It’s unfathomable that wrestling’s witchy woman is gone at only 49. That was one of her favorite 1970s songs, which went beyond describing the end product when her character’s makeup went on.
Everyone has a favorite Sherri Martel moment. I have more than a few.
How about when she got Lady Wrestler of the Year honors over a dozen years ago at the Cauliflower Alley Club when we still held them at the famous Sportsman’s Lodge in Los Angeles. She always said it was the first HOF-type honor she received and she never stopped gushing about it. She could out-drink and out-curse anyone as Jim Ross said, but she also could be soft-spoken and “a girly-girl” at home or relaxing away from the high stress of the business.
She had little fear or shame. Occurring that year separately at the Sportsman’s Lodge (a longtime hangout for Hollywood stars and athletes) was the filming of a movie with Hollywood elite actors Billy Bob Thornton, Laura Dern, Ted Danson and his wife Mary Steenbergen and country singer/actor Dwight Yoakum. Most wrestlers get a bit shy around stars of this caliber. But not Sherri. She grabbed me by the arm dragging me right up to them saying along the way “you’re gonna take a picture of me with every last one of them. You only get one chance in this life and I’m not blowing getting my photo with them.” And she wasn’t scary or sensational at this time, just ballsy and full of life.
She walked right up to each of them, interrupting whatever conversation they might be having with directors, grips or producers and say “I’m Sensational Sherri Martel, WWF women’s champion. Can you take a picture with me? I just love your work.” No one said no. I’m not sure if they were intimidated or charmed or a combination of both. But they all gave in. And then at the later dressy CAC awards ceremony, she wanted her picture taken with those in the biz she respected: June Byers, Penny Banner, Mae Weston, Mae Young, Cora Combs, wrestling great Teresa Thies (Ray Stevens wife who broke him into the business), and of course the boys that she respected like Verne Gagne, Billy Robinson, Lou Thesz, Gene Kiniski and more. She’d been a fan first, then came through wrestling the hard way with $25 paydays. She paid her dues. “I always knew this was what I’d be doing with my life,” she said in 2000 on my radio show. “Wrestling will always be the number one priority in my life. It was pretty tough the first few years, but I never thought about doing anything else.”
Prior to that year’s Saturday night big Cauliflower Alley Club awards banquet, Sherri called my room early that morning asking if I’d like to do something with her she’d never let anyone do before. “Come and document my getting ready for the magazines, from not a stick of makeup to the finished Sherri product.” She spent hours in the Sportsman’s Lodge Resort beauty salon having her hair done repeatedly by two guys, as well as a full manicure and pedicure. One other person just handled her make-up. She’d bought a sequined red evening gown. “It’s like one of the Nolan Miller designer gowns, I saw Joan Collins wearing on Dynasty. I wanted to look just like that getting my award.” So with her hair done up in a John Waters-esque beehive and trademark sparkling glitter and perfume sprayed all over her like Gorgeous George Wagner; she was finally done up and finished just minutes before the show started. And she didn’t disappoint on the microphone, giving a very similar wild confessional speech as the one she gave years later at WWE’s Hall of Fame ceremony honoring her last year. “Maybe I can use that expensive dress as a wedding thing if I ever get married again. Lord help me, but it cost a lot and I better put it to good use.”
At CAC, she had her famous red gown touched up with spider webs for that Scary Sherri look. “I don’t want to disappoint any of the fans here,” she said.
Sherri also was a huge music fan and hanging around her the past 20+ years revealed her CDs of The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Doors, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Heart and many country artists. As with Ric Flair — who she’d later be paired up with as his WCW manager — she loved talking about one of her passions: 1950s on up to 1970s music. Ric and Sherri have been amongst the most passionate music lovers in wrestling.
Only recently did she tell me that she’d “finally got off my duff and began watching UFC. It’s all over the TV. Those old boys are doing it for real, kicking each other’s ass. I LOVE IT!” she emailed.
She could always make me laugh. “If you want to get two people telling the absolute best wrestling stories, get me and Ric Flair in a room together and get the volume turned up. We’ll curl your toes. We’ve done it all, seen it all and started it all. The only thing I think I missed in this business were some of the supposed male groupies. Where were all the male rats hiding when I was in my prime?!”
Hearing the incredibly sad news of Sherri Martel Russell’s death also got me thinking back about driving her, Art Barr and Eddy Guerrero around to AAA gigs in California where she was managing them; it brought back a lot of fun memories. Sherri was new to AAA after leaving WWF and had never really competed as a female in Mexico all that much but “had a blast.” The backstage posed photos of her with AAA boss Anthony Pena, and with Art and Eddy, are hard to look at now. They’re all gone.
After a brief Puerto Rico appearance she told me about, she called my radio show and said, “It’s the most dangerous place on Earth to wrestle, Mikey. Those fans really believe and are the most intense. They’re just this short of crazy but I like old-school fans. They just absolutely react and get emotional when they should, and they absolutely hate the heels and love the babies (faces). I had lit M-80s, rocks doused in paper-wrapped and soaked in kerosene and lit on fire, just plain old rocks and bottles, dirt clods, everything thrown at me there. Now the fans still believed when I broke into the business and throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana the most they’d do is try to slap or hit you or out in the parking lot slash your tires. That’s why I always tried to ride with the boys. The other girls didn’t like that, but too bad. I’m not having my car or a rental car trashed because of some overly-aggressive fans!”
And now that all three ring geniuses are sadly gone reminds me on a few levels of the musical genius triumvirate of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all dying within a short period of time and how it equally devastated that very similar industry.
Sherri worked in every major American wrestling group (AWA, WWF, ECW, WCW, WWC) and nearly every indie, along with All Japan Women and the LIWA. Along the way, she came in contact with so many of the other needlessly-dead wrestlers from Owen Hart, Louie Spicolli, Gary Albright, Brian Pillman, Rhonda Singh, Rick Rude, Curt Hennig, The Public Enemy, Pitbull, Brian Hildebrand, Davey Boy Smith; their deaths all hit her hard. “I can’t believe they’re gone,” she’d always say. “Why couldn’t they have cleaned themselves up or was it their heart just pooping out after going through so much in the business? Why are we losing so many of my friends?” This makes her loss at only 49 among the hardest for me.
She was fearless in speaking her mind. When she heard that LPWA founder/owner Tor Berg had apparently phoned Jumping Bomb Angel Noriyo Tateno in March 1991 saying that he was now not going to use her, “so don’t bother coming to the U.S.,” Sherri was livid and went public. I was backstage with Noriyo at Korakuen Hall after one of the most elaborate All Japan Women retirement ceremonies they’d held up to that point. Noriyo had retired primarily — as she claimed — because she was excited Berg had promised her if she retired and came to the States, that she’d have a permanent job with his company. When she hung up the phone, she was devastated and crying amidst the tons of bouquets and family members including her parents in AJP’s press area dressing room. I phoned Sherri when I got back and she not only went public about Noriyo getting screwed over, but also tried to find her work and help out. Noriyo told me that Sherri going to bat for her meant a lot. Bambi, Judy Martin, Leilani Kai, Debbie Combs, Candy Devine, Brittney Brown and other friends of Sherri will attest to her backstage character and support of the business and those in it.
When she felt Debbie “Madusa” Micelli (Alundra Blayze in WWF) wasn’t holding her weight, misbehaving as a greenie or “just being a total bitch backstage with a big head,” she let everyone know about it. As tough a shootfighter from her AJW days herself as Debbie was, I don’t think you messed with Sherri once you were aware she was angry with you. While Micelli’s biggest U.S. heat undoubtedly came from and with her behind-the-scenes drama with Luna Vachon, Sherri also gave it to Madusa “when she deserved an ass-kicking.” However, Sherri was quick to compliment her rival as well: “When things were done the way they’re supposed to be done. She’s just green but very talented, and didn’t know the protocol around here,” she said.
And Sherri was so quick-witted when she was on. Once when she was forced to change right with the guys in a Tijuana locker room, she’d heard rumors that another famous female wrestler was a bit loose. “Loose? Honey, that girl has call-waiting on her IUD!”
I once asked her how her dual gigs as a champion wrestler and manager in the AWA first came about and she said she patterned it in part after one of her old idols in Roddy Piper. “But I didn’t book it or anything. I presented it to them and they wanted to maximize their use of me since Verne really didn’t have fulltime females on camera for him in the AWA before this. And Piper as early as 1976 Los Angeles was both the top area champion and managed other wrestlers since he was so gifted on the mike. I wanted to be like that too. I’ve never thought,’Hey, I’m a girl, I can’t do this, or it’s for guys.’ Never thought like that. And no one tells me no!”
Sherri was “a natural from early on” on the stick with her scream and determined promos and became the first in the AWA to work as both women’s world champion but equally managing the world tag champs in “Playboy” Buddy Rose and “Pretty Boy” Doug Somers. “When I went to the WWF after that and what Vince saw in me there working for Verne, I knew I’d finally arrived. I’d worked all over the world before that and was amongst the last of a dying territory breed of females still left and hitting the WWF was like a dream for me. I was soon put with Fabulous Moolah and got the belt after all the stuff with Wendi Richter. And I think Vince liked how I carried and presented myself and had me manage Teddy (Dibiase), Randy (Savage) and so many others. When I managed Flair in the WCW against Hulk Hogan and Hogan would destroy me every match around the country; we were on top of the world too.”
Sherri didn’t get to do as much wrestling in WCW, but she did have a memorable turn managing Harlem Heat as “Sister Sherri.” She said on my radio show last year soon after being inducted into WWE’s hall of fame, “if the noun or verb starts with an S, I’ve probably had it. Even when I was a kid, I was known as ‘Skinny Sherri’ at school. Have I ever told you that I got into a lot of fights there?”
After some kind of altercation in WCW or accident, she chipped an upper molar and came into my downtown dentist office to have it fixed. Her in the waiting room was a site. Another time, she, Harlem Heat and Sonny Onno did an appearance at a Planet Hollywood opening, playing Nintendo computer games most of the time for an affiliated promotion there. She was always the life of whatever event and wherever she was with loaded personality and enthusiasm.
She added, “getting honored with plaques at Cauliflower Alley and the Ladies Legends Association were great accomplishments for me, but when I was first called and told I’d be honored by the WWE hall of fame, I went to the moon. I was so excited. Just like when I first got the gig there. I hope I didn’t get too carried away, I know I went a little crazy up at that little old podium up there when I got my award. But you know, that’s just me! I’m just glad they never got the hook out or anything to drag me off the stage. And you know WWF and PWI magazine gave me awards for manager of the year. I think I’m the only female to ever get honored in that way. Only men managers had been awarded before that. So those were also big deals for me.”
At one of the most incredible classic ECW events ever, the 1994 November To Remember, Sherri managed Shane Douglas and Brian Pillman (a sub for Steve Austin) against Ron Simmons and Two Cold Scorpio in the main event. Prior to her “double-crossing” Pillman and showing her support for Flair, she had me take photos of her backstage, artfully embossing a temporary hidden (until it came time to “double cross and pledge allegiance to Dick Flair”) photo tattoo of Flair encrusted in a large red heart on her chest with the usual Sherri sprinkly sparkles all over it and her. (And Sherri had an incredible chest she wasn’t afraid to show it!) But without all the showbiz makeup, she was very pretty and professed to eventually wanting a simple, quiet homespun life after her time in wrestling. That doesn’t sound like Sherri, but any of her friends will attest to that. Her wild son didn’t allow for too much of that once he hit age 12, and she moved around Kentucky quite a bit until moving to be near OVW where she thought she was told by Jim Cornette that she would have a job as a trainer. “After I moved, uprooted and everything, I found out that the deal fell through. Oh well. But I was happy to be someplace quiet and different and made the best of it as I always have. I love Jimmy and never had a cross word with him. He’s a genius, one of the few in wrestling other than Vince [McMahon]. So I thought at that time, I’d finally start my autobiography and then hell, open my own wrestling school there like Moolah and Mae [Young] had down in Columbia, South Carolina.”
As with many other of her long-time friends of 20 years or more, at various times in her life when things were tough for her or between big company jobs, we’d all get those late-night Sherri calls when she was incoherent over the phone. But at other times, we’d also get her calls from wherever in the world she was when yet another mutual friend in the biz died. She was clear-headed then, devastated with each death and vowed it would never happen to her. She had her share of tragedies and often complained about her son often being “too out-of-control for her to handle.” At this point, we’re still not sure what the cause of death is. But we can all agree, Sherri left us far too young.
Later, after various soured relationships, and two years ago at Rob Russen’s first and biggest Legends Reunion in Tampa, Florida, Sherri brought her brand new husband to show off. “He’s the best man I’ve ever found and believe me, I’ve been through some bad ones. But he’s helped me stabilize my life and I’m in the best emotional shape I’ve ever been in,” she told me. She’d often call to let me know her new contacts whenever she moved.
And over the past three years she’d nagged me to read and help edit what she’d come up with for a planned autobiography. Always nagging me to send more pictures of her for it. “C’mon Mikey, you’ve taken more pictures of me than anyone else on the planet. Cough ’em up!” I still have some of those voicemails thankfully. She never missed sending a birthday and Christmas card and often would send “Scary Sherri” photos of herself in Halloween cards. “I’m one of the biggest holiday marks just like Cactus [Mick Foley] … I love every holiday just like a little kid.”
Sherri might not have lived as long as we all would’ve wished for her; but she tried to live every day completely seized to its fullest as you’d expect from someone who was “Sensational.”
The last time I had her on my radio show, I asked her if she could compare herself to anyone. “I like to think I’m sort of a Chris Evert mixed in with Lucille Ball and some Buddy Rogers in there. I just keep on ticking. Like that Energizer Bunny TV ad, I keep on going and going and going. I’ve had a lot of great years in the business, and know there’s more in store for me.”