Jerry Jarrett- Legendary Promoter
Few people possess the expertise and longevity in the wrestling industry of Tennessee native Jerry Jarrett. Born in 1942, the now 71-year-old Jarrett first got involved in wrestling as a 7-year-old selling programs and has been involved with the industry ever since. In addition to being the one time co-owner of the Memphis Territory with Jerry Lawler, Jarrett was also one of the co-founders of TNA. In 2004 he published “The Story of the Development of NWA TNA: A New Concept in Pay-Per-View Programming”. He followed that book with his 2011 biography “The Best of Times” that he co-authored with Memphis Wrestling historian Mark James (who was also instrumental in setting up this interview, thank you Mark!). Both are available on Amazon.com.
Jerry Jarrett also has the unique distinction of being the first man to hire Jim Hellwig into the wrestling industry. Both Hellwig and Borden’s first work in the CWA was the catalyst for their eventual stardom in the industry. Jarrett also attempted to bring Hellwig into TNA during its inception, but negotiations broke down. In order to get the inside story on both of these matters I approached Jerry about doing a phone interview, which he was gracious enough to do.
To begin I asked Jerry how he had first heard of Hellwig and Borden following their brief run in the four man group “Power Team USA”. Jarrett had received a flier with their picture on it and some key information. “They had limited work experience and said they would all come here (Hendersonville, Memphis), on their own, for a tryout, and, well, it isn’t going to cost anything to look.” Jarrett had a large house in Hendersonville that contained a ballroom when the four bodybuilders arrived in 1985. In other versions of the story it was only Hellwig and Borden who went for the tryout, but Jarrett explains that all four members of Power Team USA, the other two being Garland Donoho and Mark Miller, came to the Memphis tryout. He told the four massive body builders to lock up in the ballroom and they did. “They were very stiff and not very fluid, but they looked so good, I told them let me explain to you how this business works. Wrestlers are independent contractors and you make in direct proportion to the number of tickets you sell. And I said, you fellas ain’t gonna sell any tickets. So I can pay you the minimum, which is $50 a night and that will pay for your food and gas to the towns, because the four of you will have $200 a day. Now I can’t book all four of you on every card. There are some spot shows that I can probably break you off into tag teams, and maybe only one of you will wrestle, but you’ll all get paid and you’ll learn watching. They were very excited.”
For Donoho and Miller the excitement was short lived as less than a week later Borden came to Jerry and said the other two had left because they did not want to be in the business any more. Borden reiterated to Jarrett that he and Hellwig were still on board and wanted to wrestle in the CWA. Jarrett agreed and they moved forward to become the tag-team Freedom Fighters, then switch to the Bladerunners shortly before they left. Jarrett would watch the matches from behind the curtain in the locker room to see how crowds reacted to the talent, and how the talent performed. One night during a show in Memphis, Jarrett recalls a humorous story in which the pair came to him and asked what he thought of their performance that night. “They came to me and said ‘Mr. Jarrett, what do you think?’ And I said well, I’m going to be absolutely honest with you. I am subject to error and because of that I am willing to keep booking y’all in underneath matches, as enhancement talent and what have you for a while longer. But if I give you my honest opinion, if you were my children, I would say go back to California and get a job because I don’t think you’re ever going to make a lot of money in wrestling. Of course, they both became multi-millionaires and rose to the top of stardom as much as can be achieved in the business.” Jarrett tells the story with a laugh now, but also notes they appreciated the honesty and agreed to keep wrestling for him.
Jarrett notes the pair was fabulous physical specimens in the era, very respectful and eager to learn, but the reality was they were only going to have a few months in Memphis. “In our territory we ran nightly shows and I had a stable of my talent that drew money: Jerry Lawler, Jackie Fargo, Bill Dundee. Everybody else, to keep my talent roster fresh, I would use for a while then replace them. Steve and Jim were at a disadvantage because they looked better than anybody else I had working in here but they lacked the skills and experience to get into programs. So all I could use them for was to get the stars over, then to keep them viable I would book them against other enhancement talent on occasion and let them win on occasion, but that ran its course pretty quick.” However, Jarrett was not willing to leave the young pair without prospects. He made calls to both Bill Watts of UWF and Fritz Von Erich of WCCW to find them a new territory. Jarrett recalls that Watts responded first, as he said, “I called Bill and said I know you like big muscle-heads. I’ve got two of them, they’re green but they have done their due here and they’re better than they were when they first showed up. You might like them.” Watts wanted to see photos and quickly agreed to take them.
That was Jarrett’s initial interaction with Jim Hellwig, giving a young man the chance to work and finding him a new place when the time had come. However, the real story of the Jerry Jarrett interview was what took place behind the scenes while trying to sign Hellwig on at TNA. In his book on the founding of TNA Jarrett speaks of frustrations with Hellwig during the negotiation process but did not elaborate on the problems. In our interview he gave us a very direct and honest account of how things went on his side.
“When we started TNA…I called Jim and Randy Savage at the same time, and between the two of them I came as close to having a nervous breakdown as I ever have in my life. They were both, and remember this, Jim and I really had no interaction other than what I told you about, but Randy Savage and I were dear friends. But both of them were paranoid to almost the point of not being able to communicate. Jim had me send him a contract. He had his attorney look at it. That was the beginning of probably thirty contract exchanges! And Randy, I’m doing it at the same time, and Randy is so paranoid because he knew I was also buddies with Hogan, and he and Hogan, on his part, Randy hated Hogan, hated him with a passion, blamed him for he and Elizabeth’s problem. So Randy wanted me to commit that I would never, ever have any contact with Hulk Hogan. And I said, I can tell you in my heart that I don’t think he will ever work for TNA, but I cannot say never to anybody Randy.”
Jarrett offered to let Randy know if anyone he was uncomfortable with was ever going to be joining the stable of talent, but this did not suffice. Meanwhile, I asked him about what was changing during these 30 different contracts between Hellwig and TNA. “Oh it was the most minute of problems, and I would ask him are you sure you want to come in here under any conditions? ‘Oh yeah, it’s just I’ve been screwed by Vince McMahon and every promoter I ever dealt with and I’ve just got to be comfortable with my working arrangements.’ Then we would get into serious things. He wanted creative control, the ability to say I will never lose. When somebody asks for creative control it means ‘I don’t want to lose.’ So it just got…I can’t believe some of things I did or gave in to Jim about. One of them was, if we put a strap on you, a belt, make you a champion, then you’ll have to drop the strap. ‘Oh yeah, we can make that exception’. But then, I get the contract back and it doesn’t say that. It says he has creative control in everything. So what I’m telling you in general is that it was just horrendous.”
The simultaneous negotiations between Hellwig and Savage took a massive toll on Jarrett, who finally had to end the process with both of them. “It ended up, I was sitting in my office in Hendersonville and I called Randy first and I said, Randy, I love you, but you’re too damn much trouble to do business with. Then I called Jim and said, Jim, I think you need psychiatric help and I’m breaking off negotiations. I can’t take you anymore.” Jarrett had a tremendous amount of anger towards Hellwig following his extended efforts to bring Jim into TNA without success. That anger was so palpable that back in 2010 I had requested an interview with Jerry about this very project and his response was simply, “My mother always taught me: ‘If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.’” I wanted to explore what had changed in the past four years, but the more pressing issue was what plans TNA had for Hellwig given they went above and beyond to try and hire him.
According to Jarrett the plans were, “Just to bring him in as a talent and use him on top because they (Hellwig and Savage) had national name recognition. So we were going to push them. Either one would have ended up being a champion, but then it got more complex and more complex. I was in the business 50 years before they were born. What I knew from the tone of the negotiations was that they looked at us as a small time operation.” Jarrett has worked with Vince McMahon extensively in the past and knows how talent responds to Vince, meaning he could tell how Hellwig and Savage viewed TNA. “When a talent acts like they do, they viewed TNA as a glorified Independent operation. So I knew from the beginning, how they did it that it was going to be a difficult marriage. But we needed some people who would get the national media’s attention.”
I asked Jerry about what kind of financial compensation Hellwig was after. “I think Jim wanted like $100,000 a year downside guarantee. Sting wanted $250,000. I told them both that I would give each of them 5% of the profits for each pay-per-view (PPV), but you don’t know what that number is for several months after the event. Neither does Vince, neither does anyone.” Jarrett explained to me that there are many factors that create difficulty for establishing accurate PPV ratings. So much in fact that true revenue streams from a PPV show will not be in-hand for 6 to 9 months following the event.
In the end when the Carters got involved in TNA, Jarrett could see the writing on the wall and got out as quickly as he could. As the interview was coming to a close I intentionally left this question until last. What had changed during the past four years that he was now willing to speak with me about Jim Hellwig? “I’m guessing that at the time the TNA experience was still fresh on my mind. What happened to me is that often times I lose my faith. It gets clouded from my conscience thought every day. Since that time I’ve had several incidences in my life that I thought was just something terrible happening to me that turns out it was just an enormous blessing.”
Jarrett underwent open heart surgery several years ago and it changed his perspective a lot on life and bearing grudges. “Every step along the way has led me to a spiritual comfort. Now I realize old grudges and hard feeling are just crazy to burden yourself with. Even the bad things that happen in life have a positive purpose. I know you didn’t ask for a religious answer, but it’s the only one I have. I carried a grudge against Bill Watts for years.” This grudge manifested because Watts came to Jarrett and said he was losing his business. Jarrett gave Watts half of his talent and booker. After Watts regained momentum, he then came into Jarrett’s territory and competed against him, which led to great animosity at the time. “What I realized is he made me so much stronger because I had become complacent. All that bad was a blessing.”
“With Hellwig, what I realize is he had his crosses to bear and he had his problems and that made him paranoid. And what I should have done is taken my business hat off and put my friendship hat on and tried to help him. Because I’m sure, you’re writing about him, you know all the problems he’s had with everybody. You see, he and Vince patched things up. As we age I think we all come to the realization God is very good and takes care of us, and so we realize how destructive old grudges and hatred are.”