Legendary wrestling manager Jim Cornette spoke with philly.com recently ahead of his appearance Lasting Legacy: A Tribute to Jim Cornette in Wilmington, N.C. March 7, which is presented by Masters of Ring Entertainment.
You can find out more about the event HERE.
Here's the full transcript from the conversation:
Vaughn Johnson: Talk a little bit about the Master of the Ring event coming up.
Jim Cornette: Master of the Ring Entertainment is putting this on in Wilmington [North Carolina], which I really think is a key part of what makes this so great. Wrestling was so big in Carolinas back in the eighties — [Ric] Flair, Dusty [Rhodes], The [Four] Horsemen, The Midnight [Express], The Rock 'n' Roll [Express] — and so many people down there still fondly remember it. We've had reunions over in the other end of the state of North Carolina, but nothing for the people out on the coast … Wilmington and as far down as far down as Myrtle Beach [South Carolina] and all over he eastern part of North Carolina have not had a chance to see a lot of these wrestling legends in 20 or 30 years.
We did an event over in South Carolina a couple of months ago with the Rock 'n' Roll Express, Ricky Steamboat and some other folks, and it was great because we had families come, we had generations. The grandparents had watched wrestling on a monthly basis there in Spartanburg [South Carolina] in the seventies and the kids had gone with them in the eighties, and they had seen these stars in person wrestle, but they'd never got to meet them or talk to them. Then the kids would come, the grandkids, and they'd never even got a chance to see the guys that their parents and grandparents had talked about at all and they got to meet them. It's really fun. Like I said, we haven't had anything out there on the coast like that and with this kind of lineup I think every wrestling fan this is kind of like their nerd weekend.
VJ: Lets shift gears to Philly a little bit. Talk about the city's place in wrestling history and what are some of your memories of being in Philly for wrestling events?
JC: Well, it holds a special place in my heart as the manager of The Midnight Express because that's where we beat Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson on Sept. 10, 1988 for the NWA World Tag Team Championship. Down there at the Civic Center, we used to go every month. When we started working for Jim Crockett promotions in 1985, we started coming to Philly once a month. Not only was it one of the bigger crowds, the Civic Center was always packed, but also it was a highlight of my social month because I got to visit with my friend Dennis Coralluzzo, who promoted wrestling there. We would go to Rib-it down on South Street after the matches and tear the place up. It was a great time.
All of the NWA guys enjoyed coming to Philly because of the reception we got. The fans were rabid; they loved what we were doing so it was the highlight of the month.
VJ: Talk about what it was like to run Philly back then because you hear about how the NWA and the WWE would run shows on the same day. What was it like being in a town with that much wrestling going?
JC: It was great because, to be honest with you, it doesn't happen anymore. With the WWE pretty much the only game in town, and they're lucky to draw a half of a house, it was fantastic and that was happening in a number of places. One night in Cincinnati, Ric Flair versus Dusty Rhodes and The Midnight Express versus The Rock 'n' Roll Express sold out the Cincinnati Gardens. We had 10,600 and they [WWE] were at Riverfront (now U.S. Bank Arena) with Hulk Hogan and only drew 6,000. Then we'd come up there [Northeastern United States] and it would be a little more even because that was their territory, but they couldn't get south of Ohio, I'll tell you that.
It was insane because you had literally 20,000 people or more at some points in the same city, on the same night going to see wrestling matches. It was fantastic.
VJ: You mention Cincinnati, that's not a major metropolitan area like Philadelphia is and to get 20,000 people to come out to see wrestling is pretty amazing.
JC: Hey now, I got friends in Cincinnati. Them are fighting words. They think they're a major metropolitan area. They've got Skyline Chili, so that shows you right there. But no, if you go back a little bit further down south, when we were in Charlotte, The Midnight Express and The Rock and Roll Express set a record in Charlotte at the Coliseum with 12,000 people and $102,000 at the gate. Then we proceeded to have three more shows in the next nine or 10 weeks in Charlotte with two more sellouts with Flair and Dusty on top of one and The Road Warriors on top of the other and The Midnight and Rock 'n' Roll on the card.
We ended up doing four shows in a three-month period that drew $44,000 people and over $400,000 at the gate in Charlotte, N.C. in 1986. It was a great time for wrestling. The WWE had the north, we had the south and we were fighting for the Midwest.
VJ: You've seen some great tag teams in your day with managing The Midnight Express. The WWE just put The Bushwhackers, or The Sheepherders, into the Hall of Fame. People kind of debate whether they deserve it or not, but talk about some about some of your experiences with them back in the day.
JC: The Sheepherders deserve to go in, The Bushwhackers I'm not sure, but The Sheepherders deserve to go in so The Sheepherders are technically going in. Luke [Williams] and Butch [Miller] are both great guys and I think they deserve the recognition and I don't know anybody in the business that would not want to see them recognized for their contribution. […] They're great guys and they're great talents. The fans liked The Sheepherders version, Vince [McMahon] likes The Bushwhackers version. They did make an impact on the WWE so yeah they deserve to be there.
VJ: Do you have any stories of The Sheepherders?
JC: Oh, god. We, of course, we were working with The Sheepherders when the inimitable Johnny Ace (John Laurinaitis) was their flag bearer and one night, by some strange turn of booking events, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, we found ourselves, The Midnight Express and I, as babyfaces wrestling The Sheepherders with their flag bearer Johnny Ace and some way or another during the course of the match — Butch and Luke are both hilarious guys so they would crack you up in the ring — but at one point I managed to get the people to chant against the New Zealand Sheepherders, I led the people in a chant of "Ca-na-da! Ca-na-da!"
Some way or another, it was like Canada and New Zealand had a long history of rivalry and more. They really got into it. But those guys definitely deserve it, if for nothing else than the battering ram.
VJ: Talk about how they sort of pioneered the hardcore wrestling style, especially among tag teams.
JC: Yes and they weren't really doing it on purpose. That was just their style. They weren't suggesting that everyone should have blood bath matches all the time, but when you got The Sheepherders, you got some brawling, bloody, ugly, mean, tough guys from New Zealand. That's the way their matches are most often remembered, the blow-off matches to their feuds, where it was "Katy bar the door!" They could both wrestle pretty good. They were pretty good hands at wrestling, too.
VJ: Let's talk about today's product. How would you go about promoting wrestling in today's climate?
JC: First of all, nobody will listen to me, but I've got the perfect way to make $5 million in the wrestling industry.
VJ: How is that?
JC: Start with $10 million. You know, over the last couple of years I've been asked that question and I haven't come up with an answer yet. I think when I was still with Ring of Honor there was an element of me smoking the "hopium" that people could take wrestling seriously again, but as I've gotten away from it on a regular basis over the past several years … obviously guys can still go to the WWE and they could still go to Japan. Money could still be made in the business, but on a mainstream basis for people starting from scratch, I just don't know that you could make people take wrestling seriously enough again to make them pay for it in large numbers after the lack of seriousness they have seen over the last number of years.
VJ: You mentioned Ring of Honor earlier and I spoke to Joe Koff recently about the state of the promotion. Where do you think the company stands today?
JC: I don't want to get long, I don't want to get winded and I don't want to get grumpy, I love Ring of Honor's talent and I love Ring of Honor's philosophy of trying to present wrestling as credibly as possible or else I wouldn't have been involved in it in the first place and I wouldn't have facilitated that sale [to Sinclair Broadcasting Group].
Having said that, the vision I had of Ring of Honor was that Sinclair was a little more serious financially and it was going to be done in a little bit different way, which was the way I thought it would work to begin with or else I'm not sure I would have followed through with it. It didn't get done — and I'm not talking about talent or creative or matchmaking — I'm talking about office and production and structure. It just didn't happen and it wasn't probably going to happen, to me, to the extent that though it could originally in my lifetime, so we were driving each other crazy. I will say that would have not spent as much and effort for about three years as I did on it unless I thought it would have been a larger operation by now than it is.
VJ: You had a couple of talents that you sort of butted heads with: Young Bucks, Kevin Steen [Kevin Owens], El Generico [Sami Zayn], Colt Cabana, most of which are doing pretty well for themselves right now. What do you think about them and where they are today? Why do you think you butted heads with those guys?
JC: For one thing, they're very touchy [laughs]. I never, with any of them, went on the Internet and say, "Oh, I hate these people and I hope they die in flaming car wrecks."
Colt was not happy with out assessment with his fit in the new Ring of Honor. We didn't offer him a contract because he had been there for five years pretty much consistently and the comedy did not fit the way we were initially going to present the product, so we didn't offer him a contract. We didn't say we would never work with him again. I was not a fan of his making mockery of wrestling in his other endeavors, but he took offense to it and was firing up and I may have fired up a time or two, but I have nothing against the guy personally. But once again, funny wasn't under our money.
With Steen and Generico, I'm pleased with their success because I told everybody that was going to happen if they ever did the things I never dreamed they would do. I said El Generico can sell his a** off, an amazing athlete, reminds me of Ricky Morton when he's getting the s*** kicked out of him, very strong for his frame and size, good worker, great timing and has a silly gimmick and needs to lose the mask and learn how to talk because mainstream fans would look and say there's a skinny, red-headed guy that's a Muslim from Canada trying to be a Spanish luchador … and he's mute.
So in the process of going to WWE developmental, where he would actually do what the people that were paying him asked him to do, he got rid of the mask and the name and the silly gimmick and he's now a Muslim from Canada, he's in a little bit better shape and he's working his a** off. That's what I wanted, but I couldn't get it because everybody was afraid that the gimmick was the be all and end all of the guy.
With Kevin Steen, I suggested that he lose weight for the sake of his career longevity and health of his body and also his cosmetic appearance, and start doing what the people that were paying him asked him to do. And weave out a lot of the elements of garbage wrestling involving furniture. I think he can talk his a** off and he was a great athlete under all of that weight. With the way he moved around, imagine how he'd be if was 240 instead of 280?
Well, golly. I don't know if he's 240 yet, but he's trimmed his hair up and cleaned up and he does what the people that pay him tell him to and he's talking his a** off and he's a hell of a worker.
VJ: I see a common theme here.
JC: There's a common theme here. And the Young Bucks, the only thing that I publicly said that I'm aware of that they took issue with, but then they blocked me Twitter and it wounded me to the core, was that their match at the Tokyo Dome was a mess and it was a mess involving six other people. It was also a mess because they had four teams in there, they didn't give them enough time, they should have had two tag team matches or left somebody off, they tried to do everything they've ever known in a less-than-15-minute match. As a first-time viewer in the United States on pay-per-view opening up a new market, I didn't know who was who's side, what the f*** was going on. It was just a bunch of people like a video game doing s*** to each other for 15 minutes and it didn't serve anybody in the math to get over well. It was just, "Hey, remember those eight guys that had that big match.
And I'd mention that they since they tombstone pile drive, front flipped, Meltzer driver the guy, that if it was a show I was on and they used that as a false finish, broke up the pin and everybody continue the match … if a team had done that to a guy on a show of mine, I would have fired the team that did it and the guy that walked out under his own power, unless we called an ambulance.
That was my assessment of their match and they fired up on me on Twitter and blocked me. I'm sorry, but I have yet to be disproven on this because I know they have turned down [WWE] developmental but nobody has unfortunately suggested that the promotions are in a bidding war for the Young Bucks because they're drawing all of this money. They can do a lot of special things. They should slow down and prove they can actually beat somebody with a few of them before anybody is going to take them seriously on a mainstream basis except as a stunt show. I don't know how much more plain I can make these comments.
But that's why people get cranky with me apparently, because they don't listen!
VJ: Talk about today's climate in wrestling and how the style has changed since the days you were working full-time. You can argue whether things have changed for the better, but is change just inevitable?
JC: Change is inevitable, but the type of change is dictated by the people running the business and unfortunately, they've dictated a lot of the wrong changes. Change the athletes, change the production, change the presentation, change whatever, but don't change the basic logic.
This is as close as I can come to illustrating what I'm talking about: The reason why people may watch sports entertainment on television for free in large numbers, although they're actually not right now. But to get people past your initial fan base of whatever number that is, to get people to invest emotionally into paying to see this as a sports attraction — buying tickets, pay-per-views, whatever — you have to be trying to give the impression of a physical conflict between two people and that they are trying to win.
Doing a performance amongst two people that you can obviously tell are cooperating with each other for the sake of thrilling you with their athleticism will only go so far. We've gotten away from the basic concept, regardless of how you present it or who is performing it or how its produced or aired or whatever, we've lost the concept of "It's a struggle of physical conflict between two people, simulated or not, that we are expecting to believe someone is trying to win.
VJ: Let's talk about Roman Reigns. His rise seems very unique for WWE. From what I've seen, guys in his position are given more time before they ascend to the top like this. Steve Austin rose in 1997 before he broke through 1998, John Cena was built in 2004 before he broke through in 2005 and Hulk Hogan was in the AWA running wild before he before he broke through in the WWE. Have you seen this type of quick ascension with a guy?
JC: Kamala was in the main event in Memphis the first week that he existed. You've always had situations where promoters would bring somebody in and push him or her to the moon real quick because they were visually stunning in some way and/or talented enough to pull off the image that they were presented with. It would work for a short period of time. It used to be called stealing a house, if you just build up some schlub in two weeks and draw one big house and he's gone.
Ask Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart guys from their era about how long it took. Their builds were like five years. But it depends. Steve Austin didn't get a build of any type except from the fans. He got over and that's why they continued pushing him through the roof because he suddenly through his own talent and personality. They had pretty much given up on him and left him alone to do his own thing and that's when he finally got over.
It just depends. Some talent you can push them for five years and they'll never get over. Some talent can get over instantly and you just give them the support that the fans already dictate. It's always hard when you have decided that this is going to be the guy rather than seeing this guy becoming the guy. I don't watch enough of the television, but just as a comment overall about you question, you can't ever tell because there's no rule of thumb, but the people should be wanting him to be the guy before you decide he's the guy. I don't know how else to say it.
VJ: So your philosophy is to let the people kind of decide first then run with it?
JC: The thing is that you're going to know if the people like somebody naturally without you even trying to make them, by the degree of how they like him and whether they start paying to come and see him. Then you're going to know about whether you should make him the guy or not. There's several people, myself included, that said the first time we saw Dwayne Johnson that he was going to be a WWE Champion in five years. It took him three. I called Batista and I pretty much called Cena and you knew [Randy] Orton was going to be incredible, but some guys just … Daniel Bryan, who would have thought?
I always thought he was a great in-ring performer, but I never dreamed that he would catch on. Sometimes that happens with the mainstream audience to that level and it's a rare guy that's able capitalize on that.
VJ: What fascinates me is Vince McMahon's vision of "the guy," a mainstream, crossover star. Do you think that a guy has to fit a certain model in order to be a crossover star or do you think it's just whomever the people choose?