Former WWE Intercontinental Champion The Honky Tonk Man recently spoke with Raj Giri of WrestlingINC.com about working with WWF in the 1980s, how he won the Intercontinental title, his feuds with Randy Savage and The Ultimate Warrior, problems with the business today, scripted promos, his problems with Eric Bischoff and much more. Here is part one of the interview, click here for part two.
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WrestlingINC: It seems like you're pretty busy right now. Where are you mostly wrestling right now?
Honky Tonk Man: Everything is mostly back East and in Canada. There's not a lot of stuff going on on the West coast.
WrestlingINC: You've been wrestling since 1977, right?
Honky Tonk Man: There about. I mean, I don't like to be reminded of those days.
WrestlingINC: When you started with WWF, you were using the Honky Tonk Man gimmick. It basically started there, right?
Honky Tonk Man: No, not really. It actually started in Mobile (Alabama) and Pensacola (Florida) and the South-East, wrestling for the Fullers. Then I took it to Canada for Stu Hart and kind of fine-tuned it there. From there, WWE picked it up and we tweaked it a little bit and it took off.
WrestlingINC: Did they come up with the name 'Honky Tonk Man'? I know you were doing the gimmick before then but they came up with the name. Right?
Honky Tonk Man: No. I had the name before. I had the name about two or three years before. People don't understand this but I had a whole career before I ever went to WWE. It was like, "Oh, this is a new guy. He's starting out.' I had 14 years in the wrestling business before I ever went there.
WrestlingINC: How did that come about when you finally did get signed?
Honky Tonk Man: They came to Calgary. They had gone through different places and taken people. They had taken Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy (Smith) and Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart. That was one year. Then the next year, they came back through -- they were taking guys.
They had taken Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura, (Hulk) Hogan and David Shultz. They were taking people from different territories. Vince (McMahon) was taking all the top guys from everywhere and I came through on the next round. So, the next time he came through, he took the next crew of top guys. I was a top guy in Calgary and he made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
WrestlingINC: It definitely turned into one of the more memorable runs. When I think of wrestling in the late '80's, I think of Hulk Hogan, Macho Man (Randy Savage), Andre The Giant and yourself. You became one of their top guys. When you won the Intercontinental title, Vince McMahon was supposed to be putting the title on Butch Reed but couldn't find him at the show. Then, Hulk Hogan suggested that you get the title. Was that how you remember it?
Honky Tonk Man: Yeah. I just happened to walk by while they were standing in the hallway and Hogan looked and said, 'What about him?' That's how it happened because Butch was going AWOL or M.I.A. -- which happens some times. Of course, it was like Jake (Roberts). Jake was missing in action about half the time he was there.
I just happened to walk by and they said, 'What about him,' and I said, 'OK.' Vince pulled me aside and told me what he wanted to do. (Ricky) Steamboat was leaving and, you know -- after all these years, Steamboat gets a job as an agent, making all this money. I'm sitting home doing nothing and he was the one that got the belt from Savage and up and quit the company. Saying, 'I want to go home and spend time with my wife and children.'
Of course, if you have a championship belt, you don't go home and spend time with your wife and children. You have to be on the road and [Vince] said, 'This guy wants to go and do this and I got to have the belt in a town.' I said, 'Listen, if you give me that belt, I don't want a day off.' And I ran with that belt for 64 weeks.
WrestlingINC: Winning titles was a way bigger deal back then. What was your reaction when they ultimately decided to go with you for the title?
Honky Tonk Man: I knew I was going to get over and draw people, sell tickets. Title or no title. No matter where I was on the card. I knew that because I had perfected my persona. The Honky Tonk thing. I knew that if it didn't work there, it was going to work somewhere else. Of course, WCW -- which was Turner and the Crocketts in Atlanta at the time -- I knew there was a spot there no matter what. With it being such a Southern-style thing, the Elvis knock-off character, I knew it would work. If they didn't want to use me properly in WWE, then I would just move on.
That's what I was planning on doing but then I got the opportunity to get the Intercontinental championship and I ran with it. I'm not tooting my own horn, but I thought I did a pretty good job with it.
WrestlingINC: Back then, you would headline a lot of the house shows with the Intercontinental title, which I don't remember happening before that point.
Honky Tonk Man: Yeah. With the Intercontinental title, I became (someone with) main event status right under Hulk Hogan.
WrestlingINC: You had some really memorable feuds during that time. Who were some of your favorite opponents during that period?
Honky Tonk Man: I liked being with Jake (Roberts) whenever Jake was around and I liked being with Steamboat. Like I said; he left the company, stayed gone for 20 years and all of a sudden, he came back with a shirt and tie on and was a supervisor. [Laughs.] Oh. Now you're a big shot.
But, yeah. I had really, really good matches with Randy Savage and they were very memorable and really good stuff. Good stuff with Jimmy Snuka. When they put me with Snuka, I had pretty much been degraded down the card because they were going in a different direction with the (Ultimate) Warrior and planning to put him in a position to take over Hogan's spot.
WrestlingINC: There was talk that you were going to originally drop the title to Savage at The Main Event, but that you didn't feel that you should drop the title yet. Was that accurate?
Honky Tonk Man: It wasn't really about dropping the title. I was talking to my friend, "Rock N' Roll" Buck Zumhofe from the old AWA days, who I was on tour with all this past week up in Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. It wasn't the fact of losing the belt or anything of that nature.
I had a deal with WWE and Vince, a handshake deal. There were no contracts back then. 'I'll do anything you want if you give me an opportunity. If I do good, pay me. If I don't do good, I'll pack my bags and move down the highway.' All I said was, 'Treat me good on TV. Take care of me on television.' Back in the old days, us old guys always believed that if they destroy you on television, you're pretty much destroyed.
So, when they mentioned the destruction of the Honky Tonk Man on television and going with 'Macho Man' -- you know, in reality, if 'Macho Man' was still around today and with us at a roundtable. It did his career better than mine because he became world champion as opposed to being the Intercontinental champion again. For that reason, Ted DiBiase -- who still has a little animosity towards me though not a lot -- Ted never got to be world champion because Ted was going to be world champion.
This particular television show had 35 million people watching. That particular Main Event had 35 million people. You got to remember; Turner had a lot of money and Turner was trying to make a run at Vince. I said, 'No. I'm not going to do this on television. You want to do it, I'll do it anywhere else. I'm not doing it in front of 35 million people.'
I had to protect my business, too. My business, of course, was the Honky Tonk Man because I could have taken it to Turner. I did make a call to Turner and they said, 'Absolutely not. Do not do that on television if you want to come down here with us.' We had a meeting set and down and then I ended up staying with WWE which was probably not the best move of my life because, after that, they never trusted me again.
WrestlingINC: Did that lead to why they had you drop the title to the Ultimate Warrior?
Honky Tonk Man: No. Not really. They had him in the plans after the Savage thing. Because Hogan wanted to go to Hollywood and he wanted to make movies and he was leaving the company, they needed someone. Vince was always into these big bodybuilders. He loved that no matter where they could work or not. It didn't matter. He just cared that they had these great bodies and that's what he wanted.
Warrior fit the mold and at that point, Vince decided he wanted to go that direction. The Intercontinental belt was such a hot item that it was a stepping stone to the big belt. For him to get the Intercontinental championship for me and keep it for six months or eight months, then move up to the next level made him bigger and better than he would have ever been.
WrestlingINC: It definitely catapulted him to the next level.
Honky Tonk Man: Right. It was a catapult to the next level and I didn't have a problem with it when it was done that way. It was done and everybody was professional about it. We knew about it six months ahead of time what was going to happen. We planned for it and it was laid out the proper way. I didn't have any problem with that.
I was kind of ambushed on the Randy thing. I was at a point in my life where things were going so good and we were doing so well, Randy and I, selling out every arena -- I just couldn't understand why you would just want to destroy this whole thing. Then, make him the Intercontinental champion (again) which probably would not have helped him very much at all. Him chasing me was what was selling tickets. If there were no return matches for me even in the mix -- it was like that old TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man 'We can rebuild him.' No. You can't rebuild something you've destroyed.
That was my old timer's thinking. Now, they bring these kids in and one day they got one name and the next day, they've got another. One day they've got blond hair, the next day, they've got brown hair.
WrestlingINC: At the same time, they don't really make stars like they used to.
Honky Tonk Man: No. I mean, they're ain't no stars anymore. You're right. That's a very good point. Ain't no stars anymore. People always me what's wrong with the company. I say, 'Well, when you have to have Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole as your semi-main events or your biggest angles on WrestleMania last year. Then you got to bring The Rock back and 'Stone Cold' (Steve Austin) back, you obviously have no stars on your roster.'
I mean, if you look at it logically; why'd they have to bring these guys back? You have no one there that's worth a damn.
WrestlingINC: We were watching this year's Royal Rumble and it was just very apparent how few stars there were. No one in the match really had a chance to win other then two guys.
Honky Tonk Man: Well, it's a situation where the young fellows are taken down to Florida. They keep them two or three years and put them in a training camp. But, going to training camp three or four days a week -- you don't learn your craft that way. You don't learn to be a truck driver by going to truck driver's school. You've got to be out there on the highway. [Laughs.]
But, anyway. It's their business, not mine. I got my own thing to do. I'm an independent and I'm very happy doing what I do. I travel everywhere. Sorry I was a little late answering your call for the Monday show. But the time changed and I got home late last night and I'm not an early riser until Wednesday when I got to leave for Winnipeg on a 7 AM flight. I'll be up in Winnipeg for the next four or five days. I was just up in Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin for four or five days.
I stay busy doing what I do and I really enjoy professional wrestling now more than ever because it's fun for me. I get to hang around with young kids and interact with young guys. A lot fo the young guys are very eager to listen and to learn. I don't try to teach them, but I give them a little advice here or there and that's about it.
WrestlingINC: After you dropped the title to Ultimate Warrior, they kind of dropped you down the card a bit. They put you into a tag team with Greg Valentine and everything. It looked like you were going to move to the announcers booth before you ended up leaving. What happened there towards the end of your first run in WWF?
Honky Tonk Man: As you said; once you drop the title, you drop down the card. They brought Jimmy back and Jimmy had left Vince on bad terms a year before. So, Jimmy was brought back and it was a big hoopla and a big build up and my job was to then make Jimmy look good and get Jimmy Snuka over again. Ultimately, he went on to wrestle Curt Hennig -- who then, every night, was defeating Jimmy because they were building Curt Hennig. So, Jimmy was just a pawn in the game as I was and we both knew it.
Then, it was the tag team thing with myself and Greg Valentine known as Rhythm & Blues which I thought was a really, really, really good thing. But Valentine didn't want to cooperate. He was always like, 'I'm the wrestler. I'm Johnny Valentine's son. I'm not going to go out there and do no rock and roll singing. I'm not going to dye my hair black.' So, he never really put all his effort into it.
By the same token at about the same time, they secured the services of the Road Warriors from the Charlotte guys; Crockett and Turner. We were going to take the tag team championship from the Hart Foundation. Then, [Vince] got the Road Warriors and that put us behind the eight ball because now, you had; Demolition, Road Warriors, Hart Foundation. Of course, Road Warriors end up getting the belts.
Once he had the Road Warriors, Rhythm & Blues were really behind the eight ball and they sent me over to do TV commentary with Daffy Duck. You know, Roddy Piper. [Imitates Piper.] He never stops talking. So, that was not good and I felt like I could do more in front of the camera as opposed to behind the camera. I just made a decision to just take off and leave.
WrestlingINC: You later signed with WCW after a few years. What did you do during that off period?
Honky Tonk Man: I did independent shows all around the country. All over. I had a great run with Killer Kowalski and that group up in New England. Every weekend, he would have me up there and he had great shows. Killer Kowalski's one of the nicest, sweetest gentlemen in the business. Of course, I met Triple H up there. Chyna and Gail Kim. Perry Saturn was up there.
I met so many young guys and gals breaking in the business and helped them along. Made some great relationships with some great people. I was able to go out and have fun again. This business is about having fun and entertaining the people. Not begrudging the fact that you have to get up at seven in the morning and go sit in a building all day. Somebody hands you a script like they do now.
I went to Cyber Sunday (in 2008) with Santino Morella. They handed me a script. They handed me a script for Koko B. Ware for Hall of Fame. I said, 'I don't need a script. I've known the guy for 30 years! I know what I need to say.'
Anyway, I left, did the independent thing and then WCW came along. Eric Bischoff, from day one, right off the get-go, Bischoff said, 'The only reason I brought you in is because Jimmy Hart kept hounding me to bring you in. The only way to shut Jimmy up was to bring you in. I'm not a big fan of yours.' If the guy signing your check is not a big fan of yours, you're not going very far.
WrestlingINC: Yeah. That seems like a very strange thing to say.
Honky Tonk Man: Yeah. I stayed there for about three months. I didn't have a contract and then they wanted me to do the proverbial job on television once again for Johnny B. Badd. Nothing against Marc Mero because he and I have become friends. I told him, 'Marc, it's nothing against you. My whole deal is that I don't do this stuff on TV. I'm not going out there to lay down on television.'
WrestlingINC: So, that lead to your departure?
Honky Tonk Man: Yeah. It was a very fast departure. I had a cab waiting as my music was playing. [Laughs.]
WrestlingINC: Have you spoken to Eric Bischoff since?
Honky Tonk Man: No, I have not. I couldn't care less about ever speaking to him ever again. He obviously cared about me because he wrote in his book that the one person he [got the most enjoyment out of firing] was Honky Tonk Man. After all the people that he had worked with and fired, he actually wrote in his book that it brought him more joy to fire me than anybody else. Obviously, there was something there that he liked or disliked. I don't care whether he fired me or not. He said, 'You're fired,' and I walked out. It's up to anybody's discretion.
WrestlingINC: Do you remember your last conversation with Eric?
Honky Tonk Man: Yeah. I told him that he couldn't carry Vince's jock strap. [Laughs.] He said, 'You did a job for Vince.' I said, 'Yeah. But Vince paid me a helluva lot better than you are.' [Laughs.] I told him I never did them on television, either. He said, 'If you don't do this, then we don't need you are here.' So, I told him that he couldn't carry Vince's jock strap. I grabbed my bag and I said, 'Boys, I'll see you later.'
Then Hogan came running in and said, 'Hey, brother. What's going on, brother?' I said, 'Let me tell you something, brother. I'm out of here. The only reason I was here was to give you some support because you were coming in. Then, all these guys that were never around you -- I was here to support you.' He said, 'Hey, brother. I wish I could help but I'm just here to serve and that's all.' I said, 'Well, if you can't help me, then nobody can.' So, I just said see you later and I didn't talk to that guy for 20 years.
I've not talked to Eric Bischoff. I could care less. I don't even want to talk to the guy. I got nothing to say to him. He was giving guys three, four, five, six hundred thousand -- a million dollars a year! I mean, God bless him, I was wrestling Brian Pillman a couple of times. Brian Pillman had been off and so was Marc Mero. Sitting home making $300-400,000 a year. They had not wrestled a match in six months.
Then, they come back and, 'Man, I'm so glad you're here and we get a chance to wrestle you. We've been sitting home.' I was making $1,000 a match. These guys were making $300-400,000 a year and they weren't even working. They just got a check every two weeks in the mail.
Kevin Nash and Scott Hall and those guys, they should send Jim Ross 20% agent's fee because Jim would go on TV and say, 'I heard some guys from down South might be headed up North,' and that's all he would say. Then, Eric Bischoff would give them guys a $50,000 raise. [Laughs.] 'Jim, I really appreciate what you've done for me. I'm going to give you and your wife a trip to Hawaii or something.'
Eric Bischoff would call them in the next day and say, 'Listen. I'm going to give you $50,000 more.' [Laughs.]