Talking about Lucha Libre and Japanese Puroresu with Mike Tenay is like discussing rock ‘n roll with Mick Jagger. He’s the leading International wrestling authority in the world.
His passion for foreign wrestling cultures dates back to his Los Angeles days.
“Because of the proximity of the border, and because of the Hispanic population in L.A., (the LaBelle territory) was among the first of the territories that really relied on Lucha Libre wrestlers,” said Tenay.
“Toward the late ’60s, the L.A. territory really started importing so many of the Mexican wrestlers that I became appreciative of the Mexican style. L.A. was also a hotbed for Japanese wrestlers. The Japanese wrestlers who were heading back after a tour in the States would always stop in L.A. before going home. So for so many years we were able to see Giant Baba, Sakaguchi. Many times matches in the Olympic Auditorium were televised back to Japan. In terms of the Mexicans, we saw Mil Mascaras, Black Gordman, Goliath and Rey Mendoza.”
Tenay comes to the defense of his announcing counterparts whenever someone points out the disparity between their knowledge of international wrestling and his.
“From the standpoint of exposure, I was probably exposed to the Japanese and Mexican product earlier than any of the other announcers and maybe even to more of a degree than Tony Schiavone and Jim Ross. I had an early appreciation for it.”
“When I was a kid growing up I used to have my father take me down to downtown L.A. They would have Mexican wrestling magazines and I could remember when I was 12 years old going on a regular basis and I’d buy an armful of them and I would have my English-Spanish dictionary and I would translate a lot of the feature stories.”
During his radio days, Tenay started following Mexican wrestling again. He had a satellite TV at home and was able to watch all three major Mexican promotions, up to 12 hours each weekend!
Between 1992 and 1996, he flew to Tijuana and Mexico City to see live shows.
“In going down and watching the cards they put on in Tijuana, I just really appreciated that level of work and style of wrestling, so much that I became as close as I could to a regular attendee to those shows. I went to two dozen cards in Mexico for major events. I anticipated that would be the style of the future in the U.S.”
Sadly, it never happened. WCW signed up the top Mexican talent, only to misuse them. Unable to properly market Lucha LIbre, talented stars such as Psicosis, La Parka and Silver King never got the push they deserved.
“I think the language is a barrier,” admitted Tenay. “I think there is something to be said for us not giving the Lucha Libre division the attention it deserves. Once it went to the status of the LWO, there was a perception that this was a copycat group that wasn’t necessarily being portrayed on the same level of the NWO.”
Tenay also feels that the proper use of the Mexican talent could help WCW turn things around today.
“If you go back to when Monday Nitro was on a roll and we were really dominating, those shows had a six-man Lucha match, a Rey Misterio Jr. match and I really feel that was a very important cog in WCW’s initial success with Nitro. I think there’s a correlation between the nosedive of WCW and when we stopped pushing the Mexicans.”
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Working as a full-time announcer is a demanding job. It means living out of your suitcase, sleeping in hotels and constant travel. It means a hectic work schedule that requires you to be away from your family. Tenay has managed to balance family and work life better than most.
“The grueling part of it is the travel. The travel aspect is the biggest grind of all. My wife deals with it pretty well. She’ll go through and cherry-pick my schedule and come up with fun cities and goes to one show every four to six weeks. It’s tough, but we manage.”
Making life a little easier is the fact that Mike’s wife has become friends with someone else who has experience being married to a wrestling announcer.
“The one thing that’s made it nice is Bobby Heenan and his wife moved to Atlanta shortly after we did and as you could imagine they have a lot in common and they’ve really hit it off well. My wife and Cindy Heenan have become very close.”
Mike’s on-air work is only a small part of his job. There’s countless hours of work that people never see.
“Sundays, I’m usually writing material for my Monday WCW hotline report. Monday and Tuesday I’m on the road at Nitro and Thunder. Wednesday I come into the office and do voice-over work. Thursday I set aside to take care of my paper work and prepare for future travel. Friday we do WCW Saturday Night voice overs. It’s a very full week but its great. It’s a fast-paced job.”
Even at its craziest time, Tenay loves his job.
“As I said to Bill Busch during the crisis with [Chris] Benoit leaving: ‘Bill there’s never a dull moment around here.’ That to me is the joy of the job. It’s never dull, there’s always a breaking a story.”
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Winding down my exhaustive interview, I ask him about his reputation.
Many hardcore wrestling fans think Mike Tenay is the best in the business. The professional way he conducts himself combined with his vast knowledge of wrestling history make him an easy choice for most fans. Tenay is one of the few in the business that can properly call a match, getting the performers in the ring over.
It’s this unmatched level of professionalism that has earned Tenay the recognition from fans.
Tenay sees things differently.
“I often times think I was pretty lucky when I started with WCW,” admitted Tenay. “They put me in that role as international commentator where I was calling a lot of Rey Misterio Jr. matches; matches that were often three stars to four stars better than the average match. I often think Rey Jr. made me or advanced my career.”
It was during his time spent as WCW’s International commentator that the underground wrestling press heralded Tenay as the poster boy for hardcore wrestling fans; as someone who represents real wrestling fans who were tired of face of the NWO and Hulk Hogan being pushed down our throats.
He was the voice of the people.
Again, in classic Mike Tenay fashion, he deflects the accolades, only concerned with the job at hand.
“What the reviews should have been were once that international match was on TV, did I do my best job to get those performers and that style over? I hope that I at least did that.”
Humble and modest to the very end.
It’s these traits that make him likable. Traits that make him the classiest guy in wrestling. Traits that make him, invariably, Mike Tenay.