A Spark Here and There: Bully Ray’s Rise to the Top
by Justin Henry
By the summer of 1995, the mullet was in its death throes. Once the Samson-like staple of Billy Ray Cyrus, as well as every Caucasian baseball player not named Cal Ripken Jr, the ‘party in the back’ was about to have its lights turned out relatively permanently. All bearers of this hairy paradox from here on out would either be met with ironic encouragement, or a spit-laden scoffing sound.
Among the dying breed of mullets stood a man 6’4″ tall, tipping the scales at well over the 350 pound mark, and was in the neighborhood of his twenty-fourth birthday. Aside from looking like John Goodman in Raising Arizona, he didn’t stand out a bit otherwise, because according to his own words, he lingered backstage for 4 hours at an ECW event, with nobody saying a word to him.
Finally, after this eternity, the mulleted mammoth was spoken to by a man who would soon become one of his earliest, and greatest, advocates in Paul Heyman. The denizen of the Danger Zone instructed this youngster that his job for the evening was to serve as bodyguard for hated referee Bill Alfonso.
Alfonso’s schtick at the time was that he would somehow screw the babyfaces over, under pretense of “upholding the rules” on behalf of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. The payoff would involve ECW’s resident cleaner, a leather-clad giant named 911, storming the ring to try and annihilate Alfonso with his patented chokeslam at the fan’s beckoning. That happy ending wouldn’t arrive until mid-September, so for now, the unknown bodyguard would take the fall.
And it must have been quite the impressive fall. The youngster headed 911 off at the pass, and took a chokeslam so mighty for a man of his 350-pound frame, the fans nearly blew the roof off of the venue. Heyman was quick to congratulate him as soon as he came through the curtain.
At Heyman’s behest, that mullet was given its burial rites. The now crew-cutted Mark LoManaco was fitted with tie-dye and Hanson-brothers spectacles, rechristened Bubba Ray Dudley.
It’s hard to fathom the man best known for his table breaking, chair swinging, epithet yelling, and blood spilling would first make his way onto the telescape with a corn-fed grin, shy eyes, looking more apt to be tagging with Hillbilly Jim instead of half-brother Devon.
The most prominent aspect of Bubba Ray’s lovable, Southern-fried image was his stutter (hence stylistic spellings of his name as “Buh Buh”, as in “My name is Buh-buh-buh-buh!”). Bubba would try to introduce himself in promos, or get tripped up on whatever dialogue he was trying to get across. When the stammering kicked in, perpetually-angry half brother Big Dick Dudley would whack Bubba back to normal, much in the same vein of Arthur Fonzarelli turning on Arnolds’ juke box with a back fist strike.
At the 1995 November to Remember, ECW further humored the silly gimmick by making Bubba the evening’s “master of ceremonies” at the ECW Arena. Usually, the cutesy comedy bits were met with groaning drones from the Mutants from Philly (credit: Scott Keith), but Bubba, bedecked in a white coat and black top hat, managed to hold their attention. He spoke plainly and with a smile, his Noo Yawk accent barely hidden beneath his put-on farm boy rurality. He welcomed everyone to the event, surrounded by his supportive inbred brethren, making no mistakes until the final line:
“Let’s get ready to RUH-RUH-RUH-RUH”
An enraged Big Dick Dudley rapped Bubba with his crutch, and Bubba, plainly declared, “F–k that.” Within seconds, he’d destroyed ECW jobbers Donn E Allen and Tony Stetson, showcasing the primitive rage that would soon overtake him as his go-to persona.
By the time Bubba and D-Von gave their ECW curtain call in August 1999, they’d become the tag team most identifiable with the company. Through eight reigns as World Tag Team Champions, the Dudley Boyz made their mark with not just garbage brawls, but their pre-match insulting of the live crowds, which were way to vulgar for WWE, even in the Attitude Era.
Long before his “Do you know who I am?” tirades in TNA, Bubba Ray Dudley (long since having shed his southern drawl) preciptated near-riots at ECW venues. Whether he was calling a woman out for teaching her daughter the finer points of fellatio, or threatening fans individually, imploring them to get in the ring and back their chants and signs up, Bubba certainly put Atlas Security to good use.
But Mark LoMonaco was a blessed man. Upon he and D-Von’s arrival in WWE, they didn’t have to spend a year or two in some developmental territory, undertaking new names and backstories. Instead, they appeared on WWE programming as The Dudley Boyz. Unfortunately, however, Bubba would be sidetracked via retroaction, taking his old stutter once more.
After 4 months in limbo, the Dudz shed their tie-dye in favor of camouflage, and received a push on the merit of their compatibility to WWE’s two top babyface teams: Edge and Christian, and The Hardy Boyz.
It was in this time frame that the Dudleyz established the core of their WWE identity: putting people through tables (which drove Bubba into a near sexual frenzy if done to a female), while serving as the ‘rock’ of the tag team division. When the likes of Edge and Christian, The Hardyz, APA, and other duos split up, the Dudleyz (save for 8 months in 2002) remained a team, from 1997 through the end of 2010.
In other words, save for a stretch at age 30, Bubba Ray Dudley/Brother Ray was in a tag team from age 25 through 39, what would be considered the normal length of a good wrestling career.
Jeff Hardy and Edge went on to multiple World Title wins, and needed time to be groomed for them, so Bubba and Devon had to anchor the tag team scene, so there’d be at least one credible team. The same principle applies for TNA: splits for teams like America’s Most Wanted, the Voodoo Kin Mafia, LAX, and others meant that the time-tested Team 3D would do what they’d done in WWE: make sure there was at least one credible team, at least to put heel champions over.
In November 2010, the team would call it quits after a loss to the Motor City Machine Guns. The split seemed to lack impact: both men were near age 40, and they hadn’t done anything new or innovative in a number of years. Brother Ray, especially, had put on considerable weight since streamlining himself a bit in WWE, and it didn’t feel as monumental as, say, Ric Flair’s Raw retirement in 2008.
In fact, had Brother Ray not assaulted Devon during the retirement ceremony, it might have been wholly forgotten. Nobody realized it at the time, but what we were witnessing (or reading about in passing, given Impact’s ratings) would be the genesis of change within TNA, providing both a great new character, and a different direction for the company as a whole.
Fans who’d dismissed the new Bully Ray as shiny wrapping paper concealing a tired old prop were about to have their minds changed.
Rekindling his Long Island-loudmouth antics that made him a heat magnet in ECW, Bully Ray would soon become the loudest voice for the Immortal stable, ripping the crowds and (comically) ranting about his improving physique (“LOOK AT THESE CALVES”) and his disdain toward social media (“TWITTAH MACHINE”).
Throughout 2011, it became apparent, with respects to Devon, that Bully Ray should have been born a long time ago. After the table-breaking tandem had run their course, this is what should have been, not year after year of zombie-like wandering through the midcard, reciting the same playlist of moves and mannerisms.
Outside of some snarkist rumbling, there’s almost nobody surprised or appalled that Bully Ray stands atop TNA as World Champion at age 41 today. He’d whipped himself into shape, and constantly cuts the best promos on the show, next to Christopher Daniels and Joseph Park.
Watching Bully scream at Hulk and Brooke Hogan at Lockdown, gleefully and proudly laying out his devious plans to get to the top at their expense, and then gesturing to the trash-throwing crowd, as if to say, “is that all ya got?”, is such a far cry from World Title storylines about immigration and buckets of water.
You know a heel champion is doing his job when you’re both proud to see him finally make it as champion, and waiting for him to get his comeuppance from whatever good-hearted hero that can finally shut him up.
Had Mark LoMonaco continued playing out the string as a two-note tag team wrestler on autopilot, we wouldn’t be enjoying the madness that is Bully Ray. Let this be a lesson to anyone who thinks a midcarder is just a “career midcarder”, or that the crowd won’t buy into someone, just because they’re far removed from the main event scene.
Bully Ray took a small opening and ripped it apart at full stride. He always had the ability; he just needed the chance to prove it to us.