It’s hard to find someone who encapsulates the spirit of professional wrestling better than Terry Funk.
In a sport defined by nomadic eccentrics leaving their bodies broken and battered for the amusement of spectators, it’s hard to find a better representative of the sport and what it means within wrestling history. Wrestling as a genre of entertainment is broad and the styles and audiences it may appeal to range from country to country, era to era, and promotion to promotion. There is only one man through which you could tell the entire history of professional wrestling, a man who transcended borders and eras seamlessly and as of August 23, 2023, he is no longer with us.
Terry Funk was what every wrestler should aspire to be, universally loved and appreciated by both fans and wrestlers alike with a direct influence on every decade of wrestling since he entered the business in the 60s. It’s hard to believe that a man who won the NWA World Title in 1975 would continue until 2017 as an in-ring performer, but Terry Funk wasn’t exactly known for fitting into the mold or letting himself grow stale. At every juncture of his career, he found a way to adapt to the times and the condition his body was in, finding new ways to tell stories all the way into his 70s. When many wrestlers got old and the business passed them by, they became old and bitter, pissing in the proverbial watering hole that the new generation had to drink from but Terry Funk, to his credit, never did this. He embraced change in a way that few wrestlers of his era ever did, and even as his body began to fail him he found new and innovative ways to ensure that fans went home happy to have parted with their hard-earned cash.
This approach to things prolonged Terry Funk’s career, a career that ended for the first time in 1983 and continued on for a ‘measly’ 34 years after that. The early portion of Terry Funk’s career showed what he could do in a more straight-laced era of the sport, a territory heel who encapsulated the spirit of the Texas grapplers that preceded him while sprinkling in bits and pieces of the character who’d become world-renowned in later years. In the late 70s and early 80s, Terry Funk may have very well hit the apex of his career with his feuds in CWA and All Japan, which culminated in a variety of memorable angles and moments.
The Empty Arena Brawl with Jerry Lawler comes to mind, the pained histrionics that ensued following his eye being hit by a broken 2×4 is a memory that was seared into my brain very early on, and it remains one of the most famous moments in wrestling history.
Of course with the power of the internet and hindsight, we know now that the reason for Terry Funk being written off this way was so that he could go overseas to a country that embraced him as much or more than his own did. Terry Funk had worked AJPW for years to that point, but in the early 80s his popularity in Japan had reached something of a fever pitch.
It’s hard to explain how popular Terry Funk was in Japan without forcing you to watch the many entrances he made where fans seemingly swarmed him like some kind of PG zombie movie. In the stands you’d have young ladies in pom poms cheering his name, and the ecstatic cheers of Terry, Terry, Terry echoing through Budokan Hall is one of the most vivid memories from wrestling I can recall. A man who spent the majority of his wrestling career as a heel in America found himself to be a transcendent babyface in Japan, and all he did to get there was be himself. By the time Terry Funk ‘retired’ for the first time in 1983, he’d carved out a career in both countries that anyone would’ve been happy to retire with.
Except, of course, for Terry Funk. Many people view his inability to retire and stay retired as some kind of albatross on his career, but I view it as one of his most endearing traits. Terry Funk couldn’t stay away from the business he’d been born into, he loved it immeasurably and would say so to anyone willing to listen to him. He didn’t just say it, he showed it in every adjustment and bump he’d take over the next several decades to prove the point. In 1986, Terry Funk would make some appearances in Puerto Rico and wrestle the likes of Barry Windham, Rick Martel, and eventually Carlos Colon in a title match that would draw 17,000 fans.
This match and the number it drew was a testament to the time Funk had spent in Puerto Rico, and his unnatural ability to adapt to any style you asked him to. Terry Funk embraced the blood and chaos of the WWC, and I think this more violent style he’d embraced would set the course for the next several years of his career.
In 1989, Terry Funk and Ric Flair engaged in what I consider to be my favorite American match of all time. “Five Letters, Two words, I quit.” The I Quit match with Ric Flair at Clash of the Champions IX is a brutal spectacle between two of the greatest legends in the sport. Terry Funk, at this point, was well into his mid-40s, yet the violence he was able to muster against Ric Flair was enough to give him credibility in spite of limited appearances in the preceding years. The red-hot crowd wasn’t treated to a wrestling match, they were treated to a life-or-death brawl that brought something special out of Ric Flair he’d rarely had to show to that point. Ric Flair was a beautiful performer, his work had a flow to it and a cadence that Terry Funk refused to adhere to. He made Ric Flair a babyface, an incredible babyface at that, and the enduring visual of Funk writhing against the mat as Flair forced him to quit is one of the enduring images that defines my wrestling fandom.
Into the 90s, Terry Funk would find himself embroiled in some of the hottest feuds in wrestling scattered throughout the globe. He worked for a variety of independent wrestling promotions, including SMW and ECW in their earliest eras, and his contributions to the latter were particularly noteworthy, as his feuds with Eddie Gilbert and Cactus Jack were absolutely the most noteworthy content ECW had to offer at the time. Terry Funk embraced the continued raising of the bar that wrestling was experiencing in that era, and instead of running from it after three decades in the sport, he took it head-on. He embraced hardcore matches in a way someone with his skillset simply didn’t need to, but this lack of stubbornness yet again continued to extend his career as a top guy. In 1993, he was asked to wrestle one of his old proteges in the Kawasaki Dome for FMW in a “No Rope Exploding Barbed Wire Time Bomb Death Match.”
At the brisk age of 49, Terry Funk, of course, said yes.
Atsushi Onita’s reverence for Terry Funk couldn’t be understated. He watched Terry Funk wrestle Barbed Wire matches and Texas Deathmatches, he saw the bloody brawls Funk put himself through and decided for some reason that it was exactly what he wanted to do. In the 70s, Terry Funk helped Onita through the Amarillo territory and took time to help him learn the ropes in wrestling, even buying him a car to help him get around and his generosity and kindness would be rewarded with one of the most notable matches in wrestling history. The Kawasaki Dome was filled to the brim with 41,000 screaming fans ready to watch Terry Funk and Onita face-off, and they were rewarded with a good match and a great angle. The end of the match sees Terry Funk defeated and prone in the middle of the ring, unable to be shaken awake in spite of Onita’s best efforts, with the ring ready to literally explode. Onita jumped on top of Funk to cover and protect his mentor, putting his body in harm’s way in order to protect him in spite of his apparent victory. As the clock hit 0, the explosions went off and the crowd went almost disturbingly silent. As the smoke cleared, the two bloody and battered men emerged from the mat arm and arm as the crowd gave them a standing ovation. Many of the fans were moved to tears in the arena in a one-time moment that will likely never be replicated.
I could talk about Terry Funk’s career all day, it’s layered and worthy of exploration but I myself won’t be the one to do that for you. I can only speak to what he meant to me. Terry Funk was a mark of quality on any product he decided to show up in, and more importantly than that, he was a sign that your time and investment would be rewarded. In his later years, he was almost oddly human for a man who was as revered as he was, and in 1997 at ECW Barely Legal, a card laced in violence and grunge vibes he opted to stay true to himself, and cut a tremendous promo at the Double Cross Ranch in front of his fathers grave and vowed victory to the tune of Desperado.
It’s easy to get caught up in the negative feelings of losing someone who was so special to something we all spend so much of our lives on. If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve wrapped up literal months and maybe years of your life in watching wrestling and almost all of it was in some way impacted by Terry Funk. He was a giving and unselfish performer that created a legacy that lived on long past his years as a main-eventer, and his influence can be seen in wrestling at every corner of the world. Terry Funk did not die, and so long as pro wrestling lives on, he never will.
Terry Funk, forever.