There is a moment during the Rey Misterio Jr. versus Eddie Guerrero match on the Halloween Havoc ’97 telecast that I’ll never forget.
As Tony Schiavone was furiously calling the action, Mike Tenay was informing the viewing audience of some little known facts about Misterio and Guerrero’s career.
I can remember being totally astounded by the manner in which Tenay delivered these obscure facts. He had clearly done his homework and by imparting these facts on the respective careers of the wrestlers in the ring, he made the match seem that more important. Bobby Heenan was so blown away with Tenay’s preparedness that he jokingly asked, “Mike, tell me what you don’t know. Is there anything you don’t know?”
Professionalism is a trait that all too few in wrestling possess. It’s a trait that Tenay has an ample amount of. But it’s just one of many.
Personable. Genuine. Down-to-earth.
These are just some of characteristics used to describe Mike Tenay’s on-air personality. Never having the opportunity to speak with him before, I was anxious to see whether he’s that way in real life.
He is. The soft-spoken, mild-mannered Tenay comes across in real life exactly how he does on TV.
Wrestling is in the business of hype. It’s an industry comprised of self-promoting braggarts scheming to get ahead at any cost. Mike Tenay is one of the few exceptions. He brings less hype to the table than anybody else.
For him, it’s still about the wrestling.
“I have such an incredible love for the wrestling business,” said Mike Tenay during a recent three-hour interview with SLAM! Wrestling. “My buddies from high school commented to me that ‘what you do, you can’t call that work. You can’t call that a job because you’re having too much fun.’ They’re right.”
Tenay’s love affair with pro wrestling dates back to his childhood.
“I grew up in Southern California and my first exposure to wrestling was in Los Angeles (Gene and Mike LeBell’s NWA territory). I was first exposed to wrestling on TV in 1962. Within a couple of months I had talked my father into taking me to a live event. We went to the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles and the wrestler that caught my attention was The Destroyer.
“I was real fortunate to grow up (watching) a territory like the Los Angeles promotion just because of the diversity of talent that came through there. You always had new faces coming through and I got to see all the big names: The Destroyer, Freddie Blassie and John Tolos.”
Wrestling would become a lifelong obsession for Tenay, planting the small seedlings of a future career.
“Even at a young age I remember starting to buy Wrestling Revue magazine and I was really interested in a lot of journalistic aspects of sports writing and I really followed pro wrestling as much as I could. At the time there was not a lot of inside information that was available. It became a lifelong quest to find out more information about the inner workings of the wrestling business.”
Tenay’s quest to gain inside information led him to publish “Mat News”, one of the very first pro wrestling newsletters.
“What I decided to do in 1966 was to start a newsletter that would be amazingly close considering the times of what you would see as a Wrestling Observer newsletter today. I wrote to as many people as I could and lined up correspondents and we would correspond by mail.”
In the early days of newsletters, information was tough to gather. There was no Internet. People didn’t think to call one another long distance. Back in wrestling’s territorial days, TV programs didn’t air nationally, only locally, making it tough for fans to keep abreast of what was going on in wrestling.
“At the time there was not a lot of inside information that was available,” recalled Tenay. “There was a real secrecy to wrestling and it wasn’t at all as open as it is today.”
As a result, members of the underground wrestling press relied on each other, developing a network by which they traded news and results with each other.
“I (corresponded with fans) from all over the world: The U.S., England, Japan, Australia, and I would get all the results from all the promotions in Southern California and I would exchange the news and results with all the correspondents. I had all this info and I decided to put it in a newsletter form.”
Tenay was also among the first wrestling tape traders.
“I would make audio cassette tapes of the Los Angeles TV wresting program. I’d duplicate them and trade them with guys in New York, Detroit, Texas, San Francisco who were doing the same thing. That was the predecessor of the today’s VCR tape trading.”
But “Mat News” was Tenay’s true passion.
“It was very different for its time. I would have one page of inside news and notes and the rest was results from the rest of the world. I can remember each week waiting by the mailbox impatiently for those letters with the results from all over.”
Once “Mat News” ceased publication in 1973, Tenay began writing for several national wrestling magazines. He also started penning articles for the Olympic Auditorium’s print program.
After high school, Tenay’s interest waned as he moved onto a career as a refrigeration and air conditioning repairman. Years later, he ended up in Las Vegas supervising horse racing bets for the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino. A friend of his from Los Angeles had an overnight sports talk radio show that was struggling. He asked Mike to help out.
“He was having such a hard time attracting listeners and he was basically reading the sports section of the USA Today over the air,” laughed Tenay. “He was having a real hard time. He asked me to come on and talk about sports. An hour and a half into it, nobody was calling up. He was desperate. He remembered I was a wrestling fan from our days in L.A. and he asked if I would mind talking about wrestling.
“We started talking about wrestling at about 3:30 in the morning and we looked at each other as the lines all lit up. The owner of the Sports and Entertainment Network heard the show that evening, called me up the next day and I had a show.”
Ironically, Tenay hadn’t even considered a job in pro wrestling.
“It really was the furthest thing from my mind,” chuckled Tenay. “I never even thought about it.”
From 1991 to 1995, “Wrestling Insiders” was broadcast nationally across the U.S. and boasted 450 affiliate stations. Live guests on the show included Sting, Bruno Sammartino, Buddy Rogers, Jesse Ventura and Jim Cornette. The show became such a success that Tenay was approached by WCW.
“WCW contacted me in 1993 to fill an opening on the WCW hotline,” recalled Tenay, a role he still fulfills to this day.
“After doing that I had decided I would take the radio show on the road and do remotes from major wrestling events. The first remote was for the first WCW Hogan versus Flair match in Orlando and I did the show from the arena. I had a lot of the WCW guys on. I did interviews for the WCW hotline at that show. They decided to bring me on the road to do that, and I still did my radio show.”
Tenay’s next break came shortly after.
“I had Eric Bischoff on as a guest on the radio show and he decided to fly me back to Atlanta for a screen test for an announcing job.”
It’s no accident that Tenay is perceived and marketed by WCW as a walking encylopedia of wrestling knowledge.
“When Eric hired me his entire thing was he wanted me as the information guy. He told me he wanted me to be the credible wrestling announcer. So, they brought me in as a specialty announcer on Japanese and Mexican matches on PPV and from there it evolved into doing work in ’96 for WCW International, (a syndicated TV program for international markets outside North America). From there in September of ’96, Eric gave me the call and said Steve McMichael was going to be a pro wrestler and they asked me to join the Nitro team.”
The big leagues. A full time colour announcing spot with WCW. In the eyes of many, Mike Tenay had finally arrived.
Yet, to hardcore fans who knew better, he had arrived two years earlier.
In 1994, WCW was working in conjunction with AAA, a Mexican wrestling group, promoting their “When Worlds Collide” PPV. The deal was set up so that AAA would provide the facility and book the show, while WCW would help out with the show’s production and promote it on its TV shows.
Weeks before the show, WCW was in trouble. None of their regular announcers were familiar with the Lucha Libre style of wrestling, (nor were they willing to do any research and learn) and felt uneasy about commentating on a show featuring a product they didn’t understand. Without an announcer to call the action, the event was going to be a bust.
Enter Mike Tenay.
“Gary Juster happened to be out in Las Vegas (Mike’s home at the time), and we went out to breakfast. They were in a tough situation there because the WCW announce crew were not volunteering for that duty. They were up against a wall. He asked Chris Cruise to do the show and they offered me the colour spot and the rest kind of fell into place.”
“None of the WCW announce crew were willing (to work the show). They were apprehensive, understandably so, because they were unfamiliar with the Mexican product and they didn’t want to risk ruining their reputations by looking silly. I can’t say that I blame them.”
Tenay seized the oportunity granted him. Although he was a regular follower of Mexican pro wrestling, he took it upon himself to do research for the event. He consulted top Lucha experts on the history of Mexican wrestling and went to great lengths to speak with several of the wrestlers involved beforehand to learn as much about their background as possible.
Tenay and Chris Cruise went so far as to fly to Mexico at their own expense to watch live cards and learn more about Lucha Libre. The amount of work, research and time he spent preparing for the show spoke volumes about Tenay’s level of professionalism.
“I flew down to Tijuana, Mexico for shows as often as I could,” recalled Tenay. “I got to know Konnan and Rey Misterio Jr. They helped educate me and supplement the knowledge I already had.”
The show was not only the first foray into PPV by AAA, it was also the first time Tenay would call a national PPV telecast. He was nervous. Very nervous.
With a quiet, understated confidence, Mike Tenay and Chris Cruise took to the air. On what many hardcore wrestling fans consider one of the best PPVs of all time, Tenay and Cruise delivered the announcing performance of a lifetime.
Over the course of the two and half hour show, Tenay was able to impart the rich history of Lucha Libre, the significance of the show and the storylines behind the matches. It was an incredible performance, made even more special by the fact that Tenay was able to educate a viewing audience who, for the most part, were watching Lucha Libre for the very first time. That Tenay and Cruise were able to get the Lucha Libre style over and make the viewing fans care was even more incredible.
Tenay’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The show was a benchmark in his career.
“It was a huge turning point from the standpoint of gaining positive, critical reviews from Dave Meltzer and Steve Beverly (editor of Mat Watch, a weekly wrestling newsletter focusing on the TV end of the business).”
A lot of other announcers would have fallen flat on their faces. But Tenay rose to the challenge. The reviews were unanimous: Tenay was a success.
And yet, in typical Mike Tenay fashion, he’s uneasy about the personal accolades, maintaining the quality of the show made him look good.
“It’s that old story that an announcer is only as good as the material he has,” Tenay said sheepishly. “If the wrestling is great, people will think the announcer is great. We were fortunate we hit paydirt with a show that a lot of people still today consider one of the top PPV events.”
Tenay’s modesty aside, it was a landmark announcing performance that granted him national TV exposure for the first time. For Tenay, however, his memories are of the exposure it gave the Lucha style.
“It was a landmark show, not so much from an announcing standpoint but certainly from an exposure standpoint. When you talk about Konnan, Rey Misterio Jr. and Eddie Guerrero, that was their first exposure (to an American audience). It also exposed Art Barr. Art made his name on that show and people had their eyes open to who he was.”
It also opened the eyes of many people to who Mike Tenay was.