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

April 13th, 2010 2 comments

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.

 

Part III of the Dutch Mantell Interview: Memphis Wrestling Psychology 101

April 9th, 2010 3 comments

Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances (i.e., real life), the final installment (which will now be Part IV) of the Dutch Mantell interview will be posted, appropriately enough, on Monday night. Until then, enjoy Part III, where we get further insight into Dutch’s thoughts on what made Memphis wrestling really click and his opinions on the strengths of Vince McMahon and WWE today. Again, this interview merely scratches the surface on the stories you’ll find at Dutch’s blog, The World According to Dutch, where you can order his entertaining book of the same. Trust a longtime Memphis wrestling fan when I say it’s one hell of a read. Dutch’s site also includes big news about his wrestling school, which is now open for enrollment. Don’t miss this opportunity to be trained by one of the all-time masters of wrestling psychology.

SCOTT BOWDEN: Regarding the passion of the fans, in my experiences, the fans in Nashville were intense—almost scary. In your book, you have some amazing stories about the fans in Puerto Rico. How did the fans in Memphis and Nashville back in your day compare to those in Puerto Rico?

DUTCH MANTELL: If you think those Nashville fans were bad, buddy, you’ve never been around those Puerto Rican fans when it was hot. They would literally try to hurt ya. In Nashville, if you filled up the building, you’re talking about maybe 2000–2500 people.  In Puerto Rico, we’d have 15,000.  I literally had to fight through the crowd. Now I had heard of throwing a body block to get through a crowd before—but this was my first experience of fighting to the ring, before the match even started!

Whippin 'em into a frenzy: Dutch makes the long walk to the ring in Puerto Rico with his trusty "shoo-baby."

BOWDEN: They’re riled up before you’ve even done anything. [laughs]

MANTELL: And drunk! So, just think of the worst redneck bar you’ve ever been in and multiply it by fifteen thousand—one mistake and you’re dead.  Our ‘security’ was scared to death, which didn’t exactly make me like my chances. I mean, I’m fighting to the ring…then we have a wild match. I looked up at the 14,000 or 15,000 people—it’s packed—and I’m admiring my handiwork. The security couldn’t even leave ringside ‘cause they had to stay there to keep those crazy bastards at bay. And I’m staring at all these people thinking, ‘My God, now, about fifteen minutes from now, I’m gonna to have to fight my way back through them son of a bitches again, ‘cause I doubt if they were going anywhere.’ So, the match is over, and we’d lost the match, but they didn’t care if we had won or lost.

BOWDEN: They’re still pissed off.

MANTELL: As I said in my book, it’s amazing the foreign languages you can learn in a crisis situation.”  At that moment, I learned a very valuable Spanish phrase from our security: ‘Nos vamos!’…which means, ‘Let’s go!’ [laughs]

BOWDEN: When you were working for Jarrett in 1980 and ’81, was there ever any tension over the on-air threats that the ICW guys like Savage, Bob Roop and Bob Orton Jr. were making toward you, Lawler, Dundee, Tojo and the Dream Machine? I believe they occasionally threatened to follow you guys on the freeway and show up at ringside—I think they even made their way toward the ring one night in Lexington. Hell, Savage even confronted poor ol’ Lance Russell and Dave Brown in the parking lot outside Rupp Arena.

MANTELL: We didn’t care, to tell you the truth. I mean, it wasn’t between us.  It was between Lawler and Jerry Jarrett and the Poffos. I just didn’t want those guys coming to storm the ring at me, like I had something to do with it. Then we would have had a hell of a fight. ‘Cause, I always had my bullwhip handy and I always had the handle of it, so I just had to reach down and reverse it…I’d have used the handle. I think all that bravado was just them trying to make their show.  That was fine with me.  I don’t think they ever made it into the building; security would stop them. But they’d be outside and then security would have to tell them to leave.  It would be a big mess. But they actually did get noticed by doing that, because that was completely brand new in those days—really, kind of unheard of.  Savage did wait outside of gym, here in Hendersonville or Goodlettsville, and actually got into a physical fight with Dundee.

BOWDEN: Savage broke his jaw, didn’t he?

MANTELL: Yeh, I think so. I don’t know how Randy got out of it.  I’m sure he got charged.  He punched him, and he did hurt him.

BOWDEN: One of the best wrestling stories I’ve ever heard is in your book, about Savage and the dog—the Macho Man didn’t come out OK in that one.

MANTELL: No, that dog got the best of him!

BOWDEN: OK, in the summer of ’81, you’re still a heel. Dundee and the Dream Machine are in a feud with Onita and Fuchi, managed by Tojo.  You came to their rescue on Monday night, and on Saturday morning Lance Russell called you out to explain yourself.  It was a riveting promo—you divulged that you are a Vietnam Vet. I’ll never forget these words—you saw a little boy drop his American flag in horror when he saw the Japanese triple teaming Dundee, so you stormed the ring.  The part about Vietnam was a shoot, right?

MANTELL: Yeah…I was there.

BOWDEN: Shortly after that promo, you were over huge as a babyface.

MANTELL: Well, here’s what I think my formula was: There was nothing to disbelieve in my interview at all.  I’m saying it in a calm, collected manner, and I’m talking to you like you speak to someone on the telephone through that camera lens, I’m bringing them in and getting them to understand. See, I was getting them to connect with me. I’m getting them to feel something for Dutch.  Because if they didn’t, they don’t give a damn. They don’t care. Vietnam was still kinda, not fresh, but it still had some deep wounds—a lot of people died there.  Everybody was kind of affected by that war.  But, it was something, especially during like my age group.  I was like 29, 30, I guess, about that time.  But, yet, you still had mothers and fathers whose sons had served there.  Or their fathers had served there, or their brothers.  So when I got to talking about Vietnam, they relate to that.  Then when I talk about the American flag, and the Japanese, and the whole premise of it—that I didn’t go to save Dundee for Dundee’s sake. I didn’t go to save Dream Machine just for his sake. I went to save them because those foreigners were beating up Americans. Basically trying to take over and do whatever they wanted to do in our country. I think it kinda worked.

BOWDEN: I’ll say, Dutch. You had a pained look on your face that really told a story and you never raised your voice. It looked like it was a struggle for you to bare your soul. But that’s the way people talk.

MANTELL: I didn’t scream.  I didn’t holler, saying, “I don’t know if I’m telling this right, man.” Y’know, about six months ago somebody said to me that this was one of my best interviews they’d ever seen.  I don’t think it’s the best interview anybody’s ever seen, but I think it came from the heart.  I think people felt what I wanted them to feel. I feel my book was written with that same tone.

BOWDEN: Oh, you’re a born storyteller, Dutch. The book is like having a conversation with Dutch Mantell, and that’s a big compliment.

MANTELL: Well, thank you.

BOWDEN: I think another reason the fans liked you and respected you was because you were always straight with them. You often said, ‘I’m not here to kiss babies; I’m here to win titles.’  And, even though you were both babyfaces, you got into this program with Steve Keirn for the Mid-America belt, and they were really heated matches, which I guess set the table for the babyface rivalry you had with Lawler. You were very unique for the time in Memphis: that ‘tweener, kind of anti-establishment, blue-collar straight-shooter.

MANTELL: Well, again, I think the people kinda connected with me because when I went out there, I laid it out. I said, ‘Hey, Steve. I’m gonna go out there, and we’re friends in the back, but I’m gonna try to beat your butt.’ Now, I didn’t say I was gonna beat your butt, I said I’m going to try. And Lance or somebody says, ‘Well, you threw the first punch.’ I said, ‘Yeh, I threw the first punch ‘cause he had the same opportunity. He could throw it too if he wanted to. It’s just that I got it in first.’  I mean, I’m just trying to win this thing. I think the people realized it was like when you played football—you knocked the hell out of somebody. Your opponent would be your buddy afterwards, but you try to take him out when you’re on that field or in the ring. Then, you come away and say, ‘Oh, man, love you, man, no hard feelings.’

BOWDEN: It’s rare to find that kind of storytelling in wrestling today, although there was that same kind of magic in the Shawn Michaels and Undertaker deal, which is not surprising because those guys from the territory system. And ‘Taker, of course, is a graduate of the University of Dutch. But yeah, it’s rare.

MANTELL: That’s because I think a lot of stuff is not explained in wrestling today. And it’s largely not explained ‘cause a lot of people can’t talk. You know, I’ve been in some promotions, and they say, ‘We’ll have this guy say….’  And I interrupt, ‘The guy can’t talk.’ They say, ‘Yeh, but we can get him to say this.’ I say, ‘I don’t care what you have him say. It’s not what he’s saying, it’s how he’s being received by the people listening.’ If the people, the fans, don’t believe you, you know, then I don’t give a damn—you could be the greatest talker in the world—but, if the people perceive it’s a lie or B.S., I don’t care what believable words you use, it’s not going to work

BOWDEN: Right. You, Lawler and Dundee all had a way of making all the wild and wooly Memphis action make sense. And, of course, Lance and Dave had credibility.

MANTELL: They did. And the deal with Keirn was good because I didn’t worry if I came off like a heel. You know what I mean? I could be a heel for that deal, and then if I got beat, I’d get up, but before I would leave, I would shake Keirn’s hand. That was for me, that was for Dutch. Because what I always knew was that you may be working for….hmmm…what did Jarrett call his promotion…Championship Wrestling? What was it?

BOWDEN: Championship Wrestling, yeah.

MANTELL: Yeh, I didn’t know what the heck it was. But that’s a brand, right?

BOWDEN: Sure.

MANTELL: OK, so it’s a brand. But at the same time, Dirty Dutch was a brand, too. So no matter what I did, I still had to kind of protect my brand—didn’t matter whether I win or lose. I didn’t have a problem with that. But I did want to protect the brand.

BOWDEN: The following year in ’82, you were able to stay babyface despite the fact that you jumped Bill Dundee on TV because you wanted a match for the Mid-America belt. You carefully explained that because Ric Flair was in the studio that day saying he was going to wrestle the Southern champion at a later date, you wanted to hold some kind of belt just in case the Southern champion ‘gets in a car wreck,’ with the notion that the Mid-America champ would probably take his place. You compared it to a card game and playing your cards right. I think the fans understood—you’re looking for a match for the World champion, nothing personal.

MANTELL: It’s a matter of presentation and how it’s presented. I came out there for a reason. I forgot how I explained it now, but whatever I said it made sense. I was positioning.

BOWDEN: That made sense.

MANTELL: I think I’d held off Jimmy Hart so Dundee could win the thing to begin with, so I said, ‘Well, the way I look at it, I helped you win the belt, so I’m, like, really the co-holder of the thing, you know.’

BOWDEN: Right. ‘You didn’t win the belt. We won the belt!’ I remember that.

MANTELL: ‘Yeah, Dundee, it’s really only half yours, really.’ And nobody told me to say that. I just went out there, and I put it terms that you could understand. A good heel often has a point but he’s just so overbearing about it.

BOWDEN: Yeh. But he believes what he’s saying is right—and maybe he is–but these stupid people can’t see it!

MANTELL: If you’re in an argument with somebody and you do have a point, but you just stay on it and stay on it and stay on it. Well, that makes you a heel. ‘Oh, just shut the hell up already!’ But, you stay on it; you really do have a point, but the way you’re going about it sort of invalidates you, and I think that’s what came across in the interview with Dundee.

BOWDEN: Now, in 1982 a young manager tried to sign you to a contract to become the first wrestler to take under his wing. Well, I guess you would have been his second, because, I believe, he managed Sherri Martel first. I’m talking about Jim Cornette. What did you think when Jerry Jarrett made his young photographer a heel manager, and did you envision that Jimmy would go far?

MANTELL: Oh, I did. I thought Jimmy was a natural from day one. I really think he was a natural because he was a serious student of wrestling. And he studied wrestling like most people study map books. If you want to be a mathematician, you know, you studied the craft. And he, you know, even talking to him today, he’s got thousands and thousands and thousands of hours on of footage on DVD that’s transferred from VHS. But, I always thought Jimmy would do well. I always liked Jimmy.You’re talking about the interview we did when I tore our picture up and gave it back to him?

BOWDEN: Yeh, the deal was that you gave him a shot to manage you in match against Lawler for the Southern title. You guys had the picture made to commemorate the pairing. And yet you still managed to remain a babyface. You were just looking for an edge.

MANTELL: I gave him a shot, and the people didn’t like it. So I was gonna give him a little test on TV, because I said the people would accept him better if they knew more about him. So, I gave him a little pop quiz and, of course, he answered the way he should have answered it, as a heel. And I think that Jimmy just managed me, like, two or three weeks. I remember I told him never to get into the ring and he ended up getting in the ring against my wishes.

BOWDEN: That’s right. You were working with Lawler at the Coliseum and referee Jerry Calhoun was bumped. You crawled over and covered Lawler and, in a moment where Cornette’s inexperience showed, he got into the ring and picked up the referee so he could make the count. But Calhoun looks up and sees Cornette in the ring calls for the DQ. And you fired him on the spot. That was a heck of a finish.

MANTELL: That kind of made sense too.

BOWDEN: Oh, yeah, ‘cause, obviously, Jimmy got a little excited and overzealous, which a young guy would do in that position. How often do you see something in the ring today, be it a moment in a match or an amazing promo, that reminds you of those Memphis days?

MANTELL: I watched Shawn Michael’s retirement speech, and I don’t even hardly watch wrestling. But, to me, that’s what wrestling is. It’s what wrestling could still be, because you felt that. They gave him time, the announcers shut the hell up. They let him have the whole moment, and that’s what WWE is famous for. And that camera was right in his face. You know, you saw the people crying in the crowd. And he didn’t go through it in three minutes either. He went out there, and he took his time. They went to eleven minutes past the hour. I’ll bet they did a monster rating.  I mean, how many retirement speeches you gonna get from Shawn Michael?

BOWDEN: Well, I think that was his third, but I see your point. It was incredible. I had goosebumps.

MANTELL: That’s because you felt it. To me, when I was there, the WWF was like Memphis but on a bigger scale. I still think WWE—you just can’t beat ‘em. Just can’t beat ‘em. Now, you can have an alternative product, but, you can’t beat that guy. You can’t beat McMahon.

BOWDEN: They’re so far ahead of the game, Dutch.

MANTELL: Oh, my God. When they’re clicking, their stuff’s kinda like the old Memphis stuff used to make sense, even when you dissected it. See, that’s what I always tried to do when I was booking. I’d do something, and then I’d go back and take the holes out. I would do that because a man sittin’ there who works a 9-to-5 job or whatever, is gonna see this angle and he’s gonna go back and think about it…dissect it. And the same with a movie. Ever watch a movie and you go back and think, ‘Oh, that doesn’t make sense ‘cause this happened.’? That’s because the writer or director didn’t take the holes out. So, if you take the holes out, now you’ve gotta a viable scenario that should make you money. And that’s the key word: should.

BOWDEN: Dutch, I don’t think it’s just me, but that’s what TNA cannot do. There are so many holes. I’m often watching iMPACT, thinking, ‘Huh? What?’

MANTELL: Well…I’m not going to say anything bad about TNA.

BOWDEN: I know, Dutch. I know.

MANTELL: Jeff Jarrett’s my friend. I like Dixie, and I know how hard creative is.

BOWDEN: I understand.

MANTELL: Like I said, it’s a thankless job, and I’m just praying, really, not only for them, but I’m praying for the health of the wrestling business…that they can kick this in gear and give Vince a run. I think Vince wants a run. Vince has done this for nearly forty years. And he was at his height when the NWO was trying to kick his ass. He says, ‘I’ll kill you bastards. You want it? Here I’m comin’.’ And, boy, he cranked it into gear, and he went after them.

BOWDEN: And he created new stars.

MANTELL: Even though he may not take the competition seriously, if TNA becomes more successful, I think he’d take it as a personal affront. A personal challenge. And I think that’s how he wants it too. He wants to get excited.

BOWDEN: He wants a fight.

MANTELL: Hell, yeh, he wants to fight, ‘cause he’s a hell of a fighter. Think what you want to about Vince, but to me, he was always a gentleman. Now, I didn’t really have that much interconnection with him, and I’ve heard he can be a real son of a bitch. But then I guess people said that about me too. But whereas you always get their side of the story, you never hear Vince’s side, ‘cause he keeps it quite. I had no problem with him at all. I’m just glad he gave me a job.

BOWDEN: Besides the money and enjoying the creative end, was it fun for you in Memphis…like, say, on Saturday mornings on live TV?

Another one bites the Dutch: the King makes his point with a piledriver.

MANTELL: Seriously, it’s according to how drunk I got the night before. [laughs] Because, hey, I may have gone to bed at…well…I’m not gonna tell you what time I got in bed, ‘cause my wife may read this interview. But say I got in bed late, late…late. And you had to be at TV at nine o’clock. So I’d get there at 9 in the morning, maybe I hadn’t even gone to bed yet, really. And it could be hectic right before 11, and I remember, I told Lawler once I was worried about this or that working out right on TV. He says to me, ‘Dutch, let me say something. We’re gonna go live at 11 and we’re gonna go off the air at 12:30. I don’t care what happens to tell you the truth.’ And he’s right. You’re gonna get to the same spot regardless. It may not be the spot you want to be in, but you get there. It’s like doing an angle—there are a lot of different ways to get there to tell the same story. So, yeah, it was a lot fun on Saturday mornings but it was hectic—sometimes I’d get the interview 5 minutes before I was supposed to go out there on live TV: ‘You’re working with so and so Monday night.’

BOWDEN: That was my experience in 1994 as a manager as well. Very nerve-wracking. So Jarrett or Lawler would lay out the TV…

MANTELL: Jerry Jarrett, he’d lay it out sometimes, Lawler would lay it out sometimes, Dundee would lay it out sometimes. Sometimes I’d lay it out for somebody else. So, we actually had a crew…we all did the job at one time. Especially me, Lawler and Dundee. We had all done the job. So, when I’d give something, an idea, to Dundee, well, he had it. I’d give it to Lawler, he had it, or, he gave it to me, and I had it. I think Jerry Jarrett was very smart. He surrounded himself with experienced guys. From early on in that run in the ‘80s, I realized that Jarrett really knew what he was doing. Memphis TV was wild, and I did like it.

BOWDEN: Yeah, and the influence of that show was far-reaching.

MANTELL: Oh, it was. It was.

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

April 7th, 2010 No comments

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.