4 Jun 2016

How the Honky Tonk Man survived four decades of wrestling

11:43 am on 4 June 2016

This guy is still a pro. 



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Photo: Unknown

Few wrestlers are as recognisable as the guitar-toting, jumpsuit-wearing, Elvis-impersonating antagonist known as the Honky Tonk Man.

The notorious villain's trademark move was smashing an acoustic guitar over his opponents' heads, sending shards of wood across the ring and his adversaries back to the locker room nursing splinters and a sore head.

Although that's the image that sticks in fans' heads, the 63-year-old wrestler - real name Roy Farris - says he did the move far less often than people think.

"We didn't do it that many times on TV, maybe five, six, seven, eight. But the fact that they were so memorable made it seem like all the time.

"It was [done to] people who lasted in your mind. There was Jake the Snake, the Macho Man, Brett Hart, the Ultimate Warrior, Superfly Snuka and Brutus Beefcake."

The Honky Tonk Man began his career in the late 1970s and was part of its golden age in the 1980s and 1990s, along with household names like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant.

Decades later he still pulls on his wrestling boots - and today he will step into the ring at the Armageddon Expo in Wellington.

"Working smarter, not harder" and a lack of really serious injuries have allowed him to keep wrestling, he says. Now working on the independent circuit and appearing at showcases around the world, he also managed to cope psychologically when it became clear the height of his fame was over.

"I've realised that when the big spotlight is turned off, it is turned off. And I learned to accept the smaller spotlight."

Some of his contemporaries were not so philosophical, he says.

"And consequently they've fallen into a terrible world of physical and mental abuse on themselves and other people."

Farris wrestled in various guises for more than 15 years before becoming the Honky Tonk Man, but it was through that character that he became a global superstar, who is still holds the record for the longest Intercontinental championship title reign.

The idea of an Elvis-like character was first prompted by fans "who handed me my first jumpsuit".

"I took that particular persona and then moulded it into someone who would do dastardly deeds behind the referee's back and be a coward and a chicken.

"And of course [the fans] loved Elvis, but they hated someone who impersonated Elvis - so I put the twist on it that way and it caught on."

His generation of wrestlers all adopted outlandish personas; Jake "The Snake" Roberts weilded his namesake repitle, Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake would shear his opponents hair and Ravishing Rick Rude had his patented pelvic thrust.

"Our group of guys were cartoon characters, superheroes that came to life on television, and we touched a whole generation of people. [Those in their] 20s, 30s, 40s will remember Hulk Hogan, the Honky Tonk Man and Jake “The Snake” Roberts until they're in their 70s and 80s."

Farris says the modern form of wrestling doesn't allow for enduring characters like the Honky Tonk Man.

"Today's product is a little more high-intense, high-impact. More of a stuntman-type show, as opposed to down on the mat, get a few holds, get a guy in a headlock, take him over. I know it sounds boring, but we didn't have broken necks, broken bones - we were all around for 30 years."

A focus on getting TV ratings means modern wrestlers are pushed to be more extreme and sensationalist, he says.

"We were a wrestling show on television. Nowadays, it's a television showed named RAW that features wrestling. Television being ratings-driven, everything needs to move fast, so the person holding the [remote] doesn't move to another station.

"So these young men and women do not get a chance to build their legacies. It's over in an instant. You don't last since the 1970s like the Honky Tonk Man."

Of course, the fans know the wrestling matches are all choreographed, but Farris says that doesn't take away from their enjoyment.

"The magician has shown the trick a million times, but people still love what the attraction is."

And there's certainly nothing staged about the physicality or the risks wrestlers take.

"When someone from another sporting world, be it rugby or football or baseball or cricket or something, comes and tries our sport, they walk away after one day saying this is gruelling, this is dangerous, this is bizarre. 'OK, now how do you feel about what we do?'"

He describes a gentlemen's code whereby wrestlers rely on each other to stick to the plan.

"You trust your body to a person who could drop you the wrong way, and it's happened. You could end up dead."

His passion for his profession is obvious as he talks about his heroes, Jack Brisco and Harley Race, whom he describes as "an artist", and his friendship with New Zealand's very own Bushwackers.

He still remembers how he and his fellow wrestlers all gathered to watch Hulk Hogan take on Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III in 1987.

"I love the wrestling myself. I don't even know why. But it's something that 100,000 people will pay for - to sit in a stadium and watch this stage show."

As he discusses his career and the industry, Farris is thoughtful and candid - nothing like his stage persona. But when asked what New Zealand fans can expect this weekend, he slips back into character.

"The Honky Tonk Man is going to do what the Honky Tonk Man does."

So will a guitar be sacrificed over the head of one of his opponents? Probably unlikely, but he's not ruling it out.

"Well, there's nothing like seeing a man wearing a guitar as a necktie."