Memphis/CWA #7 Page #2
Lucas had wrestled since the mid-1960s including a stint as a heel in Texas early in his career. He also appeared in the late 1960s in the Gulf Coast area where he teamed with Chris Lucas, billed as and believed to be his real life brother. In 1968 Lucas first worked for Nick Gulas. From his first appearance, area fans fell for Lucas and he would remain a popular wrestler for many years whenever he reappeared in the area. One of Lucas’ favorite finishing moves became the sleeper hold.
Gulas had mainly used Lucas as a tag wrestler. Lucas had paired with Dennis Hall, another consistent wrestler in Lucas’ mold, to win the area’s world tag titles in 1968. Over the years in the territory, Lucas would use other tag partners to form successful teams such as Cowboy Frankie Laine, Ricky Fields, Bob Armstrong, Dandy Jack Donovan, Jerry Jarrett, Don Greene, Dutch Mantel and others. Since the area was mainly a tag team area during much of this time, Lucas and his partner were often in the thick of the action against some of the area’s great heel teams such as Jim White and Jerry Lawler, Don and Al Greene, Bobby Hart and Lorenzo Parente, The Masked Interns, Big Bad John and Pepe Lopez, Luke Graham and Ripper Collins, Tojo Yamamoto and Gypsy Joe and others. Lucas did have a few runs in the area as a singles star and even held the Mid-America title in 1977.
While Lucas achieved a good deal of success in the Gulas territory he did appear elsewhere during the 1970s most especially in the Gulf Coast area working for the Fields family. Lucas had a stint in Florida in 1976 teaming with Mike Graham. Lucas paired with Kevin Sullivan in 1978 to work the Central States promotion. There the duo feuded with Bruiser Bob Sweetan, Alexis Smirnoff, The Masked Blue Yankee and Colonel Buck Robley and the duo had a run as Central States tag champion. Sullivan then moved on to Knoxville’s Southeastern promotion where Lucas followed later that year. In Knoxville, the duo battled Phil Hickerson and Dennis Condrey with manager Ron Wright and various combinations of Bob Orton, Jr., Bob Roop and Professor Boris Malenko. Lucas and Sullivan also won the Southeastern tag titles near the end of 1978. By 1979, Lucas was back working for Gulas. During the year Gulas sold the southern end of the territory (Birmingham and Huntsville, Alabama) so some of his stars had open dates available. Since the Birmingham card was traditionally a Monday night card and Gulas was sending some talent there to the new promoter he wasn’t often sending his headliners such as Lucas. With Monday also being the traditional weekly stopover in Memphis, Lucas soon found his services wanted in the western end of Tennessee.
In Memphis, Lucas was thrust into a program against main attraction and lead heel Jerry Lawler. On a TV interview, Lawler claimed not to even know who Lucas was which in reality was funny considering Lawler and White spent much of 1972 and 1973 feuding against Lucas and Dennis Hall. Of course, Monday night at the Coliseum, Lucas handed Lawler a pretty good beating which heated up the feud for the next several weeks.
Lucas spent 1980 working the Jarrett promotion. He was a constant presence on Jarrett cards all year long. During this time period he teamed with British great Billy Robinson and later with future superstar Ricky Morton. Morton, years later, would be lauded for his in-ring performances, which no doubt had to be influenced by his time as a tag partner with tag team expert Ken Lucas.
1980 would be a curious year for Jarrett promotions. An injury to Jerry Lawler meant the promotion spent much of the year struggling to find a solution to poor attendance during Lawler’s absence. Without a doubt though, the promotion never had to fear that Ken Lucas wouldn’t hold up his end of the work night after night during this time. He was the promotion’s "sleeper" during 1980.
January, February and March 1980
Jerry Lawler’s run as a heel Southern champion and CWA champion ended with his leg injury. Jimmy Valiant then took the Southern title with manager Jimmy Hart at his side although there is some evidence to suggest Jackie Fargo held the title very briefly. Valiant’s stint with Hart ended when Hart turned to manage Paul Ellering. Valiant would have an interesting year as he capitalized on his visibility in the area by having a minor hit song in the area (especially in Memphis) with "Son of a Gypsy".
The Masked Assassins lost the Southern tag titles to Ricky and Robert Gibson before regaining them. Ken Lucas and Billy Robinson then laid claim to the belts but lost them to the Assassins, then regained them and then dropped them to the Jimmy Hart-managed team of Paul Ellering and Sheik Ali Hassan (also billed from time to time as The Iranian Assassin).
Working the Jarrett territory at this time were such stars as Sonny King, Buddy Wayne, Rick Morton, Big Red, Jackie Fargo, Sugar Bear Harris (who would work Knoxville later in the year as Bad News Harris), Jerry Barber, Jerry Bryant, Steve Regal, Superstar Bill Dundee, David Oswald, Bobby Lyons, Bill Smithson, Dennis Condrey, David Shultz, Ray Candy, Sgt. Danny Davis, The Blonde Bombers: Wayne Farris and Larry Latham, Bub Smith, Jerry Jarrett and others.
The Mid-America title began the year in the possession of Bobby Eaton. Gorgeous George, Jr. came in for a short run as champion before losing it to Eaton again. Eaton would feud much of the first half of the year against Gypsy Joe, who had been turned face. Tojo Yamamoto is also recognized for a run with the title at this time, one of Yamamoto’s few singles title runs in the area despite his longevity and good standing with the promotion.
The Mid-America tag titles were held by The Blonde Bombers: Larry Latham and Wayne Farris with manager Danny Davis. Bobby Eaton turned face rescuing George Gulas from an attack at the hands of the Bombers and shortly thereafter Gulas and Eaton regained the tag titles. The Bombers regained the belts only to lose them to George Gulas and Rocky Brewer who briefly dropped them to Tojo Yamamoto and Gypsy Joe only to have Gulas and Brewer regain the tag straps.
Working the territory for Gulas at this point were such stars as The Angel (Frank Morrell), Arvil Hutto, Hector Guerrero, Roger Howell, Crazy Luke Graham, Ken Lucas, Tony Atlas, Ray Candy, Mr. Wrestling II, Dr. Frankenstein (unmasked as Lon Watson), Pat Rose (who wrestled first as Pat Smith), Dennis Condrey, Sputnik Monroe, Jr., Rick Sanchez, David Shultz, Ken Hawk, Mark Roberts, Tom Veto, Sam Hardy, Jimmy Powell, Bobcat Brown, Tony LeDoux, Big O, Jim Williams, Mike Jackson, Jimmy Jones, Cora Combs, Satan Lady, Phil Hickerson, Duke Myers, Bob Armstrong, Kurt Von Hess, Randy Collins (also known as Randy Colley, Moondog Rex and a number of other names), Koko Ware, Jackie Fargo, Roger Mason, Ken Wayne, Tommy Wade, Danny King, The Beast, Ron McFarlane, Don Fulton, Chief Thundercloud, Andre the Giant, Bob Ward and others.
Tojo Yamamoto shifted some of his focus away from wrestling early in the year and spent some of this time as a manager. He dubbed his group of wrestlers "The Japanese Connection". Unfortunately, he didn’t have a good deal of stability with his charges. Phil Hickerson, Duke Myers, Rick Sanchez, Pat Rose and Bobby Eaton all were members at one time or another during the first few months of the year. Tojo’s stable seemed to change from week to week depending on who was working as a heel for Gulas.
While Gulas continued to promote his territory some details began to catch up with the longtime promoter. Often in the early part of the year instead of producing a new TV show he would air a rerun from a few weeks earlier. By doing this either Gulas was scrimping on expenses or losing interest in running the territory. Either way it was a bad sign for longtime area fans.
What the Soul Man Was Simmering…
During 1980 one of the business’s most appealing stars spent a good deal of time working for both Jarrett and Gulas. Since both promotions received less attention from wrestling’s newsstand publications it was almost as if this star was waiting in the shadows for his moment to return to a spot in the business where he would discover more fame and prestige than he was receiving while working for the two Tennessee promoters.
In the late 1960s, Drew Glasteau, a former boxer, who had sparred with such legendary boxers as Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and who possessed a great deal of natural athletic ability, became a professional wrestler. After working in his native Canada and then in the mid-western United States, he changed his ring name to Rocky Johnson and began to turn some heads.
Roy Shires’ northern California promotion, based in San Francisco, was where Johnson’s stock began to rise in the pro wrestling business. There he often paired with such area legends as Pat Patterson, Pepper Gomez and Peter Maivia and squared off against such opponents as Paul DeMarco, The Great Mephisto, Kurt and Karl Von Brauner, Kinji Shibuya and Masa Saito. Johnson’s life would be altered by his stay in the area since he would end up marrying Peter Maivia’s daughter, Matania.
In the 1970s though, professional wrestling was divided into territories and few wrestlers could stay in one area for an extended time without becoming stale to area fans. Despite Johnson’s success there, Pat Patterson was northern California’s main draw at the time, so Johnson moved on.
In late 1974, Johnson, often billed as Soulman Rocky Johnson, debuted with Georgia Championship Wrestling and immediately became a smash success. Johnson, who, for his size (billed around 250 plus pounds), was an incredibly agile performer and was one of the few at the time who could throw a dropkick and land on his own feet. In Georgia he hooked up with Jerry Brisco to form a team that eventually held the Georgia tag titles. Johnson also held the Georgia singles title while in the peach state.
Johnson then moved on to Florida. There he continued to wow fans by winning that state’s singles title. During the mid-1970s Johnson had branched out from northern California and began to turn heads of fans and promoters around the country. Johnson made several appearances for famed St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick delighting the St. Louis crowds with his talent. He also ventured into Texas for awhile.
By 1976, Johnson pulled into the Gulas territory and began to make a name for himself. By the time of the promotional split in 1977, Johnson was embroiled in a dandy feud against Jerry Lawler, so he would side with Jarrett at the time of the split. Johnson would end up working both ends of the promotional war between Gulas and Jarrett during its height in 1978. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s Johnson would bounce in and out of the territory for both promoters.
By late 1979 and into 1980 Johnson’s career seemed stalled as he continued to split time between Jarrett and Gulas. For Jarrett, Johnson had a short run with Jimmy Valiant as Southern tag champions. For Gulas, Johnson held the Mid-America title and worked programs against Roger Mason and Kurt Von Hess. He even donned the boxing gloves again in a few matches against Von Hess. Rocky had been a top draw for both promoters but with Gulas slowing down and Jarrett struggling for answers to fill the gap opened by Jerry Lawler’s injury, Johnson just didn’t seem to be part of the solution for the area’s problems at the time so it once again became time for him to move on.
This time when he moved on he added a twist. Johnson donned a mask and called himself Sweet Ebony Diamond. He began working Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic territory and achieved some success there. The move catapulted him back into wrestling’s mainstream and a few years later he had a successful high-profile run with the WWF.
Johnson, who two decades later would become famous all over again as the father of professional wrestling superstar The Rock, was hardly through with the Memphis promotion as he would turn up a few more times after his 1980 stay. 1980 though saw the man with the image of "Soulman" spend time in the area for both Gulas and Jarrett while his career was on a slow simmer.
April, May and June 1980
With Lawler still on the sidelines injured, Jimmy Valiant and Bill Dundee became the lead babyfaces in the area for Jarrett. Valiant’s run as Southern champion in this time frame ended when he lost the title to Paul Ellering. Ellering, a muscleman from Melrose, Minnesota with dark hair and porkchop sideburns, was in the midst of one of the few successful singles runs he would have as a wrestler as he would gain most of his fame in the business as a manager later in the 1980s.
The Southern tag titles were regained by Billy Robinson and Ken Lucas from Sheik Ali Hassan and Paul Ellering. Robinson and Lucas then lost the belts to Dennis Condrey and David Shultz. Condrey and Shultz, billed as The Hollywood Connection, had worked the Knoxville promotion before arriving in Memphis. Rocky Johnson and Jimmy Valiant then won the titles from Condrey and Shultz but then lost them to Gypsy Joe and Skull Murphy (obviously not the original Skull Murphy). Jackie Fargo and Randy Fargo were recognized as champions for Jackie’s farewell run around the circuit then Joe and Murphy were recognized as champions again. There is no clear evidence to support a title change between the two teams. It appeared to be a way for the longtime fans to see Jackie leave the business as a winner and champion.
Working the territory for Jarrett at this time were such stars as AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel, Ricky and Robert Gibson, Ricky Morton, Sonny King, Duke Myers, Tony Boyles, Jerry Jarrett, Eddie Marlin, Terry Sawyer Steve Regal, Carl Fergie, Buddy and Ken Wayne, The Great Togo, Killer Karl Krupp and others. Jerry Lawler, on the mend from his leg injury, made some appearances at house shows during the month of June.
With Lawler’s injury, the CWA title became vacant. In April, British superstar Billy Robinson defeated The Masked Superstar to claim the title. (It is unclear to this writer if The Superstar was Bill Eadie, who made the Masked Superstar gimmick famous. Eadie was working regularly at this time for the Mid-Atlantic promotion as The Superstar although a special appearance here is possible.) Although hardly as prestigious as the AWA and NWA world titles Robinson had chased and almost won during the decade of the 1970s, the CWA title was suddenly in the hands of one of the true great mat technicians at the time.
The promotion also began recognizing CWA tag champions in this time frame. One of the area’s most beloved teams from the previous decade, Tojo Yamamoto and Jerry Jarrett, won a summer tournament to become the first champions. By September, the title would be held by The Manchurians, who were in actuality Tio and Tapu, the Samoans. The Manchurians would be paired with the legendary Sputnik Monroe as their manager. The Manchurians would work both ends of the territory much of the year, as well as the Southeastern promotion in Knoxville the first half of the year, and at various times and in various cities were managed by Tojo Yamamoto and also briefly by a man billed as Sir John.
Area legend (and Jarrett’s co-promoter) Buddy Fuller came out of retirement to square off against Wayne Farris of the Blonde Bombers tag team on the western end of the territory during the spring. Fuller had assisted Terry Sawyer (not Buzz Sawyer) when Farris, Larry Latham and Danny Davis had attacked Sawyer on Memphis TV.
For Gulas, Steve Travis was recognized as Mid-America champion in April. He lost the title to Roger Mason. Mason would be a major star in the area during the 1980s but one even some of the most die-hard fans would find difficult to recognize. Mason would often don a mask and form a tag team with Don Bass. Among their identities working for Jarrett were such headlining acts as The Assassins (on several occasions), The Interns (in 1984-85) and as Flame in 1986 (Bass was billed as Fire). Mason also had a run in the 1980s in the Memphis territory as Dirty Rhodes. In 1980 though Smith, as Mason, would lose the Mid-America title to Rocky Johnson who dropped the belt to The Great Togo. At the end of June, Robert Gibson won the title from Togo.
The Mid-America tag titles passed from George Gulas and Rocky Brewer to Tojo Yamamoto and Gypsy Joe. Gulas and Brewer regained the belts but lost them to Bobby Eaton and The Great Togo.
Eaton, meantime, had become Gulas’ main attraction. He was constantly in the thick of the hunt for the Mid-America title, and often, the tag titles. As summer was getting ready to start, Eaton was turned heel again. The scenario was set up when Steve Regal debuted for Gulas. It was put over that Regal was an exciting young star with potential written all over him. Not much later, Eaton turned on Regal, supposedly jealous of the attention Regal was receiving. The feud lasted only a few weeks as Regal moved on out of the territory quickly.
Working for Gulas during this time were such stars as Jackie, Don and Roughhouse Fargo, Kurt Von Hess, Randy Collins, Rick Conners, Pat Rose, Ken Hawk, The Manchurians with manager Sputnik Monroe, Lumberjack DuPree, Ricky Morton, Tom Renesto, Jr., Tom Stanton, Bob Fulton, Maniac Jack Evans, Jerry Barber, Ann Jeanette, Kay Roberts, Tony Atlas, Jimmy Valiant, Arvil Hutto, Koko Ware, Tom Veto, Chief Thundercloud, Hans Schroder, Jimmy Powell, NWA World Junior Heavyweight champion Les Thornton, Dennis Condrey, David Shultz, U.S. champion The Sheik, Skull Murphy, Ray Candy, The Bounty Hunter, Mr. Oshira, Jimmy Valiant and others.
Hoping to achieve success once more with a tried and true formula, Gulas turned Tojo Yamamoto back into a fan favorite. On the live Chattanooga TV show Kurt Von Hess and Randy Collins destroyed the tag team of Chief Thundercloud and Tommy Wade. As the heels continued their merciless assault, Yamamoto rushed into the ring and rescued Wade and then carried him out of the ring in a carbon copy of an angle used several times before with Jerry Jarrett. Yamamoto would reveal Wade was his newest protégé. The move allowed Yamamoto to team with Andre the Giant to battle Von Hess and Collins. Under normal circumstances, the turn would have picked up business some but the time for the turn was not good as Wade, unlike Jarrett in the 1970s, had received little in the way of a push before the turn making the turn ineffective.
For all intents and purposes, Gulas’ promotional run ended in June with the Jackie Fargo retirement card one week (which basically also served as Gulas’ retirement) and longtime announcer Harry Thornton retiring the following week. Buddy Fuller would then gain control of Gulas’s cities in the area.
Meantime, the Knoxville office, which had had ties with both Gulas and Jarrett had been in the midst of a promotional war with ICW. In the early summer the group officially sold out totally to the Atlanta’s Georgia Championship Wrestling office. Just midway through 1980, things had drastically changed in Tennessee when it came to professional wrestling.
Can You Go Home Again?
Numerous writers, scholars and plain ordinary folks have commented many times about how difficult it is to return home with hopes of being accepted for what you have become after being away for awhile. They usually conclude that no one wants to acknowledge you for what you have accomplished because they only see you the way you were before your achievements. This idea would be the theme for an interesting experiment for one of the area’s favorite stars in 1980.
In 1977, Tommy Rich packed his bags and left the Tennessee area where Nick Gulas had given him his start and where Jerry Jarrett had placed him in his first major singles feud against Jerry Lawler. Rich traveled to Atlanta and began working for the Georgia Championship Wrestling office.
Rich, with his white blonde hair and good ol’ boy charm, caught on with the Georgia fans, especially the young female fans. The Atlanta office had a star in the making. Rich, nicknamed Wildfire, had seen quite a bit of success in Georgia mainly in the tag team ranks as he had held the Georgia tag titles with six different tag partners, Tony Atlas, Thunderbolt Patterson, Stan Hansen, Rick Martel, Chief Wahoo McDaniel and The Crusher. He had also had reigns as Georgia Heavyweight champion and Georgia TV champion. With less than three years away from his "hometown" territory, Rich had become one of the most popular performers on the Georgia circuit, often supplanting the veteran Mr. Wrestling II for that honor. Rich had also gained a good deal of coverage in the newsstand magazines so his popularity was not only augmented by the cable TV exposure provided by the Georgia promotion but also by articles placed in the magazines read by fans across the country.
Rich left the Georgia circuit in 1980 and returned to Tennessee to work for Jerry Jarrett. Most fans seemed to welcome Rich back with open arms. Plans though fell into motion for Rich to become an unhappy camper.
The Southern title was the area’s big prize. It was decided that Rich would face Bill Dundee in a televised match with the winner receiving a shot at the title. As Lance Russell and guest commentator Jerry Lawler called the action, fans were shocked at what occurred. Rich accidentally hit Dundee low. Instead of allowing Dundee time to recover, Rich rolled Dundee up and pinned him and claimed the top contender’s slot for the Southern belt. Russell could not believe the clean-cut hero Rich had actually done something so dastardly.
Rich was hardly through though. He strolled to ringside where Russell called him on the carpet for his actions. Rich sneered at Russell and claimed that Dundee was actually okay and was just "playin’ possum". Rich said he had outsmarted Dundee. Rich then commented that during his initial stay in the area that the promotion had held him down and that was why he had to leave for greener pastures in Georgia. Rich then turned his attention to the injured Lawler saying that Lawler was a major reason why he had been held down and that now Lawler’s career was over while his (Rich’s) was just beginning. Rich placed an exclamation point on his turn by shoving the helpless Lawler to the floor. Tommy Rich, all around good guy and fan favorite, had become the most disliked man in the territory.
Rich would add Jimmy Hart as his manager. He would derail Jimmy Valiant to claim the Southern title. Rich then went on a reign of terror as champion. He often defended the title on TV against less than stellar competition. He claimed he was giving the young, inexperienced wrestlers the break Lawler and Jarrett had never given him. Of course, fans saw this move as a cowardly Rich dodging real competition. With Hart by his side and often with the new-to-Memphis Bobby Eaton, dubbed the New King by Hart, as a tag partner and often against Bill Dundee and Tojo Yamamoto, Rich cut a wide swath through competition through the fall. Rich seemed destined to step into a ready-made feud against Lawler when he was able to return.
Plans changed though. In early December a televised battle royal for the new TV title and a new TV set saw Koko Ware accidentally hit Jimmy Valiant leading to former manager and upstart wrestler Danny Davis eliminating the Handsome one. Ware then eliminated Davis to win. Valiant returned to the set and destroyed the battle royal prize, a television set. He then leveled Ware.
A few moments later, Eddie Marlin then brought out Peggy Rich, Tommy’s real life mother. Peggy then begged that the fans forgive Tommy for his recent actions citing that Tommy needed the fans to support him despite his words and actions. As Peggy pleaded her son’s cause, a still seething Valiant returned, this time with Tojo Yamamoto at his side. The previous angle with Ware would now be tied into one with Rich and his mother. Valiant began insulting Peggy and Yamamoto even took a slap at her before Valiant shoved her to the floor. Tommy then rushed out to help his mother but ended up bloody in the process. Hart and Eaton then hurry out after the melee. Rich turned to them and asked them where they were when he was getting attacked and then ran them off. Rich became a fan favorite again and Valiant became a heel again (a nice triple switch, as Yamamoto had been a face also) setting matches up with Rich and Ware against Valaint and Yamamoto. The move also elevated Ware into a more prominent role in the territory.
Rich remained in the area for awhile in 1981 reforming a team with Bill Dundee. A big return though waited for him in Georgia where he stepped into a feud against the heel trio of the Fabulous Freebirds, perhaps the hottest attraction in U.S. wrestling at the time. Later in 1981 he would down NWA champion Harley Race in Augusta, Georgia before losing it back to Race five nights later in Gainesville, Georgia. In 1980 though the hometown boy who had done well returned home and had an interesting year. His heel turn had been somewhat successful but the fans then still seemed too wrapped up in him being a good guy to accept him as a heel for very long. The one thing that might have turned him into a top level heel then would have been a series of matches against a babyface Jerry Lawler. Lawler’s injury though prevented that from happening at this point in time. It would eventually happen and when it did, the Rich-Lawler feud would be big.
July, August and September 1980
Paul Ellering’s Southern title run ended at the hands of Bill Dundee. Dundee then downed Billy Robinson for the CWA crown and, afterwards, gave the Southern title up to defend the CWA title. This was a bad move since Robinson regained the CWA belt a week later and Dr. Bill Irwin laid claim to the Southern belt. Irwin’s title reign though ended when Jimmy Valiant won the belt. Valiant then faced off against the winner of a TV match pitting Tommy Rich against Bill Dundee. Rich turned heel in that match and later knocked Valiant off to win the title.
Gypsy Joe and Skull Murphy lost the Southern tag titles to Ken Lucas and Ricky Morton. Lucas and Morton were then defeated by Killer Karl Krupp and El Mongol. Tommy and Eddie Gilbert then took the titles from Krupp and Mongol before losing them to The Angel and Sonny King.
Working the area for Jarrett were such stars as The Fabulous Moolah, The Manchurians, Wendi Richter, Dutch Mantel, The Blonde Bombers: Wayne Farris and Larry Latham managed by Sgt. Danny Davis, Tony Boyles, Koko Ware, Bobby Eaton, Joyce Grable and Judy Martin (billed as NWA Ladies tag champions), Wenona Little Heart, Peggy Lee, Eddie and Tommy Marlin, David Oswald, Jerry Bryant, Billy the Kid, Lone Eagle, Cowboy Lang, Little Tokyo, Joe Stark, Chuck Malone, Bub Smith, Frank Savage, Tom Stanton, Austin Idol, Jerry Jarrett, Tojo Yamamoto, Carl Fergie, Buddy and Ken Wayne, Les Thornton, Lou Thesz, Gypsy Joe and others.
Buddy Fuller began running the remaining Gulas cities during the summer. Robert Gibson lost the Mid-America title to Bobby Eaton. The title was then forgotten for most of the summer but in September The Great Mephisto was billed as champion on a Chattanooga card but he promptly lost the belt to Tojo Yamamoto.
The Mid-America tag titles wound up in the possession of The Blonde Bombers: Larry Latham and Wayne Farris with Sgt. Danny Davis at their side. They were upended by Don Fargo and Robert Gibson. The Manchurians with manager Sputnik Monroe downed Fargo and Gibson to become Mid-America tag champions. By September, Ken Lucas and Ricky Morton gained the titles.
The promotion also recognized a few other titles during the summer months. Dick Steinborn was recognized as Mid-America Junior Heavyweight champion while Luscious Johnny Valiant claimed the Chattanooga title in a tournament but then lost it to Robert Gibson. Terry Sawyer was also recognized as Nashville champion in this time frame. It should be noted that with the change of promotions during 1980 many of the title switches have been next to impossible to trace and some of the title changes listed here may be phantom switches (title changes that did not actually occur in ring).
Working the territory for Gulas then Fuller through September were such stars as CWA champion Billy Robinson, Jimmy Valiant, Dr. Bill Irwin, Alexis Smirnoff, Dutch Mantel, Bill Smithson, Iron Mike Miller, Tony Charles, Jerry Barber, Roger Howell, The Angel, The Beast, The Bounty Hunter, Tony Atlas, Tommy Rich, Mr. Wrestling II, Ted Allen, Bill Allen, Vinnie Romero, Abdullah the Butcher, Maniac Mark Lewin (the latter two had worked a program in the summer for the Atlanta office but had been let go and brought their feud to Tennessee for a few dates) and others.
One of the main feuds through the summer months revolved around six familiar faces. The Blonde Bombers (Latham, Farris and Davis) feuded then with Bill Dundee, Jerry Jarrett and Tojo Yamamoto. The feud between the two teams played out on Memphis TV originally. The Bombers roughed up Dundee in a tag match then attacked promoter Eddie Marlin afterward. Jarrett then ran in to help Dundee and Marlin, with Lance Russell acknowledging Marlin being Jarrett’s father-in-law. Farris, Latham and Davis then ranted about how Jarrett had bossed them around and that how they relished the opportunity to get their boss in the ring.
Despite the decent talent base, the territory proved to be unsuccessful for Fuller. A few factors seem to factor in the failure. During the summer, race relations in Chattanooga rose to a fever pitch for awhile and culminated in a citywide curfew canceling at least one card. It is difficult to gain any momentum when a promoter has to cancel a show. Fuller also had trouble finding a replacement for popular retiring TV announcer Harry Thornton. Michael St. John, Les Thatcher and even Ronnie Gossett (Chattanooga house show ring announcer) all hosted the TV show within a three month span. Lance Russell though did some guest commentator shots for the Nashville TV show with Michael St. John. The promotion tried a number of things to drum up business including running "Tough Man" and "Tough Woman" matches on some cards and crowning city champions in Chattanooga and Nashville. By September, Fuller pretty well threw in the towel on trying to keep the eastern end of the territory viable with a different talent base than what his partner Jarrett was using in Memphis. By this time Fuller no longer produced local TV instead he relied on the Memphis TV show to air in Chattanooga and Nashville. The Mid-America title was kept active for the Memphis promotion while the Mid-America tag titles were forgotten. The long-running live Chattanooga TV studio show was canceled after running on the CBS affiliate since 1966 and featured an appearance by Ginger the Wrestling Bear and trainer Nick Adams on the final show. The Nashville TV show was also abandoned. Jarrett picked up running weekly cards in Nashville on every Wednesday night as Gulas had run for years and in Chattanooga on every Saturday night, as had been the tradition most of the 1970s (before then cards were usually on Thursdays in Chattanooga), although Jarrett often ended up running a number of shows on Sunday nights in Chattanooga.
Exit Stage Right
Knowing when and how to say goodbye can be daunting tasks for anyone no matter what the circumstances. However, it seems to be especially difficult for those involved in professional wrestling.
During June of 1980, it was announced that longtime area star Jackie Fargo was retiring. Fargo, for the most part, had been semi-retired since late 1977. While Jerry Lawler had pretty well eclipsed Fargo for popularity and drawing ability in Memphis, Fargo remained the main attraction in Nashville and Chattanooga. The announcement though allowed the promotion to run "Farewell Matches" with Fargo headlining. Jackie would return with "nephew" Randy to defend the Southern tag titles in Gulas cities. Fargo’s retirement though was also quietly wrapped around another retirement, that of Nick Gulas.
After his territorial split with Jerry Jarrett in 1977, Nick Gulas held on fairly strong for awhile. He was able to replace Jarrett’s booking with the booking of Tom Renesto and had a crew of talent that included Randy Savage, Terry Gordy, Michael Hayes, Gypsy Joe, Ricky Morton, Dennis Condrey, Tojo Yamamoto, Bobby Eaton, Robert Gibson and others. Gulas though had a reputation in the business as a bad payoff man. In other words, some wrestlers felt as if Gulas never paid them what they felt they had earned while working for him, implying he kept some of the profits for himself. With this sort of reputation coupled with Gulas’ often surly demeanor, not many established stars wanted to appear for Gulas, considering the thriving territorial system active then. Younger wrestlers could work for him but if other territories provided a better payday and opportunities then what incentive did they have to work for Gulas? So by 1980, the well was running dry, talent-wise, for Gulas. It was becoming more difficult to remain profitable for Gulas. It also didn’t help that Nick continued to push his son, George, despite George’s lack of ability in-ring. These factors led Nick to retire, and in the process, forced the retirement of his son, George, since most promoters did not care to use him on their cards. Nick’s retirement was played down in most of his cities. Nashville, Gulas’ home base, did host a Jackie Fargo and Nick Gulas appreciation card in June.
Around the same time, TV announcer and co-promoter Harry Thornton called it quits. Thornton had experienced some health problems earlier in the year so his retirement from wrestling was not much of a surprise. At the time Thornton was also the co-host of Chattanooga’s most popular TV morning program called "The Morning Show", a show that regularly trounced NBC’s "Today" and ABC’s "Good Morning, America" in local ratings. Thornton was a Chattanooga broadcasting legend having worked both radio and television for decades. He was colorful and outspoken even once landing in jail for refusing to give up the name of a source on a story he had reported on his TV show.
As it had for decades Thornton’s announcing remained heavily biased for the fan favorites even to his regularly scheduled final TV show. On this show, which aired live, he interviewed Bobby Eaton, Tojo Yamamoto and The Great Togo. Thornton had been an Eaton fan from early in Bobby’s career but had grown disenchanted with Eaton after he had turned into a heel. During his last interview Thornton chided Eaton for his choice in friends. Eaton though extolled the virtues of his partnership with Togo (they were Mid-America champions at the time) and Yamamoto, their manager while Thornton looked at the camera, rolled his eyes and called the ramblings lies. Yamamoto did not take to kind to Thornton’s remarks and subtly threatened the announcer. Thornton though had a real-life ego that refused to let him back down from anyone. He offered to take a chair to the threesome. The studio audience roared it’s approval just at the mention of such an idea. Thornton then said he had put up with Yamamoto for twenty years and he was glad he would never have to put up with him again. Togo then decided to speak but all that emerged from his mouth was Japanese. As Togo spoke, Thornton looked at the camera and shrugged as if to say ‘Can you believe this?’. As the interview concluded Eaton briefly broke character by wishing Harry well and shook his hand in what truly seemed to be a genuine moment.
Later in the show, Tojo Yamamoto returned with The Manchurians. Thornton refused to stand up for the interview angering Yamamoto. After a brief verbal squabble Thornton stood up to interview Yamamoto, revealing Thornton to be nearly a head taller than the Japanese star. As Harry stood up, Yamamoto turned to look at the Manchurians. When Harry saw this, he sat back down. Yamamoto then went on a tirade about how his Japanese Connection never slept (one of Yamamoto’s favorite lines). As Yamamoto continued, Harry pulled the microphone away and said he had heard enough then rang the bell calling for the next match as Yamamoto stood there in silent disbelief. This ended Thornton’s many great verbal battles with the area’s top heels (most notably with Yamamoto and Saul Weingeroff).
All within a month’s time these three linchpins of the successful promotion based in Tennessee called it quits. Fargo, the area’s major star for nearly two decades, worked the retirement tour in Gulas cities and hung up his boots, his famed Fargo strut and his "Put up your dukes, pally" catchphrase after a twenty five plus year career. Gulas, who once had promoted wrestling in a gigantic hunk of the South, sold what was left of his territory to Edward Welch (Buddy Fuller) and in the process fans bid farewell to Gulas’ weekly reminders of "the greatest card ever in the history of (fill in the name of whatever city Gulas was running)" in his mumbling monotone voice and his last minute agreement to change the upcoming house show card so a babyface could exact revenge on a heel. Thornton, the voice for the eastern end of the Gulas promotion and a co-promoter for close to twenty years, called it quits but remained visible to the Chattanooga audience with his morning TV show.
Retirement in professional wrestling though rarely lasts longer than a house show intermission. Fargo, who had returned to the Memphis end in 1979 to pop the attendance there, would continue to work there for a number of years to follow, even though he rarely worked anything that resembled a full-time wrestling schedule. Gulas would hold true to his word and not run the territory for awhile. He would though eventually return to the promotional end of things in a number of places including another try or two in Tennessee. Thornton for the most part remained true to his word. He did return to host the live Chattanooga TV show one other time, likely because Fuller could not find anyone else to host the show that week.
Even though these three giants retired the business of professional wrestling in the area went on without them. Initially, it would be a tough road. Fuller tried to run the territory for a few months but found the effort too much. He used some Jarrett-supplied talent on his cards, even Jerry Jarrett himself, running the territory almost the way Gulas had for years, with an eastern end and a western end, but the right combination could not be found. Three years after the split, Jarrett wound up with roughly three quarters of the territory he once booked for Gulas.
By the summer of 1980 the power structure of wrestling in the old Nick Gulas territory had changed. Nick Gulas, Jackie Fargo and Harry Thornton, three important figures in professional wrestling in the area, had retired. In a bigger picture that was unclear at the time, Gulas’ departure from the business was just one small sign of troubled times for much of the older promotional guard in the United States, many of whom belonged to the National Wrestling Alliance, the major organization overseeing the business. As the 1970s ended and the 1980s started, Gulas’ retirement was sandwiched amidst some unsettling times in wrestling offices in Amarillo, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Detroit as they all were braving rocky times. Elsewhere, Leroy McGuirk would split with Bill Watts in the Oklahoma-Louisiana-Arkansas territory and Watts would even form his own "governing body" with the Mid-South Wrestling Association. Even the St. Louis office, headed by the driving force behind the NWA, Sam Muchnick, showed some signs of vulnerability as Muchnick considered retirement. Remaining NWA members such as Atlanta’s Jim Barnett, Jim Crockett from the Carolinas, Tampa’s Eddie Graham, Jack Adkisson (Fritz Von Erich) from Dallas and Kansas City’s Bob Geigel would then struggle to gain more power for themselves and their own stars (Atlanta had Tommy Rich and Mr. Wrestling II, Crockett had Ric Flair, Florida had Dusty Rhodes, Dallas had David, Kevin and Kerry Von Erich and Geigel had Harley Race, and to a degree the blessing of the well-respected Muchnick).
While bad booking or bad business practices were responsible for putting some promoters out of business, some NWA promoters were also facing competition from "outlaw" groups, such as ICW. Sometimes the competition came from fellow NWA members through cable television increasing the exposure of some of the more resourceful NWA members. This though ended up hurting weak territories because it exposed the fans in the weak territories to a new product which was then often perceived to be a better product. Add to all that the thriving business of the AWA and WWF and the mighty NWA banner wasn’t flying as high as before. The whole landscape of professional wrestling as a flourishing territorial business, as it had been for years and most often under the sanction of the NWA, was changing. Those with the knowledge to understand the currents pacing such change would, with enough finances, survive. Often though change is gradual and unnoticeable until it is too late. Would Jerry Jarrett, now the area’s sole major promoter and one who had proved himself to be a smart and resourceful promoter, be caught unaware by the factors forcing the changes in the business or would he be out front leading the way?
October, November and December 1980
Tommy Rich held onto the Southern title the rest of the year. Rich’s main challenges in this time frame would come from Superstar Bill Dundee, Tojo Yamamoto and Handsome Jimmy Valiant.
Tommy and Eddie Gilbert regained the Southern tag titles from The Angel and Sonny King but then lost them to Dr. Bill Irwin and Larry Latham. Ken Lucas and Ricky Morton then won the belts. They were derailed by Nature Boy Roger Kirby and Guy Mitchell who dropped the belts to Bill Dundee and Tommy Rich at year’s end.
Austin Idol won the CWA title from Billy Robinson. Bobby Eaton then took the title when Idol did not defend the title. Robinson regained the title with a win over Eaton. Robinson then feuded against Guy Mitchell. Mitchell had worked the previous year for the (W)WWF as Gentleman Jerry Valiant, supposed brother to Handsome Jimmy Valiant.
Late in the year, Koko Ware became the area’s first TV champion by winning a battle royal described in an earlier section of this article. He also won a TV set which was destroyed by Jimmy Valiant. The following week promoter Eddie Marlin presented Ware with another TV set. As Ware defended the TV title against Bobby Eaton, Valiant returned to destroy the new TV set.
Others in the area at this time included Robert Gibson, Tony Charles, The Magnificent Zulu, Killer Karl Krupp, Robert Gibson, Don Fargo (billed as World Brass Knuckles champion), Ali Hassan, Wenona Little Heart, Peggy Lee, Joyce Grable, Judy Martin, Gypsy Joe, Carl Fergie, Chief Thundercloud, Lone Eagle, Butch Cassidy, King Cobra, Jimmy Kent, Chuck Malone, Buddy Wayne, Jerry Jarrett, Scott Irwin, Tony Atlas, Danny Davis (who feuded with Jimmy Hart), The Dream Machine and others.
By year’s end most of the old Gulas territory had been claimed by Jarrett. Gulas had sold his Alabama end in 1979. The promotion in Gulas’s old Alabama towns would dry up during 1980. Over time though Ron Fuller’s Southeastern group, based in Alabama after selling out the Knoxville end, began running in old Gulas towns such as Birmingham and Huntsville. Nashville, where Jarrett’s office had always been based (actually in the northern Nashville suburb of Hendersonville), fell to Jarrett completely. Chattanooga though, by year’s end, fell to the Atlanta office. The syndicated Georgia Championship Wrestling TV show had aired on Chattanooga’s NBC affiliate (WRCB-TV) since 1975 Saturdays at 1PM as opposed to the Memphis show airing on the same NBC station but at 11AM every Saturday. GCW would begin running cards in Chattanooga at the end of December and continue for several years to come.
Meantime, to the north, Jarrett was feeling some heat from an "outlaw" group called International Championship Wrestling (ICW) which featured such stars as Randy Savage, Lanny Poffo, Ronnie Garvin, Bob Roop, Bob Orton, Jr. and others. It was a group that had competed head-to-head with Ron Fuller’s Southeastern group in east Tennessee in 1979 and 1980. The ICW was running cards on a regular basis in Kentucky, including in Jarrett strongholds such as Louisville. It appeared that sooner or later their paths would cross in some form or fashion.
Early in 1980, Jerry Lawler became the victim of a broken leg. It wasn’t suffered at the hands of his arch-rival at the time or from a sneak attack from a long-ago forgotten foe. Lawler broke his leg while playing football.
The territory revolved around Lawler. The previous September Lawler had been turned heel and paired with firecracker manager Jimmy Hart. Lawler, equally good as a heel or face, was in the midst of a good heel run when the injury struck. Hart had paired Lawler up with Jimmy Valiant and the two were making life miserable for Ken Lucas, Jackie Fargo and Jerry Jarrett at the time of the injury.
While Lawler suffered physically from the injury he wasn’t the only one to feel some hurt. Jerry Jarrett, as a promoter who had weathered the split from Gulas in 1977 and a few years worth of competition with Gulas and then a shaky 1979, suddenly found himself without a main attraction. Jarrett, if anything, always proved to be a smart man when it came to getting by with what he had at his disposal. As he had before he set the wheels of survival in motion.
Jarrett turned newcomer Paul Ellering into a heel by having him turn on Bill Dundee. Then Jimmy Hart was added as Ellering’s manager and Hart dubbed Ellering as his new King, an insult to Lawler. The next move saw Jarrett have Hart and Ellering turn on Jimmy Valiant, who during the ensuing feud with Ellering would wind up walking around with Lawler’s crown. Hart meantime disavowed his partnership with Lawler, claiming Lawler would not be able to recover from the injury.
With Lawler gone though attendance was steady but not spectacular. Jarrett brought Lawler back into the mix by having him appear on TV from time to time as a commentator and on occasion, at selected house shows. During the summer, it was announced that Lawler had signed a contract to wrestle exclusively with Jarrett’s promotion. Since Lawler had been a heel at the time of his injury, it was announced that Lawler had been in negotiations for a long time but there were lingering ill feelings between one time wrestler turned promoter Jarrett and Lawler. These two had a feud that dated back into the early 1970s and by 1980 had been in tussles with each other prior to Lawler’s injury. With this as a backdrop Eddie Marlin, Jarrett’s assistant, had been the man to sign Lawler to a new contract. In a slightly heelish interview, a cocky-looking Lawler then said when he returned he had three men in his sights. First was Jimmy Hart, who Lawler claimed to have rescued from dive bars in Memphis and gave him a job but once his injury occurred Hart had forgotten what Lawler had done for him. Second was Paul Ellering, who had been anointed Lawler’s replacement by Hart and at the time of the interview was Southern champion, a championship Lawler felt was his. Third was Jimmy Valiant, who in his feud with Ellering had wound up with Lawler’s coveted crown. Lawler then returned for some appearances in the area and later returned to ring action while wearing a cast in a few matches against Hart’s newest charge Killer Karl Krupp. Lawler also worked a few shows in that time frame against Hart. Hart would then appear on TV all bandaged up and unable to talk leaving fans with the impression that Lawler had beat him up really bad.
The good news was that Lawler’s return helped to spike attendance at the house shows. The bad news was that in working the matches Lawler had returned too soon and had set back his recovery some.
Jarrett though continued to play a patient game. A few months later Lawler announced he would return to action by 1981. Knowing Lawler’s return was imminent and with a ready made feud bubbling with Hart, Jarrett determined to make the return even more special. The TV show began airing clips of Lawler in action pushing the impending return while Lawler’s progress was reported every week.
Hart, who with his merry band of no-do-gooders had had a long run of terror in the area in Lawler’s absence, went into war mode. He vowed to find a man who would take care of Lawler for him. As December began to wind down, Hart introduced a masked man called The Dream Machine whose sole purpose was to eliminate Lawler upon his return.
As 1980 ended, Lawler’s return was at hand. The new year would see him return to the ring. He wanted his hands on Jimmy Hart but he would have to first settle on Hart’s charge The Dream Machine. It all had the makings of a feud that could set the area on fire again. As he had before Jarrett had weathered a storm and set his area up with the promise of an exciting feud.
Longtime promoter Nick Gulas retired in mid-year. His co-promoter, Harry Thornton and his main star, Jackie Fargo followed suit. Gulas’ retirement also saw his son’s ring career come to an end since no promoter seemed eager to feature George Gulas on their cards. Fargo, meantime, would make sporadic appearances in Jarrett’s territory. By year’s end, a good portion of Gulas’ territory had fallen into Jarrett’s lap. There was likely little time to celebrate since Jarrett had to have some concerns about the gritty ICW promotion running shows in some of his Kentucky towns. Jerry Lawler suffered an injury early in the year. His absence lead to Jarrett searching for a combination to keep interest alive while his main attraction was recovering. He used veterans Bill Dundee, Jimmy Valiant, Billy Robinson, Ken Lucas and Rocky Johnson and even turned popular Tommy Rich into a heel. As 1980 ended, 1981 looked to be interesting as Lawler was ready to return to ring action. He would be gunning for his one-time manager Jimmy Hart.
1981: "Long Live the King"…Something "Funk"-y goes on in a deserted arena…"Koko" bops his way to the top…"Boston Battler/Tennessee Terror"…"Dutch=Trouble"…
Edsel Harrison, Mike Rodgers, Scott Teal, Charles Warburton and David Williamson
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