EDITOR’S NOTE: In my nearly 20-year career covering pro wrestling, I have had the privilege of interviewing dozens upon dozens of talented men and women in the business. As I interviewed Terry Funk, I felt as if I was conducting an interview with a historical figure, while that person was still alive, not unlike what it would have been like interviewing an Elvis Presley or a John Lennon. For me, this was the most special interview I have ever done. Terry Funk was, is and always will be one of the most important figures in pro wrestling history. He’s also an eloquent speaker and an ambassador for sports entertainment. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Terry, thank you. What an honour.
It isn’t long into a conversation with legendary professional wrestler Terry Funk before two things become evident: the man is incredibly family-oriented and fiercely protective of and loyal to the business that has been his entire life.
Literally, his entire life.
“(I have wrestling) memories that go back to infancy because it was our lives,” the WWE hall of famer said over the phone this week. “It was my brother’s life and it was my life and I think that probably both of us grew up … with the dream of being a wrestler.”
Funk and his brother, Dory Jr., also a WWE hall of famer, are the sons of the late Dory Funk, himself a legend of the squared circle. It could be argued that the Funk boys were born and bred to be wrestlers.
“I’ve often said about myself that I, as a child, was not one to play cowboys and indians like you saw on television and in the movies, like the other kids,” the soon-to-be 69-year-old Funk said. “I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be a wrestler. My brother was the same way. It was not instilled into us, it was a love of the family. It was what we loved to do. One of the first things that I can remember is going to the wrestling matches, clearly, from an early, early, early age … going to the wrestling matches and watching my father wrestle and the excitement in the crowd. It was quite a thing for me as a child. And very impressive.”
Impressive, indeed, sitting ringside and watching your pops become one of the founding fathers of the industry. Heroic might be a better word.
“He was a hero in my eyes,” Funk said of his dad, who died in 1973. “My father truly was,” Funk added. “He was a hero in the other wrestlers’ eyes, too. Just as Stu Hart was,” he added, referring to the Canadian training legend and patriarch of the Hart family. “The reason why is they were the guys that showed the other wrestlers in the United States that there (was) a possibility to go on and become something other than a wrestler — that was a promoter — (and that) there was no end to how far you could go in the profession.”
The Funk brothers would follow in their heroic father’s footsteps and enter the business. In the five or so decades that followed, they would at times dominate the industry, carving out their legendary careers by working at all of the major wrestling promotions, and not just those in North America.
The brothers broke into the business working for their father’s promotion in their hometown of Amarillo, Texas, before joining the National Wrestling Alliance in 1968. There, Terry would eventually win the NWA World Championship, a title he held for 14 months.
Throughout his illustrious career, Terry Funk would work, in many cases multiple times, for the NWA, World Wrestling Federation (now WWE), World Championship Wrestling, Extreme Championship Wrestling, Ring of Honor and independently, in between stints in Japan. But anyone who knows the name Terry Funk knows there are two sides to his career, the early part of his career, during which he was a very successful wrestler and the latter part of his career, during which he revolutionized what is now known simply as hardcore wrestling.
The violent matches in the latter part of his career that earned him the nickname “hardcore legend” were not necessarily by choice, says Funk, who will be appearing in the mean streets of Philadelphia on Saturday as part of Tommy Dreamer’s House of Hardcore 2.
“Hardcore was a necessity, you know,” he said, before adding “and there are two meanings to hardcore, too. What I mean by that is that hardcore to me is whenever you go out into the ring and … give 100% of your body, of your soul, of your heart, of your mind and you put it into that match. You do it because you want it to be the best, and the best on a nightly basis, and you want to be best on a yearly basis. To me, that’s hardcore. But also, hardcore is hardcore, too.
“Why did I go to the really craziness? I had (done) it in Japan several years (earlier) because there was New Japan (Pro Wrestling) and All Japan (Pro Wrestling). All Japan was (founder) Shohei (Giant) Baba and we were with him. New Japan was (founder) Antonio Inoki and it was a true war over there. It was a war among the boys, it was a war among the promoters and who was going to wind up on top. It was a very serious thing would affect each and every guy’s lives on either side if one of them got the upper hand.
“Inoki and New Japan at that time had gone with the lighter guys and the flyers and just some great people and they had some great talent and they were doing things that were never seen before in the ring. That included guys like (Chris) Benoit and Dynamite (Kid) and Davey (Boy Smith),” Funk said, adding that the duo known as the British Bulldogs would later defect to All Japan side.
To counter New Japan’s high-flying, fast-paced style, “we had to come up with something and it was a very physical form of wrestling that we came up with,” Funk said. “And we got the better end of it,” he said of All Japan’s triumph.
Unlike in North America, where wrestling was more mainstream, to get known in Japan, talent had to find ways to get newspaper coverage, Funk said.
“We had no TV. All we depended on was the media, the newspapers over there because they had a lot of newspaper coverage. That was the only way that we had to become a name over there at that time. I kind of arrived at the fact that, what would they rather have a picture of: Antonio Inoki with a headlock on some other guy — what’s going to sell the most papers? — or Terry Funk sticking a pitchfork into some Japanese guy,” he said with a laugh. “I’m just using that as an example. I didn’t ever do that, but I never thought of it at the time.”
And thus, a hardcore star was born.
“The barbed wire matches, the hardcore matches, I think that they evolved from that.”
And it wasn’t only a name for himself that Funk made overseas.
“I could go over there a minimal amount of times a year and make a wonderful living,” he said. “But I had to figure out how to do it. I had to figure out how to get the people to the arena and that’s kind of what we went with.”
What, Funk was asked, goes through one’s mind before stepping into an arena, knowing full well that you’re about to go out in front of a crowd and get physically punished?
“You know, I’ve never been asked that question … that’s one question I’ve probably never been asked before. Truthfully.”
For Funk, it’s all about the fans. It always was.
“I have a love for the crowd, I have a love for the wrestling fan no matter who that wrestling fan is, whether it’s Canadian, American, or wherever,” he said. I’m going to give them there money’s worth,” he said.
“I think that a lot of the Canadian boys had that same attitude,” he said. “Dynamite and Davey, same thing … Benoit, all of them. That’s because they came out of a certain area, they all evolved from one area, the Hart area. Down here, I had just had a passion for my fans, and giving them their money’s worth. It didn’t matter if there were 30 of them out there or 30,000 of them, I’d go to the limit for them. I ran into a bunch of people who were kind of the same way … Mick Foley, a young guy at the time, but I could see it in him that he had the heart and love for the fans, not only for wrestling, but for the fans. That’s an important factor.”
Those who had that heart and love would have no boundaries when it came to entertaining their fans.
“Dynamite would do that also,” Funk said, before recounting one such story. “I would see him in the ring … dive off the top of the corner rope and fly all the way to the floor, maybe 12, 15 feet down, and nothing but cement and a body below him. I’d see him come onto the bus and just be physically a wreck, and I truly mean that, with hematomas on his back.
“Actually, one night, and this is the god’s honest truth, he had a knot the size of a baseball right on his spine, on his lower back, from just doing some ungodly thing in the ring. I got on the bus, and he was already on there, and I went walking by him — and he’d do it time after time to me, not just once — but he’d say ‘hey, mate, how was it?’ And I’d go ahead and I’d say ‘Goddamit Dynamite, you were friggin’ great, you were wonderful, it was fantastic, and he’d get a smile on his face. The performance is what counts to the great ones. It’s not the money. The truly great ones in the business, it’s not the money, it’s the performance. And that’s the way it was with Dynamite and Davey Boy and so many guys in this business.
“It’s the understanding that those fans are giving up their hard-earned cash, whether it’s 10,000 of them, or 50 of them. Those 50 people paid the same price that those 10,000 did. Maybe not the same price, but right damn near it and they deserve a damned great show. It’s those troopers that go out there in our business that give it 110% … that’s the guys that have the true love for the profession. There are guys that have never gotten the chance, and let me tell you something, there are guys that have been beat every night … night after night after night … they go in (the ring) and do the same thing, and do it for the love of the business.
The bottom line for Terry Funk was there was no bottom line, when it came to what he would do for the fans.
“I put it on the line every time I go into the ring,” he said, adding “I don’t go in anymore, believe me. I don’t want to.”
He quickly backtracked, adding that a return to the ring is always a possibility for Terry Funk.
“On occasion, something will hit me — and I don’t think it’s really good — I have that ‘can’t wait till the next time you get into the ring attitude.’ I’ll go without it and without it and it’s like … I guess I’m just an addict, just like a damned old cocaine user or something.”
The next opportunity for wrestling fans to see Funk in a ring comes this weekend, albeit not in action, when Funk will be in the corner of his longtime friend and protege Dreamer, at Dreamer’s promotion.
Dreamer’s contributions to wrestling are immense, Funk said, but it was Dreamer’s attention to details that first caught Funk’s eye.
“Tommy Dreamer was a smart boy,” he said. “(You have to) understand that what I’m telling you is about his compassion, and his love for something. Tommy Dreamer wanted,” Funk started, pausing, “well he didn’t want, he knew he had to have a stage. And other guys would abuse that stage, in ECW. And I don’t mean badly, or anything like that,” he explained. “But how would they abuse it? Well, they’d abuse it by going into venues and tearing the hell out of the dressing room.
“Well, Tommy Dreamer was smart enough to know that you don’t go and do s–t like that. Why do that? You’re not going to have that venue the next time. In order to be successful, and in order to have a place, in order to have your arena, you know you have to have a stage to be on. If you lack a stage, you’re not going to be seen. And that’s so important, and it’s the little things like that.”
The first time Funk saw Dreamer in ECW, there was the young Dreamer, after the show, cleaning.
“It was easy for me to know that Tommy Dreamer wasn’t getting paid a penny for it … nobody was paying him to be a clean-up man. But there was Tommy Dreamer, after everybody had left the arena … there he was, picking up the garbage that was left over. Why? Because he knew that they may not get that venue again the next time. You understand what I’m saying? It sounds like a simple little thing, but it’s not.”
While it may be nothing more than litter, it represented so much more.
“It’s compassion,” Funk said. “Compassion for what he is doing. And the want for being able to do what he wants the most in life. That’s exactly why that guy would go in there, and clean up that damned dressing room after a bunch of nuts had gone in and went through it, and left everything tore up, and everything else. And check around the whole building! And help put up the ring, and whatever it took, Tommy Dreamer did (it). And that’s the truth about the guy.”
When he wasn’t cleaning or setting up the ring, Funk says, the young Dreamer was soaking in everything he could.
“He was an intense student … and he wouldn’t just listen to me,” Funk said. “Anybody that was talking on television, he would listen. He was intent on hearing everything. He was intent on watching everything. He was intent on watching every match. He was intent on everything. And that is why Tommy Dreamer is able to do what he is doing now. If you could name guys in the profession that are independent, you can name them on one hand that are making a living. And Tommy Dreamer has been an independent for a long time. That is a huge compliment to him.
“Tommy Dreamer is also not only a guy who goes the way you should, but … he wants to be his own boss — and he is his own boss. He does call his own shots, and when I’m talking about his own shots, it’s ‘Hey, I want to be home with my family.’ And he has a family, and he loves his family. And he’ll continue to always love them. That’s the guy that I want to see do good. That’s the guy that I truly love. That’s the guy that I want to carry on my profession for eternity. And what I’m telling you is the way that I feel, bottom line. That’s the way I was raised in the business …that’s the way I was taught. And I’ll tell you what, that’s the way that I am. And that’s the way that kid … I call him a kid, but he’s no longer a kid. He’ll always be a kid to me. That kid’s a wonderful guy.
Early in his his own career, Funk said, “A guy asked me in Japan, so what do you want to be? And I thought about it, and thought about it before I finally answered him and said ‘I want to be a good man.’ That’s a hard thing to do. And Tommy Dreamer is a good man.”
Funk said Dreamer is a student of the game, so to speak.
“How did he get that education,” he asked. “How did he get that love for the business? You know it wasn’t inherited to him, being a first-generation wrestler. How did he know what to do? It was just his love and craving for it, that’s what it was. And it still is. And he does other things, and he’s very successful at them. But he still does the wrestling, and does it better than well. He’s an exceptional wrestler. And he still does what he wants in his life. And he is his own boss, and not many people can say that.”
Dreamer had nothing but praise for Funk.
“Terry Funk helped me and the wrestling business more than most people know,” he said. “He told Hulk Hogan to call Vince McMahon to start Hulkamania, he has helped so many get their breaks in the business. He is so giving and unselfish. He was NWA champ when that meant you were the best wrestler in the world. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Terry Funk. He has been there for me and so many others. He is amazing both in and out of the ring.”
Dreamer also called Funk a trendsetter, noting that long before The Rock became a Hollywood hit, Funk was acting in hit movies such as Paradise Alley, Over the Top and Road House.
As for Dreamer’s promotion, House of Hardcore, Funk noted that it too has an important place in the wrestling industry.
“House of Hardcore is necessary in order for hardcore to survive,” Funk said. “But, again, you have to understand my interpretation of hardcore. My interpretation of hardcore is that you go out there, and you give them 100%. You hear that … you answer the roar of the crowd. That’s my idea of what hardcore is. Hardcore is “you give them everything you got. You give them 100%. Whether it’s 100% in the ring, or if it’s on the floor with chairs, or whatever it is. It’ doesn’t matter. You give it your 100%, to give those people their money’s worth. That’s hardcore.
“(Dreamer is) a hardcore guy that loves his fans,” Funk said. “And we need more of that.”
While Dreamer and Funk will make new memories on Saturday, Funk was asked if he has any one memory that he hold nearest to his heart in long and illustrious career.
“You know, so many of them (stand out),” he said.” So many great memories. A lot of great memories, and a lot of great memories going to watch my pop; getting in the ring with people like Lou Thez, Gene Kininski, and all of them, right on down the line; getting in the ring with my brother, and being a partner with him; being a partner in the ring with my pop; being in the ring, and getting into the ring with such guys as Bret Hart, Harley Race, and right on down the road; being in the ring, and wrestling the great Danny Hodge; and on and on and on and on. It’s just so many things. Was there a great moment? Hell, there were so many great moments. You know, I’ve got great hours. Everybody else has great moments. That’s how long my career has been,” he said with a laugh.
While Funk repeatedly scoffed at being called a legend, he is in more halls of fame than any wrestler on earth, having received the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a wrestler by the WWE, WCW, Professional wrestling, NWA, Hardcore, Wrestling Observer and St. Louis Wrestling halls of fame.
“That is a wonderful, wonderful honour,” he admitted. “That is something that I’m enamoured with. I am so honoured to have had all of those different organizations go ahead and vote me in. Really, I’m in awe. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to say I did something. I know that my brother had the NWA championship for one of the longest single runs (more than four years). I know that he can say that he did that. I know that Harley Race can say that he was six times (champion). I never had one of those things that I could say, but I am in more halls of fame and I think that’s wonderful. It’s a great thrill for me to be able to say that, and a great honour that a lot of individuals have bestowed upon me across the country.”
It was suggested it was the least the business could give back to someone who had contributed so much to the business.
“The business is the business,” Funk said. “It can do no right, or wrong. We that are in the business are the ones that abuse it, or not. Or treat it right, like it should be done.”
Terry Funk on:
The Mick Foley/Undertaker bump: “It was the stupidest thing in the world. How did he know his a– was the heaviest part of his body? He said his a– was going to land first. And he didn’t even know he was going to go through the top of the ring. That was done by one of the guys who didn’t have the top tied up. He just went all the way through it. It was a good 18 feet?”
What it feels like to fly through the air and not know what it’s going to feel like when you land: “You don’t really have time to think about it. You don’t really have time to think about the broken bones and how you get ’em or anything else.”
How long it takes to pull out dozens, if not hundreds, of thumbtacks: “It’s much slower than getting them all in there,” he said with a laugh. “They go in very fast, but it’s one at a time coming out.”
On whether he’s on Twitter: “Twitter? Twatter? I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “Yeah, yeah, I am — @RealTerryFunk. I’ve got a guy that helps me with it. I get with him every week to put some stuff on there, and other stuff. Hell, I’m a 105 years old,” he joked. “Christ, in the first place, I can’t type, except with one finger. So if I was going to write very much, it’d take me a day. I’d spend the rest of my life writing a three-page letter on Twitter.”
Mick Foley: “Humanitarian.”
Paul Heyman: “Genius.”
Harley Race: “Harley Race would be … uhhh … I’m trying to think of the word right now. Forever.”
Ric Flair: “Forever, Ric Flair, forever! Ric Flair? No. Put Ric Flair, nuts!”
Dusty Rhodes: “Wait, change that around. Put him as nuts!”
Hulk Hogan: “Uhhh … you’re tough on me, aren’t you?: He’s important to the business, and that’s the truth.”
Eric Bischoff: “Fascinating.”
Vince McMahon: “He won. Winner.”
House of Hardcore
What: Tommy Dreamer’s House of Hardcore 2.
Where: National Guard Armory, 2700 Southampton Rd., Philadelphia, Pa., 19154 (free parking).
When: Saturday, June 22.
Belltime: 7:30 p.m.
Featuring: Ric Flair, Tommy Dreamer, Terry Funk, Lance Storm, John Morrison, Too Cold Scorpio, The Young Bucks, Brian Kendrick and Paul London, Tony Nese, Petey Williams, Alex Reynolds, The Steiner Brothers, Carlito Colon, MVP, Maria Kanellis, Mike Bennett, Rosita, Crowbar and others.