AMARILLO, Texas – Terry Funk, a wrestling icon whose legendary career of spectacle and violence spanned five decades, has died. The brawling Texan, affectionately known as “The Funker” to friends and fans, was 79.
Funk was born on June 30, 1944, in Hammond, Indiana. His family soon relocated to Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. His father, Dory Funk Sr., began a pro wrestling career after serving in the Navy during World War II. In time, Dory Sr. joined the management team of a regional wrestling promotion, Western States Sports. He became full owner of the “Amarillo territory” in 1967, pushing his sons, Dory Jr. and Terry, among the top wrestlers in the company. When Dory Sr. died in 1973, his sons took the reins.
Terry’s in-ring debut came on Dec. 9, 1965, in Amarillo, against Sputnik Monroe. Dory Jr.’s career began two years earlier.
The Funk Brothers won numerous tag team championships in the National Wrestling Alliance’s various affiliates, and competed abroad in All Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual tag team showcase, the World’s Strongest Tag Determination League, winning the event three times (1977, 1979, and 1982). Beloved by Japanese crowds, the Funks engaged in bloody brawls—singles and tag bouts—with the likes of Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, The Sheik, and Abdullah the Butcher.
However, the Funks’ biggest accomplishments would come in the singles ranks, as they became the first—and only—brothers to hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Dory Jr. defeated Gene Kiniski on Feb. 11, 1969, to claim the championship. He held the belt for 1,563 days before dropping the title to Harley Race in Kansas City on May 24, 1973. Terry won the title off Jack Brisco on Dec. 10, 1975, in Miami Beach, Florida. He’d hold the belt for 424 days before losing to Harley Race in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Terry routinely appeared on St. Louis television for “Wrestling at The Chase” in the late 1960s and early 70s, and performed at the Kiel Auditorium into the 80s.
After his run as NWA champion ended, Funk, now spouting a goatee and long, wavy locks, engaged in a long-standing rivalry with Dusty Rhodes. The two men, each adroit on the microphone, would talk fans into venues across the South and in Texas to watch them maul one another in stipulation matches, such as bull rope matches, cage matches, lights-out matches, and Texas death matches.
Terry Funk initially retired from pro wrestling in 1983 and pursued television and film projects, with roles in 1987’s “Over the Top” and 1989’s “Roadhouse.” He and Dory Jr. also wrestled for the World Wrestling Federation in the mid-80s. Terry carried a branding iron to the ring and would occasionally attack opponents before or after the bell. He feuded with the Junkyard Dog and would challenge Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship on numerous occasions.
After leaving the WWF in April 1986, Funk took another hiatus. He returned to pro wrestling in 1989 for a heated feud with then-NWA World Champion Ric Flair. In a memorable moment, Funk, clad in a tuxedo, attacked Flair after he defeated Ricky Steamboat in a grueling contest after Flair declined to grant the retired Funk a future title match. Enraged, Funk gave Flair a piledriver on a table outside the ring.
After Funk left the NWA again, he wrestled in smaller companies across the country before returning to World Championship Wrestling in 1994 to rekindle his feud with Dusty Rhodes and his son, Dustin. In August 1995, Funk, now 30 years in the business, competed in the infamous King of the Death Match Tournament in Kawasaki, Japan. He lost in the finals against Cactus Jack (aka Mick Foley) in a “no ropes barbed wire exploding barbed wire boards and exploding ring time bomb death match.” Yes, that was the full name of the match.
Funk was 51 at the time.
Over the same stretch of time, Funk lent his name recognition and professional gravitas to Eastern Championship Wrestling, a company based in Philadelphia. When the promotion rebranded as Extreme Championship Wrestling, Funk remained a steadfast supporter and continued to participate in increasingly violent and dangerous matches, further endearing himself in the hearts and minds of fans.
Funk wrestled another 20 years. He participated in his final matches on Sept. 22 and 23, 2017, teaming with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express against Jerry Lawler, Brian Christopher, and Doug Gilbert.
Terry is enshrined in 10 pro wrestling halls of fame, among them: the WCW Hall of Fame (1995), the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (1996), the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum (2004), the Hardcore Hall of Fame (2005), the NWA Hall of Fame (2009), the WWE Hall of Fame (with brother Dory Jr. in 2009), and the St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame (2010).
Funk was preceded in death by his wife, Vicky Ann, on March 29, 2019. They’d been married 53 years and had two daughters.