My Secret Weapon: How a female great helped shape my career
Have you ever had that experience where different worlds seem to collide? Maybe it’s mere coincidence, or possibly something more serendipitous than that. But it is only in the past few weeks, days, and even the past few hours that those different worlds colliding seemed to shake loose a long, under-appreciated memory in my brain, and made me realize how valuable one specific female wrestler was to my training and overall appreciation for professional wrestling.
I have often been asked about my enthusiastic advocacy for women’s wrestling. While I have never had an exact answer or explanation, I have often surmised that it has something to do with the women’s willingness to wear their heart on their sleeve, to show emotions in a way that male wrestlers seldom do. I then relay my theory that Terry Funk was able to become an iconic part of Japanese culture by tapping into that same emotional reservoir, and how it resonated with a largely stoic male population, because it was so different. I remember being transfixed by Funk’s tearful promos while in Japan, and his willingness to actually plead for help—which was all but unthinkable for the other men on Japanese wrestling rosters.
I also dove deeply into the vast ocean of amazing female wrestling in the late 1980’s, and became a major fan of Chigusa Nagoya, in particular. When the WWE #WomensEvolution kicked into gear, I saw so much of what I loved about those Funk matches in those incredible NXT matches of 2014-2015, and later the WWE classics to follow. I loved the raw emotion and just related to their trials and tribulations in a way I seldom did for the men’s matches. Of course the TNA knockouts never have gotten their real due as being precursors of the WWE women’s revolution. Awesome Kong and Gail Kim were main eventing Impact Wrestling on television well before it became an acceptable norm in WWE—and it’s my belief that ODB would have been a WWE Superstar of the highest magnitude, if WWE had only realized a little sooner that female wrestling need not fit into a one-size-fits-all box.
Until a few weeks ago, that would have been my final answer as to why women’s wrestling resonated so strongly with me. But then I found myself completely captivated by Heather Bandemburg’s memoir “Unladylike”, that served to remind me of why I fell in love with wrestling in the first place, and also reinforced my belief that for every superstar who “makes it”, there are unsung heroes whose names we might never know, but whose drive and determination is the bedrock upon which our business is built. Then, of all things, it was a Joan Baez song that eventually led to these worlds colliding. For it was Joan Baez singing “Diamonds and Rust” in an AXS TV concert that led to my discovery of a beautiful “Blackmore’s Night” cover of the song, which led to a tweet, and a subsequent Twitter response from that band’s lead singer Candice Night, who told maybe she did not know much about wrestling, but had grown up as a neighbor of former wrestler Mark Tendler, who she was pretty sure was before my time.
Before my time? I used to train in Mark Tendler’s garage! I broke in under Dominec DeNucci in the fall of 1985, but by early 1988, decided to ease off of those long distance trips to train with Dominec in Freedom, Pennsylvania—a nine hour drive from my home on Long Island. That DeNucci training had been invaluable to me, but by early 1988, I was getting booked pretty regularly on the weekends—leaving little chance to work in those training sessions at Dominec’s school in Freedom. One of the promoters I had enjoyed working with was former wrestler Mark Tendler—a colorful, gregarious bear of a man who invited me to train at his new school on Long Island. With Dominic‘s blessing, I continued to wrestle on weekends, but was training at Tendler’s school (which was actually his garage), two or three days a week.
I wrote in my 1999 book, “Have a Nice Day” that “when I first showed up at the Tendler house, I almost immediately made the transition from trainee to trainer. Mark Tendler was a lot of things, but a polished wrestling technician was not one of them. Once I stepped inside the Tendler ring, which was really just an amateur wrestling mat on the floor and jerry-rigged ropes running along three sides of his garage walls, I was pretty much the teacher. For two hours I would show holds and reversals while Mark answered the phone and ate sandwiches of astonishing size.” I also mentioned that by helping train young wrestlers, I reinforced my own training, and through it, I improved greatly during my time in the Tendler garage. Until just a few days ago, I really thought that that was all there was to the story.
Then I got wind of a very unfortunate situation, where several female wrestlers who had worked their butts off for a specific promotion, found that the matches they had given their blood, sweat and tears to were being re-packaged as something close to soft-core pornography. That was absolutely not what these women signed up for, and the hurt and anger they felt was fully understandable. I’m not knocking soft-core porn. To each their own—I have a few good friends in that particular line of business. But these women were dedicated professional wrestlers, who took such great pride in being just that. Being portrayed as something completely different was understandably upsetting to them. There was a YouTube video from one specific wrestler, LuFisto, a respected and decorated 25-year mat-veteran, who felt an enormous sense of betrayal from the promotion she had given so much to. I could not take my eyes off the video, as this proud warrior eloquently and passionately explained the hurt and anger she felt at the deception. For the better part of two days, I Googled LuFisto’s matches, and interviews, getting a very thorough refresher course in the fine art of believability, serious intergender matches, and the type of action that almost assuredly makes some non-fans turn to friends and say,
“But I thought this stuff was supposed to be fake”.
There was something about this wrestler LuFisto that seemed somehow familiar to me. There was something about the way she rained down upon opponents with powerful forearms across the chest. There was something familiar about how she effortlessly glided from hold to hold, an expert technician with a certified mean streak. Like a certain sense of deja-vu. Only then did it dawn on me—Mark Tendler’s garage…March 1988…a skilled technician with a certifiable mean streak, raining powerful forearm blows down upon my oh pectoralis muscles, or lack thereof! Her name was Susan Sexton, and she was a major influence on my career.
As I write this, I’m practically ashamed that I have given Susan Sexton so little credit for her influence on me. Remember where I wrote that I became the trainer at Tendler’s school? Maybe I was the trainer…for a couple of weeks. But the moment Sexton walked into that garage to train, the wrestling world changed in a very major, and a very positive way for me. I remember Tendler telling me, prior to her first visit, how good she was, and I couldn’t understand why I had never heard of her. I read many of the magazines of that era: the Apter magazines, the George Napolitano magazines, even Wrestling Eye, with its insider perspective. But I had never heard of Susan Sexton until she announced her arrival at Mark Tedler‘s house by promptly showing me a thing or two about a thing or two! I believe she had taken a few years off from wrestling, and her visit to Tendler’s garage was the first step in a comeback. Don’t quote me on that—but I believe that was the case.
Everything she did was solid and believable. She would go from a slingshot into a Boston crab, glide from working a leg into working an arm like only the top tier technicians did at the time. She was tough in that ring, too. Man, she hit hard. I’m not talking about hitting hard for a woman either; I am talking about hitting hard, period. She worked strong style before strong style had a name. She had traveled the globe, and could have good matches with anyone of any style. She came from Perth, Australia, was trained by Ali Musa the Turk, and had sharpened her skills under the tutelage of the great Mildred Burke. She had been on multiple tours of Japan, and none other than “Exotic” Adrian Street had immortalized her in song.
Susan took me under her wing in the Spring of 1988 and really pushed me to improve. I was a hard worker anyway, but she pushed me to work even harder. I wish someone had a video recording of some of our training matches in Tendler’s garage. We couldn’t do high spots in there, because there were no real ropes to bounce off of. I had foolishly been taking bumps on the amateur mat placed over concrete, but since each bump was almost sure to take the wind out of you, Sexton encouraged me to save my bumps for a real ring. So, we wrestled; we exchanged holds and reversals, worked body parts, and she would lay into me with those believable forearms, and some equally believable kicks. She and I would put in 15-minute matches, day after day, week after week, and then she would talk to me for an hour over lunch about what she thought I had done right and what could use some work. I would usually pick her up at a local train station, and then drive her back to her apartment in Queens, all the while soaking up her wealth of wrestling knowledge.
I had already made a tiny bit of a name for myself with some show-stealing matches with Shane Douglas in 1986 and early 1987, before Eddie Gilbert brought Shane into the fold in Bill Wats’s UWF. But Shane was already a good worker (who would go on to be great) and we had a lot of experience working together. So, it had not been too difficult to steal the show with Shane—especially some of the shows we were on! I hope Jerry “The Wanderer” McIntyre or “Iron” Mike McGee don’t read this and take offense. So, after Shane’s departure, having an in-ring teacher like the veteran Sexton was a huge help. By picking up on her technical prowess, I was able to have better matches with opponents of a variety of styles—and absorbing those punishing blows from the fiery Australian was no doubt a key building block for some of the slugfests that would later become my calling card.
I have often been asked about the stiffest (hardest hitting) workers I have faced, and I usually reply that while being on the receiving end of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin‘s comeback punches was no day at the beach, no one hit harder than Vader. While that answer remains true, I would not put Susan Sexton all that far behind—probably on my top 10 list of hardest-hitting wrestlers I have faced. I believe if I had been given the chance to work with LuFisto, she would be on that list as well. There are definitely some hard-hitting women on the scene these days! One fan asked me why I never complained about Steve’s punches. I looked at the fan in disbelief and practically yelled,
“Because he’s Steve Austin! Every single thing he does is resulting in a bigger reaction than anything I ever dreamed of. Every single thing! What am I supposed to do…get back in the dressing room and say, ‘Hey man, what’s with those punches?’”
Besides, if I didn’t complain about those solid Sexton forearms in Mark Tendler’s garage with five spectators, I wasn’t going to complain about Stone Cold’s punches in front of twenty thousand at The Garden! I had been conditioned to take a licking and keep on ticking…by a woman! Now that I think of it, it would not surprise me if one of those five spectators in Tendler’s garage had turned to a friend and said, “But I thought this stuff was supposed to be fake!”
I headed off to Memphis in August 1988, and Susan continued to work the independent circuit, while writing, doing psychic readings and singing in a rock band. She was a heck of a singer, too! She gave me a cassette, and I used to play that thing all the time. She became the LPWA champion in 1990, was recognized in 1990 by WCW as the World Women’s champion, and I could have sworn she was AWA champion at some point in 1989 or 1990 – although I can’t find verification of that. She was inducted into the Cauliflower Alley Club Hall of Fame in 1995 and was named by Pro Wrestling Illustrated as one of the 50 greatest female wrestlers of all time. It’s a shame more fans of the current generation are not familiar with her, especially given an Australian invasion of sorts in professional wrestling. I hear she is doing quite well as a writer these days, and although I have only seen her once since 1991, I hope she sees this article and knows that I finally know what she has probably known all along: that she was among the very biggest influences in my career. I’m just sorry it took a series of world colliding events to make me realize it.
Editor’s note: Bell To Belles wants to thank Mick Foley for his incredible kindness towards women’s wrestling.