Dean Malenko Talks Favorite Matches, His Early Wrestling Career, NJPW, His Legendary Dad, More

Dean Malenko Talks Favorite Matches, His Early Wrestling Career, NJPW, His Legendary Dad, More

A recent episode of “Talk is Jericho” with Chris Jericho features former WCW Cruiserweight Champion, and current WWE producer, Dean Malenko.

Chris kicks things off with the “Ice Man,” and says Dean is one of his best friends in the wrestling business. He calls him “Stinko Malenko,” an homage to their rivalry in WCW, and asks if anyone still calls him that. He laughs and says that his kids call him Stinko Malenko. Dean grew up traveling the country with his father, the famed Boris Malenko, before settling in Florida. Dean says it was a lot easier being a wrestler in Florida, compared to other parts of the country, in that his longest drive was five hours to Miami. Jericho asks who was promoting Florida at the time. Dean says the territory was run by a guy named Cowboy Lutrall, who eventually handed things over to Eddie Graham. Dean talks about Fort Hesterly Armory, a historical landmark noted for hosting Florida Championship Wrestling. He calls it the Madison Square Garden of the South, and is currently working on building a memorial for noteworthy tenants including, but not limited to: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., the Doors, Eddie Graham, and Elvis Presley. The memorial is broken up in different “Walls of Fame,” one of which is dedicated to the wrestling business, and past luminaries such as Terry and Dory Funk, Rene Goulet, Dick Murdoch, Dusty Rhodes, and others.

Dean spent his childhood traveling from territory to territory “like a gypsy,and lived everywhere from Oklahoma City to Southern California. He says, “I was conceived in Missouri, born in New Jersey, and raised in Tampa.” Dean says his father would oftentimes invite other wrestlers to the house, including Haystacks Calhoun and Lord Littlebrook. Dean laughs and says that, as a child, he didn’t know why Lord Littlebrook never wanted to play, because he thought he was another kid. Dean says that he used to go see his father perform with his brother Joe, joking that it was always on a weeknight, so he’d have to be up for school the next day. Chris asks what it was like growing up with such a famous father, and questions whether or not Dean and Joe were ever “smartened up.” Chris says he’s spoken to guys like Cody Rhodes and Bret Hart, who were never clued-in as to the true nature of the business. Malenko says that he was in a different position, because Boris Malenko was a hated heel. He says, “I can’t tell you how many times we had our tires slashed, but as a heel—that’s your applause. That’s how you know you’re doing your job.” Chris asks if being the son of such a hated heel ever caused problems for Dean and his brother in school. Dean says that he never really got in any fights, because the majority of his classmates were afraid of him. Boris would go on television and make—what Dean calls—“death threats.” He says his father’s promos were very eccentric, and most people took him seriously. He remembers inviting friends to come spend the night, and their first question was always: “Is your dad going to be home?” Dean always assumed wrestling was a work, but says he second-guessed himself whenever he saw his father bleed. He says Boris Malenko was one of the first wrestlers to bleed as much as he did, and was famous for helping to invent the Russian Chain Match.

Dean says, “Part of the fun [in wrestling] is finding out [that it’s a work].” Chris asks when and how Dean found out, and Dean laughs: “I’m not so sure I ever found out.” Dean began training in Florida under his father, but says much of his training was self-taught. He says that he was always very studious in terms of reviewing tapes, and even picked up a few tips from watching Kung Fu Theatre on the weekends. In addition to learning from his father, Dean also trained under NJPW senior official Tiger Hattori. He adds that Hattori was his amateur wrestling coach, as well as his babysitter when he was a young kid. Chris asks about Dean’s amateur background, and wonders whether it was a prerequisite to professional training. Dean says that learning to wrestle is “like building a house,” and adds, “You’ve got to lay the groundwork before you start building up.” He trained under the legendary Karl Gotch, who was a family friend dating back to the Malenkos’ time living in California. Dean says that he almost never got into wrestling because of a car accident when he was sixteen years old. The near fatal crash left Dean wearing a medical halo that was screwed into his skull. Dean’s first match was for a local independent promotion in Florida, but his long term goal was to one day appear in Japan. His first tour in Japan was working for a promotion called UWF in 1984.

Chris asks if Dean always wanted to be a professional wrestler. He says no, and owes that frame of mind to the aforementioned car accident. His doctors told him that he would never wrestler, nor play any sports ever again. Dean says this hit him “like a truck,” and can remember feeling absolutely hopeless. Dean says that, when doctors give that sort of diagnosis, they’re generally working with the idea that their patient “sits on the couch all day,” and attributes his recovery to his athletic acumen. He spent time working for All Japan as a tag team competitor, oftentimes booked beside his brother Joe. He names several iconic teams, including the British Bulldogs and Dan Spivey and Terry Gordy. Chris asks when Dean became friends with Eddie Guerrero. Dean and Eddie met through their fathers; Boris and Gory worked together in the Carolinas. Gory Guerrero was infamously offended that he was being forced to play a Mexican stereotype, to which Malenko famously responded: “Look you wear a sombrero and I wear a yarmulke, we’re in the same boat.” Dean’s father opened a wrestling school in the late 1970s, which ran until Boris’s death in 1994. Over the years, they trained a litany of household names including Fred “Shockmaster” Ottman, Kane, Sean “X-Pac” Waltman, Norman Smiley, Barry Horowitz, Marc Mero, and others. He jokes, “I’m not going to say Van Hammer, even though William Regal likes to remind me of that all the time. That was one of the worst classes I’ve ever had.”

Dean says that his dad was revolutionary, because he was a Jewish American playing a German ex-Nazi. Dean isn’t sure where the Malenko name came from exactly, but gives Vince McMahon Sr. credit for coining the name. He says his father went through various identities inside the squared circle until finally finding himself as Boris Malenko. Jericho asks if Dean’s ever had any other names, aside from Dean Malenko. Dean laughs and says, “I was Dino Sanchez.” Dean’s father liked to book according to the demographics in the cities he toured. Upon visiting a predominately Hispanic community, Boris realized there weren’t many Latinos on the roster, so he sent Dean out as Dino Sanchez. By the time he moved on to Japan, he and his brother competed under their father’s work-name, Malenko. Chris asks Dean about the main differences between New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling. Dean says that they were similar, but he felt more at home in New Japan. He notes that Tiger Hattori, his former babysitter, was in NJPW, so he always felt at ease. He also says that All Japan tours are longer, sometimes lasting as many as six weeks at a time. Chris asks how Dean enjoyed living in Japan, and he says he loved it: “It’s either you love it or you hate it. There’s no middle ground. I’ve never heard someone say, ‘Eh, it’s okay, I put up with it.’” He says that you have to like Japanese food, because you can only eat soy-based vending machine hamburgers for so long. He says that he liked living there because the general population appreciated wrestlers, and followed wrestling like any other sport.

Chris begins to bring things to a close and asks Dean to pick some of his favorite matches and opponents. Without hesitation he mentions a Junior Heavyweight Championship match in Sapporo, Japan against his older brother Joe. He says it was only the second time in the history of New Japan that two brothers competed for a championship. Prior to the Malenko’s match, Terry Funk wrestled his brother Dory Jr. A few months after the junior heavyweight championship was decided, the Malenko Brothers teamed together again to take on the Funks. He was also fond of his matches against the British Bulldogs, especially their 1988 match of the year. Malenko says, “And it’s not like here, where Bill Apter votes on it—someone who’s never been in the ring before. It was the Japanese wrestling community.”

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