Editor’s note: It was recently announced that Dennis Brent would receive the 2015 James C. Melby Historian Award at the CAC’s 50th reunion. The CAC thought that in addition to the formal announcement (which you can read here) it would be nice to hear more from Dennis himself about his rich and wonderful history within this business. As you can tell he put a lot of time and energy into his answers. We hope you enjoy.
As a writer and photographer, how do you like the advancements in publishing technology?
Publishing: I love it! The advances in desktop publishing that started in 1984 are what got me in this business in the first place. While kayfabe was still enforced and outsiders were not welcomed at all… my interest in pro wrestling, my drive to do what I enjoyed and my knowledge and attention to new technology is what opened that “magic door” for me. I had been a longtime fan of World Class Championship Wrestling ever since my family moved to Dallas in 1960, and it was the only wrestling show we got, since Dallas did not have cable yet. That was how the business worked back then — when there were territories. I spent the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s watching WCCW every week and often wondered how I could get involved with the company, without being a wrestler. But I didn’t see how that could possibly happen. So like other fans, after college I got some jobs that were interesting and I still watched WCCW every weekend and sometimes went to see the live matches at the Sportatorium with my Dad, if what happened last week on TV promised a lot of action and payback, as these main event matches were never televised.
But on May 6, 1984, I lucked into a situation that opened that “magic door” for me.
On May 6, 1984, my wife and I went to Texas Stadium to see Kerry Von Erich versus Ric Flair for the NWA World Title match (and also a Freebirds “country whipping match” against Fritz, Kevin and Mike. Fritz whipped Michael with a double upped leather strap very hard across the back, making Michael jump up and down in pain. You could see the red strap marks on his back. One thing that I was very surprised about was that they didn’t have ANY programs for sale, so my mind started buzzing about how many they could have sold and how much money they could have made, especially at maybe $2-$3 each, multiplied by the record setting crowd of 40,000-50,000 fans. I was really surprised since I wanted one! And since Kerry won the World Title finally, after several years of the Von Erich’s attempts to win it and failing to do so, due to cheating on the champion’s part, I imagine that on their way out of the stadium, many of the fans who didn’t already buy one, would have bought one as a souvenir and would try to get Kerry to sign it at the Sportatorium one Friday night.
The Sportatorium was the only venue I ever worked at that let the fans come to the ring corners and get their programs signed until the referee said it was bell time. And of course if you wanted a heel to sign your program, they tore it up! Then when Apple announced their first Macintosh in January 1984, I demo’ed one and was so impressed that I put my money down on one of the first 100 for Dallas, which were promised to Computerland, since they paid for them in advance. Apple was still a small company and needed the money to build more Macs. By that time I owned a computer software company that catered to the Radio Shack TRS-80 line of mini-computers, and my company had written some very popular software programs that Radio Shack carried in all of their 2,000 stores. We did pretty good for ten years, but nothing matched the new Macintosh that came out in early 1984, as far as producing real typeset looking lettering, graphics and creating professionally designed printed pages to create products like ads, software manuals, catalogues, books and sales flyers in my case, or even wrestling programs and magazines, if you had the need for that.
So I bought and used my first edition Macintosh, Apple’s very first LaserWriter printer, an early Epson scanner and a terrific new software program called Pagemaker to create professional looking software manual pages and magazine ads, software manuals, and disc labels (without having to use or pay an ad agency or designer) to sell software to support a now inferior computer that was eventually crushed by the Apple Macintosh and the new IBM PC that also came out in 1984, but hey, it’s all a work… If you have a new and better gimmick, you’ll get over with the fans (customers), and if you don’t change it to get back over with them, they will reject (boo) you. Radio Shack did update their computers to be PC compatible, but customers (the “fans”) wanted the real IBM system or a real Macintosh, not a Radio Shack clone, so Radio Shack ended up dropping their whole computer line after about two years of trying to get their PC clones over. But my company wrote a program where a former Radio Shack computer user could take their old TRS-80 data discs and convert them to IBM format to use in their new PC without having to retype anything at all, so Radio Shack sold a whole bunch of those, which kept my company going, but I still wondered how I could get involved with World Class, without being a wrestler myself.
One day I went to the print shop to drop off pages for a software manual for a new updated version of the program, and there were a few people ahead of me. As I was standing there looking around, I noticed that the man in front of me had bleached white hair. I leaned a bit and looked at him from the side and to my total surprise it was Percival Pringle III (Paul Bearer/William Moody)! He was picking up the programs for that night’s card at the Sportatorium! I heard the print shop guy tell him the price and they cost almost as much as they sold them for, as they were done the old school way, by setting the by type by hand, pasting blocks of text, logos, pictures and handmade strips of headlines on paper with rubber cement and then offset printing them, meaning that there were high labor costs involved besides printing charges.
I introduced myself to Percy and said I was a longtime fan and told him that I had a new kind of computer system that just came out and could do all this on the computer without rubber cementing anything and it would cost them a lot less, just printing charges and my charge for designing them, or we could split the profits, but it would be a lot cheaper for them overall either way. Percy asked a few questions and asked how far away my office was. I said not far, so he followed me to my office and I showed him how I could design the entire program on the computer screen, and after scanning some pictures, I showed him how I could place the digitized images on the page (the computer screen), move them around, change their size, cut people out and place the pictures, the text and captions anywhere on the page without rubber cementing anything. He laughed and said, “Oh my, that’s amazing!” and said he’ll talk to Fritz.
The next Monday Fritz called me (man, was I surprised)! to verify what Percy had told him, that the programs would cost less than half of what they were now paying. He asked me if I could handle it week to week. I said, “Yes sir”. Then he asked if I was familiar with who was feuding with whom, and in general if I knew what was going on in the TV show, and I said, “Yes sir, I watch every week and go to the matches sometimes, especially the big shows at the Cotton Bowl and Texas Stadium”. Then he said, “Okay, can you come to my ranch tomorrow morning so we can talk about this”? I said, “Yes sir”. Then he said. “Okay, I’ll see you at my house at eight o’clock. I’m in Edom, a little town in East Texas. Here are the directions and the exit number off the highway,” and he gave me the info. He lived in a ranch house on a big plot of land in a very small city about 125 miles from Dallas, way in East Texas almost half way to Louisiana! But by 8am??
But I said I said, “Yes sir” and wrote the directions down carefully and my 25 year career in the Pro Wrestling business had begun. I think Fritz was testing me to see if I would be late with a lame excuse or to show how much I really wanted to do this, so I got up at 5am, stopped at 7-11 to get some coffee and a donut and hit the road. I got to his ranch at around 7:40 and decided to wait until 7:58 to ring the doorbell, so I listened to the radio. Then I rang the doorbell at 7:58 and he immediately opened the door, while looking out at what I had driven (a deep blue Jaguar XJ-6) that my software company had paid for. He said, “Nice car, come on in, son”. I did and he showed me around the house, which was very nice. He showed me the bathroom that had a bidet in it, and told me a story about one time he had Japanese visitors, and they didn’t know or understand what a bidet was, so they urinated in the bidet, and he laughed! We were off to a good start with him telling me some stories, I thought. Then Doris, his wife, came in and offered us some coffee and slices of very good breakfast cake she had baked, which was very nice. He said, “Let’s go outside, it’s a real nice day”, so I followed him to a picnic table that was under a large shade tree and we sat down. He then said, “Tell me what you know about World Class and the wrestling business”. I said that I had watched it for many years, and knew who all the wrestlers were and who was feuding with whom. Then he asked if I knew how it worked, as far as the matches and who won.
I said that I hope I’m not insulting him, because I don’t know if I’m right or not, but that even as a kid watching Houston wrestling, I saw the routine of how new wrestlers were brought in for a feud and when they left, new ones took their place, but there always seemed to be a feud going on with wrestlers coming in and making threats and it seemed like a story that eventually ended in a loser leave town match or just beating the bad guy in a final big main event, who then disappeared, and in World Class the bad guy always wanted to battle him or his sons and other wrestlers and that sometimes friends of the Von Erich’s would come in for a few weeks or months to help him, like Ivan Putski or Bruiser Brody, for example, and that I could recognize that some of the early matches seemed to be “arranged” to set up a bigger match the following week, or to make a bad guy seem more dangerous by destroying his opponent and that I figured that the early matches were arranged, but I thought that some of them, like the Main Events were real, like the Ric Flair or Harley Race matches against Kerry or him and Brody against the Blackjacks or Abdullah the Butcher were real as well as the Freebirds matches. I said those looked real to me.
He paused a moment and looked at me, took a puff off of his cigarette (he smoked a lot) and shook his head, and said, “No son. Those aren’t real either. This is like show business and Ric Flair and my boys and my main wrestlers are great workers who make everything look real. In advance of the match, we talk to the wrestlers and tell them what’s going to happen and how long the match needs should go, time-wise. Like I said, Ric Flair is a great wrestler and he helps us sell a lot of tickets, but the only reason the guy comes in, is that he knows we’re going to let him win by him breaking the rules, plus he’s going to get paid a real nice check before he leaves. If we screw him over, Crockett won’t let him come in anymore and we make real good money when he comes in, since he’s hated so much. But when the match is over, he demands his money right away and scoots off to the airport or a very nice hotel that we need to pay for”. I said I was surprised at that, because his matches are so real looking and when he jumps up and drops his knee on Kerry’s head, it looks like Kerry’s head was going to pop open like a grape. He said, “Flair is a very talented wrestler, and he knows how to do it so no one gets hurt. That part of the business is to make it look like you are killing your opponent, but not actually hurt him”.
I said that all these years I didn’t know that, as Flair’s matches were so good with the bleeding and everything. He didn’t say anything about the bleeding or use the words heels and babyfaces, but he WAS smartening me up. He then said, “Kerry could kick his ass, if he was allowed to, but that’s not what we do. We make more money by my boys chasing the World Title and getting cheated out of it, so that means there’ll be a rematch later in the year, like at Star Wars. That’s why Kerry is called the ‘Uncrowned Champion’. The fans ‘know’ Kerry could win, but Flair ‘cheats’ every time to keep the title. Crockett and the NWA championship committee control the whole deal and even though I get a vote, so far they have not voted for Kerry to win. David would have been a champion by now, had he lived”. I nodded and said, “I understand, but Harley, the Funks and Dusty Rhodes beat Flair on occasion”. He said, “That’s because they can be trusted to make all their dates and are trusted to lose back to Flair when told”. This was quite a revelation to me, as this part I had no idea about. Then he said, “Let’s try it for a few weeks and see how it goes”. I said that I’ll need fresh pictures every week, since there was a new “situation” that happened every week. I also asked Fritz if I could I get a photo pass so security will let me in without any problems.
He said, “Okay son, but respect the wrestlers and stay out of the way. Next Friday, we have Abdullah the Butcher versus Bruiser Brody.” After a bit more talking, he said “Let’s go get some lunch. There a real nice diner in town” and we sat at a big table and the waitresses treated Fritz like he was the Governor of Texas! The service was prompt, cold iced tea was automatically served. Fritz asked what was good today, and the waitress said, “We have some real good chicken fried steaks”. So Fritz asked if that was okay with me, and I said “Sounds great”. While we were waiting, Fritz was talking about the wrestlers he’s thinking of bringing in and some wrestlers I had heard of, but never have seen in Dallas before. After we ate, I went back with Fritz to his house.
We spoke for a while and he showed me the World Class title belts, which he kept in a closet in the house, as he didn’t trust the wrestlers that they would steal them when they left for another territory, especially if they didn’t tell him they were leaving, so after the matches, the champions had to give Broncho the belts back and he would then would lock them in his trunk. It was time for me to go, as I didn’t want to hit rush hour traffic when I got back to Dallas, and Fritz said. “Hold on a minute” and went in the house and came back out and handed me a small box and he said to go ahead and open it. In it was a brand new Zippo lighter that was imprinted with a picture of two wrestlers grappling with each other and the words, “Taken by force from Fritz Von Erich”. He said, “I get those made for me to give to the big shots in Dallas and Ft. Worth. I even gave one to the Governor”, and I still have it today. Fritz and I said goodbye and I left to drive back to Dallas with many things buzzing in my head.
And my career in pro wrestling had begun…
I showed up the next Friday night to shoot my first matches from ringside and I made sure to stay low and out of the way. When the main event was ready to get going, and Abdullah came to the ring, he looked real scary, so I made sure I was always on the opposite side of the ring when he went out of the ring to fight with Brody. Gary Hart was Abdullah’s manager and whispered loudly to me, maybe so the fans in the front row could hear, he said, “Stay away from him, kid. He’s very dangerous” and I did. About that time, Abdullah made it to the ring and there was a Japanese photographer there as well as me and Buddy Myers, who shot for PWI. Abdullah looked at the Japanese photographer not once, but twice. He then reached over and grabbed the photographer by the hair and smashed his head into the edge of the ring, breaking his camera and flash into pieces. Hart ran over and got Abdullah to get back into the ring, with Abdullah staring at the photographer, and then at ME! Gary motioned with his hands that I should stay low and told me not to stare at Abdullah. So from the very start I was being worked, as I believed that Abdullah was a very dangerous person and I better stay away from him, despite what Fritz had told me. I never did find out if the deal with the Japanese photographer was set up or not, but for sure his camera and flash was broken into pieces and he stayed away from Abdullah the rest of the night using a second camera.
That was the good old days when heels had real heat that the fans believed was real. The Fabulous Freebirds had genuine heat and most of the fans HATED THEM!
Photography: When I would get ready to go to a TV taping, Clash or PPV, I had to bring around 20-25 rolls of 36 shot 35mm film and a whole lot of batteries. Plus a second camera, loaded with a fresh roll, ready to go, in case a major situation was happening and I ran out of film, so I wouldn’t miss the shot. When I did have to put in a new roll, I would have to kneel down, open the back of my camera, take out the empty cartridge and load another roll of film, making sure it was properly attached to the receiving spool, because if you didn’t, you’d think you were shooting pictures, but the film wasn’t advancing in the camera. But now, with digital cameras, all a photographer has to use is a tiny 32, 64 or 128 Meg memory card that can hold way more than 36 shots, hundreds on a single memory card, plus no cost for developing the film. You just slip it in a slot in your computer and copy the pictures to your hard drive where you can edit them, sharpen them up to add special effects if you want. Plus as you are shooting you can see the shot as soon as you shoot it on the LCD screen and see if you want to delete it or shoot it again. I spent many hundreds of dollars on film and developing that would now be unnecessary.
As a well-respected historian, who were some of your favorite talents in the ring?
Note: Being in the business for 25 years I’ve met or saw just about everyone in the ring and was a witness as each company was bought and absorbed by another one. These names are not in order of how much I liked them, but as I went from World Class to Mid-South, the UWF, NWA, WCW, Smokey Mountain and WWE, as well as OVW (run by Jim Cornette and Danny Davis) and HWE (run by Les Thatcher), which were WWE’s two training territories, after they shut the one in Memphis down. I saw and met most of the wrestlers, bookers and bosses in this business, and got along with everyone, and that’s kind of the order I listed them in, from beginning to the end.
These were my favorite workers and announcers. If I left anyone out, I apologize… My favorite wrestlers when my family first moved to Dallas were The Blackjacks (Blackjack Lanza and Blackjack Mulligan). This tag-team of cheaters feuded with Fritz and a friend from another territory each week, and their feud lasted about two years. The Fabulous Freebirds, were my all-time favorite 3-man tag-team (as a fan, I liked the heels), Bruiser Brody, David, Kerry, Kevin and Fritz Von Erich, Cactus Jack, Chris Adams, Red Bastein, the Great Kabuki, One Man Gang, Kamala, Bugsy McGraw, Percy Pringle III, Sunshine, Gary Hart, Jack and Gerald Brisco who came in for special shows, Rocky Johnson, Bill Watts, Jim Ross, Terry Taylor, “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert, Missy Hyatt, Sting, Rick Steiner, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, “Dirty” Dick Murdoch, Big Bubba/Bossman, One Man Gang, The Double D’s (Wild Bill Irwin and his brother wearing masks) , Ron Simmons, Jimmy Garvin and Precious, the Sheepherders/Bushwhackers, Skandor Akbar, Lance Russell, Bob Caudle, Gordon Solie, Tony Schiavone, Ric Flair, Harley Race, Terry Funk, Dory Funk Jr., the Road Warriors, Arn Anderson, Ravishing Rick Rude, Johnny B. Badd/Mark Mero, Barry Windham, Dustin Rhodes, Junk Yard Dog, Ricky Steamboat, the Great Muta, Brad Armstrong, Tracey Smothers, Norman the Lunatic, Teddy Long, Ron Simmons, Butch Reed, Madusa, Dutch Mantell, Big Van Vader, Abdullah the Butcher, Kevin Sullivan, Paul E. Dangerously/Heyman, Jim Cornette and the Midnight Express (Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane, after Dennis Condrey left the company), the Rock and Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson), Diamond Dallas Page, Brian Pillman and “Stunning” Steve Austin, Kevin Nash, and Larry Zbyszko. At the WWF/WWE I worked with all these guys on features for RAW Magazine and my fourth year there, I was put in charge of booking the talent on paid appearances, and by myself, booked just under a million dollars in bookings for the talent, plus another 10%-15% to the WWF, and the customer had to also pay for their transportation (First Class) and a good hotel and limo service from their home to the airport and then to the hotel and picked up in the morning and taken to the airport, as well as a one day insurance policy for one million dollars, in case of a tragedy.
Hey, this was the WWF, it was “Attitude Era”, RAW and SMACKDOWN were getting huge ratings and the wrestlers and the Divas were very much in demand, as far as people wanting to see them on TV and to see them in person and pay money to be able to shake their hand and get something autographed. WCW was not there anymore, and the WWF had The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Undertaker, Mick Foley, Chris Jericho, Kane, Edge, Christian, Rey Mysterio, Big Show, The Legion of Doom, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Goldust, Curt Hennig, Kurt Angle, John Bradshaw Layfield, Ron Simmons, Al Snow, Jerry Lawler, Trish Stratus, Lita, Debra, Sable, Torrie Wilson, Terry Runnels, Luna Vachon, Gangrel, the Hardy Boys, Gerald Brisco, Bob Backlund, Vince and Linda McMahon, Shane McMahon, Stephanie and Triple H, Eddie and Vickie Guerrero, Bobby Heenan, Gene Okerlund, Howard Finkel, Pat Patterson, Jimmy Hart. Moolah, Mae Young and many others.
While there I also met and helped Freddie Blassie to his car and back (he was in a wheel chair), Ernie Ladd, Lord Alfred Hayes (who at one time was the Texas Heavyweight Champion), Jack Lanza, who was one of the Blackjacks, the cheating heel that got me hooked way back as he was such a sneaky cheater back when I first really got into the weekly drama back in Dallas. I mentioned that once to him and he laughed thinking of it, and I got to meet Gorilla Monsoon one time at the Garden before he retired, and the “Golden Boy” Arnold Skaaland, as he came to see Vince or JR a couple of times a month. He was the money manager at MSG and smoked cigars, and even though Vince hated smoking, he didn’t say a word. It felt so strange as these were all names that I had heard about on TV for years and now I was working with them. Most of them were all different people that I knew from the South, but more and more wrestlers came in that I knew from WCW and the smaller Federations down south that were now out of business.
And we all got along great, as their pay was very good and no matter what people say or have said, the WWE was a very good company to work for. At Christmas time, Freddie Blassie would dress up as Santa Claus for the employee’s kids and each kid got a new action figure. This was the man who supposedly used to use a steel file to sharpen his teeth! At the Garden one time, Percy and I sat in the back at a table and talked about how amazing it was that we were both here, as back in the old days, I asked him why Rick Rude didn’t ask Vince to bring Percy up and he said that Rude did ask Vince, but as long as Bobby Heenan and Jimmy Hart were there, he didn’t see any way. Also, as a side note, once there, no one called him “Paul” as in “Bearer” or Bill, his real name. They always referred to him as Percy.
What makes the CAC such an important organization?
The CAC recognizes and honors the great names of the past as well as new talent that could be the stars of the future and awards the talents in this business and recognizes the contributions they made to the industry, plus it is an honor for your peers to acknowledge your accomplishments and have your name preserved in the history files of CAC for future generations. A book or webpage listing all the members awarded with their picture and a short bio would be a good reference tool for the newer fans and wrestlers who continue watching the great legendary matches on YouTube, the WWE Network, WWE DVD’s and on their Grandpa’s old video tapes. CAC is for the people who live for this business and who want to keep in touch with their brothers and sisters.
In 2004, you wrote the NY Times Best Seller “THE STONE COLD TRUTH” about Steve Austin. What made him such a special performer?
Steve is a very interesting person. I first knew about Steve in World Class and was even at the Chris Adams’ pitch at the Sportatorium after the Saturday morning tapings for his new wrestling school, but of course I didn’t know who Steve was. He worked as a fork lift operator in a warehouse in Denton after losing his football scholarship due to a football injury, but Steve was in attendance as he really wanted to learn how to be a pro wrestler. WWE gave me the assignment to do Steve’s book, as we were both from Texas and I was familiar with World Class. Actually the book was collaboration between myself, Steve, Jim Ross and Steve’s wonderful family. Timeline-wise, this was shortly after his situation with Debra, so I couldn’t interview her, or his previous wife Jeannie Clark (Chris Adams’ first wife) who had taken his daughters to the UK and not returned and Steve couldn’t get them back, even though the divorce court judge decreed that his daughters had to live in the U.S. within a certain distance from Steve, so he could stay in touch with them as their father.
Steve was very upset about this and made sure to talk about his daughters in his book that they were from Texas and it really bugged him to call them on the phone and hear them speak with an English accent. He even adopted Chris Adams’ daughter as his own, since Adams did not seem to care about her or Jeannie, as he had a beautiful new wife, Toni. I spoke to Jeannie recently on the internet and she said that when Steve was wrestling, every time he would shoot the finger, she felt like it was meant for her. I said that it was his gimmick, but she still thought that this was his way to shoot the finger at her on worldwide TV. Jeannie is the one who came up with his new name. She had made him a cup of hot tea, as he was watching TV and forgot about the tea, so Jeannie said, “Steve, drink your tea before it turns stone cold.” And Steve said he liked that, and kept it in his mind. To get ready to interview Steve, I did a lot of research on the web, watched a ton of videos about him on YouTube and made a master list of questions to ask him.
I did see his Steve’s earliest matches in Dallas in person, when he was a green rookie, but by the time Steve was appearing as a featured star on World Class TV, I had already left Dallas to work for WCW in Atlanta, but a friend of mine in Dallas sent me videotapes of the show, so I was able to follow his career until Jerry Jarrett brought him to Memphis and his circuit of towns. For Steve’s book, WWE sent me to San Antonio where Steve lived and we had dinner together, along with a few of his local friends. The next morning, Steve came to my hotel room and we sat for hours with me asking him questions from the list I had made, plus asked him to add details to the story that weren’t on the net, as well as other things that he wanted to talk about that weren’t on the internet at all, like his favorite matches that he wrestled and his favorite workers in general as well as stories he wanted to share with the fans and he told me the origin of the WHAT? gimmick. He said that one time Christian had called him on his cellphone as they were driving to the next town and to rib Christian, he kept saying WHAT? blaming it on bad cell phone coverage. Then he started using it on TV and the fans loved it and started their own WHAT? chants every time Steve would pause, which he would do, to give them a chance to say it, which they did every time he paused.
Steve was patient and listened and answered all my questions and I taped it all and used his actual words in all the places where he was speaking, arranging it all in a way that made sense and read well. I was asked by the WWF to not use the “F” word, but Simon and Schuster themselves put it on the inside flap! After Dallas, Jerry Jarrett, who now owned World Class and renamed both of his groups the USWA, brought Steve to Memphis. Jarrett knew that Steve was green as grass and that what he learned from Chris Adams were the basics. In fact in Steve’s first match at the Sportatorium, Steve was matched against a jobber from Louisiana named Frogman LeBlanc and Steve was punching him in the face as hard as he could, as Adams never told him about working punches and to not hurt his opponent. When Froggie would whisper to take it easy, Steve thought the guy was begging for mercy, so he kept punching him to get the win. After the match Froggie complained to Adams, who said, “I wanted to see what he had.”
So Steve was sent to Memphis for Dutch Mantel to take over his training and was the man who really taught Steve the business, by having him sit in a chair and watch every single match on the card to see how each wrestler would work and how to adjust the match according to the crowd’s reaction to what they were seeing. Dutch also gave Steve his name “Austin” after giving Steve an hour or two to come up with a ring name. He couldn’t think of one, so a few minutes before Steve was to come out and wrestle, Dutch asked Steve where he was born and Steve said “Austin”, so Dutch said his new name was “Steve Austin” (Steve was concerned because on the TV show THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN the star’s character was named “Steve Austin”, but the two were never confused with each other and Steve couldn’t go by his real name, Steve Williams, as there was already one of those in wrestling, (“Dr. Death” Steve Williams), and when he was introduced they announced him as “Stunning” Steve Austin from Hollywood, CA, to Steve’s total surprise, since he had a very strong Texas accent and had never even been to California!
And Steve worked hard, as he wanted to learn all he could about pro wrestling and how to get the crowds’ attention, and succeed as a wrestler. He roomed with Dr. Tom Prichard, who also continued to teach him what worked and what didn’t. When the wrestlers hit the road, they used to all pile up in several cars and split the gas. That’s the way wrestling used to be in the past. While driving, the wrestlers would work on what they were going to say to the waiting crowd as they drove to the different towns. And they’d tell stories and they’d listen to each other’s’ promos and make suggestions. Steve learned a lot driving from town to town and listening to the local stars from Memphis and the other talent taught him what would make the fans react a certain way. He worked very hard and was willing to learn, but made very little money, many times eating raw potatoes as his meal. Sometimes Dutch would take him to a real meal, which Steve appreciated very much, but he didn’t depend on it. And after a while in the Memphis territory Jarrett sent him back to Dallas to be a headliner feuding with his original trainer Chris Adams as a program to help sell tickets.
After a time he showed up in WCW with a ratty looking ring robe with torn edges at the bottom and his current wife, Jeannie Clark, as his valet, “Lady Blossom”. His first TV match was against Beautiful Bobby Eaton, the current TV Champion and Steve got the win and thanked Bobby very much in the back for putting him over. Lady Blossom was dropped after a few appearances as the booker in WCW thought that Steve’s character didn’t need a valet. In WCW he did very well as “Stunning” Steve Austin using the “Lou Thesz Press” as his finisher, which is a very good move, as even to someone in the business, it looks real and hard to defend against, and after being a single wrestler his whole career, he was teamed up with Brian Pillman as The Hollywood Blonds, that came as a total surprise to Steve, since he had never been in a tag team before. Brian had more experience (and money), so Brian had them order new matching ring jackets, trunks and boots and they got over very well with the fans, as after they won, Brian would act like he was filming the losers mimicking using an old fashioned hand cranked movie camera.
They were very popular and the fans loved their gimmick, but evidently that wasn’t the booker’s plans, so he started having them do jobs or not using them much and killed their gimmick as new talent from Memphis was coming in and “The Flair for the Gold” feature began on TV, so the TV time needed to be spent on them. After this is when Brian started his strange on-air feud with Kevin Sullivan, who beat him bad at all their TV matches and Brian in a live unscripted promo called him “booker-man”. They wanted to leave and Brian went to the WWF to back up the “shoot” rumors that he was going to quit WCW and confused everyone as to what was really going on, while Steve was sent to Japan to represent WCW in an event and tore a muscle while there and was told by his doctor in Atlanta that he wasn’t ready to return to the ring yet. After a month or so, Eric Bischoff called Steve on the phone and said he wanted him back now, and Steve explained that his doctor said he needs more time and Eric can call him to confirm what he’s saying, but instead of doing that, Eric fired him on the phone which really made Steve mad (to put it lightly).
So Pillman and Austin were both gone from WCW, and WCW went on without them. Paul Heyman, in the meantime, had started ECW, a very hardcore wrestling group who’s matches were held at a bingo hall in Philadelphia. Paul saw a lot of potential in Steve and brought him up to ECW and even though Steve couldn’t wrestle yet, due to his injury, Paul encouraged him to cut wild shoot promos about WCW and Bischoff and what he thought of them or whatever, or whoever he wanted to insult, just for practice on being a wild wrestler who didn’t care who he insulted. But Paul made him wait until everyone else taped their promos so Steve could listen to how the other workers talked and cut promos.
These were all done in Paul’s basement and went into the early hours of the morning. Steve did it, learned to act angry and pissed off and how to cut a threatening promo that people would not forget. These are all on YouTube, if you want to see them. Eventually, he was brought into the WWF and was given the gimmick of “The Ringmaster” (meaning he was “Master of the Ring, a great wrestler”) who was managed by “Millionnaire” Ted DiBiase. He didn’t really like the gimmick, but hey, it was a job. But when Steve won the 1996 King of the Ring PPV by defeating Jake Roberts, who claimed he was a “born again Christian”, Austin, the bad guy, was tipped off by Michael Hayes about something he heard in the back from Roberts making fun of Austin and that HE should have won, and it was bullshit for the new guy to beat a WWF Superstar, so when the PPV was over and Steve was interviewed by Hayes as Doc Hendrix for the fans still watching the PPV, Steve then went into business for himself and did that famous unscripted promo saying to Roberts, “You sit there, and you thump your Bible and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your Psalms, talk about your John 3:16… but Stone Cold 3:16 just kicked your ass!” and he was off and running!
His new character was a rude and crude beer drinker who chugged two beers at a time after each match on TV that he won (almost all of them) and the fans loved him for being able to get away with screwing with his boss and getting away with it and getting paid on top of it. Steve was the perfect foe for Vince. And he sold mountains of merchandise, especially his first one. A simple black t-shirt that had Austin 3:16 on it and it was one of his all-time best sellers. It has been said that Steve Austin has sold more merchandise than even Hulk Hogan and made more money for the WWF than any of their wrestlers ever had before. He was a guy from a small town in Texas, who had that thick Texas accent and shot the finger at his opponents, and SOLD TICKETS.
Week after week, Steve had lots of funny, very extreme scenarios involving Vince, who was the perfect person to get the best of… his boss, a millionaire and the owner of the company! He was so fired up to go on live TV and hear that glass breaking and his music blaring, that he pulled out all the stops, and was so psyched up and into his character, that each week he went to the ring to get something else over on Vince. Sometimes he’d drive a beer truck into the arena and spray everyone with beer, including Vince. Or he’d hire a cement truck to come to the arena to completely fill Vince’s new Corvette with concrete until the windows burst from the pressure. Or he’d drive a monster truck over Vince’s limo, crushing it. One time, Vince had heard that Austin was looking for him to beat his ass, and the whole show Vince was acting very paranoid and had security watching out for Austin. Finally at the end of the show, Vince was in the ring boasting about Austin chickening out, as Austin hit the ring carrying a gun, while he made Vince go to his knees while Austin held the gun to Vince’s head.
Steve had Vince very scared and when Steve pulled the trigger as Vince closed his eyes waiting for the pain of being shot in the head. But Steve wouldn’t go that far, he just wanted to scare Vince into pee his pants, which he did using a Visine bottle in his pocket. When Steve pulled the trigger, a flag popped out from the barrel that said “BANG 3:16”, as everyone who was dead silent for what they thought they were going to see, erupted into laughter at Vince’s expense. The WWF became MUST SEE TV for the wrestling fans and the fans had to watch every week to see what he was going to do to Vince next and that’s what helped WWE turn the ratings around after 54 weeks of losing to WCW, due to WCW’s NWO storyline, which caught on with the fans. As he started down the runway, Steve WAS his character in his mind. That’s one reason he was so good. Back then, before the match, they would go over the bullet points on what they were going to do, but it wasn’t scripted and Steve would say his own words, unscripted, the words that his character would say as a rough Texan who loved tormenting his boss.
One time Steve gave Vince a “Stone Cold Stunner”, but where Steve normally kicks his victim in the stomach to make them lower their body so that he could grab him around the head and drop him with his weight right on his head and then pull up one leg for leverage and pin him, it looked like Steve’s kick was a bit low and he kicked Vince a bit lower, right in his “grapefruits” as Vince liked to refer to them as. Later I asked Steve what happened and he said his jean cutoffs were a bit tight and he couldn’t get his foot high enough to kick Vince’s stomach, so that was as high as he could raise his leg, so he was sorry, but he did kick Vince in his grapefruits. A few days later, back at the office I asked Vince what happened. He replied that “Steve kicked me in the balls and I didn’t have to fake sell it, as it hurt like hell, for real, damn him”. This is from a man who didn’t have to do these things and was a millionaire to boot. But he loved being “Mr. McMahon” and being on TV playing his part to help Steve’s character be even more popular. Steve might have been termed a heel, but in the fans’ eyes, he was a fan favorite because of how he took advantage of his boss every chance he got! The fans loved it!
The company started getting complaint letters about Steve’s behavior, saying that their kids or students were using Steve’s catch phrases in class, wearing his “not for school” T-Shirts and in general copying his gimmick in school and at home. When a teacher or parent would ask a question to an Austin fan, they’d go into the WHAT? routine and when asked again, they’d repeat WHAT? WHAT? to the laughter of the class. What angle could be better than a wrestler who is always getting back at his evil boss and getting away with it, so all the kids copied him. His actions and words were part of the pop culture landscape that still continues on his PODCAST ONE shows on Thursday where he is free to say ANYTHING he wants to. But his actions against his millionaire boss technically made him a babyface, as the fans loved his actions, including him inviting an opponent he had just defeated or even Vince to have a beer with him in the ring after a match and then as they took a swig, Steve would give them a Stone Cold Stunner and his music would play to the delight of the crowd and everybody loved it and had a good time, going home happy.
You were the Business Manager for the WWE Publications Department and Editor of RAW Maga What are some of the challenges of publishing a wrestling magazine?
Bill Watts taught me an important lesson that I always kept in mind. When publishing the UWF Magazine, there was going to be a big match for the tag-team titles. I called Bill and asked him who was going to win, as we were going to press in just a few days.
Bill told me that in his mind he knows who he booked to win, but what if they missed their flight or were in a car accident or got sick or even arrested? He said we’d look like fools, and he was right. So the biggest challenge was to try to get an idea of where WWE was going with the story lines and who to feature in a story and on the cover. We printed at least a half million RAW magazines every month, so it had to be right without any possibilities to print something wrong. Linda McMahon even checked the pages each month and double checked with Vince as far as the stories we were going to feature.
You’ve worked with The Rock, Steve Austin, the Undertaker, Mick Foley, Sean Michaels, and Trish Stratus, among others. As a historian, what did you learn about the business from these legends?
I had been around wrestling long enough to know how to handle myself, but the WWF was a new world. I already knew Mick, Steve, ‘Taker (who was “Mean Mark” in WCW) and some others, so it was like working with old friends again, plus by that time I knew how to act in front of them and to show respect and not act like a mark. The WWE was different. It was a company based on wrestling, or “sports entertainment” as they call it now, while WCW was just a division of a very large corporation that owned the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Hawks, CNN, HEADLINE NEWS, CNN Center and the MGM film library, as well as many other divisions and WCW was just a very small piece of that puzzle, that didn’t make a profit, but I learned how a true star is made and how they can be made to rise even farther, and to pay attention to everything.
Some new talent had true “star power” and some didn’t. All the names you mentioned had real star power and that’s how they rose to the top and were very successful. Some thanked the office, like every Christmas, the Rock had a big platter of cookies delivered to each department. In fact the first day I started work there, Rock was in Stamford to meet with Vince, who told him “After lunch…” so Rock came down to Publications and took Kevin Kelly and myself to lunch! Plus he said to call him Dwayne. That was tough, as watching him on TV, to me he WAS the Rock. He did his character so well that I still wanted to think of him as The Rock, so even though I knew it was for TV and that he had a real name, to me he WAS the Rock. So even in today’s world of Sports Entertainment, if you have it… real star power that people believed in, to me he was the Rock.
The same with Mick Foley… I had always called him Cactus for the 15 years I knew him before we got back together in the WWF and he was now Mankind, but I still called him Cactus. Finally, he said “Dennis, I don’t really mind, but you don’t need to call me Cactus. I’m not that guy anymore and I need to let my mind focus on THIS gimmick.” After being Mankind using Mr. Socko as his finisher, WWE turned him into Dude Love, a hippy type character who I enjoyed very much. And then he was turned into Mick Foley, using his real name, but he dressed like Cactus Jack and acted somewhat like him. That’s why one of his DVD’s was called THE THREE FACES OF FOLEY. Mick’s Dad, who was a football coach was referred to as “Cactus Jack”, so that’s where the name came from, as a tribute to his father.
When I first met Mick, he was working in World Class as Cactus Jack Manson and worked his butt off, to get over as a crazy heel. The Crocketts had just bought the UWF from Watts and relocated to Dallas just a mile or two from my software office. Jim Ross and Chris Adams used to come over all the time, and Percy worked for me in the office to supplement the small pay he made at World Class. Bill Watts opened up a very fancy office in Dallas, just a mile from my office, which was a very fortunate thing for me, and the UWF invaded Dallas and “stole” their best talent, so Fritz pulled out of the NWA, which to me was a disappointment as it meant no more Ric Flair, Freebirds or Akbar. I still took pictures at the Sportatorium as well as covering the UWF, since I had started a magazine that covered all the territories, but Fritz called me one day to say I had to pick who I was going to cover, that I couldn’t cover both.
So because the Freebirds had jumped to the UWF and Watts had NWA ties, meaning I could still see Ric Flair matches, I had to choose the UWF. After about two years, Jim Crockett bought the UWF and I hoped to be able to go to the NWA, which moved to Dallas from Charlotte. Over the past few years I had become good friends with Jim Ross, who now lived in Dallas. He was like a mentor to me, teaching me what Watts wanted and expected and part of his new job at the NWA was to scout new talent for the Crocketts. I learned that Fritz and his sons were not going to be at the Sportatorium on a certain Friday night, as they were going to work in St. Louis, so I asked Jim if he’d like to come down to the Sportatorium, that he HAD to see this Cactus Jack character. He had never been there before, and was curious about this legendary building where so many big stars had begun their career. I had a STAFF badge, so I was able to walk right past the policeman and go right to the back.
The policeman probably recognized Jim from TV and didn’t stop him, thinking it was okay for him to be there, especially since I said “He’s with me” and Jim followed me through the wrestler’s door. He watched the matches from the “Crow’s Nest”, which had screen around it where the wives and family sat, way up high to not attract attention. After watching most of the card, we went to the dressing area, and he shook hands with all the wrestlers who knew him from TV and hoped to get hired for the NWA, since WCCW wasn’t doing very well anymore, and I brought him straight to Cactus and Jim immediately offered him a job with the NWA. Cactus said “That’s great news, Mr. Ross, but I’d appreciate about a month to finish up my bookings here, as I accepted the bookings and they are kind of counting on me to help sell tickets”. That was very admirable of Mick, and although his pay that night was about $40-$50, he is a very honest, admirable man that I am good friends with even today.
One other wrestler caught Jim’s eye, a Japanese kid that went by “the Super Black Ninja”. Lord knows how or why he was given that ring name. Maybe Gary Hart thought it sounded scary, as he was his manager. Anyway, this young man’s name was really Keiji Muto and Jim also offered him a job and Keiji was very appreciative, and gave his thanks to Jim and said he had to call his sponsor in Japan as he was sent to the U.S. to learn more about wrestling and to face opponents and get practice before he was introduced to the Japanese fans back home. Until he was more polished and could give Japanese fans a true fighting star that they believed could beat the wrestlers they didn’t like, as well as the big American stars who would come to Japan and work there a few weeks and then went sent back home to maybe return in a few months to start the feud again, or start a new one, if he made a lot of money for the two major Japanese wrestling companies.
Some wrestlers were so respected in Japan that the fans didn’t want to see them get beat or go home, like Bruiser Brody, Abdullah the Butcher, Stan Hansen, Terry Gordy and Steve Williams, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, the Funks and several others that were fans of the big American wrestlers. Fritz had a deal with Japan, but when Muto’s sponsor was told that he was offered a job with the NWA, they told him that he did good and to show Mr. Von Erich your appreciation and do the next two weeks of bookings for him.
Are you surprised the WCW Invasion angle wasn’t more successful?
No, because they didn’t do it right. Just like when Jim Crockett or Dusty made the same mistake when Crockett bought the UWF. At the first NWA PPV that both groups were the focus of, Chi-Town Heat, you’d have thought that the UWF guys would get some attention, as the NWA had just bought them and they needed to get them over to the fans, but no. From the UWF only Sting, Michael Hayes and Ron Simmons got a win, with Flair not even wrestling a UWF guy, like Dr. Death, Terry Gordy or One Man Gang, but he wrestled Nikita Koloff and retained the title. It was my first big PPV to shoot from ringside and I wore my UWF jacket, to make it look like the UWF had sent their own photographer to shoot for the UWF Magazine, but when Jim Crockett saw the jacket, he said, “I don’t want to see that jacket at ringside”.
I explained that I was thinking it would make it look like there were two companies there, but he said “No, just take it off”, so I did. The WWF also made similar mistakes as some of the WWF wrestlers joined the WCW team for who know what reason, and they were not pushed or put over at all. They seemed like an after-thought and not as good as the WWF wrestlers, the way they were booked.
What is it like being backstage at a WrestleMania?
I always went backstage at whatever shows I attended, other but learned that it wasn’t a good idea at WrestleMania, as that was a very stressful place to be, and if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Vince saw you, he’d yell “What are you doing here? You don’t need to be here.” It had nothing to do with kayfabe, but the fact that each wrestler had to be talked to by him or an agent as far as what Vince wanted to happen in the ring and the talent had to get everything right. Sometimes there were arguments or yelling, or the wrestler explaining to Vince that he or she had a better idea if he’d hear them out.
Sometimes he did, if the star was a big enough name, but most times he said that what he planned would work into a new situation or feud for them and just do what they were told. At WrestleMania 17 at the Houston Astrodome, he had bought WCW a few months earlier, JR went to Atlanta several times to interview all the ex-WCW talent that was not under contract, to see who they wanted to hire for the WWF. Many of the bigger names had big and long contacts with WCW, which Time Warner/AOL had to honor, so these guys were paid to sit at home and if they started working at the WWF, their contract was voided and the guaranteed money stopped. So JR selected 13 men, including Bill DeMott, who now runs the WWE Training Center in Orlando as well as Stacy Keibler to hire, as he thought they might have a chance to fit into the WWF.
At WrestleMania 17, Vince rented a big private skybox at the Astrodome that was fully catered, so the newly hired talent could watch the mega event and see the wonder of the company they had just joined. None of them had EVER seen a crowd that large and were excited, hoping that next year, they’d be on the card in front of all this record setting crowd of many thousands of paying fans. They were all sequestered in a different hotel from the WWF people and fans, to keep them a secret. At a certain time, a rented luxury bus went to their distant hotel, picked them up and took us all to the Astrodome. Since I was Director of Talent Relations, I was assigned to be the “babysitter” and answered a lot of questions. JR’s successor, John Laurinaitis, Animal’s brother, was also there to keep his boys in line and to make sure they acted appropriate and they were not allowed backstage. Stacey Keibler and Bill DeMott were the only ones that lasted more than a few months. Triple H is HIS boss and often goes down there to see how it’s going and to see who might be ready to come up to WWE.
As different WCW wrestlers contracts ran out, they would try out to see if they could make it in the WWF. Diamond Dallas Page came up, but he was given a gimmick that was short lived, as a stalker of the Undertaker’s wife, but Dallas was still a popular man with the company, but unfortunately didn’t come up with a gimmick for him. Buff Bagwell came up and after one or two weeks was sent back home since he had the attitude that he was a little too full of himself for Vince. Big Show (The Giant in WCW) came in and did excellent and is still with the company and doing very well. Ron Simmons came up and also did well, and is still employed, not as a wrestler, but to represent the company at business functions. A lot of ECW wrestlers came in, but most did not last too long.
Vince knows what he wants and if he doesn’t see it, then you get sent home. Funny that many of the agents that prepare the wrestlers for their matches are former NWA/WCW people, as Vince trusts them to explain what he wants to see, like William Regal, Arn Anderson, Ricky Steamboat, Fit Finley and some others. Pat Patterson is a master of coming up with finishes, so that’s what he does, after going over the possible choices with Vince and Gerald Brisco who looks over all the agents, scouts for new talent and helping where needed. Michael Hayes is in charge of Smackdown, as Michael has always been very creative, going back to World Class.
I think I was born to be in the wrestling business, as I was born in Houston, Texas on December 9, 1950. That is significant to this story, growing up in the fifties. My first memories of pro wrestling were based on a crippled boy in Houston named Freddy Goodie. My father used to play poker with Freddy’s father, who had the ice cream concession at wherever the matches were held and a group of wrestlers who were in town, would come over the night before the matches and I watched TV or read the pile of programs on the coffee table. Freddy was in his early twenties and I was still a kid, about 8 years old. Freddy had muscular dystrophy. He grew up as a normal kid and then one day developed this disease and was banned to being a cripple in a wheel chair the rest if his life. Just about anybody that remembers Houston wrestling in the 50’s and maybe 60’s, will remember Freddy.
Anyway, my dad used to go to these poker games and we’d all go with him. My mother would talk with Mrs. Goody and she always have a spread of food for the wrestlers to eat. And all the wrestlers from TV would be there! Freddy would sit in his wheelchair and watch the game. I think his father would take Freddy to the matches the next night. Like I said, there were current wrestling programs all over the coffee table and I’d read about these feuds and wonder how they turned out, and then here were those guys playing poker with my father and Freddy’s father! And they were all friendly and not fighting! Guys I remember the names of were Nick and Jerry Kozack, Big Humphrey, the Garibaldi Brothers, Danny McShane and Bulldog Plechas. My dad said that Lou Thesz had joined the game a few times when he was booked in Houston, as did Verne Gagne, but I don’t know who they were.
Since my sister and I were just kids, we had to go to sleep around 10pm in Freddy’s old bedroom, which they left like it was from before he got MD. It had hundreds of black and white 8 x 10’s covering all the walls of wrestlers and they were all signed to him. But back then, they all did a mean looking face, so it was scary to look at for a little kid trying to go to sleep. There were lots of masked guys, I remember that. I remember the magic of those programs, printed in red, blue or orange, that described some upcoming, not to be missed match, that I had already missed and wondered if I’d ever find out what happened. I loved those programs and figured, even at that young age, that if I was ever involved in writing the programs, I’d always know what happened.
— Dennis Brent, 2015 CAC James C. Melby Historian Award recipient
Note – all photos provided by Dennis Brent from his personal collection.