I was falling apart. No job, nothing coming in, no prospects of sudden wealth. Or even gradual wealth.
My life as a professional and world class athlete had been ripped out from under me, like a bad tablecloth trick.
Everything I touched turned into coal in 1978, including my French restaurant and disco in Saratoga, Cal., “Buster’s.” The joint actually went bust. Buster’s was busted.
I was busted, broke, and bamboozled, down on the mat, flat on my back. It was the worst year of my life. Or at least one of my worst years. I’ve had a few, but I think 1978 was at the bottom of the heap.
I had done a lot of interesting things up to that point — the Munich Olympics, ABC’s Super Stars, the World’s Strongest Man contest, and a world record throw. But there I was, without a pot in which to pee.
So what do you do when you’re flat on the mat, when you‘ve got nothing to lose? You do what you know. You go back to the gym. You put on your best game face. You fight. You start boxing. And you end up sparring with Muhammad Ali, king of the ring.
I started re-building everything, beginning with the legs. Everything flows from the legs, whether it’s throwing or boxing or mowing the lawn. Of course, everything flows from the belly, too, and all athletes travel on their stomachs, just like an army.
That’s why “Buster’s” was my kind of place. We had a manager we recruited from TGIF. We had great food. I had lobster, filet mignon, and Pulley Fussy* almost every night. That’s not how you spell it, but close enough. It’s a fine white wine from France that goes well with seafood, chicken and banana splits, this last a concoction which has always been one of my weaknesses.
You get the idea. I was living the high life.
You might wonder how a French restaurant aspiring to be a four star establishment acquired the name “Buster’s” instead of, say, “Rue de Champignon.” If you pronounce it right, “Buster’s” can be a fine French name, as in “Le Buster’s.” Whereas, “Rue de Champignon” means “Street of Mushrooms.” See the difference?
Soon enough “Buster’s” became “Les Miserables,” the musical about me and the syndicate I put together to start the joint. We ended up with a cast of characters who all wanted to be the boss, including me, who wanted to be the benevolent dictator.
There was a lot of kitchen conspiracies, plots against the management, and constant stirrings of discontent and revolution. You wouldn’t think there would be so much maneuvering, but it was one castle intrigue after another. That’s because back then a lot of people paid cash for their food and bar bills and everybody wanted to be close to the register at night.
It’s no wonder the restaurant business has been a source of reality TV shows. There’s a lot of conspiracy, treachery and betrayal with sharp knives at the ready.
But it went belly up after three months. We were counting on attracting the disco crowd and disco was on the downturn. Disc jockeys were blowing up disco records at Comiskey Park. People were sick of the BeeGees. It was the year that disco was trashed by the rock and roll people. Disco was off the floor and out the door.
So to work off my anger, disappointment and general hatred of the world, I began my industrial strength workout. Mega sets were my thing — 500 pound leg presses for 50 reps.
I rebuilt the engine and put new shocks on.
When Buster’s opened that year, I had just returned from the “World’s Strongest Man” contest and I brought John Matuszak from the Oakland Raiders with me. He was a defensive end, had played for several other teams and hailed from Oak Creek, Wis., a southern suburb of Milwaukee.
I beat him at the “World’s Strongest Man” competition. Matuszak and I were the two little guys at the event. We were up against the big guys like Bruce Wilhelm, 6-4, 335 pounds. There I was, a puny 251.
Earlier that year, I had met John at a Super Bowl party. He eyed me and said, “Oldfield, I thought you’d be a much bigger man.”
I said, “John, I have my dimensions. I am a bigger man.”
He liked that and we struck up a friendship. He was 6-7, 305 pounds and no fat on him. He was a great all-around athlete — discus and shot thrower, football player and boxer.
But he was a problem child for the Raiders, which was a problem team at that time. You didn’t want to meet any of them in a dark alley. John was involved in some incidents off the field and the team sent a liaison guy to watch over him.
That guy eventually thanked me for having a good influence on Matuszak. Imagine that, me having a good influence on an NFL player! It didn’t last. He later was banned for life from the Raider’s locker room and then in 1989 died from an overdose of painkillers.
John put the wild in Wild Turkey. I couldn’t keep up with him. He and Pete Maravich, the late basketball player, out-partied me. I was in awe. When I was out with either one of them, I’d have to raise the white flag and limp home. Too bad they both partied themselves into the ground.
I took Matuszak to the grand opening of Buster’s and he scared the shit out of everybody, but I didn’t think he was that dangerous. I had been appointed commander of the bouncers, so I sort of deputized him and kept an eye on him.
We attracted some of the local NFL cheerleaders, whom we called the Ramettes. No hidden meaning there. They would come to “Buster’s” and dress the place up.
Another reason “Buster’s” went bust was some of the partners couldn’t get along. I had to referee a parking lot altercation between two of our investors, one of whom was a 200-pound former NFL quarterback and the other our 300-pound Greek restaurateur. After a meeting, they went at each other in the parking lot over who was going to get a bigger cut of the pie.
I wish I had it on tape. The big guy kept throwing himself at the quarterback, who kept dropping back in the pocket to avoid a collision. It went on for a few minutes until I calmed them down and put them in neutral corners.
Looking back, I think I must have been a limited partner, because I only got invited to the fights, not the meetings. But that’s OK because I really didn’t know what I was doing.
So there had been this wonderful episode in which I was the golden boy, had a leased Camaro, wine, women and song, a French restaurant. Le bon temps roulette.
And then a big fat zero. No more Camaro. No more lobster. No more Pulley Fussy. No more Ramettes. I was the boll weevil again, out there looking for a home. Plan A was gone. I needed a Plan B and a Plan C. Plan D was teaching school again.
Plan B. I got some old boxing gloves, a mouthpiece and looked up John Caruso, a pro who had boxed George Foreman and received an eye injury for his efforts. He was fearless and had been the heavyweight champ in the Marines.
I found him at his office and said, “You Caruso? Show me how to box.”
He took me out to his driveway and we put on the gloves and started sparring.
He told me I needed a manager. “Why?” I said.
“To keep you out of jail.”
END OF PART 1
By Brian Oldfield with George Houde