To say Roy Wayne Farris has left his mark on professional wrestling would be an understatement.
In fact, an argument can be made that few have made a bigger mark in the short time it took Farris, better known as the Honky Tonk Man, to make his.
Farris, arguably the greatest Intercontinental champion in World Wrestling Entertainment history, is a lifelong wrestling fan.
“Oh gosh I was just a young fellow, maybe 10, 12 years old,” Farris, 61, said in a telephone interview when asked about the first time he saw pro wrestling. “We would get it out of Memphis here, where I was living … 60, 70 miles out of Memphis. It came on on Saturday morning and I would watch it on the old black and white TV.”
There was one particular wrestler who captured the imagination of the impressionable wrestler-in-waiting back then.
“I remember this one fella — Sputnik Monroe — and I really believed what he said on TV about ‘diamond rings and limousines,’ and he was ‘a rich girl’s lover and a poor girl’s dream.’ That touched a nerve with me and I thought this was a lot better than the farm I was growing up on in west Tennessee,” Farris said, before joking about how wrong Monroe was. “Little did I know it was not diamond rings and limousines and it was not rich girls at all,” he said with a laugh.
It was the success of his cousin in Memphis that made Farris, who headlines the Great North Wrestling event in Smiths Falls this weekend, think about wrestling as a career.
“When I was in college, at the University of Memphis, my famous cousin Jerry Lawler had started into the wrestling business and was making a pretty good name for himself back then, in the mid-’70s … ’74, ’75. I thought ‘Gosh, here he is, he’s a cartoon artist, he draws pictures all day and never was an athlete of any kind and here I am in college, and I’m an athelete, getting into coaching and taking all these physical education classes … heck, maybe I can do that.’ ”
At the invitation of some friends, Farris decided to begin training for a career in wrestling.
“A year later, I started wrestling, in 1977.”
Today, Farris remains one of a handful of pro wrestlers who can say they have performed inside a wrestling ring in five different decades.
“I’ll have 37 (years) in this month, in May,” Farris said, proudly, adding that he hadn’t thought about it in terms of decades in which he’s wrestled.
As you can imagine, Farris has seen everything in his long career: the good, the bad and the ugly side of wrestling.
The conversation turned to the tragic side of the business, and the growing number of former stars from Farris’s generation who have either died or are in bad shape. Asked if he could explain why he has avoided a similar fate, Farris says there is no explanation.
“It’s so sad when you look down that list of fellows that was in my generation of guys. It’s such a tragic thing. They’re all gone way, way, way too soon. There is no secret. I mean, what did I do different than anyone? Here’s the Ultimate Warrior, who was the epitome of working out and healthy foods and health conscious and all of a sudden now he’s gone. I can be brutally honest, because I am. I did everything in moderation. And believe me, when I say everything, I have done everything. But I did everything in moderation. I didn’t take it to the extremes that some of the guys did.
“When your body tells you ‘Look, I’ve got a pounding headache from being screeched in Nova Scotia,’ then it’s time not to be screeched. Some things you do once and you leave them alone. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have that kind of a self-discipline and not be so health conscious that I can’t eat this, I can’t do this, I have to work out 45 minutes every day, or two hours every day. Not my cup of tea.”
Farris points to his friend and former Olympian and pro wrestler Ken Patera to illustrate his point.
He’s had multiple surgeries now,” Farris said. “Even Hulk Hogan, multiple, multiple surgeries. I said to Ken once, not so long ago, ‘Ken do you ever wish you’d never seen a weight room?’ He said ‘I wish I had never picked up a weight in my life.’ He said ‘It was my claim to fame, but it has been the thing that has destroyed me.’
“We’re professional entertainers and professional athletes. Up there in Canada, the national pastime is hockey, which is a fast, hard-hitting, brutal sport that kids start playing when they’re just little, tiny things, and to take it to the professional level, it’s brutal. It destroys you physically.”
Long before he was toppling opponents with his trademark finisher Shake, Rattle and Roll, or smashing opponents with his guitar as the Honky Tonk Man, Farris looked more like Hulk Hogan than he did Elvis.
“I had sideburns,” Farris said of the only similarity he shared with the legendary crooner early in his career. “I mentioned this fella earlier in the interview, Sputnik Monroe,” he added of the late Rosco Monroe Merrick. “He had black hair with a little white spot in the front. I had the blonde hair, and had done this thing as a Blonde Bomber, a tag-team with Moondog Spot, who abruptly passed away in the ring at an early age several years ago. He was my partner and we had done wonderful things as this tag team.
But Farris was basically told his look was similar to the look of many in the wrestling business.
“There’s 100 bleach blonde guys in the wrestling business and you’re just another one,” Farris remembered as his rationale. “So I wanted a change.”
Like any good wrestler, Farris would incorporate that change into a match stipulation.
“The change would be not to lose my hair and shave (my) head, but as in a hair dye match with another blonde wrestler and when I lost, my hair had to be a different colour. So I did the black and I had the sideburns. “
But the idea for the Elvis impersonating Honky Tonk Man wouldn’t come from Farris. Nor did it come for another wrestler or even a promoter. Instead, it would come from the fans.
“This is the strangest thing and it’s hard for anyone to understand,” Farris said. “Some wrestling fans mentioned to me about doing this Elvis thing and I said ‘Of course not, I like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I grew up in Memphis and we were force fed these movies of Elvis’ so it was not something I wanted to do.”
Determined, the fans took things a step farther.
“The next thing I know, they brought me a jumpsuit to the matches and gave it to me for a Christmas present. One of the promoters, his name was Robert Fuller — he was Col. Parker in WCW days — he said ‘Heck man, why don’t you take a guitar out there and hit these guys over the head with it man, we’ll see what happens.’ Next thing you know we got a guitar and we’re hitting people with it and that’s how it all started.”
Farris has a long and storied history with Canada, so his return here this weekend will be a homecoming of sorts. It was in Canada where he perfected his Honky Tonk Man character.
“I took it to Calgary, it was a little rough around the edges, but when I got up to Calgary with it, I really fine-tuned it. (Legendary trainer) Stu (Hart) loved the character and the way that he promoted me up there was fabulous. Then I went over to Vancouver and got on BCTV, which was nationwide at that time, All-Star Wrestling out of Vancouver, went all across Canada. So for almost two years, I had been on Canadian television before the fans in America had ever seen this character.”
In fact, even after joining the then World Wrestling Federation under Vince McMahon as a babyfaced Honky Tonk Man, Canada continued to influence Farris’s career.
“When we did tapings in Toronto, here I am the good guy, and the people are throwing stuff and they’re screaming and climbing out of the seats, they want to kill me and beat me up, and Vince McMahon said ‘What’s the deal here?’ Farris recalled. “I said ‘I’ve had this bad guy character here for so long, they already know me.’ Six weeks later they had to switch me.”
Like that, a star was born.
Farris’s Honky Tonk Man would quickly establish himself as a major star in the WWF, culminating with what would be, and what continues to be, the longest reign by an Intercontinental champion in history.
So successful was Honky Tonk Man as Intercontinental champion that his name comes up in every discussion about the greatest IC champ in history, alongside legendary names like Mr. Perfect, Randy (Macho Man) Savage, the Ultimate Warrior, Bret (Hitman) Hart, Pat Patterson, Chris Jericho and others. The IC title, and wrestling titles in general, held more clout in the heyday of his career, Farris agreed.
“Oh gosh absolutely. For me, it took me from a mid-card, upper-card status to main event status,,” he said. “I knew that if I had the opportunity, if I was ever given a chance — not just for the Intercontinental belt — but to be pushed at the top of the card, I knew I could fulfill the obligation of doing that and sell tickets and I knew how to do that. I had been doing it for 10, 12 years all over the country and around the world as a main-event player. It’s not like it was thrust upon me and I didn’t know how to make it work. I really did know how to make it work and that’s why the Intercontinental title, when I had it, became such a name-title belt because the people paid to see me lose that title.”
Farris’s Honky Tonk Man was one of the great heels of his generation, a feat he accomplished despite spending less than five years working for WWE.
“They just wanted me to lose it,” Farris said proudly. “And I knew how to make them want me to lose it. I knew the key words to say, I knew how to put the matches together with everyone. The end result would be the fans would go away from there going ‘Gosh darnit, I coulda beat him myself!’ That brought the prestige to that title.”
Even as a despised wrestling heel, Farris admits he’s had a good ride with his character.
“It was fun because I was able to do that and I had developed this character and developed this style that I had that was working,” he said. “It’s like developing a product and the product does something very, very good. I worked very hard to perfect this Honky Tonk Man character. I worked endless hours and days, studying and watching things and watching myself over and over again. With that, I know that I was able to control these people’s emotions for that 10, 12, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes night after night after night. That was fun. It was fun and you know what, I never tweaked it, I never changed it once I had it clicking. I left it alone. It took on a whole life of its own. The character itself will live forever. It will live forever. Long past me, long past anyone that ever tries it again.”
Farris’s Honky Tonk Man remains one of the most instantly recognizable wrestlers alive today. His IC title run remains unmatched. His hip-shaking songs, guitar smashing ways and mean streak are the stuff of legends. Yet, his name remains out of the conversation when it comes to the WWE Hall of Fame.
Never one to shy from controversy, Farris says he doesn’t give the thought, or the hall itself, much credence.
“Like any other hall of fame, it is a politically motivated extravaganza,” he said, pointing to the fact that Pete Rose, baseball’s far-and-away hits leader, is not in the baseball hall of fame. “I didn’t play the game the right way, I suppose, and obviously I still don’t play the game the right way,” he admitted. “You know, they’re going to tie you to the whipping post until you humble down and crawl in there and thank them all for all of those nice things they did for you while you sat home for 20 years starving to death with no paycheque.”
In recent years, WWE has overcome tumultuous relationships with the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Jake (The Snake) Roberts and the Ultimate Warrior to see those wrestling legends immortalized. Farris doesn’t believe the mending of those relationships as legitimizing the hall. In fact, he sees it quite the opposite.
“Only time will tell if they legitimize (the hall),” he said, saying the most recent class of inductees only further supports his argument. “You have fellows like Jake Roberts, who’s had multiple, multiple problems with his social life and his professional life, and Scott Hall. I didn’t understand those two at all.”
Another name notably absent, Farris said, is that of the late legend Savage.
“He was a promoter,” Farris barked. “Him and his brother and father ran their own promotion. I mean they have set up the ring and everything that anyone could ever do all the way to reach the top level of our business and then, you got Mr. T. Well they call it the celebrity side. Why do you have to have a celebrity side? Why can’t it just be for wrestlers? Why is it so politically driven? I don’t know. It’s one man’s ball game and it always will be.”
Given his outspoken stance on the hall of fame, Farris isn’t expecting the call to the hall to come anytime soon. And should it, he’s not sure he’d accept the induction anyway.
“I would really have to take a long look it,” he said. “What would the situation be and why are you guys calling me now? It’s a good honour to be bestowed upon the fellas and some of them really believe in it. They think it is an honour for them.
“There are tons of men and women that should be there that probably never will get that and there’s those that they put in that, in one man’s opinion, probably shouldn’t be there. You take it all with a grain of salt.”
While Farris has never been shy about expressing himself, and never been one to shy away from controversy, he’s also not shy about professing his love for the wrestling business and his fans.
“I love this business,” he said. “I have a passion for it. I love it, I love what I do. I don’t love travelling on the airplanes anymore, that’s become a chore. It’s not a trip anymore, it’s a journey. But I love the locker room, I love going out there and doing what I do. I don’t care now if the young fellas that I wrestle now have no training at all. I’m good enough to work around it and the fans get their money’s worth. And that’s what’s important.”
Great North Wrestling
When: Saturday, May 10, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Smiths Falls Memorial Center, 71 Cornelia St. W.
Tickets: Advance tickets start at $15 and are available through ticketweb.ca, at the arena or at The Rideau Winery. Tickets go up $5 at the door.
Card: There are seven matches on the card including Hannibal vs Jeremy Prophet for the Canadian Championship in Hannibal’s return match.
On the web: www.greatnorthwrestling.ca