12 days of Christmas Chaos: (Day Five: Get down and dirty with Dutch Mantell)
Arguably the greatest athlete ever to come out of Oil Trough, Texas, Dutch Mantell thrilled fans for years as the lone wolf of Memphis wrestling—an anti-hero more concerned with winning titles and kicking butts than kissing babies. Prof. Mantell has guided “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Kane and other students of the University of Dutch through the school of hard knocks on the road to success. Pick up his new book, The World According to Dutch, to find out what his graduates already know: the Dirty Dutchman is one of the shrewdest, sharpest minds in wrestling today.
I first met Dutch in 1989, my freshman year in college. He was booking Memphis, and had built an angle involving longtime African-American mid-carder King Cobra and Lawler, who was playing a racist heel. (Some would argue the role wasn’t a stretch for the King.) As the main event of the Christmas Chaos card at the Mid-South Coliseum, Cobra shocked Lawler and the approximately 3,000 fans in attendance by pinning the World Unified champion to win the title. As the crowd popped huge for the upset, Dutch walked out from the dressing-room area to observe his handiwork. My friend and I, two marks who thought we were smarter to the business than we really were, motioned Mantell to come over, and he obliged. I told him, “You booked a good angle!” Dutch kayfabed me, acting like he had no idea what the hell I was talking about. (In hindsight, I’m surprised he didn’t grab “shoo-baby,” his bullwhip.)
I believe it was the following Monday night, on January 1, 1990, that a greenhorn from Texas, who been trained by “Gentleman” Chris Adams, showed up at the Coliseum expecting to work that night. Apparently, he’d been given a start date by Jerry Jarrett, who somehow forgot to inform Dutch of this new member to the CWA roster. After introducing himself as Steve Williams, the young man didn’t exactly take kindly to it when Dutch told him to think of another name–and quick–to wrestle under: “Why the hell not? …It’s my real name!” In his new book, Dutch writes, “I informed Mr. Williams in my kindest, sweetest voice that he couldn’t be Steve Williams…for one f’n reason…because there’s already a Steve Williams in this business, as in DR. DEATH STEVE WILLIAMS….and there can’t be two Steve Williams in the same f’n business at the same f’n time. That would be like having two Willie Nelsons.”
After Williams failed to come up with anything, Mantell christened him “Steve Austin.” And history was made. (The way I see it, Austin owes Dutch at least a million in cash in royalties.)
In a sense, it’s only fitting that Mantell was so instrumental in hatching the Rattlesnake. Mantell originally wrestled under the name “Chris Gallagher” for Nashville promoter Nick Gulas. As Dutch tells it: “Chris Gallagher starved to death, so I buried him with a full funeral and then ‘Dutch Mantell’ was born.” I believe it was former wrestler Buddy Fuller who had the idea of the Dutch character, a rough-and-tumble, modern-day outlaw of sorts. Mantell certainly looked the part, with a dark mustache and beard—and even darker eyes. In many ways, Mantell, “the Dirty Dutchman,” as Memphis announcer Lance Russell often referred to him, developed a character that was ahead of its time. He set the standard for a worker like Austin, whose “Stone Cold” persona got over with fans initially as a tough-talking heel who gradually turned into an anti-establishment-type appreciated by the fans.
Dutch’s initial turn from heel to babyface in Memphis was classic. Dastardly Japanese heels Mr. Onita and Masa Fuchi, managed by veteran Tojo Yamamoto, were running roughshod over the area in spring 1981, leaving a trail of bloody babyfaces (Eddie Gilbert, Ricky Morton, Steve Keirn, Dundee, the Dream Machine, etc.) in their wake. One heated Monday night, the foreign heels were ganging up on Dundee and the Dream when suddenly, and without advance warning of a turn, Dutch made the save.
In an emotional interview with Lance Russell the following Saturday, Dutch, a legit Vietnam veteran, spoke of serving his country. Mantell went on to explain that he saw the Japanese outnumbering two Americans. He then snapped when he noticed a little boy so shocked by the horror that the youngster dropped the American flag he had been waving in support of the babyfaces. When Dutch rushed the ring to attack Tojo, Onita and Fuchi, he was not merely making the save—he was defending the honor of the country. It’s easily one of the most memorable promos of the era…and that covers a hell of a lot of ground.
Even after turning babyface, Mantell was often the consummate “tweener,” all too willing to put aside friendships for a chance at a championship , which added a nice touch of realism to the otherwise nutty Memphis scene. This may not sound like anything groundbreaking today because we’ve all seen that scenario a million times now. But back in Memphis in the early ‘80s, the performers were almost always clearly defined as heels or babyfaces.
While Dutch was usually a babyface, he’d turn ever so slightly to feud with established area heroes Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee over the AWA Southern title and the NWA Mid-America title, respectively. Mantell’s blue-collar character often complained of being given the shaft by the establishment, in this case, the area promoters. Many hard-working fans in the South identified with that scenario, which is probably why Dutch was one the few wrestlers to feud with Lawler during the King’s prime babyface run and still receive plenty of cheers at the Coliseum. In particular, the three straight main events between the King and the Dutchman at the Coliseum in March 1982 were fantastic and have to be considered among Lawler’s best.
Years back, after I published a review of Lawler’s book, Dutch e-mailed me out of the blue. When I reminded him of our first encounter in ‘89, he shocked me by remembering it verbatim. He said he had even thought about that night several times since then and wondered just who the hell I was because “smart fans” who read the Wrestling Observer were rare in Memphis at that time. I think Dutch remembered me for the same reason he’s been so successful in the business: He pays attention; he notices things. He’s not too caught up in himself, or his character for that matter, to notice what’s going on around him. If those sound like qualities for a being a good booker, that’s because they are. And, as it turns out, the Dutchman’s a hell of good storyteller and author to boot. I hope to have an interview with Dutch down the road after I finish reading his book. Until then, check out his Web site, where you can check out a few free chapters online and order The World According to Dutch. Edited by Mark James (of the wonderful Memphis Wrestling History site) and Ric Gross, the book has 32 chapters covering 270-plus pages as well as dozens of never-before-seen photos—a virtual wrestling history lesson.