulged myself in every area.”
Assuming you have a taste for revelry and a tolerance for decadence, that’s the upside. The downside consisted of just about everything else. “Two hundred to 250 days on the road a year are hard on a marriage all by itself. Most marriages don’t survive a wrestling career. Mine didn’t. It’s a hard life. Figure 150 plane trips a year; in that year you’ll be inside a few tubes for MRI’s. Figure a surgery every other year.
“The reality is that you’re never home. Some guys do 370 shows a year and are booked for 40 days straight. You’re on TV and you’re recognizable, but you’re in a different city every day, and it’s usually not Chicago or Atlanta, it’s Peoria and Lubbock, because wrestling works small town USA.”
A fatal profession
At some point in the ’80s, bigger wrestlers replaced better wrestlers; the trend was for guys that not only acted like Hercules, they looked like Hercules. Steroids were everywhere. In addition there were pills for pain, pills for sleep, pills to wake up, pills to help you with the constant time changes. Before you know it you had wall-sized men living as if they were re-enacting the last days of Judy Garland.
Hildreth was part of the majority taking steroids, for reasons both emotional and practical. “You’re definitely more durable on steroids,” he says. “You can work through injuries and heal more quickly. And then there’s the fact that people that build their bodies often predicate their self-esteem on how they look. That was true with me.”
While the money is good for the top echelon, it’s also deceptive. If a wrestler is hurt on the job, the company will pay for it, but that’s all. Anything beyond that, the wrestler has to pay through his health insurance. The company pays for airfare, but the wrestler is responsible for his expenses while on the road.
The wear and tear adds up. It’s normal for a couple of wrestlers to die every year from one thing or another, but really from the effects of the career. The roll call of death in the last ten years or so alone is startling: Steve Williams, Brian Adams, Bam Bam Bigelow, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Candido, The Big Boss Man, Crash Holly, Road Warrior Hawk, Curt Hennig, Rick Rude, Brian Pillman, Brad Armstrong, Randy Savage — men ranging in age from their their 30s to their 50s, a couple from overdoses or suicide, but most from premature heart attacks. Then there was the bloodbath left by the WWE’s Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and child and then committed suicide.
“If wrestling was the NFL, and you had 40 NFL players die from the effects of their lifestyle within 10 years or so, there would be Congressional hearings,” says Hildreth. “But we’re not really taken as real people. Here’s a statistic for you: a rock star is three times more likely to die before 50 than an average person; a professional wrestler is seven times more likely to die before 50 than an average person.
“Chris Benoit was the last guy on earth you’d think would be capable of what he did. I can honestly say I never even saw Chris lose his temper. And despite how his life ended, I think it’s important to say that Chris Benoit was an excellent human being.”
Fans don’t realize toll
By the time he had a hundred matches under his belt, Hildreth felt he was becoming what the business calls a “worker,” i.e. a professional who gives good value no matter the circumstances. Hildreth was first introduced as Heavy Metal Van Hammer, and he would enter the ring waving an electric guitar like a battle-ax. Later he became an all-American badass, then a hippie, then an anti-hippie. To use the vernacular of the business, he was mostly a face, a heel maybe a third of the time.
It wasn’t until a match with Rick Steiner in Fort Lauderdale in 1999 that he feels he began to earn some respect from the industry. “Thank you, God,” he says of that match. Not that Steiner was one of his favorites. “I didn’t like wrestling Steiner. Nobody did. The Steiner’s worked stiff (rough). I was glad when those guys had children; it seemed to soften them up.” That same year, he had a match with Bam Bam Bigelow that earned him locker-room respect.
But after some years in the business, Hildreth still felt like an outsider. “I think Rick Rude broke my nose on purpose. Thanksgiving 1992 at the Omni in Atlanta. Kicked me square in the face with street shoes. What else could he have been trying to do? He seemed very apologetic, gave me a couple of Percocet. But we’re all good actors.”
Hildreth did what he was supposed to do — suck it up. He took a Sharpie, stuck it up his nose, which was at that point lying flat beneath his left eye, and straightened it out. Six weeks later, when he had some time off, he had surgery to repair the damage.
Mero says that Hildreth never quite developed an allegiance with the other main event wrestlers. “There are two dressing rooms in wrestling,” says Mero. “One for the stars and one for the jobbers, the guys who get beat up for $150. Even after Mark and I became stars, we would dress in the jobbers dressing room.”
Nothing can teach you how to be a wrestler but the work itself, because so much of the craft involves sparking the crowd’s response. Although Hildreth speaks of the fans with respect, he doesn’t think they understand the wrestler’s commitment: “The toll it takes on you physically, what it takes to entertain the crowds. What we go through. They don’t know you took two airplanes and drove 200 miles to get there and entertain them. They don’t understand the sacrifice it takes to live in that world.”
Finding a new life
By 2002, Van Hammer still had some life, but Mark Hildreth was done. His salary had climbed to $300,000 a year, but he had never been crowned a champion, and the WCW was falling apart — it was sold to Vince McMahon’s WWE. “I looked up and said, ‘Now what?’ I was very lost. I identified with my career, with my character, with my fans. And without the career, there was an identity crisis.”
Even though he was through with the business, he kept working out, kept taking steroids. “My life and identity were about my look, about being Van Hammer. You get special attention, and I needed that.”
He tried commercial fishing, he tried building houses, he tried a few wrestling matches on the independent circuit. Mostly he drank. “I was a mess,” he says.
Mero went through much the same cycle, and he says that the dual realities of the business can be impossible to bridge. “We have cartoon names, we’re bigger than life, we pick people up and lift them over our head. And at the same time, we’ve gone through 10 surgeries. And guys make bad choices.”
What got Hildreth out of the downward spiral?
“Time,” he says. “I had to let go of that ego state. And I realized that if I didn’t change, I was surely going to die.”
Like many millions of others, Hildreth moved to Florida for a fresh start. The year was 2010, and since then he’s put a life together. He and his wife Diane married in March, after which they honeymooned on a transatlantic cruise to Barcelona, followed by a week in Paris. With Hildreth’s past, a lot of women would be leery, but Diane says simply, “I married him because of his heart. He has a good heart.”
Installing storm windows or adding a room for a mother-in-law is not about to offer the pop of entering a packed arena filled with screaming fans, but Hildreth gives the impression that the pop was part of the problem; that he had to learn how to live without medicating himself with adrenalin and its substitutes.
“I love impacting people in a positive way. I’m not feeding people in Africa, but I’m helping people live in comfort and safety, and that’s fulfilling. I can assure you that I’m doing a lot more good now than when I was a wrestler.”
He seems like a man who has finally come to know who he is, and he’s not sure he could have gotten to that place by taking a different route. “Pain opens up places in the heart which didn’t exist before. That’s not to say that pain is a prerequisite for happiness, but it can change us for the better. I believe that God uses pain to change us, not to hurt us.”
Diamond Dallas Page now teaches yoga in Atlanta and says that “Mark’s gone through the roller coaster of life. He’s been as high as you can get and then dropped off the face of the earth. I love the guy. We can go two years without seeing each other, and we pick up right where we left off.”
Mero adds that “We’ve both led broken lives, but we’ve both met special women. You know that saying, ‘You never know what you have until it’s gone?’ Well, there’s another one: ‘You never know what you’re gonna have until it shows up.’ ”
Hildreth puts it another way: “Diane is the best part of me. Before, if people told me I looked familiar, or was I perhaps a wrestler, I would be telling them wrestling stories inside of 60 seconds. Now, if people tell me I look familiar, I just say, ‘People tell me that a lot.’ ”
“The hardest thing in life to find is peace inside yourself,” says Mero. “Peace in the middle of trouble and noise. I found that peace in my life, and I believe that Mark has done the same thing.”
Aside from a couple of friends, the only connection Hildreth maintains with his former profession is the license plate on his Mercedes -HAMMR - and his email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) where he interacts with fans or people who are trying to get sober. “I stay sober by helping other people get sober,” he says.
As for his former profession, he has no hard feelings.
“I see it as a great ancient spectacle of good versus evil,” he says. “In the end, good prevails. And what’s wrong with a lesson like that?”
Staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.
OUR PERSONAL JOURNEYS TEAM
Scott Eyman is the paper’s longtime Books Editor, as well as a respected author of many Hollywood biographies. He’s also a stone-cold pro wrestling fan. When he was taking a transatlantic ocean cruise earlier this year, he thought he recognized one of his fellow passengers. It turned out to be Mark Hildreth, and their encounter led to today’s story.
Gary Coronado is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in photography. In 1996, he took his first photography course at a community college. Later, he began freelancing for the Orange County Register in California, and relocated to South Florida in 2001. He has been on the photography staff of the Palm Beach Post since Aug. 2003.
NEXT WEEK IN PERSONAL JOURNEYS
THE TOP OF THEIR FIELD
Meet Gavin Rumbaugh and Courtney Miller, who are not only married to each other but are both world-class neuroscientists at The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter.
Barbara Marshall’s report, next Sunday in Accent.