Legendary manager Jim Cornette will make an appearance at the Maryland Championship wrestling show Saturday at The New Green Room in Dundalk, where he will be signing copies of his book, The Midnight Express 25th Anniversary Scrapbook.
I conducted a phone interview with Cornette on Thursday.
How many indy shows are you doing these days?
This year I've done three – all with The Midnight Express. I toyed with the idea of retiring as a manager after our 25th anniversary, but as long as either me or Bobby Eaton or Dennis Condrey – Stan [Lane] has already decided that he's not wrestling anymore – are all available on the same date and somebody wants us and we can all get to the ring and have fun, I've decided that I'm just going to do it a few times a year, because it's great to see the boys. And why shouldn't we? Maybe we'll beat Bobo Brazil and The Sheik for the world's longest program with The Rock and Roll Express. But other than the exception of managing The Midnight or something like this – because I've known [MCW owner Dan McDevitt] for ages and he's always treated me good – I don't really do them anymore because I'm not as agile, mobile and hostile as I used to be in my youth, as far as at ringside. I also did an NWA Charlotte show earlier this year, but really I just made an appearance to do some interviews there as sort of like the guest commissioner, which is more of my speed these days. I like to help some of these smaller independents that really put on good shows. But even then, with the TNA schedule I don't have a lot of time for them, and I'd rather do less and enjoy it more.
What will your role be on Saturday's show?
I have no earthly idea [laughs]. Danny had called and said, "We have this show on July 11 and would you like to come up?" and, as I said, I've always enjoyed working for Danny in the past, and at the same time, my wife and I had been talking conveniently enough about coming to Baltimore for a weekend just to enjoy the crabs and Little Italy and the sights, so we combined the two. I said, "Hey, I'll be there for you because I know you've got a big tournament, it's kind of a big show, so whatever I can contribute to the proceedings I'd be more than happy to."
You drive from Kentucky to all these shows because you don't fly, correct?
I haven't been on an airplane in six years. I'm not in this for a career anymore. I have a full-time job with TNA – well, I work five whole days a month, so that's full-time for me these days. Otherwise, I make the trips based around enjoyable weekends. I feel like there's no reason to put myself through what I put myself through for 20-something years on airplanes, especially these days. You don't know whether your pilot is going to drop dead over the ocean; you don't know when you try to land whether the wheels are going to come down; you can be searched and seized and detained and quarantined. I'm just not going to put myself through that at this point in my life.
Tell me about The Midnight Express 25th Anniversary Scrapbook.
You know, it started out as just kind of one of those things: "Well, you know, I've got all the results of The Midnight Express' matches; I ought to do a little record book. Just take it down to Kinko's and maybe a few people would be interested in it." And over the course of a year it grew into this 232-page, 8½ x 11, slick paper, 32-page color section, giant pictorial history of not only The Midnight Express' seven years together, but also, conveniently enough, we were right in the middle of the beginning of the wrestling war. So it details the '80s wrestling war between the WWF and the NWA and later WCW, and all the problems the business went through when Turner Broadcasting bought the company. Everybody sees every document there is to do with wrestling these days on the Internet and everybody knows what everybody makes and there are no secrets, but back then nobody saw booking sheets or paycheck stubs or memos to the talent, and I saved all that. So it's reproduced there to give as much of an accurate picture as I think has been published of what wrestling was like 25 years ago and at the start of this whole fiasco. We've got a lot of rave reviews on it so hopefully I did a pretty good job. So it's not just for Midnight Express fans; it's for anybody who likes the inner or outer workings of wrestling. There are road rib stories and funny chapters. I tried to make it as entertaining for everybody as possible.
Will you be selling and signing the book at Saturday's show?
As a matter of fact I will. It's available at jimcornette.com for those outside the range of coming to the show, or Saturday I will be there with some books and we're going to do a signing before the matches. When people first see it, generally you can tell the real wrestling fans because they kind of go, "Oh, my God" as they start flipping. And it's also good bathroom reading because it's really a rock and roll tour book, only we had a seven-year tour. So it starts with the first match and goes to the last match, with anecdotes and results and the gate figures from the show. It shows the tremendous amount of people that were going to live wrestling in the '80s. You can kind of pick it up in the bathroom and pick a page and start reading and then put it down. It's like potato chips for the mind.
I know you could probably talk for an hour just answering this next question ...
I can talk for an hour about anything. It takes me an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.
… what are your thoughts on the current state of the industry?
Grim [laughs]. Like you said, we could talk for an hour, but the biggest problem is that people from outside of wrestling have taken over the direction of the business through the corporate takeovers – and Turner Broadcasting started that. And Vince [McMahon] gave more power to the children, and Stephanie started bringing in the Los Angeles comedy writers. As a result of those things, a lot of bad things have happened, but chief among them for the perpetuation of the wrestling industry is that they've decimated their developmental system in WWE and there are fewer places for guys to get into wrestling and have full-time work, so therefore there's fewer wrestlers than ever before, and there's fewer experienced wrestlers than ever before. And if you notice, the main event stars are getting older. You know, that happens to most people as time goes on. And as a result, I wonder if in five or 10 years, even if there's money to present wrestling, where are the wrestlers going to be that we present? That's the one thing they haven't been able to figure out.
And I went through that with my dealings with WWE when I was in OVW. We were really their only developmental program that they had for most of the past 10 years. They dabbled with others; they didn't work. We proved ourselves; they decided they could do it themselves better than anybody. [WWE executive vice president of talent relations] John Lauriniatis has decimated their program. They get nothing out of Florida [Championship Wrestling], and there's no steady supply of wrestlers being trained to take the place of the people who quit due to injuries, age or who haven't made their money and decide they want to get out of this nutty business. Without talent, I don't care how funny the writers are or how many comedy lines they come up, without wrestlers you can't have a wrestling program. That I think is the biggest problem, and they've yet to address it, and as the industry leader, as they do, so do other people. I would love to see TNA get a developmental program. And, really, TNA has made some big steps with Samoa Joe, A.J. Styles, Beer Money, Matt Morgan, a lot of these younger guys that are now getting the opportunity to shine on national television. But you need more.
As you said, you work five days a month for TNA, but do you miss not having more of a central role after all the years as a manager and commentator, and running OVW and Smoky Mountain Wrestling?
Do you mean on camera or off camera?
On camera I don't miss at all. I will still do it. The part that I have enjoyed with TNA the past few years is as the on-air management figure – being able to go out there and work with some of the talent and stir people up for their business and their matches. Instead of promoting something that I'm involved in, just selling other people's matches – which is the same thing that I did on commentary with OVW. I like doing that a lot more now because I don't have to take the bumps. But I like working in the production truck behind the scenes with TNA. And if I'm on camera, eh, it's OK, but I don't really strive for it because I've done that and I would rather have more of a backstage responsibility for putting together a good program.
I would think the perfect role for you would be sharing your knowledge with the young guys and especially working with guys on their promos. Are you doing that in TNA?
They have to be sick of me. You know, not only promos, but matches, too, and ideas. The way that you teach wrestling is by finding good talent that you think can learn and putting them in the ring with a variety of other good talents who have experience and giving them the opportunity to pick things up. And then when they have a match, if you talk to them afterward you say, "Well, why did you do that? It didn't work and here's why." Experience is the only teacher in this business. When you get the experience, you have to have somebody tell you why what you did was either good or bad. Because if you watch a videotape of somebody flying an airplane, well you understand that they push the buttons, but why do they push those buttons and what buttons are they pushing? So it has to be explained. Yeah, I'm sure the young guys get sick of me at some point.
I know that you and Vince Russo butted heads when you both were on the WWE writing team in the '90s. Now the two of you are in the same company again. How are you co-existing, and do you have any input as far as the story lines?
We have totally different styles and, no, I have no input in booking. Because we do have totally different styles, it would be counterproductive to the company. I will say nothing good or bad or anything else about Vince Russo or his booking because we have agreed to disagree [laughs].
Why do you think managers, who were once such a staple of the business, have been phased out?
Part of it is Vince McMahon. He decided that Sable, because they smashed her over despite the total lack of talent or personality, now all managers should look good in bikinis, which immediately eliminated me and Paul Bearer out of the equation. It became the dressing at ringside. Vince feels that you put the attention on the star and the personality. People follow the trends, and the trends at the highest level were to not have any male managers. Male managers were heat magnets. There is no heat anymore in wrestling. Everybody knows that you can't get people to want to go to jail by taking a swing at the heels because they got one over on the babyfaces when they know it's all a show to begin with. It's just one of those things that went by the wayside, along with every other tool that we had to draw money.
The NWA and WCW had a lot of big shows in Baltimore, and you were a part of that. Do you have any memories from Baltimore – either in or out of the ring – that stand out?
Watching Ric Flair spend more money at Sabatino's in one night than most people make in a month. Those were outstanding memories [laughs]. The Midnight Express and I had never come north until we started working for Jim Crockett, except for the one World Class wrestling event in the Manning Bowl in beautiful Lynn, Massachusetts, up around Boston. We started coming up to Baltimore and Philly, and at that time Philly was still not a "smart" town, so we had a ton of heat there and in Baltimore as well. That's a great building, the Civic Center. Now it's the Arena, right? Have they changed it again?
Now it's 1st Mariner Arena.
That building was right across the street from the hotel. It was one of the first experiences with the fans hanging out. Down south the fans would follow you and hang out at the convenience store afterward, but we had people coming and getting rooms and camping out in the lobby and everything. It really was a big-time feel. And of course The Crockett Cup in '87 – two nights in a row in the Arena. I think we did a total of over $300,000 at the gate and 20,000 people from two nights. There were big matches and we were drawing big money. It was just a great place. I remember doing sellouts at this building on a near-monthly basis, which my book reflects. Sometimes we'd do a $100,000 gate; sometimes it'd be $120,000 or $130,000, but it was always just massive. And the people were so appreciative. It was a great wrestling town – I mean going all the way back to Vince Sr. and [Bruno] Sammartino and [Superstar Billy] Graham – and it still is. That's why I like the idea that Maryland Championship Wrestling is keeping that tradition going, such as it can, probably as best as anybody can.