Tony Atlas walked into shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday night, Oct. 20, walked over to a young fan eagerly waiting to get the former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar’s autograph, and pretended to hit him on the head.
He didn’t stop at the front counter; he didn’t bring a lot of attention to his entrance. He walked over to the young boy and treated him as though he were family.
Atlas and the boy—7-year-old Johnny McColl—continued to interact for quite some time. Before posing for a picture, Atlas removed his hat, playfully rubbed his own bald head and asked how his hair looked.
This might not be the image one would expect from a man who spent 20 years of his life as a professional wrestler, and who will be appearing at the MMA and Sports Expo's "Legends of Combat” event this weekend at the Resorts Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City, but that’s who showed up to sign autographs and do some training in Galloway Township.
“I’m a member here, and I saw it advertised that he was going to be here,” Chrissie McColl, 36, said. “My son is very into the WWE right now.”
In addition to her son, Chrissie McColl brought her 5-year-old daughter Mia, who named Christian as her favorite wrestler. Johnny McColl named the popular John Cena as his favorite grappler, and the children never saw Atlas wrestle.
There were a few youngsters lined who never saw Atlas in the squared circle, outside of a few YouTube clips, and his stint in the WWE from 2008 to 2010.
“He did something with Mark Henry,” said Michael Baglivo, 13. “I saw him a little bit in the 80s, and I’ve seen highlights of him on YouTube.”
“It was exciting because I’ve seen him on TV,” said Megan Baglivo, 16. “He’s a celebrity.”
Michael Baglivo mentioned Atlas’ time with Henry, in which he served as manager to the “World’s Strongest Man,” but he also wrestled in a match, which jumped right to Atlas’ mind.
“I wrestled Evan Bourne,” Atlas said.
Bourne is a more familiar name among the younger generation of wrestling fans, as he has worked with the WWE since 2007. He isn't the last young wrestler Atlas hopes to work with.
This weekend, as part of the MMA and Sports Expo Legends of Combat event, Atlas will host a seminar titled “See If You Have What It Takes to Be a Wrestler.”
The expo begins today, but the seminar takes place on Saturday, Oct. 22, time to be determined. He will be appearing along with MMA star Dan Severn and former boxing heavyweight champion Ray Mercer.
Atlas and Mercer will also appear at Tilton Fitness today and Saturday for morning training sessions.
“(Atlas is) going to see if he can help any young guys get into the WWE (at the seminar),” Atlas’ manager John E. Groff said. “It’s the first time he’s ever going to do something like that, and we’re excited about it. It’s going to be about three or four hours. Anyone can come out.”
Atlas said being a professional wrestler is tougher than it appears.
“I think it takes more ability to be a wrestler,” Atlas said. “When I did bodybuilding, all I needed was muscles. When I did weightlifting, all I needed was strength. When I was an amateur wrestler, I had to know the moves. When I boxed, I had to know how to punch, duck and block.
"To be a pro wrestler, you have to be a good wrestler, and you have to be acrobatic. It’s like being an athletic stuntman, and people say the punches aren’t real; the punches are real, you just have to know the spots. You have to know where to hit someone so they don’t get hurt.
“But the falls are real. You can’t fake a fall.”
Atlas has appeared at MMA and Sports Expos in the past, including one in Philadelphia earlier this year. The Baglivos said they would try to make it out to this weekend’s event.
Stephanie McCullough, 53, and daughter Katie McCullough, 21, said they plan to attend the expo. They also plan to frame their autographed picture of Atlas and post pictures of themselves with him on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Laurie DePoe stopped by to get an autograph for her 7-year-old nephew, Richie, whose birthday party is Saturday, in Sewell.
“It’s a surprise,” DePoe said. “He’s having a wrestling party.”
Richie might not know who Atlas is, but there was at least one person there who did watch Atlas wrestle in his prime, when the WWE was still known as the WWF.
“I’m a big fan. I grew up watching him,” said Galloway Township Police Officer John Kelly, 41. “He was a lot of fun to watch. He could press anyone over his head. It was neat to be able to meet him and shake his hand. He’s real down to earth.”
Kelly got Atlas’ autograph for his 11-year-old daughter, Lauren, and some GX for himself.
GX is an energy drink Atlas was promoting as part of his appearance at Tilton Fitness.
“It gives you all the vitamins the body needs. People don’t eat as healthy as they used to, and this gives the body what it needs,” Atlas said.
The drink is supposed to give the person drinking it energy and a healthier body, something Atlas is a big advocate for in his days since he stepped out of the ring for the final time.
“(The MMA and Sports Expo) is a day of health and fitness, something most Americans don’t think about,” Atlas said. “People have a lot on their minds, but good health, low blood pressure, these things are the last things on their mind.”
At Tilton Fitness, health and fitness is at the front of everyone’s mind.
Except for Thursday night.
After signing autographs, Atlas went upstairs to hit the weights. As he worked out, a few zealous fans wandered over and went into descriptions of their experiences watching his matches. At the same time, he gave them new stories to tell about watching him.
And he left one young fan with an experience he’ll never forget.