In an insular industry like professional wrestling, you would think the value of being a family member of a famous wrestler would carry some weight. You would be right — to a degree. However, nepotism often doesn’t end very well in professional wrestling given the size of the egos involved in the locker room. More often than not, the sons & daughters of famous wrestlers don’t exactly turn out to be the spitting images of their parents, for better and for worse.
The amount of siblings who have failed to make it as big stars in the wrestling business is quite remarkable, given how much value is placed on the fact that children of famous wrestlers often know the code of conduct better than outsiders coming in to be trained. If your father lived his live on the road, you kind of have a pretty good idea of what the risk of being a professional wrestler are. You don’t need to be lectured by someone about it.
However, that doesn’t automatically mean you can get in the wrestling ring and be a success. More than often, it means the deck is stacked against you even more than the average newcomer.
I am reminded of the triumphs & pitfalls of wrestling families when I watch the Rhodes Clan. Dusty Rhodes was a tremendous babyface who knew how to draw a crowd against Ric Flair & Harley Race. He was Americana personified and knew how to get the fans to go along with his vigilante style justice when it came to revenge. Who else could pull off The Midnight Rider gimmick? Whether it was Mid South, St. Louis, or Florida, Dusty had a way of appealing to the common man. Naturally, when Vince McMahon signed him to a deal, he did everything possible to embarrass Rhodes — and yet the fans wouldn’t allow Vince to get the last laugh. Rhodes made polka dots entertaining. He made Sapphire as a manager. No matter who he was paired with, whether it was Ted DiBiase or Akeem, Rhodes managed to stay a fan favorite.
After his return to WCW, the pressure was on Dustin Rhodes. Dustin didn’t have the character or persona of his father. He had the size, the athletic ability, and the heart. He tried. He really, really tried. However, the fans often tried to measure Dustin up to his father and Dustin as a babyface was often relegated to mid-card status despite doing what he could to be a top name in the second-place promotion. When ECW was brewing and Kevin Sullivan had a creative hand in WCW, Dustin often found himself in hardcore matches against Bunkhouse Buck (Terry Golden) & Terry Funk. One of my favorite shows to watch was Slamboree ’94 in Philadelphia because the ECW influence was starting to rub off on WCW. Dustin had, by Philadelphia standards, a tame cowbell match with Buck only to get laid out by Funk who said that he couldn’t attack the son of a plumber, but he sure could attack the son of a son of a plumber. Dustin then got fired after he bladed in a ridiculous King of the Road match on the back of a trailer for the infamous Uncensored PPV.
And then he became Goldust. He was still Goldust when we watched him against Randy Orton on RAW. Goldust 2013 still has fans. As much as the absurdity of the Goldust gimmick probably pained his father, I’m also sure his father (the ham that he is) got a kick out of his son becoming the star that he became with the gimmick that he has, well, lived with ever since going to WWE.
Then came Cody Rhodes. Movie star looks, acting classes in Los Angeles, true athlete, good speaker, the whole package. Cody doesn’t look anything like his father. He doesn’t resemble Dustin. And yet, Cody will eventually reach the promise land as a big-time player in WWE. It’s meant to be. The family line dictates that he’ll do great things.
But not all family lines in wrestling are blessings. They are often curses. They are often scarlet letters.
The most successful wrestling families tend to be from wrestling past before today’s WWE-dominated environment. You had Tough Tony Borne and his son, the Maniac, Matt Borne. Tony was as gritty as they came in the Portland scene. Matt was a great athlete and super in the ring. There’s a reason he wrestled Ricky Steamboat at the first Wrestlemania. Unfortunately, most wrestling families can’t survive corporate wrestling because the rules of today are different than yesteryear. Matt was disgusted with the way his career developed. In the territory system, he would have been a major player. In corporate wrestling, he was pushed with the ridiculous gimmick of Big Josh. He then went to WWE and became Doink the Clown. There are still Doink references, in a negative tone, on WWE TV today for goodness sakes. Matt Borne’s legacy didn’t turn out the way he thought it would.
For every father/son duo like the late Rikidozan & Mitsuo Momota (who turned out to be more important as an administrator in All Japan & NOAH than an in-ring wrestler), you unfortunately saw Bill Watts & son Erik. Erik, like many sons of wrestlers, was the classic jock. All the physical talent in the world but little of the charisma that made their fathers the stars of the past. So many sons of wrestling legends fall into this trap. It’s not enough to be a jock and to carry the genetics. David Sammartino was another classic example. He looked like a Greek God when his father Bruno tried to push him in WWE. It just wasn’t meant to be. Jerry Lawler, one of the smartest & most charismatic wrestlers ever in the territory system, couldn’t figure out the formula for his sons Brian or Kevin. Bill Dundee, as clever of a carny as one can find, couldn’t figure out what the hell went wrong with his son Jamie. Jamie’s life has been anything but PG-13. Bill even mentions about his son’s failings on television as a punchline. As long as the punchline doesn’t involve someone’s death, people chuckle and move on. It’s when the bad habits can kill you, as they did for the late Reid Flair, that everyone takes a step back and acknowledges just how much pressure there is on offspring to emulate the success of their famous fathers.
No one knows this principle more than the Von Erich family. Fritz Von Erich had everything in the world and then he didn’t. He had a Texas-sized family, a Texas-sized ego, a Texas-sized territory, but he didn’t have Texas-sized shame and the fans turned on him after family tragedies were exploited. Talk about taking family business a little too far.
So, what makes a successful wrestling family? How do sons of famous fathers obtain success? If you look at today’s scene and look at past history, the answer is that the sons often become something completely different than their fathers. Look at the Poffo clan. Angelo Poffo was the classic military strong man who loved a great fight. Lanny was the super charismatic intellectual smartass who was a Genius. Randy was the athletic baseball player who could truly love the gimmick and was was reclusive a human being as you could possibly find.
And then you have The Funks. Dory Sr. was a wrestling machine. Dory Jr. was a wrestling machine himself. Terry, however, personified the Texas wild man and went crazy. He was a great wrestler and retired as such as in 1982. But while he was busy feuding with Abdullah the Butcher in Japan, he was busy having empty arena matches with Jerry Lawler and pouring motor oil over the top of his head during promos in Florida. And look what Terry helped spawned… Atsushi Onita.
If you want your extremes, take a look at the McMahon family — from Jess to Vince Sr. to Vince to Shane. Nobody could have ever predicted that Shane would bow out of the picture because Triple H was more or less the son(-in-law) that Vince always envisioned. Shane was born into money and he certainly married into it, so nobody is shedding a tear for him.
The bottom line when it comes to wrestling families? It’s an inexact science to figure out which sons of famous fathers will pan out. For every pairing like Grizzly Smith & Jake Roberts, you have Ted DiBiase Sr. & Jr. Jr. had the look, the talent, but not the charisma. In Japan, he might have made it. Not in America. Curtis Axel is trying his hardest to make it in the WWE but the odds remain stacked against him because he talks like the classic jock whereas his father was the charismatic jock who could back up everything ever spouted from his mouth. There is always pressure on the sons to emulate their fathers and become big stars. Sometimes, it pans outs. Other times, it doesn’t. In the territory system, fathers had more control in the outcome of their sons’ futures. In today’s environment, that protection doesn’t exist. The admiration and romanticization of wrestling families still lives on. However, the downsides are as great today as they have ever been. The tension & pressure can be too much. It can tear apart families as much as it can bring them together in a close-knit unit. Just ask Jerry Jarrett & his son Jeff all about that.