Bio and Interview:
Terry Funk is a man riddled with contradictions. A polite, soft-spoken, middle aged Texan, who after thirty years in the wrestling business is as likely to apologize for cussing or spitting tobacco, as he is liable to split another wrestler's head open with a broken bottle. Therein lies the walking-talking paradox that is Terry Funk.
Not only is Funk "middle-aged and crazy" in the ring, outside of the ring he is as equally unstable as evidenced by his favorite era of wrestling, one which nearly cost him his life.
"I loved the era of the riots. In Puerto Rico there'd be riots where I'd have to fight my way to the back, San Antonio, the Dallas/South Houston area. It was absurd. They would have to stop the matches because too many people would be hitting the ring. In Kentucky I can remember when they took forty guns off of people coming to the show. I've had guns pulled on me and knifes too," said "Terrible" Terry, as he is called.
"Corpus Christi is where I got stuck with a knife in the neck. Fortunately, it wasn't that big a blade. It went all the way into the hilt and I thought it was a dart or something, so I left it in. When I got to the back and saw it was a knife my eyes got as big as saucers when I realized what it was and that someone had tried to kill me."
While most people would view a riot and attempted homicide as signs of taking things way too far, Funk derives another interpretation from them.
"The riots were a form of flattery. The greatest thing (for a heel wrestler) is to do your job so well that someone wants to kill you. What could be more wonderful? People who have done terrible things to me and wanted me to charge them, well I wouldn't. I mean do I want to put someone in jail because I convinced him or her that I needed to die? I did it to them. That's how I look at it and that may be sick but it's also beautiful," said Funk in town for the Apocalypse Wrestling Federation's "Scar Wars" event which featured the legendary "Funker" battling Abdullah the Butcher in the main-event.
SLAM! Wrestling's Greg Oliver and Chris Gramlich were fortunate enough to have the chance to sit down and talk with the hardcore institution over dinner and few would argue that anyone has done a better job in professional wrestling than Terry Funk. However, doing your job well in the world of wrestling sometimes means losing, and Toronto is where Terry Funk lost one of his most prestigious titles to the equally infamous Harley Race. February 6th 1977, a date, match and opponent Funk remembers well.
"Sure Toronto has special memories, some that I'm not that especially fond of. That was the end of my NWA reign as the Heavyweight Champion against Harley. I always had respect for Harley because he came-up through the school of hard knocks. He started out being a driver for Happy Humphrey and he would do the carnivals and work his way up from them. He was self-educated person and a man who did well in this profession and as champion after he won the belt from me."
It is obvious from the respect in Funk's voice for people like Harley Race, Lou Thesz and Mike Dibiase, that Funk appreciates tradition. Yet, unlike many, Funk has kept up with the times practically inventing the hardcore style of wrestling which is so popular now. Still, Terry can remember when wrestling was more of a family affair.
"It was a wonderful thing as I grew-up and when I started, I think I caught the tail-end of it. When my father started back in the forties everyone had their own trailer and what a wrestler wanted to do (if he had children), was get into an area (promotion or territory) where he could stay for at least the school year for the children's sake. It seemed like all the wrestlers lived in trailer courts and all the kids became buddies. It was a great time," said Funk, who was also fortunate to wrestle alongside his brother, Dory Funk Jr., on many occasions.
"There wasn't wrestling on Sunday or even Saturday. You didn't fly anywhere. You only worked five days a week and you went where you could drive. On the weekend someone was always barbecuing and would invite everyone over and it was very family-oriented. Divorce was something which didn't plague our profession like it does now."
But in Terry's opinion, wrestling like all sports has changed with the times. Whether these changes are for the better or worse, has yet to be seen.
"Wrestling has definitely changed a great deal since when I started in the business. I think not only in wrestling but in all sports that the athletes are greedy right now and I can understand that. Not being greedy for the sake of being greedy but because the salaries in all sports have escalated so much that it really tends to make a mockery of a fella who fixes a toilet or drives a cab for a living. It really doesn't make much sense to pay one person more for a night or a year than another will make in a lifetime. I can't really comprehend that."
When Funk started wrestling he worked for a mere twenty-five dollars a night. The King Of Hardcore says he used to save his small earnings then exchange them for hundred dollar bills. By doing this from time to time, Funk could easily flash around a wad of impressive bills so that critical people could respect him for chosing profesional wrestling as a career.
Professional wrestling has obviously progressed from where a wrestler worked for peanuts to the point where the top draws are making millions of dollars. The one constant according to Funk is, knowing what the fans want and giving it to them.
"One of the reasons I think I've lasted as long as I have is because I try to be a person who lives in the present, not the past and not the future. That's really an important thing to convey to the fellas who are trying to come into the business, is you need to keep yourself current," said Funk. "It's very difficult to do, it happens to so many guys who get caught-up in the past and they can't make the changes and wrestling is ever-changing."
Funk believes at the heart of these cycles is the wrestling fan as they're the ones who buy the tickets, tune in the television shows, order the pay-per-views and spend millions of dollars on merchandise every year.
"I've seen times where they've wanted more wrestling and times when they've wanted less wrestling and now it is just total entertainment. I don't know how long it can stay on the plateau that it is on now. Wrestling is the one form of entertainment where the fans have total control over what you do."
What the fans want in today's wrestling is storylines and softcore sex and violence. The more hardcore the better, some would say. While Funk isn't bitter about the WWF's success in basically ripping off the path he and others paved with hardcore wrestling and combining it with the edginess of ECW, he is cautious at least when it comes to hardcore and giving credit where credit is due.
Funk worries that his accomplishments will be forgotten.
"With Vince going-up to Harvard and all that, they're liable to think Vince thought up all this s--t. I've got values and I'm hardcore but I'm not really into some of the stuff they're doing now. I may partake in it because it is a necessity but I really don't think it has a place in our business. I really don't approve of the sexual innuendoes that they're doing now. I don't want to push the envelope but I want to stay up with it," he said.
Pushing envelopes and boundaries is not something a man like Funk does. He breaks them. While he may shy away from the more T&A oriented standards of today, he has no such qualms about hardcore, no matter what the era.
"I think I was one of (if not) the first to use the table and go through it. When you're wrestling independents or in Japan it becomes a question of why did you do the things you did? The answer is out of necessity. To be different, to grab that picture, especially with the media in Japan."
"I mean how many times have they seen Antonio Anoki stretching 'Joe Blow' on the front page and how many times have they seen this idiot (me), hanging from the rafters with barbed wire around his throat? So which picture are they going to use?," asks Funk retorically. "I depend on that to make a living. I need to grab that picture for myself and my company to get the kind of money I want. I have to come-up with stuff like that."
Funk is a man who speaks of the legends and contemporaries of the sport with the utmost respect and reverence, which he has done throughout our two-hour long dinner - interview. At least until the names of two of modern professional wrestling biggest legends are mentioned: Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair. These are two men Funk has had epic feuds with and neither of whom he is especially fond of.
"I don't like Ric Flair. Flair tried to retire me at forty-four, it wasn't just part of the story line it was a serious deal. He really didn't like that feud. I went out there dressed in his robe like Flair coming back from his sickness and he hated it. He thought it was absurd. He also hated me calling him banana nose and horse teeth but what the hell."
And what about Hogan?
"I really don't like the man either. I don't know if this will make sense but one time I was in Botswana wrestling Hogan. I set everything up and I got him a tremendous guarantee. I think it was $45,000 for the night and I think I made $7,500 for the night, but I set it up because I was very adamant about doing it. Verne Gagne wanted to take a bunch of money from it and I didn't want Verne to get rich off of someone else's name when he didn't deserve it and at the time, Terry (Hogan) and I were really close," remembered Funk.
"So I wrestled him (Hogan) and it was a disqualification. So, after that he (Hogan) took off to Japan and left me to get his money out of the country which isn't an easy thing to do by any means. He then made a statement in the Japanese papers that he beat me which really upset me and I'm a very unforgiving person when it comes to sh*t like that."
Funk's obvious disdain for Hogan and Flair notwithstanding, when asked about his toughest opponent or match he is reluctant to name one wrestler or style of wrestling over another. Not wanting to play favourites or insinuate that any one opponent stands above another.
However, a crazy man named Sabu, from a company known as Extreme Championship Wrestling, and the headlining barbed wire match of a little known event entitled "Born to Wired", stand out as one of the most extreme. Even for a man who has been declared ECW World Heavyweight Champion for life.
"I think that was one the most brutal matches I've ever witnessed, as far as being in? I've had some worse things happen to me like the time I got my arm burned-up with Cactus (Jack), over in Japan (King of the Death Match tournament '95). But as far as brutal, bloody, hardcore craziness that match with Sabu was the best," said Funk. "If you watch that match you'll see at the end where I'm out on the floor wrapped in barbed wire, that the barbed wire was stretched taut around my neck and it was a wonder that wasn't the end of it for me right there. It was probably the most brutal, graphic match, although the matches in Japan were pretty graphic."
While on the topic of the King of the Death matches, let us mention Cactus Jack and Japan. It was that final match of the tournament, which Funk ranks as another vicious match and oddly enough, one of the most disappointing of his career.
"Cactus and I were competing over in Japan in the Explosion - Barbed Wire - Bomb match, which was the final match of the King of the Death Matches," said Funk. "Well, the guy (the promoter) said he spent close to ten thousand dollars on the blow-up system, but what no one can probably believe is that when you go in to these matches you really don't know what is going to happen. Whether it's going to blow you up, the ring or what it's going to do and you just take your chances. Well, this time we were in there and it counted down, 'five, four, three, two...one!' and I'll never forget what happened."
According to Funk what happened was Cactus Jack, afraid of the explosion, ran into the third row while Funk stood in the centre of the ring waiting. The explosion went off on cue but was nothing more than a little smoke not a big bang the crowd was expecting.
"The fans just went 'Ohhhhh...' and they were all disappointed and I turned to the people and just went 'Why? Why no bomb?'. They understood that and Cactus and I went in there and finished the match. And even though these people were utterly disappointed, we raised them back up. That was when I got badly burned (being dropped arm first onto an exploding barbed wire covered pallet) but Cactus has been through some brutal stuff too."
Ah yes, Cactus Jack (Mick Foley, Dude Love, Mankind), it is impossible to talk to Terry Funk about Mick Foley and not notice the gleam in his eye or the affection in his words? Cactus is a protege and surrogate son to Funk whom he has conveyed the lessons and philosophies of his life to.
Lessons Foley has taken to heart.
"The premise that I have lived by in this business is to give the people their money's worth and that is one thing I've tried to instill in Cactus," said Funk in a fatherly tone. "I think Cactus has learned that through watching me and even though I may be overstepping my boundaries, I'm really proud of Cactus. I'm proud of him for taking some of the things which I have valued and listening to me and he'll tell you that. But, I love him and he has gone beyond the things which even I would do."
It is hard to imagine anything that Terry Funk wouldn't do. Here is a man who has been wrapped and hung with barbed wire, pioneered table and chair use, has been blown-up, bleeds like a sieve in almost all his matches and can do a moonsault well into his fifties. But it isn't what he does that Funk wants people to understand; it's the why? That's the important part.
"I just hope people understand why I do these things. I think some people would say what I do is stupid and maybe it is, maybe it is. But I have a real love for this business and for the people and I want to make them hate me more than they've ever hated me before and that's really important to me."
Hating Terry Funk in this day and age isn't a popular notion, despite his recent heel turn on Tommy Dreamer in ECW. The question everyone is asking isn't who is the mysterious greater power the Undertaker answers to? It is when will Terry Funk be returning to either the ECW to finish his feud with Dreamer or when will he re-surface in the WWF for a last dance with Mick Foley?.
"I don't know whether I'll be returning to either the ECW or the WWF. This match for the AWF will be my first match back since I had the hepatitis and it took a lot out of me and not for any other reason than I'm fifty-four years old. There are some things I want to do with my wife and I love her dearly. I think it is time for me to be back where I need to be...Nothing is forever in the wrestling business and I'm certainly not, but I don't mind that, I really don't. It's just really important that the wrestlers and the fans understand that," he said.