In the fourth installment of a six-part series, WWE legend Booker T talks about the reality of wrestling with the riskiest move a grappler ever makes — leaving the ring behind.
Back in 1994 or 1995, World Championship Wrestling was having its biggest pay-per-view event of the year, The Great American Bash. For the big blowout shows like this one, the company would sometimes invite legends from the past to get the fans excited.
When they invited Wahoo McDaniel, I was probably the one who got the most excited. Wahoo was one of my idols in the business. He was a former Kansas City Chief and just a stone-cold tough dude. I got a chance to sit down next to him in the locker room. And watching him put his boots on, you’d think it was one of the hardest things a man could ever do.
Wahoo was a legend, but it was tough to see him do that. His body had quit wrestling before he had. That scared me a little bit. I didn’t want to be one of these guys chasing that glory in the ring, getting that pop from fans. Wrestlers call it the invincibility cloak — like nothing can touch you when you’re out there.
Maybe in the moment, that’s true. But it catches up with you. I love wrestling, and it’s given me so much in my life, but you need to know when it’s time to do other things. When I was 25, I thought I’d retire at 30. When I was 30, I thought 40 would be it. I wound up going a little longer than that, but there was always a plan in the back of my mind. There’d always be other things I wanted to do, and there wasn’t anyone who was going to tell me I couldn’t.
If there was, I could go one of two ways: around you or through you.
Wrestling is physical, but it’s also a mind game. The guys who rise to the top can get over by capturing an entire arena’s attention with their athleticism and their persona. I had no problem with either. But when I made the decision to retire from the ring, it was time to focus on the attributes I had other than being able to perform between the ropes.
In life, you sometimes need to find where you’re having the most fun before you realize what opportunities are in front of you. For years, I would sit in the dressing room waiting to go on and commentate the action in front of a television monitor. I was just goofing off, making the guys laugh. I absolutely had no purpose beyond killing time and having fun.
Word eventually got around to management in the WWE that my voiceover work was entertaining the troops, so to speak. That led to an offer to begin doing play-by-play commentary for WWE programming and eventually as an analyst for event coverage. Something I thought was just a way to screw around became one of the most important parts of my life.
It’s fantastic when that kind of opportunity presents itself — so long as you’re prepared for it. Once I was on camera and representing the promotion, it became about being as much of a professional as I could possibly be. I spend hours taking notes, doing homework and making sure I have as much information as I need in order to fulfill my role as a storyteller on the microphone.
It’s a three-hour show, it’s live and there might be someone in your ear giving you updates you need to address. And it all has to sound natural and effortless. Is it? Not always. But I know when I show up ready that things will go well. There’s one thing I’ve beat into the head of my wrestling academy students: preparation is the only luck you’re going to have.
Preparation is the only luck you’re going to have.
I opened the school before I retired, because I wanted to get that going while I was still active. And at first, it was an ordeal. Rent was $3,000 a month and we didn’t have enough people enrolled to cover it. Some months the owner didn’t get a check on time. But I believed in the concept and kept fighting.
It grew. So did my promotion in Houston, Reality of Wrestling. It was a different side to the business than I’d ever experienced. Instead of being the show, I’m putting on the show. And that means having extra ropes when one breaks, or making sure one of your guys with a broken arm gets taken care of. It’s taxing, but it’s worthwhile. We’ve been putting on monthly shows consecutively for six to seven years now.
Did I make mistakes? Of course I did. Did I learn from watching other people make them? Absolutely. I tell my guys, “Bring a pad and write down everything I say that’s wrong. You’ll learn more that way.” Being in the business for so long, I’ve seen what happens when things go right. Vince McMahon knows how to make things happen. Other promotions haven’t.
The other turn my career took — and you need to be ready for them — is getting my own radio show. Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve had people tell me I should be doing radio. It didn’t matter if they recognized me from wrestling or not. I guess people with deep, clear voices hear that a lot, maybe enough that they stop listening and brush it off.
I didn’t. I heard it and thought, You know, one day. And a couple of years ago, I had a chance to do a show where I’d be interviewing guests from all walks of life. Communication is part of my job in the ring, but this was a medium that was new to me. I remember saying “um” and calling out the station’s call letters about a hundred times in an hour. After finishing with one guest, MMA fighter Forrest Griffin, I thought, Man, I should’ve taken a different approach with him.
It was nothing serious, but I just didn’t have as much information on him as I should have, and the conversation suffered as a result. This is radio. It was about taking the listener on a journey with this guy. I didn’t do that.
I thought, That’s not happening again. My brother used to tell me that I should do everything to the best of my ability, no matter what. So I got better and better. I regrouped. And now I’m an employee with CBS. Preparation is the only luck you’re going to have.
Here’s the thing about life in general. People can get complacent. I can guarantee you that I could go to my old neighborhood in South Park in Houston, pass by the elementary school I used to go to and walk to the park next door. And I’ll see someone I went to school with, doing the same things that kept them in trouble year after year.
I could’ve done that. Robberies, arrests — I could’ve looked in the mirror and seen Booker T. Huffman, Jr., a guy who hustled his way through life.
You can’t. You need to keep constantly changing levels. Age doesn’t matter. You need to take more notes? Take them. You moving slower? At least you’re moving.
You need to keep constantly changing levels. Age doesn’t matter.
What drives me to take on new challenges is that I don’t want to be remembered as just a wrestler. I don’t want to walk out of the house and have people point and say, “Oh, the wrestler.” I’ve managed to keep my name out there without stepping in the ring.
When I did retire, it was on my terms. In the WWE, I did an angle with a wrestler named Cody Rhodes and passed the torch, which is how it’s supposed to be done. I could’ve had surgery to fix a neck issue, but I decided to step back. It was a great decision. Being an analyst has been an amazing fit. Guys live for that roar of the crowd. I chose to focus on what else I could do to get that high.
Wrestlers cry retirement all the time. And I’ll grant that I wrestled with my brother, Stevie Ray, in 2015 to help close that part of our legacy. It was in my promotion, Reality of Wrestling. The crowd was awesome, but it wasn’t the 100,000 people that WWE could attract. And that was fine. It didn’t need to be. Wrestling is just one chapter of my life. I’ve got plenty more to produce.
Don’t miss the rest of our exclusive series with Booker T:
Part 1: The Newborn Identity of Booker T