Interview with Johnny Mantell, President of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame

Interview with Johnny Mantell, President of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame
05 Mar
Not in Hall of Fame
Three years ago I interviewed Stan Hansen for my website and one of the questions I talked to him about was about a possible induction to the WWE Hall of Fame as this was a few years removed from inducting Antonio Inoki to the aforementioned Hall.  Without being disrespectful to the WWE Hall of Fame, he spoke of his induction into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, which was then based in Amsterdam, New York.  For Stan, gaining entry into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame meant so much because as he stated “this one is done by my peers”.

He isn’t the only one who feels that way.

There are many athletic and entertainment Halls of Fame in North America however most of the inductees are decided by writers, and very few solicit actual past participants.  The ones that do have ex-players rarely consist of half of the voting body.  As Stan Hansen stated, that is not the case with the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, whose voting committee is predominantly former professional wrestler, with a sprinkling of wrestling journalists and historians.

While the WWE Hall of Fame has inducted past wrestlers who had limited action in their organization, it is still governed by one promotion, and essentially, one man, their owner, Vince McMahon Jr.  The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame is not part of any specific past or present wrestling organization and as such, brings no bias to the inductions. 

As per the mission statement the Hall’s “purpose is to enshrine and pay tribute to professional wrestlers who have advanced this national pastime in terms of athletics and entertainment” and over the past fifteen years they have done exactly that and have created the only brick and mortar Hall of Fame dedicated towards the art of Professional Wrestling. 

That special place is in the process of making a 1,628 mile trek to Wichita Falls, Texas.

I spoke with “Cowboy” Johnny Mantell, the former wrestler and president of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame who is spearheading the move.

Considering how busy Johnny has been of late, earning a few minutes of his time wasn’t easy as the work to unveil it’s new home in Northern Texas.  Johnny’s passion towards this project was undeniable and afterwards I found myself looking forward to pay a visit to that part of the country myself.

After speaking with Johnny, I know it will be worth the time!

What brought on the move of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame from Amsterdam, New York to Wichita Falls, Texas?

“To be quite honest with you it was created from the city of Amsterdam.  The last four years the Hall of Fame itself has been in Amsterdam, but we had to hold our banquets, trade show and functions in Johnstown, which is about 18 miles away.  The weekend was becoming discombobulated for the people coming in.  All the activities were going on in one town and the museum part was in another town. 

The Hall, since it’s inception was only open three days a week, Friday Saturday and Sunday.  The group that started it, Tony Vellano and the board of directors did a great job of setting the blueprint and getting this thing up and running but all of the people involved up there were all full time business people, so basically they ran it on the weekends. 

Let’s take the birth of a child as a metaphor here.  The child first learns how to crawl, then walk and then run.  That’s how it is with this Hall of Fame.  It had gotten to walk, and it needs to take the next step and we felt that a move to someplace in the middle of the country was the best prescription for the Hall of Fame, so they approached me about looking for a new home.

I went to the Dallas/Fort Worth Area, to Denton, Decatur, Oklahoma City, Tulsa to look for the right spot.  Wichita Falls kept calling us back. 

One was the city itself.  It was the inner workings of the city wanting something like this to help with tourism and revitalization. 

Two was that they have their own television stations within the realm of Dallas/Fort Worth, but are not completely fighting the Cowboys, the Mavs and the Stars.  Wichita Falls does not have any pro sports.  They do have an Arena Football Team, and they are doing ok, but they are a new star in town.  We just felt like it was a perfect mix of the size of the city, which is 110,000, a military base, which rotates about 75,000 people a year and a viewing audience of the TV stations of about 900,000 people.”

How has Wichita Falls embraced the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame thus far?

“Incredible.  The TV Station comes by every day to see how things are progressing and how much closer we are getting ready to opening up.  The newspapers have written numerous articles.  I am being bounced around town to different locations.  There is the Patterson Auto Group that owns dealerships in North Texas and Southern Oklahoma and I spoke at their leadership meeting the other day where they bring in the managers from all of their departments. 

They are very excited about it and I find that everywhere I go.  We have already gotten involved in the community.  We have made church appearances; we have given some tickets away for some scholarships at the schools.  The Chamber of Commerce, the Mayor of Wichita Falls, have all been supportive.

They are all excited about the history of wrestling. 

There is a significant history of professional wrestling in Wichita Falls.  Until you dig deep in it you don’t realize it.  All the greats have been through there.  Leroy McGuirk out of the Mid-South office ran it for eighteen years.  In the barnstorming days, there were two or three promoters who would run matches, Gorgeous George, George Hackenschmidt, they have all wrestled there at some point in time.  It felt like a perfect fit. 

I tell most people that our goal with the move is to move this Hall of Fame to the next level is to make it the Cooperstown or Canton of Professional Wrestling.

We are the only brick and mortar building for Professional Wrestling.  I say this because the Amateur Hall of Fame in Iowa has a room where they display some pro wrestling stuff but this is the Hall in which the men and the women of the business are really going to get behind because our mission is to preserve the history of people who were involved in it. 

We have material that goes back all the way to the Civil War, showing how wrestling was going on in circuses, carnivals and tough man contests.  I think that is what is needed in the world today is for a Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame to stand alone”

I think that certainly makes it special is that it certainly the only one of its kind.  Two other things automatically came to mind for me that makes this special.  The first is that your Hall is not associated with any specific wrestling organization, but what I think is very important is that your Hall of Fame has a large and diverse committee, of which you are a member that consists of not only former wrestlers like yourself, but of writers and historians form around the world. 

I don’t mean this as a shot at a WWE, which is essentially decided by one man, but there is a lot of thought that appears to go on as to who gets inducted.  In my mind this definitely sets you apart.

“It’s not about selling tickets, and I’m not going to pick on anybody either.  Most of the other Halls of Fames around the country, and there are a group of them popping up around the country, are not quite like ours.

We have a voting committee that works on the ballot that sifts through hundreds of letters from fans and family members who want their respective wrestlers to get into the Hall of Fame.  This committee will send a ballot and it will go to the Board of Directors to be approved and the ballots go to the voting committee. 

Like you said, the voting committee is made up of historians, hall of famers, wrestlers that spent their life in this business, some AP people, so with that vote then the highest voter in each category goes into the Hall of Fame and much like any other business or any other kind of entity after its been up and running for sixteen years, there is always something that needs to be adjusted.

So with our fifteenth year and next year’s inductions it will have a little bit of a different look to it.  I will just give you something that we are looking at is that here we are in our fifteenth year of inductions and we have yet to have a referee inducted.

For me, I don’t take that very well because for me the third man in the ring when I was working was very important.  I think that with the move down here and with myself and Terry Funk and with Greg Pearson, whose Global Wrestling still plays on ESPN Classics we have a real thought and a real process about the business of pro wrestling and how and what was done. 

The Board of Directors is a very diverse group from a University of Texas-Arlington Professor to a tax collector to a President of a bank.  We have a great group of people who are really passionate about making this (Wichita Falls) the Cooperstown or Canton of Professional Wrestling.

We are going from a facility of 6,000 Square Feet to 7,500 Square Feet with the possibility of adding two floors available to us.  The people who are upset form Amsterdam about the move I think will be happy about it’s direction when they come and see it, as will the wrestlers around the country. 

There have been so many who have contacted me and talked to me about this who are excited about the Hall of Fame being in the middle of the country.  We are getting some new names who are starting to get involved with it and as we go through the months here we will announce them on the website.

We are also looking at it in another aspect as with the end of the territories and all of the different places that employed professional wrestlers to work, with that there has been this advent of independent companies starting to pop up.

I’m going go to give you an example right here in the state of Texas.  There used to be four territories here with the Von Erichs, the Blanchards, the Funks and Paul Boesch.  When everything shut down all of the sudden there was a group of independent companies that opened up and over the last ten years there are about ninety companies that opened up and ran some kind of wrestling show.

Now there are all these independent guys and I’m not going to say that they are all professional wrestlers but if that’s what they want to do and they are selling tickets, this fits under an umbrella of that wording.  We are going to reach out to as many of them as we can and get their stories through different displays that rotate in the hall.  We’re going to tell as many of those stories as we can so that we can give the people that walk into the Hall of Fame a history lesson. 

We want to show them everything.  We want to show them the good and the bad, the pretty and the ugly.  We want to show the territories that ran seven nights a week and the ones that run once a month for two or three years.  People need to know about Herb Simmons in Kansas City who has been promoting wrestling for thirty-five years.  People need to know that Gary Hart ran the Metroplex and brought in big stars to work there.

There’s a group in Southern Louisiana really doing very well drawing good house shows and bringing in a lot of people to watch professional wrestling and from what I understand doing it the old-fashioned way.  Nobody else, unless you are in Southern Louisiana knows about that group.  We need to tell that story if we want to tell the truth about professional wrestling and we’re looking to do that.”

Out of all of the exhibits or items that you have, which one is your favorite, or one that you can’t stop staring at?

“There are so many pieces but I’m going to tell you that the other day one of the items that was shipped here of this picture, and I don’t know if I ever saw it Upstate New York.  It is a picture that Dr. Oliver Bateman says is from around 1910 and it’s Frank Gotch and Joe Mankiewicz and they are standing on a stage and there was a banner behind them that said one dollar for every minute that they could stay in the ring with a world champion wrestler.  A five minute minimum.  There is a lady (in the picture) that you can tell is the cashier because behind her was the curtain where they would take people to try to take on Gotch or Mankiewicz.

Good luck to them!  I wish them the very best but I don’t think there were many dollars paid out.  That picture keeps looking at me.  Whether some people want to say that was the start of MMA or the professional wrestling days.  That stands out to me.

We have a ring that was donated.  They say it was built around 1900.  This was one that they used in the Polo Grounds in New York.  It was made for boxing or wrestling and it has the hooks on it for three ropes or four ropes.  If you look back in history and all of the fights in the Polo Grounds and it happened in this ring, it is a really cool deal. 

Another great piece came from Mick Foley, who is a huge supporter of this Hall of Fame.  He donated the original transcript from his first book.  There are so many great pieces and it’s really unfair for me to single out one, two, three or four of them. 

I think the biggest thing I see and my wife and I have been going up to New York the last five years during the induction weekends is when I see people walk into the Hall and see something that reminds them of their youth or reminds them of when they got into professional wrestling.  You see them smile or chuckle or tell you a story about it.  I think we are going to see a lot more of it in Wichita Falls. 

Wichita Falls has such a great wrestling history.  The city leaders here grew up watching it.  Danny Hodge, Bill Watts, Ken Mantell, Skandor Akbar.  All these great guys came through this town.  Their fathers worked the venues.  There is such a connection between wrestling and Wichita Falls.  There is such a love here for the sport that I feel that we have found home.”

When is your grand opening in Wichita Falls?

“I wish I could tell you it was tomorrow.  We’re working on it every day.  We are going into a building that has not been open in a few years, and there is some catch-up work we had to get done and there is nothing but butts and elbows in there right now. 

I am really hoping that we can get this open by mid-March and that way we will have a couple of weeks of it open and running before Wrestlemania.”

And you also have your big induction ceremony in May.

“Absolutely.  But we would really like to have it open in a few weeks, again prior to Wrestlemania in Arlington.”

John, thank you so much for your time, I wish you the best on this move! 

Last modified on Thursday, 22 March 2018 15:38
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Kirk Buchner, "The Committee Chairman", is the owner and operator of the site.  Kirk can be contacted at [email protected] .

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