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#18 Dory Funk Jr.
Ahead of Dusty? Really? The "lesser" of the two Funk brothers who American fans often heard about but never actually saw during Terry Funk's run during the late 1980s and 1990s? Yes, Dory Funk Jr. is probably the best American wrestler to kind of slip through the cracks of history, at least from the last 50 years. He might not have the same name value as his brother, but Dory Funk Jr. was one of the biggest draws on two different continents for more than two decades.
Funk began wrestling in 1963 after playing football at West Texas State University. Funk's father, Dory Sr. was the promoter of the Amarillo territory in Western Texas and was a notable wrestler himself, so it was natural for his athletic son to follow in his footsteps. His first match was a victory over Don Fargo in Amarillo and he quickly became a popular wrestler in the territory. During this time period, and particularly in Texas and southern promotions, being the son of a popular wrestler meant a lot, to the point that promoters would often lie about a wrestlers' family history to help get a young wrestler over with the audience; Ricky Steamboat being a perfect example of this.
Being the son of a popular wrestler helped give Funk a great start to his career. Most wrestlers who broke into the industry end up jobbing and opening shows for several years before getting any form of a real opportunity to get over with the audience on a significant level. Even wrestlers who would go on to great success in the future, like Dusty Rhodes, started off their career slowly, waiting several years to really make a mark on the industry. Funk was very fortunate to be the son of a promoter (in addition to being a great individual talent and a fast learner) and didn't have to deal with many of those hurdles early in his career, which set him up for tremendous success just a few years into his career.
Already a star in Texas, Funk would begin to move into the other important National Wrestling Alliance territories and made a name for himself. In 1965, just two years into his career he already was wrestling big matches in the Missouri and Florida territories. Some of those early opponents included Wild Bill Curry, Iron Mike DiBiase (Ted DiBiase's father) and a young Harley Race. Funk became a staple at the historic Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, which was the real capital of the National Wrestling Alliance. A key match in his career took place on October 22, 1965 when he teamed with Johnny Powers and John Paul Henning and defeated Bobby Graham, Gene Kiniski and Fritz Von Erich. Kiniski and Von Erich were arguably the two top heels in the NWA during that time period, and it was a sign that Funk could topple the top heels in any territory.
Early in his career Funk was a straight banger in the ring, wrestling a physical, brawling style that was exciting in Texas. However, as he matured as a talent he also became one of the finest technical wrestlers in the world, combining his stiff strikes with various different holds, including his signature spinning toe hold.
On February 11, 1969 Funk achieved the pinnacle of the wrestling world when he was just 28 years old, defeating Kiniski with a spinning toe hold for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship at a show in Tampa. Funk would prove to be one of the most durable champions in wrestling history, holding the championship for four and a half years, the second longest single title reign in the championship's history, only behind Lou Thesz's first title reign.
Like many of the great champions of that era, Funk embodied what was believed a great babyface should be. He was an excellent technical wrestler, he had the reputation of being double-tough in the ring and could handle himself in potential risky situations. He was humble outside of the ring but showed great fire in his comebacks against various hated opponents. At the time the NWA World Heavyweight Champion wrestled the most hellacious schedule known to ever exist in the industry, making dates in all of the NWA territories, not only in North America but in Japan as well. The NWA Champion is determined by a board of directors who had to agree on a champion that they believe would be universally appealing in all of their territories. It is extremely difficult to find a talent that is representative of all the required qualities, but Funk was it. Funk also proved to be a successful enough draw that he remained a champion for longer than anybody else except the great Lou Thesz.
I don't want to weigh the number of world championships someone wins or the length of those reigns too heavily on this list, because there are different mitigating factors that go into those statistics beyond the sheer ability of the performer. As we have already seen, men like Triple H (and later in the countdown, Verne Gagne, Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki) had enough political capital to earn perhaps unwarranted title reigns. At the same time, men like Dusty Rhodes didn't have any lengthy world title reigns simply because they didn't fit the preconceived model of what a champion should look/act like.
At the same time though, Funks reign as NWA World Heavyweight Champion is still a remarkable facet of his career. For over 1,500 days Funk proved himself to be the most reliable draw in the NWA and always carried the championship with honor and dignity.
Winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship would bring Funk to Japan, wrestling for the Japan Wrestling Association. On December 2, 1969 Funk had a watershed match against a young Antonio Inoki, wrestling Inoki to a 60-minute draw in Osaka in a match that was broadcasted all over Japan. It was the first time the NWA World Heavyweight Championship had been defended in Japan in over 12 years and would mark a turning point for not only Funk, but for wrestling in Japan in general. The next night Funk repeated his performance in Tokyo, this time going the distance with Giant Baba. The matches with Inoki and Baba would set the groundwork for Funk to become perhaps the best-known American wrestler in Japanese history.
Back in the United States, Funk would find a new opponent to wrestle all over the country, this time a former NCAA National Champion in Jack Brisco. Although Funk was a popular babyface champion, Brisco was also a babyface star and was extremely popular, especially in his native Oklahoma. Long before The Von Erich's and The Fabulous Freebirds ignited a Texas vs Georgia rivalry, Funk and Brisco had a legendary Texas vs Oklahoma rivalry that crossed over into real life. Funk vs Brisco would become a staple of the NWA for the early-1970s and help define southern wrestling throughout the decade. Brisco and Funk would wrestle each other over 300 times throughout their wrestling careers in various different matches, setting new standards for technical wrestling and was eventually recognized by some fans as the predecessor for the legendary Ric Flair vs Ricky Steamboat matches that came a decade later.
In addition to Brisco, Funk would face off against other top names in the NWA, including Dick Murdoch, Danny Hodge (another Oklahoma icon) and even defeating an aging Freddie Blassie during a west coast tour. In 1970 he would return to Japan and have repeat matches with Inoki and Baba. For the first time, Funk's brother Terry would make the trip over to Japan and he would tag with his brother against Inoki and Baba, teaming up the two most popular wrestlers in Japan against the dreaded Americans. On the heels of their tour in Japan, the Funk brothers would become the most popular tag team perhaps in wrestling history, proving to be sensational draws in both the United States and Japan.
In 1973 the time finally came for Funk to surrender the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, and the NWA Board of Directors wanted Brisco to be the new champion. Funk and his father were apprehensive about having Funk drop the championship to another babyface; and when the time came for Funk to drop the championship to Brisco, he was involved in a truck accident in Amarillo, cutting off any chance of Funk getting into the ring and dropping the title to Brisco. Some still speculate that Funk was actually never injured and that it was a ploy by the Funk family to avoid dropping the championship to Brisco. Funk would eventually drop the championship, to Harley Race, who then quickly dropped the championship to Brisco.
No longer the NWA champion, Funk would remain an important figure in wrestling on both sides of the Pacific. With the Japan Wrestling Association splintered due to the departures of Inoki and Baba, the Funks sided with Baba and became staples for his promotion, All-Japan Pro Wrestling. Funk would wrestle in singles matches against Baba for the Pacific Wrestling Federation Heavyweight Championship and would also challenge Baba and a young star the Funks helped train, Tomomi Tsuruta, for the NWA International Tag Team Championships.
Terry Funk would capture the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1975 and he would continue to team with Dory in both the United States in Japan. The Funks would battle The Briscos in tag battles, particularly in the Florida and Georgia territories, remaining one of the more resilient feuds in wrestling history when it comes to drawing money over an extended period of time. In AJPW, The Funks would win the marquee tag team event in the wrestling industry, The World's Strongest Tag Determination League three times, in 1977, 1979 and 1982. Funk would also find singles success in AJPW, winning the vacated NWA International Heavyweight Championship in 1981, and also defending it in Japan against his brother Terry.
The Funk brothers, no matter where they were became known for having the best tag team matches anywhere in wrestling. In the United States, they not only had classic bouts against The Briscos but also with The Texas Outlaws (Dick Murdoch and Dusty Rhodes) and other top tag teams. In Japan, they received critical acclaim for their matches against the top tag teams on the archipelago. In 1980 a tag team match against Baba and the re-named Jumbo Tsuruta won the prestigious Best Bout Award for 1980 from Tokyo Sport. In 1984 the Funks wrestled Bruiser Brody and Stan Hansen in one of the first matches to earn a perfect five star rating from the Wrestling Observer. Their status in Japan eventually became so enormous that they became top babyfaces for AJPW.
While Funk never again held a true world championship, he challenged for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship on a number of occasions in the 1980s, including a famous bout against Flair in 1982. He also captured several regional singles and tag team championships in some of the most marketable territories in the world, including Stampede Wrestling, Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and World Wrestling Council in Puerto Rico.
In 1986 The Funk brothers had a brief stint in the World Wrestling Federation, mostly getting lost in the shuffle of one of the deepest talent rosters in wrestling history, their most notable moments coming when they challenged The British Bulldogs for the WWF World Tag Team Championships. Following his departure from the WWF, Funk scaled back his wrestling dates and working almost exclusively for AJPW and working as a liaison for foreign talent looking to work for the company. He wrestled frequently throughout the 1990s and has been making the occasional appearance in matches all the way through 2016 despite being 75 years old.
Besides his prominent career inside the ring, Funk has become one of the most well-known trainers in the industry and his training academy, The Funkin' Conservatory, has become one of the hotbeds for developing talent. Ted DiBiase, Kurt Angle, Christian, Edge and The Hardy Boys are just a few of the names to be trained by Funk over the years.
Funk enjoyed a remarkably lengthy career that saw him develop into one of the most prominent singles and tag team wrestlers of All-Time. Funk checks off all the boxes when it comes to having a legendary career: lengthy world title reigns, iconic matches, remarkable resiliency as a top name, the ability to draw a large audience and to work with a variety of different opponents and get high-quality matches out of all of them. Funk might not have the same name value with younger fans the way that his brother does, but ask any old wrestler or promoter who saw both of them in their prime and they will tell you that Dory was every bit as talented and famous as Terry.
Next week #17 will be revealed, a long-time company ace that would eventually go down as one of the very best technical wrestlers in the history of the industry.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.