411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2008: Dory Funk Jr.
Born on February 3, 1941 to Dory and Dorothy Funk of Amarillo, Texas, Dory Funk, Junior was the heir apparently to a wrestling dynasty. By the time that the younger Funk was a teenager, Dory Sr. was already an international wrestling star and a veritable icon of the sport in Texas. Though many individuals who have entered professional wrestling in their fathers’ footsteps have been unable to create their own identity, Dory Jr. managed to surpass the legacy of his predecessor.
Funk began his athletic career in high school, competing both in football and amateur wrestling. He followed that up by going to college at West Texas State University, a school that has been home to an inordinately large number of future pro wrestlers. The 1963 West Texas State team on which Funk played won the Sun Bowl, and it was only months later that his All American teammate Jerry Logan stood in Dory’s corner for his professional wrestling debut. The match, who took place in the Amarillo territory booked by Dory Sr., saw the collegiate football standout defeat Don Fargo. Though generally the highlight of a wrestler’s first year in the profession will be his first match, that was not the case for Funk. On July 3, 1963, just four months in to his career, Dory Jr. became one of the least experienced wrestlers in history to receive a shot at the NWA World Heavyweight Title, which, at the time, was far and away the most prestigious championship in the sport. Champion Lou Thesz defeated the twenty-three year old by disqualification, which helped to set up an NWA Title match for father Dory Sr. a little over a month later.
Funk’s father was an integral part of his early career. In addition to booking him as a key talent in the Amarillo territory, the two were frequent tag team partners both in the United States and aboard, including an appearance in a 1964 tournament for the NWA Canadian Tag Team Championship that saw the father/son duo advance over top names such as “Whipper” Billy Watson and Gene Kiniski before ultimately losing in the finals to Don Leo Jonathon and Kenji Shibuya. The interaction that the two had as a team, combined with Dory Jr.’s amateur credentials, allowed the younger Funk to become one of the fastest rising and most respected young stars on the national wrestling scene. It would not be long until he took a major step forward in his career.
That step came in Tampa, Florida on February 11, 1969, when Dory Funk, Jr. stood across the ring from the reigning NWA Champion Gene Kiniski. Unlike his first shot at the coveted championship, Funk was more experienced and much more skilled than his opponent, which resulted in the young man from Texas capturing the gold. It was Funk’s reign with the NWA Title that transformed him from a footnote in wrestling history to a legend who deserves to be remembered until the end of time. His run with the belt lasted until May 24, 1973, which made Funk the second longest reigning heavyweight champion in NWA history, a distinction that he still holds to this day. As with every NWA Champion of the era, Dory traveled the world defending his title against some of the greatest wrestlers that the sport had to offer, soundly defeating the likes of the Sheik, Mr. Wrestling, Nick Bockwinkel, Freddie Blassie, and Ernie Ladd. Former champions Thesz and Kiniski also received numerous cracks at the belt during Funk’s four-year run, although neither of the two ex-title holders managed to wrest the strap away from the West Texas State alum.
If Funk’s reign with the NWA Title is memorable for one thing amongst fans in the United States, it is the rivalry that he had with Jack Brisco in the early 1970′s. Brisco, an Oklahoma native and former NCAA wrestling champion, was catching on with both fans and promoters across the country due to his amateur credentials and handsome appearance. Many fans in the modern era of wrestling often talk about a wrestler’s “chase” of the World Title. However, what they fail to realize is that, when they talk about extended “chases” by beloved wrestlers, the prototype for that sort of storyline was the rivalry between Funk and Brisco. The feud was particularly popular in Florida, but the two also took it across the country, wrestling each other in numerous lengthy matches in South Carolina, St. Louis, Puerto Rico, Atlanta, and Texas. Though complete records for the time are virtually impossible to compile, at least fifteen different Dory Funk, Jr. vs. Jack Brisco NWA Title matches occurred during Funk’s four year reign, all of them featuring Brisco being narrowly defeated or taking the titleholder to a sixty minute draw. Despite the high number of matches that occurred across the years, the Funk/Brisco rivalry never outstayed its welcome, and Dory’s hard work made the Oklahoman a wrestler who had a strong enough reputation to credibly defeat Harley Race for the NWA Title in 1973.
The feud with Brisco was not the only major occurrence during Dory Funk, Jr.’s NWA Title reign, though. In December of 1969, just ten months after winning the championship, Funk made his first trip to Japan. The NWA Title had not been defended in that country for twelve long years, and Dory was about to snap that cold streak. At the time, the wrestling scene in the Land of the Rising Sun was dominated by the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, a company founded by legendary grappler Rikidozan in 1963. By 1969, Rikidozan had passed away, and the promotion had two major stars: Antonio Inoki and the Giant Baba. Funk defended his title against both of these men on successive nights, with Inoki’s match occurring on December 2, 1969, and Baba’s match occurring on December 3, 1969. The result in both contests was the same, as the normally dominant Japanese heroes were both taken to one-hour draws by the American import. These back-to-back sixty-minute matches immediately established Funk as a name to be reckoned with on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. He would continue to defend his title in Japan throughout his reign, including another hour-long singles contest against Inoki in 1970.
Over time, political pressures within the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance caused the company to fragment, with each of its major stars forming their own promotion. Inoki became the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, while Baba became the founder of All Japan Pro Wrestling. Funk, who remained incredibly popular in the country, sided with Baba and appeared regularly for his group, especially after losing the NWA Title in 1973. Dory was not the only Funk to make appearances for All Japan, though. He was often joined by his younger brother Terry, and the legend of Dory Funk in Japan quickly became the legend of the Funk brothers in Japan, particularly after a 1973 encounter that saw the siblings participate in a sixty-minute draw with NWA International Tag Team Champions the Giant Baba and Jumbo Tsuruta. (Tsuruta, ironically enough, was a former Olympic wrestler from Japan who Baba had sent to Amarillo to be trained in pro style by Dory Funk.)
Though Dory and Terry’s time as a team was briefly curtailed by Terry’s 1975 – 1977 reign as NWA Heavyweight Champion, by the later part of the decade they were reunited and became dominant foreigners within AJPW. However, there was something that made them different than the average foreign team wrestling in Japan. Several decades prior, Japanese wrestling was founded on the concept of conquering homegrown heroes driving away invading forces from foreign lands, particularly the United States. Resentment towards the U.S. for their post-World War II occupation of the islands made this story incredibly popular with the Japanese people. Decades later, though, the population was ready to accept Americans athletes as heroes, and Dory and Terry were among the first individuals to help facilitate that change. It didn’t hurt that the Funks’ perpetual rivals in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s were Abdullah the Butcher and the original Sheik, two wild men billed as being from the Middle East who terrified the Japanese with their wild style and the pleasure that they seemingly took in drawing blood from opponents. It was these two men who stood across the ring from the Funks in 1977 and again in 1979 when they won the prestigious Real World Tag League, a tournament still promoted by All Japan to this day. The Funks were perennial favorites in that tournament, as, in addition to the two aforementioned victories, they won again in 1982 and captured second place in 1980, 1981, and 1987.
Dory Funk, Jr. also remained active in the United States throughout the 1980′s, working in a variety of territories including Championship Wrestling from Florida and the Jerry Lawler/Jerry Jarrett promoted Memphis wrestling, in which both Funks were frequent opponents for Lawler himself. In 1986, Dory and Terry had a brief yet memorable run with the World Wrestling Federation alongside a fictional third brother “Jimmy Jack Funk” (who was, in reality, Oregon wrestler Jesse Barr). Dory’s biggest victory during this period came on the second WrestleMania event, when he Terry teamed to take on Tito Santana and the Junkyard Dog in tag team action. Dory also had the opportunity to work with Hulk Hogan at this time, including in one match, which was broadcast nationally as part of the Saturday Night’s Main Event series. That encounter saw Dory and Terry defeated by Hogan and the Junkyard Dog.
In the 1990′s, Dory Funk was not nearly as active on the national wrestling scene as brother Terry, though he did have the opportunity to work for the two most influential regional wrestling promotions of the era, namely the Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling and Kentucky’s Smokey Mountain Wrestling. The Funk brothers were once again involved in wild tag team brawls in these companies, as SMW put them under the managerial eye of James E. Cornette as a part of Cornette’s feud with Armstrong family. At the same time, bad blood developed in ECW between the Funks and the Public Enemy of Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge. Unfortunately for Dory, his team came out on the losing end of both of these feuds, with the Funks and Bruiser Bedlam being defeated by Bob Armstrong, Tracy Smothers, and Road Warrior Hawk in a Texas Deathmatch and the Public Enemy triumphing over the brothers in a no rope barbed wire match. Fortunately for Dory, he still had a prominent role in Japan, appearing on virtually all of AJPW’s major cards (albeit with a reduced role) and working in the office as both a trainer and a liaison for foreign talent.
With the twenty-first century now upon us, Dory Funk, Jr. still remains an active in-ring competitor in his sixties. After being one of the least experienced wrestlers to ever earn an NWA Title shot, he became one of the most experienced competitors to ever get a shot in 2004, losing a match against champion Jeff Jarrett. He and brother Terry made a bid for the NWA Tag Team Titles the next year, although they were disqualified in their contest with titleholders America’s Most Wanted. The majority of Funk’s wrestling these days is done in Ocala, Florida, where he makes his home and operates both a professional wrestling school and a promotion known as !BANG! In his “Funking Conservatory” dojo, Dory continues the legacy of training great fighters that he began several decades ago when he served as one of the primary teachers for greats such as Ted DiBiase, Stan Hansen, Bret Hart, Bob Backlund, and Kurt Angle. His training camps have helped add some additional polish to the mat games of several current wrestling stars, including but not limited to Edge, Christian Cage, Christopher Daniels, Steve Corino, Amy “Lita” Dumas, and Mickie James.
Why Dory Funk, Jr. Was Selected . . .
An argument could be made for inducting any of the NWA Champions of the 1960′s and the 1970′s in to the Hall of Fame, simply because the NWA at that time made sure that only the elite were holding their Heavyweight Title and because these individuals were proven box office draws across the country and, in some cases, around the world. However, Dory Funk’s career stands out for reasons beyond his NWA Title reign. He was an individual who, in many regards, changed how fans view professional wrestling. He changed the face/heel structure in long title feuds as a part of his rivalry with Jack Brisco. When teaming with his brother Terry, he changed how Japanese fans view American wrestlers. He also changed the landscape of the professional wrestling industry in both the United States and Japan by training some of each country’s most notable competitors. Though among modern fans he may not be as recognizable as he should be, Dory Funk, Jr. remains an individual whose influence has affected the industry for several decades and will continue to affect it for several decades after his passing.