During his 30-plus years in pro wrestling, Jim Cornette has done everything from shooting photographs for wrestling magazines to running his own promotion. Currently, the legendary manager is the executive producer for Ring of Honor television on HDNet.
I conducted a phone interview earlier this week with Cornette, who discussed his role in ROH and the long-term goals of the company, as well as his thoughts on TNA, the state of wrestling and the Vince Russo “death threat” controversy.
ROH’s Death Before Dishonor VIII Internet pay-per-view takes place on Saturday.
What are your responsibilities in ROH and why did you become involved with the company?
Well, as you know from Hollywood, executive producers have a variety of tasks and responsibilities, from just writing the check to overseeing everything. I’m somewhere in the middle. When [ROH owner] Cary Silkin first called me last fall and asked if I would like to work with them again, he mentioned the television show first and foremost, because they had just gotten the HDNet show last spring and he knew I was experienced with television and hopefully I could add something to the program. But I really took an interest in the promotion overall just because – I mean, you know as well as anybody – it’s the only professional wrestling promotion left in the country. You know, it’s either sports entertainment or whatever it is that TNA calls what they do. I’ve really gotten completely disinterested in wrestling except for this company. They have a great young talent roster – guys that deserve the chance to be stars, that deserve breaks, and the big companies aren’t giving them out unless they’re the lingerie models and bodybuilders for the WWE or the WWE castoffs for TNA. The senior citizens have run rampant. I’m the only person in wrestling that realizes I’m too old to do this anymore, and that’s why I’m not a performer and I’m not going to be on ROH. I wouldn’t be on television if it wasn’t for the fact that I like doing interviews with the younger guys. I’m holding the microphone but I’m not part of the show. I love the guys; I love their work ethic. Their live events are blow-away events.
Probably the biggest-kept secret about Ring of Honor is that when you go to see a live show – I’ve had people in their 60s from down in North Carolina that have seen a lot of wrestling tell me that it was the greatest live wrestling show they’ve ever been to. The atmosphere is off the charts. The fans know the chants, they follow the guys. They come and they work as hard as the boys do. So in a long roundabout way of answering your question, I got involved because I want to help them succeed because they’re professional wrestling and they’re proud of it. They’re not trying to be sports entertainment. They’ve got a great talent roster that works their [butts] off that deserve a chance at success, and if I can do anything to help them and feel positive about giving something back to pro wrestling after I sat down there in TNA for three years and tolerated Russo’s existence and took their check, I feel like I must pay penance somehow. So if I can help them open up a new market, or if I can help them do a better television show, or if I can help teach some of these guys some tricks of how to make themselves noticed on television, anything I can do. If I can help them find a sponsor. Whatever. I want to help them succeed because, otherwise, we have no pro wrestling left.
[UFC owner] Dana White is the most successful professional wrestling promoter in the world right now. Anybody in the wrestling business who thinks that UFC and MMA in general have not drastically hurt the wrestling business. … They’re kicking Vince [McMahon]’s [butt] on pay-per-view. TNA’s pay-per-views don’t even chart; I mean the people that work there aren’t even allowed to know the buy rates they’re so embarrassing. But Dana White is kicking Vince’s [butt] on pay-per-view, and Vince invented that ballgame, because he’s taken the basic gist of professional wrestling – two unusual, charismatic, interesting personalities that are great athletes are going to have a fight and we want to pay to see who wins. That’s professional wrestling, and he’s the only one doing it now. The others are so caught up in trying to win an Emmy or an Oscar or be these giant Hollywood entertainment producers that they’re not. They’re embarrassed to say they’re professional wrestling. Now they’re stopping WWE matches if somebody gets busted open. I wonder if that would have played in Ali-Frazier or any giant UFC pay-per-view or any great fight or combat. How about the Roman gladiators? Hold the lions back, his nose is bleeding [laughs]. It’s just ridiculous. People naturally want to see two interesting people – one that they’re predisposed possibly to like and one that they’re predisposed to dislike – have a fight and see who wins. Real and fake, or scripted, or choreographed or whatever you want to call it, that issue is way down on the list. Amateur wrestling was never considered a big box office draw because they’re really competing but they’re not getting a chance to call each other 16 kinds of names before the fight to get you interested. If I just walk up to a guy at the mall and just punch him right in the face, people might look, but if we stand there and yell at each other for two or three minutes, we’re going to draw a crowd and then we’re going to fight.
What are the long-term goals for ROH as far as growth, whether it’s pay-per-view, live events or TV? Can a company like ROH ever be anything more than a niche promotion?
Well, it depends on your definition of niche. It would be wonderful if Ring of Honor was bigger than the WWE – I’m sure everybody would take that money – but I don’t think that they realistically think that. I think that they certainly can be more successful and more profitable and more widespread than they are. It’s a great product. It needs greater exposure on television. HDNet is still a premium channel in a lot of places; a lot of cable companies don’t carry it. I remember when TBS was only on in 12-13 million homes. Things grow. It’s just a question of getting more exposure on television and opening up some new live markets. There’s no shame in being a profitable professional wrestling promotion that runs 20 markets a year and has one hour of television on a decently seen cable system. I think the reason we’re in the pickle we’re in in the wrestling industry as a whole is because everybody has tried to chase Vince – either go for the moon or just crash. That’s why I was always happy running a regional territory where you could make a little money and have a little fun and employ some guys and give some guys some breaks, and you don’t have to worry about running the world. The last thing that Ring of Honor wants to do is go bankrupt doing everything that everybody else has done wrong, which is trying to chase the guy in the lead. I’d rather be No. 3 and make some money and everybody be happy than try to be No. 1 and everybody go bankrupt.
It seems to me that one of the challenges with a company the size of ROH is that the top talent ultimately winds up in WWE or TNA. How difficult is it trying to create stars knowing that if you succeed, those guys will probably be leaving?
In some cases, I know at least a few guys who say they don’t really want to do it. WWE has almost created two different businesses. Davey Richards, for example, one of the greatest in-ring wrestlers right now in the business anywhere – I don’t think WWE would be interested in him, because the very thing that gets Davey Richards over as a pro wrestler and the Ring of Honor fans like about him, probably would be to his detriment in the WWE. He’s not huge with a bodybuilder physique and the bland kind of generic star that they look for; he’s a really intense, athletic, driven guy who wants to have the best matches. Whether the matches are any good is low down on Vince’s list of importance. I don’t know that some people wouldn’t rather be a little bit more creatively fulfilled, not have the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head all the time – if they screw up one time, they’re going to get fired or they get heat with the wrong guy or the politics or whatever. They’d like to be themselves; they don’t want to be forced to wear funny suits and do embarrassing things.
A lot of the younger guys in TNA, they’re the same way. They’re almost like, “Geez, get me out of here. Parole me. I’m tired of being silly and stupid and just being made a mockery of.” It’s almost a generational thing. The younger guys have a little bit more pride in what they’re doing and they haven’t gotten to the point where they just want to take the check and roll over and play dead yet. I will say that being a big mega-corporation with millions of dollars and international touring and et cetera may appeal to the folks who want to see the world on somebody else’s nickel, but it’s almost detrimental to being a good professional wrestling promotion. When you get networks in and your wife’s running for Senate and you get sponsors and toy manufacturers, it’s so pasteurized, and homogenized and sanitized that the fun goes out of wrestling for a lot of guys. I think there’s room for talent for all the companies because the people that appeal to Ring of Honor fans are the very people who probably wouldn’t appeal to WWE and vice versa.
You mentioned Davey Richards. The main event for Saturday’s ROH Internet pay-per-view is between him and Tyler Black. For people why may not be familiar with these guys, tell us what people can expect to see from them.
The great thing with Ring of Honor is that you don’t really need to watch the show for six months to understand every little nuance that all of the Hollywood scriptwriters have put into the deal. Basically, if you see the show a couple of times, you see all of these guys are hard-hitting, in-shape, young, hungry, and they give great athletic performances. It’s sort of like UFC in a professional wrestling ring for a younger crowd of people. Tyler Black is a tremendous athlete. He does a lot of great things in the ring and he’s also starting to get some charisma. Davey Richards … Just a couple of months ago, we were in Dayton, Ohio on a Friday night, and he went out and had a great 20-minute match and tore the house down. He drove 300 miles to Chicago the next morning and competed in a jiu-jitsu tournament, won his first two fights, lost the third one on points, and then in Chicago that night for Ring of Honor, went to a 20-minute draw with Roderick Strong and tore the house down. This guy’s an android. And people respect that. They respect the ability and the toughness these guys have.
So it’s not about – you know, just like that “South Park” episode recently – you stole my wife, I’m addicted to abortions, who ran over who, who shot Vince. It’s, look at these guys. They’re in the ring, hauling off and whacking each other. You can hear the smack of the meat and the flesh, especially live. You see the sweat fly. It’s combat; it’s competition; it’s athleticism. And it’s infectious. And they just happen to be outrageous personalities also, but they’re not being forced to be outrageous and given a phony back story to try to fit some character that some writer has come up with. We’re just letting these guys be themselves and go out and tear the house down. It’s like what wrestling used to be. I did this in Ohio Valley Wrestling and I like the idea of it in Ring of Honor – I want to do professional wrestling as it was done in the ’70s and ’80s, but with talent that was born in the ’70s and ’80s [laughs]. We’re not trying to insult people’s intelligence. We’re not trying to give them these long, contrived soap opera sagas and silliness and the comic relief. You know, the WWE has forgotten that in all those old Tarzan movies, Cheetah got like four minutes out of an hour and a half movie; it wasn’t all Cheetah. You got four minutes, a little funny, a little giggle, and then you go on to the meat of the matter – Tarzan saves Jane. Now it’s all Cheetah and no Tarzan.
I want to get your take on the other wrestling companies. I’m assuming you watch the shows …
Actually [laughs], to be honest with you, when I was working at OVW, right toward the end of my several blow-ups with the WWE, I stopped watching their shows because it just hurt my heart so bad to see what wrestling was becoming, just the silliness and the whitewashing of it. And then TNA – I was one of the producers/agents of the program, and I would see it happen live, but when it would be put together with all the backstage pre-tapes that Vince Russo would script and see his creative vision come to life, it was so silly and so implausible and so unbelievable that I stopped watching the TNA show. They were paying me and I couldn’t watch it because it hurt my feelings. Not for me personally but for what they were doing to the wrestling business and to the young guys. All the stars – the Kevin Nashes and the ex-WCW guys, the ex-WWF guys – they get their big contracts and they don’t care anymore because they have visions of being great actors or going to Hollywood or just retiring and taking whatever money they can get out of the promoters. But the young guys who want to be stars in five years or 10 years that keep repeatedly being held down, and the business gets progressively sillier and sillier … they’re not going to have a business to be stars in. And they’re not allowed to shine, and the old guys that hold them down say, “Well, they’ve never drawn any money.” Well you can’t draw any money unless somebody puts you in a position to do so. You’ve got to win some matches, you’ve got to be put in some main events and you’ve got to get the experience and the seasoning to get yourself over to the ticket-buying public. And young guys have not been given the opportunity.
Now they’re in a panic in the WWE. They’re trying to push every young guy they’ve got because they realize, “Oh, hell, all our main-eventers are falling apart.” And in TNA I would tell them repeatedly my last six months there that our main-eventers need to be packed in ice after every performance, and why don’t we start investing some time in these young guys. So they’ll try a six-week push. Well, if they don’t get over in six weeks, they just couldn’t handle it. No, it takes years. You’ve got to have a plan and a vision, and Vince Russo’s got such ADD, he can’t even remember what he wrote last week. I don’t mean to make this a whole knocking Russo thing, but he’s emblematic of the whole problem of outside people that have been let in the wrestling business that have no respect for the business, or the people in it, or the traditions of it, or the way that it’s done, or the fans. If the fans like his stuff then he goes, “Yeah, that’s because I’m great,” and if the fans don’t like his stuff – which is the majority as I’m sure you’ve gathered – he blames them. Ah, it’s these wrestling fans. Well what are you in the wrestling business for if you don’t like the wrestling fans? He actually made this statement: He wants to write wrestling shows for people who don’t like wrestling. He thinks, “Well, I’ll just write this show that everybody can be entertained by and the wrestling fans will like anything as long as it’s in a ring.” No! I don’t like golf. I don’t care if they play golf in the nude and the 18th hole is surrounded by flames. I’m not going to watch golf because I don’t like golf. So he writes wrestling for people who don’t like wrestling. And the people who like wrestling are insulted by it, and the people who don’t like wrestling – guess what? – they ain’t watching it because they don’t like wrestling! He’s an idiot.
And people like this, all of a sudden you’re a creative writer in wrestling if you’ve gotten a degree in Hollywood writing or a degree from college and you spent some time writing a sitcom. It used to take 10 or 15 years of experience as some type of performer involved in wrestling before you were ever entrusted with matchmaking and putting matches together that might sell tickets. Now if you’ve got a college degree and you’ve done some creative writing, the boss’ daughter will hire you and next week you’re telling Steve Austin what to do. It’s ridiculous. I’m disgusted with the business. I want the new guys to get a chance. I would like wrestling to have a little bit of credibility and just be treated in a logical matter so that we don’t insult the wrestling fans’ intelligence. And if you don’t like wrestling, I’m not going to try to make you watch the show by doing [stuff] on my show that people that like wrestling will not like just to get the people that don’t. It’s foolish.
Paul Heyman is a guy that you know as well as anybody. There are reports that Dixie Carter is trying to recruit him to work for TNA. Knowing him and knowing TNA, do you think he could make a difference there?
Let me preface this by saying what I’ve said before: Paul Heyman could go to Taco Bell and 30 minutes later could squat down and crap a better wrestling show than Vince Russo could do if he worked on it for the rest of his life. Having said that, no, I don’t think Merlin the Magician, the way that TNA Wrestling is set up, could make a big difference, because they would have to give Paul Heyman complete control over everybody that was hired and everybody that was fired and the way that they were used in every aspect of the wrestling side of the business. They would have to get rid of all the people like Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan and Vince Russo who are all constantly stabbing each other in the back because each one of them thinks they’re a genius and everybody else are morons, and they will try to handicap you or block you or whatever if you do anything to do the company good because it makes them look bad because they haven’t been able to do it. It’s a political minefield. Dixie Carter won’t stay out of it. She doesn’t know anything about wrestling. She knows how to write a check, and that’s great if you have somebody that’s talented and knowledgeable presenting your wrestling product and it’s funded, that’s great. But it’s a mess [laughs].
And I’m sure that Paul has talked to her friendly, but at the same time, I don’t think TNA is prepared to give any one person the power that would be necessary to turn the thing around, and I don’t think that Paul wants to jeopardize his reputation as being the evil genius of wrestling to go into a venture that’s doomed to failure from the start. It’s the same with Jim Ross. If Jim Ross had been 20 years younger and in good health and full of piss and vinegar and not wanting to stay home in Oklahoma – and I don’t blame him for that at all – then, yes, maybe he would have gone in there and tried to do something. But I think he also realized that as it exists there’s no way to turn that thing around because it’s been too long now. They have crapped on people for eight years now. If they had started out from scratch with the right people in the right places and a great vision, but you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Vince Russo has been involved with his vision of wrestling, for whatever reason, I don’t understand it. Dixie Carter and Jeff Jarrett are the only two people of any consequence that have ever wanted him there that I’ve ever talked to or ever admitted it to me. Most people roll their eyes at him behind his back. That’s why I was getting increasingly frustrated when I was there. I kept saying, “We’re losing time. We’re losing time.” When I started there they had been around for four years. Now it’s been eight years and they’re worse off than they were. And they wouldn’t change anything and they wouldn’t wake up. It’s a shame because nobody will ever in our lifetimes get that close to chasing Vince McMahon again. The pay-per-view; the national television; the talent roster; the financing. They had everything, except they had a psychopath running the ship. It’s frustrating to everybody who wants to see the wrestling business continue. I’m not talking about just me. I’m way closer to getting out of it than I am to when I got in it, but it’d be nice as a lifelong wrestling fan to actually see an alternative promotion that presented real serious wrestling.
What’s your take on the Bryan Danielson situation in WWE?
[Laughs] I don’t even know where to start. I would have fired the other guy [ring announcer Justin Roberts]. He took the tie off and choked the ring announcer. The ring announcer made the funny “choke face.” I would have fired him because he was taking me out of thinking it may be a legitimate shoot happening. I would have fired the chokee; they fired the choker. I’ve heard it was because the toy company that sponsors them was upset, or somebody at the TV network said it was too violent, or it reminded them of Chris Benoit, or Linda [McMahon]’s trying to buy a Senate seat and that will get in the way. Ugh! It’s wrestling! And here’s the most likable, talented, young guy, and a darling of all the real diehard wrestling fans, and they just slapped a turd right in their faces by firing the guy for something that he didn’t even know he wasn’t supposed to do. He was a scapegoat. That goes back to my point. You can’t have a giant corporation, a publicly traded company, involved in promoting professional wrestling because the very aspect of wrestling that appeals to the people who like wrestling is that it is wild and outrageous and violent and crazy.
I’m guessing that you’re happier overall now that you’re in ROH. So, are you sleeping well at night or are you still having bad dreams about Vince Russo?
I’m sleeping a lot better since I finally told him off with that letter. I had come across [TNA director of talent relations] Terry Taylor’s last e-mail to me, where he was saying, “All, Jim, I’ve always liked you. We’ve been friends, blah, blah, blah, I know we’ll work together again someday.” Well, I’ve never had a problem with Terry Taylor, but he’s got heat with everybody because he talks out of both sides of his neck and he’s a stooge and he turns his back on people, et cetera. So I figured I’d give him a stooge test. So I just wrote him an e-mail. And I put everybody in the company over because everything I wrote was the truth. I liked everybody there; I wanted to see the company succeed; I wanted to see an alternative; I like Mike Tenay, Don West, Keith Mitchell, Dave Sahadi, all the wrestlers, blah, blah, blah, but I’m ticked off at Jeff for employing Vince Russo and giving him a chance to kill all these guys’ careers and lives. I was mad at Dixie for lying to me and acting like Vince Russo didn’t have anything to do with them firing me when I know he did because I was the one who was left after they sent Jeff home for “doing the wrong Angle” and they fired Dutch Mantell. So I was the last one left to stand up for the boys to keep them from doing the embarrassing [stuff] that Russo wanted them to do, and I was making him look bad because I was coming up with stuff out of my [butt] that was better than what he spent time actually working on and I wasn’t even getting paid to do that job. So he manipulated me out just like he had done everybody else.
He does have a great talent for selling himself. Nobody understands it. I’ve questioned everybody. You can imagine what lengths I’ve gone to to find out why [Carter] thinks anything of him. But anyway, I said, “I’m [ticked] off at Dixie, not really happy with Jeff, but this guy stands for everything that I hate, he’s screwed people, he’s shortened careers, ruined people’s lives, killed the business for people in it and the fans, and I’d like to murder him!” This is what I always wanted to say to Vince Russo but I never got a chance to say it to him face to face because he was always being protected by somebody that I worked for or respected or had promised that I wouldn’t punch him in the face. “So here’s what I think of Vince Russo. See you, Terry.” And of course I figured he could either delete it or he could go to all the people that I said, “Hey, nothing personal when I knock TNA, it’s just the situation,” or he could run screaming to his little buddy Vince Russo and tell him what I said and it would ruin Vince’s day [laughs]. That’s the one I was really hoping for anyway. Never did I realize that there could be a fourth option where they would send me a letter from a lawyer. Some of these people have known me for 30 years. What they thought that I would do when I got a letter from a lawyer I have no clue, but it should have been mostly what I did, especially when they cited a confidentiality clause. Oh, you want confidentiality? I’ll show you some confidentiality. Boom, it went up on my website. Boom, I quoted it everywhere. I checked out billboard prices but people couldn’t read the fine print that far up. I don’t care what they think of me. I told the truth and I have many people around me that are loved ones and friends that have sworn that they will never allow me to be in the same city with Vince Russo again because they know what will happen – but at least now Vince knows that, too.
I just don’t know what they thought they were going to accomplish by trying to scare me with a letter from a lawyer. I had the video camera down next to my front door for two weeks in case the cops came – I gave my wife instructions to shoot it and put it up on YouTube. So to answer your question, finally, I’m much happier. I’m not on the road very much anymore – 25 years of that was enough. I work a weekend or two a month going to some of these fanfests with my collectibles, merchandise and things. I like talking to the fans. Or I go out with the Ring of Honor shows, have some fun, and then I’m home for a couple weeks, and I enjoy that for a variety of reasons. I’ve lost 35 pounds since I left TNA last fall. It’s because I’m not aggravation eating. Sometimes after the TNA production meetings, when I would listen to this stuff that [Russo] puts on paper read out loud and I would see people snickering, or rolling their eyes, or covering their heads, I’d go to Wendy’s and get a couple of triple cheeses and stick them down my neck so I wouldn’t go for his neck. And now I’ve quit sugar; I’m on the low carb thing; I’ve dropped 35 pounds; I’m getting some things done around the house.
And you owe it all to Vince Russo.
I owe it all to Vince Russo. Hatred is a hell of a motivator. I want to live long enough to [urinate] on his tombstone. We laugh about it, and you have to, but it’s sad. The wrestling business has been so good to so many people and provided so much enjoyment to so many people and made a lot of guys in the past rich, and everything was great for a hundred years and then along comes the Hollywood writer crowd and the outsiders and the people with financing who don’t know anything about the business and choose the wrong people to run it, and now the wrestlers are not the attractions anymore. People laugh at wrestling and it’s something now that they look at on television for free but they don’t want to invest any money in because it’s presented as so silly and it doesn’t matter. I always go back to the greatest promoted confrontations of all time were the fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Well imagine if they had been cracking jokes and doing skits and nobody believed that they hated each other. They wouldn’t have stopped wars to see the Ali-Frazier fight. They wouldn’t have even bought a ticket to see it. “Oh, that’s going to be on TV. Well it’s either that or ‘America’s Got Talent.’ ” [laughs] It’s sad. The business that so many of us loved from the inside and outside has become now some kind of silly game show entertainment run by people who don’t appreciate what it used to be.
Visit Jim Cornette’s official website at jimcornette.com