THE WRESTLING TERRITORIES: WESTERN STATES SPORTS
By Jim Phillips, Columnist
Welcome back everyone, right here, to another installment of Wrestling Territories. *Pause for cheap Foley pop*. How are we doing this week Bruthas and Sistas? I hope all is well in your corners of the world. Let’s leave Kansas City behind and bounce through Oklahoma City, cause we’re headed to Amarillo and the stomping grounds of one of the key families in professional wrestling.
The Funks changed the business in many facets and left behind one of the few true family legacies. Not only were they a name to be aware of heard when you heard it, they lived up to the reputation that preceded them. Each member of the family had his own hand in taking things to another level for his generation. The man that got the ball rolling was the patriarch of the clan, Dory Funk.
Dorrance Funk was born just south of Chicago, in the town of Hammond, Indiana on the eve of the Roaring Twenties in May 1919. He went to serve in World War II, like most of the young men of his generation. He spent his time in the Navy, and upon returning, he looked to professional wrestling as a means of making ends meat. Dory had been Indiana State wrestling champion three times while he was in high school and found some wrestling glory at the university level as well before the breakout of the war. He got most of his training in the southwest and Central States territories of the N.W.A. as a junior heavyweight. In 1955, while working in the Texas area, an opportunity presented itself to Dory that the young father couldn’t refuse.
Western States Sports, as an entity, pre-dates the Funk family be a few years. It was started in 1946, and shows were ran out of the local fairgrounds for the next several years. Five years after it’s inception, in October 1951, the parent entity of Southwest States Enterprises became a member of the N.W.A., and thus began its slow rise as a territory of note in that area.
Dory Funk made his way through Texas at just the right time. Western States Sports was bought from SSE for the hefty sum of $75,000 by Karl Sarpolis. Sarpolis had spent some time as a wrestler but decided to take a position in the office, and offered Dory the chance to buy into the new upstart he was forming. Sarpolis went on to feature Funk as his headliner. for the next five years he faced many of the greats of that time, including Verne Gagne, and the man with the hands of steel, Danny Hodge. He gained enough prominence in the N.W.A. that many people, Karl included, believed that Funk was a natural successor to Pat O’Connor. O’Connor was at odds with part of the management of the N.W.A., and began to freelance out to other territories, including Vince McMahon’s Capitol Wrestling. The President of the N.W.A. at that time, Sam Muchnick, decided to back Buddy Rogers instead of Funk and a rift was created between the Amarillo office and St. Louis. Sarpolis chose to back Gene Kiniski as his champion instead. He continued his defiance of Muchnick’s insistence to recognize Buddy Rogers as champion for the next year.
In what many believe was a political ploy by the other members of the Board, the N.W.A. elected Sarpolis as President in September of 1962. He was not swayed by this appeasement, and continued to thumb his nose at Rogers and recognized Kiniski as his champion in Amarillo. He was a ground-breaker in this, as he was the first President to promote a champion that wan’t N.W.A.’s. After another meeting by the brass up in St. Louis, in August, 1963 Rogers was finally recognized as the unilateral Champion for the N.W.A. There were, however, two young men that had designs on taking that title and making it their own.
Dorrance Funk Jr. was born just prior to his fathers departure to WWII, on February 3, 1941. After relocating to Texas, he became engulfed in the Texas football scene. He attended the famed West Texas State University that churned out countless of professional wrestling greats from it’s football program. After football, Dory Jr. took up the family mantle and headed to the ring. He worked for Western States Sports under his father’s leadership where he learned the agony of being stretched and locked in holds for long periods of time. When he felt he was ready he began to travel to other territories and learn the lessons of politics, and getting over. He worked in Missouri, Florida, and eventually went to Japan and worked with the likes of Giant Baba and Rikidozan at All Japan Pro Wrestling. He returned to Texas in 1967 for a brief period when Karl Sarpolis passed away. Shortly after, his family sold the WSS promotion to the Funks. A year and a half later, Dory Jr. won the coveted N.W.A. Heavyweight Title by spinning toe hold, from family friend Gene Kiniski on February 9, 1969. His father would accompany him to the ring for many of his title defenses, with Dory Jr. decked out in his signature red, white, and blue Texas jacket with simple black trunks and boots. The Funks always portrayed the solidified unit in the face of opposition, holding that same ideal in everyday life and the wrestling business. Funk held that title for the next four and a half years until May 24, 1973 when he lost it to Harley Race in Kansas City. This is the second longest uninterrupted reign in N.W.A. history, falling only to Thesz with a run of almost seven years. It would not be long before the name Funk would once again be followed by Heavyweight Champion though.
Not long after he arrived home from the war, he and his wife Dorothy brought baby Terry into the world in the height of an Indiana Summer, on June 30, 1944. Growing up around the business made it second nature to the young Funk, who also attended Western Texas State under it’s football and wrestling programs. He broke into the business in 1965 at his family promotion of WSS in Amarillo. It wasn’t long before he made a name for himself, not only as a singles competitor, but as a feared tag team with his older brother Dory Jr. They tore up the tag team rankings all over the territorial map for years to follow. In 1975 he captured the N.W.A. Heavyweight Title from Jack Brisco, in his brother’s stead when Dory wasn’t able to compete. Terry held the title for a little over a year and defended it all over the United States, as well as beyond there to Australia, and throughout Asia. He lost the belt on February 6, 1977. The Funks Brothers have the distinction of being the only brothers to ever hold the N.W.A. Heavyweight Title. Unfortunately for them, Race hold the bragging rights of having taken it from both of them. Though Funks career was on a rocket course to the top, no matter what promotion he worked for, he never held the Title again.
Beginning in the Sixties, WSS formed a working relationship with the local television station in Amarillo. They aired their wrestling product on Saturday afternoons on Channel 7. They broadcast into Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. It had a strong following and lasted up until the end of the promotion. It wasn’t enough to keep the Funk boys from takin g to the roads though and they soon left to ply their trade in new markets. Western States Sports continued on in their absence with a bevy of local talent, and high dollar draws that were making their way from territory to territory.
One of the main local workers for them during these years was “Rapido” Ricky Romero. He was well known in all the Texas Territories at that time and had drawing power with his Mexican fans that lived throughout not only Texas but in the neighboring states of Colorado and New Mexico. He began his in ring career in the late Fifties and for the next fifteen years he traveled the wrestling circuits and worked with several big names as part of tag team ventures. The likes of Nick Bockwinkel, Pedro Morales, and Terry Funk, just to name a few. He got his first big opportunity when Dory Sr. brought him to Amarillo to WSS in the late Sixties. It was a time of turmoil in the country and the hit state of Texas wasn’t held abject from the racial and political strife the nation was going through. Using good psychology, Romero turned this negative into a huge positive for himself and his career in the ring. Building on the momentum he gained from his television exposure, in 1972, he bested Terry Funk by winning a popularity contest among the fans, who had affectionately began referring to him as “SuperMex”. He also met Giant Baba during that time and, like many of the Amarillo crew at WSS, had a run in Japan for AJPW. He wrestled under the mask there as Mexico Grande.
Romero retired from professional wrestling in 1983, but the family legacy was carried on by his four sons, only under a name you may be more familiar with. Ricky Jr., Chris, Matt, and Steven all wrestled under the name Youngblood. Steven, better known as Jay Youngblood, had a storied career in the N.W.A., and all along the East Coast and in the Northwest. Jay passed away suddenly in Australia in 1985 from pancreatitis, and resulting complications linked sepsis from the condition. He was only thirty years old. His father Ricky followed him in death in 2006 at age seventy-four from diabetes. Both are buried with their family in Amarillo. The CAC honored them with the Family Wrestling Award at their gathering in 2015.
Dory Funk Sr. passed away on June 3, 1973, only weeks after his son Dory lost the N.W.A. Title to Harley Race. He died of a heart attack as he was demonstrating a wrestling hold to a guest in his home. He lived the business til his last breath. He was only fifty-four years old.
The Funk Brothers sold Western States Sports in 1980, due to low ticket sales and television ratings. Blackjack Mulligan and Dick Murdoch purchased it from them for twenty thousand dollars in the hopes of turning the promotion around. They were unable to and WSS closed it’s doors in early 1981.
Dory Jr. and Terry made their way to the promised land of the WWF in the Eighties when they faced Tito Santana and the JYD at Wrestlemania II. Dory worked there for a short time while getting over the character of Jimmy Jack Funk, and establishing him under the Funk moniker to the WWF fans during that time. He left not long after but would return in 1996 for as a short lived entrant in that year’s Royal Rumble. In the interim, he had a memorable match with Nick Bockwinkel under the WCW banner, at their 1993 Slamboree pay-per-view. Funk retired from competition in the United States in 2008 and lives in Ocala, Florida with his wife Marti. He operates the Funking Conservatory, wrestling school there as well. In March of 2017 he was announced as the new Chairman for the Pacific Wrestling Federation while he was in Japan, working a tag match, with his brother Terry. He has had a few matches in Japan since his American retirement. He was credited with the creation of the Texas Cloverleaf hold, and this, among his many other achievements are one of the reasons for his induction to the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2009 alongside his brother Terry. Beside the WWE’s, Dory is a member of every major pro wrestling Hall of Fame in existence. Even at the wise old age of seventy-seven, Dory still has a lot to offer to the sport, through his teaching the young up and coming wrestlers, as well as his knowledge of the business that he can impart to anyone that is smart enough to be quiet and listen when the sage speaks. He is one of a dwindling group of men that can say that they had been there, and done it all, before the fall of the territorial system.
Not to be discounted in that listing of merits, Terry Funk has forged a crucible of achievement into which he has ground his body and soul for the sport of professional wrestling. Few men can be listed that have given more back to the business than has Terry Funk. After leaving WSS, he traveled all over the United States and beyond, as he left a trail of legendary matches and broken bodies in his wake. He battled with Jerry Lawler in the CWA, he then worked his way through the AWA, WWF, WCW, and into the IWF King of the Deathmatch Tournament where he and his friend Mick Foley became household names in Japan. This whole time he was doing shots for AJPW in between his other runs. It was in 1993 that he made his way to the NWA:Eastern promotion and take a group of dedicated young workers and their mentor to another level of competition.
Terry Funk’s time at the Eastern saw the promotion change it’s format and drop it’s hallowed N.W.A. affiliation as it was christened Extreme Championship Wrestling by its benefactor and maniacal leader, Paul Heyman. Alongside the heel heat of Shane Douglas, the dedicated heartbeat of Terry Funk was the fire, that kept that roster on the heading of it’s fixed course to greatness. Over the next two decades Funk bounced back and forth from the independent circuit and the WWF(E) several times, and retired nearly as many. The love of the ring, and performing for the fans kept bringing him back though, time and time again. I, for one, love him for that.
Well, that winds us up for this week’s edition of Territories. I hope you enjoy our stop in Amarillo, and will come back to see us next week as I continue to stomp toward the West Coast. Until then Bruthas and Sistas, never forget….our wrestling history is gold, DIG IT!!