Everything in pro wrestling is part of the show, and retirement is no different. If Shawn Michaels can come back for one more round, 16 years after his initial, stunning comeback from calling it a day, then is there any such thing as permanently unlacing one’s boots? Was there ever really a time in sports entertainment where, short of death or paralysis, the end was the end? Even with the best of intentions, the card is, as they say, always subject to change.
Who better to ask about the tenuousness of retirement from the squared circle than WWE Hall of Famer and all-around icon Terry Funk, who at 74, has “retired” more times than Michael Jordan, Roger Clemens, and Brett Favre combined, having retired for the first time in 1983 and competed as recently as last fall (!).
These days, Funk is grappling with hernia-related complications that may legitimately leave his in-ring legacy standing pat, but he’s never stopped observing the business he loves. That’s why we spoke with Terry by phone from his home in Lake Tanglewood, Texas, near Amarillo, about Michaels’s third act, his own many career intermissions, and why so many wrestlers just can’t stay away from the ring.
Paul Heyman enticed you out of one of your earliest retirements to join ECW in the mid-’90s, correct?
Yeah, Paul Heyman is a wonderful manipulator, and I mean that in a good way. He’s probably the greatest one around at this point in time. He was a pain in Vince [McMahon]’s side and Vince finally hired him, and I truly believe Paul Heyman is doing a great deal up there [in WWE] that no one knows about.
In other pro sports, there’s a point where no team will sign you. In wrestling, there’s always a promoter willing to book you if you’ll make them money. Is that the biggest distinction when it comes to retirement?
Well, it’s gonna make them more money than they are making, and that’s the main reason. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Where does the line get drawn between willingly un-retiring and being exploited?
This sounds crazy, but you are in control. A promoter doesn’t want you until you can help him. If you’re not gonna draw an extra buck for him, you’re not gonna be on his card. That’s the first thing. The second thing is you may not like the guy, so you may not wanna go up there. And the third thing, as I said before, is absence makes the heart grow fonder far as the public is concerned. That’s the thing the great promoters followed, and I think I helped Paul Heyman understand that philosophy.
So you never resented it when Paul or anyone enticed you back from doing movies or being with your family because they knew you’d say yes?
Well, they knew they were gonna have to keep increasing the salary, and I loved what I was doing. Whenever I was up there [in ECW], we were pounding out new ground.
But it’s not like Shawn Michaels is going to break any new ground coming back now ...
He’s not doing it because he loves the chance to get in the ring. He’s doing it because the money has enticed him.
Is there anything wrong with that?
Not at all. It’s not only the money. It’s the aura around the sport itself.
Did you have any advanced insight that Shawn was coming back?
No, he wouldn’t talk to anybody about it. The only thing that would entice him to it is himself. I’m sure he has plenty of money, but money changes constantly. You love the business, but you love it a whole bunch more if you’re getting more money. I’m the same way. I think we all are. I don’t think I’m talking about some guy that’s just money-hungry. It’s his love for the business and the money.
Do you think this applies to not just Shawn but the Undertaker and others from that era stepping back into the ring?
Shawn Michaels, the Undertaker, and you can go on and on with the guys Vince has created that had at one time tired themselves out and left the business for a while and now are coming back. And you’ve got somebody in there that I think is a great manipulator that knows the advantage of using people periodically, and that’s the most important thing in the world.
Is the manipulator you’re referring to Vince McMahon?
I think Paul Heyman.
So you’re saying that when it comes to guys like Shawn and Taker coming back to the ring that Paul Heyman has a part in those discussions?
That’s a wonderful way to put it—a part in the discussion.
[Editor’s note: Paul Heyman declined to be interviewed for this story.]
Fans can get fairly conspiratorial about these things and the McMahon family’s role and intentions, but it sounds far more personal than that.
The wrestlers control their own lives. Some of them control their destiny, and some of them definitely destroyed their destiny. And I was one of those probably who definitely destroyed their destiny. [Laughs.]
Did you feel in control every step of the way?
That’s the thing I wanted to do, was be in control every step of the way. Was that smart? No, it wasn’t. Was that smart with Shawn Michaels? If you ask him, he might say “No, it wasn’t.” You’re the one that says “I’m going to the ring tonight or I’m not.” You’ve got a lot of time to determine that too. You can say sayonara to ’em at any time. It doesn’t matter what kind of a contract you have. They can’t force you to go into the ring and listen to the introduction.
But what about guys like Scott Hall and Jake Roberts, who arguably returned to the ring without being able to make the best choices for themselves?
They weren’t enticed to the ring. Some guys—and I don’t want this to go with those two guys—are lured to the ring because of a lack of financial stability.
Aren’t they not in control and being taken advantage of at that point?
They’re possibly taken advantage of sometimes, but sometimes they are their own disadvantage.
So you’re saying you can’t blame a promoter if a wrestler’s willing to be booked.
You can double your house, triple your house. But I always understood absence was the one advantage the wrestler had over the promoter.
I think what threw people for a loop about Shawn’s return was that his retirement in 2010 seemed truly authentic and like it ended on a good note. Is there ever a risk in watering down your legacy or stretching story line credulity by repeatedly un-retiring?
Truthfully, it’s really not a risk at all. Of course, that depends on what level you come back at. Are you going to come back at a high position of a main-eventer? If Shawn Michaels came to the ring and was in the opening match and lost, I don’t think he’d have much longevity. It’s [dependent on] the manipulation of his character after he is there. Shawn will definitely do business. Shawn is controlling his destiny and can control it at any time.
Was there ever an instance where you came out of retirement and it wasn’t the right choice?
Never. Any athlete in the world today can come back. Can they be a winner? Possibly much more in the world of wrestling than anything else.
Maybe that’s the key, that in wrestling you can unretire and be triumphant, which you can’t predict in any other sport?
You can’t really predict it in wrestling. [Laughs.] You can come back and not even go into the ring and be a triumphant personality. It can be done on the microphone.
If you can do it on the microphone or as an ambassador, why would you put yourself through the physicality of in-ring competition?
Because I love it more than anything I can do. Whenever I go in the ring, I not only control my opponent but control the entire audience.
Why do you think, despite how savvy audiences have gotten, that they’re still so drawn in by retirement story lines?
We all love to go to a movie and become involved with it, but after two hours, it’s over. But we can take wrestling and involve ourselves for a lifetime. It’s a true escape. Who would think people would continue to go to a wrestling match and pay higher prices when they know they’re being manipulated? And who would think that if somebody came up to me and said, “You’re nothing but a phony faker,” I’d punch him right in the nose. Why is that? That’s some of the things I can’t understand.
Have the fans duly rewarded your many comebacks in the ring?
I love the fans that come back to it, and I love the fans that challenge me, and I love the ones that jump in the ring. I beat the shit out of them, but I love them for believing in me. And I love ’em after I beat ’em up. Am I nuts?
Not at all. At its best, wrestling is an immersive experience for everyone.
I am who you see, and Shawn Michaels is who you see, and Shawn Michaels is coming back and he’s truly excited about it. He’s going to do the best to entertain people better than he ever did before.
So you never once watched a peer of yours unretire and wished they hadn’t done it?
[Laughs.] Hell, I’ve seen guys come in the ring that have never had a match before and said that about ’em.