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Lawler though was focused on whipping Bockwinkel and not Hart. Bockwinklel kept the title when Lawler manhandled referee Jerry Calhoun. Lawler then turned his attention to a Southern title defense on TV against old foe Sabu the Wildman. Interestingly enough, Hart again interfered leading to a Lawler win. Lawler was perplexed at Hart’s actions as Hart continued to appeal to become Lawler’s manager. Hart then revealed the real reason he wanted Lawler on his side. Hart’s old rival, James J. Dillion, was preparing to send some of his men into the territory. Hart, fearing another manager in the area would hurt his managerial career, was appealing to the area’s top star to keep Dillion out of the area. After all, in 1982 the two paired up to run Dillion out of the area. This time though, Lawler had no interest in helping Hart.
Dillion, on the other hand, was slowly infiltrating the area just as he had done in 1982. He would send in taped interviews for airing on the TV show. He then sent The Zambuie Express and King Konga into the area to represent him. The Zambuies made an immediate impact by getting into the Southern tag title picture while Konga did well in singles action and often teamed with Lumberjack Jos LeDuc. Dillion also made it clear that he would eventually get at Lawler.
Meantime, LeDuc, one of Lawler’s most fierce rivals, steered clear of the Dillion-Hart mini-war for awhile. Eventually though, Hart won LeDuc over and the big Canadian became a member of the First Family. While this was going on Dillion’s team of the Zambuie Express won the Southern tag titles. With Hart leery of Dillion he sped things into motion. In a six-man tag match Lawler teamed with Tommy Rich and Austin Idol to battle Konga and the Zambuies. Hart sent LeDuc into the ring with a trash can to batter Dillion’s men.
Dillion grew upset at what had gone down and sent an ultimatum to promoter Eddie Marlin. Dillion claimed he was going to pull the Southern tag titles out of the Memphis area after one more defense and have them defended regularly in Florida, his home base. Dillion then demanded that last title defense would see the Zambuies against the team of Jerry Lawler and Jos LeDuc. Surprisingly, the two rivals turned partners and downed the Zambuies for the belts. The partnership though would not last as Hart and LeDuc would turn on Lawler.
This reset the Lawler-LeDuc feud which ran for a few weeks. The battles even saw Lawler team with Dillion to battle LeDuc and Hart. Memorable in this stretch of the feud between Lawler and LeDuc is when the two met in an arm wrestling contest on TV where the loser’s hand would be forced into a burning candle. Lawler outsmarted the big lumberjack by tossing fire at him. LeDuc would pound promoter Eddie Marlin and would be suspended from the area.
Next on Lawler’s list was a newcomer billed as Lord Humongous and was said to be "the original Road Warrior", an apparent attempt to cash in on the success of The Road Warriors tag team. This big man wore a hockey goalie’s mask and towered over Lawler. While the get-up was new and different, the larger-than-life gimmick was nothing new as the area had seen plenty of Mummys, Dr. Franks, Lucifers and Colossus of Death-type creatures before. Humongous at this time was Mike Stark, who had bounced in and out of the area for awhile. (Over the years Stark, Jeff Van Kamp and Sid Eudy would portray Humongous in some form in different territories.)
Lawler then moved back into a feud that had started in December when he squared off with Macho Man Randy Savage. By this time, Jimmy Hart had signed Savage as a First Family member. The Lawler-Savage feud had popped up several times during the first half of 1984 and usually played to large crowds around the horn, especially in Kentucky where the two promotions had battled each other for several years.
The summer saw Lawler begin to square off against an up and coming star named Rick Rude. Rude had entered the area early in the year and had hooked up with Jimmy Hart. Rude then went into a lengthy feud against Austin Idol. The feud with Idol set Rude up as a major player in the area and allowed him to step into a feud against Lawler. The feud with Lawler would eventually see Lawler pair with the returning Jimmy Valiant and later with one time rival Randy Savage as Rude would wind up teaming with the behemoth King Kong Bundy.
As Lawler was battling Humongous and Savage, Hart was facing other problems. He ended up battling referee Tommy Marlin (Eddie Marlin’s brother) and losing a loser-leaves-town match to Marlin. Hart then tried to come up with ways to remain in the area. Hart’s First Family members all quit and hooked up with Jim Neidhart for a few weeks before Hart weaseled his way back into the area. Hart would then turn to managing Rude and Bundy, among others as they battled Lawler.
At summer’s end one of the area’s favorite sons, Eddie Gilbert, turned heel on partner Tommy Rich and then hooked up with Jimmy Hart. Gilbert cut a wide swath through the competition in the fall by battling Rich, Randy Savage, Lanny Poffo and others. Gilbert was working his way up to a feud with Lawler.
As 1984 began to close, Gilbert and Lawler squared off against each other. While Gilbert had grown up cheering his father, Tommy, in wrestling matches, he had also idolized Lawler and his weekly antics. Gilbert sensed this as a great opportunity to pull out the stops on a great feud. The feud would really kick into gear in 1985 and Jimmy Hart would play a very integral part in all of it. It would lead to a final showdown between Hart and Lawler involving Gilbert, Lance Russell and a Jimmy Hart impersonator.
January, February and March 1984
Jerry Lawler remained Southern champion during this entire stretch despite challenges from King Konga (who later became The Barbarian), Killer Karl Krupp, Sabu the Wildman and Randy Savage, among others. During part of January, Lawler squared off quite often with AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel in a series of matches around the territory that featured excellent interviews from both Lawler and Bockwinkel. The matches were good as well and saw figurehead AWA president Stanley Blackburn show up to make certain a clear cut winner would be determined. One of the highlights of this series saw Lawler and Bockwinkel meet in a match where an illegal punch (Lawler’s main offensive weapon) would cost the offending party $500 a pop.
The Southern tag titles were held at year’s start by The Fabulous Ones: Steve Keirn and Stan Lane. They were scheduled to defend the titles against The Zambuie Express: Kareem Muhammad and Ellijah Akeem but the Fabs failed to make a scheduled defense on TV, so the Zambuies were awarded the titles. This decision though was overturned, the titles held up and a tournament ordered. The Zambuie Express won that tournament. They were upended by Norvell Austin and Koko Ware, who in turn lost the belts back to the Zambuies. Jerry Lawler turned to old foes Jos LeDuc and manager Jimmy Hart to upend the Zambuies but this team was short lived as LeDuc and Hart turned on Lawler. The dissolving of the Lawler-LeDuc team lead to the titles being vacated. The New Fabulous Ones: Tommy Rich and Eddie Gilbert with manager Jackie Fargo then won a tournament by downing Norvell Austin & Koko Ware (renamed the PYTs, Pretty Young & Tough) in the finals in March.
Macho Man Randy Savage began the year as Mid-America champion, a title he had held when the Nick Gulas promotion controlled the title. He would retain the title during the first three months of the year, often battling Dutch Mantel. Meantime, Austin Idol held the International title at the start of the year and held onto it during this time frame as well.
Also working the area at this time were such stars as The Masked Grapplers, The Bruise Brothers: Porkchop Cash and Troy Graham (Jimmy Hart renamed them his Fabulous Ones after Keirn and Lane left the area), Buzz and Brett Sawyer, Terry Taylor, The Road Warriors: Hawk and Animal, Brian Adidas, The A Team (various combinations of Don Bass, Frank Morrell & Randy Colley), Dirty Rhodes (Roger Smith, who often worked here as one of the Assassins), Harley Davidson (later to become Hillbilly Jim), Tom Jones (who worked briefly under a mask as Mr. Ebony), Larry Higgins, Bugsy McGraw, Angelo Poffo, Princess Victoria, Lelani Kai, Despina Montagas, Penny Mitchell, Wendi Richter, The Black Ninja (Jack Snuka a/k/a Sabu under a mask), The Rock n Roll Express: Robert Gibson & Ricky Morton, The Moondogs, Rick Rude, The Masked Jaguar, Terry Gibbs, Giant Frazier, AWA tag champions Ken Patera & Crusher Jerry Blackwell, Art Crews, Scott Shannon (Scott McGhee), Spike Huber, Gypsy Joe, Omar Atlas (who also worked briefly as The Super Gladiator), The Masked Executioners, Jesse Ortega, Dan Brower, The Angel, Ric McCord, James J. Dillion, Tojo Yamamoto, Johnny Wilhoit and more.
Nick and George Gulas continued to promote wrestling in middle and southeast Tennessee under the banner of Universal Championship Wrestling throughout much of 1984. The promotion though served as no viable threat to the Jarrett promotion.
Often Imitated, Never Duplicated
As the Lawler-Hart feud raged on, the other major attraction in the area was ready for another big year. Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, as the Fabulous Ones, began the year reprising their feud against The Moondogs. After several weeks, the Fabs downed the Moondogs in a loser-leaves-town match.
With James J. Dillion apparently set to make an impact in the area as a manager, it seemed as if his tag team of Kareem Muhammad & Ellijah Akeem, also known as the Zambuie Express, were next in line to battle the Fabs. The two teams were set to battle on TV but the Fabs did not make the show. The promotion awarded the titles to the Zambuies, although they would later reverse that decision and hold the titles up. The Zambuies would then win the subsequent tournament and spend the next few weeks feuding against the Fabs.
The feud though would never really get off the ground. Steve and Stan were searching for greener pastures. They were arguably the most successful tag team over the previous two years in the United States. Their desire to check out their drawing power outside Jarrett’s territory lead them to the Minneapolis-based AWA promotion, headed by Verne Gagne.
The departure of the Fabs left the promotion without a major babyface tag team as The Rock n Roll Express combo of Robert Gibson and Ricky Morton were slated for a run in the Mid-South area. Instead of moving on and packaging two wrestlers together as a new tag team with a fresh gimmick the promotion would make a tactical error by believing the fans could accept a new version of the Fabs.
A few weeks after the Fabs had left, a taped interview with The Fabulous Jackie Fargo aired. Fargo, recognized by fans as the mentor of the Fabs, let fans know that Steve and Stan had changed and no longer wanted to compete where they had achieved their original success. It was an attempt to bury the Fabs in the eyes of the fans since the promotion had an idea they thought would make the fans forget Steve and Stan. Fargo announced he was searching for two men who would form a tag team that would be certain to make him proud.
A few weeks passed before Fargo introduced The New Fabulous Ones to the fans. The team, composed of Tommy Rich and Eddie Gilbert, was given an immediate push to the top of area cards. Rich, who had made his mark in the business first in the territory, had become a recognizable star in the Georgia territory. A run in the Memphis territory in 1980-81 saw Rich have a heel run and reestablish himself in the eyes of the fans who had first saw him break into the business. After the Memphis run, Rich returned to Georgia and had a five-day NWA title reign. In short, Rich’s aw-shucks charm and name meant a lot to fans around the South. Rich though had fallen somewhat since his peak in the early 1980s. A never-ending feud against Buzz Sawyer coupled with Rich getting out of shape and, sometimes out of control, meant his once important name at the box office had slipped some. With the Georgia promotion faltering under Ole Anderson’s watch, Rich was dismissed from the promotion and returned to Memphis.
Gilbert, son of area legend Tommy Gilbert, had quietly made a name for himself as a hard worker in the business. He had spent most of 1983 though recovering from a serious car accident while working for the WWF. Looking to get back into the thick of things Gilbert decided to return home to Tennessee. (An extensiveEddie Gilbert profile is featured in the Pick A Wrestler section on this site.)
Lightning sometimes strikes in the same place twice. As with the original Fabs, the new Fabs were given music videos and flashy jackets. Initially they battled the Moondogs (even though they had lost a loser-leaves town match to the original Fabs in January) and another team that had laid claim to the Fabulous Ones title. When Jimmy Hart sensed the original Fabs were gone, he began introducing a number of his First Family members with the song "Everybody Wants You", the Fabs intro music. Finally, Hart announced the First Family was in mourning as the Bruise Brothers were no longer alive. Hart then showed a clip of a funeral home, complete with a casket and mourners, including a wild-eyed Jos LeDuc. Back in the studio though Hart’s mood changed as he introduced The New Fabulous Ones…who were in reality The Bruise Brothers: Porkchop Cash & Dream Machine Troy Graham. Naturally, this set up a feud for the new Fabs to face Hart’s Fabs. The feud was short-circuited when Graham suffered an injury knocking him out of action for months.
Rich and Gilbert, as the New Fabs, were then placed in a top level feud against Norvell Austin and Koko Ware over the Southern tag titles. Rich and Gilbert both were popular among area fans. Fargo even gave his vote of approval to the team. And while lightning sometimes strikes in the same place twice, it wouldn’t this time. Despite the potential positives the two brought to the team the fans never cottoned to Rich and Gilbert as replacements for Keirn and Lane. In fact, the fans would likely never have accepted any combination as replacements, even if the legendary Jackie Fargo did give his blessing to them.
This attempt to replace the Fabs hurt the promotion. Jackie Fargo’s credibility was tested as he had helped bury the original Fabs in favor of the new Fabs. No doubt some fans were turned away by the move to replace Steve and Stan.
By June, Rich and Gilbert lost the Southern tag titles to Phil Hickerson and The Masked Spoiler (Frank Morrell). The team would be split over the next few weeks with Rich getting a major singles push with the International title. The two continued to team some but Gilbert turned heel (which actually was the highlight of the Rich-Gilbert partnership) and the New Fabulous Ones turned into a memory for the promotion. As Rich battled King Kong Bundy, special referee Eddie Gilbert allowed Bundy to use an illegal object leading to Rich’s loss. The partnership between Rich and Gilbert went downhill from there.
Also in June, the Original Fabulous Ones: Steve Keirn & Stan Lane returned to work some cities around the territory. Their reappearance couldn’t have occurred at a better time as Vince McMahon’s WWF was beginning to run TV shows and house shows in Jarrett territory. Having the most popular tag team ever back in the fold would help stave off the northern invasion for awhile. Keirn and Lane continued to work dates in the AWA and would also eventually pop up in Florida as well as some in Bill Watts’ Mid-South promotion. They also continued to pop in the area for Jarrett. Their popularity was still strong in the area and seemed to serve as a reminder to the promotion of something Jackie Fargo said many times but apparently went unheeded when it came to trying to recreate the magic formed with the union of the Steve and Stan, "Often imitated, never duplicated."
April, May and June 1984
Jerry Lawler’s title reign ended at the hands of Lord Humongous in April. Lawler would recapture the title but then drop it to Rick Rude (billed first as The Sensational Rick Rude then as The Ravishing Rick Rude).
The New Fabulous Ones: Tommy Rich and Eddie Gilbert held the Southern tag titles most of the spring before losing them to The Masked Spoiler and Phil Hickerson. Hickerson returned to ring action and attacked Eddie’s young brother, Doug, in an angle which helped set up this feud between these two teams.
Randy Savage would drop the Mid-America title to Jerry Lawler in April. The title was then dormant for a few months.
Savage would take the International title from Austin Idol in April before Idol regained it. In June, Masao Ito took the title from Idol.
Working the area at this time were such stars as Ox Baker, Ric McCord, Art Crews, Scott Shannon, The PYTs: Norvell Austin and Koko Ware, Jimmy Valiant, The Masked Assassin II with manager Paul Jones (Jones was feuding with Valiant for the Crockett promotion and the feud was brought to the area for a few shows), Tiger Mask (not the original but Ken Wayne under a mask), The Angel, Lanny Poffo, Candi Devine, Evelyn Stevens, Bugsy McGraw, Mark (Bart) Batten, Junkyard Dog, Angel (Rude’s valet), King Kong Bundy, The Road Warriors: Hawk & Animal, Stan Frazier, Dan Brower, King Konga, Johnny Wilhoit, Jesse Ortega, James J. Dillion, Jimmy Hart, Kimala, Omar Atlas, The Black Ninja, The A Team, The original Fabulous Ones: Steve Keirn & Stan Lane, AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel, Brickhouse Brown, Paul Christy, Angelo Poffo, Jim Neidhart, Tojo Yamamoto and Jerry Jarrett, and others.
TV star and comedian Andy Kaufman, who had an off and on run of a year and a half as a heel in the area passed away on May 16 from lung cancer. In March, Kaufman’s short film, My Breakfast with Blassie, featuring legendary wrestling star Freddie Blassie debuted. Many of Kaufman’s shenanigans in the Memphis wrestling scene from 1982 and into 1983 are documented in the film I’m From Hollywood. Kaufman was 36 years old.
In the fall of 1983 Cowboy Bill Watts, head of the Mid-South territory, was unsure about what to do. Business had dropped off in the cities he promoted. He then turned north and visited Jerry Jarrett to see if Jarrett had any ideas on how to bring business back to Lousiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi.
Watts had transformed his territory from an emphasis on the junior heavyweights such as Danny Hodge under the promotion of Leroy McGuirk into a territory focused on big men such as himself, Junkyard Dog, Ernie Ladd and Butch Reed. Jarrett’s solution for Watts was to turn the territory back into one that emphasized the smaller wrestlers. With the big men the focus was on strength and power, with the smaller men the focus would turn to speed and science.
Jarrett offered Jim Cornette, Dennis Condrey, Bobby Eaton, Terry Taylor, and Bill Dundee (and later The Rock n Roll Express: Robert Gibson & Ricky Morton), among others to Watts while Watts offered Masao Ito, Jim Neidhart, Larry Higgins and Rick Rood, among others to Jarrett. Dundee, who had been part of the booking crew for Jarrett (usually Jarrett, Dundee and Jerry Lawler booked or had some say in the direction the company went in), would book the Mid-South territory for Watts. In a matter of months, Watts’ territory was red-hot again, thanks in large measure to Dundee’s innovative, fast-paced booking and the infusion of fresh talent into the territory and Cornette, Condrey, Eaton and Taylor were on their way into becoming accepted as major wrestling stars.
Jarrett’s challenge seemed greater though. Of the wrestlers he received from Watts in return none of them were truly established as stars. Obviously, Ito would be made an oriental heel and ended up having a decent run in the area seemingly though based solely on his nationality and the heat it could draw if he played such a villain. Neidhart, still new to the business, made a quick impact before fading quickly. Higgins, who seemed to have some potential due to his size and ability, never materialized for Jarrett. Rood, on the other hand, was a piece of fresh clay waiting to be molded.
Rood hailed from Robbinsdale, Minnesota, also hometown to a famous wrestler named Larry the Ax Hennig. Hennig’s son, Curt, and Rood were friends in high school. While Curt’s path to wrestling was more clear cut than Rood’s, Rick would eventually land in the business of pro wrestling.
After making a name for himself in the world of professional arm wrestling and then as a bouncer, Rood turned to Minnesota’s Eddie Sharkey to turn him into a wrestler. In the early to mid-80s Sharkey was a well-known trainer of wrestlers some of whom made quick impacts on the business such as The Road Warriors and Nikita Koloff (Scott Simpson). Rood’s trip to the top would take a bit longer but would eventually lead him to the top of the business.
In 1983, Ole Anderson summoned the green Rood to the Atlanta promotion. Anderson gave Rood a small push using him low on cards as a babyface but usually protecting him from pinfalls by more established stars, much like he did with another young up and comer at that point named Marty Lunde, who was working the area as Arn Anderson. After a few months, Rood moved on briefly to the Mid-Atlantic territory before venturing to the Bill Watts’ territory where Watts used him in a similar role as Anderson had in Georgia.
Jarrett though apparently saw more potential in Rood than anyone else had. Jarrett brought Rood into the area as a heel and changed the spelling of Rood’s last name to R-u-d-e, a definite heel name. With a name like R-u-d-e, Rood’s attitude became conceited which then turned more fans against him.
Rood also had his looks to play off of in the business. Rood was a handsome man, likened by some at the time of his Memphis arrival to Magnum P.I. star Tom Selleck due to his dark hair and mustache. In a business where most of the "pretty boys" were blonde (or bleached blonde), Rood’s look was startling in comparison. Not only were Rood’s looks striking, his body was unique for a wrestler. With the success of stars such as Superstar Billy Graham and others, the muscled-look had become more popular. With most wrestlers though the muscled-look came with an inflated or bloated look. Rood, on the other hand, had virtually no body fat. He was tall and thin, yet muscularly chiseled, adding another dimension to his wrestling personality. Rood’s interviews also played to a heel character since his tone and delivery came across arrogantly and often full of anger.
To add more heat to Rude, he was given Jimmy Hart as a manager and a female valet named Angel. (Female valets were a big thing going on at this time as Jim Garvin and Sunshine, then Precious, had brought in big crowds to the World Class promotion in Texas.) It was obvious watching Rude that he was still learning as he wrestled but that he had star written all over him if he was willing to tough it out and learn. 1984 would be key to Rude’s growing process. For his finisher, Rude used a neckbreaker which would eventually be known as ‘The Rude Awakening’.
First up for Rude in the area was a feud against number two babyface Austin Idol. The feud began innocently enough as Rude quickly won a TV match. Austin Idol then entered the ring for the following match. As Idol flexed, Rude’s valet, Angel, took notice and had to be ushered away by Rude and Hart. Later, Rude would badmouth Idol to announcer Lance Russell but when confronted by Idol about the comments would back down. Angered at Rude’s behavior, Idol slapped Rude. Rude then refused to appear on TV until Idol apologized. Idol laughed at Rude’s demand and wondered why Angel would hang around someone who wasn’t willing to stand up for himself. This infuriated Rude so he made a video where Angel dreams of Rude. He then sent Angel to the studio with a letter of apology for Idol to sign. Idol refused and ripped the letter to shreds. The next week Rude sent Angel with another letter of apology. Idol ripped the letter up again and this time kissed Rude’s valet, who seemed to enjoy the liplock. The next week Angel appeared with another letter but this time was wearing a veil. Idol lifted the veil to kiss Angel again but discovered bruises, implying that Rude had physically beaten her. Rude would reappear and cut Idol’s hair on TV. The two tangled for a number of weeks and the feud is highlighted by a match where if Idol lost he would lose his hair but if Rude lost he would have to wear a dress for three weeks. Rude would end up wearing the dress while Idol quietly slipped out of the area.
Rude then spent a few weeks wrestling the likes of Dutch Mantel, Tommy Rich and Jimmy Valiant. He also teamed some with area newcomer King Kong Bundy. A major feud though was in the wings.
Rude was placed into a feud against Jerry Lawler. The feud’s momentum would bounce back and forth between the two for several months, unlike most of Lawler’s feuds which rarely lasted past a month. Lawler would toss a right hand at Angel and even piledrive her (male on female ring violence was rare at this point in time). Believing Lawler’s antics had led to Angel leaving her post at ringside by Rude, he would take a baseball bat to Lawler’s Lincoln-Continental during the live Memphis TV show. The feud would eventually see Rude and Bundy team to battle Lawler and his new partner, one time foe Randy Savage.
With Rude in the thick of things the promotion made a gutsy call. Rude was turned face. A split formed between Rude and tag partner Bundy with Hart taking Bundy’s side. Supposedly, Rude had acquired a Hollywood agent and this angered Hart and by extension, Bundy. Rude and Bundy then lost the Southern tag titles to The Fabs and Bundy and Hart blamed Rude. The face run for Rude saw him pair up with Lawler and Jimmy Valiant against Bundy and Hart’s tag team of The Dirty White Boys: Len Denton & Tony Anthony. Rude’s face turn also saw his valet Angel return after an absence to wrestle Jimmy Hart. The road was not smooth though for Rude as a face as an errant Lawler fireball accidentally hit partner Rude in a tag match. Eventually, Rude turned heel again to face Lawler in the waning weeks of the year before leaving the area.
Rude cut his teeth in the business in the Memphis territory. Given a chance to prove his worth he came through although he was hardly a seasoned veteran. After his time in the area though Rude was mastering the basics of the business that would turn him into one of the last great heels of the last fifteen years of the twentieth century. From Memphis, Rude would go on to work a few of the other disappearing territories before making a splash with the NWA Crockett promotion and then with the WWF and later WCW. By the time Rude was a major star in the latter half of the decade he had developed and perfected the cocky heel persona he first tried on fans in the Memphis territory in 1984, an awakening for sure for many who followed the business of professional wrestling. (A more completeRick Rude profile is available in the Pick A Wrestler section of this website.)
July, August and September 1984
Ravishing Rick Rude’s Southern title reign was ended by Tommy Rich. Rich was then stopped by King Kong Bundy. Bundy, who entered the area after making waves in Texas, Mid-South and Georgia before working this territory, held onto the belt into the fall.
Phil Hickerson and The Masked Spoiler dropped the Southern tag titles to The Rock n Roll Express: Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson. The Masked Nightmares then took the titles by defeating the Rock n Rolls in a loser leaves town match. The Nightmares then lost the titles to Dutch Mantel and Tommy Rich.
Tommy Rich upended Masao Ito for the International title in July. Eddie Gilbert, Rich’s one-time tag partner, then leveled Rich for the title. Gilbert’s reign ended at the hands of Dutch Mantel. Mantel’s reign ended when the Nightmares, who were feuding with Mantel and Rich, attacked Mantel leaving him unable to defend the title. His scheduled opponent, Eddie Gilbert, then claimed the title.
Finding work in the area at this time were such stars as Paul Ellering and The Road Warriors: Hawk and Animal, Ronnie Sexton, The Hollywood Blondes: Ken Timbs and Dusty Wolfe, The Animal, Jim Neidhart, John King, The New Generation: Mark Batten & Johnny Wilhoit managed by Tojo Yamamoto, The original Fabulous Ones: Steve Keirn & Stan Lane, Tony Torres, Debbie Combs, Debbie Day, Bill Dundee (back for an August tag tournament), Jimmy Hart, Kurt Von Hess, Porkchop Cash, Ron Mikolajczyk, Jackie Fargo, Jimmy Valiant, The Dirty White Boys: Len Denton & Tony Anthony, Angelo Poffo, Lanny Poffo, Randy Savage, Mark Regan, Tony Atlas, Speedy Talltree, Keith Robertson and others.
A number of major stars pooled together by a group of promoters concerned about Vince McMahon’s WWF expansion ideas convened in Memphis in September for the inaugural Pro Wrestling USA TV taping. A TV show was being put together by this group of loosely affiliated promoters in order to run regular house shows in the northeast and in particular, in the New York City area. A number of Jarrett stars would appear on the tapings.
Although professional wrestling appeared to be run smoothly by a crew of men who remained loyal to certain invisible territorial bounds, the reality was the business of professional wrestling was, and always had been, a business. Any loyalty by those who operated it belonged not to territorial bounds, the wrestlers, or the fans but to the ring of the bell on the cash register. Still, to most fans there was the semblance of some order to the business and most of it centered around the National Wrestling Alliance. Formed in 1948, the NWA was a consortium of promoters, international in scope and theory, who agreed to honor each other’s territories, to trade talent, and to promote one world champion, whose infrequent, thus, special, appearances in a territory usually meant increased attendance on cards. Also, implied in being an NWA member was the agreement that wrestlers who caused trouble for a promoter would not be used by fellow member promoters.
For years the man who made certain what the NWA said went was St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick. Some of Muchnick’s power derived from the fact that he booked the NWA champion. Fellow promoters then tended to listen to Muchnick because of the power he wielded regarding the biggest box office attraction the business possessed. Muchnick also gained power when the NWA’s practice of choosing to not use wrestlers who caused fellow promoters trouble was called into question. While the idea smacked of being an anti-trust issue, Muchnick used his persuasive powers and connections to reach a settlement that kept governmental authorities out of the NWA’s business practices, which, in turn, added power to Muchnick’s authority among the members of the NWA. The NWA’s response claimed they did not monopolize wrestling since there were dozens of territories so-called blacklisted wrestlers could work. Of course, the catch was most of those territories were NWA members.
One of the understood rules between fellow promoters was that one promoter would not run a show in a town that belonged to a promoter of another territory. For the most part this worked. Occasionally, two groups would run the same town or an outlaw group (one without the approval of the established promoter who was usually an NWA member) would run for awhile. Usually when an outlaw group ran against an NWA member other NWA members would supply talent to the NWA member facing opposition, which usually put the outlaw group out of business since they were competing, in essence, against a number of promoters.
The whole business of wrestling then ultimately boiled down to the word of one promoter to run his territory and his only. Reality though saw most promoters were out to improve their own bottom line, so running against a fellow member was something that did happen, and was something promoters considered quite often. Generally, it was Muchnick’s influence over a promoter’s future use of the NWA champion, and by extension, the increased revenue the appearance would bring, that pressed the offending member back into line. Muchnick made sure the territories cooperated with each other which allowed good business for all members and saw the territories remain a viable force for years. It also meant the promoters, many of whom were driven by making more money, were kept in check from working against each other.
By the early 1980s though this uneasy loyalty was being tested as the well-respected Muchnick was preparing to retire and many older promoters, often representing the old guard of the NWA, were also stepping aside. With Muchnick’s retirement his great influence at keeping peace between the various factions in the NWA would be lost. With it the gentlemen’s agreements struck between the promoters could be out the window, as money spoke much louder than loyalty.
The business had operated via the NWA territorial system since the late 1940s for the most part. There were exceptions as Verne Gagne branched out to form the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and Vince McMahon, Sr. and Toots Mondt formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, which became the WWF in 1979). The AWA and the WWF survived the decades, in great part to their quiet allegiance to the NWA and the power the organization, through the highly regarded Muchnick, yielded. By 1984 several generations of wrestling fans had grown up accustomed to the territorial style of wrestling. Generally, the way the territories worked saw a wrestler enter a territory, wrestle there for awhile and then move onto a different territory. Wrestlers were paid according to how many fans came to see their shows. Most wrestlers and promoters sealed deals to work together with a handshake, as contracts only seemed to serve as an unnecessary clutter. With a constant movement of talent in and out of the territory, fans rarely had a chance to become bored or disinterested by seeing the same performer over and over, although there were exceptions to this theory. Since each territory had a number of major cities they operated, usually weekly, it also allowed smaller cities and towns in the territory to host an occasional wrestling show.
Television had played a role in the emergence of professional wrestling as a major attraction. For years local television stations yearned for any programming, especially programming with a local flavor. If a promoter had enough money and smarts, a local TV show would provide the perfect compliment to an upcoming house show. For years various TV studios around the U.S. served as hosts to thousands of hours of localized weekly TV wrestling.
By 1984, video production techniques were changing to provide fans with more eye-catching shows. With the advent of such television ventures as Music Television (MTV) which blended popular culture, rock music and video, special musical vignettes became popular in certain territories. A number of territories had even been successful through syndicating (stringing together their own network of TV stations in various cities) their TV show. TV wrestling was a staple on TV station schedules in many cities sometime during every weekend for decades.
The NWA though was falling apart by 1984. The Georgia promotion, a longtime NWA member, had the advantage of being televised coast-to-coast on cable TV’s WTBS. Due to its exposure, many fans considered it to be the country’s leading promotion. The promotion though had undergone a power struggle between Jim Barnett, who had swooped into the state in the mid-70s and taken the promotion over during a promotional war with Ann Gunkel’s All-South group and lead it to big business, and booker Ole Anderson, who had been one of the promotion’s top stars during Barnett’s run. Barnett lost the war to Anderson in 1983. Interestingly enough, about the time Barnett and Anderson parted ways, a number of Anderson’s stars including Tito Santana, Tony Atlas, Paul Orndorff, and Brian Blair disappeared from the Georgia circuit. A few months later they would begin appearing for the WWF. In the interim, Barnett, a longtime power player in the business, found employment with the WWF.
Although ousted from power in the Georgia office by Anderson, Barnett still held shares in the company. He then sold his shares to his new boss, Vince McMahon. This proved to be an interesting move as the Georgia promotion, with help from their superstation TV signal, had expanded their territory into Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia, among other places where the business had dried up in previous years. Anderson’s promotion was also eyeing certain cities that actually would have fallen into the McMahon territory. McMahon’s promotion, the WWF, held membership in the NWA for years and had recognized the NWA champion as the legitimate world champion while using their own title as a regional championship.
McMahon’s WWF wasn’t an innocent bystander in trying to expand in the early 1980s as McMahon also held some interest in promoting in some of the cities Anderson had promoted in Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia. Meantime, the Los Angeles promotion had gone under by 1982 so the WWF began running shows in certain California cities including Los Angeles, cities Anderson’s group had made rumblings about running.
When Sam Muchnick retired at the start of 1982, wrestling in the city of St. Louis began to fall to pieces as well. Verne Gagne, Harley Race, Bob Geigel and Pat O’Connor took over the city’s wrestling business. While Muchnick treated wrestling as an athletic showcase which almost always featured a clear cut winner and loser, his successors failed to treat wrestling as such. The results became clear as generations of St. Louis wrestling fans who had witnessed decades of clear cut wins and losses were suddenly witness to screw-job finishes which often served to protect the ego of certain stars but ultimately damaged the credibility of what went on in the ring, which led to decreased crowds. (Although wrestling is predetermined it does rely on a certain level of credibility among its fans to exist.)
Along the way, McMahon had secured a monthly time slot on the USA Network. Usually the monthly Madison Square Garden house show would air live or tape-delayed on the network. USA had also began airing the San Antonio-based Southwest Championship Wrestling show in late 1982. The Southwest promotion, operated by Joe Blanchard, though got behind on bills and got in deep water over their often bloody and questionable content. When USA was ready to cancel the Southwest show McMahon purchased the air time in late 1983. McMahon then began running clips of wrestlers from all over the U.S., including those who did not appear in his territory. As McMahon’s power base grew with the coast-to-coast shows on USA, some promoters were leery of McMahon. Even though he sometimes featured some of their stars on his show they grew afraid of his growing power and expansion into dormant territories feeling he might one day choose to run against them. McMahon and his dad, Vince McMahon, Sr., who would pass away in late May 1984, allayed fears that the WWF would expand into any territory already being operated despite their aggressive TV maneuverings.
Back in St. Louis, former Muchnick associate Larry Matysik began running shows opposite Muchnick’s successors in an attempt to woo back frustrated long time fans with a product more suited to what they had watched for years. By the end of 1983, the wrestling audience in the city of St. Louis was split. With this going on, Vince McMahon’s WWF rolled into town and began taping TV shows at the Chase Hotel, home for years to Muchnick’s TV show. On the initial WWF TV taping in St. Louis, Hulk Hogan, David Shultz and announcer Mean Gene Okerlund debuted, unannounced, fresh from walking out of Verne Gagne’s Minnesota-based AWA promotion while Rowdy Roddy Piper, who had gained acclaim as an announcer on the nationally televised Atlanta TV show and as a popular performer in the northwest, the Carolinas and Virginia, left the Crockett promotion to debut for the WWF. Meantime, the night before, in New York City, longtime WWF champion Bob Backlund had lost the title to The Iron Sheik. A month later in New York City, Hulk Hogan would win the WWF title. Things were changing rapidly in the WWF and in the wrestling world at large.
Meantime, Anderson’s promotion secured a date in Baltimore, a longtime WWF city and had worked to get a syndicated version of their show on in other northeast cities. The Atlanta cable TV show began plugging a seventeen city tour which would include talent supplied from a number of promoters who seemed concerned about the actions of the WWF. One of the highlights of the tour was a trip into the New York City area in late May, promoted largely on the strength of the TBS TV show, although the Crockett promotion plugged the card on their own TV show which aired on a weak TV station in the market. The card, held at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ and headlined by a Ric Flair-Ricky Steamboat match drew 13,000 fans.
In the midst of all this, another problem popped up for Anderson. Wrestling in the city of Atlanta was up and down. One month attendance would be good, the next month the bottom would fall out. A number of folks pointed to Anderson’s lack of logic in booking the territory as the culprit. Some pointed to the absence of Barnett’s business sense leading to poor business decision making by Anderson. Others believed the hectic travel schedule was physically and emotionally hurting the in-ring talent. Some believed the emphasis on expanding the promotion had left the Atlanta fans feeling neglected, and they, in turn, failed to support the promotion which left the promotion’s home base vulnerable.
Longtime wrestling stars Jack and Jerry Brisco held stock in the Georgia office. Fed up with Anderson’s erratic business moves the Briscos accepted an offer to sell their shares in the Georgia promotion to Vince McMahon. With shares once held by Barnett, the Briscos and other minor stockholders, the promotion with the most visible weekly TV show suddenly fell out of the hands of Anderson, and, by extension, the NWA, and into the hands of Vince McMahon and the WWF. Anderson fought back getting a restraining order to keep McMahon from taking over the promotion and TV show but the legal fight only lasted a few weeks.
Black Saturday struck on July, 14, 1984 when Vince McMahon’s WWF took over the two hour Saturday evening slot on TBS, complete with longtime announcer and show producer Freddie Miller. The show had aired on the station since 1972. The move crippled the Georgia promotion and crushed many faithful fans, most unaware of the posturing the two groups had made against each other over the course of time. With his shows on USA and now TBS, McMahon had control of the most viewed TV wrestling shows in the U.S. every week.
The WWF also began aggressively forwarding their agenda by pursuing TV time slots in various cities, many of whom already featured weekly TV wrestling. San Francisco, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, St. Louis and other cities began airing WWF TV. Fans suddenly had the chance to not only watch their local promotion but with cable television and syndication could spend a whole day watching wrestling from various parts of the country. Sometimes McMahon purchased existing TV time right out from under other promoters replacing their show with his show. In a number of markets McMahon, on the strength of his TV shows, began running house shows in opposition to already established promotions. Later in the year, McMahon would purchase the Stu Hart-Stampede promotion in Calgary, Canada as well, briefly securing the talents of future stars Bret Hart, The Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith. McMahon was working on taking over the wrestling business in two thirds of North America.
With momentum on his side McMahon signed up a number of major stars during the year such as Greg Valentine and Bob Orton, Jr., both of whom had been a major part of the success of the Mid-Atlantic promotion, Buzz Sawyer, who had become a star on the Atlanta TV show, Bobby Heenan, Mad Dog Vachon, Jim Brunzell and Jesse Ventura, stars on Verne Gagne’s AWA circuit, Junkyard Dog, the top star in the Mid-South promotion, Blackjack Mulligan and Barry Windham, both stars in Florida and the Carolinas and the Fabulous Freebirds, top stars in Texas. McMahon also plucked away key announcers and other office and creative personnel almost at will. McMahon was cherry-picking the top talent in the U.S. and in so doing, was crippling promotion after promotion. Many of those picked up by McMahon walked out of the territories they were working, sometimes as one of that territory’s top stars, without giving notice they were leaving which violated the usual promoter-wrestler agreement. To avoid this happening to him, McMahon ignored the long-standing rule of handshake deals promoters and wrestlers had used for years and began locking up talent to contracts that secured them to his company exclusively for an extended period of time. He also used his longtime family connections and his company’s strong business history in the Northeast to urge managers of major arenas in many cities, especially those in his own backyard, to allow the WWF exclusivity to run shows in their buildings. This move froze other promotions out of major buildings forcing them to use older, often smaller arenas, which meant less profit for a such an expensive venture, or in some cases, to abandon their ideas of running in that city as opposition to his group.
McMahon, operating out of the media capitol of the world, New York City, then began changing the face of the business in other ways. He married the ideas of music videos with the power of celebrity, two separate ideas the Memphis promotion had used, by taking them a step further when he incorporated pop star Cyndi Lauper into the WWF with kooky manager Captain Lou Albano. He parlayed this association into a shot on MTV, garnering a young audience for his product. He also used a two hour prime time slot on the USA Network with co-host Lord Alfred Hayes to unleash an off-beat wrestling talk show patterned after other TV talk shows called Tuesday Night Titans. The WWF even landed an article in the mainstream sports print media when Sports Illustrated ran an article about the prime time TV show. WWF stars also made appearances on a number of talk shows broadening the appeal of the company to non-wrestling fans.
The mainstream media, dazzled by McMahon’s showmanship, believed the script McMahon fed them. Much of that pitch said McMahon had saved the sputtering wrestling business. Most reporters, with limited or no knowledge of the wrestling business and viewing wrestling as "fake", thus unimportant, bought into McMahon’s spiel by reporting what he said as fact. McMahon came across to them as a new breed of promoter, one who realized the days of claiming legitimacy for professional wrestling were over, and one, who like them, was in on the joke. This allowed the media and McMahon to become partners in hype. As McMahon and his associates spoke, the media neglected to check deeper into what was said which lead to the omission of the complete story. The media, persuaded by McMahon’s magnetic charm, fell hook, line and sinker for his lines. This was irony at it’s richest since the media often portrayed wrestling fans as gullible for being duped by the seemingly transparent and melodramatic antics of professional wrestling. Unlike some wrestling fans though, many in the media never realized they had been worked like a mark on the carnival midway.
McMahon, a master of hype, was the 1980s version of P.T. Barnum. As lead announcer and the most prominent regular non-wrestling figure associated with the WWF, McMahon hyped whenever he could that the WWF was the hottest product in showbiz, whether it was or not. Since most people tend to believe what the media tells them, the WWF became a hot item because the media reported McMahon’s words as fact. Truth was, his business was strong in his long-established circuit and in some other places, but other cities he had expanded into against established promotions often did not cotton to McMahon’s brand of wrestling. Some cities McMahon tried to run drew dismal crowds. The rest of the truth which was not revealed was that although the business of professional wrestling was struggling in some places, many territories were doing very well. Professional wrestling was hardly sputtering.
The WWF was drawing new fans to the TV shows and arenas but it was sending longtime fans running away in droves bitter that they had no choice in what was happening to the business they had supported and defended for years. It also became clear McMahon felt no loyalty to those fans who had made many in the business, including his own grandfather and father, successful. He wanted a new base of fans so he could educate them to his own brand of wrestling.
McMahon’s line never changed, the WWF had to be seen. When rumblings were made by some that the WWF’s expansionist ideas were designed to run weaker promotions out of business so the WWF could monopolize the business McMahon retorted that other promotions were not competition, other entertainment such as the circus, baseball, basketball and movies were his competition. Of course, his wrestling competition was disappearing, thanks in part to his maneuvers. With McMahon’s hype, the age of professional wrestling, cherished by fans for decades, was breathing it’s final breaths and the age of professional wrestling as sports entertainment, was born. As the territorial system had raised generations of fans for decades, sports entertainment would become the major form of professional wrestling most new fans from 1984 forward would ever know.
The changing face of wrestling would play out in the Memphis territory during 1984 as well. The WWF would secure TV time in most of the cities that also aired Jarrett’s show, including in the Memphis market. In June, McMahon tried his luck in a few of Jarrett’s cities, including Memphis. To combat McMahon, Jarrett turned for help from other promoters. Although the main Memphis titles were billed as AWA titles, the office had remained a member of the NWA. While the WWF brought in big guns such as Hulk Hogan, Mil Mascaras and Jimmy Snuka, Jarrett countered by bringing in The Road Warriors, Jimmy Valiant and after an absence of several months, the original Fabulous Ones: Steve Keirn & Stan Lane, mixed in with his regular crew and called the show Starrcade ’84, a nod to Jim Crockett’s November 1983 promotional success in the closed-circuit arena. The WWF ran a Sunday card in Memphis and drew 1200 while Jarrett ran his regular Monday night and drew 11,000+. Most fans would be unable financially to attend both cards so they would have to make a hard choice between the flashy new toy or the well-worn security blanket. This time Jarrett won. It also didn’t hurt that Jarrett secured a prime time slot for The Jerry Lawler Show on WMC-TV, the Memphis NBC affiliate that aired the live Jarrett TV show, the Sunday night the WWF ran in Memphis allowing fans to see Lawler interview other stars for free on TV. McMahon drew better crowds in Nashville and Louisville, although it paled in comparison to what Jarrett had been drawing on a regular basis in those cities.
McMahon’s purchase of the Georgia promotion woke up a number of promoters who eventually agreed they really needed to work together to thwart the WWF, which sounded like the old mantra attributed for years to the NWA. With the strong showing in the New York City area, Pro Wrestling USA was formed with the idea of running regular house shows in northeast cities such as New York. The various promoters would pool their talent and produce a TV show. Once this was agreed upon, Jarrett and Lawler stepped up to the plate suggesting Memphis would be a good site for the initial TV taping. With several promoters providing the talent, a September 18 date was set for the taping.
While Jerry Lawler, The Road Warriors, Jimmy Hart, Masa Saito, AWA champion Rick Martel, The Fabulous Ones, Tommy Rich, Harley Race, Dory Funk, Jr., Butch Reed, The Rock n Roll Express and others received pushes that night, many of the regular week to week Memphis crew served to put over that talent. Stars such as Eddie Gilbert, Phil Hickerson, The Masked Nightmares, Dutch Mantel, The Dirty White Boys and Lanny Poffo served to drop matches that night. While the TV show would not air in Memphis, it lead one to ask what those in attendance would think about the stars who lost, some rather quickly, especially those who were main-eventing such as Gilbert and Mantel. It could serve to lower them in the eyes of some fans and set up their winning opposition that night, who likely would not return to Memphis anytime soon, as something more special than the regular crew. Apparently this theory played out as Memphis attendance dipped for a few weeks after this event.
McMahon would mostly steer clear of much of the territory for awhile. His expansion though had left the Georgia promotion virtually useless. Many fans pleaded with TBS to return host Gordon Solie and NWA wrestling to the station. Station owner Ted Turner responded by giving Anderson and his promotion an early Saturday morning time slot for the Championship Wrestling from Georgia show.
Anderson though had lost his top talent. Some of it went to the WWF and others hightailed it to other promotions. While he hung on initially with such stars as Ted DiBiase, Brad Armstrong and others and featured TV clips of many of the popular Mid-Atlantic stars, Anderson’s group lacked the visual pizzazz of the WWF show as well as the creative drive that the Georgia promotion once was known for having. By October, Anderson, under pressure to keep his promotion alive, knocked on Jerry Jarrett’s door again for help.
Anderson reached an agreement with Jarrett to share talent. Some of the Georgia talent would stop over in Jarrett’s territory while some of Jarrett’s talent would pop up in Anderson’s territory. Ron Garvin, The Hollywood Blondes: Ted Oates & Rip Rogers with valet Brenda Britton, Brad Armstrong & Tim Horner and Bob Roop would work Jarrett’s territory. Jerry Lawler, Jimmy Hart, Rick Rude, Eddie Gilbert, Tommy Rich, The Terminators and others would work Anderson’s territory. Hart especially made waves by appearing often on the TBS show, usually to irritate Ole Anderson and his tag partner Thunderbolt Patterson. It was the first exposure some fans had of the manic manager.
The "merger" would not last long. Anderson’s promotion continued to sputter for the most part. His TV show, regulated to an early morning time slot never really caught on with fans and drew poor ratings while the old time slot, now held by the WWF, drew much better ratings. Jarrett pulled out of the deal after a few weeks. Within a few months into 1985, Anderson’s promotion folded when Jim Crockett purchased it and the TV slot.
Vince McMahon’s expansion had steamrollered long-standing wrestling traditions during the year. Years of weekly wrestling cards fell by the wayside in some territories as the WWF would run shows in one-time wrestling strongholds once every three or four months. Spot shows in small towns disappeared from some territories as the WWF usually only played in major cities. Long-running weekly wrestling TV shows were faltering or had had their time slots purchased by the WWF.
With their hype machine running at full blast, the WWF was garnering a lot of publicity, something rarely received in a positive light by wrestling. Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler’s promotion had weathered the initial wave of McMahon’s efforts in their territory. Their booking and use of established talent in the proper way had kept them a lap ahead of the WWF so far. It was clear though that Vince McMahon and the WWF were not going to go away quietly. Jarrett and Lawler had their work cut out for them as 1984 ended. How would they keep Lawler, the area’s top draw, attractive to the fans and how would they reward those loyal fans who hadn’t been swayed away at the bright shiny spectacle known as the WWF? Would they escape a talent raid from the WWF?
October, November and December 1984
King Kong Bundy’s title reign ended in a match against Jerry Lawler with Bundy’s one time tag partner Ravishing Rick Rude serving as referee and costing Bundy the title. Lawler would finish the year as champion.
The Southern tag titles were vacated in October when champions Dutch Mantel and Tommy Rich split when Mantel turned on Rich. A subsequent tournament was held and in the finals King Kong Bundy and Ravishing Rick Rude downed The Fabulous Ones: Steve Keirn and Stan Lane. The Fabs though would eventually get their win back and claim the titles. By December though they ran afoul of The Masked Interns with manager Troy Graham who took the belts.
The Mid-America title resurfaced in November when Jacques Rougeau appeared as champion. He though was upset by Kostia Korchenko. After being let go by the promotion, Korchenko’s reign ended and the title was awarded to Iron Mike Sharpe.
Eddie Gilbert continued to hold the International title. He did though drop it to Terry Taylor at year’s end. Working the circuit at this time were such stars as Randy Savage, The Masked Nightmares, Kurt Von Hess, Jimmy Valiant, Tojo Yamamoto, Rufus R. Jones, Mark Regan (billed as Rufus’ nephew), The Dirty White Boys: Len Denton and Tony Anthony, The Masked Spoiler, AWA tag champions The Road Warriors: Hawk & Animal managed by Precious Paul Ellering, Jerry Bryant, Tracy Smothers, Johnny Wilhoit, Brad Armstrong & Tim Horner, Tommy Gilbert, Ronnie Garvin, Jason, Boris Zhukov, The Long Riders: Bill and Scott Irwin, Lanny Poffo, Bob Roop, Stan Frazier (who began being billed as Playboy Frazier), Phil Hickerson, Angel (Rude’s valet), The Italian Stallion, Dr. Detroit (who unmasked then was billed as Jimmy Hart, Jr. and worked as Hart’s bodyguard), The Terminators, Tim Ashley & Steve Constance, The Exotic Adrian Street and Miss Linda, Keith Robertson, Mark and Brad Batten and more.
Championship Wrestling fans were shocked in November to tune in and discover legendary TV announcer Gordon Solie setting alongside their own legendary Lance Russell. It was then announced that promoter Jerry Jarrett would be "merging" with the North Carolina-based Jim Crockett promotion and the Georgia-based Ole Anderson-Fred Ward promotion. Some of the Memphis talent worked the Atlanta TV tapings and some of the Georgia talent worked the Memphis TV show. Despite the word "merger" it was just an alliance, mainly between Jarrett and Anderson, that provided the two promotions some fresh faces for a few weeks as the deal fell apart within weeks as the remaining territorial promotions struggled for ways to combat the aggressive expansion of Vince McMahon and his WWF.
Meantime, McMahon’s WWF ran a major show on December 28 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The main thing the fans saw that night was an angle featuring the company’s hottest heel Rowdy Roddy Piper as he attacked Captain Lou Albano and Cyndi Lauper. With the angle, the seeds were planted for another showdown on MTV, pitting Piper against WWF champion Hulk Hogan, which would lead McMahon to try his hand at a risky venture that would seal his company’s future for good or bad. Backstage though, ABC-TV’s John Stossel was piecing together a story for the newsmagazine show 20/20 about professional wrestling. Stossel approached wrestler Dr. D David Shultz and asked the question most mainstream media members seem obsessed with asking, "Is wrestling fake?" Shultz promptly slapped Stossel knocking the reporter to the ground. With the WWF red-hot and on a roll, would the certain fallout from the incident hurt the WWF and the business at large? While McMahon had successfully manipulated the media for most of the year how would the media handle the manhandling of one of their own?
Freak Out! Freak Out! Poffomania Arrives!
In 1979, Angelo Poffo and his sons, Lanny and Randy struck out on their own by opening up the ICW (International Championship Wrestling) group. The group, based in Kentucky, first gave headaches to the Knoxville-based NWA Southeastern Championship Wrestling office headed by Ron (Welch) Fuller. Running regular cards in Kentucky meant they were often in opposition to the well-established Jarrett promotion.
Angelo Poffo was a ring veteran having worked many of the territories through the years. By the mid-1970s his two sons were ready to make an impact in the business. Lanny, the agile acrobat, and Randy, the tenacious terror and ex-baseball player, seemed to have a lot going for them. First, they were second generation wrestlers. Secondly, they were both very athletic. Thirdly, both had charisma, especially Randy.
The three knocked around a number of territories for a few years mostly in the south and mid-west. After having major runs in the Tom Renesto-booked, Nick Gulas-promoted territory the family took off for New Brunswick where they worked for awhile before settling in Kentucky.
After getting a TV slot, the family formed the ICW and began running house shows in various cities such as Frankfort, Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, Kingsport, Tennessee and numerous other towns in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia and eastern Tennessee. A major break for the group came when the NWA Knoxville office lost superstars Professor Boris Malenko, Bob Roop, Bob Orton, Jr. and Ronnie Garvin who began working for the ICW. Garvin, at the time, was likely the major babyface in the Knoxville office. Longtime veteran and east Tennessee mat legend Ron Wright was brought in to serve as Commissioner (a figurehead position) for the group while longtime Knoxville TV announcer Big Jim Hess worked as an announcer as the ICW ran steady competition against the NWA promotion for awhile. Over the course of time, the TV show would add a lovely female named Liz Hewlett to the show. Years later, she would become famous in the business as Miss Elizabeth.
Over the years the ICW played host to a number of stars seemingly blacklisted from the major promotions or young talent shopping for their first big break including Crusher Broomfield (One Man Gang), Pez Whatley, Rip Rogers (who worked the Gulas territory with the Poffos billed as Disco Kid), Doug Vines, Jeff Sword, Izzy Slapowitz, Tojo Yamamoto, Gypsy Joe, Ratamyus (Bill Howard), Tio & Tapu, Thunderbolt Patterson, George Weingeroff, Buddy Landell and others. From time to time, the group corralled veteran big name talent such as Ox Baker, Ernie Ladd and The Sheik to work shows. The ICW is remembered for wild action and angles as they seemed to understand they needed to stand out in contrast to the wrestling action their viewers had the opportunity to see. It wasn’t out of the question to often see Randy headlining an ICW show against his own brother, Lanny. The senior Poffo also often donned a mask and wrestled as The Miser. (More details about the ICW can be found in the monthlyICW articles on this site.)
The ICW were the rebels of the wrestling business in the early 1980s. They worked outside the sanction of any major wrestling governing body and often employed wrestlers the major offices would not touch for a variety of reasons. The major offices also seemed to shy away from the Poffos. It was often noted Angelo had worked for groups that opposed the established NWA. If this was the case, his sons were having to pay the price for his choices. Eager for recognition, Savage and other ICW stars would purchase tickets to Jarrett shows in Kentucky and harass Jarrett’s talent. Savage would make grandstand challenges against some of Jarrett’s talent offering to let the gate to such an event be donated to charity. Others would say ICW wrestlers were waiting outside Jarrett house shows waiting to physically ambush their opposition. There were even rumblings that the ICW was prepared to fight a anti-trust legal battle against Jarrett and other promoters they felt were holding them down. The heat between the two groups reached its apex in 1982 when Savage and Jarrett star Bill Dundee had an altercation.
The ICW held on for a number of years with a loyal fan base. Some of their more established names though left for greener pastures. Broomfield left to work for Jarrett. Roop and Orton, and later, Lanny Poffo ventured to Mid-South. Pez Whatley and Ronnie Garvin left the promotion to work the Atlanta office. Meanwhile, the Jarrett promotion was having a great year at the box office in 1983. Despite Savage’s in-ring talent which had some wrestling fans marveling at his ability the losses of talent and failure to make the promotion more profitable took a toll on the ICW.
In December 1983 with the ICW wobbly, Randy Savage and Angelo Poffo agreed to work for promoter Jerry Jarrett. Savage, with his father serving as manager, was then introduced into the area as a challenger to Jerry Lawler. With many fans, especially those in Kentucky, aware of the rivalry between the two groups the two seemed destined to headline arenas around the area. A true inter-promotional feud really never occurred between the two groups, although some remaining ICW talent began working for Jarrett. The rivalry was mentioned but never played up all that much. (Interestingly enough, Savage debuted for Jarrett just as Bill Dundee was finishing up a run before leaving to book Bill Watts’ Mid-South promotion.)
While the two top stars of the two rival promotions battled some in Savage’s first few weeks in the area, the feud was detoured for a time as Lawler was set for a series of matches against AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel. Savage then won the Mid-America title and moved into a feud against Dutch Mantell, a constant foe in the old Nick Gulas territory.
By April, Lanny Poffo arrived and the Lawler feud against the Poffos kicked in, especially in Kentucky with Lawler often teaming with the returning Jimmy Valiant. The Poffos were then made a regular tag team for most of the summer and feuded against The Rock n Roll Express: Robert Gibson & Ricky Morton (during the feud Savage piledrove Morton through a ringside table in one of the highlights of 1984). Along the way, Savage and Poffo added Jimmy Hart as their manager. The brothers stood in contrast to one another upon observation. Savage spoke in a fierce bark and often tossed a handful of confetti into the air during interviews. Poffo, billed as Sir Lanny Poffo, often appeared in a suit of armor and spoke in rhyme. Despite their different appearances the two worked very well as a tag team.
By the late summer though, Savage and Poffo had a falling out with Hart’s pair of King Kong Bundy and Rick Rude. This turned the two rebels into fan favorites and lead to Savage teaming with old foe Jerry Lawler. By the fall, the Poffos were feuding with the father-son combo of Tommy and Eddie Gilbert.
What was once an interesting "what-if" proposition with the rebel Poffos squaring off against the more mainstream-accepted Jarrett wrestlers soon was over for the most part as the Poffos blended in with the rest of the working crew. There was one exception though as Savage stood out more than most wrestlers on the circuit. He was reckless-looking in ring and on the verge of madness on interviews which added to his appeal. He was one of the hardest workers in the business and after five years of plying his wares on his family circuit that had been largely ignored he was opening a lot of eyes. It was apparent Savage had something to prove. He was one of wrestling’s best kept secrets.
Meantime for Jarrett, the infusion of the Poffos into his territory was a wise business move. It eliminated a promotional rival. It strengthened his own crew of workers and opened up the door for a series of fresh feuds. Jarrett, the promoter who had come through with great angles and had often used only fair talent to get those angles over suddenly had one of the business’s top workers in Savage. This was a good thing for Jarrett. He had put down the Poffos promotional rivalry after a roughly five year battle but another battle loomed in the distance that would test his abilities to continue to provide his fan base with what they wanted. By the end of 1984 it was clear the Jarrett fans were high on the talents of Randy Savage. Now if Jarrett could only keep him in the fold.
The Jerry Lawler-Jimmy Hart continued in the promotion. The ICW folded up and much of it’s remaining talent, including Randy Savage began working for the CWA. The promotion lost the services of the area’s top tag team when The Fabulous Ones left the territory. They were replaced though by a new version of The Fabulous Ones but it was a version the fans did not like. 1984 was also a year the wrestling world many had known and loved for years changed drastically as Vince McMahon’s WWF began expanding all over North America.
Wrestling’s wildest wild man hits the area…Jerry Jarrett returns to the ring wars…What’s the deal with that promoter…and that referee?…The bad boys from Badstreet, USA swoop in for a stay…The Jerry Lawler-Jimmy Hart feud comes to a close…
Edsel Harrison, Mike Rodgers, Scott Teal, Charles Warburton and David Williamson
Back to Memphis/CWA Main