Every so often in wrestling, there is an urge among fans of a certain age to long for the return or re-embodiment of some hallmark of yesteryear. This nostalgic clamor manifests itself in different ways, at different times. It could be a certain wrestler, a type of novelty match, or something on an altogether more fundamental level. To many people, it simply used to be better.
Sometimes this is true, and sometimes it is not. Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion. One such sentiment that crops up often is the value of the on-screen wrestling manager, a significant call-back to a hallowed ‘golden age’ of grappling. MVP, currently the on-screen mouthpiece of WWE Champion Bobby Lashley, himself mused recently that there is a “lost art” of managers in wrestling.
Both WWE and AEW have dipped their toe in the area in recent years, with a handful of managers on each roster. Often when they have done so, it has been met with a clamor for more. Thea Trinidad’s run as Zelina Vega in NXT was rightly credited for a large part of the reason for Andrade’s success, while Paul Heyman continues to excel in the role after more than three decades.
Heel managers in particular have been a staple of professional wrestling for longer than most of us have been following it. With good reason. If a promising wrestler can deliver the goods in the ring but not on the mic, it makes all the sense in the world to pair them up with someone who can. If that someone can portray the sniveling, snide sidekick (Heyman) or can alternatively mix it up in the ring themselves (MVP), even better.
Despite the renewed focus on kayfabe client-handlers in recent years, we’re some distance from the 1980s heyday of the World Wrestling Federation when Bobby Heenan, Jimmy Hart and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Fuji ran the show. That terrible trio took it in turns to make life hell for the babyfaces of the era, following in the tradition set out of New York’s original triumvirate of terror.
For more than a decade from the early 1970s onwards, “Captain” Lou Albano, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, and The Grand Wizard (Ernie Roth) appeared in the manager role for pretty much every bad guy in the WWWF/WWF, ‘leading’ many to championship glory. The general pattern was that Albano would manage tag-teams, Blassie would guide foreign menaces, and Roth would handle newcomers.
Roth is an interesting case study. The only one of the “Three Wise Men” who was not a former wrestler, Roth was a former disc jockey who spent years managing the original Sheik. He’s also an important part of the history of Vince McMahon Senior’s company, but you don’t tend to hear his name mentioned alongside the likes of his contemporaries.
This is understandable. Blassie had a very close personal relationship with the McMahon and was kept on payroll up until his death, while Albano established himself a cult following as a small-time actor and celebrity. Roth, known for his outlandish attire, ever-present sunglasses and sequined turbans, was not so lucky.
When Roth died aged 57 of a heart attack in October 1983, he unwittingly did so at a crucial period in wrestling history. A little over six months later, McMahon senior would also pass away, leaving the path open for his son to take over and mold the World Wrestling Federation in his own image. It is a process that continues to this day, almost forty years later.
WWE has in the past been accused of ignoring its history, but they did acknowledge Roth’s passing in a few places, with an announcement made before the next television tapings, and a heartfelt editorial in the late 1983 edition of WWF Progam magazine, which also featured him on the cover:
“Sure he offended many with that quick-witted and sometimes acid-like dialogue that spewed from his small stature, but the man was a proven winner and he displayed that arrogance that accompanies success.”
Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer was pleasantly surprised by the acknowledgment, noting in the December 1983 issue:
“Thankfully, this area handled his passing with some class on their TV show. After seeing the lack of the same that both California promotions did five years ago when Lonnie Mayne passed on, I didn’t know what Vince would do.”
Junior promptly used Roth’s passing as an opportunity to recast the role vacated by the Grand Wizard, as well as updating the aging Albano and Blassie with fresher characters more befitting the pending national expansion.
Mr. Fuji was converted into a manager (May 1984), and the arrivals of Bobby Heenan (September 1984) and Jimmy Hart (February 1985) ushering in the hallowed period of the pro wrestling manager that many harken back to.
It may not surprise you to learn these motley crew were not the first choices for the role(s) of WWF’s rock-and-wrestling era heel managers. As with many things in wrestling history, things could have turned out quite differently.
Let’s have a look at some of the other candidates Vince McMahon (rightly) cast aside:
Lord Alfred Hayes
The very same edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in December 1983 noted that the WWF did not plan to hang around to replace Roth, and a new manager “should debut at the TV tapings in the middle of the month.” The piece lists Hayes or J.J. Dillon (below) as most likely candidates. Hayes did indeed debut at the Madison Square Garden show on December 26, 1983, albeit in his more familiar role as backstage interviewer.
A later issue of the Observer mentioned that Hayes was awaiting knee surgery, which may have been the issue.
After retiring as an in-ring talent, Dillon went on to achieve notoriety as a heel manager…but not in the WWF. Dillon was recognizable for years as the fifth man overseeing the destructive activities of the Four Horsemen in Jim Crockett Promotions and WCW. Dillon did make a brief appearance for WWF at the time, wrestling a one-off match at an April MSG show, but declined to make his stay permanent.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper
How different the Hogan era may have been if this had stuck! Throughout his career, Piper was regarded as a small worker whose questionable physical attributes were ably compensated by his ferocity on the mic. So it’s easy to understand why many promoters considered “heel manager” as the position he could best add value. Piper debuted in January 1984 as the mouthpiece for main event heels David Schultz, Paul Orndorff, and Big John Studd.
Within months, Piper’s charisma had shone through and WWF history changed forever as he became a full-time in-ring worker.
“Mad Dog” Managoff
Who?! If you’ve never heard of this guy, I don’t blame you. Jerry Jaffe was a little-known wrestler of the 1970s and early 80s who spent several years working smaller territories as “Jerry Graham Jr,” the kayfabe son of the Graham wrestling family patriarch. He lucked into a managerial try-out at the December 1983 Chase Hotel taping, guiding Studd and the team of Adrian Adonis & Dick Murdoch. He didn’t get a callback.
Dr. Jerry Graham
The one that got away for Vince McMahon Junior. Finally, in 1984 he presided over the WWF outright and able to hire whoever he wanted. So little surprise that he turned to his childhood favorite, Dr. Jerry Graham.
Stories of Graham’s wild and destructive behavior are legendary in the business and made a huge impression on the younger McMahon growing up. Vince longed to find a role for his childhood idol, spotlighting him on Tuesday Night Titans and the MSG Network in May 1985, but the good doctor could not overcome his personal demons.