Around the Loop: Barbed Wire and Fireflies

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
— Jack Kerouac, On the Road

What Kerouac doesn’t mention is something I have learned to be true. Some of these people who have the public persona of madness and insanity are normal dudes. They have friends and families like everyone else. But they also have this itch they can’t get rid of, a desire to bring their creative imaginations to life. There’s a need to entertain people in the wildest ways possible, knowing that someone out there is going to understand and appreciate the effort.

Terry Funk did that with barbed wire and blood.

Windham Rotunda, also known as Bray Wyatt, did it with a lantern and a rocking chair.

Terry Funk (1944-2023)

In the ring, Terry Funk didn’t seem imposing. He wasn’t a musclebound surfer with a tan and a million-dollar smile. Funk was kind of scrawny in comparison to those performers. What Funk didn’t have was fear. He wasn’t afraid to take a bump. He played with fire like it was his best friend. If Terry Funk had any fucks to give, he left them in the locker room with his street clothes.

Funk was ahead of his time, doing insane things in the ring before that became the cool thing to do. You see death matches now. Nick Gage runs a pizza cutter across someone’s forehead. Jon Moxley stabs people in the skull with forks. Guys get thrown into tables layered with fluorescent light tubes.

You can thank Terry Funk for all of that.

Along with his friend Mick Foley, Funk pioneered what Moxley has called the “beautiful violence” of professional wrestling. He didn’t seem the type. Looking at him, you would never guess Funk had participated in a No Rope Barbed Wire, Exploding Barbed Wire Boards and Exploding Time Bomb Death Match at the 1995 King of the Deathmatch Tournament in Japan.

My favorite Funk gimmick was when he appeared in the WWE as Chainsaw Charlie, a bargain-basement Leatherface in a red shirt, suspenders, and a mask that looked like someone dumped liquid latex on his face. Sparks shot out of the saw’s engine compartment while Funk spun the thing around in a weird interpretation of the Leatherface Dance. It was ridiculous, and it was great.

Funk was a Texas boy from a wrestling family. He would bugger out of dumb matches by telling the promoter his horse was sick and he had to go back home to the ranch. Maybe Funk stayed in the ring longer than he should have, with a career spanning 50 years. His final match was in 2017. He was a member of the Hardcore Hall of Fame. Most of all, Funk went out there and he did the damn thing, regardless of what anyone else thought. That attitude made him a legend.

Windham Rotunda (1987-2023)

Windham Rotunda was from a wrestling family, too. His dad was Mike Rotunda, best known as Irwin R. Shyster, WWE’s wrestling tax attorney. He was named after his uncle Barry Windham, a former member of the Four Horsemen. That was a lot of history to live up to, and Rotunda did it by creating Bray Wyatt, one of the most memorable characters in modern wrestling history.

With his soft Southern drawl and smoke-spewing lantern, Wyatt was a Bayou prophet. In his promos, Wyatt talked about God and the devil, his cryptic upbringing, and all the madness swirling around in his head. He would say shit like “Follow the buzzards” or use that old Sunday School song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” in the most insidious way possible.

Wyatt was a cult leader. He had his own Manson-esque family that included Luke Harper (the late Jon Huber, also known as Mr. Brodie Lee), Braun Strowman, and Erick Rowan. Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton were in the Wyatt Family for short stints, too. They were under Wyatt’s thrall, and mayhem ensued.

Intentional or not, Wyatt reminded me of preachers I had known growing up. Evangelicals and Pentecostals riffed on cherry-picked pieces of scripture until the message was utterly obscured, but the emotions remained. There was nothing left but confusion and the desire to follow, follow until you could figure out the mystery of what the hell they were talking about. I got it, see. That character activated memories I thought had walled up and put away. Wyatt clicked with me and it was unsettling.

Fans did follow Wyatt. When he walked into the arena, the crowd turned on their cell phone flashlights, giving every venue an eerie glow. Wyatt called his fans “fireflies.” I was a Firefly. When I stopped watching WWE, one of the only t-shirts I kept was a Bray Wyatt shirt.

When the Family split up, Wyatt reinvented himself as a happy kid’s TV show host. Every week, I waited for the Firefly Funhouse to come on. Filled with weird puppets, the Funhouse was a representation of the fragmented personalities in Wyatt’s head. Those aspects came together in a terrifying amalgamation and coalescence called The Fiend.

That laugh. That mask. Even as a grown-ass man, it was the stuff of nightmares.

Look: Bray Wyatt was my Undertaker.

Taker had supernatural powers. He was the Deadman, a reanimated Phantasm mortician with liquid eyeliner and a black hat. He could make lightning come down from the skies. For a while, he had a faction called the Ministry of Darkness. They crucified Stone Cold Steve Austin, for cryin’ out loud. Undertaker threw Mick Foley from the top of the cell and well, you know all that.

But Wyatt had something more dangerous, more insidious than the powers of darkness. He had charisma. Charisma and bad intentions. No matter which iteration of the character was on screen, Wyatt was like a parcel carelessly thrown onto a front porch. On the outside, he looked whole. But on the inside, there was nothing but shattered pieces. Wyatt could make competitors look inside themselves and find all the places where they, too, were broken.

Wyatt’s matches weren’t always great. I don’t want to go back and reevaluate that damned House of Horrors match and suddenly decide it was a tiny masterpiece. It wasn’t. That match sucked. However, and this is important to note, Wyatt didn’t. Every time he was on screen, he was a captivating presence.

In one short and awful week, we lost a luminary who gave us everything he had and a superstar who had so much more to give. The lantern has gone out. The barbed wire has been coiled. Listen hard, and you can hear that blue centerlight popping.

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