Ever wonder what happens when you throw together reality television, professional wrestling, two competing celebrity teams and trainers topped off by some top industry counterparts as judges? Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Championship Wrestling, of course. Eric Bischoff, Jimmy Hart and Brian Knobs shared their experiences working on the show.
“We felt that we had a great idea to marry reality format with professional wrestling,” explained Bischoff, a co-creator and judge, over the phone from California. “Reality television is a proven model that’s been working for a long time and wrestling is also a proven model that has been working well for a long time, so we thought it would be a great idea to marry those two forms of entertainment, those two formats, and come up with something that would be different for the wrestling audience.
“My business partner (Jason Hervey) and I came up with idea for the show. It was really more my partner’s idea than my own to be honest. It’s something we had been thinking about, talking about, for about a year and a half. We never really got too serious about it honestly, because we knew that in order for it to work, we had to have the right personalities involved in it, and Hulk Hogan we knew would be the absolute best person for the project, but Hulk was tied up with Hogan Knows Best and had a lot of other commitments that made it impossible for him to really be involved.
“Then last year, when it became pretty obvious to all of us that Hulk was no longer going to continue with Hogan Knows Best, we brought up the idea, he got excited about it, so Hulk, Jason and I kind of sat down, tweaked the creative a little bit and came up with some great ideas for it, and cast the right people for it and off we went. So to make a long story short, about a year and a half in the making.”
Why were Brian Knobs and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake chosen as team trainers?
“I think more than anything it was familiarity, at least initially,” replied Bischoff. “We knew that nobody had ever done a show like this before and it was important that we were working with people that we knew quite honestly that we could depend on, and would be flexible and contribute, and quite honestly help us figure this thing out because nobody had taken 10 celebrities that knew nothing about professional wrestling for the most part and within a very short amount of time get them at least close to be ring ready for our purposes, so it was very important that the chemistry was right between all of the individuals.
“I’ve known Brian Knobs since my first day in professional wrestling 20 years ago, and I’ve certainly worked a lot with Brutus, and it was important that Hulk was comfortable with the wrestling personalities that were involved in the show, so I think it was much driven by chemistry and familiarity and dependability as anything. But the truth is, once we got going, it became real obvious to us that Brian in particular, and Brutus to a large degree, were great characters for the show. We probably couldn’t have picked anybody better.”
This isn’t the first time this concept has been explored, with shows like Tough Enough, and Hogan Knows Best having showed viewers a snapshot of the wrestling lifestyle. Exposed! Pro Wrestling’s Greatest Secrets, a 1998 NBC TV special featuring masked wrestlers broke down the curtain in previously unheard of detail that turned out to be an embarrassment for all involved. However times have changed, with reality TV and the internet both powerful influences on each other. With Celebrity Championship Wrestling, the idea of celebrities — many of whom dislike or do not understand professional wrestling — learning professional wrestling in tough conditions may appeal to a broad number of fans and viewers who can identify and follow along with a student’s initial path of misunderstanding and skepticism to a more informative and respectful one.
It also could be a cross marketing bonanza, for everyone involved.
“Our show is a competition elimination format, where we have two teams of five, and they hang out, they kind of work out together as a team, they compete,” explained Bischoff. “The team that has the best match is freed from elimination, meaning they get immunity for the night. The team that has the lesser quality match in the opinion of the judges, they’re forced to pick two people off their team to wrestle in front of the judges and the person who has the better match, the better performance, gets to stay.
“The person who had the performance that was in the eyes of the judges not as good gets eliminated from the series. So it’s a competition elimination format, it’s not like we re-invented the wheel there, but I think we did reinvent the way wrestling is being presented right now,” he reasoned.
“What you see is really what you get,” added “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, a judge on the show. “Nobody was in the ring where the cameras stopped and went, ‘Oh! Wait a minute! Let’s take this over again.’ The cameras rolled 24-7. And there was nobody in the room going, ‘Hey, we want you to be a little bit more this or be a bit more that.’ Like I said, it was like a real training session for the celebrities and they got in there and they took their bumps and bruises, and sure there were some speed bumps in the way. There were some ups and downs, and some of the feelings got hurt from time to time on what everybody had to say about them, but you know that’s part of everyday life but overall, I thought they did a tremendous job.
“A lot of things that used to be no-no to talk about have already been talked about and mentioned,” Hart said alluding to some of the previous shows mentioned earlier.
“I think once you put the word entertainment up there, I think it says it all.”
The show has become something of a curiosity for some within the industry, with Jim Ross recently expressing high hopes in his blog. SLAM! Wrestling also recently spoke to former WWE ‘Eugene’ star and current OVW trainer Nick Dinsmore who also did the same. “I think that any kind of publicity for pro wrestling is good publicity. As long they get your name right, that’s what they always say,” Dinsmore said. “I think it’s a good premise. I grew up in the kayfabe era where we don’t let anybody in, but that’s kind of out the door now, so I hope in some respect they try to keep the man behind the curtain as far as what we do, but if they don’t, it seems that everything that Hogan does in wrestling pretty much turns to gold, so I hope it does well. It’s just another avenue for pro wrestling to get into mainstream entertainment.”
Bischoff could not recall any particular celebrities who turned down the show but discussed some initial snafus in the beginning stages. “There may have been a couple (of celebrities who declined to appear on the show) early on, and one of the biggest challenges we had — there were two actually. Not many celebrities were all that enthusiastic about getting in the ring and having the potential of getting hurt quite honestly. That other issue and it was a bigger issue and that was just scheduling. For anybody to take 30 days out of their lives and devote it to nothing but producing a reality show is a big commitment for most people that are working in the business at any level. So there may have been one or two people that we tried to schedule that just couldn’t work around their schedule or vice-versa, but for the most part the cast came together pretty easily, and we couldn’t have been happier with the cast quite honestly.”
And the cast does involve plenty of people who at one time embodied the term mainstream entertainment, though they may not be “A-listers” today: Diff’rent Strokes star Todd Bridges, Screetch from Saved by the Bell Dustin Diamond, retired NBA star Dennis Rodman, boxer Butterbean, Partridge Family member Danny Bonaduce, singer and actor Frank Stallone who is Sylvester’s brother, Erin Murphy, who played little Tabitha Stevens in the classic show Bewitched, Real World: Las Vegas member and Playboy model Trishelle Cannatella, ’80s American pop star Tiffany, and former Price is Right game show model Nikki Zeiring.
Unquestionably a diverse group of individuals, which leads to who was the one big surprise, for better or for worse, of the show?
“That’s a good question and I don’t know that any one person was the biggest surprise. I think they all the celebrities surprised us a great deal,” Bischoff said thoughtfully. “We had fairly low expectations of them when we started the show, and the truth is they were so committed and they worked so hard that by the fourth episode, even in the first episode, quite honestly we were shocked at what they were able to put together. Because in the first episode they had only really had not even a day and a half’s worth of training, so to be able to put together anything that resembles a wrestling match after a day and a half’s worth of training was really really quite impressive, and they not only put together matches that resembled a wrestling match, they actually put together some pretty entertaining stuff, so from that point of view every one of them surprised us quite honestly.”
Both Hart and Knobs agreed on Todd Bridges as being especially noteworthy. “I’ll tell you, Todd Bridges kind of surprised me a lot,” said Knobs. “I mean, nobody would think he was that athletic but he was really athletic. He’s got some maneuvers on him, I’ll tell you that. And with the women, Erin Murphy. She’s has six kids, I think she’s 40, she surprised me, The guts she put on there and she was in there busting her butt, she surprised me.” Asked if Murphy was a fan beforehand, Knobs confirmed that she was not. “She knew nothing about wrestling. She had no idea, no clue.”
Rodman is remembered for his involvement with the WCW approximately 12 years ago and both Bischoff and Knobs had some interesting observations about the five-time NBA champion. “The amount of training that Dennis had before was so limited, not only was it 10 or 12 years ago, but he probably only trained for maybe half a day or a day, so it wasn’t like he had an arsenal of skills and a repertoire of wrestling maneuvers under his belt,” said Bischoff.
“Dennis certainly understood it a little bit more and understood the basics from having being exposed to it before, but he didn’t really have as big as an advantage as people would think that he did in terms of his previous experience,” Bischoff elaborated. “Where Rodman really has the advantage and this is probably true in anything that he ever decided he wanted to do athletically is he’s just a phenomal athlete. Phil Jackson said it recently that in his opinion of all the Bulls — including Michael Jordan — all the players that Phil Jackson had a chance to ever coach, Kobe Bryant or otherwise, that Dennis Rodman is the most gifted athlete of them all. So for Dennis, anything that had to do with athletics comes pretty easy for him.”
Knobs let it fly on his observations on Rodman and some of the other students.
“Now, he’s (Rodman) been in the ring before, so he’s learned,” he added. “But sometimes when he was playing in the NBA and had those matches, he learned on the fast course. Now he had to take a step back and learn everything the right way what we taught him. He was really out there and he was hurting a lot of people in the beginning. He was really stiffing everybody and a couple of people got hurt. So, broken ribs, some torn-out shoulders.
“Dustin Diamond had it right from the start. He was a wrestling fan. He had to work a little bit on his kicks and that, but he had the concept already down,” Knobs observed. “A guy that’s been there, watching the matches since he was a little kid, he knew the game. He was the bad guy because of being on the Celebrity Fit Club and causing all that ruckus he did on those two seasons he was on, people didn’t like him right from the start. They hated his guts. They booed him right out of the building.
“Then you have Butterbean who is a professional boxer, and he’s also been in the ring before. You had a couple guys that knew the game and even Bonaduce who’s been in the celebrity boxing, kind of knew the premise of pro wrestling. Some of the others had no clue. But I’ll tell you, when they got down to learn on the mat when we taught then, Beefcake and I, we showed them the right way and they found out how hard professional wrestling really is. They have a bound respect for our business now and I have to admit that everyone busted their butt to be the best because everybody wanted to go home and be the CCW heavyweight champion.
“Everybody learned how to be a professional wrestler from wearing gimmicks, to how to talk, to being a babyface or the heel; it was really an unbelievable experience. And me being in the business 22 years, I didn’t know how this was going to come out. And I’ll tell you, the very first episode, the very first match when I went out there and I saw what they did, I was amazed,” Knobs noted.
It was not a cakewalk for the trainers. A lot of heavy lifting was required to help the students catch on quickly and correctly, as they had only a week to learn various techniques so they could be applied at the next taping and test match. If the students didn’t look good, they didn’t look good.
“For the first two weeks [I was] bruised up and my wife, Toni, said to me, ‘Why are you bruised up? You are the coach,'” recalled Knobs. “I said because we had to teach them, teach them the right way. I learned back in the day from Brad Rheingans, AWA, Verne Gagne camp back in 1985, and Brad Rheingans was an NCAA champion. And we went through his school back in the day, and it was a five-six month school. None of these two months and you’re out on the road already. You learned respect, you learned how to condition, you learned how to do the moves the right way. When we were in Minnesota for about three years, Saggs and I, we helped Brad run his camp. So it was real good for me to get back and now teach what I was taught a long time ago and I had the knowledge of how to teach these guys the right way to things, the correct way to do the moves and do them right. I didn’t think at first the celebrities knew what they signed up for. But after the first week they were all hurting.
“There were some injuries, there were some serious injuries, you just have to tune in and watch, but they found out how hard professional wrestling really is and all of them busted their ass and I’m telling you the truth, when you see these matches, they’re as good as the matches on the WWE right now, that the professionals have been doing for a long time and these guys only had a week, one week of work to do the particular match. ”
Some special guests came in to help out including former WCW and WWE star Bill Goldberg and ECW and WWE alumnus Rob Van Dam.
“Frank Stallone, now I know why he’s the other brother,” Knobs laughed. “He had to start from the beginning too. Nikki Zierling had no clue about wrestling; I grabbed her from the back of her head to put her head in the turnbuckle and she yelled to me and said, ‘I got hair extensions, I got hair extensions.’ I looked at her and said, ‘There are no hair extensions in pro wrestling, honey.’ Boom! Her head off the turnbuckle,” he laughed again.
When it came to the question of the biggest pain, Knobs again referred to Mr. Take-You-Back.
“There were a couple of them. I have to admit Frank Stallone was out there a little bit. He drove a lot of people nuts. If he wasn’t shadowboxing and saying he boxed with Joe Frazier. You’ll have to tune in and see what his gimmick turned out to be at the very end. I think the gimmick fit him very well. Wait until Sly sees it,” he said laughing yet again.
“Frank Stallone is one hell of a character and I’m talking off camera.”
While they were having fun, Knobs and Beefcake made sure that while the students did not have to like professional wrestling, they were going to come out with a healthy respect for the artform that transcended bars and bingo halls to arenas and stadiums and buttered their bread for over two decades.
“That’s what blew my mind. I’ve been in this business 22 years. Brutus has been it maybe 30 years. Hulk’s been in, Eric Bischoff, Jimmy Hart,” Knobs said seriously. “There is no way I’m going out to teach these celebrities that when they came in, some of them took it a little bit as a joke. But when they knew how serious we were, I wasn’t going to let nobody come in the business I’ve been in for 22 years, and try to destroy or make fun of the business I respect and I hold a great honour for to even be in it for 22 years, and come and make a mockery of it. That wasn’t going to happen. So they learned right away from day one that there was going to be no bull happening. Beefer wasn’t going to be handling any of that crap, and neither was Brian Knobs. And they went through hell. They went through hell and back, I’m telling you.”
When the subject turned to possible expansion into a full-blown promotion, Bischoff emphasized an incremental approach. “As it relates to starting a quote unquote ‘starting a promotion’ or ‘expanding our business,’ it’s something that we have certainly talked about, it’s certainly something we’ve explored, something that we’ve thought through quite a bit. But it’s really premature at this point,” he cautioned. “I think we’re taking a wait and see approach and if the show does as well as we hope that it’s going to do on the network, then yeah, we’ll more than likely get serious about talking about ways of getting into the wrestling business in a more conditional sense, but in terms of it being green-lit and all that, that’s a little bit premature.”
Knobs was a little more optimistic. “Well, I say that the needle is very strong and positive that the CCW is going to be formed to be a league of the future, to be competitive with.that I know people would come out to see it, because we had packed houses. Wrestling has been around a long time, now you only have the WWE out there and TNA is kind of milling around. I like the guys that are busting their ass down there because I respect everybody that’s in the professional wrestling business, but let’s face it. Vince McMahon is going to be taking a double look at CCW because after this airs, it is going to be on the rise, and everybody’s is going to know that this is the real deal.”
Hart mentioned that several selections of his music will be used for the upcoming CCW music soundtrack, although he is currently not sure which ones will appear. Hart, who has collaborated to produce some of the more memorable WWE and WCW themes — such as Shawn Michaels’ “Sexy Boy” or “The Wolfpak Theme” for Kevin Nash and Scott Hall — always thought of himself as the Weird Al Yankovic of wrestling in terms of the songs he did had a central theme that helped get the wrestler’s persona over, much like his contemporary’s parody themes, which established the singer and became his calling card.
“Just to have the opportunity to be with Eric and Hulk, being a judge on this particular show, I’m very excited about it and very grateful to be able to do it and so glad they thought enough of me to be a part of that,” said Hart. “Because you’ve got somebody who ran a major wrestling company for X amount of years with Eric and his expertise. Then you’ve got Hulk Hogan, of course, one of the biggest names if not ever in professional wrestling. And then Jimmy Hart, who’s managed 23 or 24 of some of the biggest names in the business. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good,” he said half-jokingly.
“It really made me realize me how much Brian Knobs and Brutus really knew about the wrestling business,” he continued. “When we were traveling back in the ’80s, all of us, of course, I was managing Brutus and Hulk as the MegaManiacs and Knobs and Saggs as The Nasty Boys, we’d go to the matches, and after we’d get through, maybe eat out or something, it was that type deal. But I think all of them had really brought a lot to the table this time and it just goes to show you, don’t send us any flowers, because we ain’t dead yet baby,” he said in classic Mouth of the South swagger.
Asked what he learned from the show, Bischoff offered a number of personal insights. “Well, you learn a little bit every time you do something different and this was certainly a different kind of a show for us to do,” he began. “I learned a lot about the celebrities we worked with, everybody was very very committed. I think when we do Season Two — assuming there is a Season Two, we’re very hopeful that there will be — I think that we learned so much now how to produce the show in terms of scheduling and our expectations in terms of what the talent is going to be able to learn that I know is going to be a lot easier. Somebody gave me the analogy when we were producing the show that our first series was not only we had to invent the automobile but we had to invent the assembly line to make the automobile on. It was a big challenge, but we got it pretty well figured out and we’re actually chomping at the bit for season two.”
Editors Note: Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Championship Wrestling premieres tonight, Saturday, October 18, at 8 p.m. ET on the CMT channel in the United States. A Canadian clearance has not been announced.
- Mar. 3, 2009: Actor Todd Bridges makes a good showing in pro debut
- Oct. 31, 2008: Fighting, not reality TV, comes easy to Butterbean
- Oct. 24, 2008: Murphy bewitched by Hogan’s wrestling show
- Oct. 10, 2008: Celebrity Championship Wrestling a debacle and then some