Jim Cornette has done it all in the world of professional wrestling from ringside photographer to becoming one of the greatest wrestling managers of all time.
The 52-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky has also worked as a commentator, promoter and booker for WWE, TNA and ROH. He was also the owner of Smoky Mountain Wrestling with the likes of Kane and Chris Jericho coming through the promotion and during his time in charge of OVW he oversaw the development of John Cena, Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar.
We caught up with Cornette to talk about managing the Midnight Express, the lack of managers in wrestling today, his thoughts on the likes of Vince Russo, Vince McMahon and Paul Heyman plus much more.
How did you first get involved in the sport of professional wrestling?
I was a fan of wrestling when I was a kid, I would watch it on television and I finally talked my mother into taking me all the way downtown when I was 12-years-old to see a Battle Royal. I became a ringside photographer and then as a teenager, I would fill in as a ring announcer and I was too young to drive so my mother would drive me to the shows and that is where ‘Mama Cornette’ came to be known to the wrestling promoters and they would suggest it as a gimmick. When growing up I was drawn to it and have moulded myself to it in some form ever since.
Did you ever have aspirations to become a professional wrestler yourself?
If aspirations are wild daydreams then yeah, obviously it would have been great to be Ric Flair, Jackie Fargo or Jerry Lawler. At an early age, I figured out on my own how to take bumps and everything and I could do about four offensive moves very well and that is where it ended. As a worker I was going to be very limited by the fact that I was still flat-footed, I couldn’t jump very high and I couldn’t lift a lot of weights.
At the time I got into the business about 30 or 40 years ago there were a lot more ways of getting into the industry, with so many more promotions and so many more shows being run and functioning with a profit. It was tough to get in but if you had a talent for it and tried there were places you could go to attach yourself, where if you proved you had something you could go on to make money. Nowadays everybody who has a wrestling ring has a wrestling school and anybody that wants to can get into the business but nobody can make any money at it.
Who were some of the wrestlers you enjoyed watching whilst growing up?
The first wrestling show that I ever saw on television was Dick ‘The Bruisers’ TV show from Indianapolis. My mother had been up sick with a cold and had been flipping around with the dial and this is when we only used to have three or four channels and there wasn’t anything on after 1am.
My mom was switching around and Channel Four from Bloomington, Indiana, 90 miles away was showing Bruisers programme at 2am on a Saturday morning. She tells me about it the next day because she said it was like the wrestling she used to watch in the fifties. I started watching it and saw Bobby Heenan as a manager and he was managing ‘Handsome’ Jimmy Valiant and The Blackjacks, then I saw Dick ‘The Bruiser’ who looked liked the baddest man that ever walked the earth. I was instantly hooked and started looking at the TV Guide and they showed wrestling here in Louisville with Jerry Jarrett’s territory.
You became a manager in the industry, what was it like working with the Midnight Express?
It was tremendous because I had known them from when I had broken in, in Memphis. They had been wrestling in a territory when I was a photographer. Bobby Eaton had become a friend of mine especially since we would ride together sometimes. It was a thrill and also they were two guys that you used to be able to find in the territories that were tremendous performers but for some reason, they had wrestled side-by-side for seven years but hadn’t teamed as a tag-team before.
It was perfect timing and Bobby would admit to this day he was never a great promo guy. Dennis (Condrey) was a very good promo guy but since they were the best wrestlers in the world they let me do the talking because I was one of the best talkers. That is the way our formula developed, Stan (Lane) could cut a good promo as well but he took the back seat verbally because that had been my gimmick.
In the ring either combination of the Midnight Express that I worked with our goal was to be the best heel tag-team in the ring and in the business and to get over with the fans because of that, because they knew no matter what happened we would tear the house down.
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What was it like when you first went to the WWF?
It was fantastic working with the likes of; Yokozuna, Vader, Owen Hart and The British Bulldog, they were a great group of guys to be associated with. I had never been in that social circle before in the locker-room, I had never been to WWE before and all of those guys had been there for various lengths of time.
They were easy to work with because Davey was like trying to babysit a 12-year-old prankster every once in a while, Owen was a 12-year-old prankster but he was a genius, Yoko was a great guy but at the time his weight had gotten away from him but he was still such an amazing athlete and performer in the ring and he would sit around and tell lots of amazing stories. It was easy working with those guys especially as some of the other people in that locker-room weren’t so easy to get on with.
What were your thoughts on the NWA invasion angle and the New Midnight Express (featuring Bob Holly as Bombastic Bob and Bart Gunn as Bodacious Bart)?
That all sucked, it was a rib on me, (Vince) Russo came up with it I’m sure just to say ok we’ll let him book these guys and we’ll make them all look like stooges. It was doomed from the start and it was obviously an underhanded thing, but I went along with it because I didn’t want to be the person to say no all the time, but I finally decided to quit managing them as they never won a single match and then they were going to wrestle each other.
Bill Apter with The Midnight Express (Dennis Condrey and Bobby Eaton) at Jim Cornette’s Ring Roast in 2010
What do you make of the lack of managers in wrestling at the moment?
It’s just because basically WWE decided to have the women accompany the guys to the ring and I remember saying to Paul Bearer once that to be a manager now we’re going to need to wear bikinis. After the whole valet run had run its course they just didn’t replace them with any guys.
If WWE, the industry leader doesn’t do it then nobody else is going to do it and really if you wanted to do it now where are the guys that are going to be good managers because nobody has been doing it for so long, nobody has been practicing.
What was it like starting Smoky Mountain and working with the young up and coming talent?
Oh, Jesus, it ultimately drove me insane but it was a mixture of being; tremendously enjoyable, fun, misery, and stress. I think the best thing about Smoky Mountain Wrestling at the time was that we were giving a certain area of the country that actually liked their wrestling the sort of wrestling that they liked but we couldn’t get enough television coverage in the area that we wanted too to make it profitable.
We were really able to give a start to a lot of the guys that ended up being great talents in the business over the last fifteen years, from Candido and Tammy to Glenn Jacobs (Kane), Al Snow, Balls Malony, Lance Storm, and Chris Jericho. It was great to start guys like that and see them go on to be successful.
You also worked with the likes of John Cena, Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar at OVW, what was that like?
In OVW here in Louisville between 1999 – 2005 we were the developmental territory for WWE. A lot of guys came to OVW who weren’t signed by WWE but became signed by WWE, because they came here to train and they got good and they ended up getting offered contracts.
John came from California, we got him really early on in his career but you could tell he was a natural, I thought he would actually be this generations version of a Ric Flair. He was a heel then, and he was so cocky, arrogant and good looking – he had the physique and the genetics, he could talk but they decided to go a different direction with him and he got over just as big on the other side.
Randy he is from four hours down the road from Louisville, from St. Louis, he is the son of Bob Orton Jr. and the grandson of Bob Orton, so he had it in his genes and he came out here and polished it.
With Brock I’ll be honest with you, he was getting paid about four or five times more than everyone else in the developmental programme because of who he was. You don’t come across an athletic specimen like that who won the NCAA Heavyweight Championship every day. However he was not a natural wrestling fan, not a natural wrestling student, he was a bit boring in the ring to be honest because he wasn’t used to being a showman. Also for a world-class athlete, I didn’t think he was trying five times as hard as his salary.
I paired him up with Shelton Benjamin who was one of the most natural wrestling school students we ever had, picked up things instantly and was exciting, so I made them a tag team. Shelton would do all the work, he would tag Brock and Brock would make a comeback and throw everyone through the roof. When he hit WWE he became instantly exciting, remember the shooting star press he did at WrestleMania, he would do that for us and I would tell him he was crazy and to save it for the big show at the Louisville Gardens when the WWE agents are there and not in the high school halls. He did it in front of the WWE agents and they signed him directly because of that, the time he did it at WrestleMania is the only time I’ve seen him miss it.
Your most recent run with a company was with ROH, what was your experience there like?
There really is no easy answer to that question but it’s a matter of what I expected it was going to be going in versus what it turned out to be and it became a rib on me and that’s why I decided to get out of the wrestling business and enter the Jim Cornette business, which has resulted in me having a happy and prosperous year.
Who are the wrestlers you enjoy watching now?
Truthfully and honestly I have been clean and sober from watching a television wrestling programme for 14 months now, except for a shameful period where I was checked into a hotel in the middle of severe weather and I couldn’t continue on my trip until the next day. So I’m stuck in a hotel room and I’m switching the channels on the TV and I see the start of RAW, out of morbid curiosity I watched the programme and it just hurt my feelings.
There were some guys that were talented and could talk but they were talking for too long or they were talking about silly shit. There were guys that could wrestle and have a good match and then it was followed by something that was not as believable. During the show, I drove down to Wendy’s to get a burger and when I came back it was still on, I went a clipped my toenails in the bathroom came out and it was still on. It’s not that there isn’t anyone good in wrestling today, it’s just that it hasn’t interested me lately, it’s part of my therapy for helping me become a saner person.
A bit of word association, if you could say the first thought relating to the following people:
Vince Russo – He couldn’t book Lassie in a pet shop
Vince McMahon – A warped twisted genius
Paul Heyman – (laughs) Warped twisted genius
Dixie Carter – (laughs) Warped and twisted
Jim Ross – Oh my god, a good one! The greatest broadcaster in wrestling, but just one of the great personalities in wrestling – we are better off we’ve had Jim in a variety of ways.
Are you looking forward to your first tour of the UK?
I have not only never appeared in the United Kingdom, this will be the first time after 30-years of being in wrestling that I have ever made an appearance outside the United States and Canada. The reason for that is because I’ve never been a fan of flying as everybody knows and at the same time I was always busy with a company or a project, even with the WWF I worked in the office, I didn’t travel on the road.
I’m really looking forward to the tour because we are going to spend a couple of weeks in the UK. The shows are spread out so that we have some time in between and we’re going to be doing live events starting off in Glasgow, then going to Manchester, followed by Birmingham, London and Cardiff. I will also be doing a dinner and a wrestling school seminar in Nottingham.
It’s going to be pretty cool, I’m not in the wrestling business anymore, I’m in the Jim Cornette business. I’ve found that people like it when I’m being myself and telling bullshit stories.
What can fans expect from these shows?
For the past few years, I’ve been doing the Mid Atlantic NWA FanFest reunion in Charlotte. It has been going on for 10-years now and they’ve reunited the Four Horsemen and it is a great convention every year. Over the last few years, it has become tradition that I do the late-night Thursday Q&A from 10pm to midnight so I can swear.
It’s a Q&A and I usually have people come up, Tommy Young is usually there, he’s fantastic as a foil to do some comedy with, we tell wrestling stories and share opinions.
You also have your own podcast, how is that going?
Yeah, I’m doing my podcast The Jim Cornette Experience on MLW Radio every week which is a culmination of wrestling, politics, bullshit, and pop culture. We started a campaign to get Brian Griffin the dog from Family Guy to be reinstated to the programme and it worked. We did a bit bout Seth McFarlane bowing down to me and we’ve got the sound effects, so we are just having lots of fun.