Alex Marvez interviews Dory Funk Jr.
Not only is he the second-longest reigning world champion in National Wrestling Alliance history (1969 to 1973), Dory Funk Jr. also has helped train two other current title holders with similar status in World Wrestling Entertainment’s Adam “Edge” Copeland and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling’s Kurt Angle. Funk, 65, is now trying to create a new generation of stars through his Funking Conservatory training school in Ocala, Fla.
In the following interview conducted June 14, Funk talks about the Funk clan being featured on WWE’s new “Most Powerful Families in Wrestling” DVD as well as his reflections upon 40-plus years in the wrestling business.
A copy of my Funk column through the Scripps-Howard News Service can be found at http://www.scrippsnews.com/node/24507. For more information on Funk and his Funking Conservatory, visit www.dory-funk.com.
Q: What was it like for you having the Funks featured on WWE’s new “Most Powerful Families in Wrestling” DVD?
Funk: “I was honored. I really was. To be in that position, to put the Funk family alongside the McMahon family, the Briscos, the von Erichs, the Gagnes and so many other terrific families in pro wrestling is something I’m really excited about.”
Q: What was it like having your father in the wrestling business?
Funk: “We were unbelievably lucky. My father had a business and brought us into that business and looked after, took care for us and taught us. Even though Terry and I are completely different and have different styles, we learned so much of what we do from our fathers. He was one of the most creative people in the wrestling business. We were part of what I guess you could call a medium-sized territory in the old-school days and we used to be extremely proud of the percentage of the population we drew in Amarillo and the talent we were able to bring in there. It was always extremely competitive among promotions for talent. It was different in those days. Promoters were always scouting for talent and were afraid of losing their top guys and seeing them go somewhere else. In modern times, there are very few companies to work for. In the old days, a wrestler could work for about 35 different companies. You could travel and make a living.”
Q: Could you elaborate on what you said about your dad being one of the most creative people in the wrestling business?
Funk: “I was about five years old when I first finally saw him on TV. My father was different in that he was not a routine worker. Every match he had was different. He created a lot of things in pro wrestling, the most memorable being the Texas death match. Probably the first one was held in Amarillo for a final way to settle a feud. It was a match where there must be a winner and you had no way of stopping the match. It must continue until someone was declared the absolute victor. He had a lot of principles as well. He believed if you were going to be in a community and receive support from a community that you should also give back to that community. He was superintendent at the Texas Boys Ranch for three years during the time he first came to Amarillo. At the time, he was just a wrestler and not a promoter. He supported the Boys Ranch and gave back to the community that gave him so much. You see that today with Vince McMahon and the WWE. They receive a lot from the world of pro wrestling and they in turn give back. Probably the best example of that is support for the American troops overseas. That’s also something Eddie Graham did in Florida. He wrestled in Amarillo during my father’s day and became a promoter himself in Florida. His charitable contributions went to the Florida Sheriff’s Boys Ranch. That’s something he learned directly from my father.”
Q: How much extra pressure was there placed on you because of everything your dad had accomplished in this business?
Funk: “To tell the truth, there was extreme pressure. I was in the unusual position of being the child of a legend coming into the business. Not a lot of kids have to go through that. My father had a certain way of bringing me through that. In front of the other wrestlers I didn’t receive complements. If I came out of the ring and he said nothing, I knew I did a heck of job. If he corrected me, it would come right in front of the other wrestlers and it would come strong. By doing that psychologically, he would jump on me so hard that the guys in the dressing room would get behind me and say, ‘Hey kid, you’re not that bad,’ and support me. It was never a case of, ‘Look at my kid and see how good he’s doing.’ With my personality and my brother’s personality, it worked out well. It may not work with all kids but it did with us.
“Actually, I was very close with my father right to his passing. After [former Amarillo promoter] Doc Sarpolis passed away, first myself and then Terry got into the business. My dad actually purchased the Amarillo territory from Doc’s wife so terry and I later became partners in the wrestling business. At the time, that was an unusual position to be in, being the boss and telling wrestlers what to do who have been in the business much longer that I have. It was a tough situation, too. But it was a good situation to learn from because I learned how to ask people to do things and how to get favors out of them and super performances out of the wrestlers. Those things spill over to anything else. People have to be complemented for what they do and be motivated. That’s all part of promoting wrestling.”
Q: I know you played football in college, but because of your father, did you feel destined to break into pro wrestling?
Funk: “I didn’t realize it myself while I was in college. I was finishing school under orders from my father, who said I had to graduate [from West Texas State] before I got into pro wrestling. I was majoring in broadcasting and commercial writing and also studied physical education and English. I worked my way through school working in construction in Amarillo. As things go, you couldn’t be a pro and amateur at the same time. As I finished my college eligibility, I made the decision to become a pro wrestler. I talked to my father about it. He took me down to talk to Doc Sarpolis and Doc said, ‘I could do business with you. I know what your name is but it’s up to you to see if you can make it as a pro wrestler.’ That gave me a whole lot of drive. I’m not sure if my father wasn’t in on that with Doc. I did turn pro as I finished my last semester of school and never really looked back. I had a blast all the way.”
Q: What would you have done if you hadn’t become a pro wrestler?
Funk: “I was working for a builder who had a dynamic personality. I would have had the ambition to become a builder. But at that time, pro wrestling was what I wanted to do. I was married with two kids at the time and I had another on the way. What the heck was I going to do? I had $100 a month to live on. When I got my first check in pro wrestling, I never turned back. I made a very good living and also was doing something I enjoyed doing.”
Q: I’ve read books where Jack Brisco and Lou Thesz basically couldn’t wait to give up the NWA title because of all the demands that came with it. That didn’t seem the case with you at all. How do you reflect upon those 1,502 days as NWA champion?
Funk: [Laughs] I absolutely loved the time I had as NWA champion. I traveled to all the different territories and worked with the very best [wrestlers]. What an opportunity to learn the wrestling business! It was first-class travel everywhere and super pay. Everything about it was absolutely wonderful. The lone thing I do have to say is that it put restrictions on my family and made my family life difficult. Everything else was a pleasure. As a wrestler, the opportunity to go into the ring and perform for the fans every night for as long as they would let me stay was a privilege. That’s what I try to tell kids when they come to the Funking Conservatory. The time they spend in the ring, that’s what they do all the hard work preparing for. I enjoyed working for all the different promoters and learning different styles. I saw how promoters with a different style drew money. I made trips to Japan and everything. The first time I met Abdullah the Butcher was in the ring in Calgary. Antonio Inoki, we met just before our match. He didn’t even speak [English]. When I walked into that match in a strange country with my father, a World War II veteran, in my corner and Harley Race looking from across the way, it was like all the guys looked like the bad guys but they were the good guys [in their country]. It was a fabulous experience. It was tough on my family life and there was no way I could overcome that. But it was a fabulous point in my life.”
Q: It seems like you’ve done everything from booking to wrestling all over the world. Was there anything in the business that you didn’t get to accomplish?
Funk: “I couldn’t say. I might like to have a few more students become world champion [laughs]. That certainly would make me feel good. Really, I like to see all of my students do well in wrestling or wherever they end up going. That’s the best thing I can accomplish right now.”
Q: When and why did you and your wife Marti open the Funking Conservatory?
Funk: “In a way, I was out of the wrestling business with the exception of some Japanese work. I began running a mortgage business from 1987 to 1990, but at that time, I was still continuing to wrestle in Japan and I was training some wrestlers. I started training wrestlers many years ago unofficially in the Amarillo territory, people like Ted DiBiase and Bob Backlund. Jumbo Tsuruta was an outstanding student. It was something I liked to do. It was more of an informal situation until I went to WWE in 1998 and 1999 and created the Funking Dojo up in Stanford, Conn. I spent two years up there and had some terrific kids come through there who have gone on to do real well. Edge, Christian, Rhino, the Hardys and Kurt Angle all came through that training program. I then came back to Ocala and opened my own business and was very fortunate to have talented people come through here like Mickie James, Lita and some others who have done real well like Paul London, Gene Snitsky, Sylvain Grenier and ‘Bambikiller’ Chris Raaber. We’ve been in business for almost 10 years here in Ocala. Some things we try to make sure we do is have a safety program so nobody gets hurt and we try to encourage them. We’re not there to eliminate people but help people get to where they want in the wrestling business. We have extensive television training. We use TV virtually every day and produce our own TV show, Bang TV, which goes on-line and is available on our web site www.dory-funk.com.”
Q: You’re one of the few successful old-time wrestlers that isn’t angry about the direction the business has gone. Why is that and what are some of the things you like and don’t like among the changes in wrestling since your heyday?
Funk: “I just have a recognition the wrestling business has changed. It was good in the old days. You had 35 places to work for all the pro wrestlers. Business was good. Each territory had wrestlers within their territory that were able to earn a living for their family and do well. There was an opportunity to gain so much experience. Every territorial wrestler would work every night. In Amarillo, if our booking sheet did not have guys working for seven days, the wrestlers were upset. It was an opportunity to get so much experience working every night. Sometimes, I would do a spot show with six wrestlers and we would entertain people for two hours. When you do that, you really would get an opportunity to perform in front of the fans [laughs]. Every territory was different. There was a tremendous variety in pro wrestling. Things changed once there was national television. Vince [McMahon] had the national television and that’s what everyone wanted to see because they were perceived as having the stars. It made it very tough on the territorial system.
“When you ask why I don’t feel the same way as everybody else, Terry and I had sold out of the Amarillo territory [in 1978]. That’s when Blackjack Mulligan and Dick Murdock came in [as co-owners] and Terry and I went on independently. Terry became a legend as a hardcore-style wrestler. I went on to book for Florida Championship Wrestling and Mid-Atlantic Championship wrestling before coming back to Florida. Maybe [WWE’s expansion] wasn’t as big a bomb and not as hard on us as everybody else. But the truth about it is wrestling in this country is built on free enterprise just like anything else. With the territories in the old days, promoters were protected and looked after each other. They fought opposition – hard. Then the business changed, and when it did, it changed for the better for sure for some people. There are fewer places to work right now and make a living than before. But the people that are working are making much more money, are fabulous athletes and are doing a great job.
“Here at the Conservatory, we’re proud of ourselves because we’re into good business and see good things coming out of it. And I think the change had to come. It was a natural progression of communication in every manner – print [columns], the sheets and education of more knowledge of what was going on.
“It’s so interesting the way the wrestling business is. It was good the way it was and it’s good the way it is. Right now, it’s a very free market and market-level business. At our school, you get a perspective on all the major companies here and in Japan and the independent promotions. It’s a tough road for them, but if you make it to the big time, there are huge rewards.”
Q: You and Terry don’t have any kids that became wrestlers. How do you think your legacy will live on in this business when you guys totally step away?
Funk: “I’m certainly glad the internet is around [laughs]. I think the internet is terrific with what you and Dave [Meltzer] are doing to preserve the history of wrestling, which wasn’t done in the past. It was like wrestling was on a separate rung from the press and news media. I think that’s terrific what you’re doing and that’s where [the history] will live. Hopefully, having been NWA champion for the second-longest period of time, that might rank in there somewhere. But it has been a terrific run. The other way my legacy could live on is through some of the kids we’ve trained in the Funking Conservatory and Funking Dojo in Connecticut. I’m so proud of that. We’ve got two world champions in Edge and Kurt Angle and so many of those kids have done so well. Hopefully, the Funk legacy will live partially through some of those kids and the future ones coming up.”
Alex Marvez's weekly pro wrestling column can be found in the Rocky Mountain News, Biloxi Sun-Herald, Abilene Reporter, Dothan Eagle, Boulder Daily Camera, San Angelo Standard-Times, The Oklahoman, Wichita Falls Times Record News, Honolulu Star-Bulletin and other select newspapers and web sites that subscribe to the Scripps-Howard News Service.