There are few people who embodied what it means to be a professional wrestler—and what it means to be a Texan—as deeply as Terry Funk, who died last week. He was 79. From the dusty old Tri-State Fairgrounds in his hometown of Amarillo to the blockbuster spectacle of WrestleMania, from the wrestling halls of Japan to the Gathering of the Juggalos, the “Texas Bronco” spent half a century bringing the Lone Star State to the rest of the world. Other wrestlers have been richer or more infamous, but in a business known for massive egos and difficult personalities, Terry Funk was uniquely respected by peers and fans alike.
From the end of World War II until the ascendance of Vince McMahon’s WWF in the 1980s, wrestling in the United States was governed by the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), with regional fiefdoms controlled by individual promoters. Not every territory was a family dynasty, but in Texas, the majority were: the Guerreros in El Paso, the Von Erichs in Dallas, and the Blanchards in San Antonio. But in many ways, the legacy of the Funks in Amarillo towers above them all.
Terry’s father, Dory Funk, was the Amarillo territory’s top star in the 1960s, the undisputed king of a particularly brutal kind of bout he dubbed the “Texas Death Match.” In 1967, Dory would start running the show behind the scenes as a promoter, building up his two sons, Terry and Dory Jr., as the new main eventers. Dory’s kids had cut their teeth on the football team at West Texas A&M, a program that produced countless wrestling legends, such as Ted DiBiase, Stan Hansen, and Bruiser Brody.
Under the NWA, championships were chosen by committee instead of actually “won,” but a selection as champion was a sign of confidence in a wrestler’s abilities—as long as you held the title, you were required to endlessly travel the country and defend against local challengers. When Dory Jr. won the NWA World’s Heavyweight title in 1969, Terry toured alongside him as the more rascally and unruly younger brother; where Dory played the serious and respectable athlete, Terry’s ring persona was that of a down and dirty troublemaker who would break rules and bones in equal measure. Watching the two brothers cut promos together, it’s almost comical how soft-spoken and genteel Dory Jr. comes off by comparison.
It’s often said that to be a great wrestler, you need to be a great actor, but what made Terry Funk so compelling is that he never seemed like he was acting. Sure, he appeared in movies like Road House and Paradise Alley—if only to get his SAG card for the health-care benefits—and he could emote with the best of them, but Funk was an orator more than anything. His promos were like the unhinged jeremiads of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, stoking the audience’s passions. He could be venomous, castigating his enemies as “perverts” and “egg-sucking dogs” in a rumbling baritone from somewhere deeper than hell. Everything he did felt instinctive and alive.
In 1975, Funk made history by capturing the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship, about two and a half years after the end of Dory Jr.’s title reign, marking the first time the golden belt had been held by brothers. Even after dropping the strap to Harley Race in 1977, Funk was a constant traveling challenger, going from one territory to another like the lone gunslinger riding into town. Because Funk was so adept at riling up crowds, he was endlessly valuable to promoters who needed challengers for their top baby faces; after all, what’s a superhero without a villain?
In the mid-eighties, when Vince McMahon needed a foe to solidify the credibility of his rising superstar Hulk Hogan, he called up Terry Funk. When World Championship Wrestling decided to turn the arrogant Ric Flair into a playboy hero, it brought in Terry Funk to beat his ass and make fans feel for a character they once hated. At that time, the major promotions were already beginning to view Funk as too old and washed-up, but as he would do throughout his career, Funk kept fighting and proved he had more to give. Ahead of his deliciously bloody 1989 “I Quit” match with Flair, Funk swaggered to the ring to the unsettling wail of Ennio Morricone’s “Man With a Harmonica,” menacing the crowd with his trademark branding iron.
As hated as Funk often was in the United States, he was just as revered in Japan, where he became an unexpected pop culture icon and even something of an adopted national hero. Just like in American wrestling, in which patriotic heroes often squared off with stereotypical, treacherous foreigners, importing foreign bad guys was foundational to Japanese wrestling. Over time, though, audiences’ appreciation for wrestlers’ craft deepened, and non-Japanese wrestlers increasingly earned the respect of Japanese fans. More than almost any other American of his time, Funk was brimming with the “fighting spirit” that Japanese crowds adored. Whether it was a chop to the chest or barbed wire cracking his back, Funk withstood the most devastating of punishments.
Eventually Funk would earn a similar reverence from American fans. As a mentor to the rising stars of the ultraviolent nineties outfit Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), Funk was no longer the despised and dangerous outlaw, but a weathered cowboy out for one last ride. As he reached an age when most wrestlers start to slow down, Funk somehow became more prolific, retiring and unretiring so many times it became a punch line.
Many wrestlers struggle to stay retired, but there was something almost distinctly Texan about Funk’s restless inability to quit working, like an old rancher who insists on digging postholes himself just because he’s got nothing better to do. It’s this self-described “middle-aged and crazy” period of Funk’s career that is perhaps best remembered today, as he embraced the role of an insane and extremely dangerous old man. Funk willingly shed buckets of blood to become one of the foremost innovators of the weapons-based style that became known as hardcore or “deathmatch” wrestling. Rings draped in barbed wire, thunderous explosives and pyrotechnics, neckbreaking dives off ladders—if your doctor would advise you against it, fiftysomething Terry Funk would gladly do it.
Funk’s brawls in Japan and at American indie wrestling shows—like a 1990 match in New Jersey at which Stan Hansen got disqualified for kicking Funk into a river—circulated on grainy VHS tapes like folktales, pushing the envelope like his father had done decades earlier with the Texas Death Match. No-holds-barred street fights with dumpsters and trash cans and kendo sticks would become common by the end of the decade on Monday Night Raw and ECW Hardcore TV, but in 1990, most fans had never seen anything like a wrestler knocking his opponent into a body of water.
In wrestling, they say the best gimmicks don’t come from completely invented characters, but from a single part of a performer’s personality turned up to eleven. Without a doubt, there was a wild man inside Terry Funk, but a wild man was far from all he was. For all the violence he inflicted in public, Funk lived a more ordinary and gentle private life than most professional wrestlers, ever a hardworking small-town boy with good manners and a loving family.
Like so many Texas originals, Funk traveled the world over, but the Lone Star remained his guiding light, and he would always come home to his Double Cross Ranch. The 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat interspersed Funk playing the loving father of the bride at his daughter’s wedding with footage of some of his bloodiest moments. In the film, Funk reflects on the strange fraternity of violence: “The worse you hurt each other, the more money you make, and the more money you make, the better friends you are.” Even at his bloodiest, most disturbing extremes, that spirit of collaboration is what kept Funk coming back.
Almost like the rascally, silver-haired Augustus McCrae of Lonesome Dove, Terry Funk never knew when to quit, and that stubborn persistence made him such a legend. His refusal to leave the business was never self-serving—he stuck around to give back to the industry that had put food on his family’s table and to pass his knowledge to future generations. After a 1977 battle with Harley Race, Funk cut a promo about his career aspirations: “I don’t intend on being the Arnold Palmer of professional wrestling. In other words, I don’t intend on being known as what I have done in the past.” That restless pioneer spirit defined Terry Funk, who reinvented himself at every turn while always holding true to his roots.