By Dave Fantle   Published Dec 13, 2006 at 5:00 AM
Ladies and gentlemen, now entering the squared circle, representing Germany, weighing in at a tremendous 271 pounds, here he is, the Clawmaster -- Baron Von Raschke ... Raschke.

Let’s go to ringside. With his trademark cape and black tights replete with the red stripe down the side and iron cross, the Baron goosestepped around the ring and drove the audience into a frenzy which in a strangely eerie way resembled a Nuremberg rally of the Third Reich.

Now his cape, trunks and boots are on display at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.

That introduction and the pre-match routine were repeated more than (at Baron’s estimate) 10,000 times from 1966 until 1993 in big cities throughout the world and small rinky dink towns in the Midwest, including high school gymnasiums in places like Grantsburg, Amery and Rice Lake. The Baron won’t even venture a guess on how many miles he’s logged on the road, but he proudly boasts that he never missed a match.

“I drove off a ditch in a North Dakota blizzard and thanks to the kindness of a local farmer who pulled me out with his tractor I still made it to my match in Beulah on time. I actually was early as I didn’t figure in the time zone change,” said the Baron.

Herr Raschke was in Milwaukee last weekend to attend the two “Blizzard Brawl” charity matches. For the Claw and me it was a reunion of sorts. I spent some quality time with him 23 years ago when he was a subject of a lengthy profile I wrote on him for my college newspaper, the Minnesota Daily.

That same year, the Baron also finished a close second in a write-in campaign to become University of Minnesota student body president. A victory by the Baron could have launched a political career, not unlike another Twin Cities grappler Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

The former wrestler and Minnesota governor had this to say about the Baron in my original 1983 article: “Von Raschke’s a formidable opponent, mainly because he’s so ugly.”

Our reunion took place appropriately at a Milwaukee German culinary landmark -- Mader’s Restaurant where Raschke and his wife of 39 years Bonnie (affectionately called Mrs. Claw), shared some gemutlichkeit and reminisced about life in the ring over steins of beer and some delectable Weiner Schnitzel mit Spaetzle.

The nearby MECCA Arena in Milwaukee was also the locale for the Baron’s first professional bout in 1966 against veteran campaigner Johnny Kase. At the time he was just billed by his real name and hailed from his home state, Jimmy Raschke from Nebraska. Even without his feared claw hold, Raschke still dispatched his opponent and scored the three count.

That first match, the Baron recalled, paid $50, considerably more than the $90 a month he received during his two-year stint in the Army after he graduated with a degree in zoology from the University of Nebraska. Out of the Army, he also tried teaching at the pay scale of $100 per week.

After a successful amateur wrestling career, attaining professional status seemed like a logical move.

A few months after that first match in Milwaukee Raschke teamed with the legendary Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon in Montreal and took the name Baron Von Raschke, adopting the goose-stepping “heel” persona.

“The Dog wanted me to take the name Baron Von Pumpkin,” he said. “I could live with Baron Von, but I figured I might as well keep my last name because I am of German descent.”

With the new name came the gravelly German accent and an interview style where he occasionally would actually sprinkle in at least a few German words.

An opening question by announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund -- and before that Marty O’Neill -- automatically triggered what would become the Baron’s trademark response: “das is richtig” (that is correct). The interviews concluded with what has become one of the more enduring catch phrases in the mat world: “And dat is all da people need to know!”

For the better part of his career, the Baron played the “heel,” the guy the crowd loved to hate. About five years after that debut match in Milwaukee, the Baron, in a bout in Indianapolis against Pat O’Connor, first clamped on the claw, a cranium crush that would usually mean lights out for his opponent.

The Claw became one the sport’s most dreaded “finishing moves” along with the Crusher’s bolo punch, Verne Gagne’s sleeper, Nick Bockwinkel’s pile driver and Black Jack Lanza’s Texas brainbuster.

The Baron wrestled for many of the regional wrestling circuits in the ‘60s and ‘70s and for periods of time he and Bonnie lived in Montreal, Toledo, Dallas, Charlotte and Indianapolis. But it was in Minneapolis as part of Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA) promotion that the Baron became a crowd favorite and enjoyed his greatest success.

It’s no secret that wrestling is sports entertainment where good goes against evil and the outcome of the match is predetermined. Like a magician not wanting to reveal the secret behind his tricks, the fraternity of wrestlers doesn’t go out of their way to publicly admit that the sport is a sham. However, the Baron did say that the matches are choreographed between the two combatants by signals and verbal communications in the ring.

For the majority of his career, Baron and Mrs. Claw found Lebensraum for their family in the Twin Cities area, where their two children, Karl and Heidi (“The Pinch”) were raised and still reside. Heidi is the entertainment editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The Baron and Milwaukee’s own Da Crusher, were close friends and held the AWA tag team title together toward the end of their careers. For both, wrestling was a job, a way to put bread on the table. Now as he makes personal appearance, signs autographs and poses for pictures, the Raschke realizes how many lives he has positively touched during his pre-steroid G-rated era of wrestling.

The Baron has no time for today’s superstars with their steroid-ripped bodies and adult story lines. “It’s more talk than wrestling,” he lamented.

Baron takes his act from the ring to the legitimate stage in a new play at the History Theatre in St. Paul for five weeks, starting in April. “The Baron,” was written by Cory McLeod and features a walk down memory lane with Raschke and a cast portraying his family and a cadre of other ring warriors.

From his home base in the quaint Minnesota river town of Wabasha, the Clawmaster maintains where Claw Power t-shirts and other Baron-inspired memorabilia enjoy brisk sales.

When mild-mannered Jim Raschke exited that dressing room and made his way to the bright lights of the ring, he transformed into the “Beast from Berlin” and later the beloved Baron and supplied more than his fair share of grunts and groans to an appreciative audience during a simpler time.

“Das is richtig,” the Baron acknowledged.

And dat is all the people need to know!