fighting chance

30 years since Maccabiah Mania, the iconic and infamous Jewish pro-wrestling fundraiser

Jeff Bukantz, the current president of Maccabi USA, raised tens of thousands of dollars in the mid-1990s to fund the American fencing team's travel costs

If you were a pro wrestling fan during the mid-aughts, odds are you owned a copy of “Grand Masters of Wrestling,” the popular four-part DVD series produced by Digiview Entertainment that overflowed from Walmart dollar bins. With covers collaged with wrestling legends in their prime, the series sold over 600,000 units, becoming, according to some figures, one of the best-selling wrestling DVDs of all time. Fans rushed home, expecting epic matches, but what they witnessed was a warped version of pro wrestling that seemed like it belonged in the Borscht Belt.

Footage for “Grandmasters of Wrestling” was taped over the course of two fundraisers: Maccabiah Mania, held on April 4, 1993, and Maccabiah Mania II: Shekel Slam, held on March 1, 1997. The New Jersey events were organized by Jeff Bukantz, a former fencer and the current president of Maccabi USA, to raise money to shuttle the American fencing team to the ‘93 and ‘97 Maccabiah Games in Israel. The footage was never expected to be sold.

The cards featured some of the most outrageous animated characters in wrestling history, many of them falling into the “evil foreigner” trope, including Russian Nikolai Volkoff; German Baron von Raschke; and the Iranian Iron Sheik, who, while sporting a keffiyeh and his signature handlebar mustache, gave numerous ranting promos at both events in his classic, rambly, screamy style, going on about his hatred for the U.S., while slipping in compliments to the “intelligent Jew[s]” watching.

One DVD began with the Hall of Famer and ex-World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) tag-team champion Volkoff in the middle of the ring, rocking his furry ushanka hat, decades older than he appeared on the cover. Mic in hand, Volkoff serenaded the crowd, beginning with David Whitfield’s 1954 quasi-hit “Cara Mia” before treating fans to a rousing rendition of “Hava Nagila.” The camera clearly shows a couple of spectators sitting in the high school gym bleachers clapping along; the camera also shows many others chit-chatting, barely watching his performance.

The main events of both fundraisers starred the barely trained Mighty Maccabee, a skinny, lanky, superstar with a Magen David emblazoned on his chest and a fencing gimmick, who was actually Bukantz under a mask. 

Thirty years since the first Maccabiah Mania was filmed, the DVDs have grown a cult following. It’s “the wrestling equivalent of ‘The Room,’” said wrestling YouTuber Brian Zane, referring to the 2003 cult classic that has experienced a resurgent popularity in recent years. The first event netted $20,000 for that year’s games, and the second event, Shekel Slam, raised $30,000 for the 1997 games. Bukantz was living his dream.

The seeds for the events were planted over lunch. In 1986, Bukantz, a former Olympic team captain and referee, was made chair of the Maccabiah Games’ fencing team. “I had to raise money,” Bukantz told eJewishPhilanthropy. “I didn’t know how to raise money, so I started a raffle program. $100 a [ticket]. I raised about $12,000. That was pretty good. So now it’s time for the ‘93 games. Now what am I gonna do? When you’re fundraising, it’s not fun. So, one day, I was at lunch with two of my Maccabiah teammate buddies, and somebody says, ‘Why don’t you do a wrestling show?’ My eyes got the size of cantaloupes.” 

Bukantz, also a sometimes sports reporter, had befriended Ken Patera, a strongman pro wrestler and former Olympic weightlifter, after interviewing him following a match at the Miami Orange Bowl in 1978. “He had a little tape recorder,” Patera told eJP. “He was very professional. Even though he was only 20 years old, he knew what he was doing. So I took a liking to him. Afterwards, I told him I needed a ride.” Not one to miss an opportunity, Bukantz drove Patera to his hotel, where they proceeded to drink with a group of wrestlers.

At one point, in the middle of the lobby, Bukantz asked Patera if his swinging full nelson finishing move really hurt. “‘Stand up. I’ll put it on you. I won’t hurt you,’” Patera recalled telling him. “I didn’t mean to hurt him, but I did.” He stood behind Bukantz, lacing his arms around Bukantz’s and yanking his neck down, locking him into the brutal maneuver. “I put him in the full nelson, very loosely, as loosely as I could. I swung him three or four times. Gave him a little joy ride. Then I put him down. He tells me, 10 years later, ‘Y’know, Ken, my neck is still fucked up.’” 

Today, Patera considers his friendship with Bukantz to be one of his longest. “He’s a sweetheart of a guy,” Patera said. 

The wrestling legend linked Bukantz up with other wrestlers and eventually Bukantz connected with Johnathan Gold, a booker for many of the top stars, who helped him nail down the talent for the event. Bukantz’s cousin, Mike Omansky, then the senior vice president of strategic marketing for Bertelsmann Music Group/RCA Records, volunteered to be the ring announcer, backstage interviewer and timekeeper. The event took place in a tent in his Livingston, N.J., backyard, where Bukantz lived on a cul-de-sac. Many of the wrestlers slept over to save money. 

While planning the event, Bukantz realized this was his shot: “I had to do it,” he said about getting in the ring. “I loved wrestling.” He first fell for sports entertainment at the age of 8 after Omansky introduced him to it. Soon they were sitting ringside monthly at the Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, watching their idols go into battle, telling quasi-choreographed modern mythical tales. He never thought he would become a wrestling superstar himself, “but I always sort of dreamed about it,” Bukantz said. “I also dreamed about hitting a home run at Yankee Stadium and scoring a goal for the Rangers at MSG.  Amazingly, the wrestling dream was actually attainable.”

To train, Bukantz visited “Iron” Mike Sharpe’s professional wrestling school in Asbury Park, N.J., where he learned under Sharpe, a grunty wrench of a character known for attacking opponents with an arm brace loaded with a “foreign object,” wrestling lingo for an illegal weapon. Bukantz lasted two sessions. “If there was one person who didn’t belong in the room that night, it was me,” he said. “Try to imagine Woody Allen in the ring with a group of truck drivers. That’s basically what it was. These guys were big monsters. I was this guy who had never done it before. I had no muscles. They tried to teach me how to take a flat-back bump” — a move where a wrestler throws themselves onto the mat back first, so the impact is spread over their upper back and shoulders, while tucking their chin to protect their neck and slapping their arms out to make a massive noise — “but to no avail. My neck was sore for a month.”

Bukantz researched tailors who created wrestling gear and spent “a couple hundred bucks” to commission a blue-and-white luchador mask and a singlet with a massive Magen David billboarded across the chest. For the second event, he commissioned a Maccabiah championship belt made by Welsh wrestler Adrian Street, a cross-dressing muscleman known for needling fans with his flamboyant attire. 

No publicity was done for the event because Bukantz knew “I could guilt all my friends and family to come for 100 bucks a pop,” he said. “We didn’t have to load up the card. The people were coming. It didn’t matter.”

Bukantz booked the event himself, ending many matches with disqualifications or double count-outs so neither superstar would look bad. “I figured, as a professional courtesy to [the performers], for a show that means nothing, in front of a couple hundred people, why does anybody else have to go over?” he said, using the wrestling term for getting a definitive win.

The lower-card performers made $100 for the night; the bigger names took home $500. “To show you how nice Ken Patera was,” Bukantz said, “I gave him $500. He goes, ‘You know, Jeff, I’ll give you $200 back. $300 was more than enough. You’re my friend. Give it to the charity.” Other expenses for the first show were paying for performers’ travel; the tent, which he said “wasn’t cheap”; catering, because food was included with a ticket; and hiring an off-duty police man, which “cost a bit of shekels, too.” Plus, there was the videographer. 

“Of course, I videoed it,” he said. “It was like a wedding or bar mitzvah, I wanted to have it as a keepsake… It was a vanity. It was purely a fun thing. Never thought of selling it. Never. Never.”

Around 300 people showed up to watch Bukantz’s pro wrestling debut. “I had no idea who was there,” he said. “It was such a blur.” 

In the main event, The Mighty Maccabee teamed with Patera to challenge Sharpe and the Iron Sheik. Mid-match, Bukantz found himself completely worn out, gasping for air. “I crawl over the ropes. I finally make the hot tag to Patera. He comes in for 30 seconds and cleans house while I’m catching my breath. He tags me back in 30 seconds later. I wasn’t ready to do it.”

But as a world-class fencer, he knew he needed to “figure this out,” so he powered through the match, pinning Sharpe for the win.

The event wasn’t just a special for Bukantz. It helped launch the career of Mike Maraldo, also known as Ace Darling, an 18-year-old trainee at Sharpe’s wrestling school who is still friends with Bukantz. Before Maccabiah Mania, Maraldo had only wrestled matches at the school, in front of crowds with a handful of people. He was intimidated being among legends, but he saw it as his chance to shine. “Anytime you put a camera in front of [me] or anytime there was a ring in front of [me], it was exciting,” Maraldo told eJP. “It was a huge opportunity.”

When Bukantz pitched the idea of Maccabiah Mania II to his then-wife, she vetoed the idea of using their house again. When they held the first event, she couldn’t rest because the wrestlers barely slept and spent the night drinking. Baron von Raschke — the “evil German” — crashed down their stairs at 2 a.m. After he pulled himself together, he bragged that he didn’t spill his beer. 

Instead, Bukantz held the second event in a Livingston, N.J., high school gym, again inviting only friends and family, charging $100 for a seat, but somehow word got out. Strangers bought tickets at the door. An editor from Wrestling All Stars magazine and a writer from New York Daily News attended. The event made that Sunday’s Daily News. In front of a 300-plus crowd, Darling opened the event, but this time he felt completely at home. 

It seemed like a fun night for Bukantz and his buddies, but in 2005, it became much more. Omansky, Bukantz’s cousin who had helped at both events, had accepted a job as chief executive officer at Digiview Entertainment, the company that stocked most of Walmart’s dollar bins, often with inexpensive content, or videos already in the public domain. “They would basically buy a video, prepackaged it and make chicken salad out of chicken s— and make a nice package,” Bukantz said. 

Omansky asked his cousin if he could use the Maccabiah Mania footage that had been sitting at Bukantz’s house for years. As a lifelong wrestling fan, Omanski knew what fans would respond to. “I knew it would sell,” he told eJP. He chose pictures for the cover that would draw fan’s attention: classic photos from decades before, when the performers were at their peak. “For $1, we gave real value to people. You got to see matches you couldn’t see anywhere else. You got to see wrestlers from the past, performing one more time.”

The two shows were split between four Grand Masters of Wrestling releases, with Bukantz making two cents per copy sold. Adding to the campiness, Digiview piped in crowd noise throughout the event. The audience would be shown sitting still in the bleachers, zero emotion on their face, but you would hear them cheering and clapping. They cheered and clapped during interviews, cheered and clapped during exciting parts of the match, cheered and clapped during rest holds. The crowd cheered and clapped and cheered and clapped and cheered. Then they clapped.

The DVDs sold over 650,000 copies, making Bukantz $13,000, though he didn’t receive it all since Digiview went out of business before he attained all his checks. “I would like to say I donated the money to Maccabi USA,” Bukantz said, “but I don’t remember what I did with it.”

Like most wrestling fans, Maraldo snatched the DVDs up, excited to see one of his first major matches showcased. “I bought as many as I could,” he said, “There’s a stack of them in my attic… Whether you want to laugh, whether you want to enjoy wrestling, whether you want to relive your childhood with some of the legends, it’s just a cool find, especially for the price.”

Bukantz hung up the tights after his second match, which he won over Iron Sheik. But he’s still the Maccabiah Mania champ. On April 1, he will have reigned for a record 10,957 days. 

“Jeff had no delusions,” Maraldo said. “He realized he didn’t know anything [about being a wrestler] and just wanted to have fun and put on a show.” To this date, Maraldo is in contact with Bukantz. “He’s one of the good guys I’ve met in wrestling. I love the guy to death.”

Patera thinks the legend of Jeff Bukantz should only continue to grow. “Maybe they’ll make a movie [about it],” he said. “You never know… I’ve seen a lot of other stuff produced. Why not Mighty Maccabee? I think he has a more interesting story than a lot of that stuff.”

Today, there are new Jewish philanthropy superstars. In Toronto, Jian Magen, the president of the Magen Group, a production and entertainment company, and part of the collective that runs the popular Superstars of David Instagram page, has wrestled over 100 matches under the ring name Celine Jian. He and his brother run frequent wrestling cards for Jewish charities. They’ve raised over $200,000 for the Rena Foundation, supporting individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities, and $100,000 at their Slammin for Shobbos, providing over 1,000 Shabbat meals for the needy. His most recent event played off of current politics, with one performer wrestling under the name Kyrie West, and it featured numerous Jewish performers, including All Elite Wrestling superstar Colt Cabana. 

“We love giving back,” Magen said. “It’s something our parents embedded in us from a young age. There is nothing better than being able to put on a wrestling show, which is one of our favorite things to do, and donate money to a worthy cause. When you combine passions it’s like you really aren’t working.”

When discussing the Mighty Maccabee character, Magen said, “People are still talking about it. People would love for that to be a part of their legacy and career.”

Bukantz hit all his goals for the event, raising the $65,000 needed to send the team to Israel, by supplementing the Maccabiah Mania earnings with additional money raised through “begging and pleading,” he said. “Plus, I wrote a nice check myself.”  

Ron Carner, the former president of Maccabi USA who preceded Bukantz, is surprised people are still talking about Maccabiah Mania. “It was one little side joke, one little fundraiser that Jeffery put on, and we had a lot of laughs, and we had a wonderful time,” Carner, now a Maccabi USA board member, told eJP. “It was not necessarily something that’s indicative to our organization. It was just a fun time.”  Still, he admits, “No one else has ever done anything as ingenious or as or as fun as that.”

When Carner left his position as president after eight years, he knew it was “time for the next generation to take over.” And he is confident he made the right choice. “Jeffrey’s doing a great job.”

Maccabiah Mania taught Bukantz that the best way to raise funds is by connecting with people, he said. His audience was there to have fun and support a good cause. He used those same connection skills to forge a relationship with shoe designer and philanthropist Stuart Weitzman. “He loved what [Maccabi USA] stand[s] for,” said Bukantz. “He loves what we do. We expose Jewish youth to their heritage and to Israel.” Recently, Bukantz talked with Weitzman about how many kids can’t afford to go to the games. “I touched a nerve with something that meant something to him, which was a scholarship.” Weitzman agreed to a matching campaign; they ended up raising $2.5 million and Weitzman donated $4.5 million more. 

“My legacy will be that for the rest of time,” he said. “You’ll see as many as 2-300 need-based athletes that can be helped by the Weitzman scholarship, in perpetuity. I have to pinch myself this actually happened.”