“Dirty” Dutch Mantell made his professional wrestling debut in 1972, but his most memorable work may have occurred while working as the Zeb Colter character in WWE from 2013-16. Colter spoke with SI.com to discuss the origins of the Colter character, revealed his true plans for the failed Mex-America gimmick with Alberto Del Rio, and touched on his “Evening with Dutch” one-man show.
Long before Zeb Colter was ever created by the WWE, “Dirty” Dutch Mantell roamed the wrestling territories. Mantell influenced a generation of superstars, including “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Kane, and The Undertaker.
“The Undertaker almost got me killed,” Mantell revealed. “The Kentucky State Police pulled out their weapons and had us at gunpoint.”
Mantell, who later played Colter in WWE from 2013 to 2016, worked with Mark Calaway—better known as The Undertaker—as his manager in Memphis in 1989. ‘Taker went by The Master of Pain, whose gimmick was that he served five years in the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta for a double murder, though neither Mantell or Calaway had any plans of actually going to prison.
“We were coming south on our way back to Nashville, and a police car pulled in behind us,” said Mantell. “Mark said, ‘There’s a trooper on my rear and he’s staying there,’ but we were only two or three miles from the Tennessee state line, so I told him not to worry. A Kentucky State Trooper pulled us over right at the exit, then a big spotlight was on our car. All of a sudden, there were five police cars. The officer told us, over the loudspeaker, to get out of the car with our hands behind our heads. Mark was handcuffed and I was handcuffed, and one of the troopers had his glock pointed downward as he approached us.”
Unbeknownst to Mantell and Calaway, a fellow driver on Interstate 65 erroneously reported that the two men, who were joined by wrestler “Action” Jackson in the backseat, were in possession of a weapon and were brandishing their gun at motorists.
“Mark and I had long hair and do-rags, so we looked like Hells Angels,” said Mantell. “I tried to tell the state trooper, ‘My name is Dutch Man–,’ and he cut me off and said, ‘Shut the f--- up, I don’t give a s--- who you are,’ and that’s when I realized he didn’t want to make any small talk with me.
“But when they didn’t find the gun, they had to let us go – and that’s when they got all friendly. One of them said, ‘Hey guys, we’re big fans and watch you all the time on the TV! Will you sign something for my son?’ I realized I’d rather have them as friends than locking my ass up and throwing us in jail, so hell yeah, I signed as many autographs as they wanted.”
Mantell, known in some circles as 66-year-old military veteran Wayne Keown, is bringing his “Evening with Dutch” one-man show to various stops around the country. Mantell discusses his five-decade journey in the business of professional wrestling, which includes his run in WWE as Zeb Colter championing the “We the People” run with Jack Swagger.
“My phone rang on a Thursday afternoon, and it was Talent Relations from WWE,” said Mantell. “Mark Carrano was on the line and asked if I could be at the Raw in Nashville that next Monday because Paul [Levesque] would like to talk to me.
“I honestly thought they wanted to talk to me about NXT, but when I sat with Triple H, he said, ‘We’d like to really get behind Swagger, but he needs something, and we think you can do it.’ Then he explained I was supposed to be an older, jaded guy who was disillusioned with the way America was changing. When he gave me that description, I immediately had a template in my head.”
Mantell’s creative mind started spinning with ideas from the Clint Eastwood directed and starred “Gran Torino” film, which is centered around a disgruntled Korean War veteran’s refusal to fit in with the changes of modern society.
“That’s what I based Zeb Colter on,” confirmed Mantell. “I had to do an interview about a minute long for Vince [McMahon], and all I did was channel Clint Eastwood—and I agree with a lot of his sentiments, so it wasn’t that hard. I said, ‘When I walk down the street today, it wasn’t like when I grew up. I don’t know what happened. The people don’t look the same, they don’t talk the same, they don’t eat the same food. What happened to my America?’ And Vince, instead of saying, ‘Fire him!’, said ‘You’re hired!’ They initially wanted Jimmy Golden [Bunkhouse Buck], but it didn’t work out. So I went in there at 3:30, was hired by 4:30, and was on Raw by 8:30.”
The Zeb Colter character garnered national attention. Much to Mantell’s surprise, a contingent of right-wing conservatives including Glenn Beck, felt that the xenophobic Colter was mocking the Tea Party instead of endorsing it and lashed out at WWE.
“I thought the liberals wouldn’t like, but it was the conservatives who hated it,” said Mantell. “It got a lot of press. I was sitting in catering one day, and one of the higher officers in WWE said, ‘You play your Zeb character really well – almost too well.’ Wrestling is only fake until you do something the people don’t like – then, all of a sudden, it’s dead serious. WWE got a lot of heat and I got some death threats.”
Vince McMahon then gave the green light to Jack Swagger winning the WWE world heavyweight championship at WrestleMania 29 in 2013, less than two months after Mantell’s return. Those plans quickly changed after Swagger was arrested for driving under the influence and drug possession that February, which ended any plans of putting the world championship around Swagger’s waist.
“It almost derailed the character, but WWE had realized they had these characters they could exploit and expand, and I think that’s the only thing that saved Jack,” said Mantell. “They like Jack a lot, so they stayed with him, and they just want somebody to talk for him, which is the role I filled.”
Mantell eventually added Cesaro to his stable and called the duo the “Real Americans.” Despite their popularity, the WWE had no plans to advance Swagger or Cesaro while they were with Mantell, and the team was eventually broken up.
“Jack and Cesaro were one of the greatest things WWE had,” said Mantell. “I asked what was wrong with us and why they wouldn’t go any further with us, but I never got a real reply. Sometimes in WWE, if it’s not their idea, they don’t see the value of the idea you’re proposing.”
Mantell, who worked on the creative side in TNA and during his wildly successful runs in Puerto Rico, delivering ratings previously unheard of, was frustrated by the creative department yet understood their plight.
“How can WWE’s writers write a fight scene when they haven’t been in a fight themselves?” asked Mantell. “It’s like having a virgin write a sex scene. To those writers’ credit, they will not take an idea they don’t fully understand. They’ll never advance it to Vince, because Vince will then start asking them questions that they can’t answer, and that’s not their fault.
“Being in creative is one of the most thankless jobs I’ve ever done. When business is down, you blame it on the writers. When business is up, you credit the talent. It’s a never-ending, thankless job. And when you think about the amount of programming WWE produces every week, it’s mind-altering. They’re churning it out up there, and overall, I think they’re doing a pretty good job.”
Mantell’s Zeb Colter character returned for one last run this past December as WWE attempted to pair him with former adversary Alberto Del Rio in a failed storyline that saw the pair creating their own “Mex-America” country.
“WWE failed to take into account that it didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Mantell. “Remember, I hated Alberto Del Rio, and he hated me. So, all of a sudden, I disappeared and came back. But it’s not necessarily the first step in wrestling that is the most important, because it’s the second step that identifies and clarifies the first one. That’s what we didn’t do. There was no chemistry, but there was also no logical explanation as to why I would be with Alberto. I said to the guys in the back, ‘I’m not getting the story,’ but people kept saying, ‘Just wait.’ I’ve walked on enough wrestling floors, and I know if a crowd isn’t getting a certain vibe. The chemistry wasn’t there with me and Alberto.”
WWE then cut ties with Mantell with an official release this past June, refusing to realign him with Swagger.
“I suggested that I get back with Jack,” said Mantell. “What I really wanted to say during my return was, ‘When I was away, I realized that, instead of building walls, we should be building bridges. Instead of hating on people, I should be loving people.’ That was the build-up, but then we’d find out that, while I was away, I was really having a s--- fit about every son of a b---- who f----- me over, and Alberto was one of them. So my plan was to convince Alberto to let Jack join us, and then we’d do the big turn at the end, and that would have helped everybody. They didn’t see it that way, and Del Rio wanted to stay a heel. So I worked six weeks with Alberto, then they went their way and I went mine.”
Mantell has helped polish and create some of the best workers in the business, but he cannot believe that WWE has not strapped a rocket onto the back of the multi-talented Cesaro.
“I can’t believe they haven’t done more with Cesaro,” marveled Mantell. “I was saying that when I was there. He has that European, James Bond look to him, he’s super strong, and he speaks five languages, but he’s only had starts and stops. If they got behind him, he could be on the top of the card.”
As for other under-utilized talents, Mantell listed Jack Swagger, Heath Slater, and the recently released Damien Sandow.
“I’m also partial to Jack, and I’m a very big fan of his work,” said Mantell. “I’m also glad they’re finally doing something with Heath Slater, but it really surprised me to see them release Damien Sandow. That’s one talented kid.”
Despite no longer working for Vince McMahon, Mantell remains grateful for his time with WWE.
“I’m very appreciative of WWE for the past three-and-a-half years,” said Mantell. “I didn’t expect them to come calling. They just wanted me to do TV, but I said, ‘Put me on the road. I’ve lived on the road my entire life,’ so they put me on the road, and I’m highly appreciative of that.”
Mantell, who was born in 1949, was one of WWE’s oldest members of the active traveling roster. Age, however, is but a number, as Mantell is displaying through his one-man shows, he will be captivating and compelling at 100 years old.
“I highly dis-recommend getting old, it’s a b----,” said Mantell. “Youth has its benefits.”
Mantell, who shares a history in wrestling, and an identical birthday, with Jerry “The King” Lawler, was disappointed to see his former Memphis rival dropped from the Smackdown broadcast team. Despite his unparalleled knowledge of the business, age is not an advantage in WWE.
“When you get older, people have a preconceived notion that you’re suddenly just out of the loop,” said Mantell. “You’re not as smart as they think they are, and something you can’t make up for in Lawler’s case is wit. Lawler is funny, quick, and sharp. And he’ll be funny until he’s ninety because that’s the way he is.”
Mantell is the seventh of eight children. All of them, except for Mantell and his baby sister, had red hair. (“I don’t know what happened, and I didn’t care to ask,” he said.) It was his brother, Red, that got Mantell interesting in wrestling and he entered the ring himself after he left the military.
“Even from an early age, I knew wrestling was an art form—though, in those days, kind of a crude one,” said Mantell. “I understood it. It was good versus evil, which is the story of the Bible and it’s been the story forever, and that’s exactly what wrestling was, so I recognized what it was and I really admired the people who could do it well.”
WWE fans appreciated the edge of Zeb Colter, whose original foundation was built by “Dirty” Dutch Mantell. He gives viewers a taste of his upbringing in his shows, and maintains the sharp commentary that made him so recognizable in WWE.
“I came from a very small town in northwestern South Carolina,” said Mantell. “I just heard someone talking about how hard life was for him when he was growing up, but I grew up in a damn ramshackle house that was about ready to fall down. Your life is what you make it.”
Mantell cut his teeth while wrestling in Puerto Rico in 1979, establishing himself as a premiere heel on the island.
“I didn’t speak Spanish, but I was the first heel who went there and trash-talked the island,” said Mantell. “I didn’t talk wrestling, I talked politics. They’ve got three sports in Puerto Rico: cock fighting, politics, and wrestling. When you speak any of those, you have an audience and immediate controversy.
“When I went to Puerto Rico in 1979, people thought that the space program was fake and that wrestling was real. I told them I spoke Spanish fluently, but I refused to speak the language because I considered it a primitive language. I could not walk more than three or four steps on the streets without people hollering at me. They knew who I was, and they legitimately did not like me. I trash-talked their women, I said that the welfare and aid that the island gets from the United States should be cut off, and they didn’t like that.”
Mantell was merely planting the seeds for a Hall of Fame worthy career in the business, which he is waiting to share at his one-man show.
“I tell wrestling stories, and I tell it my way,” said Mantell. “I’ve honed it down to an art. People in wrestling love hearing the old stuff, and no one wants these stories to die. I’m glad to pass the knowledge along, and I like doing promos and running my mouth. We’ll see where it will lead me.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.