THE RISING SUNNY--FSM#128

If there's one thing Tammy Sytch does well, it's attract attention.

It's always been that way. She's a natural-born attention getter, and has been since she was a teenager in New Jersey. She got enough of my attention to hire her for Smoky Mountain Wrestling. She got enough of the WWF's attention to make her the "first Diva". She got enough of the fans' attention to become the most downloaded celebrity on the worldwide web in the early days of the internet.

Lately, the attention hasn't been as positive, has often been concentrated on her personal instead of professional life, and has not come entirely on purpose. That's unfortunate in a number of ways, but one of those, to me, is that it has begun to obscure the reasons why she got all that original attention in the first place, and enough time has passed that a lot of newer fans just might not understand exactly how talented Tammy was from her early days in wrestling.

I'm not Tammy's press agent, and if I were her "manager", I'd probably cut a few of her promos for her differently, so I'm not mounting a defense here of everything you've heard about "Sunny" in the last few years. She's my friend, but I haven't seen her or had the chance to speak to her in a couple of years now, so I don't intend this piece to speak to or about matters I haven't been involved in and don't have the facts of first-hand. This piece is to speak about what I DO have personal knowledge of, the fact that when she was just 20 years old and a rookie wrestling manager who had just moved to Knoxville, Tennessee to make her debut, she was already one of the most talented female participants in the world of pro wrestling. And more people should know that.

I first became aware of Tammy around 1990, through my friend promoter Dennis Corraluzzo, who ruled with an iron fist as New Jersey's wrestling czar from high atop the Corraluzzo Building in downtown Camden, New Jersey. Every time I would come up to make one of Dennis' events, we would end up at a South Philly place called "Rib-It" for the ceremonial feeding frenzy, which began to encompass an ever-growing number of friends and confidantes. Suddenly, in that group appeared two quiet teenagers, one of whom Dennis was quite high on as a future wrestling star, named Chris Candido. The other was his high school girlfriend, Tammy Sytch.

Chris' grandfather, Chuck Richards, had been an undercard wrestler for the old WWWF, and Chris was a wrestling prodigy who had begun having pro matches in his early teens. He was short for the business then, barely 5'7", but he made up for it with a powerlifter's frame and incredible strength combined with flying moves and the bumps of a young Dynamite Kid--which would cause problems later on. As big a wrestling fan as you would find in a locker room, he was a learning sponge, soaking up not only the in-ring performance but always interested in the whys of the booking and psychology behind the scenes. Tammy was the girl outside the locker room door ready to take pictures of Chris' matches. I would find out later Tammy was just as big a fan, and just as interested, if not more so, in the business end of the business.

After opening Smoky Mountain Wrestling in Knoxville in early 1992, I was always on the lookout for talent. I had to be, as running a territory burns a lot of it up, and while I tried to concentrate on veteran talent who was already "over" and knew how to work the Southern style, I knew I needed young guys to build as well. An early project had been "Prime Time" Brian Lee. Brian had been in the business for a couple of years, and worked Memphis, but he was still green in all aspects in early 1992 when I pegged him to be my top singles babyface. The reason, truthfully, that Brian got the nod was the unavailability of my top pick, Brad Armstrong, and Brian's size, youth, and most importantly--locale. He lived in Nashville, only a 3 hour drive away. He didn't have to move to work for me, so I could afford him. I say this to illustrate why I didn't gamble on Chris Candido until later.

Dennis had been prodding me to use Chris practically since I had opened, and I had talked to Chris a number of times on the phone. I know he thought I was putting him off, but in actuality my problem was in his best interests. Even though Chris had been wrestling for six years, it was all Northeast indies, and he was still only 20 years old in 1992 with a true "baby" face which contradicted his promos and style, which were classic heel. I would have to start him on the undercard and let him get over slowly, not to mention he needed to learn to slow down and pick up the psychology. I couldn't afford to pay him enough to move 700 miles from New Jersey and give up what he was doing there, as bad as he might want me to. But I was determined to find a way to.

That inspiration struck after seeing Tammy at another of Dennis' events. She was now 20 and gorgeous in a fresh, natural way--especially before her WWF-era boob job--and well-spoken with a confidant voice. She also had a little attitude to her, mostly in a good way. In the early 1990's, I was not in any way paying attention to politics--it would have taken time away from obsessing on wrestling--but even I knew that one of the most controversial, even unpopular females in the country, as she is now, was Hillary Clinton. There were not a lot of liberal Yankee feminists in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky I was promoting in, I'll tell you that. So I hit Chris AND Tammy with an idea.

I couldn't afford to pay either one of them enough to move on their own--but--if they BOTH wanted to work for me, they could come as a couple and make enough money to support themselves. Chris would wrestle, Tammy would manage, but they would not be "together" on the air. Chris would come in claiming to be the "Real" World Champion--cutting wiseguy, Jersey promos using Dennis' cartoonish-looking WWA belt--but clearly be just a loudmouth kid. Tim Horner, a veteran babyface who could evaluate Chris as well as give him some timing lessons for working a Southern territory, would vow to shut him up, and they'd work opening matches for a month to establish Chris. From there, he'd work his way up the cards, and as he learned he would advance.

His "better half" would have to sink or swim. There was no reason to bring a manager in for an underneath talent. Tammy would have to come in on top. She would debut on TV as a student from the ultra-snooty, liberal private women's college in New England, Wellesley. It just happened to be Hillary's alma mater, and Hillary just happened to be Tammy's "idol", a woman she wanted to emulate. Tammy was also interested in wrestling, and the idea of guiding the poor dumb brutes' careers. So, she would file a sexual discrimination lawsuit against Commissioner Bob Armstrong claiming wrongdoing that there were no female managers in SMW, and she would be the first, as soon as she found a man worth purchasing, since so many of them were stupid. If she embraced this backstory, the rest would fall into place--I hoped. This story would be told for weeks on TV through her interviews, until finally she would sign a top guy. With a gimmick like this, I figured she should get nuclear heat in the hills.

They loved the idea, but at the time, while Chris would have sawed his leg off and rode a rocket to the moon to wrestle fulltime, Tammy was the practical one. I had to be quite persuasive to get her to actually agree to it. Only after promising that she could transfer as a college student to the University of Tennessee and be given as much time as she needed off from being booked, if necessary, to complete her nursing school, did she agree. She did, by the way, transfer to UT, and as far as I know completed the schooling she had started, as I used to see her doing her homework in the heel locker room. They would come in to start on TV April 19, 1993 in Barbourville, Kentucky, tape matches and promos for a month there, and come back to start in June--when school was out.

This call, by the way, is where she got the name she used in SMW, Tammy Fytch--of the New England Fytches, of course--because I asked her last name and misheard Chris' Jersey accent. All I could think of were the fans chanting "Fytch the bitch!"

I knew she could talk on the phone and in person, but I didn't really know how she'd be on promos, since she'd never done one before--at least in public, and especially on TV. So when they both debuted in SMW at the TV taping in Kentucky, I booked Chris for live matches and a promo or two since I had SEEN him work, but for Tammy, I purposely made her first interview a pre-tape at the announce desk, that would be inserted into the show as if it was live. If she was going to freeze up on camera or needed a few takes, I wanted to know before there were witnesses.

I verbally gave her the story I wanted her to tell. Then, as I usually did with talent that had a long interview with a number of points, I gave it to her in writing as I had told it, with the instructions to use her own words and use my story as a guide. Then, she stepped on the set with Bob Caudle, who had instructions to help her if she got lost.

In one take, she not only told the exact story I had asked her to tell, and hit every one of the points, but she did it while using almost the exact same verbiage I had written on the paper AND made it sound like she was putting it in her own words at the same time. After take one, I said "cut", and starting with her second TV appearance, I never had qualms of putting her on live again. I don't remember one promo she ever screwed up.

Her first promos and interactions with Bob Armstrong had her working with a 30 year veteran and one of the best promo men in the South, and she wasn't intimidated. Respectful, yes, and always prepared, but you could tell she was a wrestling fan simply because she knew how this stuff was supposed to look and sound. She was quickly one of the best promos--at least one of the most heat-getting--in the company.

Meanwhile, Brian Lee's tenure as top babyface had thankfully lost it's necessity with the arrival of Tracy Smothers--Brian was just not THE babyface and never would be, but he COULD be an interesting top heel with the right manager--and that's exactly what he became, turning on Tracy Smothers and signing with Tammy Fytch. He stabbed Tracy in the back for, as Smothers exclaimed, "the money and the pretty girl, man!" and every fan knew why he was so upset. Tammy had instant heat and Brian had more credibility as a heel in one fell swoop than even a series with Paul Orndorff had given him as a babyface.

Tammy was scary good at ringside, as well. I remember that personally, as an adjustment from being a ringside photographer, it still took awhile to get used to being IN the match, someone the fans were paying attention to. Tammy was a natural heat getter at ringside who also knew how to keep herself busy, when to back up when she started getting attention at the wrong times, working with her "gimmick"--the loaded purse and sometimes the "pepper spray" contained therein--and executing finishes and angles, which as you can imagine I was quite a stickler for detail on and which could sometimes last for minutes and minutes of specific acts and placements. I don't recall Tammy ever screwing up any finishes, either.

She couldn't "work" as in wrestle matches. She might have been able to do certain moves, but she was not only never asked to but was not allowed to--it would have killed her gimmick. But she could certainly "work" as far as a manager's involvement. None of the guys were allowed to touch her anyway, past possibly her own man screwing up and colliding with her if it were a main event finish, and even that didn't happen for awhile. It became a joke with Brian Lee that the chain of contact would be "Tammy slaps piss out of Tracy, Tracy punches Brian in the face" and Tammy would get off scott free. It would have let off some of her steam to be touched, and that was saved for someone special, whether a top babyface "spanking" her, or better yet--another woman!

In their summer-long feud, the fans had seen Lee win the SMW Title from Smothers with Tammy's help and the two battle in Bounty matches, Coal Miner's Glove matches, and Taped Fist matches, each time Tammy's interference spelling the difference. Finally, for a weekend in October 1993 in Knoxville and Johnson City, Tennessee and Barbourville, Kentucky, the SMW Title was on the line between Smothers and Lee, with Sherri Martel in Tracy's corner to offset Tammy. Working with the single top female talent in the sport once again honored, but didn't intimidate, Tammy--and when Sherri finally laid hands on her for the catfight the fans were waiting for, it blew the roof off the place and allowed Lee to keep the belt yet again, but still give Tracy an out. Tammy was doing complicated, main event programs after less than 6 months in the business.

These angles had set her up for MY all-time favorite SMW angle, the Ron Wright/Dirty White Boy babyface turn. White Boy had been my top single heel since the doors opened, and he was managed, of course, by East Tennessee legend Ron Wright, who I honored in an earlier column. Ron had gotten immense heat in their angle with Smothers by announcing they had, in protest of the "Southern Boy"'s popularity, moved to New York and become Yankees. Lee and White Boy had teamed a time or two, which brought Ron Wright into Tammy Fytch's social circle.

Suddenly, Ron was missing, and when he was seen again, it was while being wheeled around in his wheelchair by Fytch herself. Ron, no longer the mean old cuss he had always been, now was confused, even rambling, daydreaming out loud about when he and his brother Don won the Tennessee Tag Team Title twenty years before. Fytch would always be sure to remind Ron to "take his heart medicine", and sometimes slip him the pills right there. White Boy was insane over this, but Ron would insist Tammy was a "sweet little thing" and there was no problem, until finally White Boy could take it no more and tried to physically rescue his mentor, but was then beaten down by Lee and Fytch. Tammy, playing the Erin Fleming role with Ron as the aged Groucho Marx, was tremendous here, and it led to double main events at the Thanksgiving Thunder Tour 1993 with my Heavenly Bodies facing the Bruise Brothers in Streetfights, and White Boy facing Lee for the Title, with White Boy having brought back the Dirty White Girl to even things up. Once again, the pops of the nights were the girls and their catfight, but some jealousy did rear it's head--White Girl couldn't stand Tammy, but since Tammy was younger, prettier, a better promo and figured in on top long term, Tammy was entirely professional with her, if "pointed" on promos.

The 1993 Christmas Chaos Tour main events that year were the first regular series of Triple Threat matches in the United States, with Lee, Smothers and White Boy facing each other and each man with a strong grudge against the other two. Tammy and White Girl in 2 of the 3 corners added great heat. When the "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" card on February 13, 1994 drew SMW's largest crowd to date, almost 4,000 fans paying $32,000, Tammy was in the main event, cornering champion Lee against challenger White Boy in a Tennessee Chain match with the legend, Ron Wright, returning to corner White Boy in Wright's own specialty match. She was barely 21 years old and had been in the sport less than a year at the time, and was possibly my promotion's hottest heel.

Candido wasn't doing so badly himself. He had just come off a series of matches winning the US Junior Heavyweight Title from Bobby Blaze, and his work and promos had gotten him over to the point where the fans bought him as a main event guy--he was just starting a one on one series with Tracy Smothers, while White Boy battled Lee and Tammy. It was finally time, and I made a regular top heel team of Candido and Lee, managed by Tammy, and they soon won the SMW Tag Titles from the Rock & Roll Express. Tammy had started on top and acquitted herself beautifully, but Chris had accomplished the harder task--he had come in cold in the openers, and had earned a main event spot the old-fashioned way in less than a year, still 21 years of age himself.

Replacing the WWF-bound Heavenly Bodies as my top heel team, Lee and Candido ruled the tag scene until breaking up that Fall to give their spot to the Gangstas, with Lee intended to head for the WWF in a run that was aborted ahead of time. Tammy stuck with managing Chris, but it wasn't long until the WWF came calling for them, as well.

For someone who would soon have a reputation as hard to deal with, I just want to state here that besides being as talented as I have described her, Tammy never gave me an issue in SMW. She got heat with some of the boys, but not of the serious kind, and mostly due to being bossy and telling Chris what to do a lot. In the male-dominated locker room, that didn't get over well, but it actually didn't bother Chris, who was mild-mannered and didn't like confrontations, he just liked to concentrate on his wrestling. Neither ever questioned a finish or refused to do anything. I don't remember either ever no-showing a booking, or even being seriously late to a show with no valid reason. Lastly, and most importantly, I don't believe Tammy ever took a pill, or even drank a beer, during her entire nearly two-year run in SMW. I would say the same thing about Chris, but knowing what I know now about some of the damage he had done to his body, it wouldn't surprise me if he was taking some kind of pain medication because he needed it. There were no signs of any issues with either, and in the SMW locker room, past beer and weed, it wasn't that easy or common to find anything else anyway--certainly not openly.

The WWF recruited Tammy first--even then, she was the attention-getter--to be an announcer, but that wasn't her proper placement. She needed to be the star, not the saleswoman. She finished up her SMW dates by helping Chris turn on his loveable but dimwitted friend from Jersey, Boo Bradley--later to be Balls Mahoney in ECW--in an angle that allowed both one more professional thrill in getting to work with Cactus Jack. Chris stayed in SMW to work a series with Boo before he got the call as well.

I knew as soon as I heard the gimmick what was going to happen, and how miserable both would be. The "Bodydonnas", originally, was to feature Chris as a Tony Little-like physical fitness freak named Skip with Tammy his female counterpart Sunny, and they would exercise their way under the fans' skins. The problem was, this gimmick had "jobber" written all over it for Chris, but what happened with Sunny was, in a way, worse.

The WWF fans weren't programmed to REALLY hate the heels, especially undercard ones, and they were beginning, in large part, to cheer and/or catcall the hot girl at ringside. Tammy went from having so much heat that a 200 pound farm woman once drug her by the hair across the floor of the Knox Central High School in Barbourville while the entire place cheered, to being the most downloaded woman on the internet 18 months later. Chris was stuck in the prelims in a cartoon gimmick he hated.

It was similar to prodigies in any endeavor going to private or public schools. In private school, the young talent has small classrooms and lots of personal attention from the teacher, and is allowed to thrive in their own way and often "outside the box." In public school, they are in large classrooms and expected to conform, and they either bristle or get bored. Inside the ring, Chris was a better performer than all but the top, main event WWF talent--and in a year when Diesel was WWF Champion, even a few of those. But the locker room, and the office, looked at him like a kid who had only worked one territory and wanted to go out and have tear the house down matches with everyone, a kid whose girlfriend told him what to do. He complained about the "silly" gimmick and the "cartoon" angles--which was made worse by the fact he was right. I had fifteen years' experience in every facet of the business at the top levels, and I still got heat saying the same things, so Chris never had a chance.

With Tammy, it was two-pronged. She was too "smart" to the business for her own good, and wasn't shy about expressing herself when illogical situations were presented to her, or a lack of seriousness to the issue would obviously keep something from getting over. Tammy always said I taught her everything she knew about the business, and unfortunately, she was right. I had given them a 2 year education in the pro wrestling business, and they had just landed in Disneyland. I had explained to them the reasonings behind everything they would do or say in SMW, and where everything was going and why it--hopefully--would draw. In the WWF, they were told to do some eye-rolling things and like it. But while Chris just wanted to wrestle, Sunny started liking being a superstar as well. No matter whether the office's plan or not, when she went out in front of the fans, she got over.

Their issues beginning in the WWF have been documented in a number of places, so there's no reason to dwell on them here. Chris, in trying to overcompensate for his lack of push and position, started doing more serious damage to his body. They both got on the wrong side of locker room politicians. Sunny morphed from being a heel with a little heat at ringside to a major personality in the WWF just being, basically, herself--a hot, opinionated woman with a smart mouth. But she started clashing more often with office members as well. She made questionable choices as to who she trusted, or associated with, on the road. Chris and Tammy had their own unique relationship, but all these stresses began to cause real issues with it for the first time. By 1997 I was working in the WWF office in Stamford, and at one point was made Tammy's official office contact for everything, because everyone else was exasperated by dealing with her.

I had to call her a few times about her road expenses--the $80 breakfasts she was heeling Chris in on, and ordering omelettes with 10 egg whites from the Marriott. I had to blister her a time or two for being late to appearances. But it was much less headache than I had with any number of talents, because I had two things going for me. One, they both still respected me--Chris would do anything I asked, and Tammy would acquiese after I explained the issue and let her argue a little. Two, most importantly, I was honest with them. If a deal was stupid or silly or they had a better way to do it, I would agree with them, and then remind Tammy how much money she was making to do very little, and the way to get back at them all was to take it while it was there. I was trying to do the same thing.

I once had to talk Tammy out of just walking into Sable's locker room and throttling her. As most now know, both Vince McMahon and Vince Russo had adolescent fetishes for Sable. She was pushed to the moon despite not being able, even refusing to learn how, to wrestle, not being able to really perform in any way, and cutting horrible promos in a monotone, Stepford Wives-type delivery. She knew nothing about wrestling and didn't care to find out, she clearly aspired to a TV and movie career after WWF. This not only offended the "star" in Sunny, but the wrestling fan in Tammy, and they hated each other. Normally, it wouldn't have been a contest since Tammy was hotter and could outdo Sable at anything--but Sable had the backing of the office, and knew who not to argue with, so Tammy got the heat, and got hotter when Sable was given more high-profile spots. Tammy had actually turned down the Playboy offer before it was pitched to Sable, as she wasn't comfortable doing that level of nudity then, but the Christian Rena Mero took the million dollars, and I'm sure that didn't help relations afterward.

I don't know the exact hows or whys of either of their progressions toward substance abuse. I wasn't on the road with them, nor in their room or car afterwards. I assume it had to do with pain, whether physical on Chris' part, or possibly emotional on Tammy's. I'm sure their next stop, the ECW locker room, didn't help either one of them, and I'm far from the only one to say that. I remember a late 1990's episode of ECW TV where Tammy was featured in a sensational, lurid try at a ratings grab talking about her personal issues, and being hot at Heyman for putting a kid with problems--supposedly a friend--in that position. It was almost as bad as the Melanie Pillman RAW interview, and I was ashamed at the levels the business was stooping to.

When ECW closed down in 2001, Chris told me they were out a lot of money--in the tens of thousands of dollars. Heyman had given him an important position in ECW, arranging travel, and it just happened they had paid for a LOT of plane tickets on their credit card without getting reimbursed. According to him, they lost the house they were living in because of it. By then, I was in OVW, where I mostly stayed from 1999 until 2005. While I spoke to Chris on the phone a number of times, I only saw him once in the last couple of years of his life. He came through Louisville and I met him for dinner after a show. He was upbeat at first, but as dinner wore on, I could tell he had possibly had one too many muscle relaxers, and when he left I hugged him and told him, "take care of yourself". Just a few years later, in 2005, I was hearing that Chris was healthy again and happy with his new spot in TNA, where he was getting to perform on a big stage. A few months afterward, he broke his leg in a match, had surgery, and died shortly thereafter of a post-surgical blood clot. He was 33 years old.

I mentioned earlier I hadn't seen Tammy in a few years now. Since Chris' death, being tied up with TNA, then ROH, then cutting my travel down, I would only be at an event with Tammy every couple of years. But any time I saw her, she was dressed up and looking hot as always, clear-eyed and laughing about old stories. The last time I saw her was a couple of years ago at a fanfest, where she was mobbed all day but came by to talk before leaving. At that time, I had heard she had had some legal troubles, and I asked her if everything was OK. She assured me it was, she looked great, and I hugged her and, without thinking, said "take care of yourself". I truly hope she does.

So yours truly, the most controversial commentator in wrestling, isn't going to pile on about Tammy's current triumphs OR tribulations. I hope she's happy, is healthy and makes money. But when I think about Tammy Sytch and Chris Candido, my two child prodigies, I think of them standing at the curtain in a sold-out Knoxville Civic Coliseum, waiting to go out and tear the house down. That's how I remember Chris, and that's how I always want to think of Tammy. I don't want any more hugs to end the same way Chris' did.