Catching up with pro wrestler 'Precious' Paul Ellering

Paul Ellering
Paul Ellering talks about his days as a professional wrestler at the Rock Tavern he owns in Grey Eagle, Minn.
Jason Wachter | AP

The spandex is stashed somewhere in the garage. The markets are crawling across the TV screen. The crush of autograph-seeking pro wrestling fans is a few months off.

Paul Ellering, 62, will slip back into a flashy jacket with "Enter Chaos" written on the front — and he'll assume the persona — once again appearing as "Precious" Paul Ellering, pro wrestler, Road Warriors manager, WWE Hall-of-Famer, at WrestleMania this spring in Dallas.

But here in the Historic Rock Tavern, closed Wednesdays in winter, he works out in solitude. Three or four days a week in the carpeted dining room of the place he and his wife, Joan, own on Big Birch Lake, he runs through a nonstop, 60-minute routine of step-ups, curls and other exercises that keep his heart rate at 150.

On this Wednesday morning in late January, he'd already finished his workout. He answered the door wearing a royal blue South Dakota State University sweatshirt, black sweatpants, white socks and a pair of slippers.

He'd been up since the markets opened at 3 a.m.

"Precious" referred to precious metals and Ellering's interest in stocks. As the Road Warriors manager, he always wore a sharp suit and carried a copy of the Wall Street Journal. When he entered pro wrestling in 1977 (his first match was on Christmas Day in Minneapolis), he kept his own name because the previous year, as a South Dakota State University student, he'd set a world record in the 220-pound weight class dead-lifting 746.25 pounds.

Framed, 8x10 photographs shot outside a gym in the '70s show off his well-defined upper body. They hang in a paneled hall leading downstairs, overshadowed by the trophy elk his father bagged in Idaho.

The St. Cloud Times reports that the dining room and bar once displayed memorabilia from Ellering's pro wrestling days, but those items tended to go missing. Today, posters from the Iditarod (he competed three times in the 1,000-mile-long Alaskan sled dog race, and maintains a kennel of Alaskan huskies) are subtler reminders of a colorful career that started at Melrose High School, circled the globe (with frequent stops in Japan) and then returned to the Melrose area, a place known more for agriculture than pro wrestling.

He's not a big surprise in Melrose, where he and Joan, a project planner for a Twin Cities-based medical supply company, grew up and graduated in 1971.

His three kids attended Melrose High School. (Becca, 26, teaches special education in the Albany district; Rachael, 23, is on the Prairie Wrestling Alliance circuit based in Alberta, Canada; Saul, 21, recently earned a health and fitness degree from Alexandria Technical & Community College.) He moved back to Melrose in 1988. After his last full-time year in the business in 2000, Ellering had time to more closely follow Melrose High School sports.

Not even delivery drivers were surprised when they first saw Ellering at the Historic Rock Tavern. He and the father of the Bernick's driver grew up together on Big Birch Lake.

On this morning, only a few ice anglers broke up the snow-covered expanse. Ellering offered coffee, and then set his mug on the end of a long table overlooking the lake. He reflected on the circumstances that converged to thrust the Road Warriors into the national spotlight, and the state of pro wrestling today.

Paul Ellering
Paul Ellering keeps an eye on the stock market.
Jason Wachter | AP

Trained in Minneapolis by Verne Gagne of the American Wrestling Alliance, Ellering wrestled from 1977 until a knee injury took him out of action in 1982. In the early years, he'd wrestle every night. Starting in 1979, he had a two-year feud, an unfolding storyline with Jesse Ventura.

"Ventura was supposedly from Ventura Beach and I was the home-grown Minnesota boy," Ellering said.

It was a natural feud, and those were the matches that mattered the most.

While his career took him to Atlanta, Tampa, Minneapolis, Memphis, Shreveport, Atlanta, Charlotte, and then back to Minneapolis, Joan stayed in Minnesota. Ellering met Hawk (the late Michael Hegstrand, who died in 2003) and Animal (Joe Laurinaitis, father of James Laurinaitis of the NFL's St. Louis Rams) through Georgia Championship Wrestling, and managed the Road Warriors for 20 years starting in 1983.

The Road Warriors' emergence coincided with the advent of cable TV, which Ellering said moved wrestling out of the fiefdoms of local TV and onto a national stage.

"All of a sudden they saw us. Animal and Hawk completely changed the business. They were like Elvis Presley was to music in the late '50s, because up until that point it was old-school wrestling, where you grab a hold and you'd work that hold and you'd grind it out," Ellering said.

"Then Animal and Hawk came along, and it was slam, bam, in-your-face, trash-talking. And if you went to the refrigerator or the bathroom you missed it. It only lasted 30 seconds. People had never seen anything like that until that point. They were the first ones to paint their face and wear spikes."

The matches got raunchy; Ellering didn't let his kids watch on TV.

"When I was younger, I was fully convinced it was all real. (To me) there was no storyline. Because we would see him come home with the results of having a match. So I was a full believer," Becca said.

Plus, Ellering would come home with bumps and bruises. He'd have surgeries for things uncommon among her classmates' parents.

"He would explain it in kid terms. Not, 'I was hit over the head with this table.' Just, 'Oh, we were having a match."

Paul Ellering
Paul Ellering talks about his days as a professional wrestler and then manager of the Road Warriors.
Jason Wachter | AP

Even though she wasn't allowed to watch, other kids did. At school, fans would mention seeing her dad in a match the night before.

Today, she talks pro wrestling, including WWE Monday Night RAW or Thursday night wrestling, with a few students who are fans.

On her phone, she's bookmarked the YouTube video "TV Debut Paul Ellering vs. Fernando Torez Wrestling 1979." What strikes her most about the 9:29 video — which features a lot of drawn-out circling, gripping, tossing, kicking and striking — is how much hair her dad had back then and how much he looks like her brother.

"I never really looked at him as that famous person until we went to the Hall of Fame, until we saw him being inducted," Becca said of the 2011 event. "It was massive. The stadium is huge. There's 70,000 people. It's mind-blowing. Honestly, I can't imagine being a superstar coming out in front of crowds like that."

Sometimes, the crowds took things too seriously.

"People would actually have the audacity to fight you," Ellering said, recalling an incident in Puerto Rico. "We'd have to fight our way back to the dressing room with chairs."

Even at autograph signings, Ellering keeps some space between him and the fans.

With Rachael getting into the sport, Ellering said the thing that concerns him most is her going out on the road.

"I trust in her ability. She is a tremendous talent," Ellering said. "Anytime you're in the public, (there are) lots of weirdos."

Ellering was under contract to appear 230 days a year in the late 1980s with the National Wrestling Alliance. Some of those appearances were matches, some were autograph signings.

With its own network and subscribers, Ellering said today's WWE is more successful than ever because promoters can gauge within 15 minutes whether fans like something. So what's on is what's popular. If no one pays to watch, if no one talks about it, it disappears.

"The chemistry of the business has never changed. It's athletes and characters, you know, and then basically good vs. evil. The storylines don't change. It's just different people acting them out," Ellering said.

"It's a lot like kabuki theater. You're telling a story."

An AP Exchange feature by Ann Wessel for the St. Cloud Times.