Sheik of Smackdown

By Ed Staskus

   When I went to work for Gene Weiss in the 1980s all I knew about him was that he owned a racquetball club in Euclid and that he was a famous wrestler. The club was Racquettime, which also went by the name of Gene Weiss’s Place for Fitness. It was a boxy two-story building on Lakeland Blvd. with a big sign clearly visible from I-90.

   The front doors were on the second floor, the front desk was just inside, and the locker rooms were downstairs. There were lots of racquetball courts and a fitness room. Gene sold workout equipment on the side. His other enterprises were top secret.

   I got the job because I had worked for the Back Wall, a Beachwood-based chain of clubs that had transformed its customer base into a cash cow by selling what they touted as lifetime memberships at a ridiculously low price. There was an initiation fee and monthly payments for a while but after that it was the gravy train for the member. At least, that was the pitch. After everybody’s money was safe and secure, they went out of business and closed all their clubs.

   My job was to reproduce the cash cow. I got an office just inside the front door and was expected to sign up as many members to the new plan as possible. What Gene didn’t know was that I was only a tolerable salesman. My job at the Back Wall had sort of involved sales, but my aim wasn’t true that way.

   Gene went to Shaker Heights High School and won the state wrestling title. After he graduated, he won gold and silver medals for the USA at the Maccabiah Games. In 1961 he was named coach of the United States wrestling team. Four years later he was flag bearer for the USA at the opening ceremonies of the 7th World Maccabiah Games in Israel. He was named Ohio Amateur Athletic Union coach of the year and continued to coach with the United States wrestling teams. In the meantime, he became National Wrestling Chairman of the Maccabiah Games and a member of the United States Olympic Committee. Gene was inducted into the Ohio Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1977 and in 1980 was inducted into both the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame and the Shaker Heights High School Hall of Fame. He started and was running the Ohio School of Wrestling when I went to work for him. 

   He introduced himself and his accomplishments at some length. I listened dutifully, an attentive expression on my face. When he came up for air, I thought, I hope there isn’t a quiz on this tomorrow. I hadn’t taken notes and most of it went in one ear and out the other. I had gotten the gist of it, though. He was great guy.

   Everybody loved Gene Weiss.

   “Gene is tough as nails on the outside, but a softie on the inside with a big heart of gold,” said Don Roskoph. “He’s a tough guy with a big heart,” said Bill Turk. “A friend like Gene comes along once in a lifetime. He’s always for the underdog and will give you the shirt off his back in a second,” said Angelo Amato.

   “Gene is a bad dude. He could grab you and he could hurt you.” said Ryan Peters, the athletic director at Beachwood High School. At the same time, he’s a teddy bear, he hastily added. “You can’t help walking away from a meeting with Gene and not give him a big hug. He’s one of these guys that when you meet with him, he’d tell you a story that would change your life.”

   He never hugged me but was always punching my upper arms and slapping me on the back. Thank God he pulled his punches. I loved Gene for a few months until the day after day glad-handing got to be too much while his promises got smaller and smaller fading away to nothing.


   Gene was the owner operator of Racquettime, although he wasn’t in the club overly much nor did it seem like he did over much. When he was there, he mostly mixed with the members and checked with the staff about how things were going. Several young women worked at the front desk and his right-hand man Katherine the Great was in some sort of supervisory position, although whether she was the manager or assistant manager or simply the all-seeing eye for Gene was never clear to me. What was clear was that everybody did what she told them to do, except me. 

   I knew Kathy Roach from racquetball tournaments. She was a good player, athletic fast strong. She didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. I don’t know why, but there it was. As much as Gene led with smiles she led with scowls. I was forced to play racquetball with Gene every so often which was literally a pain. He was a human hinder. He hated letting me hit open winners and would do his best to obstruct me. He was a man-sized slab of iron. I wasn’t. Running into him meant bouncing off him, while the ball went bouncing away and he won the point. 

   If I complained about it, he explained on and on, explaining why how where I was wrong. On top of that, he signed my paycheck, so I didn’t complain. Besides, his takedowns were accompanied by a full mouth smile full of sparkling Chiclet teeth. I wondered what candy store he got his choppers from.

   Sometimes in the locker room after games he talked about wrestlers, bringing up the names of stars, Mr. Fuji, Tarzan Tyler, Andre the Giant, Killer Kowakski, and the Iron Sheik. I didn’t know anything about wrestling and didn’t know them from the man in the moon. He seemed to be on a first name basis with the torso twisters.

   Kathy was a better player than Gene. However, even though Gene won every game we played, she never won a single game. I disliked her so much my goal was to always shut her out, which I did. I slowed my serves and shots down against Gene but sped them up against Kathy. After goose-egging her several times she stopped asking me to play. I never asked her, so we stopped altogether, although she never stopped shooting me dark looks.

   She fawned over Gene as though he was the Great Sugar Daddy. After a while I looked the other way. It wasn’t any of my business anyway. I was after Emily, a pretty girl who worked at the front desk. Despite my best efforts, including charming her parents, I never got anywhere.

   I saw Gene mornings because he was there more-or-less every morning. I started work at 11 o’clock and worked until 7 o’clock. Gene was gone most afternoons and came back as the after-work surge was starting. I made sure I was gone at seven, no matter what. By then I had learned that going the extra mile for employers was giving up my time in a losing cause. When push came to shove it would mean nothing.

   Gene was paying me more than the Back Wall had, said he would spring for health insurance, and promised me a bonus when all was said and done. At first, selling the dream team memberships was easy. I sold them to the tried-and-true members, everybody who loved the club and loved Gene. After that the going got harder, especially to members who only came to the club occasionally sporadically. They wanted to pay for court time or workout time and leave it at that. They didn’t want to sign any contracts. They didn’t want to give me their bank account numbers for monthly withdrawals. It was even harder when it came to first timers. They always asked for a free one-time pass and usually never came back a second time. I was expected to get their phone numbers and follow up with them. I learned quickly enough what it felt like to have one person after another hang up on me.

   The work wasn’t hard, and I kept plugging away.

   One day at my desk I started experiencing discomfort in my right side. By the end of the day the discomfort had turned to pain. Gene noticed I was squirming during our morning meeting the next day and asked me what was wrong. When I told him he took me to the locker room and said a session in the whirlpool would take care of business. I said maybe I should go see a doctor. He said no, I didn’t need a doctor. He was big on saunas steams and whirlpools and insisted I stay in the hot water tub until I couldn’t stand it anymore. After I got out, I felt better all over except for the pain in my side. It felt worse. That night I couldn’t sleep.

   The next morning, I went to Lakewood Hospital and found out I had kidney stones. The ER doctor gave me a small allowance of morphine-like pills and told me to drink as much water as I could stomach. “The pain of kidney stones is right up there with giving birth,” he said. I didn’t go to work that day and that night slept like a baby. In the morning I felt like a new man.

   When the bill for the hospital visit came a few weeks later I left it in Gene’s in-tray, which is when I found out I didn’t have health insurance after all. He had never signed me up and never paid any premiums. I wasn’t sure what to do. If I confronted him about it, he might put me in a headlock. I heard through the grapevine that nobody, except for maybe Kathy Roach, had health insurance. 

   The last couple of months I worked at Racquettime I stayed busy discovering things weren’t going my way. I had been promising new members we were going to be putting an Olympic-size swimming pool in soon. When I pressed Gene about it, since members were pressing me about it, he hemmed and hawed. I thought, there isn’t any pool on the way.

   Gene wanted me to start giving racquetball lessons, but I didn’t want to. I had done lessons at the Back Wall. No matter how many times I told men women teenagers to hit a thousand forehands backhands ceiling shots and to practice their serves, they never did. What they wanted to do was hit the ball around with me while I tried to correct their swings. Everybody thought there was one sure way to become a winner. When I tried to explain that everybody good went at it in slightly different ways, and what they should do is discover what worked for them, all the while grooving their swings, they weren’t interested.

   When I asked Gene about my bonus, the bonus he had promised me for selling his new memberships, he said I hadn’t sold enough of them to make paying me a bonus worth it. On top of that he was so disappointed in my performance that he was going to have to let me go, starting right now. It didn’t take me entirely by surprise, but it took me by surprise. I hadn’t planned on it and hadn’t gone looking for anything new. I didn’t bother arguing with him. I knew when I was down for the count.

   On my way home I reminded myself, never trust the big cheeses. They didn’t get to be wealthy by giving anybody anything unless they absolutely had to. They got rich by pinning suckers to the mat until they squealed. The only people they respect are others like them, and even that respect is provisional.

   They always say they got where they are through hard work. They wrinkle their noses when asked whose hard work. They don’t care if they are rich, so long as they have a boat load of money, no matter where it came from. Top dogs make the rules. It’s the law of the land. My rule of thumb was to keep my distance, since when the mondo hammers make trouble it’s always the small fry who get beat on the anvil.

   I had been thinking about going to work for myself. Nobody ever got much satisfaction by being a wage slave for their boss. I wasn’t going to make it to Fort Knox with the modest plan I had in mind, but I moved the thought from the back of my mind to the front. I might still have to work part-time for somebody to stay afloat but I would never again trust whoever it was.

   Nobody quits when they’re wrestling the Iron Sheik and gets tired. You quit when the Iron Sheik gets tired of you.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”