Bob Jenkins is known in Fresno circles as a local TV executive, working decades at KAIL-53. With the WWE’s return to Fresno on Saturday, Jenkins recalled another job of his, moonlighting as a ring announcer for wrestling cards.
“I didn’t realize then that it would be this pop culture (phenomenon). I just thought, you know, I’m going to have the best seat in the house for all these wrestling events and I’m going to go to anyway. So why not?” Jenkins said.
Jenkins introduced Animals, Macho Men, Elvis impersonators and, of course, the Hulkster. It was a relatively safe job — he only had to go to the chiropractor once.
The WWE returns to Fresno for the first time since the pandemic, this Saturday at Save Mart Center, bell time 7:30 p.m. (tickets start at $15). The wrestling group brings its own ring announcer — Sarah Schreiber will handle the duties — but in the 1980s, they hired local and Jenkins was the man.
He was at the right place at the right time.
Moonlighting with the WWF
Jenkins worked as the operations manager for TV 53 as it called itself in the 1980s. His station aired two of three WWF (as it was called back then) syndicated TV shows. He took a camera crew to one WWF event at Selland Arena to tape wrestlers cut local promos for the station.
“I put on a cardboard ‘my name is blank and you’re watching, TV 53 Fresno,’ ” Jenkins said.
Chief Jay Strongbow, the former wrestler turned road agent, approached Jenkins.
“Have you ever done any kind of ring announcing? No. You want to try? OK. He hands me a microphone, and explains to me this is a $500 microphone. You cannot lose it and you protect this microphone with your life. He gave me a few pointers on how to do announcing and I became a ring announcer that night,” Jenkins said.
Apparently, the regular ring announcer no-showed. Jenkins did such a good job they invited him back for more.
Jenkins held the Fresno WWF gig from 1986-1992.
Don’t Make Randy Savage Mad
Earlier this year, Off the Bottom Rope recounted Randy Savage taking a swing at an unruly fan in Fresno, missing and accidentally striking a 14-year old girl.
Savage was still scary backstage, Jenkins said.
Jenkins first met Savage when he asked wrestlers to cut station IDs. The “Macho Man” did not take kindly to Jenkins’ directions to act like “the bad guy.” After all, in 1986, Savage was one of the most despised wrestlers in WWF.
“He glares me and says ‘I am the best guy you’ll ever meet,’ ” Jenkins said. Chief Jay Strongbow was able to quell the situation and preserve Jenkins’ life and limb. “Savage storms off. Randy is mad at me. Okay, that’s not the last time Randy will have been mad at me.”
Jenkins said Randy Savage acting like a brute with his manager, the lovely Elizabeth, was legit.
“That whole thing with he and Elizabeth? That was like real,” Jenkins said.
During one backstage encounter, Savage told Elizabeth (his real-life wife at the time) to stay put and talk to Jenkins and another WWF executive.
“She just kind of stood there and smiled as we were talking because I guess we were chaperoning, I don’t know. And then we had to go do stuff, and I felt bad because I didn’t want to leave her there. I didn’t want Randy to come back and see her standing there by herself, without us there,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins had the foresight not to use his eyesight on Elizabeth backstage.
“I walked through one area and Miss Elizabeth in short shorts, painting her toenails, and I’m thinking, Look anywhere but there, Bob, look anywhere but there. Gorgeous lady. Very pretty lady in person, stunning. And I could not, was not, going to risk my life over an inadvertent glance,” Jenkins said.
On another occasion, a Jenkins post-match announcement almost cost him a beating. During a Halloween Night event at Selland Arena in 1987, Savage beat Intercontinental champion Honky Tonk Man by CO.
Savage would celebrate as if he won the champion-ship, but Jenkins knew the rules, a little too well.
“I get in and say, ‘the winner of this match as a result of a countdown, Randy Savage. But, because the title does not change hands your champion is still…’
“You see Randy get this deflated look and then walks off. And the next thing you hear is a crash. I walk backstage and I asked what happened? Stay away from Randy. He’s a little mad right now because we screwed this up in Arizona last night,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins was supposed to announce Randy as the new champion, only to have WWF officials break the bad news. Jenkins jumped the gun.
“I knew too much and I screwed up their thing again that they had been working on. Yeah, he didn’t like that,” Jenkins said.
Beware of the Animal
One of the most dangerous assignments Jenkins recalled was announcing the winner of a 20-man bunkhouse battle royal that took place Feb. 8, 1987.
George “The Animal” Steele was a lovable, but simple WWF superstar. He was known for more hair on his body than on his bald head. His verbal communication consisted of grunting and a limited vocabulary.
“George comes out and starts kind of wandering around the ring and then he picks up this table and the match is almost over. He picks up a table and throws it in and basically clears out the ring,” Jenkins said.
The wrestling elders taught Jenkins to follow along with what the wrestlers asked. “The Animal” demanded that Jenkins declare the table the winner, not the actual victor of the match, Bret “Hitman” Hart.
“Ladies and gentlemen, George ‘The Animal’ Steele would like you to to know that he has found the table to be the winner of the battle royal, but the real winner is Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart,” Jenkins told the Selland Arena crowd.
That didn’t set well with Steele.
“George looks at me, scrambles out of the ring. I’m standing there. I don’t know what he’s going to do. He grabs my hair, which at that time was something he could grab and gives me a shake. I felt every vertebrae from my neck down to my hips crack,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins fled, remembering to take the microphone with him. Steele chased him to the back of the arena.
“Finally, I got up enough speed to hurdle over one of those metal gates that they used to have down there, and I walked into the crowd,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins didn’t even have time to announce it was intermission.
Later in the card, Steele teamed with Junkyard Dog, losing by nefarious means to King Harley Race and Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff.
Jenkins decided discretion was the better part of valor. There was no way he would tell “The Animal” he lost.
“Screw it, I unhook the microphone. I turn around. I jumped over the rail and I walked into the crowd. They couldn’t even tell people that the night was over,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins was somewhat frightened when Steele wanted to apologize backstage.
“George sorry. George hurt your neck, George sorry,” Steele said in character.
“He comes in and starts kissing my neck. Thank you very much. OK, we’re good,” Jenkins said.
The next day, Jenkins was still in pain. He received call from top WWF executive Linda McMahon, who apologized and paid for Jenkins’ chiropractor care.
“How can I be mad at George ‘The Animal’ Steele? I’m sore as heck. But you know what? I’m a big boy, I can handle it,” Jenkins said.
Years later, Jenkins was backstage at a WWF show in Fresno. Steele had long since retired and became a road agent. He traded his body “fur” for a shirt and tie.
“He’s leaning at the table. He’s just glaring at me. I’m filling out paperwork with one eye kind of looking over him. He says, ‘announcer’ — he’s not in character. He’s now Jim Myers (Steele’s real name) — are you that guy that ran away from me all those years ago?’ Yes. He lunges out of the chair. I drop the clipboard, I’m out the door, I’m running up the back ramp right at Selland Arena,” Jenkins said.
It was just a put on. WWF officials convinced Jenkins “The Animal” was messing with him.
Steele revealed that was one of his favorite stories to tell, scaring the announcer. Clearly, it is one of Jenkins favorite stories to tell as well.
Saving Money in Fresno
Strongbow could have been called “Cheap” Jay Strongbow for his penchant of saving money on the road. Strongbow would stay at the Hotel Orleans — now just a location that is a vague memory.
Jenkins would shuttle wrestlers — who didn’t know better to stay at a nicer location — from Selland to the hotel. His Volkswagen would no longer do. He had to borrow his father’s Crown Victoria.
“When Bam Bam Bigelow was in my car, they had him billed as 389 pounds. He was 411. He weighed even more than they said. No matter where he sat, the level ride never went off. He sat in the back and the car tilted. He was sitting in the passenger side, it was leaning to that side,” Jenkins recalls.
How did a big wrestler diet?
“We went to Jack in the Box. ‘I’m hungry, but I’m on a diet’ Bigelow said. We’re in the drive thru and he orders five fish sandwiches and a Diet Coke. That’s him on a diet,” Jenkins said.
WWE This Saturday
For the first time since Feb. 9, 2020, the WWE returns to Fresno. The company only recently began touring on the road.
WWE champion Big E puts his title on the line against Bobby Lashley. Smackdown women’s champion Becky Lynch faces Bianca Belair.
Ring veteran John Morrison will also wrestle (opponent TBA).
“Wrestling just transports you to this world, this larger than life place where anything is possible and that’s what people dream of. That’s what I dreamed of. And I’m just really grateful that all this time I’ve been able to live that dream,” Morrison said.
He talked about how the pandemic changed wrestling. There is plenty of masks, sanitizers and vaccinations.
“I try to do that and then not worry about COVID too much because I see some people take a lot of time worrying about it. All the things that you can do to minimize the risks, I do that when I know that. Sometimes people still get it and it sucks,” Morrison said. “There’s less shows. There’s more time at home… it’s it’s an interesting time.”
During the pandemic, the WWE held its TV tapings on closed sets in the Orlando and Tampa area. Morrison said that led to faster matches because there were no fans to react.
“If I wrestled how I wrestled in the pandemic in front of the live crowd, they wouldn’t follow it. They wouldn’t really have time to react and have a good time. So I think that’s the distinct difference between having people there and having no people,” Morrison said.
And yes, his name is derived from his admiration (and physical similarities) to Jim Morrison of The Doors.
Is Jenkins Responsible for Smackdown?
Jenkins is too humble to take full credit, but he may have played a role in the WWE TV show “Smackdown!” making the air. The show debuted in 1999 and still airs today, Friday nights on Fox.
In the 1990s, KAIL was a UPN affiliate, a brand new network. Jenkins was the program director.
He told UPN executive Layne Britton that WWF programming would be a perfect fit, possibly on the weekend similar to “Saturday Night’s Main Event” in the 1980s on NBC.
Britton called the WWF, and a year later “Smackdown!” was born.
“I’m not going to say that. I am not responsible. Let’s just say I had my little piece of getting them, encouraging the UPN folks to get back into talks,” Jenkins said. “Layne came back to me later and thanked me for putting them back together. But there’s nowhere or any kind of paper anywhere that say, Bob did this.”
The Prerequisite Andre Story and More
Even Bob Jenkins has an Andre the Giant drinking story.
“Andre was in the back, but he was kind of in charge when I saw him. He was in the back going over the books and he was drinking a bottle of wine like you and I would drink a Coke. It was in his hand like a little Coke bottle,” Jenkins said.
In an oft-told story, Roddy Piper, Bob Orton and Magnificent Muraco got into trouble with the police after one 1986 Fresno event. Orton was tased after walking naked in a hotel.
Fans later razzed Orton while he was in the ring.
“One of the fans yelled up, Hey, what about the Tasers? And from the ring, he made this gesture like you just ripped them out and threw them, and it was no big deal.”
The biggest star? Hulk Hogan.
“That was the largest pop I ever got was announcing Hulk Hogan. It’s sold out. It’s a house show. It’s not even taping and Selland Arena sold out. And all I could get out in the middle ring is ‘from Venice Beach, California’ and then I could not hear what I was saying into the microphone. The roar was so loud for Hulk Hogan.”
On Bobby “The Brain” Heenan: “Getting to meet Bobby Heenan backstage and seeing how different he was in person because he was such a friendly, nice guy. ‘I am Bobby. Nice to meet you.’ He’s completely different than when he’s on camera.”