He was hot-tempered, overly aggressive and tough as a three-dollar steak.
So is there any wonder why Manny Fernandez was nicknamed “The Raging Bull?”
Fernandez earned his mat moniker the old-fashioned way — by learning the ropes from the likes of Terry Funk and Dick Murdoch, being the last one standing in bar fights, and shedding buckets of blood in rings from the Carolinas to Japan.
On the last count, Fernandez, now 58 years old, relates a story of a particularly brutal bout with Wahoo McDaniel at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago in 1988. It was an Indian strap match and so bloody that ESPN wouldn’t air it.
“The ring was covered in blood from corner to corner. The people went crazy,” Fernandez recalls.
There was no way that the main event between Jerry Lawler and Kerry Von Erich could follow it. That bout, ironically, was stopped due to blood.
“They had one little trickle of blood,” says Fernandez, who adds that neither Lawler nor Von Erich wanted to put the other over. “Wahoo and I lost it. Wayne Bloom, Mike Enos and Ray Stevens had to hold me to the ground to keep from getting at them. I wanted to kick their butts so bad.”
The fans booed, he says, and the promotion never came back. It would be the first and only AWA show to be broadcast on pay-per-view.
As far as being the last man standing in bar fights, of which Fernandez had quite a few, the one he most recalls is the one he’d like to forget. But it is the one where he best demonstrated his sheer toughness.
It wasn’t long after Fernandez and a fellow wrestler left a San Antonio strip bar when the trouble began. The two had left the club with a pair of female acquaintances and decided to catch a late-night snack at a nearby restaurant.
When Fernandez returned from the restroom, he saw his wrestling colleague surrounded by a group of angry bikers.
“The virtually had him surrounded, and I said this ain’t gonna happen,” recalls Fernandez, who was taught to always “protect the boys and protect the business.”
“When they told me it was none of my business, I made it my business.”
Fernandez fended off the unruly group with his big cowboy belt buckle, busting a couple wide open and sending one sailing through the window. Another, though, caught him from behind.
“This guy jumped on top of me and was hitting me — at least I thought he was hitting me — until he stabbed me under the rib cage. Then I realized they weren’t hitting me. They were stabbing me.”
Much to Fernandez’s dismay, his wrestling partner had taken a powder and left him alone. One of the attackers, Fernandez later learned, was a boyfriend of the woman who had accompanied Fernandez’s wrestling buddy to the restaurant.
Fernandez suffered eight stab wounds, including several to the arm when he attempted to block the knife. “The knife went through one end, and the point came out the other.”
When EMTs arrived, they found Fernandez unconscious, his boots covered in blood. A waitress tied a cloth napkin around his arm to contain the bleeding.
Fernandez woke up two days later in the hospital. In another two days he was back in the ring.
“I even took a backdrop with stitches in my stomach,” he says.
He remembered what Murdoch, a renowned Texas brawler, had told him years earlier after Fernandez busted his head when taking a bad bump off the top rope.
“It’s a long way from your heart, and if it’s still ticking, you’re alive.”
It was legendary tough guys like Funk and Murdoch that helped pave the way for Fernandez in the wrestling business.
It was a business that Fernandez had never planned to be a part of.
“I had never aspired to be a wrestler. I guess I was one of the weird ones.”
Born in El Paso, Texas, Fernandez left for the barrios of southern California when he was 9 years old.
Surprisingly, Fernandez wasn’t a wrestling fan growing up, but he was a talented athlete who shined on the amateur level.
He was so good that a number of Big 10 and Pac 10 schools offered him wrestling and football scholarships.
One of nine children, Fernandez decided to stay close to home to help out his single mom.
“I had no father so I had to help my mom. I had eight brothers and sisters. My mom knew that I probably would never work a job like the rest of them, so she pushed me into sports. She told me I had a gift, and that I needed to use that gift.”
Even then Fernandez says he knew he would never be cut out for a 9-to-5 job. He wasn’t one to take orders, and he certainly wasn’t the type to sit behind a desk.
So he went to San Jose City College where he was an All-American in football and wrestling.
It was the tail end of the Vietnam War, and Fernandez took note of the protests at nearby colleges.
“Everyone seemed to have majors in protesting the war. My mom’s brother served in World War II, so I had some knowledge of my family serving in the war,” he says.
When the protesting spread to his own college, Fernandez says he grew irritated and disillusioned.
“I couldn’t stand to see the pictures of people throwing tomatoes and spitting at the soldiers.”
Fernandez decided to enlist. “One thing led to another, and I ended up in Vietnam.”
The experience would subject the Navy SEAL to a variety of health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and exposure to Agent Orange, although he didn’t realize it at the time.
Upon completing his military duty in 1975, he returned to his native city of El Paso, where his ill mother had relocated. In the meantime, his mother had placed a call to a football coach at West Texas State University. It was the same offensive line coach who had recruited her son several years earlier at UCLA.
Fresh out of the military, Fernandez walked on to the West Texas State football team. Within a week he had a full scholarship.
“I just beat the living crap out of the guy in front of me,” says Fernandez. “The guy packed his bags and took off.” Word 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.
West Texas State was an outlaw, small-college football factory that produced such pro wrestling stars as Dory Funk Jr., Terry Funk, Dusty Rhodes, Dick Murdoch, Tito Santana, Tully Blanchard, Bobby Duncum, Scott Casey, Kelly Kiniski, Ted DiBiase, Stan Hansen, Bruiser Brody and Barry Windham.
Fernandez laughed when his athletic counterparts tried to talk him into pro wrestling.
“I must have been a total idiot. They asked me about pro wrestling, and I told them that (stuff) is fake.”
Fernandez says he now knows just how lucky he was to have survived making that statement.
“I actually lived to see another day. I got away with saying that to three of the toughest human beings (Funk, Murdoch and Blackjack Mulligan) on the planet.”
The wrestling pitch never waned, says Fernandez, even as he was testing the pro football waters, trying out with teams like the Kansas City Chiefs.
“It just didn’t happen for me in football. I was 6-0, 265, not the biggest guy in the ‘70s.”
Fernandez followed the pro football trail for three years. He did some special teams work with the Chiefs.
All the while, though, his wrestling buddies were pulling him in another direction.
“I was just being hardheaded. In my heart I kind of knew I was going to end up going that way. I was already having struggles in my life, but I didn’t know what I had at the time.”
The memories from his days in the Mid-Atlantic area, he says, are among his most treasured.
Fernandez will never forget what Murdoch told him when he sent him out of the Amarillo area.
“He told me he was going to send me to a place where I was going to be a star. But I would have to earn it. The people there would make me earn it.”
Dusty Rhodes, who was booking the Mid-Atlantic territory at the time, had seen Fernandez’s potential years before.
He liked the fact that Fernandez was tough and hard-nosed like the grapplers he had come through the ranks with. The “Raging Bull,” a name that Rhodes gave Fernandez, didn’t back down from anyone, and Rhodes admired that.
“Wahoo had put me in San Antonio for Joe Blanchard,” says Fernandez. “When Dusty got the big book in Mid-Atlantic, right away he brought me in and took me everywhere. So everywhere Dusty went, I went. Dusty would bring in his cool guys. And he built up a heck of a crew.”
That crew was so close and tight-knit, says Fernandez, that it brought back memories of his days in the service.
“The reason I loved pro wrestling is that it reminded me of my team ... my unit. We became a family unit of brothers who stuck together. That’s basically what happened in Mid-Atlantic. We had some differences. But it still was a family that worked so well together. And that family would watch each other’s back.”
Fernandez says he is more than a little excited to be returning to that “family” when he comes back to Charlotte on Aug. 1-4, this time as a special guest, at the annual Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest.
“It’s such an honor for me to be invited to the event. I think back to what Ricky Morton once said to me. The fans are the greatest things we have. You’ve got to respect the fans and give back to the fans.”
Fernandez spends most of his time these days training young wrestling hopefuls.
He tells his “kids” that he’s a dying breed.
He’s from an era when a young wrestler would pay his dues, keep his mouth shut unless spoken to, and respect those with more experience.
And many of those veterans, he adds, weren’t necessarily main-eventers pulling in the big pay.
“I’m a dinosaur. I had some of my greatest matches with wrestlers like Reggie Parks, Raul Mata and Mike Davis ... guys like Dennis Stamp and Larry Lane and the people underneath me who were told to ‘take care of this kid; he’s going to be somebody.’ Those guys did that. Those kinds of veterans took a young kid, and with no ego, just carried him.
“That’s why I can still get in the ring and work with my kids and show them what it takes ... psychology and how to paint a picture. I was pretty lucky that I had that. Dickie (Murdoch) made it hard for me. It wasn’t easy. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
Fernandez handpicks young talent for WWE tryouts. While he respects the current product, he admits he sometimes has a hard time adjusting to the new style.
Fernandez finds great pleasure in training the next generation. He doesn’t do it for money.
“They don’t pay me. Why? I didn’t pay for wrestling. I do it out of love for Terry and mainly Dickie Murdoch. Dickie didn’t charge me a dime to get in this business. He handed this business to me and took the time to show me. He brought people in to see how good I could shoot, and I ended up stretching them.”
One young hopeful Fernandez is particularly high on is James Island product Peter Kaasa (aka Pete Kaasanova).
“I love Pete. He’s such a great kid. He’s one of the most exciting young guys coming up,” says Fernandez. “I love to watch his style. He has such unbelievable moves. He’s been a great kid. Once he gets his promos down, he’s going to be a lock to sign with somebody.”
Fernandez says he recommended Kaasa for a WWE tryout earlier this year, and Kaasa “hit it out of the ballpark” during his pre-show match in North Charleston.
“The match was so good. They (Kaasa and Brandon Groom) did the old-school flying head scissors that Dickie Murdoch taught me. At the end of their match, the WWE talent stood up and clapped.”
Kaasa, he adds, has a rare quality among today’s crop of young wrestlers. It’s one he says that used to be a staple among his generation of wrestlers.
“The thing I like about Peter is that he listens. He shuts his mouth and opens his ears. That’s something you’re going to have a hard time finding these days with all these guys who think they know everything.”
Fernandez maintains residences in California and Union, S.C., where he helps promoter Derik Vanderford run his Trans-South Wrestling promotion.
“It’s a challenge,” says Fernandez. “Every now and then I take a couple of months off and then come back. On July 8, I get to wrestle my favorite opponent, Peter Kaasanova.”
Fernandez says he is taking Kaasa on the road to give him some more exposure.
“Peter and I are going on the road May 31-June 2 up in Charleston, W.Va. I’d like to bring him to Lucha Extreme on June 16 at the ballpark in Fresno. We have a big show at the ballpark. Last year we drew 7,000 people. Terry Funk is coming in for the show. I’d like Peter to wrestle one of my top guys, a Lucha kid, for his title on TV.”