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Terry Funk Looks Back at Trailblazing Empty-Arena Matches Ahead of 'WrestleMania'

The Week in Wrestling: Terry Funk provides his perspective on pioneering the empty arena match ahead of a 'WrestleMania' unlike any other.

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Terry Funk: ‘The empty arena was my idea’

For the first time in WWE history, this year’s WrestleMania will take place in an empty arena.

But the fan-less match has a long history in pro wrestling. The man who first defined the empty-arena match is wrestling legend Terry Funk.

Funk wrestled Jerry “The King” Lawler in an empty arena at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1981.

“The empty arena was my idea,” says Funk. “Nobody told me what to say, nobody told me what to do. I was my own creator.”

The 75-year-old Funk has been part of the wrestling business since 1965, and he has brought an element of unpredictability and entertainment to wrestling over the course of seven decades. His fingerprints are still visible on the surface and soul of the wrestling business, where he will forever remain a legend for his innovative work and enduring devotion to a calling he learned from his father, Dory Funk Sr.

“I love the wrestling profession,” says Funk. “Things weren’t predetermined then like they are now. Maybe a few things were, but the majority of the match was not. Things were different. And with that empty arena match, Lawler was a great performer. He was a good talker in the promos and he could perform in the ring. And God bless him for the loss of his son [Brian Christopher]. I just loved that kid.”

A year after the Lawler match, in September 1982, Funk obliterated Bruce Walkup in an empty-arena Bunkhouse Steel Cage match, a match that will forever live on in the Championship Wrestling from Florida highlight reel.

The importance of the postmatch promo is on full display here, which could also play a key role in the success of WrestleMania 36. After the match, Funk articulates, in an incredibly sadistic manner, the pain he plans to inflict on Dusty Rhodes.

“You did your own promos,” says Funk. “It was spontaneous. They let me go, I was on the loose, and I loved every minute of it.”

Funk’s work defines the genre, but others have followed in his footsteps. WCW experimented with the empty arena concept in 1996 with its nWo Saturday Night shows, and TNA had a Sting-Kurt Angle empty arena match on an episode of Impact in 2009. Most famously, Mankind defeated the Rock for the WWE title in an empty arena on Halftime Heat on Super Bowl Sunday in 1999.

Brief history of empty arena matches aside, wrestling specifically functions with a live audience. It has been jarring to watch shows over the past two weeks without a crowd. A disconnected feel has permeated the majority of the broadcasts, especially during the matches. It will be a challenge for WWE to change the vibe of WrestleMania, but Funk noted that fans are in good hands with Paul Heyman helping run creative.

“I think very highly of Paul E,” says Funk, who worked closely with Heyman during their time together in ECW. “I always have. He was always willing to learn from the right people, and he learned a great deal from me. He had a great eye for talent. I don’t think he’d want me bragging on him, but I’m bragging on him because it’s all true.”

With WrestleMania proceeding as an empty-arena show, Funk knows the enormity and importance of the task at hand, and he expressed his well wishes toward all of the wrestlers in hopes that their matches will leave a lasting mark on the industry.

“That’s the biggest night in wrestling,” says Funk. “I loved wrestling so much, and I think the wrestlers love it now, too. They’re out there right now, they’re all wanting to make the most of what they can for themselves in the ring, especially when that bell rings. There is nothing bigger than that particular night.”

Kevin Hart on the Rock, his car crash and Season 3 of the ‘What the Fit’ series

If Kevin Hart ever appears at a WrestleMania, he is making it clear right now: It won’t be to team with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

First of all, I was never a fan of the Rock when he wrestled,” says a joking Hart, one of the funniest comedians in Hollywood. “I was a fan of every wrestler except him.”

Hart and Johnson share tremendous chemistry, which was visible in their roles together in Central Casting and two Jumanji films. All joking aside, Hart expressed his heartbreak that so much of daily life, including Johnson’s pro wrestling industry, has been impacted so greatly by the coronavirus.

“I’m a fan, and it’s sad to see these things get taken away,” says Hart. “In today’s time, we’re dealing with social media and the internet, which takes things and heightens them to an all-time level. But it’s better to be safe than sorry, and I hope this thing gets under control and we don’t reach the highest levels of hysteria.”

Hart is back for the third season of his What the Fit series on YouTube. The show was in jeopardy, along with every single one of his projects, following a September car crash that left him with serious back injuries.

“You’re talking about a life-changing moment,” says Hart, who was a passenger in his 1970 Plymouth Barracuda when the driver lost control due to excessive acceleration, drove off an embankment and crashed into a tree. “I was hit with reality, a reality that told me I’m not in control. My perspective changed so much. Life is precious, and it should not be looked at as anything less.”

The spinal injuries Hart sustained in the crash healed enough for him to participate in What the Fit, which is an unscripted comedy show where he engages in uniquely memorable workouts with fellow celebrities.

“When you’re given these opportunities, you make the most of it,” says Hart. “I get to be with my friends and cast my friends in things that they are not accustomed to. To me, that’s a great volume of comedy, and it was big to be able to see myself in a situation that I was very unfamiliar with. I am very thankful for that.”

Hart confirmed that it is only a matter of time until he shares a workout with the Rock.

“You know, we’ve been talking about it for a while,” says Hart. “I just want to make sure I find the right thing that he and I can truly have the most fun in together. I don’t just want to throw it together. I want it to feel right, be perfect, and have our fans look at it and go, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that.’ It’s really honing in on what that thing is and having the most fun with it.

“We’re in the think tank, and it’s something he’s more than willing to do. I just want to make sure it’s on the level that it should be when it comes to him and I, because we do things at such a high level.”

In such an uncertain and difficult time, Hart is hopeful that What the Fit will bring some joy to viewers.

“It’s laughter, and that’s one thing we need more of today,” says Hart. “And it’s showing more ways to move and be active. We’re showing some fun ways to be physical and move. It’s great to embrace fitness and movement, and I hope people can laugh with us and find ways to incorporate this into their lives.”

“WWE Creative_ish” is ready to tweet all through WrestleMania

Robert Karpeles is ready for WrestleMania.

Karpeles runs the WWE Creative Humor handle on Twitter, and the backstory on the creation of the account is almost as fascinating as the tweets it continues to produce.

The parody account started in December 2010, and Karpeles provides a unique perspective after working for WWE for two years beginning in February 2005.

“I was on the creative team, and I was also a producer for WWE 24/7, which was the precursor to the WWE Network,” says Karpeles, who was only 23 when he was hired. “Working for WWE, you have ideas and thoughts and opinions about what you see being presented—how characters are being used, how story lines are playing out, how matches are being perceived. Sometimes you can feel voiceless. I was young when I started at WWE, and it can be intimidating to speak up.

“It’s Vince McMahon’s sandbox. No matter who you are—going all the way up to some of the most creative names in the history of the business, like Paul Heyman, Dusty Rhodes, Jim Cornette, or Bruce Prichard—it’s Vince’s decision and it’s Vince’s show. That even seems to be an undercurrent now with Triple H, too.

In addition to his decades of wrestling fandom, Karpeles’s time in WWE helped shape his Twitter persona.

“The Twitter handle came about from the comments that ran through my mind, and I found that what I was thinking was a lot more universal than just my own personal opinion. It’s presented in a tongue-in-cheek way, and it is designed to make the day-to-day experience of being a wrestling fan more palatable and a little bit more of a community.”

Karpeles has built an incredible following, with a wrestling-obsessed community rapidly approaching 240,000 followers. Though many pro wrestlers like and retweet, the account was not initially beloved by WWE. Originally named “WWE Creative,” it was nearly clotheslined out of existence in its infancy.

“I started this completely anonymously,” said Karpeles, who left WWE in 2006 to pursue his law degree. “I didn’t put it out there that it was being done by someone who had worked for WWE, and I didn’t leverage any of my relationships to build a following. When I started, my handle was @WWE_Creative, which I couldn’t believe was available—but WWE didn’t have the full social media presence that it does now. One day, I went to log in but my account had been shut down. My account, along with the 'Cranky Vince’ account, which was a little more crass, was shut down. WWE said people were mistaking the accounts as a real account. If you read more than two or three of my texts and think this is a WWE account, then something is not processing. It’s a humor account.

“So I put on my lawyer hat and contacted Twitter. That is why it is now WWECreative_ish on the handle and why it is WWE Creative Humor, which clearly indicates that I am not a group of people sitting in an office in Stamford, Connecticut, taking valuable time away from reformatting the show to make snide comments on Twitter.”

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This year’s WrestleMania is taking place amid a pandemic, and the majority of people watching the show will be doing so in a period of self-isolation. But Twitter has connected people, with more and more realizing that their wrestling fandom is less individual and far more universal. Karpeles will be tweeting approximately every 60 to 90 seconds during the two-night WrestleMania this weekend, adding a fun element for people following along during the show.

WrestleMania is my heaviest traffic day of the year,” says Karpeles. “The peak was a couple years ago with eight million impressions during that show. WrestleMania is like the World Series or the Super Bowl or the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show—these are major, global events. With everyone self-quarantined, it’s a captive audience. You’re watching it with people online and following along, people who are passionate about the product and going to keep you engaged.

“When you’re watching, have your Twitter feed open, it feels like you’re watching the show with a friend, and you’re watching with someone with a tremendous amount of respect for the product, knowing how hard the talent and production people work. It’s going to be a very unique presentation, and if nothing else, I’m going to make you laugh at least once.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Roman Reigns posted on Instagram, explaining his decision to opt out of WrestleMania 36 due to health reasons. 
  • The highly anticipated Matt Hardy–Chris Jericho showdown failed to meet expectations this past Wednesday on Dynamite. Hardy is still an asset and big addition for AEW, but that segment would have been far more effective in front of a crowd. 
  • AEW announced a new championship, which will inject even more excitement into the Dynamite broadcast, especially in this empty-arena-show era of wrestling. 
  • ESPN ran an outstanding interview on Edge’s return to this past January’s Royal Rumble, and Adam Copeland will also be the subject of a new edition of WWE 24 that airs on the WWE Network immediately following WrestleMania on Sunday. Edge was on Raw this Monday and cut another great promo on Randy Orton before their match this weekend. 
  • Another highlight of Raw was the Undertaker’s promo on AJ Styles, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson. 
  • I can’t imagine he is running his own Twitter account, but it was still fun to see this exchange. 
  • For those who haven’t already viewed it, this Drew McIntyre training video—in honor of the famous Rocky training montages—is fantastic. 
  • Soon-to-be WWE Hall of Famer Dave Bautista had a message for United States President Donald Trump, who is already a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. 
  • AEW’s Brodie Lee opened up on this past week’s edition of Talk Is Jericho, discussing his creative differences and frustrations with Vince McMahon. 
  • In a scene you will certainly not see at WrestleMania, the main event of this past weekend’s empty arena Pro Wrestling NOAH anniversary show lasted for over 57 minutes as GHC heavyweight champion Go Shiozaki defeated Kazuyuki Fujita in a match that opened with a 30-minute staredown. 
  • The NWA’s Tim Storm shared his memories of meeting Joe Exotic from the Tiger King true crime documentary on Netflix. 
  • Shelton Benjamin voiced his support for independent wrestlers, who have been hit hard during this pandemic. 
  • Congratulations to the Young Bucks’ Nick Jackson, who welcomed a new addition to the family. 
  • Hulk Hogan responded to the Rock’s commentary on their WrestleMania 18 classic with some of his own memories of the match. 
  • On the subject of WrestleMania, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson recalled some of his incredible memories from the times he worked WrestleMania with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. 

Conrad Thompson previews this week’s edition of 'Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard'

A new episode of Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard is set for this Friday, as Prichard and cohost Conrad Thompson look at WrestleMania 21 from a multitude of angles.

The show took place in Los Angeles at the Staples Center and had a “WrestleMania Goes Hollywood” theme, which led to the creation of some phenomenal ads leading up to the event.

“That’s probably what people remember most about the whole show,” said Thompson. “It’s the best set of WrestleMania commercials there ever were.

“We’ll explore the whole creative process behind them. It feels like they would have had a major budget for these, and it would have been quite the undertaking from a time and production standpoint, but it really set the tone for WrestleMania in Hollywood.”

There were only eight matches on the card. Eddie Guerrero, who held the WWE Championship at the previous year’s WrestleMania, opened the show by losing to Rey Mysterio. Chris Benoit, who closed out WrestleMania XX as world heavyweight champion following a triple-threat victory against Shawn Michaels and Triple H, was part of the Money in the Bank ladder match that went second on the card at WrestleMania 21.

“Vince determines that Benoit and Eddie are not going to be in the top spot, and that’s exactly what we’ll dig into,” says Thompson. “If you back 10 years prior, Vince tried to make Bret at WrestleMania IX but lost confidence and went with Hogan. Vince doubled down with Bret at X, but Bret was back in the middle of the card by XI. That’s what WrestleMania 21 is reminiscent of—the company had gone back to Rock-Austin at XIX, tried to build for the future at XX with Benoit and Eddie, but now Vince is rolling the dice with Cena as well as Batista, who was put on last in the money match.”

Edge won the first-ever Money in the Bank ladder match, a concept that immediately turned into gold for WWE. All of the wrestlers involved were from Raw—and it shows the depth of the WWE roster in 2005 as the match included Edge, Chris Jericho, Benoit, Christian, Shelton Benjamin and Kane.

“We’ll look into whether this was a happy accident,” says Thompson. “It’s a hell of a story when Edge cashes in, and it all starts here. You’ll be hard-pressed to find two better opening matches in the history of WrestleMania than you did with the first two here. What a way to start the show.”

Hulk Hogan made the save for Eugene, who was about to be pummeled by Muhammed Hassan and Daivari. There was no intercontinental title match on the card, which would upset WWE purists, but somehow there was a sumo match on the card pitting the Big Show against Akebono.

“This feels like an idea that happened after Gerald Brisco and Bruce Prichard were locked up together in a hotel room and feels like a rib,” said Thompson. “Akebono? Big Show in sumo entire? It goes against all conventional wisdom.”

The Undertaker defeated Randy Orton—this coming after Orton’s failed run as a babyface—to improve to 13–0 at WrestleMania. There was an exciting spot near the finish that saw the Undertaker take an RKO, but this was never intended to be the end of his WrestleMania win streak. And women’s champion Trish Stratus was given just over four minutes in her victory against Christy Hemme, who had won the initial Diva search.

The best match on the card was Shawn Michaels against Kurt Angle. Their program started after Michaels eliminated Angle from the Royal Rumble match, and it remains a defining moment for Angle. He voiced frustration that all he heard about as he won an Olympic gold medal in 1996 was the brilliance of Michaels, and he promised to be better in every area that Michaels had once succeeded. This included some memorable scenes with “Sensational” Sherri and Marty Jannetty, as well as a breathtaking match between two of WWE’s greatest performers. After years away from wrestling in the WWE, this marked the third straight year that Michaels stole the show at WrestleMania.

“It’s a barn-burner,” says Thompson. “But I want to discuss the build to it, which is what I remember most–who doesn’t remember Kurt singing, ‘Sexy Kurt, I’ll make your ankle hurt’?”

There was also a Piper’s Pit with Steve Austin, and then in the main event, Batista defeated Triple H to become the new world heavyweight champion and, potentially, new face of the company. But the true face of the promotion was destined to be John Cena, who defeated JBL one match prior for the WWE title. Neither of these matches was spectacular, with Cena-JBL especially lackluster, but the payoff was complete as WWE had its two new champions.

“We see two title matches back-to-back, and it feels like we’re building for the future,” says Thompson. “It feels like Vince is firmly putting his money behind these two as the next Rock and Austin.

“I’m interested if Bruce will say these matches were disappointments. We’re on the heels of some of the best WrestleMania events, especially at XX. We’ll talk about how this may or may not have been a disappointment.”

Tweet of the Week

The coronavirus has led to sickness and death across the world, but is also serving as a reminder to be grateful for our loved ones.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.