Dory Funk: The World-Travelled Texan
by Bradley Craig
Wrestler. Promoter. Trainer. There are very few facets of ringcraft that Dory Funk, Jr. has not mastered in his expansive career. An amateur wrestling and football standout, Funk entered the professional wrestling industry in 1963, working in the West Texas-based promotion owned by his legendary father. However, it was not long before the second-generation star reached the pinnacle of the profession by being crowned the NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion six years after his ring debut. Renowned for a hard-hitting style and many gruelling battles to defend the title, an enduring four-year reign on top enabled Funk to solidify his status as a legitimate icon on both sides of the Pacific. In this exclusive interview, Scottish professional wrestling historian Bradley Craig talks with Dory Funk, Jr. who shares his memories about life in the squared circle.
Bradley Craig (BC): As a young athlete, you were a member of the West Texas State College team which won the Sun Bowl in 1962, before committing to professional wrestling on a full-time basis. What were the key factors in your decision to pursue a life in the ring instead of a career on the gridiron?
Dory Funk, Jr. (DF): My father [Dory Funk, Sr.] was a promoter in professional wrestling and was the owner of the Amarillo territory. I had two different choices when I came out of college. One was professional football, and the other was professional wrestling. In 1963, the year I started pro wrestling, [star baseball player] Mickey Mantle made $16,000 dollars on the year. And in my first wrestling match, I made $700 in one day. From that point, there really wasn’t a choice – it was going to be wrestling. There weren’t always going to be paydays like that, but it was a fabulous way to start. So, I told my father that I wanted to be a professional wrestler and that [a career in] football could wait. Since then, professional wrestling has always been my life.
BC: American football and professional wrestling are both considered extremely high-impact, physical sports, which exert different demands on the body. How did the training compare as you made the transition from football to wrestling?
DF: One of the most important things that can be accomplished in professional wrestling, or football, is to avoid injury because that will cut a career so short. I’ve always been able to avoid injury the whole way through to where, right now, I feel as good as I did when I got out of university and into pro wrestling. The sport [of wrestling] has been fabulous for staying in shape, being healthy and living a good life. Sounds strange, doesn’t it, coming from a pro wrestler (laughs).
BC: Do you think that you were able to avoid serious injury because you employed a methodical style of mat-based wrestling, centred around holds and counter-holds, as opposed to some of the more bump-based, high-flying performers in the business?
DF: Definitely - I really think so. And strangely enough, as spectacular as the bumps and the falls are, the people who draw the biggest box office and the greatest attendance are the great wrestlers. My game was wrestling and some of my opponents, such as Gene Kiniski, Pat O’Connor, Lou Thesz, Giant Baba, Seiji Sakaguchi, Antonio Inoki, and Osamu Nishimura - a great wrestler with whom I shared my last match in Japan - they made wrestling their thing and that made them different. Their mastery of wrestling made them outstanding.
BC: Being the son of a famous wrestling star could likely be both a benefit and a burden to a young wrestler entering the business. What are your memories on the pressures of carrying a famous name as a secondgeneration talent and its impact on your career?
DF: If you want to know the truth, it was an asset. I never looked at it as the ‘weight of carrying a famous name’, as it always brought me to the front. It brought me to the people, made me recognisable, and that’s the most important thing that can happen for a pro wrestler’s career.
BC: Within six years of your debut, you were being considered as a prospective World’s Heavyweight Champion for the National Wrestling Alliance, and you started to face some of the top stars of that era. Who were some of the key opponents as you prepared for that opportunity?
DF: I’m grateful to all the wrestlers who I faced in the ring: the great names, the really good athletes, and the tough wrestlers. I mentioned Kiniski, O’Connor, and Thesz, but I also made many trips to Japan and faced all the best there, including one of my best friends ever in the late Jumbo Tsuruta. I think the trips to Japan made me prepare for my main event career, as did my trips to Australia, where I was working for the great Jim Barnett.
BC: On 11th February 1969, you would dethrone Gene Kiniski to be crowned the NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion. Your reign spanned a total of 1,563 days, and your booking schedule would be the most arduous of any professional wrestler at the time. You would have been committed to defend the championship at each territory and across the globe within the member network of the National Wrestling Alliance. Can you describe life as the travelling flagbearer for the organisation?
DF: It was a fabulous time of my career, and an enjoyable time. It gave me the opportunity to have a wonderful relationship with thirty-five different promoters across the United States, overseas in Australia and in Japan. It was a fabulous experience and an educational experience. It enabled me to really get to understand the inside of the business by working for each of the promoters. Every promoter was a different personality, but they all had one common denominator, and that was the National Wrestling Alliance. So, then I could take all I learned from my time as NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion as my career continued. It continued in Japan and throughout the United States, and for me it was a wonderful thing to be as privileged as I was to have been champion of the NWA for as long as I did, which was the second-longest reign of any NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion. Man, it really was an education.
BC: Part of that education would have involved your championship battles against an even greater range of international opponents, in gruelling matches which sometimes went the distance. Who did you think were the finest challengers from your reign on top of the business?
DF: I’d have to go with Antonio Inoki, Giant Baba, Seiji Sakaguchi, and Jack Brisco forever and ever. I probably had more matches with Brisco than any other [opponent] in professional wrestling. Osamu Nishimura, around the time of my 2018 retirement, and Harley Race. Race wasn’t really a wrestler as much as a fighter, but he was a damn good fighter. It was a privilege to face so many opponents who had different styles. But I just think it was a privilege to go through this business and learn as much as I did. Not only about wrestling, but about life too.
BC: You mentioned some of your Japanese opponents as being among the best in the business. You seem to have really been embraced by the people of Japan throughout your career, almost as much as you were revered by fans in your home state of Texas. Why do you think this is?
DF: Japan was my country (laughs). My career in Japan as NWA World’s Champion was one of two career highlights [as a wrestler], along with being on WrestleMania 2 in my match at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. And now I have the privilege of being able to pass on what I learned from the pro wrestling business to a new generation through my work at the Funkin’ Conservatory wrestling school that I run in Ocala, Florida.
BC: As professional wrestling has evolved to become a truly global art form, you would have been pitted against so many different types of wrestlers, each with a different way of working a match. In the United States alone, there was a vast difference in ring styles across the country, not to mention the countless other nations in which you worked. How hard was it to adapt your approach for each challenger to assemble a compelling main event worthy of top line billing?
DF: They all had to learn my style. I had my style which I learned from my father. I watched and learned from him. It was based on amateur wrestling and was also based around the principle of, ‘what kind of fighter are you, and how much guts have you got?’. He was a great wrestler, a great man and great father. And my mother was great too.
BC: Two years after your career in professional wrestling started, your brother Terry would end up joining the family business and go on to win the World title in 1975. The Funks made history as the only pair of brothers to win the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship, and each of you forged a Hall of Fame career. Did you ever think that this would have been possible?
DF: I was so surprised and impressed by my brother Terry, especially in the fact that he himself won the NWA title and represented the organisation for a long period of time. He had a fabulous career and had a different career – it wasn’t the same as mine. I built mine around wrestling, and he built his career around being the toughest son of a bitch to ever step in the ring (laughs). I think the world of him, and think he did a hell of a job.
BC: Along with Terry, you formed a formidable tag team, and you would wrestle against duos on both sides of the Pacific. What was your brother like as a tag team partner?
DF: He was sometimes confusing and sometimes great [as a partner]. We had much success in Japan as a tag team combination, and we had success over here [in the United States] in major cities such as St. Louis, Amarillo, throughout Florida, and all over. I loved working with him as we were able to present ourselves with two different styles and two different views of the wrestling business for the wrestling fans.
BC: Beyond your in-ring accomplishments, you have also established yourself as one of the premier trainers of wrestling talent. Since opening your school in 1999, some of those you have coached have went on to become world champions, including Kurt Angle and Mickie James. Talent are also featured on your school’s promotional !Bang! TV show, which gives a platform for up-and-coming stars to learn their craft in front of live cameras. How important is it to you to pass the knowledge that you have attained from your seven decades as a major star?
DF: We have some kids who are just working very, very hard and doing a fabulous job. I’m very proud of the accomplishments of all the !Bang! TV wrestlers. One to watch is Osamu Nishimura – he is just terrific and is our current champion [at the time of interview]. We would like to get the message out to anyone who is considering a career in professional wrestling to give us a call here in Ocala. If anyone is interested, all they need to do is look us up online and find our number, and we will get them ready for pro wrestling.
BC: As a wrestler, trainer, and promoter, you have enjoyed success at every major level in the business. Is it correct that you are writing your autobiography so that future generations can learn about your experiences in the industry?
DF: I’m deeply working hard on a book that should be out by the time I’m inducted [into the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame]. It’s all about my career in professional wrestling and my life. It has some wild and crazy stories about the wrestling business - it really opens it up and should be entertaining to anyone who reads it.
BC: There is no question that you have brought great credibility to the professional wrestling business through your hard work and sheer dedication to your craft. Many experts consider your believability as a champion, and longstanding career at the upper echelon established you as one of the true greats. It seems fitting that you will be enshrined as a member into the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame this year, given your success across multiple continents. Do you have any closing comments for our readers ahead of your induction?
DF: I really appreciate the effort of everyone behind the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and consider this induction an honour. It will be a special memory for me. I love this business and all the fans who made my career great in professional wrestling. It wasn’t about all my efforts alone – it’s the whole team - and I want to thank my beautiful wife Marti for all her support too. It’s exciting to be a part of the IPWHF. I’d like to thank Seth Turner, the board of the IPWHF, and my good friends J.J. Dillon and Bill Apter for hosting the event. I love my friend and fellow Texan Tito Santana, who gave my brother and I one of the best matches of our careers at WrestleMania 2 in 1986. Special thanks to our manager Jimmy Hart, the late Junkyard Dog, and I also look forward to seeing my friends Mario Savoldi and Davey O’Hannon. I dearly miss my old friend Rocky Johnson and wish he could have been here too. This will be my sixth Hall of Fame and most cherished. From my peers who are graciously including me in the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, I’m excited to receive the ring and see my beautiful plaque hang in the new Hall of Fame building. Thank you to everybody involved.
BC: Dory, thanks for your time. Please accept my sincerest congratulations on your new book and induction into the IPWHF. See you in August.
DF: Bradley, I would really like to thank you for all your efforts in making this a very special interview for me.