Throughout the history of professional wrestling, the chickenshit would almost certainly have to be considered the most despised of all the archetypes represented in the sport. Monsters are understandable: big, scary creatures capable of laying the wood to your favorite ‘white hat’ through sheer superhuman power. Athletic superior heels are equally understandable, making use of an advanced skill level to frustrate the ‘good guy’.
The chickenshit, however, is just infuriating. Almost always physically weaker than our beloved babyface, such a heel relies on lying, cheating and cunning to secure their victories. Just when you think there’s no way your hero won’t win, the chickenshit will pull an illegal foreign object (see what I did there?) from their tights or use their valet or manager as a distraction or any number of other underhanded methods to steal a much undeserved win.
One such heel for whom I held complete contempt for the duration of his career was “Hollywood” John Tatum, a soft-chinned, soft-bellied cocky jerk who spent the better part of a decade pouting, preening and pilfering his way to great success throughout the Southwestern part of the United States.
Tatum (born John Frenkel III of Mobile, Alabama in 1959) began his wrestling career sometime before the age of 23. Trained by his childhood friend, Fabulous Freebird Michael “P.S.” Hayes, Tatum got his start in Florida as Hayes’ cousin Franklin Hayes. After spending a short time in the Gulf Coast and Carolinas, Tatum made his way to World Class Championship Wrestling in the summer of ‘83 for his first big run in Dallas. Coming in against “Gentleman” Chris Adams, Chief Jules Strongbow and Billy Jack Haynes, Tatum gained a year and half of all-important seasoning against a myriad of quality wrestling veterans.
Tatum’s biggest angle in WCCW came in the summer of ‘86 against the aforementioned Chris Adams. “Gentleman” Chris was, once again, a fan favorite and was receiving an outpouring of support after being blinded by his former tag team partner Gino Hernandez a few months prior in a Hair vs. Hair Match. Being the jackal that he was, Tatum began mocking Adams’ blindness by coming to the ring wearing a patch over his left eye, carrying a cane and being led by valet Missy Hyatt. This set up a run with the Englishman that ignited the Dallas fan base for one of the last times before business took a turn for the worse. Tapping into his chickenshit ways, Tatum would use Hyatt to score a few wins against Adams, often by having her unleash hair spray from her purse into Adams’ good eye. The Dallas fans despised “Hollywood” John Tatum. I was one of said fans.
Say Goodbye To Hollywood
Their feud would be the biggest and final of Tatum’s for WCCW as he would jump to Bill Watts’ Oklahoma-based Mid-South promotion in July of ‘86, teaming with Jack Victory to challenge The Fantastics for the UWF Tag Team Titles.
At the time, Eddie Gilbert’s “Hot Stuff International” was one of the hottest and most hated factions in professional wrestling. Gilbert routinely used young up and comers Rick Steiner and Sting to do his dirty work, manipulating them right before the fans’ eyes. Adding Tatum and Hyatt to the roster only added to the hatred for the group, but it would also spell the end of Tatum’s run in Mid-South before it every truly took off.
In August of ‘86, Tatum lost a Valet For A Day Match against The Missing Link (thanks to failed interference from Eddie Gilbert), driving a wedge between John and Missy Hyatt. The rift set up a feud between “Hot Stuff” and “Hollywood”, forcing Missy to choose between the two. Missy made her decision courtesy of her “loaded” Gucci bag to Tatum’s head. The angle was confusing in that the fans had no desire to cheer for either Gilbert nor Tatum, but a real life feud had facilitated the turn.
By the time of the angle, Hyatt had spent the better part of the last four years with Tatum. While working with Gilbert on a daily basis, however, the two had begun sneaking around behind Tatum’s back. When the truth came out about the pair, Tatum was pivoted away from the faction (then renamed H & H International, Inc.), finishing up his run in Mid-South a few months later and returning to World Class.
Years later, Missy Hyatt would say, “It was the stupidest mistake. If I had known back then what I know now, I would have stayed with John. Johnny and I had great chemistry together, but we were just young.”
Dallas After Midnight
Back in Dallas, Tatum and Victory won both the Wild West Tag Team Titles and the World Class Tag Team Titles, continuing their feud with The Fantastics while also battling newcomers Steve and Shaun Simpson on multiple occasions. The Simpsons feud was showcased heavily by World Class as by then, the promotion was in desperate need of young babyfaces. For most of 1988, Tatum and Victory wrestled the Simpson Brothers for control of the WCWA Tag Team Titles, trading several victories and championship reigns.
Despite their efforts, the feud wasn’t enough to save the promotion. A failed union with the USWA followed, which USWA owner Jerry Jarrett has said was likely doomed from the beginning. “[The Von Erichs] owed Channel 10 around $40,000 and the Sportatorium around $20,000,” said Jarrett. “They had a few miscellaneous bills that all added up to around $130,000 but it looked like a good deal.” After securing a $60,000 sponsorship from Red Man Chewing Tobacco, Jarrett agreed to pay the other $70,000 in exchange for 51% of the business and a guarantee that Kerry and Kevin Von Erich would be drug free for shows and he’d have the final word on all decisions regarding the promotion. Jarrett has said they agreed, and he moved ahead with the deal despite saying Fritz Von Erich himself tried to talk him out of the partnership. According to Jarrett, the pair held up their end of the bargain for several weeks, only to show themselves incapable of staying clean to handle their responsibilities within the territory.
Through it all, Tatum carried his part of the load for the promotion, winning the USWA Heavyweight Title on three occasions while also getting himself into a heated angle with Bill Dundee. The pair wrestled a series of matches in both Dallas and Memphis. Feuding over his new valet Tessa, “Hollywood” drew the ire of the fan base when, after losing her to Dundee, he delivered a California Kick (his version of the Superkick) to her face, knocking her unconscious, leading to her being carried out on a stretcher. Several TV stations carrying the USWA show were livid to the point of taking the program off their channels.
From the ashes of the USWA Dallas rose the Global Wrestling Federation, for whom Tatum would essentially finish out his wrestling career. From ‘91 to ‘93, Tatum joined up with Ron Price as the California Connection, winning the GWF North American Tag Team Titles and feuding with the tag teams The Wild Bunch (“Wild” Bill Irwin and Black Bart), Scott Putski and Terry Simms and The Ebony Express (more famously known as Harlem Heat).
During his time in Global, Tatum would, for better or worse, be reunited with “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert who was brought in to book the territory until a dispute over pay led to Gilbert bolting from the promotion (with the GWF Heavyweight Title in his possession).
By the end of ‘93, Tatum finished up with Global and went back to his home in Pensacola, Florida. He wrestled sparingly through ‘95, retiring from the ring to take over the family business, the running of the Pensacola Interstate Fair. “I’m really impressed with John Tatum,” said Hyatt. “He became the person I knew was deep down beneath all the craziness.”
“Hollywood” John Tatum was tailor made for pro wrestling’s territory system. His quivering lip and dastardly ways kept a local fan base still willing to suspend disbelief completely enraged at his actions. Though to many he never hit the big time, Tatum was a massive success in every promotion for whom he wrestled, winning multiple championships and making a name for himself while doing exactly what he set out to do: infuriate every last person watching him wrestle, whether on television or live and in person.