ORLANDO, Fl. — During the glory days of the ’80s and ’90s, managers were a staple in pro wrestling. Often, managers were just as entertaining as some of the wrestlers that they counseled; sometimes, even moreso. Though they’ve declined in numbers in recent years, TNA Wrestling’s Sinister Minister, James Mitchell, believes they can still play an effective role today.
“I think managers are missing from wrestling now,” he told SLAM! Wrestling at a recent taping of TNA Impact in Orlando. “I think something has been missing compared to the old days when you had guys like Jim Cornette and Paul Heyman out there, or even further when you had the guys like Gary Hart and the Grand Wizard. They were all colourful characters that were able to add sizzle to the steak, and that’s something that’s missing now. There are a lot of guys who could use a mouthpiece, and that’s something that’s been out of the equation for some time. If I’m proud of anything in my career, such at it is, it’s that I’m one of the last ones remaining.”
Indeed, while TNA features Mitchell, “Coach” Scott D’Amore and, until very recently, Jimmy Hart, in managerial roles, and managers are still found occasionally on the independent scene, there are none to be seen on WWE television, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, the company has tended to use its Divas more and more to accompany wrestlers to the ring. Mitchell doesn’t necessarily agree with that approach.
“Unfortunately, with a handful of exceptions, most of the girls (that have been used recently) are as proportionately as bad on the microphone as they were beautiful in front of the camera. While the (sexuality) will keep people tuned in, it doesn’t necessarily further the storylines,” he said.
For Mitchell, his ability to cut promos, in order to hype the matches and feuds that his charges are involved in, is his key strength. It’s a skill that got his foot in the door in the industry, and has kept him in business for many years now.
“I lied, conned, and swindled my way into wrestling,” he admitted. “When I was trying to break into the business, it was right on the cusp of letting everybody know that it was a work. Back then, in the late ’80s, if you weren’t born into it, it was real hard. You couldn’t just go get in to a ‘power plant’ like you could later on like in the boom of 1996 through 2000. I literally went out and called promoters, lying and claiming to have more experience than I did — which was zero at the time — and just (finagled) my way in. I had to learn along the way.”
Unlike many people who wanted to get into wrestling, Mitchell’s passion was not to be an in-ring performer, but rather his desire was to be the brains behind the brawn.
“I wanted to be a wrestler when I was a little kid, and then realized I wasn’t going to be big enough. I’m a guy who likes to make evil faces and yell at people, and what better job description could you have for a professional wrestling manager?”
He toiled on the independent scene for a few years, first in the Carolinas and in Virginia before making his way to Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion, and then WCW as James Vandenberg where he spent three years (“but only used on television for one of them — the rest of the time, I was paid to stay home and do nothing”). He joined ECW shortly thereafter, where he gained a lot of popularity as the Sinister Minister, managing the team of Mikey Whipwreck and Tajiri. His time in ECW, Mitchell recalls fondly, was particularly enjoyable.
“I had more fun in ECW than I’ve ever had, up until now. Paul Heyman was a great motivator, and I bought into it hook, line, and sinker. You’ve heard people say that they drank Paul’s Kool-Aid. I never drank his Kool-Aid, in fact I didn’t even let him mix it; I yanked the package out of his hand, ripped it open, and snorted it. I was ECW all the way. It was a lot of fun, and I was sad to see it go.”
Now in TNA, Mitchell is having more fun as the manager of the monstrous Abyss. It’s a perfect fit, Mitchell says, as he sees this combination as a throwback to the glory days of wrestling.
“Being paired with Abyss is something I wanted to happen since the day he debuted in TNA. I grew up watching guys like Gary Hart or the Grand Wizard bring in the monster of the month, some huge badass guy who was really mysterious and didn’t talk, and the manager got to do the spiel. This is as close as I’ve ever got to that in my career, and so I’m really excited.”
His excitement is visibly apparent when watching Mitchell fire off one of his always great promos. His interviews are always intense, energetic, and often filled with eerie dark imagery. As a result, people frequently assume he’s playing a Satanic priest, or paying homage to Kevin Sullivan, who played up the demonic aspect of his character. While Mitchell sees some similarities, he is quick to dismiss that he drew on Sullivan as an inspiration.
“People draw those parallels all the time, but I actually never saw Sullivan doing the angle (where he was possessed by the devil) at the time. I read about it in wrestling magazines, but I didn’t get Florida wrestling on TV, so I never saw it. I actually went and saw it a few years ago,” Mitchell said. “He did a lot of neat things, stuff that was really ground-breaking and controversial for its time. But I don’t think you can do that now. For starters, there’s no such things as black magic and dark powers and all that (malarkey) like hypnotizing people and all that. I’ve always tried to leave it a bit open-ended. I’m not going to tell people that I’m the Devil and I’m going to take their soul. I think I keep it a little more reality-based than Sullivan did.”
Rather, Mitchell drew on other sources for his inspiration, most notably the monster magazines and comic books that he grew up reading.
“As a kid, I used to get in trouble in kindergarten and first grade, because when all the other kids were playing astronaut or cowboys, I was out there pretending I was the Wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein. I was obsessed with comic book supervillains like the Green Goblin and the Joker. You can see where my character is influenced by the evil mastermind character. I used to read a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland that always had a cover picture of a guy with a scowling face, which is something that I’ve incorporated into my act. I’m fairly devilish, yes, but I’m more of a trickster. I’m more like Bugs Bunny in a red suit, as opposed to some guy killing cats and drinking their blood, or any of the (nonsense) you see in a Hollywood movie about the Devil. I approach it so that people can leave it up to their own imaginations.”
If people are going to try to connect him to anything devilish, it’s only when people tell him that he’s “a hell of a singer.” Yes, it may be hard to believe, but when Mitchell isn’t entertaining TNA’s with his screaming and shouting at Abyss’ next victim, he’s entertaining tourists at Orlando resorts with his crooning the standards.
“I sing at resorts,” Mitchell explained. “I (sing at) resorts over by Disney, (doing) about ten shows a week. I sing a lot of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett numbers. I do a lot of older rock and roll in the vein of the Blues Brothers, and the Memphis Horns. Pretty much after all the years of smoking and drinking and screaming that I did in wrestling, my voice is left sounding like a pasty amalgam of Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, and industrial chainsaw. It’s funny, because all these old ladies at these resorts think I’m going to go up there and sing Black Sabbath or something. The contrast of what I look like and what I go up there and actually sing is a great hook. They don’t expect me to go up there and sing Chances Are by Johnny Mathis.”
For Mitchell, the singing gigs are a natural extension to his job with TNA, since it’s just a different type of performing. The opportunity to entertain people, regardless of the channel, is what he lives for.
“Any sort of performing, for me, doesn’t seem like work. Working for TNA, every day I’m thankful that I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to answer to anyone. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been at any point in my career. Everything is just falling into place.”