There’s old school, and then there’s OLD SCHOOL. In the world of sports entertainment fandom, the term ‘old school’ tends to mean that (like me) you were a little kid in the ‘80s when Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, and Andre the Giant brought the sport to a national level. However, there’s another definition of old school, one that is becoming a relic of a bygone era. I’m talking about the days of the territories, and there will be no bygone era if Hall of Fame journalist Mike Mooneyham has a damn thing to say about it.
Mike Mooneyham first started covering wrestling in the mid-1960s for a host of national wrestling publications at a ludicrously young age. He spent 40 years as a writer, editor, and columnist with the Post and Courier in Charleston, SC. He retired in 2016, but his extremely popular wrestling column (which started in 1989 when little Stu Monroe was first introduced to his work) lives on and is now the longest-running pro wrestling column in the country. The author of perhaps the best collection of wrestling eulogies ever written, The Final Bell, and co-author of the 2002 New York Times best-seller Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment, is a member of a slew of halls of fame, including the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, the South Carolina Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, and the Mid-Atlantic Legends Hall of Heroes (among others). He won the wrestling industry’s top writing award, the James C. Melby Award, in 2009.
On the opening night of WrestleMania 37, I was lucky enough to spend an insane amount of time talking about Mike’s career and the business we love (old and new school). The wrestling historian and I talked coming up in the territories, pandemic-era wrestling, sports entertainment versus pro wrestling, and who’s on Mount Rushmore. We even got more than a little carried away talking about the upcoming Clemson Tiger football season and how god-awful South Carolina is (seriously, Gamecock fans—this one will p**s you off a bit).
Join us, won’t you? It’s a long one, but you won’t find a truly old-school pro-wrestling interview like this anywhere else. Help us keep the fire alive!
Stu Monroe: All righty. Can you hear me now?
Mike Mooneyham: I can hear you fine.
SM: We’re rocking and rolling then. I love these little devices. It’s just an app on the phone, nice and neat. No hardware to mess with.
MM: Oh yeah. Well, I’m still old school.
SM: I’ve done it that way too, I don’t know—the tech is definitely a little easier this way.
MM: I’m sure.
SM: All right. So, how’s everything going today, sir?
MM: Can’t complain, you know, it’s nice and sunny here and the weather looks like it’s going to hold up for a while. At least we have some spring finally.
SM: Oh, man, that’s nice. You’re still in Charleston, right?
MM: Um-hmm, yeah.
SM: Yeah. I miss it this time of year. I mean Texas is great, but I ain’t been home to Charleston in…my God…it’s been the better part of two decades at this point.
MM: Tell you what—Charleston has changed so much you wouldn’t recognize it.
SM: That’s what I hear from everybody. Everybody says, it’s just not the same, not necessarily in a bad way, but you know…
MM: Well, it’s grown. It’s so overdeveloped here. We just don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the population, and you know the roads stay busy. I live on James Island, so I’m right off of Folly Road. And this time of year, it’s crazy. I mean the traffic to Folly Beach just you know; it’s all backed up on the weekends. It’s like that on the Isle of Palms also. It’s just every part of Charleston is just too many people, you know; they need to build some highways or halt development a little bit. But I guess it’s like that in a lot of places now, a lot of big cities.
SM: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Where I live in Texas was open fields ten years ago, and now we’re drowning in people, too. I’m behind Texas Motor Speedway, and it’s so overcrowded. It is the same everywhere.
MM: I can imagine.
SM: Well, I wanted to start off a little bit with your story because it seems, you know, that some of the details almost seemed a little hard to find. Could you start off maybe telling me how it was you broke into the business? Specifically, when you kind of knew you had gotten on the inside, so to speak, back in the days of kayfabe and everything. Was there a particular moment where it just sort of hit you that you were really on the inside?
MM: Yeah. Well, I started young. I was like ten or eleven years old and caught my first pro wrestling match on TV. But really from that moment, I was hooked. There was a local show coming to town the following week, and a couple of my buddies and I went to the show. I said, “You know? This stuff is great!” I was a big sports fan. I loved all the conventional sports like baseball, football and basketball, but wrestling was sort of new to me. And I mean it was like this whole new world opened up in front of me with these larger-than-life characters, and I was enthralled by what I saw. Like I said, my first match was in ‘64, and I’ve been a fan and follower and a writer and a historian ever since and just loved it.
SM: So that is true! I read that somewhere online, and I thought “eleven years old?!” That’s so young you’d almost think it was a misprint. That’s crazy.
MM: Yeah, actually, I guess I had just turned ten. You know, within a year or two. I’ve got to tell you, I was like I said, I was a huge sports fan, and I just thought I was a pretty good writer for my age. I hooked up with wrestling magazines, and before I knew it, I had a press card and I was a correspondent for some of the more notable magazines of that era. And I was going to matches and covering matches not only here in Charleston but in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and the Southeast. I was getting a little bit on the inside even though I was very young at the time. I was making a lot of contacts. People knew they could trust me, and I cultivated a lot of good friendships and friendships which lasted more than 50 years. Unfortunately, a lot of my old friends are gone now, but it was an amazing time. I just devoured the business and just loved it. So, it’s been an amazing journey for me. I’m very blessed.
SM: Yeah, I can certainly understand that. And you’re still friends with some of the biggest names in the business; guys like Ric Flair. I can’t even imagine just being able to call up the Nature Boy. That’s kind of insane.
MM: Yeah, you know, it’s lucky. I met a lot of these guys early on and got to be friends with Ric and all the way dating back to Lou Thesz. If you ask me who the two greatest wrestlers are? In my opinion, I would say Lou Thesz for his generation and Ric Flair for his generation. You can’t get much better than that, and I was lucky to be friends with both.
SM: Yes, sir. So, over those kayfabe years in particular, did that affect the way you wrote the column in that time versus now? Obviously, everything’s wide open now but the business was so protected. I kind of figured you’d have to choose your words pretty carefully back in the day.
MM: Yeah, I did! And it’s funny because I actually started a…I guess back then we called them fan club bulletins…and they were actually a precursor to what we refer to as newsletters today, but I started a fan club called ‘Championship Wrestling Fan Club’. I guess this was back in the late sixties/early seventies and I published monthly bulletins and I covered results. I covered news. I did stories on wrestlers, and it was still pretty kayfabe back then. I didn’t really expose much even though I would say, you know, “Joe Hamilton and Tom Renesto are The Masked Assassins”. I guess I did break kayfabe a little bit. I would publish the mask and the real names, and I would go, well…you know for that time and like I said, we’re talking about the late sixties to early seventies; that was a little revolutionary back then. But there were a number of other guys who were also from that area who published and had fan clubs for the wrestlers. My fan club was just a general fan club covering mostly stuff that was happening in the southeast but also all over the country. I had correspondence and fan club members from as far away as Great Britain and Egypt.
MM: Yeah! And they would plug my fan club in the magazines back then—magazines like Wrestling Revue and The Ring wrestling magazine. And also, I had columns and did reports for those magazines as well. So, I really got a nice taste of the business when I was very young.
And really, I attribute wrestling to my interest in journalism, because I wrote a lot then and it was mostly about pro wrestling. So, it really opened the door for me to get into the newspaper business, which was my profession for over 40 years. I started working for the Post and Courier back in the mid-seventies and went to Orangeburg a couple of years, worked there, and then came back to Charleston as an assistant sports editor.
You know, it’s funny…on Friday night I would usually take the wrestling results that they’d call in from the local shows and print them in the newspaper the following day. That was probably one of our most-read deals in the Saturday paper, you know, reading the wrestling results from the night before County Hall! And of course, I would occasionally sneak in a big pro wrestling feature in our sports section. I would write stories about pro wrestling. I started my column, my weekly column, in early 1989. So, it’s been around for about thirty-two years; it’s the longest-running column on professional wrestling that’s every Sunday in the sports section.
SM: Yes, sir. You know I can actually remember…it would have been right around that time shortly after [Hurricane] Hugo when I had first discovered you. I mean, I can still remember it. I was with my Mom having breakfast at Pappy’s—
SM: —and she was like, “Oh there’s a wrestling column in the paper. Check this out! And so, I literally took my own money and paid for a paper subscription at that point just for the column! I was like, I didn’t know that anybody wrote about wrestling in the newspaper. That’s just absolutely cool. And the whole time I lived in Charleston I never missed it, man.
MM: Yeah! Well, you know, I’ve met so many people over the years who sort of shared similar stories. Some were out of town and their grandparents or whatever would send clippings to them every week of my column. Of course, this was before the internet and everything. But yeah, my column really struck some nerves, you know, and it’s been a great time. 32 years now!
SM: Before there were “dirtsheets”…at least that’s what we had especially down in the Low Country…we had your column. So, you retire after 40 years, but it’s kind of fitting, I think—you still write freelance for the Post and Courier and you never seem to have missed publication. It’s kind of fitting that it seems like you fit that stereotype of being unable to retire like a lot of pro wrestlers.
MM: Every time I go and try to get out, they keep bringing me back in! But yeah, it’s also for years been one of the most-read things in the newspaper and had a really big following over the years. One reason I agreed to continue writing the column is, like I said, I’ve lost a lot of old friends in the business, but I still have many left. There was a particular wrestler who said, “Well, you know what? When I go, who’s going to write my obituary in the newspaper?” You know? And I thought, well, several others asked me the same question. I said, “Well, that’s one reason I’m trying to stick around as long as I can.” I want to do these guys justice. I have personal memories of all of these people over the years and I want to keep those old school memories alive. Keep that torch burning, I guess.
SM: Yeah, yeah, it’s important. That’s why I love The Final Bell so much. I was so glad I got a chance to review that, and I sent my brother a copy too. It’s just one of those books for people that are, shall we say, not “bandwagon” wrestling fans but who really love the business. They should read what’s going on there, some of those eulogies and the stories behind them. I could barely get through what you wrote about Eddie Guerrero. That was rough.
MM: Thank you. Yeah, you know, I had a hard time writing those too, ‘cause a lot of those are first-hand accounts and columns that I did maybe just days after their passing. So, it really made me think back to when I wrote those columns, and I honestly had a hard time writing a lot of those. I mean, those were very emotional for me to write because most of those guys were personal friends. Some of it’s someone I’d known for, you know, decades and it hit me really hard.
Tim Woods [a.k.a. “Mr. Wrestling”] was one of those guys. Tim was a guy that, when one of our buddies in the business died, either I’d call him or he’d call me and say, “Man, we lost another one.” And Tim said, “Well, you know, your writing…I love your style of writing and it’s so personal and I hope you’re still around, you know, if and when it eventually happens to me in that column. And I said to him, “Tim, you know I’ll be there.” And it happened to be like five or six years later that Tim passed away and that hit me hard. So many of these guys…many of whom I’d grown up watching…they were childhood heroes who became real-life friends, personal friends over the years. And, gosh I miss those guys! I could probably fill up two or three more books with columns I had written on other friends over the years. Yeah, that’s one reason why I wrote The Final Bell.
SM: Yeah, it’s as much you being a wrestling historian at this point as, you know, a journalist as well. I don’t know how many people with your mouth, with your voice basically, are out there writing about the old days anymore. So, it’s I feel like it’s important to keep it going. Definitely.
MM: Yeah, thank you. And thank you for that review of the book! It was an excellent review, and you know I pinned it on my Twitter account. It was really great; you said a lot of nice things and it was just an excellent review.
SM: Appreciate that! I really enjoyed it. I’ve got to thank you for being an inspiration in that regard ‘cause of that personal sort of style. I tend to be a little TMI and a little personal with everything I write but, I think I kind of picked that up or something from reading you. But people seem to like it even when it’s TMI, so I just keep on rolling with it, you know!
MM: Yeah, you know you do a great job.
SM: Thank you. And when you look back at talking about the old days, like the territories…you know, it’s such a different world nowadays. What do you think’s missing in 2021 that was abundant or maybe even taken for granted to some degree back in the day of the territories? You know, being such a different business then versus now, ‘cause something’s missing. You know?
MM: Honestly, I have a hard time. Like I told you before, I don’t cover the business of course like I used to. When I was around, there weren’t that many people, at least on a mainstream level, covering wrestling. But it’s changed so much over the years and it’s…I don’t want to sound like a “boomer”, and I know everything has changed, but everything has not necessarily changed for the better. Honestly, I have a hard time watching some of it today. Like I said, I don’t cover it like I used to. I mainly cover old school wrestling; I keep that torch burning as long as I can, you know. But believability is lacking.
MM: I watch this and every once in a while there’ll be a hint of something good, and it’ll draw me in a little bit. And then five minutes later you see this, you know, just dumb booking. It’s just almost insulting. It’s just stupid and lacks creativity. And give me a little, give me just a little suspension of disbelief, you know?! But you know, I guess the word for it is just hokey. And I don’t know if they’re trying to appeal to middle school kids or what, but it’s certainly not my demographic.
I try to place myself in the shoes of the younger fan who’s watching in 2021. And I don’t know if I would be a wrestling fan today if this is what I grew up watching. It’s changed so dramatically. And like I said again, you know—believability! And I know I used to call everyone “true believers” back in the day. A good portion of the fans, you know, took as gospel what they saw in the ring. But even the ones who didn’t, they still had certain people they followed in certain matches that really drew them back in and made them believe and think they were actually, you know, they were watching something special.
Gordon Solie was a kind of announcer who treated it as legitimate competition. And with the guys, I mean, there was a code with the boys and the business, they protected the business and they didn’t do anything to embarrass themselves or their profession. But it’s just so out there today! I mean, it’s like I said, it’s hard for me to watch a whole show now. There’s not enough to draw me in these days.
SM: That’s entirely fair to say that they’ve changed. I feel like there were two changes: dropping the F and putting the E, especially for the “big” product in WWE. When you get so focused on entertainment that it becomes theatrical, it’s…like, I was amused by the Boneyard Match (Undertaker vs. AJ Styles at WrestleMania 36), but that was not a match. That was a presentation. That was a mini film.
MM: Yep. Exactly. And I know they’re doing more of it. They’ll probably do some more this weekend-
SM: The Fiend and Orton? Yeah. That’s going to be a presentation.
MM: But, why don’t I just watch a soap opera if I’m going to watch a theatrical presentation? And no matter what kind of reviews it has—it was so excellently executed, it was well done, it was all…well, look: I can watch a movie. I can watch a soap opera. But I watch pro wrestling! I still call it pro wrestling for a reason.
MM: That’s for creativity, for competition that doesn’t look like guys flipping and flopping for no reason. You know, I guess I could go on and on, but I think you know where I’m coming from.
SM: Oh, yeah but please do go on and on. That’s what I’m here for.
MM: I just, like I said, I try to pick good parts of what I’m watching, but I’m just not getting enough of it today. It’s for another generation, and I don’t…I can’t see it. I really can’t see it.
SM: I feel like that’s one of the reasons there’s been the popularity that there has been thus far for AEW; it’s that they’re presenting something a lot of people say looks like old WCW. That’s fine by me. It’s hearkening back to something that’s a little different than what WWE is giving you to where when you get those no-name guys you’ve never seen before, you’re actually interested ‘cause you want to see what they can get in the ring and do. And a lot of times they surprised you.
MM: Yeah, well, over there is a little different. You know, I’m not an advocate of doing things that really look stupid (which they do a lot of). They overdo it, but they do include elements of sort of an old school. You know, they got a lot of the old school guys back home. You see blood, and I love that during the day. I know it has to be used judiciously, but you know, I love to see that element in a match. Some of the guys are really good interviews on that show. It’s not the same thing every week. I think I feel like when I’m watching the WWE product, it’s almost a repeat of the week before. The promos are basically the same. And with AEW, there does seem to be some freshness and the guys seemed really enthusiastic, like they’re not going through the motions.
SM: They really aren’t and even when they bomb a little bit, there’s at least a more honest feeling to it like they’re working on their own stuff and not reading straight off a script, you know?
MM: Exactly that! You said it—reading straight off of a script. That’s a big part of it too. Everything is so scripted these days.
SM: And then you understand the necessity in certain situations. Paul Heyman defended that pretty fiercely recently, and I understood where Paul Heyman was coming from because of the scope of the audience; you have to have editorial control, but at the same time, when it feels too scripted, the fans feel it.
MM: They do! They do, and if you’ve been a fan of the business for as long as we have, you see it right off the bat.
SM: Yeah. It’s pretty glaring. So, I really dug the article this morning about the Triple Threat Main Event ‘cause, like, there’s no argument what closes ‘Mania this year. That is one of the best, or (at least) has the potential I think to be one of the best triple threats at ‘Mania we’ve maybe ever seen if these guys go into it in top form. What other matches would you anticipate for ‘Mania this year besides the Triple Threat?
MM: What am I looking forward to? Well, I like Drew, I like Drew McIntyre a lot. I think he missed a big moment, what would have been a really huge moment for him last year in Tampa in Florida when, you know, they didn’t have an audience and he would be in front of his hometown fans. And I’m really happy for him that he’s going to have that audience tonight, albeit not as big as it could have been, but it’s going to be a sizable audience.
SM: Yeah, pretty sizable. Twenty to twenty-five [thousand] is going to feel so huge after the last year, you know?
MM: Yeah, especially not with Thunderdome faces looking at you!
MM: I mean, I do give them credit for doing what they’ve been able to do and make it seem as if it’s, you know, what they were used to performing in front of. Thunderdome did give that sense of somebody cheering and some interaction but tonight, well the next two nights, are going to be the real deal. So, I am looking forward to him and Bobby Lashley. I’m a little disappointed. You know, Bobby Lashley came in with a thud I thought, a couple of years ago. Yeah, this guy is lost. But I really like how they’ve rebuilt that character and he seemed like he might have been a good guy to match up against Lesnar just a few months ago. He was coming on so strong, but I hate the fact that they disbanded The Hurt Business.
SM: Too quick. Way too quick.
MM: It was way too quick, and I thought these guys just worked off of one another, you know, especially Shelton, who I have been a friend with for a long time. And as you know, Shelton grew up in Orangeburg, and he’s sort of a local guy. I mean Shelton is a guy is who’s a prime example of someone who had so much potential coming in years ago and they really ruined it for him.
SM: Pretty much, yeah.
MM: They had him doing these interviews, and you could tell it wasn’t Shelton. God, they were so scripted, and it just…Shelton had a hard time with it. I thought he could have been the next…he could have been a black Sting. You know what I’m saying?
SM: Yeah, straight up! That’s a good way of putting it, too! Instead, they brought Shelton’s Mama on the screen “quote-unquote” in a comedy bit and it’s like, “Are you really crushing a guy that is talented enough to have trained Brock Lesnar? For real?”
MM: And beaten Brock Lesnar! Yeah, Shelton beat Brock Lesnar.
SM: Oh yeah, that’s true.
MM: Yeah, you know he could beat him. And he was an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota at the time. But yeah, I was disappointed. I thought Lashley was coming along so strong and then they broke up The Hurt Business and now they bought Corbin into the deal and it just sort of diminished Lashley’s character a little bit, I think, coming into WrestleMania.
SM: I get that as a heel move to get the title. I didn’t have a beef with the Miz thing; it made for an interesting story. But you’re presenting a monster already with a weakness and a chink in the armor. Not a good way to build.
MM: No. Especially leading right into his WrestleMania match, you know? I just thought this match could have been so much bigger. But yeah, I am looking forward to that match.
SM: I think they’ll surprise a lot of people, and they’re opening the show with it. So, you know, they know something we don’t in the sense that the opener is just as important as the closer a lot of times.
MM: Yeah, kind of surprised to see them have the women, probably looks like they’ll be in the final match tonight—Sasha Banks and uh, Bianca Belair.
SM: I am actually really looking forward to that one, too. Bianca, week after week, impresses me more and more (at least with her in-ring work, anyways). Sasha is obviously a complete package.
MM: Yep. Yeah. It should be a very good match. Probably the match I’m not looking forward to is Bad Bunny and Damien Priest against the Miz and [John] Morrison.
SM: And it’s Priest I feel bad for because this guy needs a…I’m not saying a straight to the top push right now, but he should be winning like a US title or an Intercontinental title fairly quickly. I legit feel like he’s a Scott Hall Hybrid that can do a lot of interesting things and they’re just pushing him the wrong way.
MM: Yeah, I think so too. He’s got a good look, he’s good on the mic, and they matched and they paired him up with Bad Bunny, who…I think I’ve written enough about how I feel about celebrities, you know. It seems like not just Vince [McMahon] but all the promoters feel like they need to get their guys a rub off of celebrities. You know, I’ve always thought celebrities might want to get a rub off the wrestlers.
SM: Exactly! Flip that script around. Yes, sir.
MM: Yeah, I don’t want to see Bad Bunny score a pinfall and win a match over somebody who’s been world champion a couple of times, speaking of The Miz.
SM: He’s one of the most underappreciated performers in the business, “soft” style or no. If you don’t know The Miz at this point, then your eyes are freaking closed! The guy is putting in work. Straight up.
MM: Yeah, he’s very reliable, and I just hate the fact that he’s going to be made to look like a buffoon tonight. And you know it’s probably going to be a…I’m relatively sure that Priest is going to set Bad Bunny up to, you know, get the pinfall and the photo-op afterwards and, you know, hopefully get some footage out of Bad Bunny holding his hand up in the air at WrestleMania. Yeah. That’s not me. I see the old-school promoters rolling in their graves right now.
SM: Yeah, that’s a bit of an understatement. I mean, the celebrities do have a place on occasion, but they get sorely overused. And unless they’re going to put in work like Shaq did a few weeks ago taking that nasty table bump, I don’t want to see too much of you in the ring personally unless you want to go in there and get your ass put through a table.
MM: There you go!
SM: He took a nasty bump on that table, too. You got to give Shaq a lot of credit for that one.
MM: I don’t care how soft that table might have been or what but hey, that’s a big guy, you know landing on the table like that can’t be good.
SM: Nah, nah…he felt that when he woke up the next morning, I guarantee it. Now, I know you don’t watch as much of the current product as you used to. I mean, it’s WrestleMania, so that’s kind of a given. But with what you do still see…you know, star power always seems to be a problem in the modern-day. Do you see anybody working today that is capable of being that draw? We’re talking a real draw like a Flair, Austin, Rock, or Hogan sort of level, like someone that can carry it through this…I don’t want to say valley, but this transition that wrestling is sort of going through right now.
MM: Honestly, no. I don’t. Not at that level, like a Flair or Hogan or a Rock or a Cena or Steve Austin. Just how the business is right now? No, I don’t see that. Do you?
SM: No. No, I really don’t. I don’t think they push anyone. They haven’t had a face, there hasn’t been a face to the business since John Cena and I think people are starting to appreciate John Cena’s value a lot more now that he’s gone, which we all knew. The old school guys knew that was going to happen.
MM: Yeah. Yeah, they did. You know one guy that I see a lot of talent in? And maybe with more exposure…who knows how the business goes over the next few years? But I really like MJF from AEW.
SM: Yes, sir.
MM: I think the guy, you know, he has this natural talent. He almost reminds me (and I won’t compare him) a little bit of a Ric Flair back in the seventies, you know? Coming into the business, he’s got some nice ability in the ring and really comes off as a very cocky, unlikeable guy which is sort of the kind of heat you want to get in today’s business. It’s sort of the missing element. I think he plays off of Jericho very well, too.
SM: Oh, every bit of work that those two have done with each other, I love. It’s the main reason I tune in and watch AEW, as much as I like the rest of their product. And everybody has someone they’re a mark for. I’m a Jericho guy. To me, he calls himself the G.O.A.T.; I buy it. I mean, he’s the most active Attitude Era guy left on camera and he’s still reinventing himself. How do you view Chris Jericho right now?
MM: Yeah, he does. He has an uncanny ability to sort of, like you say, reinvent himself at every turn. Who knows what Jericho is going to be like in six months? You know he’ll be different. But yeah, it’s hard to believe Chris is fifty years old now.
SM: It’s insane for the level he’s at. Has he slowed a step? Sure, he’s slowed a step, but just one right now. I wouldn’t say he’s even slowed two steps, and I think he’s gotten better on the mic. J.R called that promo last week “immortal”. I ain’t even arguing with it; Jericho was more than on fire. He was absolutely ripping shit up with that promo!
MM: He was.
SM: Amazing work.
MM: It was, yeah. Yeah. It’s just, it’s hard for me to believe these guys have been in the business as long as they have been. I still think of Chris as a kid, a young guy. And yeah, he’s fifty years old.
SM: It’s crazy, and he’s at that Undertaker length in his career. I think there’s probably people young enough watching today that just don’t realize Chris Jericho’s actually been around that long. “What? You wrestled in the ’80s?” Yeah, he started his career super early.
MM: I remember when he and Lance Storm were hooking up in Smoky Mountain as the Thrill Seekers, you know? Gosh, that’s crazy. It really is. I just think, I guess I’ve been in and around it so long. I can remember when the Assassins were like, man! They were so good. They were the top team in professional wrestling. And I saw so many matches. In fact, the first main event I ever saw live was the Bolos against Haystacks Calhoun and Johnny Weaver, and it seems like yesterday, man. It was, like let’s see…before… (trails off). Yeah, it’s fifty-seven years ago! But that was right there at County Hall. And of course, the Bolos were also known as the Assassins; same team. And every time I pass by that building, I can still hear those tomahawk chops and sledgehammers from Wahoo McDaniel and Johnny Valentine. I can still hear those things. I can feel them reverberating off those walls of that building.
SM: It stays with you like literally in your soul. One of the earliest things I can remember was being with my dad, taking me to a show when I was six. And I think they were already calling at the King Street Palace then.
SM: And going up to the rail and actually reaching out and touching Andre’s leg for like a half a heartbeat. He kind of looked down at me and just that image of him looking down at me is burned, literally burned on my soul forever.
MM: Yes, and you know, you hope that fans today have that kind of feeling where they’ll look back forty years from now and say, “Man. I felt it, you know? I was there and I felt that!” And of course, it’s going to be different, you know? You’re talking about a scene that’s etched in your mind of you putting your hand up. Or were you in the balcony?
SM: No, it was the entrance [aisle]. We literally ran down and pushed through people to the entrance ramp, the alleyway they would walk through. It’s just ‘cause they had those steel rails that you could basically fit your whole freaking kid through so we’d rush the trails and stick our arms through and just try to touch them if we could when they were running by. And I got just enough of his leg to get like a response; like he looked down for a second and it was like, yeah, this is the coolest thing ever. I’m staying right here.
MM: Okay, I guess I’m going back a little ways. I remember Andre coming in from the exit at County Hall, and he was actually so big, fans in the balcony, on the front row of the balcony, would reach down there and put their hands down. And Andre had that huge hand, and he was actually reaching their hands and giving them a high five up in the balcony! I mean, it was amazing. You never forget it. Those fans will never forget that, and I just think there was such a personal connection between the fans and the wrestlers that just is not there today. And it’s not there for many reasons; the coliseums are huge and the wrestlers are more protected from the fans and everything else, but back then, I mean, they felt like they were coming to see a hero every week.
SM: Well said.
MM: It was such a great feeling and a connection with the fans and the wrestlers.
SM: So, it goes without saying…and maybe it’s a staple of interviews like this…but every wrestling fan has themselves a Mount Rushmore. Indulge me real quick: who’s on yours for wrestlers and then for managers?
MM: Well, boy…that’s like I often tell people it’s like picking out your favorite children or something. But you know, I can tell you without reservation the top two would be Ric Flair on one side and Lou Thesz on the other side. As far as guys finishing it out? I would have to give props to current-generation guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. I mean, those two have certainly been two of the biggest people influencing the business in the last two or three decades. You know, Hogan? Not a huge fan, never been a huge Hogan fan, but you have to give him props also. I mean, he was a big reason, a big factor, in the national expansion of wrestling back in the mid-eighties.
SM: With that personality and that image, I always say nobody believed in himself more than Hulk Hogan. I mean that guy was confidence personified.
MM: He did. You know, between him and Vince McMahon they would completely transform the wrestling business. Some might argue for worse, but you can’t deny that wrestling changed in a huge way. It’s attracted mainstream attention in that period. But Johnny Valentine would be on there for sure. You know, I think Valentine’s probably one of the greatest heels of all time, and he made people believe. Did you get to watch any…have you watched any footage of Valentine?
SM: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
MM: Okay. You know, the footage is going to be a little bit different from actually being there and seeing him in person, and I saw Valentine many, many times. And if you wanted to get a wrestler to make you believe, no one could do that more than Johnny Valentine. You know, he had that saying, “I can’t make you believe professional wrestling is real, but I sure as hell can make you believe I am!”
SM: And I love that quote ‘cause that’s the difference when people talk about the “it factor”. Like, you know, they always use that term for Jake “The Snake”—he just had that “it factor”. It was for that reason right there. It’s like, forget everything else you see around you. You look at me, you’re going to believe me and you’re not going to screw with me.
MM: Yeah, and they did. They really, really did. Valentine could make his entrance, walk into the ring, and look up into the balcony and stare at a particular fan with those cold, steel blue eyes and you could just feel the heat. I mean, it was tangible. You feel the heat in the building with just his eyes, and that’s what it’s all about. And Valentine’s just flowed out!
He started out very slow in his matches. And I remember when he first came to the Carolinas in ’73, some of the promoters were a little bit worried. Hey, this guy’s just working holds for like 10 or 15 minutes and really nothing has happened. They soon caught on, they soon discovered the genius of Johnny Valentine. He incorporated so much psychology into his matches, just little nuances where that ten, fifteen, twenty minutes of holding a match just working holds would lead to violence. It would lead to blood. It would lead to this incredible action in the ring and everything he did had a reason, you know, the sledgehammer blows and working an armbar. Everything he did had a reason, and that’s what made Johnny Valentine so dadgum good.
And I’ve seen many, many Johnnie Valentine matches. The ones with Wahoo McDaniel, you’d have to be there to really appreciate it. There’s some footage of those matches, but to be there was incredible because when Valentine would drape an opponent like Wahoo over the top rope, cross the rope, and come down with a sledgehammer?! It was like a cannon had gone off. I mean you could hear it probably down the street. It was incredible.
SM: Yeah, I bet you could.
MM: Those guys whipped each other into a frenzy. Blood just splattering all over the place. I have a good close-up picture of part of Valentine’s ear just hanging off, you know, after all the chops that Wahoo had delivered. But that was a Johnny Valentine match. It didn’t matter if there were a thousand people in the building or ten thousand. I mean he was going to give you everything; he was going to give you Johnny “The Champ” Valentine. And he is definitely on my Mount Rushmore.
SM: That’s cool. That’s a pretty good round out. I have Flair, Andre, ‘Taker, and the Heartbreak Kid on mine. A little different generation, but for me nobody, you know, you could almost trade out Flair and HBK synonymously because the two are just the best in-ring workers maybe to ever step through the ropes and make it believable. And then you can’t ignore ‘Taker and Andre.
MM: Yeah, yeah! I’m remiss in not mentioning ‘Taker for sure. He’s right up there, along with Austin and Rock, as people who made such a big impact on the business. And Andre? Andre was sort of in a category on his own. He is Mount Rushmore, probably.
SM: Oh, yeah. All by himself!
MM: He’s big enough to be the Mount Rushmore and those other guys are, you know, on top of him. But, yeah…Andre was incredible.
SM: With Andre, it’s almost hard to put him on there in a sense. It’s almost unfair to say that as a “Mount Rushmore” though because he was such a singular attraction that stood entirely on his own away from everybody else.
MM: He was the automatic main event anywhere he went. He was the attraction; (he) didn’t need a title. He was the attraction. And you asked me about managers—I have so many good managers. Jim Cornette, I think, has a tremendous mind for the business. You know, he’s having sort of a tough time with the current product.
SM: Yeah, it doesn’t transition very well for Cornette. He’s someone who always speaks his mind, but you’ve got to love him for that. I mean, that’s why he is who he is.
MM: Yeah, he wouldn’t be Cornette otherwise, that’s what made him such a great manager for all those years. He really did speak his mind back then; everyone thought it was a promo, but that was Cornette.
SM: Yeah, you don’t have to work to get heat when you’re Jim Cornette. You just open your mouth, and it’ll come to you.
MM: (laughs) And that’s really what a good manager should be. Yeah, so many great managers—J.J. Dillon, Bobby Heenan, and Gary Hart. Gary Hart, I thought, was a great mouthpiece.
SM: God, Gary Hart was amazing.
MM: And he had such a creative mind too; just really amazing. A lot of the old school managers that I grew up watching like Homer O’Dell. He was a heat magnet for sure. J.C. Dykes with the Masked Infernos; J.C. was a tremendous manager. Really, there were so many good managers over the years all according to what time period. And Paul E. Dangerously, you know, I liked him.
SM: He’s kind of gold nowadays as soon as he opens his mouth. And I think some of that might have to do with the fact that managers don’t really exist anymore in the current products, but also just Heyman—you’re going to get something interesting every time he walks into the room.
MM: He’s another guy with such a great creative mind too, you know. And he’s still more than relevant today.
SM: Yeah, he’s getting more and more control over certain areas of the product and you can tell when Paul Heyman has his hands on something and somebody is getting a Paul Heyman push. It just feels different. He’s definitely got some stroke in the business today. That’s pretty cool to watch ‘cause he’s got a great eye, especially for the younger guys coming up. He and that Gable Stevenson kid were hanging out here recently, and that was like a good connection.
MM: Yeah. I think that it’s not a coincidence with Roman Reigns and his new persona. Paul E., he has a lot to do with that, you know.
SM: Yeah, I think Paul E. just taught him to calm down. He taught him to slow down and be himself. I feel like I’m actually seeing Roman Reigns for the first time. It’s cool to watch.
MM: Great point! I sure wish they would have done that a few years ago when he caught a lot of grief from fans. I think if Paul E. had had him at that point, it would have been a totally different story with him. He wouldn’t have had to go through several years of getting booed. And the bad kind of boos!
SM: And you felt so bad. You hate to see someone put in the work that Roman did during those years and be so hated, but when your push doesn’t have a single organic element to it and it’s clearly just “we’re cramming this guy down your throat”? That tends to be (especially nowadays) how your educated fans react; it’s like, “no, we don’t want this guy. We want Daniel Bryan instead”, you know.
MM: Yeah and I think the reason they switched a lot of things going on with that triple threat match is they were worried Roman was going to get cheered, so they had to find a strong babyface. It looks like Daniel Bryan might be that guy ‘cause they really, you know, Edge made that little heelish turn. I think Vince was really afraid that fans were going to end up cheering Roman instead of Edge. So, they turned Edge heel and now Roman, and they brought Daniel on as pretty much the third guy to ensure that he’s going to get that “Yes! Yes! Yes!” stuff Sunday night.
SM: Yeah, go get you that good, hot crowd. And the thing I like is with Brian’s gas tank, it immediately gives you another 15 minutes of match minimum right there ‘cause he’ll work forever and allow those guys to stretch it out.
MM: Yeah, but it’s an intriguing match. Like I wrote in my column, here you have these guys that were pretty much given up [on] at certain points over the last few years. Nobody thought Edge was going to come back. It didn’t look like Daniel was going to be able to come back. And certainly Roman, you know, with the leukemia…that was a very, very serious situation. And now all of a sudden you have these three guys on the second night of the biggest show, wrestling in the main event. I think it’s a pretty cool story, and I’m looking forward to some good stuff. You know those three guys are going to be putting it all out.
SM: Yeah. Oh, that’s the absolute match to look forward to in the proper main event spot. I don’t have a problem with the two nights format. It’s just that you know the main event on the second night is truly—
MM: That’s it.
SM: That’s the one you want to see. No disrespect to Sasha and Bianca. I think they’ll freaking destroy it, and I love where women’s wrestling is, in general, the last five years. That’s been the most fun to watch in the business the last few years, is really getting back to women’s wrestling.
MM: It’s really one of the reasons. I might watch a little bit more of Raw or SmackDown than I usually do waiting for the girls, you know?
SM: Yeah, legitimately! And you know, I watch a lot of Attitude Era content and cover stuff for sites. But, it’s painful to watch some of the stuff from the Attitude Era. It is. Let’s be honest. It’s so demeaning.
MM: It is.
SM: A lot of these girls had real talent and you never, ever, ever saw it because they were too busy getting ‘em naked and dunking them in pudding or putting paddles on poles.
MM: Yeah, it really was, and to see how this Women’s Revolution came about…I mean, it’s just like they went from zero to a hundred!
SM: Yeah, super super fast! And that opening class of women, the Four Horsewomen? Man, that’s such a strong group and still…I hope half the rumors that are bubbling out there about Becky tonight are true because I’m ready to mark the hell out to see her back.
MM: That would pump the crowd, for sure. And I think they will. I’ve got a feeling they will because it’s been a long time since they’ve had you know this kind of crowd at a show and it’s WrestleMania and they want to do something special and that would really that would be it. Becky coming in, that would be a huge, huge pop.
SM: Yeah, I guess the talk was Bailey having talk show segments tonight or something. Like, what’s Bailey really going to do at ‘Mania but have some kind of surprise? Well, what’s the almost obvious one?
MM: Uh-huh! That would be it, wouldn’t it?
SM: It would get a huge pop! It would certainly get a huge pop from me, too.
MM: It’s going to be different to see how, you know, they haven’t wrestled in front of a live crowd so long right? It’s going to be different. Hearing comments from some of the guys, they’re kind of not knowing what to expect either. We know how the Thunderdome reacts to us. We know how the announcers put us over to elicit a certain reaction from people watching on TV. How is it going to be when we’re finally out in front of a big crowd? It’s going to be fun.
SM: Yeah, I didn’t think about the flip side of it, kind of like the reverse of the whole performance center shift now. Now we’re getting back to the other side where, yeah, that would get in your head and screw with you a little bit. You’d almost be nervous to get in front of fans again.
MM: I know Edge has talked about it a bit. And he said we don’t know what’s going to [happen], we don’t know who’s going to get booed, who’s going to get cheered, what kind of crowd it’s going to be. It’s been a long time and I think they’ve come a long way from a year ago, coming out to a ring with nobody there.
SM: I’ve re-watched that WrestleMania, and it’s still weird. I don’t think it’ll ever not be weird, seeing it presented that way.
MM: Yes. Hopefully, we can look back at this with an asterisk, you know, and things are going to get better. Well, we can always hope.
SM: Yeah, that’s for sure. Well, I have to change one little gear on you finally here since you have been so cool and allowed me to get through everything. What are your expectations for our beloved [Clemson] Tigers as we enter the DJ Uiagalelei era? I’m pretty sure I said that right, actually. I practised it enough.
MM: Hey Stuart, have we ever had quarterbacks that not only could we not pronounce, I mean, but forget the spelling! I’ll never be able to spell those names!
SM: (laughs) Yeah, it’s not exactly a normal Clemson name. You expect that somewhere like the West Coast universities will have a lot of the Polynesian names and ones you can’t pronounce, but at Clemson we don’t know what to do. It’s like, “He’s just DJ. Do you know his last name? No, he’s just DJ!” says every old white person in Clemson, myself included.
MM: I mean, what a nightmare for headline writers…trying to get 20 letters in a name. Their best bet is going to be DJ. And that [Taisun] Phommachanh is even worse!
SM: God, I got nothing on Phommachanh. Never been able to spell it.
MM: I mean, Phommachanh, as it’s spelt, doesn’t even look like it’s right.
SM: Or like Taisun, T-A-I-S-U-N, it makes sense. But I’m, you know, a big grammar nerd and a spelling nerd so my eyeballs are going “well, that doesn’t register with me!”
MM: And then Phommachanh?! I’m never going to be able to spell that name right!
SM: I can stick to DJ. I like the big Cinco thing, too. Big Cinco is a cool handle, you know?
MM: At least we don’t have any guy named Chris Smelly as quarterback like [South] Carolina did.
SM: Oh, crap. I forgot about him!
MM: I loved it. With every play it would be, “Smelly under center. Smelly under center.” Like, they had to know that didn’t sound right.
SM: Yeah, you know the PA announcer at Death Valley was loving it—“Smelly under center. I bet it’s smelly under center every damn time!”
MM: Is there anything good about South Carolina?
SM: I-26 West [towards the upstate and Clemson]
MM: (heavy laughter)
SM: Like I said, I’m a South Carolina boy born and raised, as far as the state. I know all the classic Carolina jokes.
MM: I know; I’m talking about the school. I’m talking about the University of South Carolina. I’ve never, you know…and forget me being a lifetime Clemson guy, but I never liked anything about Columbia. I never liked anything about the school. It’s just like could you find two more different universities than the University of South Carolina and Clemson?
SM: No. Polar opposites from almost right down to the fan base, even though we all have a Gamecock somewhere in our family, you know.
MM: Oh, it definitely goes down to the fan base; obnoxious fans. But I always give them credit—(they’re) long-suffering fans. They will hold onto a loser like nothing. I mean, you know, I can’t imagine going through all of those years with the Chicken Curse. You know, they had a few good years under [Steve] Spurrier and that’s it. That was more of an aberration.
SM: That’s what I’d tell my Gamecock friends, too. And that was the Spurrier era and they were waving at you, you know, and holding up the five—
MM: The fives, yeah…
SM: —and I’d say enjoy the golden era kids, ‘cause it ain’t going to last long. So, take a picture, frame it, put it on the wall and go, “Hey, remember that five-year stretch?” You ain’t going to see it again, especially under Dabo [Swinney] and in this era. No.
MM: Nope. And I was there for that game too when Deshaun [Watson] came out and they had that five-year streak going and boy, what a beautiful game that was. That was it for Carolina, you know? They haven’t won a game, haven’t beat us since.
SM: Yeah, the downhill that started with the whole program there…that program’s a mess right now. They just don’t have any idea what they’re doing in Columbia, even with the new coach. I don’t think they’ve got anything figured out.
MM: No, and who is he? I mean, he was [Frank] Beamer’s son. You know, what other credibility does he have? He was an assistant for Spurrier for a couple of years, but you know, they’re just getting anybody. And the basketball situation is horrible. You know, the women are good.
SM: The women are great, yeah. But outside of that? Sure.
MM: So yeah, Carolina is just…I never liked the town. It’s just hot, you know, the stadium is ugly. The stadium is in an industrial area. It’s just ugly.
SM: Yeah, that’s right! It’s been so long since I’ve been there, but I have had the misfortune of going to two or three state championships at that…yeah…that gross stadium. I’ve got to agree.
MM: It’s the only school I know that eats its own mascot before the game, you know, at that old Bojangles over there. And they pack that fried chicken and, you know, eat their mascot. Horrible!
SM: (laughs) What a terrible tradition to have. Even in our worst of years, we’re not Coots! So, we’ve got to look at it that way.
MM: Yeah, you know, I think we’re going to be okay, but boy, it really concerns me that we don’t have a backup quarterback.
SM: It’s time to go to the transfer portal, honestly. I get where Dabo’s coming from, but there are at least enough names out there that you’ve got serviceable backups. Get yourself a quarterback. Don’t do that to DJ.
MM: Yeah. Don’t do that to your fans and your team because if DJ goes down, we’re sunk. I mean, the two backups are not really backups.
SM: Not particularly.
MM: He’s never shown me anything that would validate him being a back up to like a Trevor Lawrence or even DJ, but we don’t have a backup. We got the walk-on kid. We got that [Hunter] Helms kid and [Will] Spiers? The punter? Really? Dabo said we have two guys coming in, but they’re coming out of high school, you know? They can’t be expected to come in and be the backup to DJ? No. I’m really concerned about that and I think you’re right. We’ve got to go to that portal and there are not a lot of guys out there and not a lot of quarterbacks. There’s that kid from Mississippi [Grant Tisdale] who’s looking, but he’s looking to come somewhere and play, right?
SM: Yeah. Yeah. He wants to start from what I’ve heard. Yeah.
MM: You know, a guy like that is looking to transfer so he can start somewhere, not be a backup and maybe not even get a chance to play for a team. So, I don’t know man. It’s not like [when] we had Deshaun Watson and we had Kelly Bryant as a backup, or we had Trevor Lawrence and Kelly at the same time. And then we had—
SM: DJ’s stellar work as a backup ‘cause he was freaking phenomenal as a backup. I feel good about DJ, but I also know that injuries happen.
MM: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, you felt really good. You’d never wanted to see Trevor go down, but if you did, you knew DJ was the guy; he was the next guy. And we don’t have that now.
SM: We got nothing right now. Somebody even mentioned (out of the transfer portal) Jake Bentley! And once I got done p*****g myself laughing, I was like no. That’ll never happen.
MM: No. That’ll never happen.
SM: I know he’s played. I know he’s got experience within the framework of college football, but you couldn’t put Jake Bentley on a Clemson team. It’s just, the joke tells itself. There’s still guys on the team that have beat his ass. So, it’s not even fair. Like, don’t do that to the kid.
MM: You’re right. I’m hoping we have a running back that really sort of emerges.
SM: Yeah, does somebody emerge? We’ve got a full room of running backs and some of them like Kobe Pace looked really good. You know, Lyn-J Dixon has every tool he needs. He’s just never really been given the platform to do it on. [Chez] Mellusi is not bad. I mean, there’s a whole stable of running backs, but someone’s going to have to step up and be the A-back.
MM: He’s going to have to be the guy. You know, Lyn-J was really good a couple of years ago. Was it two or three years ago?
SM: His freshman year, he really looked like a breakout guy. And it’s almost hard to look at him with the previous year because the line was so bad, even for Etienne and hurting his numbers. So that you know, you almost can’t judge Lyn-J on what he did last year because he got piss-poor blocking, pretty much.
MM: And let’s hope that blocking is better this year. That was very bad, that was horrible with our O-line.
SM: Yeah, I did not like looking like that, especially with a team like Ohio State the way that year finished out. They dominated that line so badly it wasn’t even funny.
MM: And they recognize that fact, too. That offensive line has to be a lot better this season if we’re going to finish again.
SM: Yeah. Yeah. We got it. We got all the weapons. Defense doesn’t concern me at all; defense is looking better at practically every position besides being thin at cornerback. They look better at pretty much every position. And we got talent at cornerback. We just have a little bit of a depth problem.
MM: Yep. Yep. It’ll be interesting to see. You know, I hope we can work something out with the quarterback situation because I don’t want to be fearful every game. You know, what if DJ goes down? We could lose to Wake Forest.
SM: Yeah, you’re set up for the nightmare scenario of a season that gets completely flushed down the toilet because you’ve lost your starting quarterback.
MM: And that stuff happens. You know it’s really hard for a team to go through a season without having an injury to the starting quarterback at some point. Maybe not a serious one. But you know, like we—
SM: A week or two ankle thing or something, yeah.
MM: —And he’s out for a week or two and then you lose to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech and you know, that’s it—your season’s over.
SM: Welcome to The Music City Bowl. If you’re lucky.
MM: Do they even still play those bowl games? Isn’t that something?
SM: You know, the funny thing is that it’s not that long ago that you can remember those years where getting to that ball game was good. It felt okay, you know, it was like, all right, 7-5, maybe 8-4. We got to the Music City Bowl. I never would have thought I would see…and I hate to say that because I’m born and raised in Clemson literally, you know, orange is in my blood…but I never thought I would see this level of sustained success with this program for as long as it’s been going.
MM: No! That was always the dream, though. You know, when Danny [Ford] had that… it really started, you could say…I was there in the Frank Howard days, you know, Frank Howard, he’s like my favorite coach. But to see what happened after, it really kind of started with Charlie Pell. Do you remember Charlie?
SM: Yeah, “Run Like Hell” Pell.
MM: Yeah! It started with Charlie and then when Danny took over, we were there. We were there, we’re  National Champions. We got on probation for a while, but we’re still beating everybody for the most part, you know. We might drop a game or two, maybe even three, but we were tough! Three three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust right?
SM: Yep. Love that expression.
MM: Then Danny’s done in ‘89 and then when he left and Ken Hatfield came on; I didn’t care for Hatfield much.
SM: Me either.
MM: But they still won up until that last year when he got fired. You can’t beat Wake Forest, you get fired. That’s just it. You know, we had not lost to Wake Forest in so many years, just like Virginia, but when you lose to Wake? No, that’s it. So, Hatfield still had a really good overall record and then Tommy West; those were lean years.
SM: Very lean, yeah.
MM: But um, with Bowden, we started getting the talent, you know. When [Tommy] Bowden came on we started attracting…’cause people just love Clemson, it’s a great school, you know.
SM: Yeah. Yeah, and nobody’s ever had anything bad to say about Clemson far as the school or the environment but there was a lot of inconsistency and underachieving on the football program for a lot of years.
MM: And Bowden was like Jekyll and Hyde, you know?
SM: Beat Miami, lose to Duke. Hmm. Okay.
MM: Yeah. Or lose to Duke and his job is on the line, right? He’s maybe 7-5, you know, and his team have lost games they shouldn’t have. And then they beat Tennessee in a bowl game! And he gets the extension, right? We’re back! And then we start the next year and maybe drop the opener and lose 55-0 to Georgia or something like that. You know. That was what I termed “The Decade of Mediocrity”—the Tommy Bowden era, alright? Just like Jack Leggett. I wanted Bowden gone, you know.
SM: Oh, for sure.
MM: Yeah. Now with Bowden, we should have been so much more successful than we were. We had really good talent during those years. We had much better talent than our record indicated. We should have won a lot more games. Bowden lost those.
SM: We became the team that nobody wanted to play because they knew that Clemson was capable of beating literally anybody in the country on any given night if Bowden had his team focused, but he rarely ever did.
MM: That’s right. And my enduring image of Bowden is him kneeling over on the sideline chewing grass during critical periods of the game.
SM: Oh my God, I’d forgotten about that! (laughs)
MM: Yes, you know the game is in limbo, and he looks nervous and he’s kneeling down on the sidelines chewing grass. That did not inspire any kind of confidence for me or his team. I’m sure, right?
SM: Oh, sure, and it opened you up for a bunch of jokes.
MM: Yeah. It wasn’t like he was even taking an active part. His strategy was play not to lose. How many games have we seen Clemson have a great first half (under Bowden) and then, you know, three runs up the middle so we can work time off the clock and hold on to a lead. And so many times they lost the game at the end because they had played so conservatively in the second half, just trying to hold on and not to lose; playing not to lose rather than finishing off a team. And I was so glad when we lost…actually it’s the only time I’ve ever rooted against a Clemson team.
Half-heartedly, I rooted for him to lose because I was sure that Bowden was out if we lost. It was a game against Wake Forest that was like a Thursday night game. We played in the rain at Clemson, and it was one of the most boring games I’ve ever seen. It was like 12 to 7 and we couldn’t even score against a terrible Wake Forest team. And that was it. He was released, and it was ten years of mediocrity gone.
And I’m telling you something; I wanted Dabo Swinney to coach, to take over that team two or three years before he took the team over. Like I said, I saw Bowden chewing grass on the sideline, but I saw this coach named Dabo Swinney going up and down the sidelines cheering on the…you know, he was head of the receivers team…he was like a cheerleader out there! He was shouting out stuff and I said, ‘that guy should be the coach instead of Tommy Bowden’.
So, I was overjoyed when they gave the job to Dabo. I didn’t know if he was even in consideration. He was just an assistant coach, you know? I thought they probably would bring somebody from outside with some kind of link to Clemson, but they obviously saw the same thing we did. And Dabo, he was a player’s coach.
SM: They love playing for him, everybody that’s played for Dabo. I mean, you see it. Every time you just see him with his players. How could you not…I played high school football, and if I had a coach like that, man…how excited would you be to play for someone who just loves you that freaking much and believes in you and wants you to go out there and kick ass. Like, that energy is infectious.
MM: And that’s before they were winning ACC Titles and National Championships! You’d want to play for a guy like that. You know, you would want to be part of that kind of camaraderie. It was just a perfect fit and the only thing against Dabo, in the beginning, was that he needed to get rid of some of the assistants on the team. Like our defensive coach, you know—
SM: Oh, yeah? [Vic] Koenning?
MM: No. The guy who went to Alabama and Auburn…
SM: You got a couple of them. There was [Kevin] Steele.
MM: And he always wore that turtleneck. He’s the one that gave up like seventy-five points to whoever it was. That was his last game. But he was another guy, wore a turtleneck, horrible defensive coach, can’t even remember his name. I probably blocked it. But you know, he went on to Alabama and Auburn as a defensive coach. They can have him. I mean, he was horrible; got rid of him and then Dabo got rid of the guy from Furman who was the Offensive Coordinator. He was young at the time. He wasn’t ready for the big time. He coaches at Louisiana now or La. Tech or something, one of those schools up there. But he wasn’t experienced enough to handle an offense at the time. He’s a coordinator. So, you know, he rid himself of some of the assistants and the coaches and then he got the guys. He knew how to assemble a staff. He got some great assistants, probably the best one being Tony Elliott.
SM: Oh, Tony Elliott is amazing and undervalued in national circles. ‘Cause everybody talks about [Brent] Venables and rightly so; Venables is incredible and we’re absolutely blessed to have the guy. But not enough people appreciate Tony Elliott.
MM: Tony has such an amazing story. You know, Tony grew up right here in James Island. I coached him some when he was young.
SM: Oh, no. Wow.
MM: Yeah! Oh yeah, and Tony played for me like when I was in baseball. I was usually the All-Star coach; took the teams to district and stuff like that. And Tony would be on the all-star teams. And I would put him in with a great group of guys, really talented. I put Tony in center field or whatever, but you know, Tony back then…do you know Tony’s back story?
SM: I read an article one time, but I have terrible short-term memory retention, wink-wink. So, I don’t remember the entire backstory.
MM: Yeah, his mother and stepfather were killed in an automobile accident. He was in the car with his sister, they survived.
SM: Oh, that’s right. Yeah. Yeah.
MM: His aunt, who is the principal at the school here on James Island, and her husband took Tony in and his sister was sent off to another aunt and uncle in Atlanta. But Tony was such a good kid, let me tell you. He was such a good kid who came from so much adversity. Tony was smart, you know, he was educated and smart. He grew up the right way. I always pull for Tony ‘cause like I said, he came from such a rough start. He had to see his mom die right there. And I think his, it’s his biological father went to prison for something. So he didn’t have a lot of support in that regard, but he did have a good aunt and uncle who raised him. And it just seemed like he succeeded at everything he did. He was a really good football player here at James Island High School. Got a scholarship. I don’t know if Tony was a walk-on. He got a partial scholarship, but you remember when Tony played receiver at Clemson?
SM: I do, yeah. Yeah.
MM: And Dabo was his receivers coach, I think for a while (that was under Bowden). And if you remember, Tony was like a clutch guy. You know how we always had Hunter Renfrow as that clutch guy on third down?
SM: Yeah. Yeah. He was a good safety blanket.
MM: Tony was that guy during that period. He was the guy to go to, he would never let you down. He would come down with that pass on third down every time. And when the team got complacent, which they often did with Bowden, Tony was the one that called that special meeting because there were players…I don’t know if you remember this, but there were a few stories written about it, but it was one of those typical Bowden years where we started to lose games and players were talking on cell phones on the sidelines.
SM: Oh my God. Yes. I do remember that, as cringeworthy as that is.
MM: Who were talking on cell phones during a game on the sidelines! And Tony got them all into a meeting (like after the game) and gave them what for, you know? He said, ‘you can’t do this. We’re playing to win here.’ He was the one who really rallied the troops and then they had a really good turn around that season.
So, he was the kind of guy back then like Dabo, and Dabo loved Tony when he was playing for him. And he knew his backstory; they’d taken trips out to California where his parents had been killed. And he said ‘this is the house I used to live in’, so Dabo felt some empathy for him. He really felt the connection ‘cause Dabo came up pretty rough too, you know? He had that same sort of upbringing where he had to fend for himself and strive to be better. So, they had that natural bond from back then.
And then of course Tony, when he graduated from Clemson, he took a job over at the plant, this Michelin plant somewhere in the upstate. And he was very good. He made really good money, but then he just wanted to try football one more time. So, he became an assistant at SC State in Orangeburg. And when Dabo finally got control of the football team, Tony was the first guy called. Not a lot of people had remembered Tony from back then, but I knew he would succeed at whatever he did. And look at the difference he’s made, you know?
SM: Oh, he’ll be a head coach somewhere, obviously, probably before too much longer; people are already trying to woo him as it is.
MM: Exactly. But do you realize how fortunate we were to get that kind of leadership on our team, starting with Dabo to Tony to Venables and to Jeff Scott. You know, Jeff Scott’s a good kid. Great recruiter.
SM: Absolutely. Yeah.
MM: It is rare you get that kind of chemistry. You know, we had a little bit of that chemistry with Danny Ford. He had such a great group of guys around him. And that means all the difference in the world in how your team performs! They might not be four and five-star guys, but you’ve seen it with Danny and you’ve certainly seen it with Dabo. He’s gotten Walk-Ons to the kind of stuff, you know, like Hunter [Renfrow] and a lot of guys they’ve developed. They know how to develop talent. And like I said, this team, those guys, are in such a good support group with good values and good morals. Do things the right way, you know? You work hard, you’re going to succeed…who would not want to play in that kind of environment?
SM: Yeah. That’s what people realize pretty quickly. You see these high school kids’ story, and it almost sounds like it’s the same story written over and over again. When you see it online with these kids, they come to Clemson and they’re just like “there’s something in those hills”, you know, that’s how we [South Carolinians] say it, but it’s true; you get there and it’s just different. And you see that longevity on that coaching staff, the way everybody’s together and it’s an actual honest-to-god team where they give a shit about who you are as a person more than who you are as a player.
MM: Yeah. Exactly.
SM: I’m like, ‘give me the 3 stars that are coachable versus a team full of five-star Glory Hogs’. I’m glad that’s how we do things.
MM: But, you’re right—there’s something about Clemson. I mean, I remember being there in the sixties. My sister moved there. Her husband was an architect; he went to architectural school at Clemson. And I’d go up there and see him and they had a little duplex by the old practice field. I’d walk up the hill right behind their house where the practice field was. You just go up a hill and you know, I fondly remember Frank Howard, practicing the guys, Buddy Gore, all those guys, great clubs and players from back then. And man, I had such a collection of Clemson footballs because a lot of the balls would come down the hill right to the backyard of the duplex and they never got ‘em. So, I just took them home and had a bunch of Clemson balls back then.
But it was so much fun listening to Frank Howard. He was sort of a Bear Bryant type guy, you know; he was from Alabama and actually, there was a really good wrestler back then who had gone to Clemson. I don’t know if you’d remember the guy’s name and this is back in the sixties. I used to watch him wrestle at County Hall. This would be late ‘60s. His name was Don Chuy?
SM: I’ve heard that name from my Papa, I know.
MM: C-H-U-Y. And he was very good. Played tackle, I think. He was a very good player, and he teamed with a guy named Joe Carollo. And he played football at Notre Dame. So, you had Don Chuy from Clemson University and Joe Carollo from Notre Dame and they both played professionally. They were playing and I think maybe wrestling part-time, but they played for the Los Angeles Rams. And they used to call them the Wrestling Rams. And yeah, they headlined a lot of shows here at County Hall. They’d work the guys like the [Masked] Infernos and Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson; they were two babyfaces. But they had certain matches, like the Infernos would use something in their boots for an object. Well, the Rams (Chuy and Corolla) would wear their football headgear so when they hit him with the loaded boot, it wouldn’t hurt, right?
MM: Really good gimmick. But I had met Don through my brother-in-law when he was still going to Clemson; really nice guy. I think Don passed away a few years ago. He was living in Myrtle Beach as a successful businessman, but just a little thing from the past. I loved Clemson then. You know, of course, it was so small and the only place, you know, like a motel within ten miles or so was the Clemson House right there on University, right on campus. The old Clemson House…
SM: Oh, yeah. Good place to stay.
MM: Such a quaint place, you know, but it was beautiful. I mean you look at Williams-Brice. It looks like a dead cockroach, right? You know if you look at it from afar it looks like a dead cockroach upside down, right?
SM: Yeah, the lights are arching like the legs up in the air. I loved that joke, but it’s true. It does look like a dead cockroach. Sorry Carolina fans, but there it is.
MM: I can’t pass on 26 without looking over and going, “Aww! These people go to that. It’s just horrible!” But then you go to Clemson and it’s like the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You go up in the stadium. Can you see a view like that in any other college football stadium where you can see the mountains in the background and Lake Hartwell on the other side? And I mean, it’s just magical. It really is and you know, I’m certainly not a homer, but…if I was just an impartial bystander, there is no comparison.
SM: There truly isn’t. I worked for years at an AMC theater and I called these kids my theater kids, but I watched these kids and worked with them as teenagers. And I’ve seen them grow up. And now one of my theater kids from here who’s lived in Hawaii, she’s acted in shows like Hawaii Five-O; like a real dynamic young lady. And she chose to go to Clemson! When she was touring colleges and she hit me up and she’s like, “I’m in your hometown. What should I do? Where should I go?” I said, “First, go to Mac’s [Drive-In] and get a cheeseburger. Get two damn cheeseburgers and get some of that sweet tea!” I kind of told her where to go and everything. She went and took her college tour and hit me up a couple of days later. She was like, “I’m in love. I’m going here. This is it.” She’s like, “This place is absolutely amazing!”, and she fell in love. Texas girl just fell in love with Clemson the first time she went out there.
MM: You know it. You felt that. You’ve lived it. You know, it has that attraction and there’s nothing like it. There’s no other college campus that I’ve ever been to that compares to Clemson. And the thing is that’s not such a secret anymore, right?
SM: Yep. It’s out in the open.
MM: Yeah, I still hate when I hear people call it Clem-zon!
SM: Ohhh…the “z” sound, Clem-zzzzon. Why is “ms” so hard? What’s so hard about that sound to make?
MM: Yeah, well, you’d think after so much exposure. I mean, we’ve won national championships now, we’re on TV. We’re one of the schools so that at least you’d think you’d learn how to pronounce it, right? It’s Clemson. Clemson.
SM: And some announcers put some extra stank on it, too. They’re like, “The Clemzzzzzzzzzzzon Tigers!” Are there five z’s in there? What the hell is that?
MM: Yeah, instead of an S, they even put a Z in there—Clemzon, Clemzon. And they still call him “Dah-Bo”. You know, they’ll still revert to the Dah-Bo every now and then.
SM: Dah-Bo Swinnee. Okay, let’s go with that. (laughs)
MM: There are just so many good stories.
SM: There really are. I could sit here and do this all day, but I guess I’ll go get to work since I’ve thoroughly exhausted everything. Brother, thank you so much! I can’t thank you enough.
MM: It was my pleasure talking to you, Stuart.
SM: For me, for Sports Obsessive. It’s, it’s…freaking cool. You have made my weekend. I started off WrestleMania weekend with this, and I’m going to go party my ass off and then get to work transcribing this.
MM: Have a great time. And thank you so much for that excellent review. I mean it. I penned it for a reason. It was so well-written and you really captured what I was trying to convey, you know, I felt like you felt it. A lot of fans…I feel like you have an old soul. A lot of people I talk to that are avid fans; they really cover the business really well. But you know, it’s just they don’t feel it. I feel like you feel it. You know, you understand, you have sort of you have an old-school appreciation for the business and that’s special.
SM: To say the very least. Thank you again, sir. I really appreciate it.
MM: Hey, one day our paths will have to cross and we’ll go see a Clemson game or just go out there and have a beer and, you know, talk about some Clemson and pro wrestling, face-to-face.
SM: Oh, absolutely. I can’t make myself stay away from home for too long. I’ll find you, you know, and we might end up at the Esso club or maybe Goobers if you want to go down and dirty—
SM: —and have a couple, twelve beers.
MM: Yeah, we’ll do that. I’ll look forward to that.
SM: Outstanding. Thank you, Mike. I appreciate your time, brother.
MM: My pleasure, Stuart. Have a great weekend and enjoy the show, okay?
SM: Yes, sir. You, too. I’ll talk to you later.
MM: All right, bye-bye.