Sometimes in life, it’s good to change things up and reinvent yourself.
No one knows this better than Jesse Ventura.
Born James Janos in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1952, he has led quite the interesting life. He’s been a Navy SEAL, professional wrestler, a radio talk-show host, a mayor, a governor, author, television host, and political commentator.
This man has a diverse portfolio.
A competitive swimmer in high school, Ventura enlisted in the Navy in 1969, and served until 1975. From there, he moved to San Diego, California (his wrestling hometown), and joined a motorcycle gang called the Mongols. Upon moving back to Minneapolis in 1975, he remained in the group but also realized he needed to do something with his life.
“As the Superstar came to the ring, he saw me in the crowd”, Ventura told Roddy Piper on an episode of his podcast. “I was pretty put together at that time. As soon as I saw the Superstar, this was something I knew I could do”.
After leaving the Navy, Ventura enrolled in community college, but found that professional wrestling was his true passion. He was soon trained by local Minnesota wrestler and referee Eddie Sharkey (who had also trained Bob Backlund, The Road Warriors, Rick Rude and Sean Waltman). Soon after, Ventura was on his way to the Kansas City territory to work for Bob Geigel and Pat O’Connor.
“Superstar told me at the gym once that I needed to go the smaller territories and gain some experience, then when I was ready, start calling the bigger promotions”, Ventura told Piper.
After Kansas City, Ventura went to Portland, where he became a star, feuding with the biggest good guy in the territory, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. He also won the NWA Pacific Northwest Championship and the tag team titles with a variety of partners.
After gaining his apprenticeship in many of the independent promotions across the United States, he went back home to Minnesota and the AWA, ran by legendary wrestler and promoter Verne Gagne. It was in the AWA where Ventura would become a national star.
“Last week, I was bodyguard for the Rolling Stones”, he told AWA announcer Gene Okerlund. Not only did he wrestle in the promotion, but he also did part time work doing security for some of the biggest rock bands of the era, like Rush, REO Speedwagon and the Rolling Stones.
In 1980, Ventura and tag team partner Adrian Adonis won the AWA Tag Team Championship, beating Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon. For the next few years, Ventura and Adonis would dominate the tag team scene in the AWA, and sell out arenas all over the territory against “The High Flyers”-Greg Gagne and “Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell”.
In 1981, realizing he needed to freshen up his roster, Vince McMahon Sr. brought Adonis and Ventura to the WWE (then called the WWF), and had them each challenge Bob Backlund for the WWF Championship. They also wrestled in tag team competition, challenging for the tag team belts.
Ventura and Adonis went back to the AWA in 1982, and continued their feuds against the likes of Hulk Hogan, Greg Gagne and others. Ventura even went to Memphis in 1983, and beat Jerry Lawler for the Southern Heavyweight Championship.
In 1984, Vince McMahon Jr, looking to expand his business outside of his Northeast stranglehold, started grabbing the best wrestlers, managers and announcers from all the promotions in North America. He started by buying Stampede Wrestling in Alberta, Canada, and then started going across the United States and Canada, either buying territories or simply just taking their talent and putting the promotions out of business.
In many ways, Vince McMahon was like the New York Yankees of wrestling.
One territory McMahon had his eye on the AWA, run by Verne Gagne. He was especially interested in many of their stars, like Hulk Hogan, announcer Gene Okerlund, David Schultz, Mad Dog Vachon, Bobby Heenan and Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
According to AWA wrestler Greg Gagne, Ventura did interviews for an AWA show in Winnipeg, then simply did not show up for the match. He jumped immediately to the WWF in the spring of 1984, and was immediately put into a program with fellow strongman Ivan Putski.
However, just as Ventura was establishing himself as one of the WWF’s lead heels, tragedy struck. During a stop in San Diego in 1984, Ventura suffered blood clots in his lungs. It got so dire that doctors told Ventura’s wife Terry that he might not make it.
Fortunately, Ventura did recover. However, he was forced to retire from active competition (Ventura would only wrestle a few more times before retiring for good in 1986). But as they say, sometimes one door closes, and another one opens.
Vince McMahon, looking to bolster his announcing team, asked Ventura if he would like to be a color commentator, much like in the ilk of John Madden or Cris Collinsworth. However, there was one twist that had never been done before.
He would be a heel commentator.
While WWF announcers McMahon and Gorilla Monsoon would play it straight-laced, Ventura would openly root for the heels to cheat and win.
“Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat”, Ventura would remark many times during WWF broadcasts throughout the 1980’s.
This was the 1980’s, an era of wild attitudes and even more outlandish clothes. To make himself different from the rest of the wrestlers of the time, Ventura wore feather boas, flamboyant shirts and crazy hats. He was also very talented in terms of how he analyzed matches, picking out wrestlers positives and hiding their negatives.
“In this business, either you have it or you don’t have it”, said former WWF announcer Gorilla Monsoon in 1998. “Well Jesse had it.”
Ventura became so good as a commentator and as a personality, Hollywood took notice. In 1986, Ventura was cast in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi thriller “Predator”. It was a role that would make him even a bigger star. He also delivered one of the most famous lines of the whole film.
“I ain’t got time to bleed”.
You would think that Vince McMahon would be thrilled that one of his stars would break into the mainstream like this.
He was not.
Ventura had been for years calling on the WWF and wrestling to form a union. You see, in professional wrestling, none of the guys who competed got health insurance or benefits of any kind. They were labeled independent contractors. It was a way for wrestling promoters to not pay the gigantic expenses of benefits, and also to prevent their employees from forming a mutiny in case things got a little hairy.
In wrestling, it’s pretty much every man for himself. Everyone is wanting to move up the ladder, and if another wrestler gets hurt, or gets in trouble, that means there is an open slot. It’s very back biting, and makes for a great book or documentary.
In 1986, Ventura and a handful of other superstars wanted to start a union in the WWF. Vince McMahon found out about this, and almost fired Ventura. Shortly after making the “Predator” movie, Ventura received his Screen Actors Guild card, which afforded him many benefits that he never had as a professional wrestler.
“After I got that SAG card, I told McMahon you won’t have to worry about me pushing for a union”, Ventura once said in a radio interview.
Getting roles in movies made Ventura more confident he could step away from wrestling if he needed to. He was cast in Miller Lite commercials in the late 1980’s, and appeared in another Schwarzenegger hit, “The Running Man”.
Jesse Ventura was breaking into the mainstream, much like Hulk Hogan, and later on, The Rock.
In 1990, Ventura left the WWF, and became the mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. While he was serving as mayor, WCW came calling, and he soon became the lead color commentator alongside Jim Ross and Tony Schiavone.
Ross told WWE.com about his experiences with Ventura.
I was hopeful that Jesse and I could form a great broadcasting team and that we could somehow approach the magic that Ventura had with Vince McMahon and the late Gorilla Monsoon in The Body’s WWE years, but that did not happen, at least in my opinion,” wrote Ross. “It wasn’t that we were horrible. We certainly weren’t, but I expected so much more from our ringside partnership. Perhaps my expectations were too high or I simply wasn’t a good fit with Jesse. Hopefully, those that remember our WCW run look back upon those broadcasts more fondly than do I. Maybe I’m being too critical.”
After a three year run in WCW, Ventura tried his hand at sports radio, serving as a host on KFAN in Minneapolis from 1995-1998.
His next job, however, would shock the world.
Ventura, always vocal about politics, entertained a run at Governor of Minnesota, but no one ever took him seriously. But, feeling that things needed to change in his home state, Ventura announced his candidacy, and faced off against two run of the mill politicians from the land of 1,000 lakes: Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman.
Trailing in the polls most of 1998, Ventura did the unthinkable and came from behind and shocked his two opponents. Other than the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, it was the biggest political story of the year. A former pro wrestler turned actor becoming governor of a huge state like Minnesota.
It rocked the media like an earthquake.
“We shocked the world!” Ventura told his supporters during his victory speech in 1998.
This happened during the boom period of wrestling of the 1990’s, so Ventura’s win was a huge story. He appeared on many late night talk shows, and wrote a couple of best-selling books talking about his life and his rise to power in the state of Minnesota.
After leaving office in 2002, Ventura became a professor at Harvard, and even hosted a show on MSNBC. However, after speaking out about the Invasion of Iraq, he was fired from his TV gig.
Since then, Ventura has been on a crusade of sorts, trying to unlock many famous conspiracy theories, like the JFK Assasination, and 9/11. He’s been critical of both the Democrats and Republicans, and especially of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“I don’t like the fact that Dick Cheney and all these ‘chickenhawks’ are now advocating war”, Ventura told former CNN host Larry King.
He even hosted a show on TRU-TV called “Conspiracy Theories”, where he and his team would try and uncover damning information about such subjects like 9/11, the Illuminati, JFK, and other hot button issues. Whether they are true or not remains to be seen, but at least it was a very interesting program with a lot of entertainment value.
One thing you can say about Jesse Ventura is that he keeps himself relevant. He’s not afraid to express his opinions, and makes for a great interview or book. He offers a fresh perspective on things, and while I don’t always agree with what he has to say, I will say he’s managed to make waves and shake things up.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.