Inducted by Prime Time
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard someone call Jim Cornette one of the greatest minds in wrestling.
The way he learned his trade couldn’t have hurt. A wrestling obsessive who’d get hold of as many territory wrestling shows as he could from his Louisville home, including putting an extra antenna on the top of his house to watch shows from further away. As a teenager he started working as a photographer and in wrestling fan clubs and broke into the business for real after impressing Christine Jarrett, the head of the Continental Wrestling Association, in Memphis. Young Jim debuted his new persona, the rich-kid James E. Cornette whose mother financed his wrestling ambitions, and he worked in the Memphis territory for the next year.
Things really took off, though, when he moved to Mid-South, and “Cowboy” Bill Watts paired him with two singles wrestlers: Dennis Condrey and Bobby Eaton. Together this pairing became the Midnight Express, a name that stands at or near the top of the pantheon of tag teams in their golden age of the 1980s. It was during this time that Cornette would start carrying his now infamous tennis racket, a ploy that would make it all the way to the World Wrestling Federation in the mid-1990s. Watts’ Mid-South TV is some of the most critically-acclaimed of all the territory TV, with believability at its heart and credible rather than cartoonish good and bad guys, and this stage of his career would be formative in Cornette’s own philosophy.
The Midnight Express and Cornette would stay in Mid-South until late 1984, often feuding with the Rock N’ Roll Express, before briefly working in Dallas for World Class and encountering their other great rivals, The Fantastics, for the first time.
It was through this period that Cornette became arguably the best manager in the world, and was recognised as such year-on-year by the WON – only Sherri Martel would interrupt an otherwise consistent run from 1984-1996. While Cornette is a Heenan loyalist himself, it’s suggested by many that the greatest of all-time was winding down and while still a great performer, the WWE interpretation of Heenan’s character was not on the level that he’d been allowed to be in the AWA with their champion, Nick Bockwinkel. By contrast, the young Cornette was standing out, repeating a lot of Heenan’s old tricks (as a very keen student of the game), and making a name for himself. Between his critically acclaimed management and the Midnight’s tag credentials, the group eventually found themselves in the growing Mid-Atlantic territory. It was there that at Starrcade ’86 Cornette took a bump to end the infamous Scaffold match that both blew out his knees and earned him the admiration of Road Warrior Hawk until the latter’s dying day.
Cornette would continue with the Mid-Atlantic territory through the end of Jim Crockett Promotions and the beginning of Ted Turner’s WCW. When Dennis Condrey abruptly left the territory in 1987, Dusty Rhodes made the decision to introduce Stan Lane, giving the Midnight Express a new look and dimension that would catapult them into the new era. In this iteration they’d become the only team to win the NWA World and US tag titles simultaneously. As his team went from strength to strength, so did Cornette. In 1989, to many Ric Flair’s annis mirabilis, he was brought into the commentary booth where he was able to learn that side of the business from another of Watts’ proteges, WCW lead announcer Jim Ross. By the end of that year, Ric Flair himself would add Cornette to the creative team. This would last around a year, until Cornette, never one to play nicely with people he didn’t respect, resigned due to friction with WCW Executive Vice President Jim Herd.
On leaving WCW, Cornette founded his own territory. Such a move looks like a truly bizarre thing to do in 1991, when looked at in hindsight, but the funny thing is that for a short time at least he made things work. It’s possible to imagine that if they’d been able to survive a couple of years more that the wrestling boom might have made them truly profitable for a while. Regardless, Smoky Mountain Wrestling is for many the last real wrestling territory, and through distribution via WWE Network has since acquired a generation of fans that never saw it the first time around. A number of stars came through that promotion on their way to the big time, including Chris Jericho and Lance Storm (The Thrillseekers), Chris Candido and Sunny, Al Snow, Kane, and D’Lo Brown. At various points SMW would have relationships with WCW and, in more sustained fashion, the WWF, but the wrestling downturn would lead to the company closing their doors in late 1995.
It was SMW, though, that led to Cornette working with the WWE, and he’d receive talent in exchange for his own performances on the show. In 1993 he became the American Spokesperson for Yokozuna, effectively taking the onus off the ageing Mr Fuji as the WWF Champion’s manager. He’d continue to manage Yokozuna and others including Owen Hart, The British Bulldog, and Vader, until the autumn of 1996. By this point Cornette had been added to the creative team of RAW, a period he tends to describe as unsatisfying due to Vince McMahon’s micromanaging. He was given control of some famous angles in his time, inventing the Hell in a Cell concept and laying out the debut of Glen Jacobs as Kane and his road to the Wrestlemania XIV match with The Undertaker.
As the Attitude era progressed, Cornette liked major wrestling programming less and less, and after the infamous NWA invasion angle and some time on color commentary he’d move back to Louisville to run Ohio Valley Wrestling as a development territory for the WWE. During this time he’d play a part in bringing a number of talent into the fold, including all of the famous ‘OVW Class of 2002’. He’d continue in this role until 2005 when his association with the WWE ended.
Since then, Cornette has had a spell with TNA, one marked by tension with the creative team, and also had a stint as a major figure in Ring of Honor where he was brought in primarily to put the company on the kind of secure footing where it could be taken over by a larger business made sustainable – something achieved when RoH were taken over by the Sinclair group. There is a short list of names responsible for RoH’s continued existence, but Cornette, a man so often derided as doing little to nothing for contemporary wrestling, is on that list.
In recent years Cornette has made odd appearances here and there and has invested time both in his podcasting and collectable businesses, but also in making appearances as a commentator for groups such as the reformed NWA and, most recently, Major League Wrestling. Always outspoken and with both love and knowledge that outstrips almost anyone you can think of, his continued involvement in the business can only be a good thing for a generation of talent coming through looking to make themselves stand out.
But I’m now left with a question – when someone has had such a varied career in wrestling, and has been everywhere of note and filled almost every role, how do you sign off on their induction? In this case, the only way I can think to do it is to borrow a phrase from the man himself.
Thank You, Fuck You, Bye.
80s Wrestling Con takes place on Saturday, October 26th in Freehold, NJ at iPlay America. The event features Ted DiBiase, Sgt. Slaughter, Bob Backlund, Paul Orndorff, Demolition, Brutus Beefcake, and more! For Superstars, Attractions, and Ticket information go to 80sWrestlingCon.com.