MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Managers can still play role in pro wrestling
The subject of pro wrestling managers doesn’t come up much these days.
Newer fans of the business might not even understand the concept of a “manager” — at least in the traditional sense of the word.
Yet in years past, the role of manager was one of the most important functions in the overall presentation of the product.
It still could be.
But first you’ll have to sell Vince McMahon on that proposition.
The WWE owner is known to be not particularly fond of managers (unless they’re the “general manager” variety), tag teams or cruiserweights, feeling that those segments of the profession be best relegated to the cobwebs of history.
Ironically his father, the late Vincent James McMahon, was one of the industry’s biggest proponents of managers in the early days of the old WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation).
A staple of the business for decades, managers often were ex-wrestlers and great entertainers in their own right who could still tussle in the ring when the situation called for it. But their job, pure and simple, was to get their grappler over.
“Mouthpieces” like The Grand Wizard (Ernie Roth), Captain Lou Albano and Classy Freddie Blassie added color and excitement to storylines and feuds. In many cases their primary purpose was to do the talking for performers whose ring skills often overshadowed their ability behind a microphone.
For that reason alone, managers were an invaluable commodity, playing an integral role in the success of many of pro wrestling’s greatest heels.
The managers of yesteryear were as colorful and controversial as the profession they represented.
Characters such as Gen. Homer O’Dell, Gentleman Saul Weingeroff, J.C. Dykes, George “Two Ton” Harris, Playboy Gary Hart and Dandy Jack Crawford incited crowds during the ‘60s and ‘70s. They would later give way to a new generation that included the likes of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, J.J. Dillon, Mr. Fuji, Paul Bearer, Sir Oliver Humperdink, Jimmy Hart, Jim Cornette and Paul E. Dangerously (Heyman).
Even the ladies would eventually get into the act as valets, ring seconds or merely as eye candy and window dressing to attract the male demographic.
Missy Hyatt, Tammy “Sunny” Sytch, Baby Doll, Woman, Precious, Sensational Sherri Martel and Miss Elizabeth all helped incorporate sex appeal into pro wrestling’s managerial ranks, serving as a precursor to the modern-day WWE Divas and TNA Knockouts.
Arguably many top stars would never have achieved their level of success without slick-talking managers at their side.
Bobby Eaton of The Midnight Express was regarded as one of the top workers in the business, but without the mouth of Cornette, the tongue-tied performer’s career likely would have been unheralded.
Great heels like The Sheik and Abdullah The Butcher, whose gimmicks demanded that they rarely utter a word, wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without those dastardly “heat magnets” doing the talking for their mysterious, ominously silent charges.
The classic sell
Managers, with their gift of gab, colorful attire and assortment of foreign objects, added an extra dimension to the business.
That element is missing today.
The roles of managers have gradually diminished since the ‘90s. Today they’re on the endangered species list and nearing extinction.
It’s highly doubtful that we’ll ever see any major resurgence of wrestling managers.
But if you happened to catch last week’s edition of Monday Night Raw, the importance of a manager was obvious, playing a significant role in putting over the main event for tonight’s Summer Slam pay-per-view between Brock Lesnar and Triple H.
Few do it better than Paul Heyman.
Put a mic in his hand, and listen to the turnstiles clicking in the background.
Heyman, reverently referred to in wrestling circles as the “mad genius,” was the master architect for the ECW design. His knowledge of the business, along with a voracious appetite and passion for pro wrestling, drove him in the early ‘90s to create a new and revolutionary style of wrestling whose roots were in a Philadelphia bingo hall and whose followers were equally rabid.
With a seemingly never-ending supply of radically innovative storylines and a reckless, death-defying and brutal style of wrestling that came to be known as “hardcore,” Heyman charted a course that changed the landscape of professional wrestling and paved the way for WWE’s “Attitude” era that led to one of the hottest runs ever in the wrestling business.
But forget about his role as the mastermind of ECW where the diabolical genius and evil scientist knew how to get the best out of underutilized talent. Or his controversial but successful stints in WCW and WWE.
Heyman — booker, promoter, personality – is an old-school wrestling manager, first and foremost, who knows how to evoke emotion and say the right things. He has that innate ability to captivate an audience.
He’s part of a dying breed who understands his role yet embraces the fact that popular culture is part of the equation. What worked in 2011 won’t fly in 2012.
Heyman’s ability to provide perspective on the issue between Lesnar and Triple H undoubtedly has brought more interest and more fans into the fold.
His involvement with Shawn Michaels last week on Raw was a textbook example of two veterans putting over a money angle leading up to WWE’s second biggest event of the year.
But it all comes naturally to the 46-year-old Scarsdale, N.Y., native.
Heyman has been a serious student of the game ever since his teens when he shadowed the ”Triumvirate of Terror,” a threesome of nefarious managers that included Albano, Blassie and The Grand Wizard. His infatuation with the business led to the creation of his Paul E. Dangerously character — a brash, obnoxious manager who was merely an extension of Heyman’s real-life personality.
Twenty-five years and an assortment of varied business ventures later, Heyman finds himself back in an environment that’s second nature to him.
Whether he’s called Lesnar’s “agent” or “adviser” is irrelevant.
Heyman’s an old-school, modern-day manager who knows how to get heat and knows how to get his wrestler over.
Charisma isn’t at the top of Lesnar’s attributes list. But it doesn’t have to be. The hulking behemoth, who is a close business associate and friend of Heyman in real life, is a freak of nature — a fighting machine who does his talking inside the ropes.
Lesnar does the walk while Heyman handles the talk.
It’s a perfect combination.
Lost art form
Most wrestling pundits concede that managing in professional wrestling has become a lost art form.
That fact doesn’t bode well for the ranks of mid-card performers who could use a good mouthpiece to help boost their stock.
One former WWE performer who could have benefited from a manager was Orangeburg native Shelton Benjamin.
Regarded at the time as one of the best in-ring performers in the business, the knock against Benjamin was his inability to relate to the audience and deliver on the microphone. In a previous generation, that problem would have been easily remedied.
“I think he’s missing that X factor to make him more real,” former WWE star and 1996 Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle said of Benjamin in a 2006 interview. “Although he is a real deal, a two-time All-American in college, he’s a little bit shy. He needs to let that energy and that character come out a little more. He’s actually a real funny kid. I guess he doesn’t feel comfortable yet doing that in front of fans.”
Even Benjamin agreed with that assessment.
“I don’t think I’m going to do too much more improving wrestling-wise. I can do anything and everything at the tip of a hat. But fans still don’t know how to relate to me. They never really hear me talking. They know I’m a great athlete and they know I’m a great wrestler. But they really don’t know what type of personality I really have. That’s a big hindrance in my career until I get that aspect across to them so people can relate to me and buy into who I am.”
Despite his exceptional athleticism, Benjamin was released by WWE in 2010.
Future of managers
Managers, in the old-school style, still dot the landscape on the independent wrestling scene.
Some possess solid managerial skills and could someday, if given the chance, help elevate some promising superstars in the major organizations.
Columbia native Jim Mitchell, who has enjoyed successful runs in a number of promotions and territories over the past two decades, is the most talented of the group and draws the closest comparisons to Heyman.
As Daryl Van Horn in Smoky Mountain Wrestling, James Vandenberg in WCW, Sinister Minister in ECW or Father James Mitchell in TNA, Mitchell has more than proven his worth. But he has never worked for WWE.
No less than Heyman himself has sung the praises of Mitchell in the past.
“The best backstage promo artist in the business, bar none. A brilliant spokesman who can articulate the merits of the opponent without selling his own act short,” said Heyman. “His delivery is defined by a composure that only top-notch thespians can master, and his timing is nothing short of awe-inspiring. A compelling character whose attention-grabbing look is surpassed only by his wealth of talent.”
WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross also has compared Mitchell’s talent favorably to that of Heyman and stated that Mitchell would be a valuable acquisition to the WWE roster.
The type of manager like Heyman and Mitchell, sadly, is missing in WWE.
WWE personalities Vicky Guerrero and Ricardo Rodriguez might technically qualify as “managers,” but they hardly fit the classic mold of manager. Others simply fill in as sidekicks.
One WWE personality who recently had a run as a manager unfortunately didn’t have much success.
Brian Jossie, who played the role of AW, manager of The Primetime Players, was fired earlier this month for a controversial remark he made on a live mic.
Jossie, who made a reference to NBA star Kobe Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case, later explained that he was only trying to reflect the company’s edgy content.
That might have worked a decade ago during the Attitude Era, but things have changed in today’s PG version of WWE.
It also didn’t help his chances of a possible return when he mentioned that WWE put a convicted rapist (Mike Tyson) in its Hall of Fame.
That incident, however, shouldn’t reflect negatively on managers as a whole.
It’s a sad commentary that managers aren’t valued like they once were. Without them, many stars would have never had the chance to shine.
Although managers have been all but phased out over the past couple of decades, their value remains obvious.
Just ask guys like Paul Heyman and Jim Mitchell.
They’ll remind you that managers have provided the backdrop for some of professional wrestling’s greatest moments.
And it could be that way again.