The 1980s are remembered fondly by wrestling fans who came of age in the so-called “Decade of Indulgence.” Viewed as a modern Golden Age, the 80s brought forth an unprecedented pop culture boom that made the likes of Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Junkyard Dog household names. With the showmanship, pageantry and big money came unavoidable downsides. Chief among them was the mental and physical strain of grueling travel schedules that kept wrestlers on the road over 90% of the year.
Enter Darren Antola, former boxing cutman to world champions (Yuri Foreman, Kendall Holt) and now a co-producer on the star-studded film 350 Days (April 2). The documentary showcases over two dozen legends (Bret “The Hitman” Hart, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka etc.) recounting the family breakdowns and vices that came with pursuing fame and fortune within the rock n’ roll lifestyle that was 80s professional wrestling.
Antola sat down for this exclusive interview to discuss how how a Hall of Fame heavyweight helped spark this project, his love of wrestling and what he hopes fans will learn about the business.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: How does a boxing cut man end up transitioning to the equally crazy world of pro wrestling?
Darren Antola: As a boxing cut man you know we have state inspectors that oversee what we do in the corner. This inspector named Billy Caputo with the New York commission was also a WWF referee back in the day. So we started talking and he went over all the old matches he did.
I told him how I was a big fan as a kid and used to go to the Meadowlands and the Garden. I was hooked as a kid and Billy could tell me what happened to everyone I used to watch since they’re his buddies.
I had a buddy named Steve Fleming who shot a pilot called The Age Factor which he wanted to turn into a series. We filmed Riddick Bowe, a former world champion boxer who blew $80 million and was trying to make a comeback. We’re not saying he can make a comeback – we just wanted to tell the story.
We didn’t like how it was turning out and I suggested to Steve that we cross it with something else like pro wrestling and make it a one-hour show. I thought about Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka who was trying to be the oldest man to jump off the cage. We could show him training at Chelsea Piers.
He thought it was great and I went to talk with Billy Caputo. He put me in touch with Jimmy and his wife and we became really good friends over the years. I even promoted his birthday party and we had fun with that. Jimmy was tremendous – it was like talking to the uncle you’ve never had. Just a really good man who shared so much knowledge with me about wrestling and life. You’d never think a man who was so quiet would open up like that and share all he’s learned.
My grandfather always taught me that if you go into something you’ve got to leave getting something out of it. With boxing, I had multiple champions like Kendall Holt and Yuri Foreman so at least I accomplished something with it.
When I got involved with wrestling I wanted to do more than just Snuka’s birthday party. I thought of an idea after reading about how these wrestlers would be on the road 350 days out the year. I said, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great to get all these guys together like Abdullah the Butcher, Greg Valentine, Ted DiBiase, Bret Hart, Snuka, Tito Santana, Wendi Ritcher and more in a first-class documentary?” Make it a special event and not just a shoot interview in a hotel room with a bad budget and one camera that doesn’t leave their face for two hours. I wanted something nice and classy for these guys to make them look good. I feel we really captured that with 350 Days.
As far as your wrestling preference, did you enjoy any of the territories outside the WWF in the 70s and 80s?
I tell you, I enjoyed WWF more than anything. I got to see Tito Santana and Greg Valentine in the steel cage in Baltimore, Maryland. I really wasn’t a territory guy. My memories are all the old-school WWF stuff like The Hart Foundation and Paul Orndorff, the greatest heel of all time, in my opinion. I have Snuka up there as #1 on my list.
They were very open to talking and no one calmed up. They wanted their stories told.
The older legends remain fiercely protective of the business. Was there any difficulty in getting them to open up and be so candid about their history, particularly the dark side of constantly being away from family and the temptations of road life?
It actually wasn’t. I was fortunate to have good contacts like Bobby Rydell who was the booking agent for Ted DiBiase. They trusted Bobby and Bobby trusted me, so they were very good. The director Fulvio Cecere (Watchmen, Resident Evil: Afterlife) did an excellent job with this.
We focused on human interest questions and a little about their career. They were very open to talking and no one clammed up. They wanted their stories told.
Do you hear a lot of regret from anyone about choosing the wrestling business?
For these guys this was their passion and what they breathed. It’s no different from a musician making $25 a show and arguing with his wife who tells him he’s not bringing enough home every night. That guy will keep playing that guitar until she leaves.
These guys loved it and wouldn’t change a thing.
The idea of working 350 days makes it inevitable that your quality of life will suffer in some capacity…
Absolutely. You could be a traveling salesman and still have the same temptations being gone that much. You might not have the physical injuries, but being away from your family that long is very hard to deal with.
Certain guys handle it better but between drugs, injuries and strained family life, something comes up.
Which road story surprised you the most?
Paul Orndorff told me he’s been shot at, had batteries thrown at him and his lip busted open from crazy fans. That was shocking.
We had so many great stories that I have to name a couple of guys. “Superstar” Billy Graham was great, too.
We all know the famous story of Muhammad Ali using Gorgeous George as his template for interviews and getting the fans riled up. Wrestlers learn quickly to cultivate their personas to enhance their gimmicks. Do you feel more boxers should take heed of wrestling’s showmanship characteristics to get more mainstream attention?
Well, charisma always helps as we’ve seen with Muhammad Ali and guys like Ricardo Mayorga with the cigarettes.
A good hook can certainly help, but then again putting on a good fight makes the fans want to hear what you have to say. There was really no gimmick with Tyson and Holyfield back in the day – people just knew their skills and wanted to see those guys fight.
Earlier, you mentioned your work with Riddick Bowe. Our current top heavyweights are Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. How would a prime Bowe do if we threw him into that mix?
Ahh, I don’t even have to tell you. Bowe was special – he was a great inside fighter and very polished. Look at the fights with Holyfield. If Bowe would’ve stayed hungry the sky was the limit.
For what I heard, when Tyson came out of prison there was talk of doing Bowe vs. Tyson at the Garden. The talk in the papers was splitting $60 million each but they never took the fight. Tyson was able to fight three lesser guys for $20 million each.
Tyson from ’86-’88 was unstoppable. I think he potentially beats anyone in history. But from ’89 on after getting rid of Kevin Rooney, I saw the slide in his fight against Frank Bruno. Tyson started walking guys down and getting hit with silly stuff. Bruno wobbled him early but Tyson still had the hand speed to grind him out of there.
Bowe definitely does damage today.
Since the documentary is centered on the 80s, it’s worth noting that many traditionalists point to that time as the last Golden Age…
The biggest change for me afterward was the internet. In the 80s, I could go see Hogan and DiBiase at Madison Square Garden. They would get into a limo afterward and fly to Chicago and do the same match but nobody knew. There were no reporters or news services covering it.
Wrestling can never be what it was. It was special with the old magazines with the bloody covers. It was a unique time.
What were your favorite 80s matches?
Oh, God! Bob Backlund and Greg Valentine in the Garden. Valentine and Tito in the cage. Hogan and Orndorff battling in the steel cage. Jimmy Snuka and Backlund — there were so many great matches.
Billy Graham was tremendous in the 80s. A lot of people will tell you he was really the big star in the 70s, but I watched him with Don Muraco as his manager. Wasn’t “vintage” Billy, but I still really enjoyed him.
Most will acknowledge today’s match quality has evolved to be much more athletic and faster-paced. However, a persistent criticism among the older fans is the psychology isn’t as strong. Is that a fair critique?
Yeah! I’ll tell you what Greg Valentine told me.
He said “Darren, no one puts on real holds anymore!”
When him and Backlund wrestled, they applied real, mat-based holds. And this is not just the younger guys. In some of those Flair-Hogan matches you’d have Flair already bleeding 5 minutes in. The match didn’t tell a story.
Whereas with Valentine and Backlund, they were telling a story and built up to the blood. They knew when it was necessary to build drama.
Any legal problems securing the older footage you guys used?
I went to reputable footage owners and was able to get signed releases. Nothing WWE, of course.
We got clearance for so many photographs. For example, Vince has the network for $9.99 and he has great content. But you wouldn’t see anything on there from personal collectors showing old-school wrestlers traveling on the road and interacting with fans.
It took me about a year and a half to go through all the photos covering the 30 guys we interviewed. The fans really got behind it and got us the content we needed. The rest was easy.
What are the most important things you want the viewers to take away from this project?
350 Days is a history lesson on wrestling. It’s not just for wrestling fans. An eight-year-old to a 90-year old in a wheelchair who doesn’t care about wrestling can sit down and enjoy this.
350 Days is set for release on April 2 and available now for pre-order on iTunes (https://apple.co/2IkUzLn), Video on Demand, Amazon, Walmart, and other online retail sites.
The list of participating wrestlers includes Bret “Hitman” Hart, “Superstar” Billy Graham, “Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, JJ Dillon, Tito Santana, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, George “The Animal” Steele, Abdullah The Butcher, Wendi Richter, Lex Luger, Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff, Marty Jannetty, Lanny Poffo, “The Masked Superstar” Bill Eadie and Ox Baker
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