Date: July 6, 2005
Location: Louisville, KY
Source: Wrestling Observer Newsletter, NWA Fan Fest 2009
Jim Cornette is one of pro wrestling’s all-time great characters, both on and off camera. His knowledge of pro wrestling history and writing television ranks up there with anyone, and he’s very passionate about his vision of what pro wrestling should be. This passion is both a blessing and a curse, as it’s led to numerous public tirades that often turn violent. This particular incident was an example of that, and it ended up costing him his job.
Santino Marella, real name Anthony Carelli, was a student at OVW (Ohio Valley Wrestling) who was paying to be trained by Danny Davis, long before he went to WWE and became Santino Marella. He had only been wrestling for two years, and had a background in judo and amateur wrestling as well, and claimed to have competed in six MMA fights before he got to OVW.
Before getting into the physical confrontation between the two, it’s important to understand the background.
Cornette was part owner of OVW, and at the time, WWE had a working relationship with them where they’d send young prospects to Ohio to learn the ropes under the guidance of Cornette, Davis, and others. OVW was WWE’s developmental territory before FCW (Florida Championship Wrestling) and NXT, but WWE never owned OVW. Cornette was a WWE employee who was sent there to be the booker and write the television and work with the talent, since he had a relationship with Davis from when he managed him in the ‘80s.
Prior to going to OVW, Cornette was on the WWF booking team in the mid to late ‘90s, and after too many blowups with Vince Russo, he was sent to OVW and was initially very happy there. Cornette was never a fan of living on the East Coast, and he absolutely hated to travel. In the early days of OVW, Cornette helped shape the development of John Cena, Batista, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, and others who went on to become stars in WWE.
But by 2005, the bloom was off the rose. The problems began when Jim Ross was replaced as Head of Talent Relations by John Laurinaitis. Ross and Cornette went way back to their days in Mid-South Wrestling when both worked for Bill Watts. The two have similar philosophies about wrestling and had a tremendous amount of respect for each other. When Cornette battled with the McMahons over disagreements on talent and who should be called up to the main roster from OVW, Ross always soothed things over and stuck up for Cornette. With Ross gone, that buffer was gone and Cornette started clashing with WWE management more and more.
Laurinaitis also had a history with Cornette, as he managed him in 1989 as part of the Dynamic Dudes act when Laurinaitis was Johnny Ace. But the two didn’t have the relationship like Ross and Cornette did.
WWE was becoming more and more ridiculous and illogical with wrestlers they’d call up. They wanted guys on the main roster years before they were ready, like Chris Masters, Bobby Lashley, and Orlando Jordan, for example. This frustrated Cornette, and their erratic booking and talent decisions often wreaked havoc on Cornette’s OVW storylines.
The stress led to outbursts and tantrums, which is similar to how he behaved when it looked like his regional Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion wasn’t going to make it towards the end. In 2005, he blew up at the Dudleys when he allowed them to come up with their own finish during a match in OVW, and they came up with the idea of powerbombing Jillian Hall through a table. Cornette was furious when it happened, as OVW was run in such a traditional way where a move like that would literally cripple a woman in real life, and he had plans for Hall and didn’t want her now having to sell the powerbomb for weeks. The Dudleys were from the ECW mindset where such a move was commonplace, and in their world, Hall would be fine the next day. It was a misunderstanding, but Cornette threw a fit.
Cornette also exploded on Kevin Fertig, who worked as Mordecai in WWE. Fertig wore a baseball cap to the ring once, and Cornette told the ref to tell him to take it off, which he did. He then took a sombrero from a fan in the audience and wore it, which Cornette saw as a slap in the face. Cornette was finally going to be fired, but Ross saved the day.
Ross convinced Laurinaitis to give Cornette a paid vacation, which he took. While he was out, Tommy Dreamer took over the booking duties and did an absolutely horrible job. Paul Heyman was also spending more time in OVW, helping guys with interviews. Heyman and Cornette weren’t friends, and Cornette had often bashed him in the press, but there were no problems between the two whenever Heyman was there.
Tom Pritchard, a longtime Cornette ally and former star in SMW, was fired from WWE during this time. His constant defense of Cornette and OVW did not do him any favors. All political forces were against Cornette.
When Cornette came back from vacation, WWE informed him they wanted Marty Wright to get some TV experience ASAP, as they wanted to debut him on SmackDown as the Boogeyman. Wright gained game on the 2004 version of Tough Enough, where he lied about his age and claimed to be 30, when in fact he was 40. He was nicknamed Marty “Liar” Wright, but with his outstanding physique and unique promo ability, he was rushed to the main roster. WWE ran vignettes about him before he even had his first pro wrestling match.
Cornette’s plan to get the Boogeyman gimmick over was to portray him not as a cartoon character, but as a scary, psychotic individual who was crazy in real life. At the TV taping, the plan was for him to come out from under the ring, cut a promo in the ring, walk around looking scary, and walk out the exit (as opposed to the backstage curtain). Cornette planted students from the OVW school near the exit and instructed them to run away looking frightened as the Boogeyman walked towards them.
What Cornette didn’t know is that WWE had told Wright to wear antlers on his head. Whoever came up with that idea should’ve been fired. As Wright came out from under the ring, instead of looking menacing, he looked ridiculous. Cornette internally was going crazy because of the silly antlers, which made it hard to be taken seriously. He also wore a big necklace and carried a voodoo stick.
To Wright’s credit, he had the ability to cut a realistic promo that made you actually want to take him seriously. It was his promos that made WWE want to rush him to the main roster, because few had the ability he did to come across so believable.
After the promo, he walked towards the exit as planned. And the students all acted scared and got out of his way, as planned.
Except one: Santino Marella.
Not only did he not look scared or run away, he also chuckled. It completely ruined the aura of Boogeyman’s gimmick. The show aired live and it couldn’t be edited out.
Cornette, off camera, was going nuts and waving his arms for Santino to move. He didn’t. Cornette later admitted that he literally pooped his pants a little, that’s how frantic he was. Boogeyman even shook the railing to send the hint that he needed to run away, but he still didn’t.
After the Boogeyman left, Cornette, who doubled as the color commentator, left the announcer’s desk. That was planned, because OVW character Kenny Bolin was coming out for an interview and Cornette was feuding with him in storyline, and so it would make no sense if he was there. In reality, Cornette was backstage and asked about Santino, “Is he one of ours?” referring to whether or not he was an OVW student. They nodded. “Send him to me,” he said.
Everyone in the room knew what was coming. Cornette was going to lay into him verbally like he’s done many times in the past. And that’s what he did. Santino replied, but Cornette didn’t hear him. “What??” he asked. Santino repeated himself, saying no one had told him to run away from the Boogeyman. This only angered Cornette more, as he felt it was obvious based on what everyone else did, and also said she shouldn’t have laughed.
At this point the Boogeyman entered the room, as he had just walked in from outside, where he had just escaped to in the TV angle. He was steaming mad, as would be expected.
“Look at this mother*cker!” Cornette said, pointing to Wright. “He’s wearing antlers, face paint, and everyone else is running!” is akin to what he told Santino. He reiterated to Cornette that no one told him to run.
“Oh yeah? Did anybody tell you I was gonna do THIS?” Cornette then delivered the slap heard ‘round the world, which would later get him fired. Santino was surprised and acted like he was going to fight back, but also knew that if he did, his potential career would be over.
Cornette was telling him that if he wants to fight him, then fine, they’d go outside. But that if he was such a tough guy, this guy here (Wright) “Is gonna f*cking kill you.” Cornette believes he saved Santino’s life by slapping him instead of what Wright would have done to him.
What neither Cornette nor Wright knew was that Santino was a real shooter, and if he wanted to, he could’ve taken them both out. It wouldn’t have been the first time, as just a couple months earlier, he had taken a few fans down in a parking lot brawl at an indie show.
Cornette then continued slapping him. Each set of slaps consisted of three mini-slaps: left, right, left. He kept going for anywhere from 10 to 20 slaps before he stopped, as students were surprised Santino sat there and took it given that he was considered one of the toughest guys there.
Since it was a live TV taping, Cornette had to go back and do the show.
Even though he took the slaps without retaliating, Santino was bothered by what happened. He informed WWE of what happened, and the next day, Cornette was fired. Not even his supporters could defend his actions. It was time for him to go.
Many saw it as a double standard, as WWE hadn’t fired JBL or Bob Holly for doing far worse. In reality, all three should’ve been fired. Laurinaitis told Cornette his behavior couldn’t be tolerated in a publicly traded company. While that is true, the reality is that his behavior shouldn’t have been tolerated anywhere, in any company of any size. Cornette joked that OVW didn’t even have enough money to be a privately traded company, but that is beside the point.
With Cornette gone, WWE eventually severed ties with OVW and started up their own developmental territory. It led to the eventual formation of NXT, which has since become WWE’s exclusive training facility. Cornette later went on to book for ROH and also worked for TNA (ironically alongside his heated rival Vince Russo), and now appears at local fan conventions within driving distance. He also hosts a popular podcast called “The Jim Cornette Experience.”
The Boogeyman ended up having a decent run in WWE, with a gimmick that he ate worms and made his opponents eat them too. He was later released.
The real irony is that Santino went on to become a pretty big star in WWE; far bigger than Wright ever was. He debuted on a WWE taping in Italy, where he got over instantly. He never became a top wrestler, but his comedic talents were such that he got a lot of TV time for his wacky promos, funny accent, and likable personality.
The OVW segment:
Cornette’s side of the story: