Tonight’s main event: Scott Bowden vs. Dutch Mantell in an Oil Trough, Texas Death Match
Below is the first part of my interview with “Dirty” Dutch Mantell. For over 90 minutes, we discussed many of the memorable angles, promos and matches of the Dutchman’s Memphis and Nashville days. Arguably the greatest athlete ever to come out of Oil Trough, Texas, Dutch 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. Those who have picked up his new book, The World According to Dutch, have discovered what his graduates already know: the Dirty Dutchman is one of the shrewdest, sharpest minds in wrestling today. He’s also a damn good storyteller and interview. We had a great time discussing the glory days of Memphis. Part One is posted tonight; look for Part Two on Wednesday night, and Part Three on Friday afternoon. As always, KFR subscribers will be notified as soon as each part is posted.
I first met Dutch in 1989, my freshman year in college. He was booking Memphis, and had built an angle involving longtime area mid-carder King Cobra and Jerry Lawler, who had recently turned heel for the first time in years. 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 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.) A few years ago, I was surprised when Dutch told me that he remembered our initial “conversation,” practically verbatim.
Scott Bowden: Well, Dutch, it’s been over 20 years since I first tried to impress you with my knowledge of the business.
Dutch Mantell: Yeah, I remember you calling me over and saying, ‘Great angle!’ or something like that. I was like, ‘What tha…? Who is this guy?’
Bowden: Yeah, I get that a lot. Man, I wish you had forgotten about that. OK, so that was in 1989, and my first memories of you in the territory were in 1980. However, I believe you first wrestled in the Memphis area as the partner of Lawler and, later, David Shultz, around 1976. What were your initial impressions of the territory?
Dutch Mantell: I didn’t like it all. Not one bit. I got there in the middle of a bad winter—seemed like it snowed every Wednesday. In those days, Tennessee was looked down upon in the wrestling business. You go to Florida and they say, ‘Oh, don’t go to Tennessee…they don’t really do wrestling there.’ I was thinking, ‘Well, it looks like the same stuff to me.’ They’d say that Tennessee had all these gimmick matches and such. But heck, to me, the Florida stuff and Tennessee stuff looked the same.
Bowden: How long had you been working under the name Dutch Mantell at that point?
Mantell: A couple of years probably.
Bowden: Buddy Fuller gave you that name from a star in the past, correct?
Mantell: Yeah. I had no idea who in the heck ‘Dutch Mantell’ was. I had gone to Knoxville, and Buddy had bought into the territory and taken over from a local promoter who was subcontracting the talent from Nick Gulas. Fuller was going to cut Gulas out completely and start his own promotion there, which he did. So I went there, and Buddy didn’t like the name Wayne Keown, and I didn’t either. So he said, ‘I tell ya what I’m going to call you, boy. I’ll call you Dutch Mantell. I said, ‘OK. I don’t care what you call me—just pay me.’ Then he told me the story about the real Dutch Mantell, who was from the Netherlands and was a wrestler who ended up in Amarillo. He helped Dory Funk Sr. foster the Texas Boys and Girls Ranch and was really a highly respected member of that community. When he died, according to a story told to me by Dory Jr. and Terry, the town had a big funeral for the guy. So, anyway, I got the name Dutch Mantell. Later, when I went to Puerto Rico, I turned it into “Dirty” Dutch. Then I got me a cowboy hat, a pancho and a bullwhip, and I invented the character “Dirty” Dutch Mantell from Oil Trough, Texas.
Bowden: And where did Oil Trough come from?
Mantell: Heck, I made it up! [laughs] I was driving through Arkansas with Ron Bass one time and saw an Oil Trough, Arkansas, so I said, ‘Heck, I’ll be from Oil Trough, Texas.’ And people would say, ‘Where is Oil Trough, Texas?’ And I’d say, ‘You know where San Angelo is?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah.’ Then I’d say, ‘It’s nowhere near that!’ And I’d walk off. Or I’d say the town made me sign an agreement when I left that said I’d never reveal where it was to avoid an Elvis-like situation in Memphis with fans and tourists wandering aimlessly taking photographs and looking for me. See…Oil Trough only had a population of three…me, Sagebrush and my cousin Crutch…and we didn’t want all that urban sprawl.
Bowden: You mentioned Nick Gulas, who was at least partially to blame for Tennessee’s reputation at the time. He was notorious for being a cheap payoff guy. Was Nick as bad as people say?
Mantell: Yeah, but heck, he was a promoter. In those days, Tennessee was known either as the bone yard or the starting place. Pretty much, if a guy couldn’t get booked anywhere else, Nick would take him. When a young guy starts out with Nick, he’s not making much money, so he says, ‘Heck, I’m never going back to that place.’
Bowden: I think you just described the feelings of a young Jack Brisco.
Mantell: And the reputation never left, even when Jerry Jarrett took over. Thing is, when Jarrett was doing well, he paid well. But when business was down, he didn’t go into his pockets, and I don’t blame him. It’s a business you’re supposed to make money in. Here’s a story about Nick. He used a lot of Mexicans, for obvious reasons. A Mexican came to him one time and said, ‘Mr. Nick, I only make $70 last week.’ Nick said, ‘Well, damn, boy, it ain’t what you make, it’s what you save!’ That’s Nick Gulas. Tennessee was always known for not paying well, but when I worked for Jerry Jarrett, I made good money, I really did.
Bowden: What were you initial impressions of Jarrett’s rising, cocky star Jerry Lawler in the late ’70s?
Mantell: I didn’t really get to know Lawler until our run in ’81 and ’82.
Bowden: That program you had with Lawler in spring 1982 produced some of the best matches of Lawler’s career, in my opinion.
Mantell: Yeah, the key was the build and how it came about. I had been a heel, he’d been a heel…and now we were both babyfaces. I was the first guy, I think, to ever pin Lawler clean when he was a babyface.
Bowden: And on his wedding day, no less! That was the rolling reverse cradle in the match at the Cooke Convention Center; that footage aired in Memphis set to ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All.” Later that night, Lawler married Paula Carruth. It made it seem more real that Lawler lost on the day he got married. Well, that is, if you can get past the fact that Lawler was even wrestling on his wedding day to begin with!
Mantell: I did it another time with a sunset flip off the top rope. The people in Memphis at that point we’re so conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to seeing some wild, crazy stuff to beat Lawler. So a simple finish like that was so old that it was new again, I guess. It helped the whole program, and the people believed it.
Bowden: I was around 11 years old at that time, and I was surprised to see so many fans in Memphis cheering you over Lawler, who was my hero at the time. In Memphis, feuds were strictly black and white: heels vs. babyfaces.
Mantell: And that’s the way it should be everywhere, even today. But every once in a while, you can hit that magic with two babyfaces in a rivalry, and that’s what happened.
Bowden: The cheers were about 50/50 for a match between you two that I saw at the Coliseum in ’82. Stunning.
Mantell: I was stunned too! When I walked out there, it was really something. The people were buzzing. We gave ‘em time to buy into it too. We gave ‘em 25, 30 minutes. And they bought it. Nobody gave us our finish. Lawler and me just sat down and did it. Now it’s all agents and bookers—hell, they don’t even have bookers…creative….writers…whatever they got. But that was Lawler and me telling a story—we told it in the ring. And we both worked our asses off. I’ll say this for Lawler: He’s damn good.
Bowden: I’m not just saying this, Dutch. I’d rate that series of matches you had with Lawler at the Coliseum in ’82 with any bouts in the country at that time. You two had amazing chemistry. How did that compare to the matches you had with Randy Savage in Nashville in 1978?
Mantell: I actually perfected that formula for getting into the psyche of Tennessee in my matches with Savage. Again, the fans were used to guys hitting each other with chairs and 2’ x 4’s, so Savage and I went out there and wrestled…with a lot of action and a lot of emotion. And we told a story. The deal with Savage started….see, business was horrible in Nashville…and we were both heels. I remember I looked at Savage in the dressing room one night and said, ‘We’re wasting our time, buddy. Heck, we ought to be wrestling each other.’ They had nobody else, in my mind, who could do anything. There weren’t many fans to begin with and those who were there had no emotion. There was nothing to sink your teeth into. So Savage and I got into it, and he’s got that wild crazy interview, and I’m kinda low key as a babyface—it worked perfect.
Bowden: And the fans responded?
Mantell: We went, in probably a four-week period, from doing about 200 people in Nashville—the building wasn’t that big— to doing about 1200 to 1400 people. It was a big, big turnaround.
Bowden: Did you know right away that Savage was special?
Mantell: Heck yeah! I’ve got the whole story in my book. When I first him, he was still developing the Macho Man character. But every time you saw Randy—I don’t care it was 6 o’clock in the morning—he was Macho Man. You saw him at midnight—he’s still Macho Man. He was always in full-blown, wide-open Macho Man mode. I think, really, Randy Poffo morphed into Randy Savage, who then morphed into Macho Man. So he had three distinct personalities. I have a great chapter in the book on Savage…some great stories. Some of my best matches were with him, Lawler and a kid named Ted Oates out of Georgia.
Bowden: Was it that feud with Savage in Nashville that set up the scenario for the fans there to rally behind you when you returned in 1982 feuding with Lawler?
Mantell: In Memphis, you say it was 50/50 that night you saw us; I say it was probably 60/40 Lawler most of time…which was still a tremendous reaction for that time. We got to Louisville and Evansville, it was about 50/50. But when we got to Nashville, buddy, it was like 80/20 for me. Lawler told me after the match in Nashville, ‘Damn, Dutch. I went to my car afterward…and I’m used to signing autographs and kissing babies…[laughs]…and they had ripped the antennae off my car!’ Lawler’s funny as hell anyway, but when he told me that, we were both really laughing. See…Lawler didn’t like Nashville and the people there knew that he kinda looked down on ‘em because he’s a Memphis boy. He used to knock Nashville really hard when he was a heel, and the people there never forgot it. So when he came to Nashville against me, they turned on him like a dog even though he was a babyface. He said, ‘Dang it, Dutch, they’re throwing stuff at me!’ [Laughs]
Bowden: Do you think it bothered Lawler to see that reaction, especially the split cheers in Memphis?
Mantell: Truthfully, I think it did bother him a bit. But he told me years later that it was the most believable angle he was ever involved in.
Bowden: As the top guy in Nashville in ’79, you also had a big match with Harley Race for the NWA World title. What did you think of Harley?
Mantell: Harley was solid. Nothing spectacular or flashy, but he was very solid. He didn’t do a lot of stuff, but what he did, he did well. I remember that match—it was at the Civic Auditorium downtown. We took it out of the Fairgrounds. It didn’t sell out…the Auditorium seated about 10,000 people, but we drew about 5,000 or 6,000 people, which for Nashville was great. Nashville was never really known as a great wrestling town…nothing like Memphis…or even Louisville. I’d rate Nashville somewhere along the lines of Evansville. Back then, if I heard what the house was in Memphis, I could predict the next week. Say Memphis did $25,000…which in those days, with those $3 seats up top, was a lot of people in there. So say we did $25,000 in Memphis, then Louisville would do about half that the following week…and then if you halved that, you’d have what Evansville and Nashville would do. So there were many weeks in Memphis in the early ’80s, the territory would make about 100 grand; it averaged about 70 grand. So if you imagine that Jerry Jarrett was just making 15% of that, he was making about 15 grand a week.
Bowden: That makes sense: the 90-minute TV aired live on channel 5, followed by the hour-long edited version that aired around the loop the following week. Naturally, what clicked in Memphis would click in the other towns.
Mantell: Right. And because that TV aired live in Memphis on Saturday and the matches were on Monday night, you’d get instant feedback on what was working and what wasn’t. If it didn’t go, you didn’t waste two or three weeks on something, you’d just cut it off and move on to something else. But if there was some interest, those people would come Monday night, and we’d say, ‘OK, we got something here.’
(Can’t wait for Part Two? Check out Dutch’s blog, where you can also order his book of the same name, The World According to Dutch. As always, clippings courtesy of Mark James over at www.memphiswrestlinghistory.com.)