Who is the greatest professional wrestler of all time? This is a question that will always be asked but never be definitively answered. Countless wrestlers could be brought into this discussion, but the one I am going to discuss today is none other than Terry Funk. Funk undoubtedly had a special career. His passion for the business was unmatched as displayed by his many false retirements. He just could not stay, always coming back for more. Funk had a long and storied career full to the brim with legendary moments that will be remembered forever. Today I am going to try and cover as many of those moments as possible as I recount his epic career.
Terry Funk was born on the 30th of June in 1944 in Hammond Indiana. That’s right he wasn’t actually born in Texas. After WWII his family, including his father Dory and his brother Dory Jr relocated to Amarillo Texas. In Amarillo Dory Sr began the Western States Promotion. This allowed Terry and Dory Jr to grow up in the pro wrestling business. Terry Funk graduated from Canyon High School and moved to West Texas State University. Here he competed in amateur wrestling and football. The first notable match of Terry's career came in Western States on the 9th of December 1965 when he wrestled against veteran Sputnik Monroe in a winning effort. This early victory over a name as big as Munroe was a sign of things to come, as Terry and his brother quickly rose through the ranks in Texas in tag team and singles competition, becoming big money wrestlers by the end of the decade. During this time Terry won numerous tag team titles alongside partners including Wahoo McDaniel, Dan Miller, The Lawman, Ricky Romero and of course his brother Dory. Terry won his first singles title in 1970. It was the NWA Western States Heavyweight Championship. This was a title he would go on to win ten times by 1975 clearly becoming a top wrestler in the Texas region.
After dominating Texas it was time for Terry to follow in his brother’s footsteps and taste some internationally recognised gold. On December 10th 1975 history was made when Terry Funk defeated Jack Brisco with the inside cradle for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in Miami. Interestingly Dory Jr was originally scheduled to face Brisco that night. However, he was unable to make it and Terry filled in, creating a legendary moment in a career that would have many many more. The Funks became the first set brothers to hold the NWA World Title and remain so to this day. Terry held onto the belt for 424 days facing off against a wide range of challengers such as Jack Brisco, Dusty Rhodes, Giant Baba, Pat O’Connor, Abdullah The Butcher, Billy Robinson and even a defence in Japan against Jumbo Tsuruta, but more on that rivalry later. Terry Funk eventually lost the title in Toronto on the 6th of February 1977 against Harley Race. Funnily enough, it was also Harley Race that ended Dory Jr’s run with the belt in 1973. Unfortunately, fairly limited footage exists today of Terry’s time as champion and while we have enough to conclude he was a great champion most would agree that his best work would come later in his career.
In the 1970s and 1980s Terry enjoyed great success working for AJPW alongside his brother Dory. At first, they arrived as foreign heels feuding mostly with Giant Baba and Jumbo Tsuruta. This included a 61 minute draw over the NWA International Tag Team titles and the aforementioned NWA World Title defence against Tsuruta in what is, in my opinion, Terry’s greatest NWA World title match on tape. In 1977 AJPW hosted the inaugural Open Tag League which was later renamed to the Real World Tag League. This tournament would go on to produce some of the finest tag team matches on the planet for the next two decades. The Funks won this tournament 3 times including the inaugural tournament in 1977. It was in 1977 that they started their feud against Abdullah The Butcher and The Sheik in AJPW turning the Funks babyface. Abdullah and The Sheik were two of the most violent wrestlers of their time. This made them perfect opponents for Terry who was not only a great technical wrestler as he showed in his NWA World Title run, but a great brawler as well. These matches were among the most brutal and violent tag team matches of all time. The feud lasted until 1980 and peaked with the Real World Tag League clash on the 13th of December 1979 which in my opinion is arguably the best match of Terry’s entire career. Due to their heroic performances The Funks especially Terry became two of the first foreign babyfaces to achieve mainstream popularity in Japan. In the 1980s they most famously feuded with Stan Hansen in AJPW and his various tag partners. Most notably Bruiser Brody and Terry Gordy. It was during this feud on August 31st 1983 where perhaps the most iconic moment of Terry’s AJPW run would take place. After a bloody hard fought victory against Hansen and Brody Terry would announce his first of many retirements. He ended the promo by screaming the word “forever” over and over, with immense passion dripping off his face. It is A truly iconic moment worth seeking out on YouTube if you’ve never seen it.
Meanwhile in the USA Terry had another iconic feud with Jerry Lawler in Memphis for the Continental Wrestling Association. The most infamous match from this feud occurred when Terry challenged Lawler to an empty arena match. The idea was that Lawler would be unable to draw strength from the fans. Terry played the perfect villain for Lawler as they brawled through the arena which was completely empty. The only others present were announcer Lance Russell, a cameraman and a photographer. I’m sure some would have seen this as a daft idea at the time but it is really a phenomenal piece of work. This is largely due to the pure authenticity of Terry Funk, a factor which is what made so much of his work so great.
In 1985 Terry Funk made his WWF debut, well excluding a handful of matches for the WWWF in the early 1970s. He made his television debut on Championship Wrestling beating Aldo Marino. However, ring announcer Mel Phillips made the unfortunate mistake of trying on Funk’s cowboy hat. This caused Terry to attack Phillips leading to a feud with the Junkyard Dog. This rivalry culminated at Wrestlemania 2 when Terry teamed with his brother Dory known in the WWF as Hoss Funk against the team of the Junkyard Dog and Tito Santana. Terry also had a series of noteworthy WWF title matches against Hulk Hogan before departing the company in April 1986.
Terry joined WCW in 1989 at the age of 45 and became a part of the J-Tex corporation. The villainous group was managed by Gary Hart and its members included Funk, Dick Slater, The Great Muta, The Dragonmaster and Buzz Sawyer. Their name was a reference to the fact that its two prominent members, Muta and Funk were from Japan and Texas respectively. It was during this time that Funk started perhaps the most popularly known feud of his career with Ric Flair. Terry was a judge for the NWA World title match between Ric Flair and Ricky The Dragon Steamboat at Wrestlewar 1989. After Flair won the title Terry entered the ring and what followed is considered one of the best post-match angles of all time. Struggling with a back injury Terry had spent the entirety of 1988 outside of the ring and did some work in Hollywood appearing as a bouncer in the movie Road House. When Terry entered the ring and asked Flair for a title shot, Flair declined saying that Terry wasn’t in the top 10 contenders list and wasn’t deserving of a shot. Flair was hinting that he thought Funk was an over the hill legend, and that other people deserved the shot more than someone who spent so long in Hollywood. An enraged Terry then attacked Flair causing Jim Ross to deliver the iconic line “Terry Funk snapped”. All of this led to Flair vs Funk for the NWA World title at Great American Bash 1989. Flair retained with a reversed small package in what was a fantastic match, but the feud didn’t end there. At Clash of the Champions 9 they met once again in an I quit match. This is probably the most famous Funk match and it received great praise. It is considered by many to be the greatest match of Terry’s career. Although personally, I prefer the match at Great American Bash. Following the match Flair and Funk shook hands before being attacked by Gary Hart’s stable. Soon after Terry became a colour commentator in WCW and hosted his own interview segment Funk’s Grill, but never one to sit on the sidelines for long Terry left the company shortly after. However, he would briefly return to WCW in 1994 wrestling Tully Blanchard at Slamboree. Later that night he joined Colonel Robert Parker’s stable which also consisted of Bunkhouse Buck, Arn Anderson and Meng. The group feuded with Dusty and Dustin Rhodes as well as the Nasty Boys culminating with a war games match at Fall Brawl.
In 1992 Terry Funk wrestled Eddie Gilbert in a Texas death match in Wayne New Jersey in front of a crowd of a couple hundred people. The match was a classic brawl and was even awarded five stars by Dave Meltzer with him saying it felt like nearly everyone in attendance that night had called over the next couple of days to say it was a five star match. This match is actually on YouTube and it has all the production values you would expect from a 1992 indie match. I personally struggle to see how this match got such rave reviews at the time. Perhaps it had something to do with how different it was from what you would see on US television at the time? While this was an old-school brawl that Terry was well known for at this point it was an indication of where his career was headed. From now on nearly all of his notable work would involve violent match stipulations leading to him becoming known as a hardcore icon.
At the ripe old age of 49, the already first ballot hall of famer decided to return to Japan where he would earn his reputation as a hardcore legend in promotions such as FMW and IWA Japan. On the 5th of May 1993, Terry Funk and Atsushi Onita would headline Kawasaki Stadium in front of 40,000 people. They competed in the first ever no rope exploding barbed wire time bomb death match, yes that match stipulation is a mouthful. Atsushi Onita was a huge star in Japan at this time. So much so he brought the FMW promotion to superstardom while pioneering the death match style. The man who inspired Onita to become a hardcore wrestler was none other than Terry Funk himself. Onita idolised Funk when on excursion in Texas due to the bloody brawls he would witness Terry in. Funk acted as a mentor to Onita and helped train him. The match they had was incredible with Terry putting in the performance of a lifetime against his former student. Onita defeated Funk who was working as the heel with a DDT but the timer for the grand explosion did not stop. Terry lay unconscious in the ring oblivious to the peril he was in. Onita who was the ultimate hero to the FMW fans returned to the ring to try and revive his mentor. This is despite Terry spending the last twenty minutes doing everything in his power to try and maim Onita. A panicked Onita quickly realised Terry was not going to be able to leave the ring on time and heroically used his own body as a shield to protect Terry from the explosion. The fans knew an explosion was coming but no one knew how big it was going to be. When it came it did not disappoint and a hush came over the arena as the fans tried to gain a view of the smoke filled ring. As the dust began to settle the two ragged men began to slowly rise to their feet to a standing ovation in what I have no problem in describing as one of the single greatest moments in professional wrestling history. This match gave Funk a career rebirth in the country where he gained the most fame and was certainly the highlight in the career of Atsushi Onita. A must watch match for all wrestling fans.
Funk continued to work the death match style in Japan in 1994 with the IWA Japan promotion. He competed in the infamous King of the Death match tournament on the 20th of August 1995 in Kawasaki. Terry advanced to the finals of the tournament by defeating Leatherface and Tiger Jeet Singh before meeting his protege Cactus Jack in the finals in a no ropes barbed wire exploding barbed wire boards and exploding ring time bomb death match. The match was as brutal as it sounds with both men picking up some serious burns from the explosions. The timed explosion was billed as being more powerful than anything Onita had ever pulled off, but in a situation similar to AEW Revolution 2020 the explosion was a bit of a dud. The two men then took some insane bumps to win the crowd back for the finish which thankfully seemed to work. The tape of this match made its way over to America and contributed to the growth of backyard hardcore wrestling. Many purists saw it as a disgraceful act for a former NWA World champion in Terry to compete in such an extreme match, but Terry always had a very open mind about how wrestling could be portrayed and how the different styles could all achieve success. Terry was a supporter of Joshi and Lucha wrestling while others believed they were just a niche that paled in comparison to the traditional style in terms of mainstream appeal, an attitude unfortunately still held by many to this day. Terry believed that the fans dictate the direction of the industry, and that it evolves in accordance with what they’re willing to pay to see. “What makes the turnstiles turn?” is a quote of his used to describe the direction wrestling goes in.
In 1993 Terry used his talents and notoriety to help get the fledgling promotion Eastern Championship Wrestling (later Extreme Championship Wrestling) off the ground. He won the world title from Sabu in December of 1993 also working programs with wrestlers such as The Public Enemy, Shane Douglas, Sandman and another protege of his Tommy Dreamer. In April of 1997, all eyes were on ECW as they attempted to run their first pay-per-view event, Barely Legal. The success of the promotion hinged off this PPV. Paul Heyman had planned for a long time to centre the company's first PPV around Funk. There was one problem though, Terry was a 52 year old man with arthritis in both knees. The excellent documentary Beyond The Mat shows us that Terry was being urged to retire by his doctors and family at the time. Terry had pledged to get ECW off the ground though and that was exactly what he was going to do. Terry competed at the show and won a triple threat match against Sandman and Stevie Richards. This earned him a world title match with Raven in the main event which he won. The PPV did a 0.26 buy rate largely thanks to the efforts of Terry Funk which was a big success for the company. Terry’s desire to work this show is a great example of the passion he had for the business. In September of the same year Funk held a show in his hometown of Amarillo Texas called Terry Funk’s Wrestlefest. It was billed as a celebration of the careers of Terry, his father and his brother. Terry lost in the main event to WWF champion Bret Hart in what was billed as a retirement match. Beforehand ECW owner Paul Heyman presented Terry with a belt, paid for through a collection taken up by wrestlers on the ECW roster that declared him the lifetime ECW World Heavyweight Champion.
After an appearance in the Royal Rumble earlier that year Terry returned to the WWF on the 29th of December edition of Raw in 1997 as Chainsaw Charlie. He teamed with Mick Foley where his true identity was later acknowledged. The pair feuded with the New Age Outlaws where the team of Funk and Foley defeated the Outlaws for the tag team titles in the first ever dumpster match at Wrestlemania XIV. Unfortunately, they lost the titles back to the New Age Outlaws the next night on Raw in a steel cage match. This WWF run lasted about another five months during which Funk had two short lived tag team runs with 2 Cold Scorpio and Bradshaw and also a noteworthy falls count anywhere match on Raw in May which he lost to Mick Foley.
Terry spent much of late 1998 and early 1999 building to a match with Tommy Dreamer in ECW but the match never took place due to an illness suffered by Funk. Funk returned once again to WCW in 2000 winning the Hardcore title 3 times and the WCW United States title for the second time. He also became the leader of the Old Age Outlaws faction alongside Arn Anderson, Larry Zbyszko and Paul Orndorff which had a short lived rivalry with the NWO.
After Terry left WCW his career began to wind down as he got older, working sporadically on the indies and making brief appearances elsewhere. From 2002 to 2004 he worked with ROH and MLW working with names like CM Punk and the Extreme Horsemen. In 2004 he also made a handful of appearances for TNA working against The Gathering, a tag team consisting of CM Punk and Julio Dinero. Funk made a brief return to WWE in 2006 which concluded at One Night Stand. Terry teamed with Tommy Dreamer and Beulah McGillicutty against Mick Foley, Edge and Lita in a wild brawl which is widely considered as the last great match of his career. This match also made Terry one of the few men to wrestle for the WWWF, WWF and WWE despite never having a lengthy run with the promotion. In 2009 Terry and Dory Jr were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame together by longtime friend Dusty Rhodes.
In 2010 Terry competed at Wrestle Kingdom IV in the Tokyo Dome. He was a part of an all-star team of sorts, teaming with Masahiro Chono, Riki Choshu and Manabu Nakanishi. They faced off against the team of Abdullah The Butcher and the Chaos contingent of Takashi Iizuka, Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano. The match was fun and it was great to see Terry face off against his old rival Abdullah in Japan one last time. On October 27th 2013 Terry and Dory Jr returned to AJPW for one last tag team match in the division they helped build four decades earlier. They faced off against the team of Masanobu Fuchi and Osamu Nishimura in a twenty minute time limit draw. Terry would have what ended up as his last ever match on September 22nd 2017 at the age of 73. It was for the Big Time Wrestling promotion in Raleigh North Carolina where he teamed with the Rock n Roll Express in a winning effort against his great rival Jerry Lawler, Doug Gilbert (Who is the brother of the aforementioned Eddie Gilbert who had unfortunately passed away by this point) and Brian Christopher(Jerry Lawler’s son). Terry’s in-ring career which spanned an incredible 52 years was finally over.
Following his last match he stayed largely out of the public eye until his death on the 23rd of August 2023 at the age of 79. His memory was honoured on an episode of WWE Smackdown alongside Bray Wyatt on August 25th. On this show the Street Profits and the Brawling Brutes had a hardcore tag team match in his honour. Following his death, many of his former peers shared their thoughts on the man and wrestler he was. Mick Foley described him as his mentor, idol, one of his closest friends and the greatest wrestler he ever saw. Bret Hart summed him up by calling him one of the greatest in-ring performers who always brought a distinct realism and imagination to the business. Eddie Kingston and Jon Moxley, the two current wrestlers who were perhaps inspired by him the most also called him the greatest wrestler of all time, and it's certainly hard to argue that he doesn’t belong in the conversation.
To answer the question of what makes Terry Funk one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, the answer would include his longevity, his versatility, his importance to so many promotions around the world, his open-mindedness to all aspects of the business, his innovation of the hardcore style but above all else the thing that contributes to his goat case more than anything previously mentioned in my opinion is his authenticity. You believed everything Terry Funk did. You bought him as a bad guy, you had great empathy for his struggles as a babyface and you believed he was crazy as a veteran because let's face it, he was. Terry could have retired as soon as the 1980s with a spectacular career but he stayed going until he simply couldn’t any longer because he loved pro wrestling. This quote from Terry sums it up best. “That is the thing that wrestling is, we are who we are. Even when we are established we are not actors. We are wrestlers.” Terry Funk never felt like he was playing a character, he felt like he was playing Terry Funk and we loved him for it and it is for this reason that his legacy will live on FOREVER.