As WWE re-establishes the authority role of General Managers on Raw and SmackDown, longtime fans may recall the days when WWE — then known as the World Wrestling Federation or WWF, for short — was under the watchful eye of Jack Tunney, often referred to as the esteemed President of the World Wrestling Federation by announcers such as Vince McMahon and Gorilla Monsoon.
Coming from a family of successful promoters in Toronto and having been one himself, Tunney joined the ranks of WWE in the summer of 1984 and was introduced as its President a short time later. Though he had been in charge of WWE’s Canadian office, Tunney had no power behind the scenes. Yet on-screen, he was the promotion’s sole authority figure. Tunney was responsible for making matches, resolving disputes, and announcing key decisions. He was considered impartial by fans, as he often sided with what was fair and just.
But was that truly the case?
At the time, Bobby Heenan and Jesse Ventura often accused Tunney of accepting bribes from superstars and possibly company executives. But their claims would fall on deaf ears as each man had a dubious history of skirting rules and authority.
In this retro review, we’ll revisit some of Tunney’s most famous decisions, and then you decide: was his television character on the up-and-up? Or was Tunney accepting money under the table, as Ventura and Heenan alleged?
The Hart of the matter
In 1987 and 1990, The Hart Foundation, the team of Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart, lost the tag team titles to the Rougeau Brothers and The Rockers, respectively, before Jack Tunney reversed each decision.
In the case of The Rockers, Tunney overturned their victory, stating that the ring was in an unsafe condition after the top rope broke, according to journalist Bill Apter in the March 1991 edition of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. According to the magazine, it was Tunney’s second controversial decision in less than a month after he suspended Rick Rude for essentially making “ya momma” jokes toward the Big Boss Man.
But the ruling against Jacques and Raymond Rougeau was most perplexing.
Manager Jimmy Hart, attempting to run interference for the Harts (no relation), was intercepted by Raymond. He grabbed Hart’s megaphone and walloped Bret Hart in the face, scoring the pin to win the titles.
However, because the Rougeaus had used a weapon, Tunney overturned the decision. While this seemed noble, there were similar situations during Tunney’s reign where the President turned his head the other way.
In 1988, at WrestleMania IV, Demolition won the tag team titles after using their manager Mr. Fuji’s cane to help them defeat Tito Santana and Rick Martel, Strike Force. Where was the same justice for Santana and Martel?
Interestingly enough, the Rougeaus’ would-be title win happened in Montreal, a rival territory for the Tunney family. It stands to reason that Jack Tunney may have used this occasion to stick it to the French-Canadian audience, though that was never confirmed.
For the record, following Hulk Hogan’s controversial WWE title loss in 1988, Tunney stated that a referee’s decision is always final. How Tunney overstepped his authority twice and got away with it remains unclear.
The lifetime suspension of Danny Davis
After a series of questionable calls by referee Danny Davis, which came to a head after the British Bulldogs lost the WWE Tag Team titles in a disputed manner, Tunney suspended the arbiter for life, saying he would no longer officiate matches in WWE. But by 1989, Davis was reinstated on a probationary status before resuming his role as a full-time referee.
Why the change of heart?
A plausible explanation is that Tunney found himself in a similar situation that would later haunt NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Like Tunney in the 1980s, Stern had a rogue official on his hands. After NBA official Tim Donaghy got caught and sentenced for his role in a gambling scandal, the disgraced ex-ref made sweeping accusations against the NBA, suggesting that everyone from the top down was involved in some misgivings that altered the results of games.
In Tunney’s case, he chose to handle Davis personally rather than report the referee’s supposed misdeeds to the proper authorities, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Instead, he approved of a wrestler’s license for Davis, perhaps hoping the diminutive official would get chewed up in the ring by the much larger superstars of WWE.
If Tunney was profiting from alleged backdoor deals, did he know or suspect that Davis was on to him? If so, was the lifetime ban Tunney’s means of flexing his power over Davis? And was letting him become a wrestler Tunney’s cruel way of physically punishing the embattled referee?
Protecting WWE’s cash cows
The era of Hulkamania, led by WWE Champion Hulk Hogan, was the most profitable period in WWE history at that time. From 1984 through 1988, Hogan sat atop the promotion for 1,474 consecutive days as the World Champion. Some have argued that Hogan’s iron grip on the title was thanks to Tunney’s firm grasp on his referees, specifically Joey Marella.
During a steel cage match on Saturday Night’s Main Event in January 1987, challenger Paul Orndorff had clearly outraced Hogan in exiting the cage and thus should’ve been proclaimed champion. But referee Marella, who had declared Hogan the winner based on what he allegedly saw, ordered the match to be restarted, which Hogan went on to win.
Then, at WrestleMania III, Marella was the official for Hogan’s title defense against Andre the Giant in what is still considered the biggest wrestling match of all time. As Hogan attempted to slam Andre early, he failed and fell backward with the Giant on top of him.
Andre looked to have pinned the champion, but Marella claimed Hogan’s shoulder was up. Video evidence following the match was inconclusive.
It’s worth mentioning that Marella was the son of former wrestler-turned-announcer Gorilla Monsoon, who once owned a piece of WWE and was still receiving a percentage of money from WWE events. It stands to reason that as WWE was in a boom period with Hogan on top, Monsoon’s payouts were significantly greater. Perhaps a windfall was tipped in Jack Tunney’s direction to ensure the company would stay afloat under Hulk’s rule.
Later, in 1988, with Randy Savage as the WWE Champion, the company continued to make mega bucks, which led to discontent in the locker room, most specifically with Bad News Brown.
After running through WWE’s best en route to winning a battle royal at WrestleMania IV, Brown continued to rack up victories, though it ultimately led him nowhere. After attempting to reach the WWE President for months to find out why he wasn’t the number one contender for the world crown, Brown literally took matters into his own hands.
During a meeting on the Brother Love Show, Brown noted that Tunney had a new home (a mansion, actually), a yacht, and a new car after Savage won the title. Tunney denied any association or deals with the Macho Man, prompting Brown to speculate that Tunney was perhaps receiving favors from Savage’s manager, Elizabeth.
Tunney grew defensive and put his hands on Brown, which proved disastrous for El Presidente. Brown throttled Tunney and let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not to put his hands on him again lest he incur the full fury of his wrath.
Then, in 1990, word around town was that WWE ownership was interested in moving on from Hulk Hogan, which hastened the rise of the Ultimate Warrior, who defeated Hogan at WrestleMania VI.
Afterward, Tunney issued a decree stating that the encounter between the two was so brutal that he would never sanction a rematch. And his decision stuck. Hogan and Warrior would have to go elsewhere to settle their differences. As for the new World Champ, he went on to face a host of challengers he defeated during his time as the Intercontinental Champion.
While there’s no concrete proof directly linking Jack Tunney to an authoritative conspiracy for personal gain, his questionable decisions and influential connections raise suspicions. Considering that most of Tunney’s higher endorsements came from Vince McMahon, who in later years would reveal himself to be the owner of WWE and who is known for his share of scandals a time or two (or more), it’s fair to say that those endorsements ring hollow.
Now, I turn it over to you, Cagesiders. How do you view the presidency of Jack Tunney? Vote in the poll below and share your thoughts in the comments section.
Was Jack Tunney an honorable WWE President?
This poll is closed
Yes - Jack Tunney, though not perfect, was fair & just.
No - Jack Tunney was definitely on the take.