When Matt Osborne died on Friday, the news rang out far and wide. Fox Sports: "Report: Doink the Clown dead at 56." TMZ: "Doink the Clown Pro Wrestler Dies at 55." New York Daily News: "Ex-WWE wrestler Doink the Clown dead at 55." The implication was that the role had overtaken its actor. As this site's Barry Petchesky wrote, "We're hard-pressed to think of a wrestler who was more defined by a single gimmick."
But that's not quite right. Let's set aside the question of whether anything in wrestling—Terry Bollea's "Hulk Hogan"; Dwayne Johnson's "The Rock"—isn't a gimmick. And let's ignore that there are other wrestlers—Kamala the Ugandan Giant, Rey Mysterio Jr., Sabu—who are so wholly defined by their gimmicks that one hardly recognizes them as put-ons. And really, is an evil-clown gimmick stupider than a zombie mortician from the Old West, imported into the modern wrestling ring by a televangelist?
No, Matt Osborne, aka Matt Borne, wasn't defined by a single gimmick; the gimmick was defined by Borne. In Doink, he created an archetype that was loose and baggy enough for lesser wrestlers to play the same part. The role didn't overtake him so much as transcend him, which makes Matt Osborne's story so much sadder. His own creation has thrown a pie in the face of his legacy.
I don't remember when I first became so enraptured with "Maniac" Matt Borne, but it was in the '80s on cable television, back when pro wrestling was cheap content for upstart networks like TBS and ESPN. And for whatever reason, he always held a powerful sway over my memory. There was something in his eyes, in the way he spoke, in the way he roughed up guys in the ring, which made him engaging in a way so many of the more famous guys around him simply weren't. Sure, he spent most of his time in the far-flung territories of the NWA—Georgia, Carolina, Oregon, Texas—at a time when everything seemed pretty real, especially to a pre-teen kid. But Borne was somehow different—he wasn't playing a character; he wasn't showboating or relying on shtick. He was believable because he was engaged; he was engaging because he believed it as much as we, or at least I, did.
Maybe it wasn't real to him in the sense that he believed it, but it was real in the sense that pro wrestling was his life. Matt Osborne was born into the sport. His dad was "Tough" Tony Borne, an icon in Don Owen's Pacific Northwest territory, where he helped shape the careers of young wrestlers like Roddy Piper and Buddy Rose. He frequently teamed up with Lonnie "Moondog" Mayne, an oddball, antic personality with a rough, deliberate ring style. He had a blond Prince Adam cut and a beard and a personality somewhere between feral and clinical; he was known for eating dog food and live goldfish and broken glass. Mayne was young Matt Osborne's idol. Matt would follow him around in the locker room, hanging on his every lunatic word. He loved that he was unconventional in the ring and a prankster in the locker room. And he saw him pretty regularly drunk. As Borne later put it: "I'm admiring this guy who happened to be an alcoholic too, but he was just a jokester, and it had quite the effect on me—maybe not all good. He had a big bearing on just my outlook on life." Borne later said that he based the Doink the Clown character on Mayne, and in this last interview—conducted shortly before Mayne's death in a car wreck in August 1978 at the age of 33—you see Mayne end with a creepy gape-mouthed grin that evokes one of Doink's more inexplicable expressions.
Matt went into the business himself, against his father's better judgment, naturally. The newly christened "Maniac" Matt Borne spent his earliest days in the Crocketts' Mid-Atlantic territory (which would later become famous as the home of Ric Flair and the bulwark of the latter-day NWA). During a 1980 Pacific Northwest match between a 54-year-old Tony Borne and upstart Roddy Piper, the announcers make reference to Matt's early success there.
The veracity of that statement is unclear—they would probably be talking him up regardless—but it's true that in Mid-Atlantic he first partnered with Buzz Sawyer, a bald beer keg of a man with whom Borne would later tag in Portland and in the World Class promotion. The two made for a fearsome pair of barroom brawlers.
Soon Borne was back home in Portland, trading off his father's legacy (and sporting a Moondog-esque shock of bleached blond hair), variously teaming up and feuding with the young Turks of the region, guys like Piper, Buddy Rose, and Curt "Mr. Perfect" Hennig. Borne and Piper became fast friends, and the former was immediately drawn into the latter's hard-partying lifestyle. "The whole business was a party," Borne would say years later in an interview, "and if you weren't a partier, you kinda got brushed to the side." It is a hard life, and the breakable need not apply. Borne took to hard living as easily as he'd taken to wrestling. Consider this bizarre sequence, wherein a bloodied Borne incoherently interrupts a trophy ceremony in his compatriot Rose's honor, ranting about his attackers and hitting himself repeatedly with a chain. It was a time in the wrestling world when things were loose and violent and yet so very '80s; pop cultural influences were snaking in; ring gear was getting flashier; and even the steel chairs wore Members Only jackets.
Borne would continue to travel the country working in other territories. He partnered with Ted DiBiase and Jim Duggan in Mid-South (as The Rat Pack), and took part in DiBiase's legendary feud with Junkyard Dog. As villains they were loose with the rules and sometimes even looser with casual racism, as when DiBiase and Borne took on JYD and Mr. Olympia in a match that stipulated that the loser would be suspended for 90 days. The villains won when Duggan snuck in and attacked JYD. And because heels feuding with JYD were almost necessarily playing racists, Duggan was wearing a fucking gorilla costume.
(In case the costume might seem like mere incidental goofery, take a look at the post-match interview, in which the interviewer points out that DiBiase is holding Duggan's mask: "Looks like your monkey lost his head." DiBiase: "I think the other monkey lost his head—he's gone for 90 days!" Borne's only contribution to the discourse was to tickle his armpits and make monkey noises.)
Borne eventually left the territory under inauspicious circumstances. Duggan was attacked by a fan while making his way to the ring, and Borne leapt to his defense, punching the fan so hard that his eye popped out of his head. In the rough-and-tumble Mid-South, where promoter Bill Watts encouraged his wrestlers to get into bar fights to protect the sport's image—and fired them if they lost—this was cause for celebration. Per Borne: "I had knocked this guy out, and I believe he'd lost his eye. Went back to the dressing room and everything was great. I was like a hero. Bill Watts used me as an example—'This is how you take care of the business.' But a lot of problems came out of that." Problems like Watts temporarily losing his license in the town and Borne getting fired to protect the promotion from lawsuits.
Borne wasn't out of work long. He moved a state or two eastward, where he teamed up with a fellow named Marty Lunde, whom you might recognize as the guy getting squashed right after the "monkey lost his head" interview. (Or you might recognize him by the perpetual bald spot, beard, and hairy chest as being none other than Arn Anderson.) A year after that match in the Georgia territory, Borne and Lunde teamed up, with Lunde now being billed as a member of the flocculent Anderson clan. The duo was managed by Paul Ellering, head of the Legion of Doom stable, and they were in line for the national tag-team championship, but Borne was unexpectedly shipped out of town; it was rumored that he got in trouble with the law (and even looser talk said he'd dated an underage girl), and so the duo was replaced in the hierarchy by a quickly imported pair of unseasoned hardbodies named The Road Warriors.
Borne landed on his feet back in Portland. In those days, the Northwest territory had a good relationship with the WWF stemming from Don Owen's friendship with Vince McMahon, Sr., and Borne ended up working as enhancement talent against Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat—with whom he'd previously worked in Mid-Atlantic—at the first WrestleMania. (Buddy Rose was also on the card, wrestling under a mask as The Executioner against Tito Santana. Rose tells a story of how he and Piper flew first class back home to Portland after the match; as they were boarding they noticed Borne, seemingly ever an up-and-comer, stuck in the back in commercial.)
Borne had a memorable run in 1986 in Texas's WCCW—memorable for its EPSN timeslot, anyway—where he re-established his partnership with Buzz Sawyer, and where he was managed by the insufferable Percy Pringle, who would go on to fame as WWF manager Paul Bearer. He did the normal Texas badguy stuff, feuding with the area's remaining babyfaces, like Kevin and "Lance" Von Erich, and Al Madril.
Borne did his first really high-profile turn in the early years of WCW, where he played "Big Josh", a pancake-eating, jorts-wearing backwoods strongman in the mold of Yukon Eric, who came to the ring accompanied by hoedown music and Daisey Duke-ish country gals and dancing bears; he won the six-man tag belts with Dustin Rhodes and the Z-Man and feuded with Vinnie Vegas, aka Kevin Nash. It was an almost unconscionable misuse of Borne, the established second-generation wrestler, especially in an organization known so long as the bastion of old-school grappling. But WCW was trying to play the WWF's game, with cartoonish gimmicks and bright flashing lights, and in doing so failed miserably with Big Josh.
Because, as we all know, nobody knew how to do cartoonish gimmicks like Vince McMahon and his WWF. In 1992, after Borne's time in WCW was up, he soon found himself in Vince McMahon's office, where the two dreamed up what is quite possibly the most preposterous character in wrestling history: Doink, the evil clown. One imagines Vince seeing the It TV movie and then a VHS tape of Borne delivering a promo with his gravelly, maniacal laugh and snapping his fingers. (The movie had come out a mere two years prior, which is practically au courant in WWF-think.) Borne was given a green wig, the full greasepaint treatment, and a full-body leotard painted like a clown suit. It was a ridiculous idea even in an era when wrestlers were apparently locked in an escalating competition to see who could get the most neon colors into their tights. "When I started it," Borne said years later, "the only two people in the entire industry that believed in it was Vince and myself. I had a lot guys make a joke about it. Nobody took it seriously."
Nor should they have, really. But the weird thing is, it worked. Borne engaged the character with every bit of his being, becoming almost as believable an evil clown as he was a barrel-chested tough guy in the decade preceding. He elevated Doink above the miasma of ill-conceived clowns on the WWF roster. Originally, Doink was a mean-spirited prankster (ala Moondog Mayne) but a technically sound brawler in the ring (ditto). He sprayed foes with gag lapel flowers; he harassed fans; he finished his matches with an off-the-top-rope butt-plant dubbed the Whoopie Cushion. (Which is presaged in this WCCW match against Al Madril). But the gags weren't fun; they were cruel. Doink was the only one laughing at the end—it wasn't, "Hey, look at this beautiful flower, it's a water gun, let's all laugh!" It was, "Hey, look at this beautiful flower, just kidding, fuck you."
Every clown is some mixture of funny and sinister; it's the nature of the performance, going back to the first days of commedia dell'arte in the 17th century. In the context of their morality plays, the harlequin was at once the host, the instigator, and the impish comic relief; his cruelty was a refreshing rejoinder to the form's sentimentality. As the archetype transformed into a mushy, family-friendly dope, the intrinsic malignancy of the character persisted—at least in the audience's psyche. How else to explain humanity's deathless fear of clowns? It's precisely what elevated John Wayne Gacy from a murderer to a megastar. "Evil clown," it turns out, is something of a redundancy.
Which is to say that Doink the Clown walked out into the arena that first time with a depth of character built in, and Borne played it to the hilt. He felt less like a children's act than a creep, and his facial expressions after winning a match were a brilliant combination of glee, cruelty, and glee about cruelty, interspersed with moments of schizophrenic displacement. He was as hard to watch as he was compelling—like witnessing someone in the throes of an ego death. The combination of his in-ring skill—originally they made no effort to hide Borne's wrestling ability, and in fact his surprising technicality was something of a prank in and of itself—and the pure lasciviousness of his clothes-painted leotard turned what might've been a harmless goof into something darker and a little more dangerous. It was the difference between a pratfall and a rockslide.
Doink's first feud of note was against Crush, which culminated in a WrestleMania 9 match wherein a second Doink (played by Steve Keirn, briefly known to WWF fans as Skinner and ensconced in wrestling lore as half of the ur-metrosexual Fabulous Ones tagteam) appeared and attacked Crush with a prosthetic arm—probably the epitome of the ridiculousness and weirdness of the character.
Doink beefed with a handful of the Fed's mid-level heroes, including a memorable match as Jerry "The King" Lawler's stand-in against Bret Hart. (His matches against Hart and Mr. Perfect are actually pretty spectacular.) But soon the boos turned into laughs, and Borne was repositioned as a fan favorite—which is to say, just another clown. He spurned Lawler, poured some water on Bobby Heenan's head, and thus the turn was codified. Soon thereafter, Borne was again fired under awkward circumstances—his drug use, dating back to his days as Piper's running buddy and exacerbated by years on the road in one hardknuckle territory after the next, had become an obvious issue. Meanwhile, fake-Doink Keirn had been agitating behind the scenes for a tagteam of Doinks, which Borne couldn't fathom. He had created the character, after all, in all its sprightly peculiarity. But where he saw nuance, too many fans just saw a clown. To the WWF decision makers, the same folks who'd turned him into a boring good guy, Borne was expendable.
And here's where things get weird, where the actor and the role diverge. Wrestling's had its fair share of characters being played by different wrestlers, but—save perhaps fake Diesel and Razor Ramon—never on this scale. And certainly not to the point where a wrestler and thecharacter he made famous have entirely different Wikipedia pages. Borne left the company, and Doink chugged along with a discernible lack of personality—played variously by Keirn, Steve "The Brooklyn Brawler" Lombardi, and, finally, Ray Apollo. He was given a midget sidekick named Dink, who was, it must be said, probably more popular than his forebear. The character lasted less than two years without Borne under the greasepaint, which is probably longer than it should have gone. Without Borne, the act was reduced to the sight gag that it might have been without dimensionality. There was no pathos, only pantomime. When wresting fans think of Doink as being silly, they're only half right. By replacing Borne, the WWF allowed the character to become the joke that a lot of people wrongly thought it was.
Borne, meanwhile, turned up in ECW, wrestling nominally as Doink—there was some business interaction between the two companies in the years that followed, but this was obviously not sanctioned—until champ Shane Douglas took Borne on as a personal reclamation project, leading to his reinvention as "Borne Again," a mentally unstable version of himself, wrestling in various half-assed versions of his WWF uniform, with creepily smeared facepaint or tattered clown garb. His tenure in the WWF had left him unhinged, so the story went, and he sometimes shoved his felled opponents into clown costumes, a sort of in-ring reversion therapy.
(There is literally zero Borne Again footage on YouTube, presumably due to the WWE's purchase of ECW and the blatant copyright infringement inherent in this angle, but his entrance video above gives you a flavor.)
Borne lasted less than a year in ECW before his "personal problems" again caught up with him. And that, to the mainstream wrestling viewer, was the end of Matt Borne. He kept wrestling on indie shows, and he eventually went to rehab and found work drilling limestone. A metaphor suggests itself: something about overburdens and strip mining the self for raw material. Maybe it's silly, but that was Borne's WWF tenure in a nutshell—he mined everything possible out of his character, and in the end they flattened the product of his own vast depths into a boring sidewalk, for other people to walk all over.
In 2010, at a small show in a New York high school gym, Borne faced his old running buddy Jim Duggan in a match between two old-school legends. Of course, they weren't the roughnecks they'd portrayed in Mid-South; they were both worn-out versions of their technicolor WWF personas—Borne as Doink (refashioned as a Heath Ledger-as-Joker-inspired character called "ReBorne") and Duggan as the patriotic "Hacksaw." (Duggan was accompanied to the ring by an American flag-waving Greg "The Hammer" Valentine.) The match almost immediately went to shit. There are a lot of stories as to why: Some say Duggan always held a grudge over the fallout from the fan-punching incident in Mid-South; some say they argued backstage about the match architecture; Borne says Duggan showed up drunk and got mad when officials tried to take his blood pressure backstage. Whatever the case, the two men were at odds, and the match devolved into a real fight after Duggan no-sold a low blow. After they grappled for a bit, Borne rolled out of the ring, grabbed a chair, and Duggan grabbed his legendary two-by-four, and then Borne took refuge in the crowd and Duggan just left.
It would have been an apt farewell for the exhausted superstar, but of course neither guy stopped wrestling, because the old guys never do. Borne's last match was just a few months back in a match against Tommy Dreamer.
The indie bookings ended only when Matt Osborne died last Friday at the age of 55 in Plano, Texas. He was found collapsed in his girlfriend's apartment. Cause of death is currently unknown.
So yes, Matt Borne was Doink, but he wasn't entirely Doink; nor was Doink entirely Borne. Sadly, though, because of the other men who put on the green wig—because the role transcended the man—the gap between the man and the character came to define Borne's life more than did the actual role. It's because of this gap that TMZ posted their first story about Borne's death with a photo of Ray Apollo in the costume. It's because of that gap that we end up with inane subsections like "Reincarnation" on the Doink the Clown Wikipedia page. It's because of that gap that we get stories like this one, in which ECW notable The Blue Meanie says that when he heard about Doink's death on Friday, he wasn't sure if it was Borne or one of the many other Doinks on the independent scene. And let's be honest—it's really only because of Doink that anybody's eulogizing Matt Borne, even if what we mostly remember is the watered-down, tiresome Doink of the post-Borne years. It's a sideshow-mirror world in which we try to think of Heath Ledger's Joker and can only conjure up Cesar Romero.
I guess it bears mention that there were more Doinks in the WWF/WWE: Jeff Jarrett dressed in the garb as a gag; Men On a Mission and The Bushwackers donned the greasepaint at Survivor Series '93; and even in the years since Doink disappeared from the WWF scene, he's popped up a couple of times in random storylines, with Chris Jericho clowned out to sneak-attack William Regal; Nick "Eugene" Dinsmore played the role before his own moment in the sun; and Borne himself made a return (at the suggestion of his WrestleMania opponent Steamboat, then a WWE backstage player) at WrestleMania 17 in a gimmick battle royal. Steve Lombardi has reprised the role several times over the years, always as a punchline.
Lombardi, for his part, is still a treasured WWE employee*. Steve Keirn runs the WWE developmental territory in Florida, training a new generation of clowns for us to cheer and boo. But something tells me that none of them will have the spark, the commitment to the part, that made Borne so compelling. Because too often it's all punchline and no pathos. With his hard-nosed ringwork and emotional presence, Borne was everything that was right with pro wrestling—except that he embodied the abuses that were everything that was wrong with the industry in the '80s and '90s. He was something of a living practical joke, and for kids like me who saw him on cable and were enthralled, he was the ultimate tease—he never became half of what he should have been. Borne turned out to be his own best gag. Hey, look at this beautiful flower, just kidding, fuck you.
Farewell, Matt Borne. Thanks for all the laughs.