WWE’s infamous training ground: Inside the Funkin’ Dojo
Every month between January 1998 and 1999, hopeful Superstars like Edge, Kurt Angle and Jeff Hardy descended on WWE headquarters in Stamford, Conn., in hopes of making an impression that would land them on the company’s main roster. To be considered, they’d be put through one of the most grueling weeks of their lives by former NWA World Champion and WWE Hall of Famer Dory Funk Jr., someone who certainly knew what it took to be a Superstar.
One-half of the hallowed Funk Brothers, Dory and his brother Terry were feared for their mastery of the mat game. Funk’s extensive knowledge of holds and counterholds made him the perfect person for the job when WWE’s talent relations department was looking for an evaluator of potential Superstars.
The Funkin’ Dojo camps were some of WWE’s earliest attempts at centralized recruiting for future generations of Superstars. And while the WWE Hall of Famer, along with co-trainers Tom Prichard and Pat Patterson, pushed them to their physical limits, the punishing work paid off. Many of the graduates of the Funkin’ Dojo became WWE and World Heavyweight Champions, Tag Team Champions, Intercontinental Champions and even a WWE Hall of Famer. ( PHOTOS | VIDEO PLAYLIST)
To get the lowdown on the Funkin’ Dojo and its graduates, WWEClassics.com went straight to the man who put them through the paces, Dory Funk Jr.
It’s not every day you have a total freak of nature wanting to learn how to wrestle. That’s exactly what Dory Funk Jr. got in Mark Henry. Although he was a powerlifter with Olympic experience, The World’s Strongest Man was surprisingly agile. Funk had heard rumors of this and asked for proof on Henry’s first day under his tutelage.
“I said, ‘I heard you can dunk a basketball,’ and he said ‘I can,’ ” Funk explained.
“He did,” he followed up with a laugh.
The WWE Hall of Famer didn’t keep his distance from the intimidating Henry. Funk got to see the potential for destruction that the 400-pounder possessed firsthand.
“I actually got in the ring and wrestled him,” Funk said. “Maybe I picked on him a little too much, because he got me with his powerslam and pinned me. He learned real fast.”
To Funk, it was no surprise when Henry defeated Randy Orton to capture the World Heavyweight Championship.
From the moment he met Dory Funk Jr., all Kurt Angle could talk about was becoming a pro wrestler.
“I called to congratulate him on winning the Olympic gold medal,” Funk recalled. “The first words Kurt said to me were asking about training for professional wrestling.”
Beginning in 1998, Funk was Angle’s primary trainer in the ways of the squared circle. Teaching the Olympic gold medalist was quite easy for the WWE Hall of Famer.
“I told him anything you did in amateur wrestling you can do in professional wrestling, but you’ve got to adapt your style to what we do here at WWE,” Funk said.
Angle adapted and added to his unbelievable arsenal. When Angle debuted a year later, he made an immediate impact, winning both the European and Intercontinental Titles within months of his first match. The medalist went on to become one of WWE’s most prolific competitors, capturing the WWE, WCW and World Heavyweight Championships.
Dory Funk had great admiration for Captain Charisma from the second he walked into the dojo. The WWE Hall of Famer knew that Christian was dedicated to success after hearing stories of how he and Edge used to drive across frozen lakes in Canada to get in the ring and get more experience.
“He came ready to learn,” Funk said.
Attending several dojos in summer 1998, Christian not only impressed Funk with his talent, but also some of his fellow trainees. One in particular, with an Olympic pedigree, thought Christian would have been a success in any field.
“Kurt Angle said that Christian would have made a fabulous amateur wrestler,” Funk said. “I think he would have too. He had the drive and athletic ability to do anything he really wanted to.”
It was that drive that propelled Captain Charisma to superstardom. After winning the WWE Light Heavyweight Title in his debut match, Christian went on to win the World Tag Team, Intercontinental, European, Hardcore and ECW Championship. His most recent accolade is, perhaps, the crown jewel of his career, capturing the World Heavyweight Title.
Matt and Jeff Hardy were mostly self-trained wrestlers. Fashioning major-league personas for themselves and designing their own ring gear, the brothers from North Carolina convinced local promoters to give them spots on shows. Word spread about the pair, and they were soon in WWE rings, getting steamrolled by the Superstars they looked up to. Still, WWE officials saw something in them, and sent the highfliers to Funk for a little refining.
“The Hardys were terrific,” Funk said, admiring their daredevil tendencies. “They were really athletic performers.”
While Matt and Jeff had a fast paced style, Funk made sure they had a hold on the fundamentals of the ring before giving them his stamp of approval.
“What we did is get them to settle down a little bit and teach them the technique of professional wrestling,” he explained.
Still, Funk noted that there wasn’t much he could do to keep the Hardys on the mat.
“We slowed ’em down, just a little bit,” he said. “They can’t be slowed down too much.”
Dory Funk was impressed with all of the potential Superstars that attended his dojos during his time with WWE, but one stood out from the pack. Perhaps the most prized student of the Funkin’ Dojo, Edge came to the first camp in 1998.
“He was a great athlete and a hard worker,” Funk said.
Along with fellow Canadian Val Venis, The Rated-R Superstar made a huge impression on Funk and his co-trainers during the weeklong seminar in January 1998. Funk and Pat Patterson highly recommended the two to WWE officials. Both were on WWE television by the summer.
While Venis enjoyed a good deal of success, capturing the Intercontinental Title and World Tag Team Titles, Edge reached a level few Superstars attain. The Ultimate Opportunist held the WWE and World Tag Team Titles, Intercontinental, United States, WWE and World Heavyweight Championships, along with victories in the King of the Ring Tournament and Royal Rumble Match.
But his highest honor came in 2012, when he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, joining Dory Funk in the esteemed group.
“I’m very proud of him,” Funk said.
When WWE asked Funk to come up with a lesson plan for the weeklong dojo, the legendary grappler had several lessons he wanted to make sure the trainees left with.
“I had a safety program,” Funk explained. “It was probably ahead of its time. There were no blows to the back of the head. We did everything we could to prevent concussions. Also, we did calisthenics to prevent knee and neck injuries. That came from my days in football.”
Above all else, Funk had to make sure his students were ready to become WWE Superstars. That meant plenty of hardcore training.
“We’d do weight training in the morning,” Funk said. “Then, in the afternoon, we would go to the ring [in a nearby warehouse] and take them through technique drills, warm-up drills and training matches. We’d film them and bring [the tape] back the next day to look at their performances so they could improve every day.”
After a week of intense training, Funk put the trainees to the ultimate test: performing in front of a live audience. He got them matches on local independent shows to show off their skills.
“The kids responded really well,” he said of his students. Considering some of the success stories that emerged from the Funkin’ Dojo, that may be the understatement of the century.
Other Dojo Alumni
While these six competitors stood out among Funkin’ Dojo alumni, there were plenty of other Superstars who came through Dory Funk Jr.’s camps and went on to achieve great things in WWE, such as Tensai, Steve Blackman, Gangrel, Crash Holly, The Blue Meanie, Kurrgan and Test.
The camp also served as a place for experienced grapplers new to WWE to come and pick up the WWE style. Superstars returning from injury also trusted Funk with getting them back into ring shape. “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, Ahmed Johnson, William Regal, Mideon and Earthquake are just a few of the dozens who came to Funk’s boot camps.
Although the Funkin’ Dojos ended in early 1999, Dory Funk Jr. still teaches professional wrestling today. Want to learn the craft from a WWE Hall of Famer? Check out www.dory-funk.com for more information on his Funking Conservatory in Ocala, Fla.