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#8 Terry Funk
A revered name the world-over, Terry Funk has had one of the longest, most dynamic careers in professional wrestling history. While he started off as a classic babyface, Funk would morph into one of the best heels in wrestling history during the 1980s before evolving into a lovable veteran babyface in the 1990s and well into the new millennium.
Funk grew up in a wrestling family, his father Dory Funk Sr. was a wrestler and promoter in West Texas, and his brother Dory Funk Jr. would turn pro in 1963. Terry would play football at West Texas State University and also competed on the wrestling team. In 1965 he joined the family business and began working in his father's promotion, which was based in Amarillo, TX. As with most promoter's sons, the Funk brothers quickly became the backbone of the territory, forming a tag team and wrestling top talent that would come into the territory like Hank James and Ernie Ladd.
The Funk brothers would also work for other promotions under the National Wrestling Alliance banner, including the lucrative St. Louis territory, as well as working for Verne Gagne and the American Wrestling Association. By the end of the 1960s, the Funk brothers were among the most popular acts in the NWA. In 1969, Dory Funk Jr. would defeat Gene Kiniski for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, where he would become the second-longest reigning champion in that title's history, behind only the legendary Lou Thesz. Dory's run as champion was extremely beneficial to Terry, as he was obviously the top teammate of the NWA champion and the pair would work a lot of high-level tag team matches in different NWA territories. Some of their biggest opponents were the Texas Outlaws (Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch) who they brawled with in the Florida territory, and Apache Gringo and Bull Ramos, who they battled with in Amarillo.
With Dory also touring the world as the NWA Champion it allowed Terry to become the number one guy in Amarillo. Funk would win the rapidly changing NWA Western States Heavyweight Championship an even dozen times by 1974. Some of his top rivals were "The Beast" Yvon Cormier, Bull Ramos, Pak Song and Killer Karl Kox.
In 1970 Funk would travel to Japan for the first time, wrestling in the old Japan Wrestling Association. Immediately, both Funk brothers became the top gaijin wrestlers in Japan, and in Terry's second match in Japan he lost a two-out-of-three falls match to none other than Antonio Inoki. While they were both big babyfaces in the United States, the Funk brothers would become the most hated heels in Japan, challenging the JWA flag-bearers Giant Baba and Inoki in a series of tag team matches over the NWA International Tag Team Championships. The Funk brothers would eventually win the championships in a match that happened in Los Angeles of all places in May of 1971 and hold onto them until May of 1972. In 1971 they also made their World Wide Wrestling Federation debut, having a 45 minute draw at Madison Square Garden against the legendary team of The Fabulous Kangaroos.
In 1972 Giant Baba left the JWA and created his own promotion, All-Japan Pro Wrestling. The Funk brothers would become arguably the most important members of the promotion outside of Baba himself, anchoring the heel side of the promotion and also becoming in charge of training future talent and booking foreign wrestlers. Terry's first match for AJPW was an interesting one, as he teamed with Bruno Sammartino of all people to defeat Baba and Thunder Sugiyama. He would become a top contender for Baba's Pacific Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight Championship, emerging as the top foil for Baba, who was the most popular wrestler in Japan.
In the United States, Funk would forge a huge rivalry with Dusty Rhodes in Florida and their battles quickly turned into a blood feud. The feud between Rhodes and Funk would become a predecessor for the great feuds of the 1980s and 90s, as both men mixed in incredible, charismatic promos with wild, bloody brawls that set new standards for violence and bloodshed in the Florida territory. In 1975 Funk was put in a tournament in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling for the vacant NWA United States Championship, where he defeated Paul Jones in the finals of the tournament for the title, although he would drop the championship to Jones a few weeks later.
In December of 1975, Dory was scheduled to wrestle Jack Brisco for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Brisco had recently won the championship from Harley Race, who was a transitional champion in between Brisco and Dory Funk Jr. As part of a storyline, Dory ended up no-showing the match and in his place came his brother Terry, who ended up defeating Brisco for the world championship.
While Terry and Dory's careers will always be tied together, they were decisively different types of wrestlers. By most accounts, Dory was a superior technical wrestler, a physical mat grappler in the mold of the great NWA Champions of the past. He was soft-spoken and humble, but also had the capacity to get worked into a dangerous rage while making comebacks against hated opponents. In short, he was in line with most of the other great champions of the time (Pat O'Connor, Bruno Sammartino, Verne Gagne, Jack Brisco, etc.) Terry was a different breed; he was always considered the wild one of the two and he was known for his rough, crazy brawling style and passionate promos. He wasn't the humble, calm champion, rather he was the supremely intense, snarling champion that would pave the way for future babyface champions, anti-heroes like his fellow Texan, Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Funk would spend all of 1976 traveling the world as the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. He feuded with former champion Pat O'Connor in Amarillo and with the persistent challenger Harley Race in St. Louis. He traveled up to Stampede Wrestling in Calgary to face their top heel, "The Mongolian Stomper" Archie Gouldie and against Rhodes and Wahoo McDaniel in North Carolina. In Japan he would successfully defend the championship against Jumbo Tsuruta in a terrific televised Two-out-of-Three Falls match that would become a defining moment in Tsuruta's young career.
Funk's world title run would come to an end in February of 1977 when he would pass out in Race's Indian Deathlock at a show in Toronto, costing him the world championship. He would fail to regain the championship in rematches and he would also find himself facing AWA World Heavyweight Champion Nick Bockwinkel in a series of matches in Texas, normally ending in double-count-outs or draws. Despite the fact that he would remain a prominent challenger for world championships for around 15 years after, he would never again hold a true world title.
In December of 1977, Funk would have arguably the most important match of his career. Teaming with his brother in the finals of the Open Tag League (the predecessor to AJPW's Real World Tag League) where they wrestled The Sheik and Abdullah the Butcher in a wild, blood-spewing rampage that tore down Tokyo's Kuramae Kokugikan. At the end of the match, the bloodied and beaten Funk brothers emerged as heroes to the Japanese, turning them into huge babyfaces, shattering the previous idea that foreign wrestlers had to always be heels in Japan. The match is considered by many to be the godfather of the hardcore wrestling movement which gained traction in the 1990s and leaves bloody fingerprints on wrestling today.
In 1978 Funk would work as a jack-of-all-trades for AJPW, wrestling a variety of different opponents. He had bloody singles matches against The Sheik and Abdullah as an extension of their rivalry in the tag ranks and he would also wrestle clean matches against workhorses like Tsuruta and Bockwinkel. In addition he continued to tag with his brother in tag team matches that were the most hyped bouts in the company, against the ace duo of Baba and Tsuruta along with The Shiek and Abdullah as well as Billy Robinson and Black Angus. In the US, Funk would continue his rivalry with Harley Race and also feud with the Brisco brothers over the NWA Georgia Tag Team Championships.
By 1980 Funk was one of the most well-traveled wrestlers in the world. He of course spent time in AJPW, competing in the Real World Tag League and the Champions Carnival. He wrestled singles matches in Georgia Championship Wrestling, renewing his rivalry with Dusty Rhodes, with Rhodes at this point now one of the biggest babyfaces in the world. It was working with Rhodes that Funk began to start wrestling a bit as a heel in the United States. Funk's wild, chaotic style was in line with other crazed heels, like Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, Mad Dog Vachon, yet because of his family name and his run as NWA World Heavyweight Champion, he was almost always a babyface while wrestling in the United States. However by the end of the decade, Funk would return to the national spotlight as the most hated heel in America.
Terry Funk reportedly began seriously considering retirement back in 1978. His NWA World Heavyweight Championship reign had come to an end and he confided to industry insider Larry Matysik that he was burnt out and considering retirement. In professional wrestling, retirements are often not forever, but Funk set new standards for going into retirement and coming out of retirement. If you were to make a bullet point list of Funks career, it would probably read like this: NWA Champion, feared brawler, legend in Japan, retired more times than any other wrestler in history.
In 1983 Funk went on a heavily publicized retirement tour in AJPW. Funk had been a building block for the company since its inception and ever since the Funk brothers epic match against Abdullah and The Sheik he had become one of the most popular good guys in Japan. If a foreign wrestler could ever claim legendary status in Japan, Funk would be the guy to do that. In August, Funk wrestled his "final" match, teaming with his brother to defeat Hansen and Terry Gordy in front of a sold-out Kuramae Kokugikan. Following the match, Funk cut one of the more well-known promos in wrestling history, giving a gut-wrenching thank you to the AJPW faithful and culminating in Funk shouting "Forever" over and over again.
Of course, Funk's retirement would not last very long at all. He returned to the ring in October of 1984, tagging with his brother against the AWA World Tag Team Champions The Road Warriors at a show in St. Louis. In November Funk returned to AJPW as a part of the Real World Tag League, again teaming with his brother, which ended up being somewhat of a mistake. Unlike in the US, wrestling fans in Japan were not conditioned to expect retired wrestlers to frequently come out of retirement, and after Funk gave his heartfelt promo last year at his retirement match, the Japanese fan base felt betrayed by Funk essentially lying to them about his retirement. While he would continue to wrestle for AJPW throughout the decade, his reputation took a hit and even today he doesn't hold the same legendary status that his brother and other gaijins still possess.
In 1985 the Funk brothers would join many other stars of the territorial era and begin wrestling in the WWF as Vince McMahon acquired the top talent from around the country. The Funk brothers would come in as heels, a new role for them in America, with Terry in particular coming across as a crazed Texan. During his television debut in the company Funk squashed Aldo Marino and then beat up ring announcer Mel Phillips when Phillips accidently put on Funk's cowboy hat. He also had a gimmick where he carried a branding iron to the ring and would "brand" his fallen opponents.
Funk would end up challenging WWF World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan for the title, losing several house show matches and a televised match in Philadelphia and at an edition of Saturday Night's Main Event. Despite the fact that he came in with his brother, Funk would wrestle mainly in singles matches, against Hogan but also against B-level babyfaces like the Junkyard Dog and Danny Spivey. Eventually he would tag with his brother at WrestleMania II, defeating the Junkyard Dog and Jimmy Hart. Shortly thereafter Funk would leave the WWF and spend most of 1987 and 1988 in semi-retirement.
At this point the careers of Terry and his brother Dory pretty much mirror each other. If we are comparing resumes, Dory would probably have the slight edge by 1988 because he held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for a longer period of time. However, the reason Terry ranks higher than his older brother in this list is because of what Terry would do in the wrestling world over the next ten years or so. While Dory faded away into the twilight of his career, many of Terry's most memorable moments would come about.
In May of 1989 Terry Funk appeared as one of three guest judges for a NWA World Heavyweight Championship bout between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat in what was the climactic match of their epic rivalry. Flair defeated Steamboat to regain the championship, after which Funk publically challenged Flair for a championship shot. Flair rebuffed Funk, saying that Funk was a has-been and had been spending too much time in Hollywood, an allusion to Funk experimenting with professional acting during his semi-retirement. This caused Funk to snap and he ended up piledriving Flair on the ringside table. He then formed The J-Tex Corporation, along with Gary Hart, The Great Muta, Buzz Sawyer, Dick Slater and Kazuo Sakurada, launching one of the seminal feuds of the 1980s.
Flair would remain out of action until The Great American Bash event in July. The angle also effectively turned Flair babyface, after he had spent most of the decade as the antagonist who hoarded the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, and the affable Flair would remain of the best babyfaces in wrestling throughout most of the 1990s (give or take a brief heel run here and there). The feud also marked one of the only times that Flair matched up with a true equal in and outside of the ring. Flair became synonymous throughout his wrestling career with carrying opponents to the best feuds of their careers. Flair often worked with guys like Sting and Dusty Rhodes, who while charismatic were not on the same level in the ring as Flair. Conversely, he also worked with guys like Ricky Steamboat and Barry Windham, who were great in the ring but needed Flair's charisma outside of it to have the best feuds of their careers. Funk was someone who not only was as legendary as Flair was by the end of the 1980s, but he was also still a good worker and his volcanic personality matched Fliar's own outlandish nature. As Dave Meltzer put it "the Flair vs Funk feud was phenomenal because instead of Flair making someone, it was someone making Flair."
The feud had many memorable moments, including Funk suffocating Flair with a plastic shopping bag and some incredible promos by both men. Flair defeated Funk at The Great American Bash with the title on the line when he reversed an inside cradle for the pinfall, but he was jumped by Muta after the match. When Flair's sworn enemy Sting ran out to help Flair, it cemented Flair's status as a babyface and the two would team up against Muta and Funk. Their feud would end with an epic "I Quit" match on an episode of Clash of the Champions, with Flair getting Funk to utter the dreaded two words in what many fans feel is the best match in either man's incredible career.
Funk would leave WCW shortly thereafter and return to wrestle in AJPW, teaming with his brother. In the early-1990s, Funk would again reinvent himself, this time as a hardcore wrestler. Funk's wild fights with Abdullah the Butcher, The Sheik, Stan Hansen and Bruiser Brody in AJPW helped pave the way for promotions in the 1990s to spring up specializing in the ultra-violent style of matches that took the bloodshed in AJPW and other promotions like Detroit's Big Time Wrestling and Puerto Rico's World Wrestling Council and took it a step further.
In 1993 Funk made his first appearance in Philadelphia-based independent promotion Eastern Championship Wrestling, soon to be re-named Extreme Championship Wrestling, defeating Eddie Gilbert in an "I Quit" Texas Deathmatch. In that same year, Funk also began wrestling in Japan for Atsushi Onita's Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, a promotion similar to ECW. Funk's notoriety in Japan would prove to be a huge boon to FMW, as his first appearance (a main event No Rope Exploding Barbed Wire Time Bomb Death Match) drew over 40,000 fans to Kawasaki Stadium. Incredibly, Funk was nearly 50 years old when he began working for these promotions, and was willing to do horrible things to his body in order to get over as a hardcore wrestler, showing that no matter his age, Funk was willing to do whatever it took to become a star.
Funk's role in both ECW and FMW was that he added legitimacy to each promotion. Most of the wrestlers in ECW were either former mid-carders in large promotions who had been passed over (Cactus Jack, Shane Douglas), young wrestlers with little name value outside of ECW (Rob Van Dam, Taz, Justin Credible) or unique hardcore wrestlers who wouldn't get a glimpse from large promotions (Sabu and The Sandman). Not only was Funk an experienced wrestler, he was already viewed as a legendary star in the industry, someone that had held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for over a year and wrestled around the world. Few wrestlers would have given ECW and FMW as big of a legitimacy boost as Funk did.
Funk would commit himself to the hardcore wrestling style for most of the decade, not only wrestling for ECW and FMW, but other blood-and-guts organizations as well, including the International Wrestling Association Japan, where he famously fought in the King of the Death Match tournament, losing to good friend Cactus Jack in the finals in a No Ropes Barbed Wire Exploding Barbed Wire Boards & Exploding Ring Time Bomb Death Match in front of over 25,000 people at Kawasaki Stadium. In 1997 he won the ECW World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of the company's first ever PPV, Barely Legal, the event which many feel was the high-water mark for the renegade promotion.
His hardcore prowess would bring him back to the WWF in 1997, when he debuted in 1997 as Chainsaw Charlie, a play on Mick Foley's Cactus Jack gimmick. Chainsaw Charlie was Funk's dangerous alter-ego, and while his time in the WWF was brief, the duo did attain some success, capturing the WWF World Tag Team Championships from the New Age Outlaws at WrestleMania XIV in an infamous Dumpster match. Funk would leave the promotion in August of 1998 after feuding with Foley. In 2000 Funk would continue as a hardcore specialist in WCW, winning the WCW Hardcore Championship on numerous occasions and even defeating Lance Storm for the United States Championship, albeit at that point in WCW the championships had moved around so much that they were rendered pretty much meaningless.
After leaving WCW in 2001, Funk continued to wrestle on the independents on both sides of the Pacific, as well as make sporadic appearances in AJPW. He returned to WWE in 2006 to become part of a notable feud with Edge and Tommy Dreamer, teaming up with Foley and having a memorable match at ECW's second "One Night Stand" event, turning back the clock and taking some horrible bumps in a losing effort. Now 72 years old, Funk still makes the occasional appearance here and there, most recently working in Japan's Dramatic Dream Team promotion.
Terry Funk may not have had the best career in wrestling history, but I would argue that he did have the most fascinating. Funk debuted in the 1960s, the son of a promoter and an honest babyface who carried the Amarillo promotion with his brother. He formed a legendary tag team with Dory Funk Jr. and had hot feuds all over the NWA, including in Japan, where he would become an icon. He became the NWA champion when that belt still had tons of prestige and defended it on three different continents. In the late 1980s, at an age when most wrestlers would be winding down their career, he reinvented himself as lunatic heel. In the 1990s, when many wrestlers would be well past their expiration date, he continued to contribute to wrestling on a global scale, becoming a hardcore legend in both the US and Japan. Even into the new millennium Funk occasionally proved that he still had what it took to get over with any crowd. Some wrestlers drew more money and had more classic matches and were bigger all-around stars, but perhaps no other wrestler contributed to the industry in as varied aspects as Terry Funk.
Next week #7, yet another puroresu legend.
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.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock
12. Jumbo Tsuruta
11. Stan Hansen
10. The Undertaker
9. Verne Gagne
8. Terry Funk