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Jeff Blatnick Is Fighting for His Life Again : Grim Foe Has a New Grip on Gold-Medal Wrestler

Times Staff Writer

Jeff (One Happy Dude) Blatnick sits back in a small office some friends have allowed him and holds his large head.

Bad shape. He’s in real bad shape. And the occasional firecracker from outside the office, where supposedly grown and responsible men are monitoring investments of $1 million and more, does not help.

“Beer,” he says, explaining his condition. “Bachelor party. Best friend. Lots of beer.”

Another firecracker explodes and he winces. “I think it’s supposed to be a release of tension, after handling all that money.” He shrugs. “Or they’re just crazy.”

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He withdraws from his own desk a box of cigar loads. He has plans for them, and the partners of Cowan & Co., his generous sponsors in things financial and even spiritual, have a tension release coming up.

In the meantime, there is his head. Of course, being a wrestler, he’s had bigger hurts put on him and, anyway, the beauty of a hangover, which he is mostly exaggerating, is that it gets better, sooner or later.

So he’s cheerful despite it all. He knows he’ll never feel worse than he does at this particular moment. To his way of thinking, in fact, it’s not entirely unlike cancer, which is 0-1 with the big man and well behind in the rematch. He knows he’ll get better. So he’s cheerful.

But what else would he be? This is the same outrageously buoyant Jeff Blatnick who illuminated the 1984 Olympics with his own emotional fireworks, a relief of tension so mighty that grown men cried.

It wasn’t enough that the super-heavyweight had won a gold medal; he had conquered Hodgkin’s disease as well, believed to be a formidable opponent.

There are some moments in sports you will never forget, and if you saw his 248 pounds sink to the floor, if you saw his tears, if you heard him say, “I’m one happy dude"--well, you’ve got yourself a lifelong memory, don’t you?

Blatnick leans forward on his small desk, his bulk exaggerated by the down-scaled furniture. “I beat cancer, I win a gold medal, I live happily ever after,” he says, ticking off the developments.

You know the next plot turn; it was in all the papers. “I get cancer again.”

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At the time, he was indeed living happily ever after, making uplifting speeches at corporate gatherings--for as much as $4,500 a pop, if you can believe that--and doing charity work for both the good it did leukemia sufferers and the good it did his conscience.

After eight years of training for Olympic competition, during which he never made more than $5,000, he was suddenly living a good life. Traveling 150,000 miles a year, doing about 25 corporate gigs, enjoying himself and his celebrity and feeling a wee bit guilty about his good fortune. He actually apologizes for buying a new car.

Then, after hobnobbing with some IBM execs last summer, he experienced stomach cramps. Then, still later, he felt a twinge in his groin. Then, he reached down. He felt a lump. “I went cold all over,” he says. Because, after all, he’d gone that route before.

Blatnick took the call at his parents’ home near Schenectady, N.Y., where he still lives. The biopsy, as he had feared it would, tested malignant.

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The big man admits that there were some tears, but the overwhelming emotion was rage. He drove the 20 minutes to the home of his sponsor, Spike Lanides, firecracking investment counselor, and the sweat poured off him all the way. He was actually boiling over.

“I was not a happy dude,” he says, life-ever-after suddenly in jeopardy, never mind the happily-ever-after angle. “I was upset and angry. But it only lasted as long as it took to get to Spike’s house. OK, I thought, back to Square 1.”

Wrestlers have long known that it takes a lot to get a good man down, and Blatnick, perhaps not the most gifted Greco-Roman wrestler, was nevertheless almost always a good man. Still is, in the respect that it takes a lot to get him down. Oh, there were some bad moments; he is human. There was a little “why me?” and a little fear.

When the cancer was discovered the first time, back in 1982, radiation was the ticket home. Blatnick makes it sound like a day at the beach. In fact, the only side-effect seemed to be a sunburn.

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This time, he’d have to take chemotherapy, 28 assaults on the body, 28 sessions when the powerful medicine indiscriminately looted the cells, looking for cancer but not being any too particular. Nobody’s day at the beach.

“It was my only other bad moment,” he says. The day before his first treatment last September he visited the grave of his older brother, David, killed in a motorcycle accident nine years ago and the source of much of his inspiration ever since.

He wondered how he would react to the treatments. Would he throw up? Would he lose his hair? Would he be confined with terminal lassitude?

He would live every day as he had, continuing to go to workouts when he could, continuing to deliver his corporate speeches. He was never sick, he never lost his hair and certainly not his hope.

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Moreover, nobody was ever told, and so a nation was allowed the simple confidence that, yes, life is fair, that happiness, when deserved, is delivered. Blatnick feels a little bad about that small fraud but was so sure of his recovery that he decided not to spoil a good story.

The chemotherapy was not entirely uneventful. If there weren’t some obvious side effects, there were nevertheless some dangerous ones.

Blood counts bobbed up and down like the Dow Jones. And occasionally he overestimated his opponent. He played tug-of-war one day and played it too hard. He was in bed for three days, reminded anew that cancer still had a few respectable holds. By January, he had to give up wrestling practice.

The chemotherapy, of course, had a remarkable ally in Blatnick’s frame of mind. Cancer, to him, was one more challenge.

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“I was always the underdog, right up to when I won the championship,” he says. “I like that role. No pressure, no fear of losing. It was just a matter of giving it my best performance possible.”

If you believe that cancer is subject to the will of the individual, a highly presumptuous belief but widely shared all the same, then you have to wonder why cancer even wanted the rematch.

A month ago, Blatnick held a press conference to announce that, yes, he was battling cancer again and that, yes, it appeared to be on the run once more. A CAT scan showed that the growth he had discovered in September had decreased in size. Another CAT scan in November will prove whether it is indeed in remission, whether he has beaten cancer.

The press conference was the equivalent of winning the gold medal for Blatnick, another happy ending. It wasn’t quite as spontaneous, however. This public burst of Blatnick was highly calculated.

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“First of all, I didn’t want my cancer known until I knew I could handle it,” he says. “Cancer patients are ordinary people and should be treated that way. I didn’t want to risk somebody coming to interview me and I’m a mess. After all, maybe I had been to a bachelor’s party.”

Second, Blatnick correctly assessed how big a news story this would be. So he engineered it like Barnum & Bailey. Keep in mind that he has two obsessions--the raising of funds for cancer research and the absolute razing of professional wrestling. So the world learned of his comeback while he was in New York for a Leukemia Society event and just before the recent Wrestlemania.

“If the media wanted to talk to me, fine,” he says. “But they were going to hear a lot of other stuff, too.”

What they heard was a lot about professional wrestling, which he feels demeans his own sport by association. In fact, he wanted to challenge Hulk Hogan.

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“They’re not wrestlers,” he says, his voice rising. “I can beat (William, The Refrigerator) Perry, (Rowdy Roddy) Piper, Mr. T. I can rip their arms off and stuff the wet end in their mouths. Yet people on the street think they can take me.”

It’s not a good subject to raise with Blatnick.

Anyway, the surprise element of his story is not that he probably will recover from Hodgkin’s disease again or even that he wants Mr. T. It’s that he fully intends to resume wrestling. Hey, he’s already resumed, been working out for weeks.

“I’m going right back to what I did in ’82,” he announces. “I’ll probably lose a lot, but I’m not scared of that. There’s a lot of people pulling for me, so I have to be sure I know who I’m doing this for.

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“I do know this: I miss the mats, I miss the competition. Even if I don’t win. I tell you, it used to be the easiest thing in the world, to run out on a mat.

“I’ll have to pay my dues all over again. But the fear of losing just isn’t there. A lot of people have told me I should quit at the top. Hey, I don’t feel like quitting. It’d be like throwing the roses out the window without smelling them.

“You know, one thing I learned about the chicken circuit, which I could have done just as much as I wanted, is that I wasn’t any happier than when I was training. I looked at those executives and they were chain smoking and never smiling. Are they happy? Was I?

“We’re talking about life here. You roll the dice and take your chance. All you can do is try, dammit.”

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Blatnick leans back in his little office, a space set aside by friends so that the Olympic hero has a place to take mail and answer it and jump at the occasional firecracker. Something amuses him.

“Let me show these letters from some sixth graders,” he says. “There’s a great one, shows me beating cancer.”

It’s a small cartoon showing little yellow globules, all with frowning faces. Blatnick, standing heroically, is swatting the cancers aside. They say “Ow.”

“Isn’t that something, how he sees cancer, little things you just knock away?” says Blatnick, laughing.

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And you wonder, surprised: You mean Blatnick sees them differently?


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