Former WCW and WWE wrestler The Patriot Del Wilkes recently took some time out of his busy schedule to participate in an interview with me. Wilkes’ career saw him compete for many years in a number of different promotions such as AJPW, AWA, and the aforementioned WCW and WWE. His growth as a performer in the ring was remarkable, and his travels all over the world have provided him with lessons about life and wrestling.
In the interview, Wilkes opens up about how he became a wrestler and who was integral in his development. He discusses his early training under Verne Gagne and the Fabulous Moolah, his past feuds, the difference between working with Vince McMahon and the late Vern Gagne, and his future.
Wilkes fans will be pleased to hear he has recently released a DVD titled Behind The Mask: Del The Patriot Wilkes, in which he is open and forthcoming about time after he left the ring. His enthusiasm for life and aspirations for the future were quite evident during our interview. Wilkes doesn’t shy away from his past and is pleased with the steps taken today to ensure others don’t suffer the same plight; he also makes mention of what steps he can see being done by companies today to ensure that their employees are safe.
Del is very active on social media and can be found on Twitter @DelWilkes and through his website at www.delthepatriotwilkes.com.
Discuss your early training under the late Verne Gagne & Fabulous Moolah. What were the similarities & differences between working with each?
I really had no choice in my early training with Moolah. It was my only option. I live in Columbia, South Carolina and I’ve lived here all my life. Moolah had also been here all her life, and from a school standpoint, hers was my only option.
While I learned some basics, I don’t think that I got a lot of valuable training there. I learned how to put on a headlock, how to work an arm, and how to take bumps. Other than that I didn’t learn a whole lot because it was geared towards girls. Back when there were job guys, enhancement guys, and she would occasionally send them up to do TV for Vince (McMahon) and put somebody over in a couple of minutes. So, they were pretty limited in what they knew about psychology and things like that. They knew the basics of how to lock up and do physical things, but from the psychological standpoint of it, they didn’t know that because they had never been taught that. But it was a valuable learning ground for me. It did get me in front of small crowds in the middle to the end of South Carolina and showed me how to do the physical aspects of it.
Now, when I got to Verne (Gagne), I was able to get around more seasoned people like Wahoo (McDaniel), and guys like Verne, Greg (Gagne), Brad Rheigans. It was a step beyond what I learned with Moolah. I was at a point where they were able to teach me the importance of selling, of a fiery comeback from a babyface, that emotion. I learned the psychology of the business, the things that I did not learn at Moolahs. It was obviously greatly advanced from what I had learned from Moolah and those guys she had over there training me. It was very important in the building of my career.
Discuss “The Trooper” character early on in your career. What was the inspiration for that character?
I’d like to take credit for it, but I can’t. Moolah used to run these shows around the Midland area and South Carolina; we all had full-time jobs because working for Moolah was hit and miss.
She would run a couple to three shows a month, and one of the guys that she used was a local law enforcement officer. He was the duty sheriff from one of the neighboring towns, and when he worked those shows for Moolah on the weekends, he worked as the Super Enforcer.
When I got up to the AWA and was working for Verne, he called me and asked him if I could send some tapes to Wahoo, and they could take a look at them and see if they would have an interest in him (the local law enforcement officer). I gave those tapes to Wahoo, Verne, and Greg, and a few weeks later they came back to me and said, “Look, we have no interest in that guy. We don’t think he is really cut out for this business, but we do like the character. We think a character called ‘the Trooper’ would work well for you.”
They liked me in that role as I had a bit of a square jaw, and I guess the chiseled features of my face at that time made me look like a law enforcement officer. I had a southern accent, so they envisioned me as this southern police officer.
So, they laid out how they wanted me to go out to the ring and pass out little plastic badges, and after the match leave a ticket on my opponent’s forehead. I was wearing the cop hat, the cop belt, the handcuffs, the flashlight and all those things that were so much a part of that.
They gave the character to me and had tweaked it a little bit; if we had more time, I think we could have tweaked it even more. Unfortunately, I went to the AWA when they were truly on life support.
At one time, when territories ruled the landscape, they were one of the top if not the top territory. When you think of all the phenomenal talent that went through there and later become household names, they were a big-time player in the wrestling business and it was where a lot of wrestlers were developed, starting with Hulk Hogan and many others.
When I got there that just wasn’t the case. They had lost basically all their big-time talent, they had some good young and up and coming guys that just weren’t able to be developed. Time was not on our side there.
You worked For Verne Gagne in the AWA towards the end of the promotion’s operation and have also had the opportunity to work under Vince McMahon in the WWE during the Attitude Era. How do you compare working for both of them?
I liked working for Verne. I had heard negative things about him, but I’ve always been the kind of person that, my opinion is based on the way someone treats me, not what someone tells me. They had a lot of confidence in me, Verne did and Vince did. Verne is an iconic figure in our business, and a huge star, and a great developer of talent. He couldn’t compete, and none of the other territories could, with the machine that was the WWF at the time.
Getting to the WWF when I did, they were coming off some struggles as well. They had lost a bunch of guys to WCW, in Hogan and Savage and Beefcake and many others. They had to start developing and start pushing a lot of the talent like Austin and Foley and guys like that. And, those guys were part of the Attitude Era when it was really starting to gain momentum; there was such a ground swell, it was a good time to be there, and it was good timing for me because I was dropped right in the middle of the Hart Foundation anti-America rant that Bret (Hart) was on.
It put me in an angle and in a program with their top guy, their top heel. So the timing was good for me. But again, the timing was good only to a certain extent. It was good that I was put in the middle of that program working on top with Bret, but from a physical standpoint my career was rapidly coming to an end because of some major injuries I had sustained, and I wasn’t able to make it last long because my body just gave out on me shortly after starting there.
It didn’t happen all of a sudden, these injuries were something that I had been fighting for a couple of years prior to getting to the WWF. I knew when I signed that I would probably be there for a short time because my body was rapidly failing me.
Throughout your career, was there any feud, match or angle of which you were most proud?
I would say the one with Bret because it was on the biggest stage. I was proud of the things Bagwell and I did together in WCW, working with great tag teams like Harlem Heat, Nasty Boys, Pretty Wonderful with Paul Roma and Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff and being able to work with tag teams like that. I thought we had some great matches against them. A series of good tag team wrestlers were there. But working for the WWF, you’re on the grandest stage you could be on. I was working with their top guy, so without question that was the biggest angle of my career. But then unfortunately because of my failing health, it was something that we couldn’t get a lot of life out of. I think wrestling is always good for that, for having the American hero, the patriotic character, against that evil American-hating, American-bashing guy. Throughout history that has always proven to be a pretty tried and true angle to work in wrestling. It has always worked.
The Patriot character has appeared in Global Wrestling Federation, AJPW, WCW & the WWE. Did you find there was an evolution of the character through the years, and what did or did not change?
I thought there was an evolution to the character of The Patriot. You start up in an upstart company in Global (Wrestling Federation), and you are pushed straight to the top as being the top babyface in the company, the babyface that they want to build the company around, but again finances didn’t allow that to last very long.
Global didn’t have the financial resources to compete with WCW and the WWF at the time. Then, I parlayed that into an opportunity with All Japan Pro Wrestling, where again I worked on top, with (Stan) Hansen and (Terry) Gordy and (Steve) Williams and (Kenta) Kobashi, so it was a character that did develop every stop along the way and every company that I worked for.
Listen, it could have evolved even more, but again, the lack of good health and the major injuries that I sustained by working in All Japan just limited my time in the WWF, in having any long-term staying power. The body just failed me.
Discuss your time in AJPW; during both tours of duty, were there any similarities or differences?
Not really. I can say that with the biggest stage because of that worldwide media appeal, Vince didn’t do any better business than Baba did. When I worked for Baba, it was a phenomenal business that we did in Japan, it was unbelievable. Basically, sold out shows everywhere that we went. Over 200 consecutive sellouts in the Tokyo area. It was just phenomenal working over there.
I went one time as The Trooper and I was totally unprepared for that style. That stiff, fast-paced, more snug type style with the false finish after false finish after false finish. I just wasn’t prepared for that. But when I went back as The Patriot, I was more seasoned, I had more experience under my belt and I was able to adapt to that style better.
Both times that I was there, nothing had changed from a style point. Nothing had changed from the way the company had done business. But when I went back a second time I was elevated to a higher level than I was the first time. They pushed the fool out of me the first time. They had given me a mega push, but when I went back I was teamed up with Kobashi and teamed up with Johnny (Laurinaitis) Ace. I was able to get a victory over Kawada. So, they had big things planned for me, but I decided I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity and work for Vince, so I did that.
Competing for WCW before the Monday Night Wars & with the WWE during it, could you see any difference in working for either promotion during those periods?
I don’t think you approach it any differently as a talent or as a performer. You are out there to do your best and be the best you can be no matter where you are. If you are in the middle of a match and that thing is flowing well, whether it’s the main event or mid-card, or you’re just out there to do a job, do it to the best of your ability. But when I was in WCW, there was a major change happening in the company because they brought in Hogan, Savage, Beefcake, Honky Tonk Man, they were bringing in all this talent that they had taken from Vince.
It was obvious that the company was heading in a different direction, and that it was appealing to a more worldwide crowd than a regional one. While that may have been good for the company, it wasn’t good for those of us that were there before those guys came in from the WWF; at that point, we were put on the backburner.
Patriotism has always seemed to be used because it is relatable to audiences. Do you think how it’s booked in today’s wrestling is crucial & would you change anything at all?
I’m going, to be honest with you. How it’s booked in today’s wrestling, I’m not really sure of. While I respect the many men and women that are in the business today, and I know what they have to go through and I know the hard work, the sacrifices, the long hours of travel, the training, being away from their family. Everything that it requires to be a superstar in this business, but I’m just not a fan of the product. I don’t watch an awful lot of the product today. As a matter of fact, I watch very little of it. It’s totally different from when I was in the business. I don’t want to sound like some old fogey, but I hear this from a lot of people that weren’t in the business and were fans watching the shows, that it has changed and not always to their liking. But I think there is always a place for patriotism if it can be booked and used in a proper way.
After departing from the WWE in 1998, things for you personally began to change. Was there any one thing that led to these changes, and was a return to wrestling ever an option in one way or another?
When I left, I hate to say it, but I was ready for it to end. It was all about two years of dealing with some very serious injuries, injuries that limited what I could do in the ring. They limited me in my ability to work out, and train. My body started changing; I had started losing a lot of the mass that I had gained, just because I couldn’t train. It had gotten to be really not fun. Dealing with a knee that was completely blown out that has since had to be replaced twice. A torn triceps tendon basically limited any use of my right arm. In attempting to continue to work, I had to rely heavily on prescription pain medication. You have got to take pills to work, to sleep, to work out, and it just became a vicious cycle where it just really wasn’t fun anymore.
It eventually ended when my orthopedic surgeon and I had a conference call with Vince and JR, and it was decided for the betterment of my health for me to take time off, have the surgery that I needed to have, and Vince said, “Del, you have got to get healthy. Take the time you need to have the surgery. Take the time you need to rehab and get healthy and then you can come back. I will use you full-time if you want to work full-time or I’ll use you on a limited basis, whatever works best for you. I will be willing to work with you to accommodate you.”
But even after the surgeries, I was in no shape to go back because that pain pill usage and reliance on them, it got me even more out of control. So even though I had been physically better, my life was in turmoil at that point. I was in no condition to go back and it stayed that way for several years, just completely out of control with the drug abuse and drug dependency. While it was an option when I first left the WWE it turned out to not be an option at all just because of how my life was. When I had to step away, I completely detached from the business. It’s just like cutting loose that caboose from the rest of the train. I just wanted to move on, and not in a good way. My life was spiraling out of control and just rapidly going downhill due to the drug abuse, and so no, there was never any other opportunity that presented itself. If I had it, I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of it, not at that time.
What does the balance of 2015 and beyond have in store for Del Wilkes and was there anything you would like to encourage, share, inform or promote?
2015 has reintroduced me to the wrestling business. As I say, I had totally walked away from it. When I got my life back together and walked out of a South Carolina prison on Valentine’s Day 2003, I’ve not been that old guy since. I’ve had a completely different life.
I’ve been clean, so my life has been good. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I had reached out, or maybe the wrestling business reached out to me, and I’ve had the opportunity to start making some personal appearances. To get more involved in the business in that capacity. To take part in a documentary on my life, my career that has opened up doors for me to make more personal appearances and get back out there in front of the fans. I can see that continuing to get even better.
This is a great business. It was a business that I worked so hard to become a part of. I worked so hard to develop every character, whether it was The Trooper or The Patriot, and actually sacrificed good health for this business. I struggle today physically getting around and dealing with the injuries that I’ve had to deal with, and the surgeries that I’ve had to deal with, for the business, but it’s a good business, a unique business, and a fun business. It’s a business that I love and I’m glad that I’m a part of it again, in the capacity that I am.
There are several things. First I want to give a heartfelt thanks to wrestling fans everywhere. They are the ones that made my career, more than anyone. I worked in this business because without them wanting to see wrestling, there would be no wrestling. Without them taking their hard-earned money to buy tickets and watch the pay per views there wouldn’t be any of us. So I am very thankful to them. They are very loyal people. I get to see fans today when I get to do personal appearances, and it’s amazing how much they remember careers and certain matches, in certain cities, certain pay per views and certain angles, so they are loyal people. I do appreciate them from the bottom of my heart.
I would like to make them aware that this month I’m going to be releasing the documentary on my life, My Career Behind the Mask: Del The Patriot Wilkes. You will be able to go to my website delthepatriotwilkes.com and purchase DVDs. I will also be making personal appearances, and fans will be able to see me at those. So we’re happy to be out there and happy to be back out on the road. That way we’re more accessible to the fans, and I’m just looking forward to being around them and having an opportunity to spend time with them.
Fans can follow me on Facebook Del The Patriot Wilkes and then there is just Del Wilkes. Also, on twitter @DelWilkes and of course we just established a website and set it up, we’re still putting the finishing touches on it, where people will be able to go on it and purchase the DVD, the documentary, at www.delthepatriotwilkes.com.