Mickey Grant is the director of a documentary focusing on the life of “Gentleman” Chris Adams, an English Judo champion who became a professional wrestler on the World of Sport-era UK scene and then went on to find fame and fortune in the United States with the Texas-based wrestling promotion, World Class Championship Wrestling (home of the famous Von Erich wrestling family).
The documentary features interviews and comments from those who knew Chris, including his friends, co-workers, former wives and, in a bold move, the man who shot Adams dead in 2001.
I was given the chance to review the film for Wrestling 101 and, graciously, was able to interview Mickey Grant after viewing the story.
What he has to say is obviously from the heart and, when you read his words, you can see for yourself that this in no cheap cash-in on the name of another dead wrestler. Instead, what you will see when you watch the documentary, is a man giving his late friend a fitting epitaph and those of us watching a history lesson on one of the lost talents in this business.
Thanks for coming to website and thank you for reading this insightful interview.
First off, for those of us unfamiliar with World Class Championship Wrestling and Mickey Grant, can you tell us about yourself, how you became involved with the promotion and what your role was?
Bill Mercer had been a friend of mine since I went to a trade school to learn radio announcing when I was in high school (he was the sports announcing teacher). In college, I worked all nights at KVIL, which was the first FM station in the country to rank number one in a top 5 market. I was the right arm man to the morning show host and program director. His name was Ron Chapman and he became very famous for his methods of bringing a station from number 18 to the number 5 position. Dallas /Ft. Worth combined is the number 5 largest radio market in the US so this wasn’t a small accomplishment.
Bill came to work at the station as the sports announcer in the mid-70’s. At that time I was secretary/treasurer of the NABET film union for Texas and a cameraman doing network work during the day and weekends, but doing KVIL along with Bill Morings.
Bill and I decided to write a screenplay that dealt with wrestling and I spent many evenings with him as he was taping the old, old wrestling show on Ch.11. That was the NWA and I think Fritz simply called it Saturday Night Wrestling. We finished our screenplay the week Rocky came out and both Bill and I went to see it on opening day. We felt horrible as our story was very similar and we knew it would go nowhere. It was uncanny how similar.
During the course of sitting with Bill while he did the TV announcing every week for Fritz’s show, I started studying the ratings and was in shock. This show, done with cameras (one camera – the wide shot – not even having a cameraman on it), was getting the same rating locally as Saturday Night Live. The difference was Saturday Night Live cost about $400,000 per episode at the time and Fritz’s Ch.11 show cost about $500 per taping.
It hit me that if we did basically the same wrestling show, but with much better production value, 6 cameras, instant re-play, slo-mo, and do the pieces which, in the past, the wrestlers did ringside, we would do them on locations (the wrestlers mansions, training camps, etc) and in the style that Rocky Balboa’s pieces were done (we actually did one with a wrestler punching beef). Bill and I put together a business plan to raise about a million dollars and we took it to Fritz. We had a good meeting with him (I guess this was 1978 or so) but he never called us back. Then in 1980, I was offered a job at TV39 in Dallas to run their production department. I told them I’d take the job if I could run it like a separate company. They agreed and I called it Continental Productions. Soon, the station manager asked the management staff at the station if they knew of any ideas for a show that would at least get a 5 rating. I quickly indicated that I did, and not only that, but I already have the production plan put together. I explained that it would cost about $4000 per episode, but we could make a lot of money in syndication. The station manager, Roger Baerwolf, agreed to let me do a pilot. Most of my crew wasn’t really happy about this as most loved doing college football and basketball, but not wrestling.
I also read that you were the one to come up with the World Class name; how did that come about?
The name was first stated in my office, but it was a joint effort between Bill Mercer, Earl Goodrick (my remote truck supervisor) and myself. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time as we had no idea how successful the show would become. We all really felt that it needed to be big for syndication around the world, so “World” was to be in title. My boss at KVIL always had emphasized “Class” and I thought this was especially important with wrestling. Then suddenly, Earl Goodrick said World Class Championship Wrestling. He was the first to say the 4 words together and we immediately knew that was the title.
With regards to Chris Adams, he died in August, 2001, so what drove you to do a documentary on him and why now? Was this it something you had in the pipeline for years?
I had talked to Chris for a couple of years before he died about doing a Spinal Tap type comedy, but dealing with a wrestler instead of a band. Chris loved the idea but it didn’t go much further.
After he died I was really shaken up. I was doing a documentary about the history of the Korean War and for over a year after he died, I kept thinking about doing a film about him. My thinking about this revolved around some footage I had shot with Chris that really didn’t have anything to do with any wrestling show. I had, out of nowhere, asked Chris on camera one day how was his life going to be different now that he’d spent some time in prison. Finally I decided I’d explore the idea more by starting to shoot interviews with the man that had shot Chris. It grew from there and took over 5 years of shooting. Much of that time was me formulating who I wanted to interview next and determining what the story was.
The documentary has a lot of talking heads relating various stories (some flattering, others not so much) of their experiences of being around Chris? How difficult was it to get these people to agree to appear on the documentary?
For most of the people in the film, it wasn’t a matter of whether or not they felt their stories were possibly unflattering, it was their point of view. I’ve been interviewing people for documentaries for over 5 years and I’ve become decent at worming in very strong questions without them necessarily even slightly realizing how powerful the question was.
They give their answer and sometimes, when that answer is put into other peoples context, then the answer is very revealing about that person. It wasn’t really difficult to get these people, but what was difficult was really learning what the story was and then developing the storyline. Writing a documentary isn’t all that different than writing drama; documentary is people telling the story from their point of view about something that happened in reality. Fiction writing is nearly the same thing, but often it’s based on a made-up story.
What you have to do as a writer is develop clear lines as to who the protagonist is and who the antagonist is. You also have to develop the conflict between characters. Often that’s done by putting differences in point of view between characters by cutting them back-to-back to emphasis the conflict. Everyone believes that their point of view is the main one and that they are correct. If 10 people see a car accident, you’ll get 10 different stories with all the people believing their version is the correct one. I like to let the audience viewing the film determine who is correct.
Was there anyone who declined to be filmed?
Skandor Akbar. He wasn’t a critical person for the film or I would have pursued it a great deal more. Who I really pursued over 2 years was the Police detective who Lacy (Sky) talked with a great deal in order to get Chris prosecuted. I also, through a 3rd party, tried to get an interview with some member of Linda’s family. They chose not to be on camera, and I respect that.
Was there anyone who was filmed, but you decided to cut them from the finished product?
I can’t think of anyone right now but possibly there was. Yes, there may have been a couple of wrestlers, not any critical story points.
During the course of the documentary, Chris Adams’ wrestling school is mentioned. Everyone knows that Steve Austin got his start through that facility, but was there any other wrestlers who went on to become household names that attended those classes?
I don’t think so, although some could easily. Several are still wrestling today, but never, as far as I know for a major organization such as the WWE. The footage I have of Steve came from a very early show I did with Gary Hart called, TEXAS CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING. After the initial showings of that show, the ownership of the tapes reverted to Gary. I think this show was from 1990. Even at that early time you can see how talented Steve was.
There is a fair bit of “home-video” footage used in the film, as well as official police documents and pictures. Were they easy to get hold of and did they have any conditions applied?
The only home video footage in the film might total about 1 minute. Some was from footage Chris’ parents supplied and a few seconds was from LA and Lacy. The police photos were not easy for me to get a hold of. At first the local police turned me down, and I had to pursue it via the State of Texas Attorney Generals office, but I finally secured the rights.
(Some of what I thought was home-video footage is simply early documentary footage shot by Mickey Grant – Draven)
Over the course of the documentary, there is a great deal of drug abuse being mentioned. In fact, with that, all the assaults and the general way Chris appeared to treat people, would it be fair to say that the documentary casts him in an unsympathetic light, even though people like Kevin Von Erich do say a lot of good things about his character?
I tried to present a balanced view of Chris. During the first half or so of the film, I worked hard at creating as positive and wonderful and talented a character as I could. Understand that I even appear in the film talking that I had some similar problems to Chris which I now deal with in a 12 Step program.
As Chris’ life started to go downhill, I hope it can be perceived that he was constantly trying to improve things. He married a decent woman at the end, he went to church. All the people near the end of the film expressed how much they will miss him and how much they loved him.
What I portray as UNSYMPATHETIC is drug addiction and alcohol addiction. There were plenty of much more horrific stories I could have included in the film, but chose not to, mainly because I wouldn’t want his daughter Julia to hear these stories.
Alcohol and drug addiction can take the best person in the world and bring them to their knees or worse. Constantly I have the GHB expert citing what G does to you. When Chris did these, sometimes horrific things, it was the alcohol and GHB in control of him. He continued to lose so much control of his life to them. I find that people who haven’t experienced alcohol or drug addiction often have no understanding of it as a disease. Often they will argue that it isn’t a disease even though all insurance programs and major medical authorities in the world agree that it is a disease.
Have you ever known anyone in your life that you liked a lot but they ended up going to prison? I’m doing another doc right now with a man that’s incredible, even though he shot over 100 people when he was young. He had addiction problems and many others. Today he’s a minister and ministers to ex-offenders. I feel Chris always wanted to do the right thing when he was sober and that the film gives you a sense of this.
The problem with the end of his life was that he was rarely straight. GHB is more addictive than heroin. As stated in the film, within 30 minutes of taking it you feel very intoxicated. Yes, it’s a drug, but very similar to alcohol in part of it’s effect. Most people have a real struggle getting off of it. Read William Regal’s “WALKING A GOLDEN MILE.”
Do you think that enough is being done in today’s wrestling climate to prevent situations like these arising with the present bunch of performers?
Look at how much is being done with baseball. The problem there is way out of hand and that’s baseball, the all American sport. Alcohol and drug abuse has to be fought first of all by the alcoholic and or addict realizing that they have a problem. These are the only diseases where the “disease” tells the person that they don’t have a disease! Alcohol and drug education classes should become a major part of our education system.
When society, in effect, tells someone that alcohol and drug addiction is a matter of will-power, the person fighting it feels usually like a failure as they can’t overcome it. They continues trying to overcome it with will- power until they either die, kill someone else or get treatment.
On the other hand, in regard to promoters, what can they do? Continue drug testing and make sure that the test are not something that people are spending a few hundred dollars to quickly detox and have a good result?
Also, regarding the “STEROID LOOK”; when I did World Class, it was primarily in-ring ability that made you famous. For instance, the Great Kabuki. He had a pot-belly but was amazing inside the ring. It’s the audience, not Vince, that are determining that they need to hire wrestlers with the “STEROID LOOK.” Vince and others primarily have to do what the audience wants. That’s what I did with World Class; we were just a different time and place. You couldn’t go to www.steroids.com and easily get steroids, you usually had to go to Mexico and lots of trouble back then to buy them.
Speaking of Kevin, when he describes a lot of the incidents, he almost seems to be, how can I put this, almost shrugging his shoulders and adopting an “Oh well, that’s Chris for you” attitude to some very unsavoury incidents (the headbutting of the American Airlines co-pilot comes to mind). It comes across, to me anyway, that he is not condoning the incidents, but is intimating that they weren’t that big of a deal. Do you agree?
No, I don’t agree, but please realize that Kevin is a very good friend of mine and when I interviewed him in the hot tub, it’s me that he’s talking to.
Kevin would never do such behaviour as Chris did. It’s also coming from the culture of rough and tumble wrestling of the 1980s. In no way did Kevin think that head-butting a co-pilot was the appropriate thing to do. Kevin is always very laid-back in interviews and he was just trying to talk about the facts. Kevin is very mellow, and I’m sure was really trying to help calm Chris down when this happened. The wrestlers are often rowdy on a plane, but no-one had experienced anything like this. Kevin very much thought this was a big deal in Chris’ life, his daughter’s and that it hurt the industry.
Moving on to happier things, you manage to get interviews with his children (biological and step-). How do they feel about you making a documentary on their father?
The only child I had in the film was Julia and yes, I also had his last wife’s children.
I think they enjoyed being on camera. All of them are wonderful kids. I felt it was especially important for the audience to see how much Julia loved her father. Again, a lot of this was to get a balance of the good and bad things in Chris’ life. Chris really cared about her, but there were stories about when he was drunk or high around her that people told in interviews that I’d never put in the film.
I believe when he was around Karen’s children, he behaved very well. Chris loved kids.
I’d like to mention something about Karen. I think it hurt her when she heard Booray’s comments about her. I believe that she portrayed herself on camera with great dignity and decorum. As in real life, people often say what they really think behind your back, and it’s often revealing about their character. Karen is very upfront with what she thinks, in my opinion, and also very honest. I believe that when Booray talks disparagingly about her, that it reveals more as a negative quality about him than a bad quality about Karen. Talking heads just delivering exposition are very boring, but when you put their dialogue back-to-back with conflicting statements, the conflict will most often create real revelations about a person’s character.
Throughout the film, there are clips from matches featuring a host of big-name wrestlers (The Von Erichs, Rick Rude, The Freebirds, etc), but there are no complete matches on show at any point? Was this a conscious decision or was it taken out of your hands due to WWE owning the video libraries of virtually every promotion in existence?
That’s not how real documentaries work. The rhythm and flow of the film would be destroyed if we suddenly went to a 20 minute match. Imagine in a Hollywood film, if your characters suddenly entered a night club where someone was singing and the director just let the plot stop so we saw the entire 40min act! This actually happens in Indian films and is part of the reason they are so long – 5 to 6hrs sometimes .
I always chose wrestling footage which would propel the plot of the film forward. Sometimes this was very hard. For instance, the part where Gary talks about Chris wanting to become a heel, and then I cut to the ring footage of Gary firing Chris; lots of things like this are in the film. I never wanted to use wrestling footage as filler, it was always part of the movement of the plot forward.
Regarding my legal use of the footage; I got a signed agreement with Kevin prior to his sale of the footage to the WWE. All my footage was carefully transferred from the one inch master broadcast tapes to a digital master. I did this in hopes of getting a BBC2 or HBO sale. HBO wouldn’t even look at the film in two of the major markets I took it to as it had the word wrestling in it. There are so many wrestling films and they are NOT documentaries.
There are so many of them that commercial buyers won’t believe that a doc could exist. The worst experience with the film was trying to get mainstream buyers to at least view it. In no way do you have to like wrestling to enjoy this film. The character of Chris Adams is up front and wrestling is the background. I do believe that wrestling fans will also enjoy the film. So often the image they have of their favourite wrestler is portrayed on tape as very one-dimensional when, in reality, they are much more interesting.
If you could have included five Chris Adams matches to highlight his in-ring talent on the piece, which five would you have chosen for the fans to see that this guy deserves to be known as more than “the guy who trained Steve Austin?
Nearly any of his matches should do that. Chris’ technical ability is amazing. Very few wrestlers could compare to him, and much of that has to do with being a former National Champion for his age group in UK judo. I started the film with the famous Hair v Hair match as I think it’s electrifying.
What is your intent in releasing this documentary? What do you hope it achieves?
My intent with the film is the same as with any other project I’ve spent 5 years killing myself and nearly bankrupting myself to make; to get millions of people to view the film. This is not easy. Most “wrestling” docs take weeks to make and are actually fan films. Fans love them. And nothing is wrong with that. This is a real documentary; the average audience hates wrestling and won’t look at it or even consider looking at it.
I am not putting down wrestling by saying that; I’m putting them down. I think the same thing happened with Mickey Rourke’s ‘THE WRESTLER’. When it opened in Dallas, it played only on one screen in all of Dallas. While it was playing here, Mickey won the Golden Globe. You would think that it would get it open on more screens. It’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen yet it’s stayed on one screen. So many cinefiles wouldn’t be caught dead watching professional wrestling, even though it was one of the greatest performances of the decade.
When Shakespeare was presented in William Shakespeare’s time at The Globe Theatre in London, there were events taking place outside the theatre all afternoon, including wrestling. Also, when the audience at that time watched a production of Shakespeare, they were rowdy and often commented out loud and yelled and cheered.
Much of our “artistic” audiences have become such snobs that they have successfully chased potential audiences away from the Globe Theatres of our day. One of my favourite films, which most critics also list in the top 10 best films every made, was Frederico Felini’s great movie ‘La Strada’, or in English, THE ROAD. It starred Anthony Quinn, playing a strong-man who would gather in front of a crowd and with unbelievable strength and break chains wrapped around his chest. This film won every award possible but do you think that any of it’s audience would gather on the road around such a strongman? No, but this was a famous film and they will go to the movie.
To me, wrestling is a lot like this way and unfortunately, our American audience prefers to act cool and listen to an addict such as Amy Winehouse.
You mentioned that you tried to sell the documentary to the BBC and HBO, but they turned it down without really giving the film a chance. Do you feel that the success of ‘The Wrestler’, with the film itself being lauded, the actual sport of pro-wrestling being treated with respect and Mickey Rourke looking like he’s going to go three-for-three in “Best Actor” categories, that the documentary would be easier to sell to a network today?
Presently, none of this has opened more screens that I know of. It could in the future, but the wall that most people have against wrestling is still very solid. Most theatres carrying THE WRESTLER are theatres that cater to “art” movies. Maybe that’s not true elsewhere, but it is in Dallas.
When I did World Class, for the first year or so, the only advertisers we could get were hot-rod shops and the “Kitchen Magician”. I believed the audience was much more upscale than the audience the advertising agencies thought it was composed of. They didn’t think that the wrestling audience had any money.
At the time, I was finishing my masters in film up at UNT where Bill Mercer taught as well. I was taking a required course in statistics and I decided to do a 300-person survey of what economic level the wrestling audience was at. It turned out the TV fans were middle to upper-middle class. My boss decided to commission a study done by a professional company and they came up with the same figures.
Our first sponsor was Pizza Hut. We did a great commercial with the Von Erichs for them. I think the public has absurd perceptions about wrestling and the wrestling audience. The ones who are stupid are these idiots who are judging wrestling wrong.
I hope the Mickey Rourke film will help how people perceive wrestling, it’s fans and it’s wrestlers. Of all the people I’ve met in my life, you can’t beat wrestlers and their fans. They are all hard working honest people. The only hope I rely on about the possible success of my film is that God might bless it. Who knows? All I can do is keep plugging away and trying to do the next right thing.
A newspaper friend of mine interviewed Mickey Rourke on a set in Dallas. As he walked away from the interview, my friend Jane Sumner said a fan yelled, “Mickey, you’re the real thing.” He responded, “that’s the problem.”
Mickey Grant has been making documentaries for over twenty-five years on a number of varied subjects.
Read the review: ‘Gentleman’s Choice: The Chris Adams Story
“The Hangman” Draven Cage