Derik Vanderford has been promoting wrestling shows in Union, S.C., for the past several years.
But an upcoming event has him more than just a little excited.
Vanderford is presenting a seminar and wrestling show Saturday at the Union County Fairgrounds. But it isn’t just any seminar and any wrestling show.
Terry Funk, one of pro wrestling’s most colorful figures, is coming to town to conduct the “Texas Wrestling Legends Seminar,” along with fellow Texan Manny Fernandez, and also will take part in an event later that night.
“Terry is one of my all-time favorites. I’m really excited as a fan and as a promoter,” says Vanderford. “Terry doesn’t get to come to this area much, and I’m just happy to be able to bring something special to the people here. I’m as excited as anybody.”
Funk will be in the corner of Deon Johnson and Charleston’s Pete Kaasa in the main event of Saturday night’s Trans-South Wrestling show. On the opposing side will be Fernandez and Hunter Thompson (managed by Thomas Simpson).
There isn’t much that the 69-year-old Funk hasn’t done in the business over the past half century. He became a member of an elite fraternity when he won the NWA world title from Jack Brisco in 1975, and more than two decades later, at the age of 52, captured the ECW world championship.
A member of the famous Funk wrestling family, his father was the late, great West Texas star and promoter Dory Funk Sr., and his older brother, Dory Funk Jr., presided over one of the greatest NWA world title reigns in history from 1969-73.
Vanderford says the chance for aspiring grapplers to learn from the WWE Hall of Famer is a rare opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
“There’s some great talent out there today, but it does seem like there’s something missing. It seems like that ‘Terry Funk quality’ is what’s missing,” says Vanderford. “The chance to train with Terry and Manny is special, because Terry was a mentor to Manny when he broke into the business. You’re getting quite a faculty of teachers.”
No one, though, will be happier to see Funk than “The Raging Bull.”
“I love this man with all my heart. He’s just so good-hearted,” says Fernandez, 59, who credits Funk and the late Dick Murdoch with molding him into a top pro.
Fernandez was a hot-tempered, overly aggressive college football player at West Texas State during the late ‘70s when Funk and Murdoch, both West Texas State products, saw a future in the squared circle for Fernandez.
Both liked his style and his grit, and began mentoring Fernandez.
“Manny has always been aggressive and hot-tempered. It worked to his advantage in football,” says Funk. “He was an excellent ballplayer. He wasn’t that big ... probably around 230 to 240 at offensive guard. But he was a damn good one.”
“Dickie Murdoch loved the way I played football,” says Fernandez. “I played angry, and if you got in my face, I fought you right there on the football field. A lot of people didn’t know I was a veteran at the time. I didn’t go around telling anybody about my background. Dickie kind of liked that attitude. He wanted me to get involved with professional wrestling.”
While Murdoch pushed Fernandez, Funk always was right around the corner, giving the greenhorn sage advice and teaching him the ropes, urging him to wrestle “with shadows and broomsticks,” a technique young wrestlers used to hone their craft.
Murdoch, says Fernandez, was brutally blunt with his assessment of the wrestling profession.
“Dickie gave me a lot of advice about this business and how bad it could be,” says Fernandez.
“It’s a beautiful business and you can make a ton of money, but it’s the worst backstabbing business you’ll ever be involved with in your life. You’ve got to watch yourself,” Murdoch warned him.
“You’re going to be very famous in this business. But remember this. Whatever you take from this business, you give back to it,” added Murdoch, who died in 1996 at the age of 49.
It was the best advice Fernandez ever received, and he remembers it to this day.
“I’ve always remembered those words. You give back to it. So that’s what I’ve been doing all along.”
It’s also one of the reasons Fernandez joined Vanderford three years ago as a trainer and co-promoter of shows in the Union area under the Trans-South Wrestling banner.
“I took all those lessons and all the things that I learned from all of those greats, and I started teaching Derik. When we started this thing, I told him to keep one thing in mind. Think about what you can give back to the community. Put out a good product. Make the fans feel wanted. They’re the main reason you’re promoting this show once a month.”
“The promotion is very community-oriented,” says Vanderford, who adds that the organization often makes donations to worthy area groups.
“Everything we do is connected to the community. That’s how it was back in the territory days, dating back to Terry’s dad (Dory Funk Sr.) in Texas or Eddie Graham in Florida. The community felt like the promotion was a part of it. That’s what we try to do here.”
Pro wrestling detour
It wasn’t until meeting Terry Funk and Dick Murdoch that Fernandez ever imagined getting into a professional wrestling ring.
A talented amateur, Fernandez was so good that a number of Big 10 and Pac 10 schools offered him wrestling and football scholarships.
A stint at San Jose City College, where he was an All-American in football and wrestling, was followed by a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Fresh out of the military, Fernandez walked on to the West Texas State football team. Within a week he had a full scholarship.
Word of Fernandez’s toughness quickly spread among the West Texas State wrestling crowd, most notably Murdoch, and was passed down the line to the Funks, who ran the Amarillo territory.
Fernandez laughed when his athletic counterparts tried to talk him into pro wrestling.
“I think I’m the only person who ever called pro wrestling ‘fake’ to Terry Funk, Dickie Murdoch and Blackjack Mulligan and lived to tell about it. Apparently they liked me enough to put up with that garbage.”
It was Funk, says Fernandez, who gave Murdoch the green light to send the rookie to Florida.
“When they sent me from Amarillo to Tampa, they actually released me to Jack and Jerry Brisco. They took over and started grooming me and teaching me,” recalls Fernandez.
Promoter Eddie Graham liked Fernandez’s innate toughness, along with the fact that he was extremely popular with the Hispanic audience.
“Terry put me over (for the Florida title) in the middle, and that was just a rocket shot to the moon. That was the biggest thing in the world,” says Fernandez.
“There was a reason I did that,” explains Funk. “I saw his ability. I knew he was the right guy. Dusty (Rhodes) left out of there at the time and left it high and dry. And I knew Manny Fernandez was the right guy. He had the M.O. He was a great athlete, he had the credentials. He was young, he had the fire and just really fit the bill.”
And Funk knows talent when he sees it.
“I have a knack — and still do — where I can look at a guy and tell you if he’s going to draw you money or not. That’s very difficult to do. I haven’t met too many people who can do that ... taking guys and pulling them out of a hat.
“It’s because of my father and being in the business forever. I was six years old and knew I wanted to be a wrestler. I’ve seen a million of them, and I can tell you to this day, when I see someone, I can tell you whether or not he’s going to draw money.”
Funk, indeed, has one of the best eyes in the business for recognizing talent. But talent, he adds, has to be cultivated and nurtured. To have a chance to succeed in the business, an aspiring grappler must have experience.
“It also takes a bit of luck,” says Funk.”But you just can’t go there without any experience and make it. You have to find someplace to get a jump on it. You can’t go the New York (WWE) school in Orlando, walk in that door — having never been in the ring — and make it. I don’t care if you’re a gold medalist or won the national championship in something. You have got to be experienced when you go there.”
Funk is looking forward to working with young wrestling hopefuls at Saturday’s seminar, and teaching them a little of his vast knowledge of the wrestling business. At the same time, though, he’s not going to advise anyone to leave his day job.
“There’s a reason for people like Manny and my brother and for so many others in the business that are training guys. They should go there and learn, but don’t give up their jobs. Keep your profession. Do it for the fun of it. Very likely you’re not going to have the opportunity to do it to become rich and famous. It’s easier to make the NFL than WWE.”
“But if you can get there,” adds Funk, “you can become a very rich man. If you can’t get there, don’t spend your entire lifetime trying to.”
Learning from the best
Fernandez says nothing can compare with the education he received early in his career. He spends most of his time these days training young wrestlers.
“The younger kids who watched Terry and me coming up now are in their late thirties and mid-forties,” he says. “But they’re still excited about seeing us old-timers. They still come around.”
Fernandez could talk about Funk and Murdoch for hours on end. Funk jokingly says that his friend’s admiration is puzzling.
“I don’t know why he goes on and on about us. Dickie Murdoch was nuts. But so is Manny,” he laughs.
But there’s a special bond between the two that runs deep.
“I’ve always honored and respected Terry. He was like a father to me. So was Dickie,” says Fernandez. “When I lost Dickie, it was kind of like losing my own mother when she passed. Dickie always supported me and kept me in check. He was like a dad. So is Terry.”
Fernandez will get the chance to rehash old memories and chart the future of the wrestling business when Funk arrives this weekend for what Fernandez refers to as one of their “sit-downs.”
“We have these sit-downs where he calls me up and demands that I need to come see him. That’s what we call the sit-down. He misses me every three or four months, and we have to go have a sit-down. We talk about the business and what direction it’s going.”
“I really enjoy getting with Manny,” says Funk. “What a character. He’s from the old school. He does an excellent job teaching those younger boys. He’s very strict and very conservative in his teaching, and I think that’s good. He does a fantastic job.”
Fernandez admits he’s still a “mark” when it comes to the former world champion.
“To this day I still get goose bumps just being in the ring with Terry Funk ... just like I did when I was a rookie. Every time I’m around him, I mark out for him. His knowledge in this business is untouchable. He has taken knowledge from Dory Funk Sr. and old-timers back in the day. He’s been around pro wrestling since he was born. There’s a lot of great wrestlers out there with 30 years or more experience, but they can’t even touch what he knows.”
“When you stop learning in this business, you’re dead,” Fernandez remembers Murdoch once telling him.
“In every walk of life, you should always be learning,” says Fernandez. “Terry keeps me young because when I see Terry keep going, and when I do the sit-down with him, we talk about things like that.”
No longer can you go in cycles in the wrestling business, says Fernandez. “You’ve got to reinvent it and improve it.”
“You’ve also got to have respect,” he says. “Nothing is more important in this profession than respect.”
Funk, he says, is great working with youngsters who want to learn about the business.
“What I love about Terry is that he respects all the kids. He has them laughing, praises their work, tells them about their mistakes. He tells them to be themselves. He will take the time to sit down with them and tell them why he liked something or why he didn’t like something, and how they can do it better. You’re not going to find a person, especially someone from one of the first families of wrestling, do that.”
“I’m so looking forward to being down there with some of these young people,” says Funk. “I feel like I can help them out because I’ve been shown and taught by the great ones, and I’ll have the opportunity to get in there and talk to them about the great ones. It’s always a pleasure to try to leave a little something, and it’s very, very important to me to leave a little bit of my life with them.
“My father left a bit of his life with me. He gave me a gift, as did so many other wrestlers, like Mike DiBiase, Bob Geigel, Verne Gagne and Gene Kiniski. They all left me with something. If I can possibly leave these youngsters with a bit ... I would love to leave them with the bridle, too, but if I can just leave them with a bit.”
The seminar is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Saturday. Bell time is 7:30 p.m. at the Union County Fairgrounds.
For more information, visit http://texaslegends.eventbrite.com/
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.