After suffering a broken neck as a professional wrestler, Titan battles back from his run as Razor Ramon
Every little boy grows up wanting pretty much the same thing — to be a superhero. Once a young boy himself, Rick Bognar knew that in order to become a superhero, he would need superhuman strength. So he did what any eight year old would do... He started lifting weights.
While supportive of their son's early interest in fitness, Bognar said his parents bit back bemusement when he moved from plastic, sand-filled weights, to begging for an incline bench so he "could work his upper pecs."
"I've always been very decisive ever since I was a kid. Stubborn sometimes too I guess," Bognar said laughing. "I was really into muscle and fitness even as a little kid. I wanted to look like the guys in the bodybuilding magazines."
Bognar, perhaps better known as "Big Titan" and the World Wrestling Federation's second "Razor Ramon" character, wrestled professionally for 10 years. His career came to a tragic end when he broke his neck in the ring back in 1998. Officially retired in 2000, it's been almost 13 years since Bognar's wrestling career ended, and he's finally rebuilt his life in Calgary after struggling through injury, depression and an addiction to painkillers.
"I always said I loved wrestling more than I could love any woman," Bognar joked. "I knew doing a nine-to-five desk job for the rest of my life wasn't something I could do. I was too big for the desks anyways." And towering over most at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, he really isn't joking.
Originally from Vancouver, Bognar, 43, spent his adolescence a little differently than most. While some boys were busy stealing their older brother's Playboys, Bognar was busy poring over bodybuilding magazines. While others liked to skip class to smoke in the parking lot, Bognar skipped class to work out. By the time fellow high-schoolers were getting picked for the football team, Bognar already had his second-degree brown belt in karate and judo.
Bognar closely followed the careers of wrestling stars on TV, and after watching countless Canadians like Bret "The Hitman" Hart make their claim to fame in Stampede Wrestling, Bognar "knew Calgary was the place to be." When he was 19 years old, Bognar said goodbye to his parents, his brother Ken, and the salty sea air, and made the move to Calgary.
"I was just this nervous kid when I first came here," Bognar said. "I didn't know anyone, but I had it all planned out that I was going to be in the WWF."
When Bognar landed his first live wrestling gig in Calgary at age 19, he could hardly contain his excitement. As he climbed into a pair of spandex bike shorts ("I couldn't afford proper wrestling gear at the time," he said with a laugh) he couldn't help picturing fans screaming his name as he pummeled his opponent for the win.
He was disappointed to say the least when after the match (witnessed by a dedicated crowd of 45 people), the promoter gave him a handshake, $25 and a six-pack of beer because they didn't make enough to pay him.
"I only got to wrestle in a couple matches a month, so I had to bounce in bars making minimum wage for two years," Bognar said. "I started thinking, maybe I should just give this all up and go back to school."
But as luck and a touch of determination would have it, a wrestling tape Bognar had sent in caught the eye of an agent. Before he could say "Kon'nichiwa," Bognar was shipped out of the Canadian cold to Japan, where he would wrestle for Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling for the next five years.
On top of the world
Red pen and bucket list handy, Bognar checked off sumo wrestlers, chokeholds and heavyweight championships during his stint in Japan. But after years of hitting his head walking under doorways and sleeping with his feet hanging off the edge of a bed every night, he decided it was time to return to North America to wrestle an even bigger dream: becoming a WWF wrestler.
"I wanted to make a name for myself, and I couldn't do that in Japan," Bognar said. "A big part of the reason I wanted to get into wrestling was to become a star. I wanted to be a superhero."
As it turned out, the World Wrestling Federation was looking for one. At the time, infamous American wrestler Scott Hall acted as Razor Ramon, which was based on Al Pacino's Tony Montana character from the movie Scarface. Hall had left suddenly in 1996 for a better opportunity, and Bognar was given a chance to tryout for the part.
One audition and two long weeks later, Bognar had still heard nothing back from the WWF.
Distracted, dejected and worried he would have to cut his losses and head back out to Japan, he received a phone call that would forever change his life.
It was Vince McMahon, the CEO and chairman of the WWF.
"Rick, I hear you do a great Razor Ramon," McMahon said. "I own the trademark to the name, the costume and the character. Rick, I want you to be my new Razor Ramon."
Bognar kissed Big Titan and his life back home in Calgary goodbye, and a heartbeat later, he landed in Connecticut where his Razor Ramon makeover ensued. He was given acting lessons (yes, the WWF is considered "entertainment wrestling" or as Rick put it, "choreographed suicide"). His hair was dyed black. Heavy gold chains hung from around his neck. He had one of Razor's signature toothpicks in his mouth at all times.
"I had fans ask me before, 'Can you throw a toothpick at my kid?'" Bognar said shaking his head. "I used to think, really dude, you want me to throw a toothpick covered in saliva at your kid's face? But that was their fantasy, they wanted Razor Ramon."
Suzette Tumbas met Bognar in the late '80s while they were both working on Electric Avenue in Calgary, and described him as a very different person back in his Razor Ramon days.
"I'm proud to call Rick my friend, we've known each other for years," Tumbas said. "But back when he was wrestling, he was an ego-filled attention seeker."
But when you're hanging with legends like Hulk Hogan, wrestling in front of Madison Square Garden and making money faster than you can spend it, egos are bound to balloon.
From fame and pain
"I became a wrestling robot," Bognar said with an honest shrug. "I thought I was so great and so famous. And the more you do it, then all of a sudden that's who you are."
To maintain his peak weight of 293 pounds, Bognar worked out for two and a half hours a day, six days a week. He stuffed himself six to eight times a day with oatmeal, eggs and protein — as recommended by bodybuilding magazines — and said most of the time he "just felt like throwing up." At one point, he said he was so heavy he would be wheezing walking up and down a set of stairs.
All the while, he had Vince McMahon reminding him, and all the WWF wrestlers for that matter, "I created you. I made you who you are."
Wrestling isn't quite like other sports. Players don't dole out congratulatory slaps on the butt or drink beer with you out of the Stanley Cup. There is, as Bognar put it, an "I infection" involved with wrestling.
"In the U.S., competition is extremely high," Bognar said. "There's a pay check at stake. There's superstardom at stake. And only one can make it to the top."
Exact numbers weren't discussed, but while Rick said he was making tons of cash, the bottom guys were making a lot less at around $80,000 a year.
"And that's the thing," he added. "Nobody wants to be the bottom guy. If you're at the top, you're making about a million a year, sometimes more."
Bognar's long-time friend Fred Schacter, who also has a background in wrestling, explained that another problem with elite athletes like wrestlers is "there's always someone looking to replace you."
"It's a high stress, high energy career," Schacter said. "And wrestling is different because you're almost afraid to show any injuries — those will get you replaced even faster."
And when you're in the ring roaring triumphant after a match in front of thousands of fans, their screams booming through million dollar speakers fit for a million dollar industry, the thought of being replaced is worse than a knife in the gut.
Bognar said he was one of many wrestlers who "sacrificed his body for the fans." Not even a year with the WWF had passed, and the pain Bognar felt after every match was like a high-pressure hose. Ankles, arms, knees, hips — everything was doused in pain. He started taking Oxycontin and Percocet to ease his throbbing joints. Even then, he couldn't sleep at night.
"I'd try to get to sleep without taking a sleeping pill, and I'd lay there all night just rolling back and forth, aching and breaking into a sweat," Bognar said. "After time, it takes two, then it takes three."
It wasn't long before Bognar was addicted.
Fame, pain had all but taken over by the Razor Ramon persona, Bognar said he had become so angry and aggressive that he actually "scared people." He remembers one particular incident when he lost control completely after getting in a car accident.
"I wanted to beat the crap out of the other guy," Bognar recalled with a grimace. "He wouldn't even get out of his car, that's how bad it was. I had become some angry, doped up animal. I wasn't even me anymore."
Things took a turn for the worse when Bognar's contract with the WWF was up. He placed a call to Vince McMahon to discuss renewing it. Bognar had hardly gotten a sentence out when McMahon interrupted.
"Rick, please don't call me at this number again." And with that, he hung up.
As the only world he ever knew slipped away like water through a sieve, Bognar started going to sleep every night wishing he wouldn't wake up in the morning.
Competing in choreographed suicide
Since the inception of WrestleMania back in 1985, more than 100 professional wrestlers have died before the age of 60 due to depression, brain trauma and drug addiction. Curt Hennig, a.k.a. WWF's "Mr. Perfect," was found dead in a hotel room in Florida from "acute cocaine intoxication" at age 44.
Richard Erwin Rood, also known as WWE wrestler "Ravishing" Rick Rude, died in 1999 at age 41 from heart failure. Rood had admitted to using anabolic steroids, and his autopsy indicated medications that may have attributed to his death.
And perhaps one of the most notorious instances noted in wrestling history, was the case of Canadian wrestler Chris Benoit. In the midst of his 2007 WWF wrestling season, Benoit strangled his wife and seven-year-old son, then hung himself. Benoit had been using steroids, and tests conducted by the Sports Legacy Institute "showed Benoit's brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient."
To say the least, Bognar was lucky.
"I look back at it now, and I can't believe I didn't die," Bognar admitted.
After he was let go by the WWF in 1997, Bognar went back to Japan where he hoped he would make a comeback wrestling for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Bognar said he was "still in a dark place," but at least he was wrestling, and with some of the world's best at that.
In what would be one of his last heavyweight championship fights, Bognar was to wrestle Shinya Hashimoto, who was renowned for his stiff kicks and violent matches. Though the fight was choreographed, it had to look real. Hashimoto was the predetermined winner, and was supposed to defeat Bognar with a DDT (a DDT is when your opponent has you in a headlock and drops back with you quickly, smashing your head into the floor). Bognar explained that "if this move was done with malicious intent, it would kill you."
And kill him it almost did. Who knows if Hashimoto held him too hard or they both jumped too high, but Bognar ended up crashing into the rock-hard ring floor headfirst at full force. Bognar broke his neck.
Learning to let go
"I knew something was really, really wrong, but at that time I was taking a bunch of heavy painkillers so I ignored it," Bognar said with an embarrassed laugh. "I went on my last wrestling tour with a broken neck."
Doctors diagnosed Bognar with a hairline fracture in his C5 and C6 vertebrae, and said that if it wasn't for all the muscle in his neck ("My neck was wider than my head at the time," Bognar said) he could have been paralyzed or worse — dead.
"Wrestling is an amazing business," Bognar said. "Breaking my neck taught me about my sense of mortality. You're in so much pain, and under so much stress, and you have to be too tough to admit it."
Severely injured, trying to recover from a tumultuous relationship with his ex-wife and worried that he was nothing but a "long haired, 300-pound ex-wrestler with no job skills," Bognar knew he needed help.
He moved back to Calgary, and began devouring literature on spiritual practices such as Buddhism, Daoism and Hinduism. He met a monk named Phuntsog, who taught him about impermanence, compassion and egolessness. Interested in motivational speaking, he started practicing mouth formation and exercises for 20 minutes every morning before work.
Bognar's long-time friend Schacter remembers growing much closer to Bognar after he finally left wrestling. At the time, Schacter was suffering from a terrible cancer he was to die from, and Bognar was struggling trying to tear himself out of depression. Schacter said one day Bognar dragged him all the way out to Arizona to hike a mountain that was rumoured to have a healing vortex.
"It was a very difficult thing. I had lost about 80 pounds, I was very weak and was really not recovering," Schacter recalled. "We made it to the top of the mountain, and we meditated and Rick chanted chakras with me. I really think that was the beginning of my healing process."
Although I spent only an hour or so with Bognar over coffee, his light-heartedness and constant joke cracking made it difficult to picture him ever being damaged or depressed.
Bognar is a wrestler no more, but as a public speaker he uses examples from his past to help teach others about anger, aversion and acceptance. On top of his monthly speaking workshops, Bognar also visits schools around Calgary to talk to kids about drugs, bullying and overcoming adversity.
Watching footage of Bognar's last talk with an all-boys' school, he seemed happy, energetic and excited about teaching. At one point, he even brought the principal out on stage and did a wrestling move with him, which had the whole gym roaring with laughter.
Bognar continues to study and practice spirituality, and also does one-on-one coaching to help kids and adults alike overcome anger and "bust through limitation caps."
"Letting go of wrestling was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my entire life," Bognar said. "If I can overcome something that extreme — losing my dream, my universe — if I can let go of that, then I can teach someone else to do the same."
- By ANNA BROOKS