Pete Doherty didn't win much, but Boston loved him just the same.
Nearly two decades after he first stepped into the wrestling ring, Doherty, "The Duke of Dorchester," was doing an on-camera interview in a Boston Garden locker room the late '80s. The interviewer asked: "What will you ever do if you win?"
"He didn't think I'd have a comeback," Doherty remembered. "I said: 'Hey, if I ever win a match, I'm going to retire! The challenge would be ovah! All I gotta do is win one, and I'm done.' "
Doherty first appeared before wrestling crowds in green tights playing the friendly Irishman. But he always felt he'd be better as a bad guy, or "heel," and he soon dropped the Celtic garb in favor of black tights, a biker vest, and shoulder-length bleached blond hair. Rounding out his image was a mostly toothless bottom gumline (he told fans he lost the teeth in the ring, though it was actually in an auto accident).
"It looked like I had two fangs," Doherty said. "I would never wear the dentures in the ring. I would grab an arm and act like I was biting it."
Doherty carved his niche in wrestling by losing preliminary matches in an exciting manner, which generated enthusiasm for his up-and-coming opponent, whose fighting appeared more spectacular because of the amplified way Doherty would react when he was hit.
Dan Mirade was there when the Duke did finally win one -- though he did not in fact retire on the spot. It was August 1990 in Boston Garden, and Doherty was wrestling a Samoan named Haku, who ran and crashed into the corner of the ring after Doherty dodged him.
"The Duke rolled him up," recalled Mirade, of Melrose.
Mirade, a lifelong Boston Garden devotee, plans to gather Doherty and eight other grapplers from Garden matches past at Suffolk Downs Saturday for "Wrestlefest," and even Doherty won't have to worry about absorbing any pile drivers. It will be a night of questions and answers, autographs, and mingling themed around 40 years of raucous wrestling on Kneeland Street. Similar conventions have drawn good crowds in Southern cities where wrestling was popular.
"You're not going to see a show, a performance," Mirade said. "You get to meet these guys."
Mirade promises appearances by wrestlers spanning all eras of Garden grappling: from the '60s, Walter "Killer" Kowalski and Ox Baker; from the '70s, The Iron Shiek and "Polish Power" Ivan Putski; from the '80s, "The Genius" Lanny Poffo, "Mouth of The South" Jimmy Hart, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, and Road Warrior Animal; and from the '90s,
Doherty's career is rooted in the traditions for which Mirade, and the thousands more who turned out for monthly Garden wrestling, are nostalgic.
He was raised in a Dorchester triple-decker on South Munroe Terrace, where he was captivated by wrestling on television. After graduating from Hyde Park High School and serving three years in the Army, he worked as a cable puller at General Dynamics in Quincy. He got into wrestling after he met grapplers working out at a Combat Zone gym, and sought training in the ways of the ring. He hooked up with Vince McMahon Sr.'s World Wide Wrestling Federation outfit and had his first match in a Saugus skating rink in 1971.
After he wrestled short stints in Georgia, Florida, Canada, and Kuwait in the early '70s, Doherty resolved to stay rooted in Boston. He also wanted the pension that came with full-time work at General Dynamics, so wrestled in locations only within driving distance from Boston.
By his own account, he'd often put in a day of wiring at General Dynamics from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., then push 100 miles per hour in his 1971 LP convertible on the Mass Pike at night en route to wrestling bookings as far away as Philadelphia and Baltimore. He often arrived late, and once was tardy at a wrestling event in Albany, N.Y., where he was greeted sarcastically by wrestling great Chief Jay Strongbow.
"Strongbow says to me, in front of all the boys, 'Look who's here -- the freakin' Duke of Dorchester,' " Doherty said. "So it stuck."
Weekly bookings in smaller local venues -- Doherty estimates he's wrestled in nearly every high school in Massachusetts -- and monthly events at Boston Garden meant less mileage for Doherty, and a chance to razz hometown crowds infamous for their passionate love for good guys and equally passionate hatred for "bad guys" like Doherty, which was often expressed by bottle throwing, spitting, and swinging.
"Boston Garden was the toughest place in the world to wrestle," Doherty said. "Going to the ring and coming from the ring you were taking your life in your hands."
The fans who ran into Doherty at the Eire Pub, though, would ask about his well-being after a tough match, though many of them had wished death upon him the night before. The goodwill stemmed from Doherty's ability to make opponents look good, a quality highly valued in a business where perception trumps all.
"He was a good man, he was good in the ring," said wrestling great Walter "Killer" Kowalski, of Stoneham, who tossed Doherty around during his storied career. "He'd go in the ring and the other guy beat him. I always won."
The audience's disdain for the Duke soon warmed into a familiarity that turned The Duke of Dorchester into a fan favorite in Boston, even though he behaved despicably in the ring. "He has a cult following about him in this area," Mirade said.
Today, the summery East Falmouth home Doherty moved to in the late '80s -- he calls it "The Dukedom" -- contains few mementos of his days in the ring. Two framed pictures, programs, and a copy of "No Holds Barred," a film produced by Vince McMahon in 1989 featuring a brief Doherty cameo, sit in the basement. After two decades of kicking opponents in the groin behind the referee's back, Doherty is "living the good life" at home with his wife and one of two daughters, though his back and knees still bother him occasionally.
He had, after all, taken much abuse over the years. And as he lay on the mat after countless beatings in the Garden, he studied the Celtics' championship banners which hung from the rafters.
"They're bouncing a ball all around the court and we're bouncing our bodies all around the ring," Doherty remembers thinking.
"Those guys were making megabucks and we were making peanuts, even though we were selling out the same building," he said. "[But] we really had a hell of a time."