A life filled with unexpected turns, flips and surprises brought a “kid from El Paso” to Union County four years ago. Manny Fernandez, 56, blocked for New York Jets running backs Tom Newton and Hector Manuel, helped evacuate Vietnam as a US Navy Seal and suplexed 440-pound titan Abdullah the Butcher.
The Raging Bull is well-known for many things but most widely known for his 32-year professional wrestling career. A journey channeling through a quiet, rural spot in Buffalo.
Any given morning, Fernandez can be found at Bodymaster’s Gym in Union or jogging around Timken Sports Complex as he trains for his next professional wrestling event.
Fernandez squares off in a main event legends grudge match vs. “Beastmaster” Rick Link at the Union County Fairgrounds Industrial Exhibit Building on Saturday, April 9.
Born to Elena Fernandez in El Paso, TX, Fernandez was one of nine siblings. He got his earliest sports lessons at age 8 while playing baseball, but contact sports became a new love.
“I saw lots of kids playing football across the streets. Right after that I played Pop Warner football. I loved knowing I could knock the living out of someone,” Fernandez added.
Another contact sport caught his attention in junior high. Fernandez wasted no time pinning opponents en route to becoming a two-time champion in the 191-pound class at Lincoln High School in San Jose, Calif. By the time he finished high school, 46 colleges and universities offered scholarships for wrestling and football.
Instead of leaving home, Fernandez decided to stay close to home as his mom fell ill with diabetes.
He enrolled at San Jose City College and left a lasting impression on opposing defensive linemen and opponents he faced on the mat.
Fernandez was the first unanimous selection for Golden Gate Conference’s offensive lineman of the year. He blocked for two-NFL running backs — Newton and Manuel — while at San Jose City College where the team earned a No. 1 ranking his sophomore year in 1974.
The USC Trojans knocked on his door offering football and wrestling scholarships but Fernandez once again turned down the offers. This time he opted out of sports for the US Navy.
Fernandez enlisted in 1974 and would go on to be recommended to become a Navy Seal. After serving for nearly two years of service, Fernandez and his team were shipped from San Diego, Calif., to the Subic Bay in the Philippines for jungle fighting training. It was during this time and the days leading up to leaving for Vietnam that Fernandez considered his previous choices.
“I thought I should have stayed to play football and wrestle. Once I got there, it was a survival thing. I told myself, I gotta come out of there alive,” Fernandez said about serving during the Vietnam War.
After an honorable discharge from the US Navy, Fernandez returned to Texas after a quick stop in San Francisco, California.
It was in this return to his native state where Fernandez’s professional wrestling connection arose.
Fernandez met up with Chavo Guerrero. Guerrero coached Jefferson High School’s wrestling team and 9th grade football team in El Paso, TX. Guerrero extended an invitation for Fernandez to help coach the freshman football squad because he knew of Fernandez’s talent and knowledge.
“It was a good experience, helping Chavo. We were coaching for two-a-days and I got word that they wanted me to walk-on at West Texas State to play football,” Fernandez said.
He earned All-Missouri Valley Conference both years at West Texas State and won back-to-back championships while anchoring the offense at left guard.
While football was the sport of choice at the time, West Texas State had a niche for producing professional wrestlers.
West Texas State became a hotbed for numerous professional wrestlers. Dusty Rhodes, Barry Windham, Dory Funk, Terry Funk, Dick Murdoch, Ted DiBiase, Tito Santana and Tully Blanchard all came through West Texas State on their journey towards worldwide fame in the ring.
The Funk Family and Murdoch were West Texas State boosters and interested in recruiting pro wrestlers who played football like Fernandez. For a man who could squat 900 pounds and bench press 515 pounds, Fernandez was a perfect fit for professional wrestling.
“They were busy trying to get me to wrestle, but I had no interest to wrestle. My dream was to play in the NFL,” said Fernandez who placed third at the 1978 NCAA wrestling national championships.
His dream became reality when he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978. Although his dream was short-lived, Fernandez realized a professional wrestling career put more money in his pockets.
“As much I didn’t want to, it was just a simple rule of mathematics,” Fernandez said about his first-year NFL salary of $37,000 while he earned $90,000 in his first full year of pro wrestling.
Fernandez started wrestling in 1979 and trained with Dick Murdoch, Terry Funk and Blackjack Mulligan.
“Murdoch was the biggest influence, he’s the one who got me in,” he added.
It didn’t take long for Fernandez to make his mark on professional wrestling as he accomplished something many rookies only dreamed of doing. In his first year he defeated Funk for the Florida Heavyweight title.
“That’s basically what put my career over top,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez’s win vs. Funk led to working with the likes of Andre the Giant and World Champion Harley Race.
He spent 10 years touring with nine other top American wrestlers in Japan during the 1980s and 90s.
Fernandez pointed out Japan’s speed in the ring was at a much more rapid pace than America’s style of wrestling.
“In Japan it was 100 mph, you virtually had to knock them out to stop them,” Fernandez said jokingly as he recalled a memorable match in Japan with Buzz Sawyer.
“Buzz Sawyer and me were tag-team wrestling champions and we took on Murdoch and Bobby Orton, Jr. The match made the Japanese crowd crazy. We went on for 30 minutes because we were in it, but they wanted the match over,” Fernandez recalled.
He held the NWA World Tag Team Championship twice — once with Dusty Rhodes and again with Rick Rude. The NWA was eventually purchased by Ted Turner and the name was changed to World Championship Wrestling . Fernandez left the company and had success in Japan, Puerto Rico, and with the AWA — where he had a legendary strap match with Wahoo McDaniel. Moments leading up to the match are still frequently aired on ESPN Classics, but the match itself — which took place at AWA’s “Superclash 3” — was so violent that ESPN refuses to show it to this day.
Big guy in a small town
Fernandez moved to the Carolinas in 1981 and later that year made the move from Charlotte to Shelby, NC where a natural love for helping others presented an opportunity to give back.
He helped raise $97,000 to construct a permanent facility for battered, abused children. The James Home in Shelby, NC — which still stands today — was built and Fernandez still feels the need to help.
“I became really wrapped up in the community. That’s why I have kept a community presence. I’m very fortunate and have had a great career, instead of taking always, you have to give back,” Fernandez said.
A community-service passion grew and will show spring’s first fruit April 9.
TransSouth Wrestling — a Union County owned and operated wrestling promotion — will feature a legends grudge match between Fernandez and “BeastMaster”Rick Link on Saturday, April 9. As bell time sounds at 7:30 p.m., numerous professional wrestlers — including former Union High wrestler and defensive lineman Deon Johnson — will perform at Union County Fairgrounds.
Fernandez added his familiarity of Union County began a score ago when he met longtime Buffalo native Freddie Vanderford. Vanderford and Fernandez’s meeting naturally led to a later meeting with Vanderford’s son — Derik.
“Derik and I are just starting Trans-South Wrestling. We want to build something that will be profitable for everybody,“ Fernandez said. The April event’s proceeds will go to help 4-year-old Savannah Cook pay for medical expenses for her brain tumor.
“I was fortunate to meet Manny ten years ago — just a couple of years after I became involved in pro wrestling — and he taught me more than I would have ever imagined. That is why he is such a crucial part of events like the one on April 9. Young wrestlers are able to learn from someone who knows every aspect of pro wrestling because he has been there,” Derik said.
Fernandez sternly added that while benevolence from proceeds is promised so is professional talent at the shows.
“Our thing is not to bring little weekend warriors. We’re bringing in guys who have a shot to make it to the show,” Fernandez added referring to wrestling’s bigger markets like WWE.
Fernandez vs. Link will be a main event featuring two seasoned pros.
“I’ve known that man for nearly 30 years of my life. He would come in and you can see he’s a big man. He’s a big tough individual,” he says about the 400-pound former AWA Southern Heavyweight Champion.
“He still gotta whole lot to offer, but so do I,” Fernandez added. “Yeah, we’re getting older but we act like we’re in our teens once we cross that rope.”
“Since Manny has been living in Buffalo, he has made plenty of friends, and I think they will all be thrilled to see him step back into the ring right here in Union County, especially against a monster like Rick Link,” Derik said.
Training the next generation
Fernandez takes time to share pointers in the ring and has a long list of trainees that looks like a who’s who of professional wrestlers. He’s trained wrestlers such as Barry Windham, Terry Taylor, JBL, Booker T., Ron Killings and Homicide.
He sees this as yet another opportunity to return what he’s learned.
“I’m able to give back. I’ve always enjoyed seeing my guys,” Fernandez said. “You see the Ric Flairs and the Hulk Hogans still on the screen because they don’t want to let it go. It’s not about me, it’s about the next generation.”
Fernandez plans to train new talent in Union County, and he says while physical training is part of the learning process, psychology plays an ever bigger role.
“You have to learn the psychology of wrestling, if you have no psychology in the ring then you have wasted movement,” Fernandez added. “One of my favorite movies, ‘Gladiator,’ says ‘to win in the arena, you have to win the crowd.’”
Fernandez’s arena has stretched across the globe where he has won fans, students and communities. Now, Union County reaps the rewards of having one of professional wrestling’s greatest and truest athlete — The Raging Bull.
Showdown at the Fairgrounds
WHERE: Union County Fairgrounds Exhibit Building
WHEN: Saturday, April 9
TIME: Bell time is 7:30 p.m., doors open at 6:30 p.m
COST: Admission: Ringside $8, Adults $6, $4 Children 12 and under. Advance ringside tickets are available at The Union Daily Times