Past meets future at wrestling’s Funking Conservatory

MIKE MOONEYHAM/STAFF Dory Funk Jr. with wife Marti.

OCALA, Fla. — It’s called The Funking Conservatory.

Due west of the heart of Ocala, and just south of this central Florida town’s airport, a rather nondescript building completely belies the energy that pulsates behind its concrete walls.

Inside the structure is a university of sorts, a place of higher learning, with a 20-by-20 wrestling ring strategically positioned at the center. Ample seating, locker rooms and a professional soundstage all give the space the desired look of an old-time professional wrestling studio.

It’s a place where the past meets the future.

The Conservatory is literally a school of hard knocks — a training ground for a group of aspiring pro wrestlers with dreams of one day appearing in front of thousands of cheering fans.

For now, though, they’re satisfied with learning a trade and honing skills that could eventually land them a spot in the big time.

They enjoy a definite advantage on that score.

The heart and soul of this school is the husband and wife team of Dory and Marti Funk. The 71-year-old Funk, son of the legendary Dory Funk Sr., was National Wrestling Alliance world heavyweight champion from 1969-73, boasting one of the most impressive title runs in the history of the business and later training some of the sport’s biggest stars.

Having held numerous championships in almost every territory he worked, Dory and younger brother Terry, now 68, also have the distinction of being the only brother duo to ever hold the prestigious NWA world title.

With that kind of sterling resume, Funk has the luxury of attracting high-caliber prospects who are dedicated to mastering their craft.

Marti Funk, Dory’s wife of 27 years, is the other half of the operation, serving as producer of the school’s weekly !Bang! TV show in addition to working as photographer, videographer and social media director.

The Funks have run the wrestling academy for more than a decade.

Marti, says Dory, is the creative engine behind the business.

“She’s very much an ideas person. She does the television production, but we work in partnership on all of this. There’s so much we have to do where she takes part in some things and I take part in others. Generally she’s on the floor with production and I’m in the dressing room with the guys before the show.”

The two work together like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

“We really enjoy the fact that we can work together on projects like The Funking Conservatory,” says Funk.

The students at The Funking Conservatory are an eclectic bunch with various backgrounds and hailing from all corners of the country.

Cory “Wild” Weston, 24, one of Funk’s top young trainees, is a former college football star and strength instructor at Texas State University. An all-state high school player from San Marcos, Texas, Weston moved to Florida last year to train at The Conservatory.

“I graduated on a Saturday, packed up my stuff and was in Ocala on Sunday. I was in training that Wednesday,” he says.

Weston, whose father was “a huge Dory Funk fan,” says he knew he wanted to be a wrestler ever since he saw his first show at the age of 3.

“I knew I wanted to entertain fans. I want everyone to be able to experience the moment I had when I was 3 years old and started growing up loving it.”

Weston says he’s living a dream.

“It has been a fantastic experience training under Dory. He’s like a father figure in wrestling. He takes good care of me, shows me the ropes and the right way to do things. He also has taught me to not cut corners and to work hard, and if you do those things, you can succeed in this business.”

“Cory is an exceptional athlete. He fits the model for what WWE is looking for,” says Funk. “Vince (McMahon) says he likes athletes in the 6-2, 240-pound range, and Cory fits that. He’s also a leader and a team player and is highly respected among all of the kids who are training here.”

Shane Chung, 29, first came to Funk while in high school in Dunnellon, Fla., where he was valedictorian and an accomplished wrestler who defeated Wes Brisco, son of WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Brisco, in a prep tournament.

“He asked Jerry for an autograph after beating Wes,” laughs Funk, whose ring wars with the late Jack Brisco are regarded among the most classic in wrestling history.

“He was nice enough to oblige,” says Chung. “I had always planned on going to Dory’s school, but Jerry spoke so highly of Dory and encouraged me to go there. I knew Dory had the No. 1 school and that’s where I had planned on going, but Jerry giving him the extra bump and endorsement definitely didn’t hurt.”

Chung trained with Funk for a couple of years before enlisting in the Navy.

“I was a corpsman with the Fleet Marine Force. I was in the Navy for five years, but I was with the Marine Corps the entire time. I did three years at (Camp) Lejuene and two years at Parris Island. It was a great experience,” says Chung, who served two tours in Iraq.

“ He went overseas but stayed in touch,” says Funk. “You could hear the bombs going off in the background while he was talking with us.”

Chung, who also did some wrestling while in the military, rejoined the Funks upon his return and has been very impressive in his second stint at the camp.

“He probably has the most experience as far as being smooth and at home in the ring. It shows that he has a wrestling background. He has some public speaking experience so he’s also very good on the mic,” says Funk.

“I have the best teacher in the world,” says Chung. “Dory’s a really hands-on guy. He’s obviously got the respect from pretty much every wrestler in the world. Anytime we’ve ever run into anyone, they always have the utmost respect and admiration for Dory. You know you’re in good hands with him. There’s not a single person on the planet who could say anything negative about his workrate, his in-ring ability or talent.”

Chung says he didn’t take his selection of potential wrestling schools lightly. But now he can’t imagine getting his training anywhere else.

“Many of the schools have trainers who are not there a lot of the time. In the 12 years that I’ve known Dory, I’ve never known him to miss a day here.”

Emulating his mentor, Chung works like a seasoned veteran in the ring. He has appeared on a number of independent shows and even a pay-per-view for All Japan Pro Wrestling. But his goal, he says, is to lock in a good deal with a major company.

And he’s got a great hook to go along with the package.

“China is the biggest market in the world. A million Shane Chung T-shirts at $20 apiece might make the owner of some wrestling organization quite happy right about now.”

Heather Webber, 21, who works under the name Hollywood Heather, has the most acting experience of the group.

The attractive blonde, who at six feet tall combines beauty and skill in the ring, has been doing commercials since the age of 3.

“She has lots of experience in drama and acting in front of the camera. She’s dressed and ready to go,” says Funk.

Webber, a homegrown product, has less than a year of in-ring training but has picked up the game quickly, says her coach.

“She’s dynamic on the microphone and takes great bumps. It’s quite unusual for a girl to be able to take bumps like that.”

Webber says it was fate when the Funks discovered her working at a local talent agency.

“I had been a big, big fan of Dory Funk forever,” she says. “I had been modeling for about four years and had been acting my entire life. The Funks actually read a piece where I was hosting a red carpet event in Ocala.”

They immediately invited Webber to one of their shows.

“I met Mickie James and a few other people at the show. I asked them (the Funks) about writing storylines for their shows. Marti actually approached me about training. I had never wrestled before. But I ended up giving it a shot, and I absolutely fell in love with it. Now I can’t see myself not wrestling.”

“The Funks have made it such a wonderful experience. They’re the most professional people I’ve ever met in my life,” says Webber.

Webber supplements her training schedule with working as a manager at a local yogurt shop and as a nanny. “I love my job there. I love working with people. And I work as a part-time nanny for a little girl who I absolutely love. I have the best family support system ever. I’ve got a really big family, so we’re always having people over. I keep really busy with all of that.”

Her goal, like that of her fellow trainees, is to land that elusive spot with a major wrestling company.

“Obviously I would love to wrestle for a big promotion — TNA or WWE — but really it’s all about entertaining. If I can do that through wrestling for a long time, I’ll be happy. It’s a blessing to have had this opportunity so far. So I can only hope that it will continue from here.”

Claudia “The Claw” Reiff has been with the Funks for 11 years and, at age 53, is the senior member of the group. But she works inside the squared circle like someone half her age.

“She’s got 5,000 slams in her, but she’s used up a few thousand,” chuckles Funk. “In my opinion she’s one of the best referees I know. We trained her to do refereeing in the style of Tommy Young and Charles Robinson. Both of those guys are terrific referees.”

Reiff, a Bronx native who majored in health and physical education with a minor in athletic training at the University of Miami, doubles as wrestler/head referee and office manager at The Conservatory.

She jokes that she’s a jack of all trades around the wrestling school.

“I tape ankles, knees. If somebody needs something fixed, and it’s not broken, I’ll put them together and send them to the ring. I started out strictly working in the office and morphed into being a referee, and then morphed into a wrestler, but now I do both.”

Reiff says she never believed she would have accomplished all she has at this stage in her career.

“It has been the greatest experience of my life,” she says of working with the Funks. “The first two years I only refereed. Then Marti talked me into wrestling. I never thought I could do it. But I did it, and nearly all my dreams have come true.

“I never thought I’d be a wrestler, but I am. If anybody had told me when I started wrestling that I’d actually be wrestling Awesome Kong, Mickie James, Gail Kim and folks like that, I would have never believed it. And I also refereed an NWA title match between Dory Funk and Jeff Jarrett. That was the epitome. I’m having the best time of my life.”

“She’s done a great job as a referee and a great job at times as our champion and challenger. She’s a great talent,” says Funk.

Johnny Magnum is the school’s team leader, as well as a pastor and a retired military person who has made two trips to Afghanistan, says Funk. He has a doctorate in family counseling and works with abused children.

“He’s also responsible for a large part of construction for The Funking Conservatory. He’s quite a guy,” adds Funk.

Magnum, 47, has been with The Conservatory since 2004. He was an independent wrestler before joining the Funks.

“He started out as our bodyguard,” says Funk. “We didn’t realize the potential he had as a wrestler. He really came along and developed with his leadership and the way he handles himself. He’s a senior member, team leader, guidance counselor, prayer leader and carpenter. He’s an invaluable person to us. And he’s a great worker. It’s not like he’s trying to look for another job to take on.”

Other students in the current class include “Hot Shot” Brian Davis, “Rock Star” Jeremy Spillers, Lorenzo Goode, 6-7, 290-pound Russell “Muscle Bus” Leak, Ben Ross Hyman (The Mighty Vesuvius), Jared Infection and Garrett Tukes.

Charleston native Pete Kaasanova (Kaasa) completed a recent stint at The Conservatory.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “It amazes me to see how humble and kind Dory is. He makes every one of his wrestlers and students feel important, complimenting them after live shows, matches, promos and practice, while still maintaining his leadership role, giving suggestions and constructive criticism.”

Televised shows are held every Saturday night at The Conservatory’s Dory Funk Arena. Top names are brought in on a regular basis and featured at the live tapings. The list includes such names as Mick Foley, Jerry Lawler, Rob Van Dam, James Storm, Tully Blanchard, Jeff Jarrett, Mickie James and Samoa Joe.

The Funks have been at their present location for four years. Before landing The Conservatory they shared space at various times with a mixed martial arts school, a skating rink and a gym.

“We’re very happy to be by ourselves where we are now,” says Funk. “With the opportunity, we have designed it similar to the principles of Florida Championship Wrestling and the Amarillo territory where in those days we did weekly television shows.”

Funk, whose school is the official American training center for All Japan Pro Wrestling, began training wrestlers in Texas back in the ‘70s.

“Bobby Backlund came in when he was very young. Then there was Jumbo Tsuruta from All Japan Pro Wrestling. But it started with Teddy DiBiase and Terry Funk. Terry was difficult to train,” he jokes.

Funk, who began his pro career in 1963, has trained a number of Olympic-caliber athletes.

The late Anton Geesink, a three-time world judo champion who performed for All Japan Pro Wrestling, trained under Funk during the ‘70s at the behest of All Japan president Giant Baba. Geesink later served on the board of the International Olympic Committee.

Funk, who has been in Ocala since 1987, began his later stage as trainer when he took on the position as WWE’s trainer at the Funking Dojo. There Funk helped train such future talent as Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle, Edge (Adam Copeland), Christian (Jay Reso), Matt and Jeff Hardy, Val Venis (Sean Morely) and Lita (Amy Dumas).

Angle, says Funk, didn’t require a lot of training, just a little advice.

“My advice to Kurt was that anything he did in amateur wrestling, he could do in pro, he would just have to adapt to our way of doing things. It’s worked out very well for him.”

Webber, with only a year in the business, has discovered that acting and pro wrestling go hand in hand.

“It’s strange, but in wrestling she gets so much more experience working behind the mic than she did in acting. And she’s told us this,” says Funk. “What an outlet professional wrestling is for a performer or for someone in her field.”

That statement, he notes, drives home the fact that in today’s version of professional wrestling, one has to be part actor, part athlete, part salesman.

The value of being camera friendly and relaxed on the mic can’t be stressed enough, says Funk, who emphasizes that part of the business at The Conservatory.

“That’s why we use so much television. Promoters even in my time would tell you that 50 percent of a wrestler’s value to the promotion is television work.”

It’s about creating a character that people will pay money to see.

“You look at people like King Curtis (Iaukea), Wahoo McDaniel, and so many (former stars) like that. Just look at Ric Flair. What else can you say? Television has always been a vehicle that kept wrestlers over along with what they did in the ring.”

“(Jack) Brisco was such a great wrestler I could undersell,” jokes Funk. “And they (the fans) would buy that. And he could undersell. It was a match that the people wanted to see and would pretty much sell itself after so many matches. It only got better and better.”

“I’ve already got the camera skills,” says Webber, “and I know about being over the top and entertaining. I’m a born entertainer. I’ve never been anything but an entertainer ... from stand-up comedy to wrestling. I find great joy in all of it.”

The main goal of The Funking Conservatory, says Funk, is quite simple.

“To see these guys on TV.”

His method is a proven one. Just turn on the TV any week and watch Raw, Smackdown or TNA Impact. There’s a good chance you’ll see performers who have come through The Conservatory’s doors.

“There are multiple guys coming through here that have trained with me that are highly successful,” says Funk.

That gives the soft-spoken and introspective legend a great sense of satisfaction.

While today’s version of pro wrestling is a far cry from previous generations, some things remain the same.

“We tell our kids to give the fans more than they thought they were going to get. If you do that, they’re likely to come back.”

Funk has sage advice for those wanting to take it to the next level.

“Develop your television skills. You have to get into a gym (a gym membership is included in training at The Conservatory). You have to get very serious about getting in a gym because that’s one thing that’s different than before. Unless you’re a character like Mick Foley, you absolutely must have a good physical body to even have people take a look at you.”

On the other hand, adds Funk, Foley serves as a good example that it can be done.

Funk, who along with brother Terry was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009, says he prides himself on the school’s strong safety program.

“We work very, very hard on safety with our kids. They don’t realize it, but you can get seriously hurt in professional wrestling. Our main objective is to see that these kids are taken care of and are safe in what they’re doing.”

Funk, noting the spate of concussion-related injuries in sports, says blows to the back of the head aren’t allowed.

“All (full-contact) sports are going through this, but concussions are a real problem. We don’t allow anybody dropping someone backwards to the back of their head. Safety is big for us. It’s very critical because of what’s taking place in football, basketball and even baseball. There are going to be changes made in safety programs. We disavow any strikes or blows to the head. That’s part of our program. We make sure our kids are proficient at doing something before they try it.”

Mental toughness is necessary in today’s business. It’s a tough profession, says Funk, with a lot of pressure.

“If you want to be a wrestler, you have to have mental toughness as well as physical toughness.”

Funk, who played football at West Texas State University during the early ‘60s but followed his father into pro wrestling after graduation, learned the ropes the hard way. Funk Sr. trained his sons and encouraged their ring careers. But he expected nothing short of excellence.

“He was very good,” Funk says of his father, a top wrestler and promoter in the Amarillo territory. “He had a unique attitude that helped me so much. I didn’t understand it at the time, but instead of telling everybody how good I was, he would correct me in front of the wrestlers and really make me feel bad. He would tell me straight out what I did wrong in front of everybody. But the other wrestlers in the territory would kind of get behind me and tell me, ‘Kid, you can’t be that bad,’” he says.

“It was kind of a reverse psychology thing so that the guys didn’t mind working with me and didn’t mind having good matches with me because he wasn’t telling the guys how good I was,” adds Funk. “He was effectively telling them how good they were to take care of me.”

In Funk’s first year as a pro, he was going to 60-minute draws with the likes of Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Pat O’Connor and Sonny Meyers.

“He told me that I couldn’t learn the business unless I was working with the top people in the business. It’s very true. Improvement won’t take place with indy workers continuing to work with indy workers.”

While Funk speaks of wrestling’s storied past in hushed, almost reverential tones, he doesn’t dwell on nostalgia.

In The Conservatory’s upper level are photographs reflecting the sport’s rich heritage. There’s Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Harley Race, Ric Flair. There’s the Funks, the Briscos, the Bockwinkels, the Harts.

“It’s almost like walking through time,” says Weston. “I wish I could have been there. All the pictures and memories ... Dory tells me stories of when he was over in Japan, when he was running through Texas, and in the Florida territory. Sharing stories like that is a great experience for me. You can’t go forward in this business without knowing its history.”

Funk indeed has lived — and prospered — through the generations that comprise the modern era of professional wrestling.

But the past is just that. There’s no room for success living there.

Dory Funk’s job is to produce the stars of the future.

“That’s what we’re here for ... and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

For more information on The Funking Conservatory, call 352-895-4658 or visit www.dory-funk.com.

A special match will headline today’s Old School Championship Wrestling show at the Hanahan Rec Center.

Two of the top workers on the local indy scene, John Skyler and Josh Magnum, will collide in one of the featured bouts at the “July Justice” event. The co-headliner will pit former ECW, WCW, WWE and TNA star Raven against Asylum for the OSCW hardcore title.

Bell time is 5 p.m. Doors open at 4:30.

Adult admission is $10 (cash at the door); $5 kids 12 and under.

For more information, call 843-743-4800 or visit www.oscwonline.com.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook.