If you've watched professional wrestling on TV or pay-per-view, seen it on a home video, or read about it in a book or magazine for the last 30 years, chances are you've seen something Jim Cornette did, heard something he said, or read something he wrote. For three decades, "James E." has been a fixture in the sport.
Jim Cornette was born September 17, 1961, in Louisville, Kentucky. He became a wrestling fan at the age of 9 after a chance encounter with Dick the Bruiser's TV show from Indianapolis. Hooked, he quickly found the local Louisville wrestling, the Tennessee TV tapes of promoter Nick Gulas, and began watching every televised wrestling program and reading every wrestling publication. By the age of 12, Jim began attending the weekly live events at the Louisville Gardens, with occasional trips to wrestling shows in Cincinnati and Indianapolis built around family vacations.
Too young to drive, Jim's mother Thelma took him to the matches, setting the stage for the "gimmick" that would become his entree into the sport. He began taking photos at the matches, and when he was just 14, began selling them to Christine Jarrett, the Louisville promoter, for sale at the souvenir stands. "Miss Christine" had taken a liking to the young man as Louisville's biggest fan and became friends with Jim's mother as a result.
"By the time I was 20 years old", JC remembers, "I was going to over 150 live events a year. I had seen over 1,000 shows in person and at least 3000 wrestling TV shows either on broadcast TV or video tape. I had 6 years experience with photography, publicity, ring announcing, even publishing my own magazine. But I had never been a performer, actually ON the card, and I didn't really expect I ever would be."
"The people in Memphis and towns she never went to hated me AND her", JC laughs, "but in Louisville, Evansville, wherever they knew her, I had MORE heat because the fans would hate me more for being such an asshole when my mother was so nice!"
Debuting on Memphis TV on August 21, 1982, Jim learned his craft with on the job training managing such stars as Crusher Broomfield (later One Man Gang), Jesse Barr, the Exotic Adrian Street and Miss Linda, and the masked Galaxians (Danny Davis and Ken Wayne), among others. In the Summer of 1983, Jim was sent down with a crew from Tennessee to Georgia, to run the local Georgia and East Tennessee towns as a branch of Georgia Championship Wrestling. Cornette managed the Angel (Frank Morrell), Bounty Hunter Jerry Novak, King Carl Fergie and former Royal Kangaroo Norman Frederick Charles 3rd. Returning to Memphis in August, he served as the assistant manager to Jimmy Hart's First Family, understudying Hart on the small town shows and once
Mid South Wrestling promoter Cowboy Bill Watts came to Memphis to see the talent as part of a trade agreement with Jarrett. Watts chose two Memphis veterans, Dennis Condrey and Bobby Eaton, to form a tag team that would soon be named the Midnight Express, and picked Jim to be their manager. Along with their rivals,
In December, the Midnights headed to Dallas for World Class Wrestling and spent 6 months there in a heated rivalry with Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers, the Fantastics, including American Tag Title matches in Dallas' Reunion Arena before almost 20,000, and in Texas Stadium, home of the Cowboys, for the 2nd annual David Von Erich memorial event which drew a quarter of a million dollar gate. World Class Wrestling's large syndicated TV network exposed the Express and Jim Cornette to a wider audience, and after gaining the interest of both Jim Crockett Promotions booker Dusty Rhodes and NWA World Champion Ric Flair, they were offered a spot in the Charlotte-based promotion, at the time the second biggest wrestling company in the country, behind only the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE).
The Midnights were also in featured matches on the annual Great American Bash summer stadium and arena tours in the late 80's, and after Condrey left the team in 1987 and was replaced by Stan Lane, they were perennial United States Tag Team Champions from 1987 to 1989, also winning the PWI Tag Team of the Year award and the World Tag Title again in 1988. In early 1989, Turner Broadcasting, the new owners of WCW, hired a VP named Jim Herd who was no fan of the Express or Cornette, and while constant clashes with management stifled how they were used, they had two more years of classic matches with great opposing teams until Cornette and Lane walked out in November 1990. The complete story of the Midnight Express years has been documented by JC in his new book, The Midnight Express 25th anniversary Scrapbook, available on this website.
In 1991, with WWF business on a downswing and WCW so badly mismanaged, Cornette felt a traditional, territorial wrestling promotion with good talent and an exciting TV show could still succeed, as many traditional wrestling fans were beginning to be driven away by the "sports entertainment" phenomenon. He got record producer Rick Rubin to give him the financial backing to give it a try.
"We always tried to have great talent, the guys who understood the style of wrestling, they busted their asses, and the live events and TV shows were great for fans of Southern wrestling." JC remembers.
SMW had achieved a first in 1993 when the Bodies vs. Rock & Roll match for the SMW Tag Title also appeared on Pay Per View events for both WCW and WWF--WCW's Superbrawl in February and WWF's Survivor Series in November. Bill Watts had taken over running WCW when Herd finally
Cornette also became the American spokesperson for WWF Champion Yokozuna, and Summerslam 93 from the Palace of Auburn Hills saw the Bodies lose a WWF Tag Title match to hometown heroes Rick & Scott Steiner, while JC cornered for Yokozuna as he retained the WWF Heavyweight Title over Lex Luger in the main event. In JC's first WWF PPV event, he managed in both championship matches. Wrestlemania 10 was another landmark. "My SMW work was what I loved, and the WWF work was to finance it", Jim recalls." but even I have to admit that it was really cool that the first time I ever walked into Madison Square Garden,
1995, however, was not a good year for SMW. It continued to be a critical success, and it's major events delivered at the gate, but it was the victim of a Catch 22. The cost of producing and airing the Tv show on broadcast affiliates was rising, so SMW couldn't afford to add markets. Without more TV markets, SMW couldn't run enough of those major events that brought in the big money. "We were running too many spot shows in Haysi, Va., and not enough arenas where we could draw 1500 or more fans." JC says. "But running 15 shows a month off only 4 or 5 strong
Cornette accepted a job on the WWF creative team and moved to Stamford, Ct. in 1996. He continued as a manager on-air for WWF throughout the year, managing WWF Tag Champions Owen Hart and the British Bulldog, and former WCW champion Vader. He celebrated his on-air "retirement" as a manager in December 1996 by being
"The WWF creative job was at some points a lot of fun and at many points a living Hell", JC recalls, "you will, sometimes simultaneously, love Vince and hate Vince, and sooner or later you will develop a twitch. I was glad when I got on it and glad when I got out of it."
In 1998, Cornette returned to the air to lead a group of "disgruntled NWA legends" to assault the WWF way of life, and there was more than a little venom to some of Jim's promos about the state of the wrestling industry. His shoot "Cornette's Commentary" segment caused a lot of talk among fans and the industry alike with his sharp, pointed barbs to WCW and even WWF business practices. Leading stars like Jeff Jarrett, Barry Windham and NWA World Champ Dan Severn into battle with the "sports entertainers" and making caustic comments got JC a lot of attention, but by 1999 he retired from managing again to concentrate on color and working as a scout and liaison for young talent and independent promoters. Cornette ended his major-league managing career as a 12 time winner of the Wrestling Observer Best Manager poll, winning the voting every year from 1984 to 1996, except 1991 where he lost to Sensational Sherri Martel.
Jim continued to do a variety of color commentary work in 1999, including co-hosting the first episode of Smackdown on the UPN network in April, with Michael Cole on play-by-play. The Cornette-Ross team was split and seldom got the chance to work together.
"The Executive Producer of WWE television", Cornette says, "Is a person who doesn't like much. He doesn't like "rasslin", as they condescendingly call it up there in the WWE. So my commentary, actually treating it like a sport, was not his favorite. He doesn't like Southern accents, so JR and I as a team were doomed, even though everybody else liked our work for ten years but this guy. I was going nuts living in the Northeast and the only part of the business I really got to enjoy at that point was scouting the young talent and working with the independent promoters on who their upcoming talent was."
The WWE had put the other territories all out of business, and now had nowhere to get talent from that had the experience of working TV and a fulltime schedule. Jim saw the opportunity to do something more rewarding than "voiceovers on international Heat", and move back down South at the same time. He met with his old friend Danny Davis, the founder of Ohio Valley Wrestling. Davis had founded OVW as a school in 1993 in Jim's hometown of Louisville, and as he expanded, he had begun running TV and live events locally. Cornette made an agreement with Jim Ross in WWE Talent Relations, to establish a WWE developmental program at OVW,
With Cornette handling the talent, creative and TV end, and Davis overseeing the business office, the school and the production, it would prove to be a successful combination.
"I was the chef", JC laughs. "and Danny owned the restaurant. The food was great and people liked it and we made money with it, but the reason we opened and closed on time and stayed in business was that the guy that owned the restaurant did everything else."
On TV, OVW soon expanded with a Saturday 11PM slot on the powerful Louisville WB affiliate, WBKI, and became often the highest rated program on the station's Saturday schedule, beating prime time programming. OVW was never bumped or preempted from it's time slot for over eight years. Home videos of the show were popular with fans around the world. The program was presented by JC as young superstars performing realistic angles using old school pro wrestling psychology, and was called by the Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer "often the best-booked hour of wrestling on TV each week from any group."
At the arenas, by June 2000 OVW entered a partnership with the local Clear Channel Radio group to bring major league wrestling shows to the Louisville Gardens. JC assembled a card mixing OVW stars with Louisville wrestling legends, and featuring WWE stars like Kane and D-Lo Brown, and the "Rockin' Rumble" drew almost 3,000 fans paying over $30,000 on June 23, 2000. The success of the first event led to a second, even bigger event in January 2001, OVW's Christmas Chaos.
That event, headlined by Kane vs. OVW star Leviathan (WWE's Batista) with manager Synn (wife Stacey) and Stone Cold Steve Austin appearing live for an interview with Jim Ross, plus Chris Benoit challenging Nick Dinsmore for the OVW Title, drew over 5,000 fans and almost $75,000, and was a high point for Jim. "My mom was here, and 27 years after she took me to my first Gardens show, she saw me book one that sold it out!" After a major show in July 2001 featuring the Undertaker that drew over $50,000, the city closed the Gardens, but OVW had been recognized as a local TV show and wrestling school that had put together three major events in a one year period that drew more than 11,000 fans paying over $150,000 at the gate in the same building, numbers no other promotion in the country was doing short of WWE. As well, OVW ran over 125 live events a year in small gyms within a 150 mile radius of Louisville. In 2002, OVW began staging a series of live outdoor events at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, and over the past six summers they have become the park's biggest-drawing ongoing entertainment event.
The OVW Training Center began producing talent under the WWE developmental program, as well as by recruiting their own students. Many aspiring young wrestlers began to travel to OVW from across the country to be seen or signed. Since 2000, over 100 talents that have made it to the WWE or TNA rosters either broke in or trained extensively in OVW, including current WWE Superstars John Cena, Batista and Randy Orton, TNA and NBC American Gladiators star Matt Morgan, and UFC Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. Counting merchandise sales and TV sponsorships, OVW by 2005 was one of only three profitable fulltime wrestling promotions in the country.
"Unfortunately, changes in the WWE talent relations department put people in charge that not only didn't know how wrestlers should be trained", JC says, "but also wanted us to do whatever they said without regard to how it would affect OVW's business or ability to make money, or present a semblance of a quality product. I felt we had provided them with outstanding talent for 5 years and proven ourselves as a legitimate wrestling promotion and school with a quality product. They treated us like stooges in charge of a storage closet. Needless to say we were pretty far apart in our thinking, WWE and I. Let's just say after a year of tension and 6 weeks of blowups, we had the big one and agreed not to speak to each other anymore. And my blood pressure went down."
WWE released Jim from his consultant's agreement in July 2005, and JC stepped away from creative or on air roles in OVW while retaining his partial ownership. He and WWE have not spoken or done business since then, and, he says, "probably never shall." JC sold his piece of OVW back to Davis in May 2007, and by early 2008 the WWE had screwed OVW by pulling out of a contract they had signed only several months before, sending all their talent to the ill-conceived training venture in Florida they have poured a fortune into, which was supposed to have been patterned after OVW's success. OVW continues in business running 12 to 15 live events per month, and the TV show remains a local institution.
Also in 2004, Cornette began doing a lot of work with Ring of Honor (ROH), the biggest and best independent promotion in the country. The promotion originally welcomed a "babyface" JC as a legendary manager, but his old "heel" side emerged when getting the opportunity to manage against his childhood hero Bobby Heenan on live events. Jim also hosted a series of video releases interviewing wrestling legends such as Heenan, J.J. Dillon, Bill Watts, Bruno Sammartino and more, and spent much of 2006 as ROH Commissioner.
In June 2006, JC joined TNA Wrestling with an on-air role as the public face of management, laying down law and making matches on their TV show Impact, while working behind the scenes as a producer, interacting closely with the wrestlers and TV crew. It was a mixed blessing for Cornette. "I went to TNA at the
JC's hopes were short-lived, however, as three months after he joined the company, his old nemesis from the WWF, Vince Russo was hired onto the creative team. This began a three year journey of conflicting emotions for JC--the desire to help the talent, the ambition to not let Vince McMahon have a monopoly on wrestling, and the promise he had made to Dutch Mantell not to physically attack Russo on one side, and on the other side horrible booking he had to both put his face on and sell to the talent he worked with, his hopes of TNA being in any way competitive to WWE being flushed down the toilet, and embarrassment over the perception of some that he in any way endorsed Russo's product while cashing TNA's check.
"I was convinced, probably wishful thinking, that sooner or later Russo's work would speak for itself and he would be fired, and we could try to resurrect the thing", Cornette said. "But never apply logic to anything about TNA."
In Summer 2009, after a disagreement between the two, minority owner Jarrett was stripped of power and sent home by majority owner Dixie Carter, the daughter of the head of Panda Energy, TNA's parent company. Russo, seeing an opening and having full knowledge of Carter's lack of same about the pro wrestling business, systematically eliminated Jarrett's hand-picked hires. Dutch Mantell, after 7 years with TNA, was the first to go. JC was the last to go, serving as the lead TV producer and talent agent as well as in an intermittent on-camera matchmaker role until September, when his call came.
"They released me because they said I wasn't 100 percent behind Vince Russo", he laughs. "How was THAT news??" Russo had tried to take over, but that was short-lived as within a few months, Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff were hired, and Russo was neutered until leaving the company entirely a few years later. After spending a fortune, hiring high-priced ex-WWE stars, and making a number of questionable business moves, TNA at the end of 2013 was still struggling financially and it's future remained in question.
Two weeks after his TNA release, JC made a surprise appearance at the Ring Of Honor event in New York's Manhattan Center, announcing he had been named the new Executive Producer of ROH TV on HDNet. In interviews at the time, he apologized for wasting 3 years of his life with TNA when he should have been working with ROH all that time, and promised the fans he would not go back to corporate wrestling. It was a promise he would later wish he had kept.
Jim saw in ROH a chance for a promotion that treated pro wrestling not as "sports entertainment", but a credible, serious athletic competition, to succeed. He began an eighteen month period of not only producing the TV program, but looking for ways to expand the ROH business as a whole, and trying to land a mainstream TV outlet to replace the very small market penetration HDNet provided. In addition to establishing regular seminars and tryouts for aspiring wrestlers at the company's Bristol headquarters, spearheading the opening and promotion of new live event markets such as Louisville and Charlotte, and helping bookers Adam Pearce and later Hunter Johnston with matchmaking chores, JC began contacting other industry veterans in TV production, promotion and in-ring competition that were equally as dismayed at the constricting state of the sport, and were interested in helping a new promotion with a fresh outlook succeed. He also focused his efforts on expanding ROH's pioneering of the new technology of internet pay-per-view, allowing fans anywhere in the world to see an event live as it happened on their own home computer screens.
"It's not that I don't still love pro wrestling", JC explains, "It's that pro wrestling as a profitable business doesn't exist anymore. The WWE is "sports entertainment", and while nowhere near as popular as it used to be, the WWE IS still profitable. TNA emulates WWE and is not profitable and has ineffective leadership. ROH is the only promotion trying to present pro wrestling as a sport as it was done for over 100 years, but whether it's the shoestring budget or the fact that our business has been parodied so long that no one can take it seriously anymore, or both, I don't know, but it's certainly not going to achieve the success I had envisioned for it. I decided I'm "too old for this shit", and I needed to take care of my health and work on projects more enjoyable, less stressful and more profitable for me than wrestling at this stage of my life."
In February 2013, JC partnered with Mark James of memphiswrestlinghistory.com to begin a series of books on classic pro wrestling, the first of which, "Rags, Paper & Pins--the Merchandising of Memphis Wrestling", was released in August. It follows his first book, "The Midnight Express and Jim Cornette 25th Anniversary Scrapbook", which was released in 2009 and won the Wrestling Observer Book of the Year award in that years' polling. He is already beginning work on the next, and doing research on more, at least two of which will be released in 2014.
A lifelong comic book collector and entertainment industry aficionado, Jim has also made a number of appearances at comic book and horror movie conventions in Kentucky and Tennessee in 2013, operating his Cornette's Collectibles booth where he sells his various books and merchandise and has fun talking to other fans of the genres, as well as old-school wrestling fans. After a wintertime spent organizing his massive collections of memorabilia, he is slowly selling off his comic book collection of over 10,000 Silver Age books to make more room for his notorious vintage pro wrestling collection, one of the world's largest.
JC has made only two pro-wrestling-oriented live appearances in 2013, one at the NWA Legends Fanfest in Charlotte in August, where he, the Midnight Express and the Rock & Roll Express were inducted into the NWA Hall of Heroes by none other than Jerry Jarrett, and where he performed his now-customary late-night one man show. The other was at the Legends of the Ring convention in New Jersey in October, where he also shot new home videos for Kayfabe Commentaries and RF Video to be released in 2014. While he is not ruling out other pro wrestling appearances in the future, especially involving Legends get-togethers where he gets to visit with the Expresses and other of his old cohorts, he is not actively seeking them out at this time. He continues to write a monthly column for Fighting Spirit Magazine, the United Kingdom's largest pro wrestling/MMA publication, and his podcast, the Jim Cornette Experience, debuted on MLW Radio in November 2013. Talks are ongoing for a series of one-man standup/spoken word/Q&A events he will participate in in 2014. He watches as much UFC programming as he has time for to feed the "old-school pro wrestling fan" in him.
Jim spent much of his time in the past year with wife Stacey, the "tech-smart" member of the family, completely redesigning and revamping his website, jimcornette.com, to include not only pro wrestling content but also his other interests which include pop culture, restaurant reviews and politics. "Everyone", he says, "has the duty to expose to the world what a danger the right-wing Republican conservatives pose to the country, whenever and wherever they can." He and Stacey enjoy cooking healthy, fresh food in their home kitchen, and intend to expand their schedule of comic book conventions in the coming year as well, as both enjoy the pressure-free environment, interaction with fans, and minimal travel at this point in their lives.
"I want to be busy", he says with a smile, "not crazy!"