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Tatanka still giving it his all
By JASON CLEVETT - SLAM! Wrestling


Tatanka before his match in Calgary in early July. Photo by Jason Clevett

There are many legends on the independent circuit who coast through their matches on their name and a handful of moves. Former WWE star Tatanka is the exact opposite -- a name wrestler who works hard in the ring to give the fans their monies worth.

SLAM! Wrestling recently caught up with Tatanka (real name Chris Chavis) after the PWA supershows in southern Alberta. Tatanka had one of the best matches of the night with local wrestler Ravenous Randy, which prompted the question of why he works so hard at this stage in his career.

"One of the biggest reasons is I am a man of my word. Not only do I want to come and work and be here, but you have to keep your word with the fans," Tatanka said. "The fans watched me in the WWF from 1990-1996 and from 2005-2007 and that is what they pay for and what they come to see. Unfortunately a lot of guys forget that and just want to coast on their name. But I realize that someone is coming and watching me, not only do I want to give the promotion the best match I can give but the fans as well. I want the fans to be satisfied when they leave."

He believes that acting this way results in benefits for the promotion, the fans, and himself. "If you come in and are partying and not acting proper it hurts your name. There are many great stars in our business who have made tons of money but they have hurt their name by their own actions in and out of the ring. For me it is about keeping my word, honor and respect for myself and the business, promotions and fans. That is just how I am I want to work 110% when I am in the ring."

The 43-year-old Native American was a young upstart when he broke into wrestling in 1990, and credits veterans with helping him grow and learn. It's a pay-it-forward approach that Tatanka takes with the current generation.

"One of the biggest things that I like to show coming into a locker room, I bring a light with me. I am always smiling, happy, not cussing and swearing and bitching about the business or not being in the WWE. I have done very well with wrestling and I am very thankful. I like to show people that even with all of the success I have had I am still humble and a regular guy. I don't walk in with an attitude or an ego, because when you have pride sooner or later you are going to fall. I like to show people that I have a great attitude. The second thing I try to do is let these kids see that you can go out there and tell a story. You don't have to plan 20 different spots, you talk a little bit and then go out there and do the rest. They watch and go, 'Look at the response they are having.' I have heard that tonight, 'How are you doing that?' That is the love and the art of the business is feeling the fans, telling the story and getting them emotionally involved. It is not just going out and doing spots."

It's a big change from the early 1990s when he was rising through the ranks of the WWF.

"What a fantastic era! I was so blessed being taught by guys like Rick Martel and Bam Bam Bigelow. I spent a year wrestling Rick Martel, and I saw him a year ago and told him that I thank you very much. He taught me so much. The way you get taught like that is you get paired up with a veteran and you shut your mouth. You don't say, 'What you are going to do?' He is the teacher, you are the learner, and you get taught and grow. When something happens that you are not sure about, ask them? If you get confidence and trust you say, 'What do you think about this' and then they will say it is a good idea. It is lost in our business now, kids just come in and tell you what they want to do and have no respect. It's not lack of respect for the person, it is lack of respect for the business and where it came from. In the '90s we were so tight of a family it was unbelievable, you don't feel that unity like you did back in the day. Those were the days that were special."

Tatanka also spends a great deal of time in the United Kingdom working for Brian Dixon's All-Star Wrestling.

"I have worked for Brian Dixon several different times. It is great. He always takes care of me and is a gentleman. It is a big promotion, literally a multi-million dollar promotion. He runs all year long, on certain days two shows a day, to sold-out shows and sells a ton of merchandise. UK fans are a different breed of fan -- they are incredibly loyal. They travel all over, you always see a ton of them at Wrestlemania. It is great to go there and perform and you get to work five to six nights a week."

One thing Tatanka laments is the lack of Native American wrestlers today. In Cochrane he teamed with local star Red Thunder, a rare opportunity to team up with another native wrestler.

"I don't get to team with others very often so I really enjoyed that," he said. "I love teaming up with another Native American. I was just at the Mohegan Sun (in Connecticut) for some matches in May. Not only do I get to go there and wrestle but I get to spend time with Native Americans, kids and elders. I get to learn things from the elders and be around my people. It is a great honor."


Red Thunder and Tatanka team in Cochrane. Photo by Jason Clevett
He hopes another Native star comes forward soon. "It is great to have all different races in wrestling because it gives people of that race or nation someone to look up too. You would be surprised how many kids, teenagers, and even adults have contacted me through the internet. You don't realize it when you are in WWE because you are on the road so much. I get emails daily and it touches my heart, sometimes it has made me cry at how I have impacted Native kids in a positive way. I am still out here but we do need to have a young native wrestler come up and be on TV; yes, because native kids are having a rough time on the reservations. Some are strung out on drugs, away from their parents, in the middle of nowhere without the opportunity to get success. So when they see another Native American they go, 'Wait, he is Native and if he did it I can do it.' It would be great to have someone rise up. The biggest thing that I have noticed some Native guys have done, because I have been there and was very successful in the WWF, they have tried to follow my path. The best thing with any wrestler, not only Native, is to get your own style. People are going to know you are Native but all of the guys who have done well, from Rock to Stone Cold to Flair to Macho Man had their own uniqueness. All of the Native wrestlers need to tweak how they look to get that door open to the WWE. They love to have Native guys, they had Chief Jay Strongbow for years. We need someone else there to stand for the Native nation."

Tatanka had the chance to be that person when he returned to the WWE in August 2005 after leaving the company in 1996. He was requested and was granted his release in January 2007 after a year of frustration with the direction of the company and his character.

"From the WWF to the WWE it has changed so much. Quite frankly you have writers that don't have wrestling experience, they are coming out of college and into the WWE with no experience at all. They are not the Chief Jay Strongbows and Pat Pattersons who have been in the ring, gotten over and know what it takes to get a character over and what you should and should not do in the ring, what a storyline should be. The storylines are terrible," he said. "The company has gotten so big it has changed. Back when it was the WWF it was still massive but it was just a wrestling company. The interviews weren't scripted every word is scripted now. Vince was there with his hands on everything. Now Vince has got to trust so many other people to write TV because he has got to take care of shareholders, has three different brands, he is spread out. So he has to trust these people that do not know what they are doing."

He then used himself as an example of the WWE writing process gone wrong.

"I came in as a babyface in 2005 with Eugene and Kurt Angle on RAW. They announced my name and boom ... big pop and they immediately wanted sign me to a contract. I came in and did the Lakota vignettes, which cost a lot of money we had to go out to South Dakota to do them. Not everyone gets vignettes so they had already told me what they wanted to do with me and it was big. They ran those every week saying Tatanka was going to return. That first match I went out the place exploded. The vignettes had worked and they had done a great job. What happened next? I was off TV for four weeks. Why? Did I do something wrong? No. Was I out doing drugs? No. Did I have heat with anybody? No, I always got along with everybody, always have. Unfortunately in this business they have somebody they have already decided to go with and they expect it to do well. If something else goes well and overshadows something else they will sit it out and cool it off very quick. Why do that? That is the difference. In the 1980s and 1990s everybody was a star, now you only have certain guys that are truly stars, that people are emotionally tied to that character, only a few are like that now.

"So they decided to partially turn me heel and have me stand for the Native nations. They put me with Bobby Lashley, perfect person. I got teed off, knocked the referee and Bobby Lashley out and it looked phenomenal on TV," he continued. "People started responding and booing, it had already turned, and what happened? I was off TV again for four weeks again? Why? Chris Benoit and I had a great angle, we had already worked on TV and some live event shows and the aura was there, it was phenomenal. We had a great angle, did they go with it? No they went with something else and the fans weren't into it. I even had agents tell me that someone was trying to hold me back. Agents would come up to me shaking their heads. They had someone they could make money with, that has made money for them before, what are they doing? Vince comes to TV and everything is already written."

With the writing on the wall, Tatanka asked for his release.

"We had a mutual release, no bad terms they just weren't doing anything with me. The worst thing to do in WWE is sit in the locker room and not be on TV. Starting, but not finishing, then starting again and not finishing. If you are not on TV you are not on a lot of the house shows. I was sitting there going, 'What am I doing? I am still at the top of my game and can still wrestle.' I want to wrestle, not sit in the locker room and collect a paycheque. It is about pushing yourself to the limit to get another high level and make more and more money. Even though I had a very good contract with WWE, I can go out on independents and do fantastic."


Tatanka signs autographs in April 1999. Photo by Greg Oliver
Tatanka can afford to work on the independent scene because during his heyday in the '90s he planned well for his future, something he advises all wrestlers to do.

"It is important definitely, without a shadow of a doubt. I look at guys like Jake Roberts and other guys who were megastars and they don't have a car or a house and still wrestling and your heart cries out for them. They should be able to sit back and enjoy the hard work and God-given talent that he had, but he made the wrong decisions. We all make mistakes but you have got to learn from your mistakes. It is from that you grow and mature as a better person."

Based on the reaction from fans and the popularity of retro DVDs and WWE 24/7 Tatanka feels that many fans long for that era.

"It is what the fans want and it would be great to see wrestling go back there. But WWE is not going to do that and TNA is following WWE. Maybe in the future someone will come along and want to tell the age-old story of good guy vs. bad guy, good guy overcomes -- the Rocky Balboa story."

RELATED LINKS

  • April 2, 1999: Tatanka set for battle
  • Tatanka's website

    Jason Clevett always forgets to write something clever here. You can send him something clever at j_clevett@hotmail.com.