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Part II: Dutch Mantell gives you the dirt on Memphis wrestling

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In Memphis, even the good guys wore black hats.

SCOTT BOWDEN: Were you involved in the booking process with Lawler and Jarrett at that point in ’82?

DUTCH MANTELL: I booked Memphis a couple of times, and, you know, Lawler and Jarrett used to throw it back and forth. We’d book it on the way back from Memphis, while it was still fresh in your mind…we’d book next Saturday in the car.

BOWDEN: Good way to pass the time.

MANTELL: We’d take about two hours, and we’d book that whole 90-minute show. Eventually, I helped book it a lot of times on the way back to Nashville.

BOWDEN: Did you enjoy that process, Dutch, the creative end with Lawler and Jarrett?

MANTELL: I enjoy booking when you have a set crew…a limited crew. So, say you had 16 guys–that’s always better for me. I think it’s better to book with a limited number of characters than to have, like, W.W.E., they got, like, 70. Because I ain’t gonna use all those guys. You just can’t do it. If you’ve got a football game, you can’t play everybody. You gotta put your best players, which means a lot of players got to sit on the bench, but, if they’re sittin’ on the bench in a wrestling show, then they’re dead to ya. They’re just dead. Because they’re not like substitutes. You put them in the game, but nobody knows ‘em. So, if you sit ‘em on the bench, they’re dead. It’s one of those things in booking…it’s a whole different mindset.

BOWDEN: It often seems like the booker gets all the blame if things aren’t going well, despite the strength of his crew or lack thereof.

MANTELL: That’s right. Let’s say Jerry Jarrett’s booking Memphis, and they are selling out with Mantell and Lawler, so it’s “Man, that Mantell and Lawler are selling out in Memphis.” But let’s say we’ve got the same matches, and we’re not drawing. It’s, “Man, that Jerry Jarrett’s bombing up there.” The only time the booker gets all the fame is if it’s not doing well, but he rarely gets all the credit when he does do well.

BOWDEN: As good as Lawler and Jarrett were, they traded off the booking duties every six months, right?

MANTELL: Yep, they’d trade back and forth. And, to me, I thought that was great. That prevented them from burning out, because for six months, you can sit back, and all of a sudden, you can watch it and study it without all that pressure on you. Then you can step in, and, boom, you hit your best ideas right away. And your best ideas can carry you for six months.

BOWDEN: Lawler told me the basic philosophy at that time in Memphis was “personal issues draw money.” But what were the differences, as subtle as they might have been, between Jarrett and Lawler when each had the book?

MANTELL: Well, Jerry liked to, he did more gimmick stuff.

BOWDEN: You’re talking about Lawler?

MANTELL: Yeh. I mean, Lawler. He did more gimmick stuff and Jarrett did more believable stuff, more subtle stuff. It was a different, it was what they call, I guess, a paradigm shift. They wouldn’t really be that different. Their philosophy was the same. It’s just that the execution was different. But, still, you know, the end result was, now, you gotta draw money. Now Lawler booked for a while, and then, you know, just like anything else, if you get a steady diet of something for so long, everything’s gonna get old. And so, when Jarrett would step back in, he would come in with a completely different mindset and change everything around and people were ready for that.

Fresh out of the nut house in Bolivar, (Sonny) Rough House Fargo joins Lawler in his fight against Hart, Idol and Mantell

BOWDEN: People talk about how business suffered in 1980 in Memphis, with Lawler out with a broken leg. But if you go back and look at the attendance figures, they had some huge houses. Jarrett turned Valiant babyface and he took the muzzle off Jimmy Hart. Who knew that he could talk when he was standing next to Lawler all that time as his manager? And he ran with it. I thought 1980 was one of Jarrett’s probably most creative years, as far as doing the best with what he had and developing new talent.

MANTELL: Well, that’s when I got there.

BOWDEN: With Austin Idol as the finalists of the CWA World tag titles tournament. Supposedly you guys won a tournament at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Uh…that didn’t happen, did it? [laughs]

MANTELL: Oh, hell no! [laughs] They asked me where I wanted to say we’d won the thing, and I think I’d seen some NBA team playing basketball on TV, and I said, “Tell ’em the Spectrum.” Back then you couldn’t check stuff like that on the Internet, and the people bought it.

BOWDEN: Meanwhile, Memphis has this ready-made feud when Lawler healed, with him going after Hart.

MANTELL: Things started getting good when Lawler started coming back and limping around. They knew he was going to come back. So, he came back, I think, a month to six weeks before he actually started wrestling. And they drew some big houses.

BOWDEN: Just his appearing at ringside, I think the attendance one week was 4000. The following week he sent in a tape saying he was going to be at ringside to keep an eye on Hart–attendance jumped to 7500. Seventy-five hundred people in the building–just by his mere presence at ringside. And Lawler really didn’t like Hart’s “they shoot horses” comment, which made it all really believable.

MANTELL: No, he didn’t–he did not like that. [laughs] He told me that. He was sitting home and watching it and, you know, Jimmy Hart just disrespected him on TV. I don’t know if Jerry’s feelings were hurt or was mad that they didn’t consult him, or I don’t know what the problem was there. But, he didn’t like it at all. And when he came back, well, he’s always been a great talker. Hart was a great talker. Now, Hart would really run down Lawler on his interviews. Oh, it was funny, and I would laugh at that in the back. Lawler would kind of get hot, but he wouldn’t say anything about it, and then he might stiff Hart and then Jimmy’s feelings were hurt. But they did great. I liken it to the Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote.

BOWDEN: Yes! [laughs]

MANTELL: That’s exactly what it was. Because that ol’ Wile E. Coyote could never quite get that Road Runner, and boy, you couldn’t kill Jimmy Hart. You put him in a wheelchair. You put him in a body cast. You burn him up. You whip him with a strap. But you couldn’t kill him. He kept coming back.

BOWDEN: And the people loved to hate him.

MANTELL: I think, deep down, the people did love Jimmy Hart there. ‘Cause you couldn’t stop him. He was like a used-car salesman. Sleezy little bastard. He and Lawler drew a lot of money.

BOWDEN: Now, in February ’81, you and Idol were on top against Lawler who had recently come back from a broken leg. And, right away, you’re in a sweet spot there with Idol against Lawler and Fargo. What are your thoughts on Austin Idol, not only as a performer but also outside the ring? Was he a prima donna, as some suggest?

MANTELL: Yeah, he was pretty bad at times. But I don’t disagree with him feeling that way. I do disagree with how he handled it. I think he should have been more diplomatic; if he had been, I think he may have gone further to tell you the truth. But, he may not have wanted to go further. I didn’t know his agenda, know what I mean? But, yeh, he didn’t want to do this, and he didn’t want to do that, and blah, blah, blah. But I always got along with him pretty good. I liked Austin, you know. But, he was Lawler’s buddy. Jerry Jarrett very seldom booked him…or didn’t like booking him too much. Because Idol, sometimes you might book him, and he might show up and then again, he might not.

BOWDEN: And he can only use that “four flat tires” excuse like he did in Georgia so many times.

MANTELL: What?

BOWDEN: Oh, nothing.

MANTELL: Now, see, in those days, when you advertise something big–because Idol was a big name–and he didn’t show up, well, that pissed off your fan base; then they felt like they got ripped off, and then you couldn’t trust him. But, a worse side effect then was that the fans didn’t trust the promotion. And that would hurt you–big time hurt you. OK, if you’re going to take money from somebody, you’ve got to produce. You’ve got to give them something. You just can’t say, “Oh, this guy’s going to be here. Oops. Well, he’s not here.”

BOWDEN: In your book, you mentioned a no-show at the Coliseum–11,380 fans waiting for “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant to show up to face Kimala, who had steamrolled everyone at that point. I believe Jimmy was really sick; he passed out at the Charlotte airport prior to his flight.

MANTELL: And the only one they could put in there was me. ‘Cause that wasn’t time for them to go with Kimala vs. Lawler.  You couldn’t go there. And they put me in there. So, I expected Jerry Jarrett, since Kimala had beaten everybody else as they built him up for Lawler, he’d beat me too. Jarrett said, “No, he’s not going to beat ya, and you’re not going to beat him. We’ll throw this thing out.” And I didn’t understand, but his philosophy was this: “People are pissed off to begin with cause Jimmy’s not here. We’re gonna stick you in that ring, and if he beats you, now they’re going to be doubly pissed off.” And he was right.  Jarrett says, “We’re just kinda gonna leave ‘em happy a little bit, so I want  you to use that bullwhip on Kimala.” And I did, and the people came out of their seats. And they were happy, and it didn’t hurt Kimala a bit. So, I learned right then that you’ve got to think, first of all, you’ve got to think of your paying customers; you’ve got to think of your fans, because they’re first and foremost. Without those fans coming through the door and paying that money, paying the building rent, paying the taxes, paying the guys, paying everything. And then buying your merchandise and your concessions in the building. So, you’ve got to keep them happy. And you’ve got to keep the fans in the game. You can’t, you know, there’s some notion to put the fans on the other side of the fence and don’t even acknowledge them. Well, you can do that ‘til you go out of business. Jerry Jarrett was a big influence in my booking later on and so was Tom Renesto and even Dusty, Ole…and Bill Watts. I watched all those guys, ’cause they all had a basic philosophy and they adhered to it.

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