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The Rise And Fall Of Jack Tunney

Enjoy the second part of Derek Harmsworth’s two part series on the life and times of the kayfabe WWF President, Jack Tunney.

PART II: THE FALL

To say that the WWF was not in good shape in the year 1995 is an understatement of great proportions.  Struggling through one of their worst years both financially and from an entertainment standpoint, the promotion was reeling significantly, and with World Championship Wrestling flush with money from media mogul Ted Turner, Vince McMahon and his disciples were under direct threat.

It seems hard to believe looking at the state of the company now, what with it having its own network, selling out 100,000 seat stadiums, and being a publicly traded entity, but there was a time during those early months of 1995 where it seemed entirely possible that the World Wrestling Federation was teetering on the brink of extinction.

Vincent K. McMahon, as we all know, is a survivor.  The WWF, as you are well aware, survived and advanced.  By 1996 the focus on the “New Generation” was in full swing, and by late 1997 the “Attitude Era” was born, simultaneously transforming the World Wrestling Federation and the business in general.

(Side note: While the WWF officially decreed the “Attitude Era” open for business on a December 15th, 1997 episode of Monday Night RAW, the general fan belief is that the events of Survivor Series 1997 truly ushered in this new timeline).

Still, the lean times of 1995 were not without their bloodletting.  Several talents and employees were let go, smaller venues were sought and more frequently used, and the company was forced to evaluate every and all avenues of their business.

This included the WWF Canada offices and all employees.

 

On July 12th, 1995 McMahon made the decision to close the Toronto-based office, and fire all employees therein.  This included Jack Tunney, who was released from the company during this restructuring.  Tunney, essentially forced out of the WWF, saw the company he helped develop into a global brand and what was left of his Toronto wrestling legacy, fall to the wayside in one fell swoop.

Feeling scorned and betrayed, Tunney disappeared from professional wrestling, and was never seen anywhere near the business ever again.

Still, he refused to go down without a fight.  Or, perhaps more likely, a final defiant dig.

Tunney took the rights to Maple Leaf Gardens, which he always maintained throughout his working with WWF, with him.  This essentially barred Vince McMahon and company from running shows in the famous arena, their foothold they had worked so hard to create crumbling beneath them.

The final Maple Leaf Gardens show for WWF ran in September of 1995.

The WWF returned to Toronto in 1996 at the aforementioned CNE Exhibition Stadium, drawing 21,000 plus.  In 1997 they aired an episode of Monday Night RAW from the Skydome, site of Wrestlemania XI.  It was a cool visual, and with the popularity of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin swiftly on the rise the event was well attended, but still not likely the best set up for the company from a logistical standpoint.

Much like the relationship between Tunney and the WWF, professional wrestling’s historic relationship with the famed Maple Leaf Gardens was fading away, a sad conclusion to something once so great.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs announced they would be building a new arena in downtown Toronto, the WWF saw opportunity, and seized it.  With Tunney having exclusivity only on the Gardens, Vince McMahon and company were free to return to the fancy, brand new and better suited new arena, and did so in the fall of 1999.

Toronto would seemingly return to being a pillar of the company’s travelling show, hosting events ranging from Monday Night RAW, SmackDown!, pay-per-view events, and even Wrestlemania X8 featuring the return (ironically enough) of Hulk Hogan to the Wrestlemania stage.

For whatever reason, the WWE has seemingly had an odd relationship with Toronto in the years that followed.  Wrestlemania X8 was well attended, and the city is indeed a wrestling town.  But they were seemingly forced to wait a long time for anything other than a house show. Whether it was lingering bad feelings or the simple fact that scheduling never seemed to work out, one may never know.

It appeared the exile, whatever the reason for it was, ended last year when Toronto hosted an NXT TakeOver and Survivor Series in November.  WWE recently announced that both RAW and SmackDown Live! Would emanate from there on consecutive nights this August.

And while that banishment was short lived and came to a positive conclusion, the same could not be said for Jack Tunney and the now World Wrestling Entertainment.

Tunney would never be seen or mentioned on WWF/WWE television ever again.

For fans of either his on-screen character or his work as a promoter through the 70s, 80s, and 90s closure would never come.  Tunney wasn’t talking, and the WWF/WWE wasn’t commenting, either.  In typical professional wrestling fashion, the reasons for the seemingly not amicable split were varied, ranging from the easily plausible to perhaps the slightly more far fetched.

While his role off camera was consolidated and made redundant, it doesn’t quite explain why Tunney was also removed as an on-air character nor the fact that he was never mentioned again, relegated to a ghost in the rafters.

Was it as simple as him being upset over the WWF Canada offices closing, and thus choosing not to carry on a professional relationship with the company?  Sure, although again, the radio silence would seem to indicate something more sinister.  Though Vince McMahon has participated in several strained relationships over the years, eventually cooler heads usually did prevail.

The lawsuit surrounding the deposit made on the Skydome and the trademark of the Wrestlemania name by his cousin Frank surely cost the WWF a lot of money and anguish.  A move that nearly jeopardized the entire event certainly would have had some in power doubting whether Tunney was the right man to hold the position he did.  Rumours of Vince MaMahon becoming annoyed with Tunney over the amount of dollars the snafu cost the company have remained persistent to this day.

There was also the incident in which Tunney was prepared to testify on behalf of referee Mike Clark in his sexual harassment lawsuit against wrestler Terry Garvin.  Many reports circulated at the time, however, that Tunney and Clark were pressured to drop the issue entirely, sickly asked to “tow the company line”.

Reports began to surface that Tunney had gambling and drinking problems, and stole from the company to both finance his habits and pay off debts.  In a recent shoot interview, former WWF Champion Kevin Nash seemed to corroborate the money skimming theory, stating “I told Vince you finally got rid of the crook, huh!?… Everytime we went to Toronto he’d have a new Cadillac, but our payouts were the sh*ts.”

Tunney’s surviving family vehemently denied these claims, however, stating it was a story floated by those inside the walls of the WWE to tarnish and discredit the legacy forged by Tunney.

Everyone seemed to have a theory for the reasoning behind the departure. Even the man himself wasn’t averse to joining in on the seemingly never-ending speculation.

Tunney floated the theory that rising star and soon-to-be WWF Champion Bret Hart actually cost him his job.

The former on-screen President figure was, as you recall, a key member of WWF Canada’s office that was in charge of a few things, tours included.  Tunney didn’t really believe Hart to be a big draw, and wasn’t necessarily a fan of his main event push.  Tunney, for what it’s worth, had even gone on the record publicly speaking about a few issues surrounding Hart.

It was speculated by Tunney that the fact he was adversarial to Bret Hart led The Hitman to make the necessary political moves backstage to have Tunney removed from his position, and from the company as a whole.  The fact that Tunney was replaced by Carl DeMarco, a close friend of Hart, only added fuel to the fire.

Bret Hart has denied and continues to deny any involvement in the removal of Jack Tunney.

An answer, whatever it was going to be, never came. Fans of the WWF during this 80s and early 90s heyday never got an answer.  One has to wonder if Tunney never got that closure, either.

On January 24th, 2004 Jack Tunney died in his sleep of a heart attack.

Like his swift departure from the World Wrestling Federation and the business as a whole, there was a bit of mystery surrounding his death as well.  Some in the know speculated the heart attack was actually brought on by a tough battle with a brief but fierce illness of some sort.  This was never confirmed by anyone close to Tunney.

His death was not acknowledged in any way by the WWE, and not a single representative from the company attended his funeral.

It was the final cruel twist in a bizarre saga that has left many inside and outside the wrestling world shaking their heads in dismay.  A once beloved on-screen character, a key member of the company’s biggest era or growth, and a genuine Canadian institution, seemingly vanished.

Like a candle reaching the end of its wick, it simply fluttered and went out.  All you were left with was the scorch marks telling you something had been there and that faint scent hanging in the air that can transport you back to a fondly preserved memory.

Tunney, like so many others before him, has been immortalized via the WWE Network.  Just about every single one of his on-screen moments for the WWF can be found, readily accessible and unaltered.

And yet, still never officially mentioned on WWE television.  As if he exists only in the fans mind, the product of some feverish dream.

This period of professional wrestling history is rife with tragedy and unthinkable heartache.  The fact that Jack Tunney simply vanished off of television and never seen again, passing away alone and unacknowledged may seem to pale in comparison to some of the harrowing tales from the era.

And yet most wrestling fans, especially those with connections to Toronto and Southern Ontario, Canada can’t seem to stop wrestling with the ghost in the rafters, grappling for answers we know may never come.

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