If you’re younger than 30, you may not be familiar with a time in which entire halves of televised wrestling cards were populated by men who received no ring entrances, who were granted no personalized theme songs and who offered not even the merest flicker of competition to their adversaries.
Known by several names, including jobbers, enhancement talent, underneath performers, carpenters or Bobby Heenan’s favorite term “Ham ‘n egger” — “Because you’re just another breakfast, pal!” — these men were fed to the A-list talent of the WWF on the nationally syndicated television shows Wrestling Superstars and Wrestling Challenge every Saturday and Sunday in the 1980s and early 1990s. By sacrificing their bodies to make the established stars look like absolute killers, these career undercarders played a critical role in embellishing the physical attributes and capabilities of wrestling’s headliners.
One of the wrestlers who was tasked with losing every time he appeared on television as a respected “carpenter” was Mario Mancini, who was ushered into the WWF locker room in 1984 shortly after graduating from high school. He then suffered through nearly a decade of savage televised beatings, before exiting the business at the still young age of 26.
What sort of toll does eight years of losing take on the body and mind of someone assigned the role of loser even if the losses he endures are wholly predetermined? If you’re Mancini, enough that it takes years to recover from. I recently spoke to him about how he feels now about taking all of those Ls, the loss that brought his father to tears and how, for him, it wasn’t a job well done until he was leaving the arena on a stretcher.
How did you manage to break into the WWF at such a young age?
Tony Altomare went to school with my dad, and I tracked him down at multiple wrestling events to convince him to let me train with him. I trained to wrestle my whole senior year of high school until July 31st of 1984. Tony worked for the WWF office at the time, so he brought me, Dave Barbie, AJ Petrucci and Seth Cohen (who worked as Robby Parliament) to Poughkeepsie to work in a WWF ring the afternoon prior to a show, and to get a feel for what the WWF was like. At 4 p.m., we’re sitting in the empty arena, and Tony came up to me and said, “Go downstairs and get dressed; you’re working tonight. And sign your contract.” We went downstairs in the dressing room in Poughkeepsie, and Gorilla Monsoon was sitting there. He said, “Are you Mancini?” When I confirmed that I was, he said, “Sign this.” He handed me a thick contract. I asked him if I needed a lawyer to look at it first, and he said, “Not if you want to sign this contract. No.” I asked him where I sign, and he pointed and said, “Put your work name here and your real name here.”
Did you have to endure a lot of harsh beatings as a jobber?
Well, my second professional match was in West Warwick, Rhode Island at the Musical Theatre against “Dr. D” David Schultz, and he broke my nose in two places. He actually did me a favor by doing that because it spared me from a lot of hazing later on. After he broke my nose, they put me on TV with him in Hamilton, Ontario. What they wanted to know was will this baby who graduated from high school on June 20th, who turned 18 on June 21st and who broke into the business on July 31st unlace his boots and run? I didn’t. I told Schultz he could break my nose again if he wanted to. He said, “We’re gonna have a good match, boy! Calm down! It’s TV, boy!” Then he told me he would apologize on TV for breaking my nose. So once we got out there, Schultz held his arms out and said, “Sorry for breaking your nose, boy!” Then he shook my hand, and slapped me clean across the face.
Were you ever resentful of your position as the perennial loser?
I heard all the stories about how you might have animosity toward the guys who were making all the money, and they would turn around and say, “Don’t have any animosity toward me; I starved for six years.” You’d hear about Hulk Hogan hanging out with Ed Leslie during their early years, sleeping in the back of vans and eating bologna sandwiches during their early years in the business. I thought of it as simply paying my dues.
By 1988 or 1989, that’s when I realized I was never going to be moved up any higher than I was. That’s when I told Ray “Hercules” Hernandez that I was going to go down in history as the best jobber that the WWF had ever seen.
Not many people get to be on national television, let alone get to be in the WWF during one of their most prominent stretches. So by one measure, you’re very successful, but on the other hand, you’re depicted as losing all of your matches. How did you feel about yourself during that time frame?
It felt horrible. I’d put some guys over who couldn’t wrestle their way out of a wet paper bag, and I was a really good technical wrestler. I worked hard at it. Second, I’m the last of six kids in a very tight-knit Italian family. To see my father watching me on TV getting my trunks pulled down and getting branded like a piece of cattle by the Funk Brothers after a six-man tag team match, I could look at him and see his eyes welling up with tears. He didn’t want to see his son like that. He knew it was all fake, but he kept saying, “You’ve been there a while; how come they can’t do anything with you?” It was hard to take.
I got so frustrated with it that I finally hit the steroids in 1988. If you watch my match with King Kong Bundy, and then watch my match with “Playboy” Buddy Rose, you’ll see the transformation in my body. I was brought up in an old Italian family, so when the news came out in 1990 that anabolic steroids would be a controlled substance like cocaine, I never touched them again. I figured they’d improve my chances of getting pushed because they helped everyone. I was able to slam Buddy Rose who weighed 317 pounds at the time. I didn’t have to wear the straps on my trunks anymore; I was able to wear regular trunks.
When did you ultimately decide to leave the wrestling industry?
My final match was against Rick Rude in April of 1992 in Huntsville, Alabama, and I just had to walk away. I said, “I can’t do this anymore.” I had a talk with Vince [McMahon]. We talked about how I was still young, and it wasn’t quite my 26th birthday yet. They had a line they used in the office, which was, “I like you. The office likes you. Just be patient.” They said it all the time. Well, Vince said, “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” and that was it. When I got home, my mom answered a phone call, and it was from Terry Garvin asking me to go somewhere to wrestle someone for the WWF, and I just said, “Mom, I’m home.” She put the phone back to her ear and said, “I’m sorry Mr. Garvin; he isn’t home.” That phone never rang again.
When I got out in 1992, I tooled around for a couple years, then went to college, and eventually graduated from law school in 2010.
Do you look at yourself as a failure because you didn’t achieve your dream of being a wrestling star, or have time and distance dulled that feeling?
I was depressed about my lack of success for years. But then Joe Bruin with the New England Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame called me and invited me to do a fan fest. I had no desire to do it. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in seeing me. Joe, though, informed me that I was in the WWE Encyclopedia, where I’m called one of the most resilient wrestlers in history. I had no idea about that until he told me about it. But I still didn’t want to go to the fan fest. I told him that if I sat there at a table for seven hours and only signed two autographs, I was going to feel completely mortified. He finally convinced me to go, telling me there was a guy flying in from Japan just to see me. I didn’t believe him, but when the event started, I got mobbed.
Then, in 2014, it was Howard Finkel who opened up my eyes when he inducted me into the New England Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. He said, “If you wondered if you were going to be a rising star in this industry, once you looked up at the board and saw that you were taking a trip to Manciniville, it was then that you knew, because all major stars went through Mario Mancini, and booked a trip to Manciniville.” Next, he said, “I want to introduce to you the debut match for King Kong Bundy, the debut match for the Hart Foundation, the debut match for The Undertaker…” He just rattled them all off. That helped me to feel proud of what I’d done.
How do you feel about the titles used to describe the wrestlers who always lost? Do you prefer jobber, underneath performer, enhancement talent or something else?
I’m a jobber. I’m not enhancement; I’m not human Viagra. When Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George are sitting around in the diner on Seinfeld, and there’s a guy wiping a table down in the background, that guy is enhancement. He’s enhancing the scene. I was a carpenter. I couldn’t draw a house, but I could build you one. I consider myself an integral part of what they were putting together.
My job was important. My job was to make people think that if Mario Mancini was being carried out on a stretcher because of what Bundy did to him, then what was Bundy going to do to his opponent at Wrestlemania? I did a stretcher job for Paul Orndorff prior to the original Wrestlemania. I did a stretcher job for Bundy prior to Wrestlemania III. I did a stretcher job for Randy Savage prior to Wrestlemania IV.
So I didn’t enhance a damn thing; I went in there and did my job.