June 22, 1963 – June 7, 2006
John Tenta was my friend.
Actually, let me rephrase that – John Tenta was our friend, a friend to everyone who ever visited this site. He was probably a friend to everyone he ever met. He was a good, good man, one to whom I owe a debt of gratitude that I can never fully repay. While some might think that I am referring to him writing the foreword to my first book, no…it’s not that. It was the kindness and humor that he exhibited every single time I picked up the phone to talk to him.
John was a friend, and I miss him dearly. More than that, he was the type of person that I aspire to be: friendly, kind, and with a wicked sense of humor. And brave until the last breath.
I first “met” John in 2000, shortly after the site was beginning to take off. Merle and I were kicking around the idea of interviewing someone famous, someone who had been stuck with horrible gimmicks or bad storylines. Although we contacted many wrestlers, only John returned our calls. At first, I think he was a bit leary, but it didn’t take long before he realized that we weren’t trying to mock him, but rather those who made him do such silly things. I think it was almost a catharsis for him to be able to vent those frustrations, and we had a great interview with him in July of 2000 (which you can access by clicking in a real honest to goodness MP3 format here) which coincided with the triple induction of three of his most memorable moments:squashing Jake Roberts’ snake, becoming a Shark, and his run as a human Oddity. We called it Tentafest 2000, and people really seemed to enjoy it, John included.
Although we had a good time talking, I really figured that would be the end of our relationship. Thankfully, it wasn’t. We kept talking over the next several months, and I am so glad we did. In September of that same year, Merle ended his life by his own hand. To say I was stunned and rocked to my very core is obviously an understatement.
One of the first people to contact me following this tragedy was John Tenta:
“I’m sitting here after just reading your tribute to Merle. I am truly saddened. I wish I could have met Merle, he sounds like the kind of guy I love being around. When I saw my name in your tribute I was both more saddened yet somehow felt very honored. I’m glad you guys had a lot of fun doing the interview, and hope somehow doing my interview gave you more fond memories to keep in your heart of Merle. Randy, I’m near tears, just because you and Merle worked so hard on my interview, and now I realize how much Merle loved wrestling and wrestlers. I truly do feel honored, and now Merle will always be remembered by Shark, Golga, and simply John Tenta, hoping you will somehow get over the pain you must be feeling. The sun will shine again, Randy.
Obviously, that email meant a lot to me. Over the years, John and I talked more frequently, and became friends. I asked him to do the foreword to my book, and though he was busy, he immediately agreed. When I say he was busy, I mean it – he was working shows in Japan, and yet still took the time to pen the foreword. In fact, he was so eager to get it done that he actually called me from Tokyo before a match and asked if he read it to me, if I would transcribe it. I did. And by the time he was done, I was absolutely floored. It summed up everything I’ve ever felt about wrestling, and specifically my goal of this site: to not make light of the men and women who ply their trade inside the squared circle, but rather to have some fun at the expense of the folks who told them what to do.
“But underneath the gimmicks, wrestlers are all just men and women trying hard to be successful in our jobs. We’re trying to climb that ladder to the top, even though that ladder may have a few rungs missing or be a little short. We do what is asked of us. Sometimes people ask me why I agreed to play the role of a fish man. The answer is plain and simple: if I hadn’t, there were plenty of other people that would have. I just wanted to be able to provide for my family. I was just a guy trying to make a living. Take away my gimmicks, good and bad, and I’m a regular person just like you.”
When John finished, I was, quite literally, speechless. It was perfect. And I will never forget what he said when he was done reading, almost sheepishly asking, “Is it ok? You can change it if you want.”
I didn’t change it. It was perfect the way it was.
When we instituted an official forum, John came on board and had his own section. He posted all the time, answered questions, and just shared some laughs with everyone. I don’t think a single soul could ever say that he wasn’t 100% giving of his time there.
I remember when he told me he was fighting cancer. I was scared, so scared. My Dad had fought the fight, for five long years. I saw him go from being healthy and playing softball with me to my brother and I having to carry him into the house. He was brave and laughed throughout it all, but to me, it was so devastating. Once again, John was there with words of encouragement, even as he himself fought his own battles. And just like my Dad, he was brave and fought until the end.
As the years went on, and John’s illness became more pronounced, we talked less and less about wrestling. We talked about our families. John loved his family so much. There wasn’t a conversation that he didn’t talk about how proud he was of all them. And he always asked about mine, because that’s the kind of guy he was.
I’d like to share something with everyone here. It’s an excerpt from John’s autobiography which he was working on prior to his passing. I think this will give you a very good idea of just exactly what kind of special man John Tenta was:
“My life has been, and still is good, no, I’d have to say great. I’ve lived a life I never imagined, and now although I may no longer walk this earth, with the help of my beautiful wife Josephine, three of my children will fill my space. My youngest son, Johnny, I think is a lot like me. He is kind, and thoughtful of others, but gets all A’s in school whereas I was just an average student. At twelve years old, he already stands 5’8”, and weighs 190 pounds, and is strong as an ox! Be warned football players, he’s going to be big like his Daddy! My sixteen year old daughter Joanna, is already graduating this year, after skipping a grade in school. Despite taking advanced courses all through school, her GPA is over 4.0 as well. She hopes to go into business administration at the University of Texas, although due to my condition, she may stick around where we now live, and go to the University of Houston. My oldest son, Jeff, 23, who just got married, lives in Florida with his new wife, Angela. You know what I‚m about to say happens all the time when someone is ill in a family. They are expecting their first child in July of this year. What a blessing that is! I will be a grandfather before I die. I only pray that I am granted a miracle, and will be around long enough to spoil that child.
I had a great childhood, fun in high school, and college, lived my dream of being a professional wrestler, and have come out of it with a beautiful family. Although my life may be short, life has been good to me. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder for the bright spots!”
Since John passed, it has been harder to find those bright spots. But I know they exist, in part due to all the cheer he brought to all of us here. And his bravery was certainly inspirational as well. Here is probably my favorite post ever from his forum, from August 05, 2005:
“Those of you that have gotten to know me a bit more than the average fan through my postings, here, hopefully will feel although I’m faced with a big crisis, that I’ve been brave, and inspirational to some, and hopefully appreciate my warped sense of humor from time to time. Although my illness is serious, I still love a good laugh, which bless you all, keep me laughing. I want to be remembered by you ‘Crappers as a friend.”
I don’t think you have a thing to worry about, John. We all love you, and will never, ever forget you or your friendship. God bless you and your family.
– Randy Baer
(aka, RD Reynolds)
“When you hear the earth rumble, and you feel the earth shake…”
I always considered John “Earthquake” Tenta to be one of the best big men in wrestling. What sold me was his match against Hulk Hogan at SummerSlam 90. Tenta actually went up to the top rope and leapt off with a forearm, which was largely unheard of for a giant monster heel. I’ve been a fan ever since.
I also remember an Apter mag article detailing how the Natural Disasters were impervious to the Legion Of Doom’s offense. The highlight was a convoluted explanation of why LOD’s clotheslines had no effect on the Disasters. Basically, the Disasters were “brick blobs” in that their mass evenly absorbed the impact of the strikes. I know, I know. But those were simpler times and just thinking of that piece puts a smile on my face.
Then there was my favorite wrestling video game of all time; The WrestleFest arcade game. Three guesses who my favorite character. I remember the white-knuckled moments as I would wait for Quake to finish jumping around, and take off for the ropes in preparation for the devastating sitdown splash. I must have dumped half a year’s worth of allowance into that machine, as Earthquake and I vanquished the best my neighborhood had to offer. Good times.
But to me, John Tenta’s true legacy is that HE GOT IT. In an industry full of thin-skinned types who think “You can’t criticize me because you’ve never been in the ring” is a legitimate defense, John had an amazing sense of humor, coupled with the rare ability to view himself and his profession objectively. Tenta was a shark and an oddity, and he’d be the frist to tell you just how ridiculous those gimmicks truly were.
But through it all, John never complained. As he said in his induction to the first WrestleCrap book, he was kid living his dream, and he wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
As R.D. has mentioned, John was also the first wrestler to put over this site. Here was a guy who main-evented PPVs against Hulk Hogan, joking about the business just like a regular fan. Which, in a way, I suppose he was. He gave us respect and credibility. As R.D. also mentioned, to say that this site’s growth owes quite a lot to Big John is one heck of an understatement.
Personally, I plan to honor John’s legacy in the best way I know how: With humor and heart. When I find myself taking the biz too seriously, I think back to a man on WCW Monday Nitro defiantly insisting, “I am not a fish,” and it puts things in perspective. My thoughts and prayers go out to John’s family, friends, and fellow fans. John was a gentleman’s gentleman, and he was one of a kind.
John Tenta was not a fish, but boy, was he ever a catch.
– Harry Simon