“I think I’m long past changing,” proclaimed Jim Cornette to SLAM! Wrestling at a recent TNA television taping. “I figure she’s crazy if she thinks I’m going to change after having known me this long!”
“She,” of course, is Cornette’s new bride Stacey, known on the independent wrestling scene by the name of Synn. The two married in October 2007, but the changes in Jim Cornette over the last few years have not just been limited to marital status; in fact, his entire role in wrestling has largely changed, having gone from being an owner/booker in Ohio Valley Wrestling, to simply a television personality and occasional backstage advisor in Nashville. Before talking about the goings-on in TNA, he told us a little about his role in the company.
“On-screen, I’m not the guy who sells the tickets, I’m the guy who instigates the guys who sell the tickets,” he said, in the unique quick-talking manner to which we’ve all become accustomed. “I do basically what I’ve always done best — stirring people up and then letting them fight.
“Behind the scenes, I like to think with my experience over the years I am able to help the production crew shoot the matches better, because I kind of know what to expect. And from a dressing room standpoint, I can hopefully lend some experience to some of the younger guys, because after my many, many decades in the wrestling business, I know a bit about what works and what doesn’t work.
“I stick my hand in here and there creatively, but part of my new program for professional wrestling is trying to stay away from that end. After 15 straight years, I said to myself, ‘I believe I’ll leave that to the other folks.’ It can drive you crazy, or at least enough to make you pass for crazy. I try to be a kinder, gentler person than the old Jim Cornette; my blood pressure is way down these days and I want to keep it that way.”
Back in the days of the Cornette’s WWF run — during which he managed the late triumvirate of Davey Boy Smith, Owen Hart, and Yokozuna — Cornette’s life wasn’t always as pleasant. Living in Connecticut, working to Vince McMahon’s “sleep is the enemy” timetable, and having to deal with Vince Russo were all contributing factors, and one wondered whether Cornette’s dislike of the latter from previous years, would hinder any creative relationship that they may have in TNA. But although he quickly moved on to praise other well-known people within the company, it doesn’t appear that their past — which included Cornette once leaving a foul-mouthed, promo-style message on Russo’s home answering machine — has been an issue. That said, Russo wasn’t a subject he was prepared to dwell on, either.
“Vince Russo and I have not had crossed words since he’s been here. I didn’t say we don’t think them — maybe we just don’t speak them! But there are so many other folks in TNA that I would love to praise,” he joked. “Mick Foley, for example, is tremendous. I’ve known Mick for 20 years, and I think he’s one of the biggest talents in the history of the business. And you know, everyone says, ‘Oh this guy gets ahead, and he’s a real asshole,’ but Mick Foley at least is proof that nice guys can finish first, because as Buddy Rogers would have said 50 years ago, ‘to a nicer guy, it couldn’t happen.’
“Then there’s Booker T, Kurt Angle, Scott Steiner, Sting — the entire Main Event Mafia I have known for 20 years. They bring a world of experience, but then also the young guys like Samoa Joe, A.J. Styles, the Motor City Machineguns, with those guys I think we have a great talent roster, a great cross-section of folks, and even in the office and behind the scenes we have Jeff Jarrett and Dutch Mantell, whom I’ve known for 20 or 30 years. So I’m really excited about the roster we’ve got, and the acquisitions we’ve made.
“Every time somebody gets fed up having anybody named McMahon in their life, they should come to TNA, because they can actually enjoy going to work. I think that will continue to happen more and more often as Vince is nice enough to piss people off, and make them miserable, and make them want to go some place where they can be happy. That’s TNA. And I’ll be here with the welcome wagon, because believe me, there’s no better feeling in professional wrestling than to have no-one named McMahon in your life. Stay away from the reach of the mighty McMahon!”
One performer who no doubt would have concurred upon his own WWE exit is Kurt Angle. With the lines of fantasy and reality blurring somewhat in Angle’s current storyline with Jeff Jarrett, there has been some speculation that Angle — much like Christian Cage — will end up back in New York, perhaps for one final run. Since Angle’s arrival in TNA, Cornette has been impressed.
“Kurt Angle has been tremendous here, and I think it opened up a lot of people’s eyes that TNA was for real,” he said. “You’ve got a guy who was an Olympic Gold medallist, who was the best amateur wrestler in the world, who was arguably the best professional wrestler in the world, so when he joined the company, it woke people up and opened their eyes.
“The matches that he has been able to have with everyone from Samoa Joe to Abyss — that incredible match they had just a couple of months ago — Kurt can wrestle anybody’s style. He has great matches with almost everybody. He’s a throwback to the days of the travelling NWA champion, where you faced a different guy every night, and you had to be up on your game and their game. You know, Kurt doesn’t just wrestle one style of match, he takes it to the challenger.”
Never more was that concept exemplified than in the vaunted MMA-style (or should we say, UWFI style?) match against Samoa Joe at Lockdown 2008. This writer’s pick for North American Match of the Year, the bout had an in-ring build like few others of this era, making its final moments all the more dramatic in the process. The former manager of the Midnight Express was inclined to agree.
“I thought that that match was the best that I have seen in a number of years. To me, it was what World Championship contests in professional wrestling ought to be, and also, with its MMA influence, it was so vastly different to what everyone else is doing in the business these days. I think they were ahead of the curve on that one, and sooner or later in wrestling I think you will see World Championship matches being contested in that fashion, if you can find two guys as good as Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle. Whether you can do that is another story.
“UFC and MMA is really professional wrestling from 100 years ago. Unfortunately they have been able to present our business better than anyone in our business can present our business! Everything that they are doing came from wrestling. But it’s the circle; wrestling will pick back up from UFC and MMA, the things that it used to do 100 years ago, and will present them as new to our wrestling fans. NBC used to have a slogan: ‘If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you,’ and that was their way to sell re-runs. Well we can do the same thing that wrestling did 50 or 100 years ago, and then we can act like we just thought of it.”
Also particularly notable about the Lockdown World Title affair was the sports-like build-up that TNA presented, in order to convince fans that both competitors were taking the bout as seriously as anything else they had ever trained for. The vignettes worked, with Lockdown reputedly the best-selling TNA pay-per-view of all-time. So it was quite the surprise, then, that having achieved a tremendous success with a more serious main event tone, that the company quickly reverted back to its more humourous ways of building up matches. Entrenched in classic wrestling’s traditions, Cornette couldn’t help but agree that something was awry.
“It does seem a little odd that this is the way things happened. And I would comment further except for the fact that several armed gunmen are here with 44-calibre pistols pointed at my head (laughs). I have to do TV tonight and it would be hard with bullets in my brain.
“You know, I’ll be the first to admit that the style of wrestling that I like may not be everyone else’s cup of tea, but gosh, when you do, it seems that more often that not, it sells tickets! It’s amazing how that works.”
Having been consistently in the 1.0 range since Impact’s expansion to two hours in October 2007, TNA officials were said to be delighted with the news that the December 4, 2008 Impact program garnered a new record 1.2 rating, for a total of 1.8 million viewers. But while there was initial happiness on the part of everyone involved, Cornette was quick to point out that no-one is planning to rest on their laurels. In fact, he believes the company should have its sights set on making a major dent in the ratings gap between TNA and WWE, the latter of whom have struggled to reach even a 3.5 rating in recent times. By the length and spirit of his answer, it’s clear what the company means to him.
“Everyone is happy with the record rating, but that rating is only good until next week. Then, we’re not going to be happy unless we beat it. You always want to break that record, and you always want to expose your product to as many people as possible, so it was great, but now our challenge is to increase that.
“If you look at the figures, what you’ll notice is that we slowly go up, but we don’t really go down. Wrestling doesn’t have a very good image right now, perhaps because of the various news stories that have gone on, but the point is that when people find our program, they stick with it, and we’ve just got to keep making it available to them, because they still want an alternative to the WWE.
“And you know, as much as I’d like to see all of them run over by bread trucks in front of their family (laughs), the fact is that they are old, stale, and complacent. They have not done a good job of replenishing their talent, they have butchered their developmental program, so there’s no new stars on the horizon, except the second-generation stars, and really, how long can you keep on breeding wrestlers?
“They need to change a lot of things, because they perceive that they don’t have any competition. They sit up there and they think that their competition is Universal Studios, or major networks, or motion pictures. Well no, they are still professional wrestling, and their competition is TNA. And our ratings are going up, and theirs are going down.
“When that happens, sooner or later, shit then meets in the middle (laughs). Then when shit changes places, Vince McMahon’s head blows up, and he fires a lot of people, and then he gets back in the game. And God bless him, he’s needs to, because he’s been out of his game since he put his other competition out of business. And now that he’s got some more, I think that he’s out of practice as to what to do with it.
“So to go back to my point, I don’t think it’s unfair to expect a big dent in the gap between our ratings and theirs. That said, you’ve got to remember that they have about 46 years, to our six. But at the same time, it’s a gradual building process; for a while, we didn’t have national television. Then we had national television but it wasn’t in prime time. Then we had prime time, but it wasn’t two hours. Now we’ve got two hours in prime time, and we’ve got a monthly pay-per-view. We’ve got shows overseas and we’ve got video game deals. All that in six years — that’s a pretty decent accomplishment.
“So, no-one’s going to put Vince McMahon out of business, that’s pretty unrealistic, but the United States of America and the world is large enough for two different wrestling promotions, especially when they present a different product. I think people just want an alternative. It wasn’t even a year ago that we moved up to two hours. In another year, who knows where the bar is going to stand.”
Moving away from the subject of TNA — and increasingly so, his frustration with their wrestling competition — Cornette settled down a little to speak of his latest project, a self-published, 200-page, 8 x 11 soft-bound book containing anything you’ve ever wished to know about Cornette and the Midnight Express. Combining the jobs of writer, compiler, editor, fact-checker, and probably more, it’s a real labour of love for the “Louisville Slugger.”
“I’ve been working on the book for about the past year,” he noted. “It’ll probably be ready by March or so, and available to buy from JimCornette.com on April 1.
“We’re currently building that web site so that it will kinda split into two parts; one side will be for people who love classic wrestling, the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and the other side will be for memorabilia and things like that, from my vast collection. I plan on cleaning my house out in 2009. I’m not getting of rid of everything, but I’m getting rid of a few things that people may be interested in.
“The Midnight Express 25th Anniversary Scrapbook will be the primary product because it will pretty much be a record book of every match that the Midnight Express and I ever had: the dates, the places, the gate information, the finishes. There’ll be hundreds of pictures from our entire career, there’ll be backstage stuff from the WCW booking committee, and the changes that were made when Crockett Promotions was bought out by TBS. It’s for fans of the Midnight Express, or classic wrestling, or just wrestling soap opera.”
Considering no-one in wrestling ever told a better story that Jim Cornette, the book may very well be one of the greatest histories ever written about any specific performers.