One of the most fascinating things about being a long-time wrestling fan (in other words, being old) is watching the evolution of Wrestlemania. The very first Wrestlemania, in all honesty, was just a slightly bigger (and more hyped) monthly WWF Madison Square Garden event with celebrities sprinkled in and a unique main event. From there, it has become the pinnacle of the year for the entire industry. There’s no denying it, wherever Wrestlemania is held has become the destination of thousands of fans (even those that don’t attend Mania itself). Not only does WWE create an entire week around their signature event, but other wrestling promotions have taken advantage of the influx of fans to one area by putting on their own events that week. Shows, conventions, appearances… if you are a fan, the location of Wrestlemania tops the list for a wrestling-related trip if you have the means and the time.
This year, the location is Tampa, Florida. Thousands of fans will be heading there to attend and enjoy all the different festivities. I’m going to be heading to Tampa as well, however with all due respect to WWE and all the various events going on that week, I’m going for one reason.
Actually, for one person.
In the early 1980’s I was a kid swept up in the WWF national expansion and the explosion of Hulkamania. I gravitated towards Andre The Giant as my first “favorite” wrestler and was entertained continuously by Rowdy Roddy Piper. At the time, without even realizing it, I was gaining an appreciation for the athleticism and style of the Dynamite Kid, which was about as far from Andre’s ring style as you could get. Then one morning, I saw the WWF “debut” of someone I hadn’t seen before. He wore a cowboy hat, chaps, and a poncho. I didn’t know anything about him, other than Bruno Sammartino on color commentary calling him the toughest wrestler to ever hail from Texas.
Howard Finkel introduced “From the Double Cross Ranch in Amarillo Texas, Terry Funk.”
This newcomer (at least to my limited wrestling world at the time) was taking off his entrance gear when the ring attendant, his hands getting full, placed Funk’s cowboy hat on his head. Vince McMahon, providing play-by-play, chuckled when Funk suddenly yanked the attendant into the ring and proceeded to beat the crap out of him, as well as his opponent (Aldo Marino, for you wrestling historians). Funk threw both men out of the ring, argued with fans, and I was mesmerized. Marino only got in a few shots at Funk, but he did hit a dropkick, which sent Funk flying backwards over the top rope and to the floor. Funk regained control with a back suplex and won with the spinning toe hold.
For the next several months, I was fascinated by the Funker. He would deliver insane interviews, spitting tobacco juice in the camera lens. He began carrying a branding iron, which later included a rubber stamp to “brand” defeated opponents. Every match, whether it was against “no-name” guys on television, or top stars like Junkyard Dog and Tito Santana, seemed like a war. He’d go from trying to trick Moondog Spot out of fighting during the Wrestling Classic tournament (which backfired into Funk himself being counted out) to giving Hulk Hogan a match where I actually thought Hogan might lose the title (and this was the pinnacle of early Hulkamania). He was funny but scary. Insane, but intense. Just a fascinating performer… and then after a knee injury, he was gone.
However, by then my wrestling universe had expanded. Thanks to wrestling magazines (the beloved “Apter Mags”) and cable television, I was able to see more and more wrestling. Sooner or later, the Funker would pop up somewhere. However, I also learned how he had retired once before and was pursuing an acting career. It turns out this guy who was “new” to me was a former NWA World Champion who had been a top star for years and years. Maybe he was slowing down, and I had come in at the tail end of his career. Then he was announced to be a judge for an NWA World Title match between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. Flair and Steamboat had been delivering incredible in-ring matches, so I didn’t really think Funk was doing anything more than making an appearance.
Well, I was wrong. Really wrong.
Terry Funk’s post-WrestleWar 1989 angle with Ric Flair set off another run on top for the Funker. He sidelined Flair by piledriving him through a table, then beat up the top babyfaces in the company while building towards Flair’s return at the Great American Bash for their grudge match. I wanted to see that match so badly, I ordered the PPV by myself when none of my friends (who were all strictly WWF fans) wanted to chip in and get it as we usually did with shows. While Steamboat-Flair was technically brilliant, Funk-Flair was just insane and intense. Crazy brawls that kept me glued to the NWA through the Summer and Fall, until Flair ended the feud with a win over Funk in their epic “I Quit” match.
Funk moved on to commentary, and more acting, and eventually dropped off my wrestling radar again in terms of seeing him on television every week…. but things were changing. I was starting to discover tape trading, this underground network of people who would trade or sell you videos of wrestling from other parts of the country…. and the world. While Terry Funk worked on his acting career, I got to see all the stuff I had missed because of when I was born. I found other favorites, such as Bruiser Brody and Mitsuharu Misawa, but I always was drawn back to the Funker. Terry & Dory Funk as the top team in All Japan Pro Wrestling, facing off with the Original Sheik and Abdullah The Butcher in bloodbaths. Terry grappling with the Briscoes in Florida. Funk pouring motor oil and dirt over his head while insulting Florida fans during his feud with Dusty Rhodes. Funk wrestling Jerry Lawler in an empty arena in Memphis with no official in one of the most bizarrely fascinating matches I had ever seen. Terry Funk had an amazing career that had spanned two decades….
It turns out, he was far from done. The mid-90’s would see the return of the Funker, in a big way.
Through tape trading, magazines, and now newsletters and telephone hotlines (precursor to the Web, kids), I found out Terry Funk was back. He was wrestling for Japanese promotions IWA and FMW in barbed wire matches against Atsushi Onita and Cactus Jack. He was starting to appear on more and more independent shows. Terry was also part of some promotion based out of South Philadelphia called ECW. Eastern Championship Wrestling, which then became Extreme Championship Wrestling. Terry Funk appeared there regularly, so I needed to check this company out.
Let’s just make this perfectly clear…. without Terry Funk, ECW doesn’t succeed. He was the established name that made that company more than just another independent organization. Earlier in this column, I mentioned how Funk took a bump over the top rope to the floor from Aldo Marino in his WWF television debut. It was a squash match, but Funk took that moment to make his opponent look good. Trust me, most wrestlers were not taking bumps to the floor for an enhancement talent in their TV debuts. Funk took that mentality to ECW, making everyone he wrestled look good. He was constantly giving back to the company, and the industry, by making new stars. As I got “smarter” to the business, I realized more and more how Terry was doing what a lot of veterans wouldn’t do. Funk had been on top, now he was grooming others to be there.
I started to see Terry Funk as not just a great wrestler and an entertaining personality, but as someone who commanded and deserved respect for what he had done and was doing in an industry full of egos. On top of that, he was doing it with an effort unmatched by anyone else in his age bracket. The famed barbed wire match where Terry Funk lost the ECW World Title to Sabu? That wasn’t even the planned match. Originally, that show was supposed to be headlined by Sandman, Tommy Dreamer & Taz vs. Sabu, Rob Van Dam, and Jerry Lawler. When injuries made that match impossible, Funk vs. Sabu in barbed wire was the replacement, announced with, if memory serves, two weeks before the show. There was Funk, sacrificing his body and putting over Sabu.
For the next two decades, I watched Terry Funk putting over talent and making stars. He wrestled in Japan on various independent shows, and whenever I had the chance, I made sure to go see him in action. He went to the WWF and managed to pull an entertaining match out of a (at the time) horrible Mark Henry. He helped his long-time rival/partner Mick Foley go to the next level with a tremendous match on Raw. Yes, Terry was in the midcard now, but he was still giving back and delivering. He did the same thing in WCW, at a time when the company seemed to be directionless, there was Funk, giving us insanely entertaining matches whether it was a serious match with Bret Hart or ridiculous hardcore brawls with Norman Smiley.
Funk would eventually slow down the schedule, but whenever he did appear, he delivered. By now, you’ve pretty much figured out I’m a big fan of Terry Funk. Thanks to the great guys at Jersey All Pro Wrestling, I was able to provide color commentary on a Terry Funk vs. Homicide match. It wasn’t a sold-out arena, but the Funker was giving it all in a hard-hitting match and delivering for the fans. This continued throughout the 2000’s, and I was fortunate again to call a Terry Funk match as he teamed with Sabu against the Dudleys at the Hardcore Homecoming: November Reign event at the former ECW Arena in South Philadelphia. I also got to interview the Funker a week before the match, where he joked how he wished he was wrestling the “small Dudley (Spike) instead of the big ones, they are harder to lift.”
In 2017, I heard that Funk, at 73-years-old, would be wrestling a pair of matches for Big Time Wrestling in the Carolinas. I bought a plane ticket. I figured, if this was truly the last time Terry Funk was going to wrestle, I was going to do my best to see it. Funk teamed with the Rock N’ Roll Express to face longtime rival Jerry Lawler, Doug Gilbert, and the late Brian Christopher, and while no one would call it a classic in the traditional sense, there was something so entertaining about watching Funk at the end of the match piledriving every referee that tried to break up the fracas. Once again, the Funker had delivered, and I was glad to have been in attendance.
Terry Funk hasn’t wrestled since those matches. In 2018, he mentioned in an interview that he was retired… but also noted that every time he says that, some promoter comes up with an offer he can’t refuse. However, last March, his wife Vicki passed away, and it was revealed that Funk was dealing with an abdominal hernia. He hasn’t been making appearances on the convention circuit the way other wrestling veterans have.
However, Terry Funk will be appearing at WrestleCon in Tampa, Florida, which takes place April 2nd-5th this year. There is a lot of talent appearing at the event that weekend, however, I would argue that none of them has been as important to the wrestling industry as Terry Funk. That’s my opinion, but I know many fans, wrestlers and promoters share it.
Let me make it clear, I’m not getting paid by WrestleCon to plug their event. I’m not getting comped into their shows. I’m planning on buying a ticket and waiting in line just like every other fan. I’m doing it for one reason… to say thank you to Terry Funk one more time. I may get other chances to do it, but I’m not going to let this one pass by.
I never got to thank Andre The Giant, Roddy Piper or Bruiser Brody for making it so much fun to be a fan. This is my chance to thank one of my “Mount Rushmore” wrestlers for everything he has done for the wrestling business, for other wrestlers, and for just making it so much fun to be a wrestling fan.
For those so inclined to do the same, information on WrestleCon can be found here http://www.wrestlecon.com/.