Welcome to another thrilling edition of Explain Like I’m Kayfabe, the only wrestling column that will never shoot straight from the hip. This week, I want to pay tribute to an underrepresented group in wrestling history: managers. Be they valets, advocates, spokesmen, representatives or simply racist caricatures, they all work tirelessly on behalf of their chosen clients for some unknown reason. From Frank Smith to General Adnan, The Grand Wizard to Kimona Wanalea, Jim Cornette to Captain Lou Albano, these men and women brought fame and fortune to those they supported and ruinous destruction to those who dared oppose them. This week’s ELIK is accompanied to the ring by Managers.
The role of wrestling manager has existed since the early days of professional wrestling. Often, managers serve to enhance the careers of their clients through various means, both legitimate and nefarious. Billy Sandow, manager of Ed “Strangler” Lewis in the 1920s and 30s, brought his client fame through creating new strategies and styles for Lewis and others in their Gold Dust Trio promotion, but also through the media. Sandow challenged famed boxer Jack Dempsey to wrestle Lewis, offering $10,000 to Dempsey, wagering that he would not last 20 minutes in the ring with the grappler. The match never happened, but stirred up publicity across the nation.
Through the 1980s, the manager’s role continued apace, bringing notoriety to wrestlers and factions across the world. In the National Wrestling Alliance, JJ Dillon managed the infamous Four Horsemen, taking the four supremely talented wrestlers to new heights through his ringside and backstage work. Others, like the Road Warriors’ manager Paul Ellering (now managing NXT Tag Team Champions Authors of Pain), took complete responsibility for the worldwide booking of their clients. Ellering ran the Warriors from the United States to Japan and everywhere in between, racking up titles and inspiring knockoff teams everywhere they went.
In the Rock and Wrestling Era, managers took on a new bend with the appearance of the valet. In contrast to the manager, valets were almost exclusively female and had less of a functional role with their chosen clients. Perhaps the greatest examples of the quintessential 1980s valet have to be Ms. Elizabeth and Sensational Sherri. This yin and yang of the wrestling world, Elizabeth and Sherri managed some of the greatest superstars of the era. At various times, Ms. Elizabeth was linked to Lex Luger, Hulk Hogan, and, most famously, Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Sherri also managed Savage during his turn as The Macho King, but is more well known for her work with then rising star, Shawn Michaels.
Valets are a mix of eye candy, moral support and occasional involvement in a match. Contemporary examples include Maryse, Maria Kanellis, and, until very recently, Lana. When needed, they stand up for the men they work with/love, defend his honor, and occasionally slap or trip an opponent who deserves it. They, like managers, can also serve as an effective mouthpiece for their charges, expressing in words what the wrestler might only be able to express with fists.
While several men and women filled managerial roles throughout the Monday Night Wars, the role died down to a certain extent. Valets kept their relevance, but rather than the elegance of Ms. Elizabeth, valets in the 1990s, like Sunny and Sable, often resorted to more salacious means of distracting opponents and encouraging their teams to victory. Several managers did appear in this era, including Michael PS Hayes of the Fabulous Freebirds appearing with the newly debuting Hardy Boyz, the first of three different managers/valets the Hardyz would have (Terri and Lita). One of the most famous managers of the era accompanied the silent Undertaker to the ring. Paul Bearer brought a new look to managers with his wan pallor and horror-movie voice. He and his urn led ‘Taker to victory over Hulk Hogan himself for the WWF World Championship. In Extreme Championship Wrestling, the valets were even more distracting than those in the two largest wrestling organizations, with The Public Enemy bringing in adult film star Jasmine St. Claire as their personal escort to the ring.
Currently, the term “manager” seems outdated. It has been replaced by “advocate” or “representative.” In essence, people like Paul Heyman and Titus O’Neil fill the same roles as their forebears. Heyman speaks for the monster, Brock Lesnar, taunting opponents and getting Brock’s message across verbally in a way that the Beast never could on his own. In their initial run in WWE, Heyman led Lesnar to three WWE Championships, a Royal Rumble win and the King of the Ring crown. O’Neil is the latest in a long line of manager/wrestlers, going back to Classy Freddie Blassie and before. He represents the wrestlers on the “Titus Brand,” creating a de facto faction while competing himself.
So, after all this history and analysis of what these men and women actually do, the real question here is why? Why did Bobby “The Brain” Heenan represent Andre the Giant after his first WWF client, Big John Studd, lost to Andre in a Bodyslam Challenge at the first WrestleMania? Why did “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart accompany so many tag teams to the ring over the years? After years of successfully ruling the women’s division of WWE, why would Lita come to the ring at Edge’s side?
For some, the answer is easy: love. Relationships between valets and wrestlers have long been entangled with their professional duties. In one of the most famous on-air segments in WWF history, Ms. Elizabeth and Macho Man wed, after years of working together and apart, after teaming and feuding with Hulk Hogan, and after a fling with Sensational Sherri. Elizabeth’s feelings for Savage were apparent throughout their careers. Likewise, Stephanie McMahon and Maryse often accompany their respective husbands, Triple H and The Miz, to the ring. Lana and Rusev became engaged and married as a direct result of their professional work together. This is not to say that all valets actively seek the affections of their charges. Most are professionals, working to ensure the best career paths for their charges.
The other, more often cited, reason to manage wrestlers? Money. Managers represent their clients, not the wrestling promotion as a whole. When their charges win championships, the fight purses go up and so does the cut the manager earns. Managers can take wrestlers with potential and mold that into in-ring success. Without Paul Ellering’s guidance, The Authors of Pain would be two gigantic bruisers with little direction. His direct influence gained them their title shots and victories, illicit or not. Certainly, the Four Horsemen were not in need of a mouthpiece (they had Ric Flair) or an enforcer (Arn Anderson). JJ Dillon performed a vital role, however, leading them to title after title, guiding the destructive force of these top-tier wrestlers in the right direction for the optimal results.
There are many managers/valets, both listed here and not, who deserve deeper introspection into their careers and their influence over their clients and the wrestling world as a whole. We will explore those another day. For now, appreciate the not-so-humble manager, my friends. Without their hard work and effort, some of the greatest wrestlers of yesterday and today would never have had the opportunity to be the men and women we watch in the squared circle. They work tirelessly on behalf of their clients, seeking ever greater glass ceilings to crack and, in the words of one Titus Brand representative, “millions of dollars.”