Normally when one hears backstage stories about the world of professional wrestling, it's the juicy stuff...rumors, backstabbing, gossip, betrayal, and all other sorts of less than admirable activities. However, one of the groups we rarely hear about as wrestling fans are the wrestlers who are truly class acts...the respectable men in the locker room. Earlier today, I had the opportunity to speak with one of those gentlemen, none other than Buddy Landel. Although fans who just began to watch wrestling because of the nWo or Stone Cold Steve Austin might not know his name, long time fans know him as "The Nature Boy," a southerner who, for many years, tore across the territories, leaving a strong legacy behind him.
I had a phone conversation with Buddy, interviewing him for ultrawrestling.com (which met its demise before this could be published there). Though my lack of necessary recording equipment prevents a full transcript from being put up, here are the highlights of that one-on-one talk.
We began by discussing his retirement, which comes after twenty-two long years in the business. My first question to Buddy was whether or not the rumors of him considering retirement were true...he quickly fired back that "considering" was not the word at all. He had, in fact, come to the decision that it is time for him to gracefully bow out of the sport.
"All of a sudden my contemporaries are starting to die," Landel said. "I don't want to die in this business."
Buddy went on to talk about how he had already accomplished very much in his career, and that also weighed heavily in his decision to leave the sport. He wrestled Ric Flair at the age of twenty-three for World Championships. He'd been all throughout the country as part of his dream. He said, quite frankly, that retiring now would just be "the sane thing to do."
Additionally, he credited the emergence of several new young superstars as part of his decision. Unlike the greedy veteran unwilling to relinquish the spotlight that we so often hear about, Landel acknowledges the fact that there are several stars ready to carry on where he and his generation have left off. He showed a great deal of respect for current WWF Superstar Kurt Angle, saying that Kurt is "the greatest thing to come along since Shawn Michaels."
When I asked if Buddy's retirement would be fleeting like that of so many other wrestlers, he was very clear in pointing out that it would not be. To use his own words, it's "not going to be Fritz Von Erich coming out of retirement seven times." With the honesty and compassion that Landel showed throughout the rest of the interview, I can't help but believe him 100%.
In fact, he went on to state that if any promoters were advertising him after August 11, it would be nothing more than an outright lie on their part. Instead, Landel will be joining the ministry and attempting to spread God's word. This is nothing new for him, as he attended Bible college and did church services when he left WCW in 1991. He was the first professional wrestler to do this, as well as the first to make rounds on Christian television programming. Years later, Tully Blanchard and Ted DiBiase would be inspired to do the same.
However, the Nature Boy wants to make it clear that he's not just "using the ministry as a crutch" because he has nothing else to do. Quite the contrary, he is now the same age Ric Flair was in the early '90s, so it stands to reason that Buddy could easily have five or six more years of active competition left in he so desired. In fact, he was actually offered a spot wrestling in the new upstart MECW promotion but turned it down. When MECW officials contacted him later on with an offer to work as a color commentator, Buddy gracefully declined once again.
This career that spanned more two decades had rather humble beginnings, though. Buddy recounted stories of his being trained by the late Boris Malenko, who he says was a "great draw throughout the 60s and 70s...a very tough man." The training was not easy either. As opposed to modern times when it seems that just about anybody can graduate from a wrestling school if they just pay enough money, Buddy had serious work ahead of him to follow his dream.
"They kept you a mark," Buddy said, remembering how he broke in to the business in 1979. He had to endure six months of rugged physical training to get in to shape before Malenko would even teach him how to lock up. Then, even once Landel began to wrestle, he STILL was not let in on the fact that the business was worked for six more months. Instead, he had seasoned veterans painfully stretching him night in and night out. This could well have been the ultimate learning experience.
Although rigorous, Landel credits his training with Malenko as a tremendous stepping stone. When he and his contemporaries began wrestling, "The only calling card [you had] was who broke you in," Buddy claimed. He then recounted the story of his first meeting with famous promoter "Cowboy" Bill Watts. Watts asked who had trained the newcomer, and Landel responded with the Great Malenko's name. Watts' reply was simple and to the point. "You're one of us," he said.
From that start, Buddy Landel, or "The Nature Boy," as he would later be known, worked for just about every major territory in the United States. When asked about who the best promoter was, Landel stated that, although Bill Watts was probably his favorite to work for, anybody who ran an individual territory in that era had to be brilliant in order to be successful. He spoke very highly of Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler, as well as current World Wrestling Federation kingpin Vince McMahon.
That lead to discussion of The Nature Boy's 1995 stint with the WWF, which we discussed primarily because it would be what most fans of this site remember him for. Landel's opportunity in the Federation came about thanks to Jim Cornette, as Buddy was working for Cornette's Smoky Mountain Wrestling at the time. SMW had a strong working relationship with the WWF, and Landel was put against then Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels on a Smoky Mountain card that was to feature WWF talent. That match lead to Buddy's opportunity in Stamford.
He found himself right in the thick of things, facing the likes of Ahmed Johnson, Bob Holly, and even a very young unknown named Matt Hardy. Landel even proved his worth as a company man by stepping up to do a job to Bob Backlund on a night that Bret Hart refused to do so. Things were looking up for Landel's career, when tragedy struck.
While traveling with the threesome of the Bodydonnas (Chris Candido, Tom Prichard, and Tammy Sytch), Buddy slipped outside their hotel and blew out his knee. This effectively ended his employment with the World Wrestling Federation. However, the Nature Boy doesn't regret his having to go. He stated that he had simply lost a good deal of his determination at that point, which is especially detrimental in an environment like the WWF, where Buddy claims that you had to "eat, sleep, and breathe it [wrestling]" to get by.
Since that time, Landel has been busy with many projects, including helping to run and do promotional work for three different car dealerships. He's also quite the devoted family man, giving much of his time and love to his wife and two daughters. And, of course, Buddy has stayed active in professional wrestling, doing various shows with various promotions. In fact, he was driving to a show with his wife while I interviewed him this afternoon.
But the road trips all come to an end very soon. On August 11, Buddy will be wrestling his final match in Birmingham's Batwell Auditorium. Tommy Rich will be his opponent, and many people Landel has been up and down the road with will be on the card as well...that includes the Armstrong family, the Fullers, Michael P.S. Hayes, and the late Terry Gordy's son. A crowd of about 3,000 is expected, and, if you're in the area, I strongly suggest seeing if there's still a seat available for you.
To wrap things up, I asked Buddy Landel how he wanted to be remembered by the wrestling world...jokingly, he said it sounded like he was writing his own epitaph. However, he soon grew reflective and claimed that he just wanted to be remembered as the kid from Knoxville that had a dream and made it to the pinnacle of the business. He went on to say that he'd miss the road trips with fellows like the Junk Yard Dog and numerous others that he had grown close to over his twenty-two years in the industry. He then added that he would also like to be recalled as a man who left the business on his own terms when he wanted to do so...not somebody that was forced out by age, injury, or other factors.
Before saying good-bye, I asked Buddy if he had any upcoming appearances that he wanted to have mentioned to our readers. He did not. Instead, he just had one short and simple message...
I'd like to thank the Ultra Wrestling staff for giving me the opportunity to speak with Buddy Landel...and, more importantly, I'd like to thank Mr. Landel himself. Words can really not express how overwhelming it was to actually speak with someone that you've seen on TV wrestling...much less interview him. It was the first time in years that I can honestly say I've "marked out," and Buddy was nothing less than a gentleman during our entire conversation. Hats off to him, and may his time as a minister be fulfilling and successful.
(Editor's Note: If anyone is interested in having Buddy come to their church, e-mail Buddy directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's a new e-mail address as of 10/9/2008.)