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Part IV of the Dutch Mantell Interview: The Dutchman reveals the characters and personalities behind the magic of Memphis Wrestling

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In the final part of our interview, Dutch dishes on everything from Andy Kaufman to “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant to the infamous Last Sellout for Memphis Wrestling at the Mid-South Coliseum.

SCOTT BOWDEN: In your book, you tell the story of how “Stone Cold” Steve Austin got his name from you. When the Austin character began to evolve into this kind of “stone cold” outlaw only interested in titles and making paydays–to hell with making friends–I instantly thought of you and your Lone Wolf character in Memphis. Did you see a lot of yourself in Stone Cold?

DUTCH MANTELL: Well, I saw how he talked, and he’s just the type of guy that’s not gonna have a lot of close friends anyway. Hell, he would speak his mind in the dressing room, things like that. And I probably gave him, not necessarily the template for Stone Cold, because I think it was basically him anyway, but I think I fostered that belief that he could open up his options with that kind of character.

BOWDEN: Can you elaborate on that?

MANTELL: Well, say you’re a straight-up babyface. And we’ve got 20 guys in the territory, taking it back 20 to 20 years ago. With 20, then we probably have 10 good guys and 10 bad guys–funny how it always seemed to break down that way, ain’t it? [laughs] So if you’re a good guy, you only had 10 guys you could work with.  But, if you were a ‘tweener, then you got 19 other guys to work with. If you were the only one there who was a ‘tweener, you were in a unique position to make money. Again, I may have put that idea in Austin’s head, but he took it and ran with it, like a lot of my University of Dutch alumni. That character, in many ways, was Austin. He told the story recently on Fox News about how I gave him the name

BOWDEN: But he didn’t mention your name, did he?

MANTELL: Hell no. He’s probably afraid I’m gonna get over!

BOWDEN: Or expect a royalty check. I heard Jim Cornette once say that “The best wrestling personalities are the guys who basically are their true selves on camera…but with the volume turned way up.”

MANTELL: Well, he should know. He’s one of ’em.

BOWDEN: Yes. He sure seems like an extension of that. 

MANTELL: The only exception to that rule, I think, would be Handsome Jimmy.  Because Handsome Jimmy in the dressing room, he doesn’t say anything, man.  He was always whispering the whole time.  But, then, he gets out there, and he’s so high energy. And I’m guessing that may be his real persona, but he just goes out on camera and turns it on and way up. But I do think if you keep a guy’s character to more or less who he is, you’re probably better off in the long run.  Look at Savage. ‘Cause that has to be more than his character, because he wouldn’t be able to keep it up 24 hours a day like he does.  I think that has to be kind of the way he really is. 

BOWDEN: Dave Brown told me that Valiant was remarkable in that it he would be a normal, soft-spoken guy and then he’d walk through the curtain and “explode.”

MANTELL: Yeh, he would!

BOWDEN: And he really was the one guy whom Jarrett could count on to carry the territory on the babyface side when Lawler was hurt.

MANTELL: He was a guy that got your attention.

BOWDEN: Do you find that that’s there a dearth of entertaining, distinguishable characters in the business today?

MANTELL: Absolutely. Back in the day, we had characters, man.  Now, not so much. You don’t have Abdullah the Butchers.  You don’t have the Brodys, and you don’t have the Stan Hansens, and you don’t have the Lawlers or the Flair in his prime. You know, the Hacksaw Duggans, the LeDucs, even the Kimalas. What you’ve got now is, more or less, a clone factory. So many of the guys look exactly the same. They mostly wear short trunks and the boots and they’ve got good bodies, they’re about 5’10” or whatever they are. I don’t care if they’re black, white or Asian or Puerto Rican–they somehow manage to still all look the same…almost like sophomores in college. You don’t have many of those big, wild son of a bitches coming through that screen at you. Used to be, it was a comic book come to life.

BOWDEN: Funny you should say that because when I was a kid, my two favorite things were wrestling and comic books. And to me, they were so closely connected. Look at the Memphis heels in ’81 battling Lawler: You, LeDuc, Austin Idol, Ron Bass, Crusher Blackwell, Valiant, Dream Machine, Kevin Sullivan, Killer Karl Krupp, Tojo and the Funks. It was almost like a villains gallery from Marvel Comics or DC. With the weasel Jimmy Hart–the Joker–in their corner.

MANTELL: Absolutely. You’ve got Hart and his men against Lawler, guys like Handsome Jimmy and LeDuc. I always loved how LeDuc was always like, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” Then Valiant: “Woo, Mercy, daddy!” The Dream Machine: “Bawlin,’ squalin,’ climbing the wallin, hometown jubilee!” To a kid, man, that’s entertaining. But you’ve gotta get those kids paying attention to it.  If they’re excited, they’ll make their parents bring them and they’ll buy your stuff.  And that what Vince is so good at doing–reeling them in from the cradle to the grave.

BOWDEN: You were with Watts and still occassionaly making shots with Jarrett when McMahon started expanding his circus tent nationwide and picking off local talent. What did you think about it at the time?

MANTELL: That he was putting together an all-star team. He picked up Hogan from Minneapolis, and off he went.

BOWDEN: Taking Junkyard Dog obviously hurt Watts, and he never seemed to get over it, always trying to create a new African-American star.

MANTELL: And Jim Duggan, Butch Reed, Jake Roberts. Eventually, he got Dusty. So, when you’re watching in different parts of the country, say in Louisiana, fans say, “Oh, there’s JYD.”  Then “Look–Jim Duggan!” Well, now McMahon has a built-in local connection, especially in Mid-South. He took the top-tier guys from virtually every promotion. And then the promotion would try to fill it with second-tier guys, and the people picked up on it.

The Last Sellout

BOWDEN: Oh, yeah, the fans could smell it a mile away. You know, George Wells is not exactly a substitute for Junkyard Dog. I think one reason why Jarrett was able to fend McMahonn off longer than others is because Lawler didn’t go in ’84, ’85, or ’86. Vince would promote in Memphis and draw half of what Jarrett was doing. It wasn’t until the late ’80s, maybe 1990 that McMahon started drawing here. Then he reached his deal with the Jarretts and eventually secured the services of Lawler as a talent. In fact, in 1986, Jarrett booked what would be the infamous last sellout of the Mid-South Coliseum: you and Lawler against Dundee and Landell.

MANTELL: Yep.

BOWDEN: That TV was one of the best of shows of the era, in my opinion. That’s what a wrestling show should be: riveting drama, with a heated, personal issue involving parties whom the people believe in. And that show sold tickets, in this case, all 11,365-plus of ’em.

MANTELL: Yeah, Landell and Dundee beat up Jeff Jarrett and then they tried to take out Jerry Jarrett’s eye–his only good eye. And I came out of the shower, with the shampoo in my hair, to make the save and I said, ‘Let’s call Lawler.”

BOWDEN: That’s one of those little details I miss–the guy running out of the shower to make the save. Anyway, yeah, it had to be a strong scenario like that because Lawler had dropped a loser-leaves-town bout–they couldn’t just bring him back.

MANTELL: Yeah, finally, Eddie Marlin said something like, ‘I don’t give a damn–let’s call him.’

BOWDEN: Right, because that was Eddie’s grandchild and son-in-law who had just been beaten up by those thugs.

MANTELL: So he said, ‘I’m breaking the stipulation–by God, let ’em sue me!’ A old man got mad. ‘I’ll deal with the lawsuit later. Right now, you’re gettin’ your ass kicked!’

BOWDEN: And that was right after Jarrett had done a tearful promo because he was unable to defend his own son. Man, that reasonated with the fans. After the sellout, you came back with more huge crowds in the 9,000 range, including a legendary bout that tape traders everywhere covet a complete copy: the hour-long-plus Texas Death Match that went 26 falls. Amazing.

MANTELL: That one’s a hidden gem. Toward the end, I made it obvious that I was letting them pin me. In the post-match interview, Lance asked me what that was about, and I chalked it up to strategy, ‘Well, I let ’em pin me at that point, so I could get the 30-second rest period between falls. Remember, falls don’t count. It was a matter of survival.’ Made sense.

BOWDEN: Jarrett had some big crowds after that feud–Lawler vs. Idol and Rich, and the AWA title win over Hennig–but your deal with Lawler, Dundee and Landell was the last sellout at the Mid-South Coliseum.

MANTELL: The last one…end of an era. We sold out the Coliseum several times in the early ’80s…sold out Louisville…you couldn’t sell out Lexington ’cause it seated about 20,000 but we filled up one side of it with 10,000 people…had people turned away in Nashville. At one time, the wrestlers were the most over celebrities of any kind in Memphis–and we didn’t even know it. We didn’t even know how over we were because we were always on the road.

BOWDEN: That’s true. I can’t help but think of the merchandising money you guys could have made. When I was a kid, I wanted more than T-shirts and pictures, but that’s all you had. Hell, I used to convert my “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” action figures into Memphis wrestlers. I asked my mom once if Jerry Lawler would ever have an action figure and she said, ‘Like that’ll ever happen.’ Man, was she wrong.

MANTELL: Yeah, that’s Vince did. He knew there was a market out there. Lawler was good at that, too, with his shirts and records, but most of us didn’t see it.

BOWDEN: Speaking of celebrities, another guy who packed ’em in, but never quite sold out the Coliseum was Andy Kaufman. You’ve got a great chapter in your book about Kaufman and his feud with Foxie. It was only recently that Lawler told me those initial bouts with females from the audience were shoots [unscripted].

MANTELL: Oh, yeah, the people hated him. Andy was the ultimate heel. I think the angle between him and Lawler was one of the greatest of all time. And I found out later that Kaufman had such a respect for the wrestling business. You got celebrities now who are involved who couldn’t care less about it. Kaufman didn’t even cash his checks.

BOWDEN: That’s right. And Lawler told me that was one of the perplexing things in the beginning: ‘What do you pay a guy who stars on the top-rated comedy on TV?’ Jerry also told me that Kaufman always called him ‘Mr. Lawler’ as well.

MANTELL: A lot of respect for this business. That’s what won him over to me. He was kind of aloof, quiet in the dressing room. I realize now that he was probably in awe of us. He was really watching us and how we interacted…he was fascinated by us just as much as we were by him…probably more so. Great guy. He loved doing it. In comedy clubs, he’s performing in front of 100 people or so…and here he’s in front of 10,000.

BOWDEN: And they all want to kill him because of his performance! I think he felt that wrestling was theatre as its finest.

MANTELL: He was great at it. I had a lot of respect for Andy.

BOWDEN: The beauty of it is that had Andy done an angle in New York with Vince McMahon Sr. like he wanted, it wouldn’t have gotten over nearly as strong as it did in the South: Looking down on us rednecks beacause ‘I’m from Hollywood.’

MANTELL: Probably not.

BOWDEN: Dutch, I could talk Memphis wrestling all day, but tell me about your new wrestling school–the University of Dutch.

A B.A. in hard knocks--no B.S.: Prof. Mantell will take you to school.

MANTELL: Well, I’ve heard so many guys ask me how to get in the business. They tell me this or that wrestling school ripped them off. These guys are giving ’em good money for a down payment and then they close up or take off. Or they get into a class and it’s just a bunch of guys standing in the ring with no instruction. I hate that. If you’re gonna take somebody’s money, then teach them something. I’ve got two classes: one for beginners and the other for guys who’ve been in this for a while . The second format is more of a seminar for guys who have been wrestling on the independent scene two, five, even 10 years. Well, that window is rapidly shutting because this is a young man’s business. I take these guys who have been working a while, evaluate them and tell them what they need to do to up their game. Try this gimmick, try this character–look different. Stand out. Find out what’s in your personality that makes you unique. I cover presence, timing, psychology, character, gimmicks–you name it. These are important things they’re not gonna learn on the independent circuit.

BOWDEN: Sounds like skills and aspects of their craft they might hone in past in the territories, but they don’t exist today.

MANTELL: That’s exactly right. And you didn’t just learn in the ring back then. Y’know, I’d take Austin, Kane or Undertaker on the road with me and that’s where the schooling really started–in the car. That’s where mine started. Guys today don’t get that. They have nowhere to go to get that. So I give them that opportunity. There are some good schools out there: Harley Race runs one, Booker T, Lance Storm. Mine will be open this May. And if you’re gonna learn, you might as well learn from one of the best.

BOWDEN: Dutch, I hope you enjoyed this as much I did.

MANTELL: Oh, I did. Y’know, a lot of times when people interview me, they’re not familiar with the Memphis territory, which I find astounding. I had a story recently on my blog about how Bubba Ray Dudley told me recently that he finally saw some Memphis stuff and he was blown away. I think a lot of people are just now discovering Memphis through YouTube.

BOWDEN: Hard to believe that a guy from ECW had never seen Memphis.

MANTELL: Hey, that’s where it all started. I respect all the hard work of those guys, but ECW was Memphis all over again. And ECW didn’t draw anywhere near as well as Memphis did. Heck, collectively, Memphis would put nearly 40,000 fans in the building a month, whereas Madison Square Garden did 20,ooo people a month. It’s like Jim Cornette says, ‘Heck, if you missed Memphis, you missed the heart of this business.'”

BOWDEN: Amen.

For more information on the University of Dutch–now open for enrollment–check out The World According to Dutch, where you’ll also find ordering instructions for Dutch’s must-read book of the same.

 

  1. William Burnett – Little Rock
    April 13th, 2010 at 08:30 | #1

    Scott —

    Thanks to you & Dutch for taking a lot of us dowm “memory lane”.

    For the rest of the readers … too bad you only have the written word. You missed a lot. Try to locate the videos & find out what pro wrestling was like before it was turned into “sports entertainment”.

  2. Old School Sammy
    April 15th, 2010 at 13:05 | #2

    Scott–the Dutch stuff was pure gold, but dammit you always make we wish for those old days (not a bad thing)

    Sammy

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