"Hacksaw" Butch Reed: A Natural At Making Money While Making You Hate His Guts

“A Dog Collar Match, a 10 ft. chain… You know somethin’, Junkyard Dog, you ain’t housebroken yet, that’s your problem! You ain’t learned to go in and out of the house when you’re supposed to, ya understand, so, the dogcatcher, Butch Reed, is gonna have to teach you some manners!” – Butch Reed

From as far back as he can remember, Butch Reed was always an athlete. Coming from a “family of hard-working people”, Reed worked to become a good enough high school football player at Warrensburg High in Missouri to receive offers from “a few Big 10 schools”. According to Reed, however, his grades weren’t up to snuff, forcing him to attend Northeast Oklahoma A&M community college until he was able to transfer back near his hometown and finish up his college career at the University of Central Missouri.

Already dealing with knee and ankle injuries, Reed walked onto the practice field of the Kansas City Chiefs, supposedly spending one season with the team, though since his name doesn’t appear on any Chiefs rosters between ‘76-’78, odds are he spent the year on the team’s practice squad (if he remained on the team at all after the preseason).

Unable to continue playing football, but never one to shy away from a fight (just ask Buddy Landel and/or Nord the Barbarian), professional wrestling was an appealing possibility for him. Butch has said his way into the sport of pro wrestling was through legendary wrestling promoter Bob Geigel. He, apparently, walked into Geigel’s bar, was spotted by former NWA Central States Heavyweight Champion Ron Etchison (who, by then, was nearing the end of his in-ring career) and was sent to train at Lord Littlebrook’s gym. “I went there twice a week for a year,” said Reed, “before I got sent to Canada to work for All-Star Wrestling.” Reed (wrestling under his real name of Bruce Reed) spent four months in Vancouver, gaining knowledge from Gene Kiniski and Al Tomko while simultaneously earning in-ring experience against the likes of Eric Embry and Bobby Jaggers.

In the Fall of ‘79, Reed returned to the Midwest, working for Central States Wrestling and NWA St. Louis. He spent most of the next two years back “home”, winning his first championship (the NWA Central States Tag Team Titles with Jerry Roberts) while also continuing his All-Star Wrestling feud with Bobby Jaggers.

Spread Your Wings

After six months of shuffling back and forth between the Midwest and Georgia Championship Wrestling, Reed got his first big break when he made his way to Florida to wrestle for Eddie Graham’s Florida Championship Wrestling. At the time, Dusty Rhodes was on top in Florida and business was booming. “If you worked with Dusty,” said Reed, “you were on top. He was a helluva showman and just had a natural charisma.” It was in Florida where Reed adopted the name “Butch” on a full-time basis. Being thrown into the fire almost immediately, the 6’2”, 260 pound Reed held his own in tag matches against The Briscos and Funk Brothers and in singles matches against longtime CWF enhancement talent Steve Sybert.

Just over three weeks into what would become a 10-month stay in Florida, Reed found himself in an NWA World’s Heavyweight Title Match against “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. It wouldn’t be the only time, as the pair would wrestle for the title on dozens of occasions, including several 60 minute time limit draws. “I was fortunate enough to be one of the guys that could compete with Flair,” said Reed. “With my athleticism and his athleticism, we clicked.” During that same time, Reed wrestled Dory Funk, Jr. over the NWA International Heavyweight Title, holding the belt for 28 days in the summer of ‘82 (although the reign is not recognized by the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, for which the title was created).

So hot did Reed’s feud with Flair get that the NWA decided to take it on the road, pitting the two men against each other in Georgia, West Virginia, Ohio and Missouri (where Reed had begun making short returns to set up a feud with Harley Race). Again splitting time between the Midwest and Georgia, Reed continued his climb to the top of the industry, defeating Race for the NWA Missouri Heavyweight Title in November of ‘82 in St. Louis, then engaging in a heated feud with Buzz Sawyer in Georgia the following month.

By the Spring of ‘83, Reed had found a new home, this time wrestling for Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling. “Junkyard Dog and Ernie Ladd brought me to Mid-South,” said Reed. He was immediately put into the Mid-South North American Title Tournament, winning his first two matches against Super Destroyer and Jim Duggan, before losing a semifinal match against Mr. Olympia. Calling himself “Hacksaw”, he jumped into a slobberknocker of a feud against Duggan over who was the true owner of the nickname. Working as a babyface against Duggan, Ted DiBiase and Matt Borne (then calling themselves “The Rat Pack”), Reed got over huge with the Mid-South fanbase, picking up big wins all over Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.

His popularity as a babyface made his heel turn in the Summer of ‘83 all the more dastardly a move, especially considering it came at the expense of the man who brought him to Mid-South in the first place: Junkyard Dog.

Another One Bites The Dust

In June of 1983, there were few wrestlers walking the Earth more popular in their respective territory than was Junkyard Dog in Mid-South. Having headlined Mid-South’s biggest events and wrestled against the biggest heels of that era, JYD was an instant draw all across the Tri-State area of the United States. He wasn’t just cheered by Mid-South fans; JYD was loved. When the Fabulous Freebirds blinded him less than two years prior, Michael Hayes says it’s the closest to death he ever came in his wrestling career. 

“I’ve never felt my life more threatened than in that era with Junkyard Dog,” said Michael Hayes. “We had our cars destroyed, people would fill up water pistols with Liquid-Plumr and you would fight your way from the ring to the locker room. It wasn’t a question of if you were gonna get your ass whipped. The question was how badly and would you make it back to the locker room.”

“Our last night in the territory,” said Hayes, “undercover police officers found a man in the crowd with a Saturday night special and a bullet in it with the word “freebird” engraved on it.”

After JYD chose “Hacksaw” Duggan over “Hacksaw” Reed as his tag partner in a television match, Reed came to ringside and said, “Butch Reed is gonna start looking out for Butch Reed.” This brought Junkyard Dog to the ring where he was attacked by both Reed and Ted DiBiase. With Butch Reed viewed as something of a protege of Dog’s, his turning on him was met with vitriol and hostility. After challenging (and defeating) JYD for the Mid-South North American Title at Watts’ massive Superdome Extravaganza show on July 16th, he barely got out of town, saying, “I had to pull a pistol in New Orleans after I took the championship”.

“His Mid-South run was about as good as it can get,” expressed legendary Midnight Express manager Jim Cornette. “I had seen him in Florida, but by the time I got to Mid-South and saw him as a heel and saw the promos he was cuttin’, that was even better. He’d gotten really good in a short amount of time.”

Teaming up with Buddy Landel to make JYD’s life miserable, Butch Reed’s heat with the fanbase was white-hot, regardless of the town they worked. “I had Klansmen follow me out of town in Loranger, Louisiana,” said Reed, “and I popped that pistol again.” It wasn’t just the Klan with whom Reed had to concern himself. “I had to fight off more of my people than I did white folk.”

Reed and Landel regularly attacked Dog, doing things like rolling him in chicken feathers in an effort to make him look weak in the eyes of the fans. It only made them cheer JYD that much louder. “I had a great mentor in Ernie Ladd,” said Reed, “one of the biggest and baddest heels going in his day.” It wasn’t uncommon for Reed to have to fight his way from the ring back to the locker room during this era, saying, “you didn’t have time to play around with those fans; you got ‘em out of your way and kept going towards the dressing room.”

After holding the North American Title for almost 4 months, during which time he repeatedly turned away JYD and Jim Duggan, Reed finally dropped the championship to Magnum T.A. in a match with Dog as the special guest referee. The move was meant to give a young T.A. a boost in the eyes of the fans and by that point, Reed didn’t need the title as much as he needed to continue his heated rivalry with JYD. The two would feud in a variety of matches (Loser Painted Yellow, Dog Collar, Lumberjack, Street Fight) into early-’84 when a young babyface named Terry Taylor was added to the mix.

Don’t Stop Me Now

Still whitehot from his battles with Dog, Reed got Taylor over huge with the fans. Terry was the epitome of a “white meat babyface” and was easily viewed as a sympathetic character, especially when juxtaposed to Butch’s evil ways and cocky promos. Wrestling singles matches against Taylor while working in tag matches against The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express, Reed stayed at the top of the card as one of Mid-South’s biggest heels.

This remained the case when he and Junkyard Dog renewed their blood feud just prior to Dog leaving the territory for the WWF. With the territory’s biggest babyface gone, Watts used Skandor Akbar and his stable of heels to turn Reed back into a fan favorite. Often teaming with Jim Duggan (until he left for the WWF), Reed would remain in Mid-South for a few more years, winning every regional championship there was to win in the promotion while also feuding with the likes of Dick Murdoch and Dick Slater. He even picked back up with Ric Flair, wrestling a few more times for the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title (but coming up short thanks to Slater).

If You Can’t Beat Them

After an 8-month run in Central States Wrestling with Rufus R. Jones as a tag team called The Soul Patrol, “Hacksaw” joined the WWF in September of ‘86. Bleaching his hair blonde and calling himself “The Natural”, Butch returned to his heelish ways and feuded with WWF fan favorites Tito Santana, Billy Jack Haynes and Koko B. Ware (whom he beat at WrestleMania III).

A long, unfulfilling program with a returning “Superstar” Billy Graham led to discontentment and Reed wasn’t shy about letting his feelings be known. Graham was back from hip-replacement surgery and, though he ‘looked like a million bucks’, his body could no longer handle the constant in-ring beatings. After being injured by Reed, “The Dr. of Style” Slick and One Man Gang, Graham became Don Muraco’s manager as a way to get back at Reed. Unfortunately, this was yet another feud that barely got above the mid-card and “The Natural” had reached his end with WWF. “A lot of times, guys become unhappy and they let everybody know they’re unhappy,” said Bruce Prichard when asked about Reed’s time in World Wrestling Federation. “They mope around and can be their own worst enemy and in my opinion, that’s what happened with Butch. It got to the point where Vince said, ‘Butch, if you’re unhappy, maybe we need to part ways.’”

A year and a half into his run with the WWF, they would do just that, and Reed would make his way to NWA World Championship Wrestling for what would become his last big run in pro wrestling.

The Show Must Go On

Saddled with chronic knee issues, Butch again took the nickname “Hacksaw” and began working for Jim Crockett Promotions in early ‘89. Wrestling as part of Hiro Matsuda’s Yamasaki Corporation (a short-lived off-shoot of The Four Horsemen which boasted Reed, Ric Flair and Barry and Kendall Windham as members), Butch’s return run with the NWA was floundering.

Teaming up with Ron Simmons in June of ‘89, the duo formed the tag team Doom, and in very short order made their presence felt all across the NWA with their physical style and unnatural strength. With Woman as their manager they didn’t win many matches, but once Teddy Long came on as their new manager the duo found their groove. On May 19th, 1990 at Capitol Combat, an event likely best remembered as the night Robocop showed up at a WCW PPV, Doom won the NWA/WCW Tag Team Titles, defeating The Steiner Brothers. They would hold the belts for a record 281 days, defending then against a multitude of top tag teams, including The Steiners, The Southern Boys and The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express. After losing the titles to The Fabulous Freebirds, Reed turned on Simmons and the two feuded for a few months before “Hacksaw” left WCW for a short run in the USWA.

Less than a year after their implosion, Simmons defeated Big Van Vader for the WCW Heavyweight Title, becoming the first African American to be recognized as a wrestling world champion. Reed renewed his feud with the Junkyard Dog one last time, beating him for the USWA Unified World Heavyweight Title.

Hammer To Fall

Butch Reed was the total package but isn’t often remembered as one of the top heels of his era. Chalk it up to two factors: timing and an abundance of heels in his era whom we now view as some of the absolute best ever. Had he made it to the WWF a few years earlier when he was healthier, who knows what might’ve been. In an alternate wrestling universe, Butch Reed and Hulk Hogan probably spent 1985 “talkin’ ‘em into the building” on the national stage. One thing is certain: Butch Reed drew big money for virtually every promotion for whom he was employed and, ultimately, that’s the single most important thing when determining a pro wrestlers true greatness.

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When Old School Heat-Seeking Met Corporate America: The Night The Road Warriors Blinded Dusty Rhodes

I’ve been battered, I’ve been beat, I’ve been scraped and I’ve been cut. You should have made it a point to get both eyes, because when I get up in the morning and look at my children out of one eye, I think of you, Road Warriors! I’m gonna take a lot from you. My violence! My lightning bolt! My fire! My thunder! An eye…for an eye! – Dusty Rhodes

For much of their run throughout the ‘80s, The Road Warriors received deafening cheers from pro wrestling fans all across the globe, regardless of whether they were babyfaces or heels. There simply weren’t very many people walking the Earth that looked like Animal and Hawk and yoked up oddities that they were, fans turned out in droves to see them destroy the unlucky tag teams tasked to wrestle them.

The tag team’s late-’87 through mid-’88 feud with The Powers of Pain was a bloody, physical series of matches that tested them in ways Animal and Hawk had yet to be tested, for as big as The Road Warriors were, Warlord and Barbarian were every bit as physically massive and intimidating. The teams went back and forth for months with The Powers of Pain actually making The Road Warriors look mortal. At the apex of their rivalry, Warlord and Barbarian slammed Animal’s face into a stack of barbell plates during a bench press contest on TV, forcing him to wear a hockey mask to protect an injury to his eye socket.

Forcing Animal to wrestle injured, The Powers of Pain teamed with Ivan Koloff to win the NWA World Six Man Tag Titles in February of ‘88. They held the championships for four months, vacating them on June 12th and leaving for the WWF after learning they were set to face The Road Warriors in a series of Scaffold Matches.

With the Six Man Titles up for grabs, The Road Warriors teamed up with “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes and defeated the trio of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard in a July ‘88 Great American Bash Tour Cage Match. Two months later, Anderson and Blanchard jumped to the WWF after a dispute over money with Jim Crockett. With The Four Horsemen gutted and The Powers of Pain up north, Dusty (then the head booker of Jim Crockett Promotions) needed bad guys with some heat. He decided to turn The Road Warriors heel.

Pulling off a “double turn” in October of ‘88, Animal and Hawk defeated The Midnight Express for the NWA World Tag Titles. After spending three weeks defending the titles against “Sweet” Stan and “Beautiful” Bobby, The Road Warriors began a feud with Sting and Lex Luger. The problem was that fans simply did not want to boo The Legion of Doom. Looking to salvage the turn and get some heat on the team, Dusty came up with a plan that would not only (hopefully) light a fire under Animal and Hawk, but also give himself a nice babyface bump.

Face Of A Fighter

In most markets in 1988, Dusty Rhodes was still the “Son of a plumber” and was greeted with cheers from his adoring fans. Truthfully though, he was beginning to get somewhat of a mixed reaction in places like Philadelphia and Chicago. As more and more fans began to embrace the heels, “The American Dream” was at times viewed as passé. Additionally, Dusty’s “Midnight Rider” gimmick did not get over with fans the way he’d hoped.

Knee deep in a battle with the WWF for control of the wrestling world (and with WWF coming off a lackluster WrestleMania IV), Dusty was undoubtedly looking to grab a bigger piece of the market share and generate another money-making run at the top of the card by garnering some sympathy from fans. The formula was tried and true…

Write Your Own Song

During the November 26th broadcast of World Championship Wrestling, L.O.D. cut heel promos at ringside, during which Animal took the opportunity to call Rhodes out concerning a singles match they had coming up in December. Dusty walked out, cut a promo of his own and hopped in the ring, saying he didn’t want to wait to fight Animal. The Road Warriors returned to ringside and attacked Rhodes, using one of the spikes from their trademark shoulder pads to gouge out the right eye of “The American Dream”. It was a bloody, violent scene, made even worse by Dusty’s agonizing screams. Fans in attendance and watching at home were horrified at what they were seeing, but not nearly as horrified as the Standards & Practices office of Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. Having purchased the company from the Crockett Family in October, TBS had implemented a strict “no blood” policy on television.

This wasn’t Rhodes’ first run-in with a spike. Four years earlier while wrestling in Florida, Kevin Sullivan had hit Dusty with his Golden Spike, igniting a vicious series of matches that packed houses throughout the State and made Kevin Sullivan one of the most hated men in pro wrestling. Dusty was hoping to recapture similar magic in ‘88.

Truthfully, Rhodes might have gotten away with a slap on the wrist had he not previously been reprimanded for the very same issue. The problem was he had already ignored the policy once, just two weeks prior when he okayed Paul E. Dangerously hitting Jim Cornette in the head with his cellphone during The “Original” Midnight Express’ attack on the then-current incarnation of the same name. Cornette bled far more than planned and Dusty was admonished by corporate. When he again defied the powers that be, even though, according to Cornette, he bled “a fraction of the blood I bled” TBS was done with warnings.  

In Dusty’s defense, he was just looking at it from the perspective of heat-seeking. Get fans talking, you get fans attending live events and watching your television program. TBS, then the home of wholesome, family-friendly programming like The Andy Griffith Show and Charles in Charge, were concerned about offending parents and sponsors. “I think it was a combination of the way Dusty sold that spike and the way I was hammering the spike into him,” said Animal when asked about the incident on Ric Flair’s podcast in 2016. “People went, ‘holy crap, he’s trying to take his eye’, and Dusty was selling it like I was taking out his eye.”

“I never understood why he did it,” said legendary broadcaster Jim Ross. “He’d bled before on TV, but the rules had changed. I figure he was gonna run a bluff, see if he could get by with it, apologize and still get the benefit of it for the angle.” Unfortunately, Dusty wasn’t given much of a second chance (not then, anyway). Though he stayed on as a wrestler through the middle of January of the following year, he was removed as booker immediately after Starrcade on December 26th, 1988.

On The Road Again

Shortly after Dusty’s exit, George Scott was brought in as the booker. “He had to be fired after three months,” said Cornette, “because he tanked the ratings; the worst wrestling rating TBS had ever had since they’d started carrying wrestling 20 years before that.” Dusty, however, moved on to the WWF, donning the now-legendary yellow and black polka dots and feuding with fellow legendary names “Macho Man” Randy Savage and “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase. 

Though Ric Flair would take over booking (via a committee) and fix some of the post-Dusty issues, “Dream” would have the last laugh on WCW after being rehired in ‘91 as a member of the booking committee and part-time manager. “They never should’ve fired Dusty,” said Cornette. “TBS played catch-up for eight years (with WWF/E).”

Do Your Thing You’re A Cowboy

It could be argued that the firing was a blessing in disguise for Rhodes; that Dusty was fried and needed a break from booking. After all, he’d been at the helm of JCP/WCW for four years by that point. Perhaps the repeated open act of defiance was a product of self-sabotage in place of admitting he was mentally exhausted.

Hubris is certainly also an option as anyone who’s reached the heights of Dusty Rhodes is sure to have a healthy ego. You don’t reach out and ‘touch’ one side of a television screen without knowing in your heart that everyone on the other side of it is gonna touch the other side. Whatever the real reason for his bucking of the system, history remembers “The American Dream” (and the eye-gouging angle) far more positively than it does the years that followed his first exit from WCW.

While Rhodes is primarily remembered for his innovation, charisma and legendary promos, WCW has gone down in history as a promotion with plenty of highs, but entirely too many self-inflicted lows.

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The Weight Of Family Legacy: The All Too Short Life Of Mike Von Erich

Michael Hayes, I came here just for an interview, but I have my stuff in the back and if you want someone to wrestle, I’ll wrestle you. – Mike Von Erich

On June 18th, 1983, the legendary Kerry Von Erich married Catherine Murray. After spending their honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the couple returned to Dallas as Kerry was set to wrestle “Gorgeous” Jimmy Garvin and Michael “P.S.” Hayes on back-to-back nights. Von Erich was stopped by U.S. Customs on a routine check where 18 unmarked pills were found in his pants pockets. An additional search found Kerry had hidden around 300 more pills, 10 grams of marijuana and 6 ½ grams of an undetermined “blue and white powder” in the crotch of his pants. Though a federal crime, he was arrested and taken to a local jail where, miraculously, every bit of evidence against him disappeared.

18 months later, with no evidence with which to prosecute, all charges against Kerry were dropped.

Having built his family up on the foundation of “God, country and family values” in the eyes of the public, Fritz Von Erich wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of the family business, much less a silly drug bust.

Kerry had escaped prosecution, but this was the first sign that all was not well in Von Erich Camelot. Within four years, it had all fallen apart.

Neon Knights

In the early-to-mid-’80s, the only thing in North Texas that could top the unbridled love for the Von Erichs was that which was felt for the 2-time Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys. By the end of ‘83 though, the Cowboys would have finished their season by losing three consecutive games (including a Wildcard Playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams), signalling the end of an almost 2-decade run of NFL dominance. Dallas is a front-running town; there’s no such thing as a “lovable loser” in DFW. In need of a new “winner”, North Texas hitched its collective wagon to the Von Erichs. Fritz Von Erich, the patriarch of the family, was only too happy to oblige.

Having pushed his kids David, Kevin and Kerry to rock star status in North Texas, the territory (with plenty of help from The Fabulous Freebirds) exploded. The Von Erich boys couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed. Mall and amusement park appearances had to be shut down by the police because of the sheer mass of fans hoping to get a glimpse of the brothers. “The public saw these kids grow up,” said Michael Hayes, “and they were over like Rover.” The Von Erichs ate it up; they had a free pass just about anywhere in the DFW area (and took advantage of every last perk).

But with Fritz eyeing a World’s Title run for David, a fourth Von Erich brother was about to be brought into the family business.

Into The Void

One can’t help but wonder if Mike Von Erich should have ever even become a professional wrestler. He was quieter than his older brothers, more like his mom than his dad. Kerry had the looks of a Greek god, David had the charisma and smarts, Kevin had the boyish charm and athleticism. Mike was more reserved, quieter, and not nearly as big or athletic.

Michael Brett Adkisson, better known to the wrestling world as Mike Von Erich, made his debut in May of 1983 at the age of 19, wrestling in a 6-man Tag Match with brothers Kerry and Kevin against the hated Fabulous Freebirds. Six months later at WCCW’s Thanksgiving Star Wars, he made his singles match debut before a sellout Reunion Arena crowd of 19,200 people. That night, Mike defeated Skandor Akbar, the dastardly manager of Devastation, Incorporated. It may well have been one of the last times he felt like he could just be Michael Adkisson.

With his older brother David earmarked as a possible future NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion, Fritz needed Mike to step in and, in effect, take his place. The Von Erichs wrestled a ton of 6-man Tag Matches, but they also covered the massive Texas territory (which Fritz all but ran out of Dallas), as well as made frequent trips to Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida. If David was going to be getting the national push Fritz was banking on, he needed a third brother to keep the wheels turning locally. Less than two months later, however, everything would take a decided change for the worse.

Shock Wave

David Von Erich had been complaining of stomach pain. He also had an important trip to Japan that he couldn’t miss. The last thing the NWA wanted to have in a champion was a guy that couldn’t make his dates. “He told me he didn’t feel like going,” said Fritz, “but he said, ’Dad, when I get there. I’ll be okay.’ I said, ’David, that’s the way it is, son. You’ve got a contract. Those people over there have sold out a building to see a Von Erich.’ And he said, ’Dad, I’m going.’”

David headed off to Japan, despite Kevin reportedly asking his younger brother to reconsider. It would be the last time any of his family would see him alive. According to the Consular Report of Death provided by the U.S. embassy in Japan, the cause of death was acute enteritis, a rupturing of the intestines. Locker room chatter chalked it up to a drug overdose with Ric Flair going so far as to say when Bruiser Brody went into David’s room and discovered him dead, he flushed all his pills down the toilet so as to not stir up a hornet’s nest back home.

“Had David not died in Tokyo,” said Michael Hayes, “he would have been the next NWA Champion.”

Three days later before a shocked and saddened Dallas crowd, a 10-bell salute was carried out in honor of David. Two days after that, on February 15th, he was laid to rest. An estimated 5,000 people turned out to say their goodbyes. It remains one of the largest funeral gatherings in the history of the Metroplex.

On May 8th, 1984, before 41,000 raucous fans in Texas Stadium, Kerry won the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship from “Nature Boy” Ric Flair on the David Von Erich Memorial Show. “David was right there next to me,” said Kerry. It was a “feel good” moment the likes of which the family would never again celebrate. Just 19 days later, Kerry lost the title back to Flair in Japan. Truth be told, with whispers surrounding David’s death, Kerry’s narrow escape from the very real possibility of a federal drug conviction and the belief that Fritz slotted the strength of his territory ahead of the health of his boys (all of whom were perceived as good, but undisciplined kids), those inside the NWA weren’t interested in any sort of extended Von Erich run with the World’s Title.

Heaven And Hell

With his oldest boy gone, Fritz doubled down on that “ol’ time religion”, bringing in a Gary Holder, a minister who would come to be known as the official World Class chaplain. Perhaps Fritz’s intent was pure of heart, perhaps it was a last-ditch effort to salvage whatever perceived “purity” the Von Erichs family retained in the hearts and minds of the viewing public.

He also began the process of pushing Mike, who was now 20 years old and being counted on to give the promotion a much needed shot in the arm. Unfortunately, Mike simply wasn’t capable of carrying the load heaped upon him by his father. Though he was billed as 220 pounds, Mike was, in actuality, somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 pounds. He reportedly used dangerous amounts of steroids to attempt to add size to a frame simply not meant to carry the same amount of mass as his brothers.

Multiple victories over The Fabulous Freebirds, “Gorgeous” Jimmy Garvin and Jake “The Snake” Roberts, some of the best heels of the era were meant to push Mike up to the same level of his brothers, but not even an NWA American Heavyweight Title win over Gino Hernandez could cover up the fact that Mike simply didn’t possess the same talent and skill of Kevin, David and Kerry. It weighed heavy on him and he responded by acting increasingly erratic, his dabbling in pharmaceuticals becoming a full-on downward spiral into a dark addiction to prescription pain pills.

Seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction, Mike’s personality underwent a complete change. Once shy and kind, he became violent and out of control. In May of ‘85, Mike was charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault against Dr. Timothy Shepherd after an altercation in the First Texas Medical Center emergency room in Lewisville, TX. A Denton County judge acquitted him of both charges.

A chronic arm issue reared its ugly head in Tel Aviv, when Mike dislocated his shoulder taking a bad fall in the ring. Upon his return to Dallas, he had surgery on the shoulder and was released from the hospital. Shortly thereafter, he developed a terrible fever (ranging from 105 °F to 107 °F depending on who you ask) which was diagnosed as a blood infection called toxic shock syndrome. At one point, doctors at Baylor Medical Center didn’t think there was any way he’d live through the night and the hospital received an outpouring of well-wishes from concerned fans. Despite going into kidney failure, Mike did pull through, but not without irreparable damage to both his body and brain.

Sins Of The Father

Undoubtedly happy to still have his son (but still with a business to run), Fritz wasted no time in marketing Mike as “The Living Miracle”, saying he would definitely return to the ring better than ever and win the World’s Title for all his adoring fans. Mike was brought out during WCCW’s October Cotton Bowl Show to wave to the crowd of almost 25,000 fans. Now just 145 pounds and still suffering from the damage the high fever had done to his brain, wrestling writer Dave Meltzer called the display, “the most disgusting promotional stunt of the year,” going on to say, “there’s almost nothing about pro wrestling that really outrages me, except for the Von Erichs.”

Fritz brought in Pacific Northwest Champion Ricky Vaughn to take Mike’s place while he rehabbed. Billed as Lance Von Erich, the son of Waldo Von Erich and a cousin of the brothers, Vaughn failed to get over with the increasingly skeptical fanbase. It is considered to be one of the worst decisions Fritz made concerning his promotion as it was perceived by fans as the Von Erichs lying to them.

The added pressure to get back in the ring sent Mike deeper into depression. One month after the Cotton Bowl show, he totalled his car on Highway 121 in Lewisville, escaping with minor head injuries. Six months later in May of ‘86, he was arrested in Fort Worth and spent the night in jail after being charged with being drunk and disorderly.

Throughout it all, Fritz turned a blind eye. A television special was planned to reintroduce the Von Erichs. More importantly, the special was meant to showcase Mike’s efforts to get himself back in the ring. Apparently, the crew finally gave up on filming Mike after spending an hour trying to get a coherent interview from him. At that point, it is said he made his way over to a friend in the gym where they were filming and began loudly re-living the details of an apparent gang bang they’d participated in the night before. Mike Von Erich was spiraling.

Falling Off The Edge Of The World

When he returned to the ring in June of ‘86, virtually all the “feel good” had been sucked from the Sportatorium. Gino Hernandez had died from a drug overdose in February. That same month, World Class withdrew from the National Wrestling Alliance after being told the NWA Champion would no longer be making regular trips to Dallas. Additionally, Kerry had just had a terrible motorcycle accident that would ultimately result in the amputation of half his foot. Lastly, “Gentleman” Chris Adams, then a top babyface and contender for the World Class Heavyweight Title verbally assaulted a flight attendant and headbutted the co-pilot of an American Airlines flight headed back to Dallas from Puerto Rico. Adams was inebriated at the time and became enraged when told no more liquor would be sold on the flight. Kevin Von Erich was forced to restrain him after the incident, and five days later Adams defeated Rick Rude for the World Class Heavyweight Title, but on September 17th, a day after being convicted of misdemeanor assault Adams was forced to relinquish the championship. A little over a month later, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail and fined $500.

Events that routinely drew 4000 fans were now drawing 1000. The Texas oil business entered into a recession, which surely played a hand in the drop in attendance, but many believe it was the loss of faith in the Von Erichs themselves that kept fans from coming out in droves like they had just six months prior.

Regardless of the reasons, Mike took the drop in attendance personally and processed the pain through more run-ins with the law. “I think he always felt a lot more pressure on him,” said Kerry, “being in a family of overachievers. Here he was, with three older brothers who were never happy unless they did their best. Mike was thrown into that life in an awful hurry.” In February of ‘87, he paid a $900 fine to a Fort Worth man after kicking in his car door. Two months later, on April 11th, 1987, Mike was pulled over by police after he was seen driving erratically on Highway 377. A small quantity of marijuana and two prescription bottles containing 78 pills, including barbiturates, anxiety meds and painkillers, were found in his car.

Mike attempted to bribe the officer, then agreed to take a blood test. Though his blood-alcohol level of .05 percent was well under the legal limit of .10 percent, in concert with the 30 mg/L of ethchlorvynol (Placidyl), 1.1 mg/L of butalbital (a barbiturate), and 0.26 mg/L of diazepam (Valium) that was also found in his system, it all added up to a trip to the Denton County jail.

A family attorney was sent to the jail to post the $3,500 bond for drunk-driving and possession of controlled substances. It is believed that it is the last time anyone would see Mike alive. Unable to reach him for several days, his apartment was entered. There, a note was found. It read, simply, “PLEASE UNDERSTAND I’M A FUCK-UP! I’M SORRY.” Along the side of the note it read, “I love U Kerry, Kevin & your families”.

Despite the letter, despite Mike’s abandoned car being spotted at the entrance of a park near Lewisville Lake, despite a second note inside the car that read, “Mom and Dad, I’m in a better place. I’ll be watching,” Fritz went into damage control, telling fans he suspected “foul play”. A few hours after that statement, an officer and his K-9 dog located Mike’s body. He was found in his sleeping bag in a heavily-wooded area. Justice of the Peace Hubert Cunningham described the scene as “very peaceful”. Though no drugs were found, an autopsy revealed the official cause of death to be from acute Placidyl intoxication.

Mike Von Erich was just 23 years old.

Lonely Is The Word

It’s impossible to pin everything that transpired on Fritz, but it’s impossible to not allocate him his fair share of the blame. When asked in a D Magazine interview whether he believed he’d been too hard on his kids, Fritz responded in typically Fritz fashion.

“Absolutely hell no,” he said. “One time Kerry yelled at me that he shouldn’t get a beating, so I tore his butt off even harder.” As tough as he was on his kids, he loved them just as intensely. Still, one can’t help but wonder, had Mike Von Erich gone into any other walk of life besides pro wrestling, might Kevin, the lone surviving member of the family, still have at least one brother left with whom to share the memories of so many crazy times.

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The Death Of Ray Gunkel & How It Catapulted Ox Baker Into Pro Wrestling Infamy

On June 30th, 1972, Ray Gunkel climbed into the Municipal Auditorium ring in Atlanta, Georgia to wrestle Ox Baker for the NWA Brass Knuckles Championship. He supposedly wasn’t even meant to be in the match. Four days prior, Baker had won the title from Beppo Mongol (who would go on to greater fame as Nikolai Volkoff). The following day, Beppo’s manager, Tom Renesto, went on television to announce his wrestler was angered at being forced to defend the title and, upon losing, had packed his bags and left the territory for Texas. There would be no return match between Ox Baker and Beppo Mongul.

Having spent a decade wrestling at or near the top of the card in Georgia, Ray Gunkel was a household name and a multi-time champion. He’d had wars with some of the biggest names in the sport of professional wrestling, brawling with the likes of Lou Thesz, Gene and Ole Anderson, Buddy Colt and a young Nick Bockwinkel.

Gunkel was also the co-owner of Georgia Championship Wrestling and wasn’t gonna let anything get in the way of business, much less a disgruntled wrestler. The title was held up and a match was booked between Gunkel and Baker to determine who would carry the championship. That Friday night, before a raucous crowd intent on seeing Gunkel take it to the dastardly Baker, the longtime Georgia wrestler came away with the win, defeating the owner of the “Heart Punch”, one of the most devastating finishing moves in wrestling at that time.  

Gunkel’s reign with the NWA Brass Knuckles Title would last just two weeks with another man famous for using the Heart Punch, Stan Stasiak, winning the title on July 14th. Though Gunkel no longer carried the hardware, his feud with Ox Baker remained hot and the men met once again on August 1st in Savannah, Georgia. Unfortunately, it was last time Gunkel would step into a wrestling ring.

After a 10 minute brawl in which Gunkel again came away the victor, he died in the locker room. An autopsy revealed the former All-American wrestler had been living with undiagnosed arteriosclerosis. This hardening of his heart’s arteries, coupled with Baker’s Heart Punch (or, “Hurt Punch” as Ox would rename it after Stasiak took issue with him using his finisher) proved to be a lethal combination. The medical examiner said the punch created a hematoma. From that a blood clot formed. When the clot moved into Gunkel’s heart, he fell out of the chair in which he was sitting, dying instantly. “If a big man had shoved him, he couldn’t have moved any faster,” said fellow promoter Aaron Newman who was sitting next to Gunkel at the time of his passing. “He straightened out and that’s all there was.”

Ray Gunkel was just 48 years old. Ox Baker had just become the most infamous pro wrestler in the world.

The Battle Of Atlanta

The promoter’s death resulted in the complete upheaval of the Georgia Territory. His wife, Ann, made clear her intentions to carry on running the promotion. Under the assumption she would simply take Ray’s place in ABC Booking, the entity under which Georgia Championship Wrestling existed, she instead found herself shut completely out of the business. Fellow co-owner and former wrestler Paul Jones (Andrew Lutzi, not Paul Frederik who would use the name from ‘61-’91) had no desire to carry on with Ann in the mix and nearing retirement, made a deal to effectively sell out to Bills Watts. Watts renamed the company Mid-South Wrestling, while Ann Gunkel started an all-new promotion call the All-South Wrestling Alliance.

For a time, it appeared as though Ann Gunkel had gotten the best of Watts and Jones, as she not only managed to keep the TV time slot on WTBS previously negotiated by her late husband, but also most of the talented roster of wrestlers. Then, Jim Barnett was brought in to run Mid-South, all but killing All-South Wrestling. Barnett, the owner of several territories in Australia, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio used his experience and pull to shut All-South out of the local arenas. With no dates to work, wrestlers defected to Mid-South. By the end of the Summer of ‘74, Ann Gunkel’s promotion was dead.

“I Like To Hurt People”

After Ray Gunkel’s death, Ox Baker and promoters alike took to marketing the wrestler as a killer. In this pre-internet era, it was an easy sell, especially considering that just over one year prior, on June 13th, 1971, Alberto Torres had died after wrestling Baker. Granted, his cause of death was a ruptured appendix which Torres had allowed to go untreated, but neither Baker nor the wrestling promoters booking him were going to let a little thing like facts get in the way of money.

With Ox now labeled as a man capable of killing your favorite babyface, his career exploded. Teaming up with Skandor Akbar, the pair defeated “Bullet” Bob Armstrong and Dick Steinborn for the NWA Georgia Tag Team Titles. He then beat Steinborn in early ‘73 in a singles match for the NWA Georgia Television Title. Working his way across the U.S., Baker hit territory after territory, wrestling fellow top draws like Bulldog Brower, Larry “The Ax” Hennig and Andre the Giant. But it would be in Cleveland, Ohio on January 31st, 1974 against yet another main event star where Ox would truly come to understand just how dangerous his heat-seeking could be.

Cleveland Is The Reason

“Big Cat” Ernie Ladd was famous all across the United States, not only because of his main event matches against the likes of Dick the Bruiser and “Superstar” Billy Graham, but also for his 8 All-star seasons in the American Football League. His ability to be either an evil heel or a beloved babyface made him a big draw throughout professional wrestling. With close to 50% of Cleveland being made up of African Americans, and with so few black men being painted as good guys during that era of wrestling, “Big Cat” was “must see” anytime he came to town.

On this night, a month after entering into a bloody feud with Johnny Powers, Ladd was on the verge of putting an end to their rivalry. Caught in Power’s finishing hold, the figure-four “Powerlock”, Ladd began to break the hold. Seeing this, Ox Baker ran to the ring, leveling Ernie with one of his heart punches. When Ladd didn’t immediately fall, Baker hit him again. And again. With each stomp or “Hurt Punch”, Ladd’s body would convulse, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

Ox Baker was going to kill Ernie Ladd and they had to do something to stop him!

The legendary Jim Cornette recounts Ernie Ladd’s telling of the tale: “The people were hot and as Ernie was laying there, he saw it and he felt it. It was going too far and he looked up and said, ‘Ox, the natives are getting restless,’ and Ox would say, ‘just a little more heat! Just a little more heat, Ernie’ and hit him with another “Hurt Punch”. Then Ernie sees the first guy pick up a chair and says, ‘Ox, the natives are getting restless! Leave with your heat,’ and Ox said, ‘Just a little more heat,’ and hits him with another heart punch. That’s when the first chair comes flying over the top rope.”

At this point, Ox realized the situation had gotten out of hand. Johnny Powers was also aware of what was happening and the men got back to back to fend off the barrage of flying chairs and fans trying to fight through the police to get in the ring. Mace and nightsticks were employed to try and control the riot, but with so many people in attendance, the police were only making small dents in the surge. The ring announcer hopped into the ring to help fend off the crowd and the flying chairs.

“Finally,” said Cornette, “the babyfaces hit the ring and that was the old deal where you fight the heels back (to the locker room). The theory is that the fans will not attack the heels because the babyfaces are doing it for ‘em. This did not exactly bear fruit that night because Powers saw an opening and took it, doing a 40-yard dash (to the back).” 

Seeing Powers take off, Baker followed closely behind. Unfortunately for Ox, he was not nearly as swift of foot. As he reached the hockey boards that separated the crowd from the back of the arena, a fan leveled Baker in the back of the head with a folding chair. Ox escaped, but hardly unharmed. “Ox had that scar for the rest of his life,” said Cornette. “He looked like he’d had a lobotomy.”

“There were chairs everywhere,” said Baker. “It was a real scene. Nobody realized in the back, they chased me upstairs with knives. They were going to cut me.”

Ox later said once he got to the back of the building, he opened the door to what he thought would be a safe place. What he found on the other side of the door was fellow wrestler Gypsy Joe and an unnamed woman. After relaying what had happened, Gypsy pulled out a knife of his own, offering it to Ox for protection. Said Baker, “I was more scared of his knife than I was theirs!” Read the full, insane story at SteelBeltWrestling.com

The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright

Ox spent the next several years capitalizing on his heat. Wrestling against Larry Hennig in Minnesota, Jack Brisco and Dusty Rhodes in Florida and even renewing his feud with Ernie Ladd, Baker was a top draw wherever he went. “Dusty and I sold out 12 weeks,” said Baker. “After I left Florida, they didn’t sell out for another year.” 

After losing a series of matches against Grizzly Smith (the father of Jake “The Snake” Roberts) in Florida, he made his way to Texas to work the massive territory run out of Fritz Von Erich’s Dallas office. Baker beat up on a young Gino Hernandez in Fort Worth, took Jimmy Snuka’s NWA Texas Heavyweight Title away from him in Houston, then defeated Captain USA (the future Big John Studd) for the NWA American Heavyweight Title, setting up a showdown against the NWA World’s Champion, Harley Race. 

On October 21st, 1977, before a capacity crowd in the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston, Texas, Baker came up short against Race, but the fact he had the match at all was proof of just how big he’d gotten in the sport of professional wrestling.

After finishing up his time in Texas, including a Claw vs. Heart Punch Match against Fritz Von Erich in Dallas, Baker became a sort of special attraction a la Andre the Giant, working short stints all over the world. He’d brawl with The Sheik in Detroit for a few weeks, then head to Tennessee and Alabama to wrestle for NWA Mid-America, followed by a stay overseas in Australia for Ron Miller’s World Championship Wrestling. From there he might wrestle in New Zealand before finding his way back to Texas for another set of matches against the Von Erichs, followed by a run in Oklahoma and Louisiana for Bill Watts. 

Never staying in one place too often prevented fans from tiring of Baker’s limited in-ring abilities, allowing him to make use of his best attributes: his promo and his look.

Hollywood Ending

The latter of said attributes helped get Ox Baker into Hollywood and between ‘80-’87 he acted in three movies, including John Carpenter’s classic “Escape from New York”. During rehearsals for the movie, Baker gave Kurt Russell’s stuntman Dick Warlock a beating. When filming began, Warlock offered Russell the following words prior to their fight scene: “good luck.”

Director John Carpenter enjoyed working with the wrestler, saying, “Ox Baker was very kind to me. He was a great ‘old school’ wrestler–the kind I grew up watching.”

Around this same time, Baker also had a hilarious moment with Bob Barker on The Price Is Right. His brush with Hollywood didn’t slow his wrestling schedule, however, as Ox remained a regular on the road through the Summer of ‘88.

The Legacy Of The Ox

After a career in which he’d turned himself into one of the most hated heels of the era, Baker finally walked away from the ring, returning only sporadically for special events and one-offs. 

He opened Ox Baker’s Wrestling School and became a respected trainer, having a hand in teaching Mark Calaway (The Undertaker) and Bryan Clark (who wrestled as Adam Bomb in WWF and Wrath in WCW). Baker also put out a cookbook, two documentaries on his life and returned to Hollywood, filming two more movies before his death, Chilling Visions: Five Senses of Fear and Pinwheel (which was released in 2017).

Ox Baker was never going to be confused with Lou Thesz or Pat Patterson. He was, however, the prototypical pro wrestling monster: a slow-moving, deliberate heat-seeker of a vicious heel with the gift of gab. He won championship gold all across the U.S., holding versions of the Heavyweight Title in nine different wrestling promotions while wrestling “on top” for close to two decades.

Baker passed away in 2014 at the age of 80, leaving behind a colorful legacy of brutality all across the pro wrestling landscape. Said legendary wrestling writer Bill Apter after learning of Baker’s death, “Ox was one of the sweetest people you would ever want to meet.”

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From Hollywood Blond To Fabulous Freebird: The Story Of Buddy “Jack” Roberts

My brother Buddy Roberts is 240 pounds of hot stuff and he don’t stop ’till he gets enough! – Michael “P.S.” Hayes

As an unabashed supporter of the beloved Von Erichs wrestling family when I was a youngster, I, by default despised The Fabulous Freebirds. As I got older, I learned to appreciate what each members of that faction brought to the table, but at the time the last things I cared about were Terry Gordy’s prodigious wrestling ways and Michael “P.S.” Hayes’ seemingly endless bucket of charisma. I just wanted to punch them in the nose. The target of my 8 year old violence, of course, included Buddy Roberts, a drowned rat lookin’ sumbitch who came off as equal parts bad ass and chicken shit.

The Hollywood Blonds

Dale Hey aka Buddy Roberts broke into the wrestling business in 1965. Trained by the legendary Ivan Koloff and wrestling under the name Dale Valentine (Johnny Valentine’s little brother), Roberts worked the undercards for several years, gaining experience in a variety of territories.

In April of 1970, after a six month stay in Minnesota with Verne Gagne’s AWA, Bill Watts brought the 22-year-old Roberts to his Tri-State territory as a replacement for Jack Donovan. Watts had an idea for a tag team, but a dispute with Donovan over money left him a man short. With Roberts in tow, Watts teamed him up with Jerry Brown, a veteran journeyman looking to finally break big after several years of relatively little success. The promoter called the duo The Hollywood Blonds and in very short order, they became the most hated men in the territory, battling the likes of fan favorite Danny Hodge and Billy Red Lyons. 

By 1972, The Blonds had added Sir Oliver Humperdink as their manager, only increasing their heat with fans. The tag team would last through the end of 1979, enjoying 12 regional tag title runs for NWA Tri-State, NWA Hollywood, NWA Florida, CWA, Mid-Atlantic and NJPW. When asked about the pair, legendary commentator Jim Ross summed them up rather succinctly, saying, “The Hollywood Blonds of Roberts and Brown were one of the most underrated tag teams ever in the business.”

Going Solo

Nearing the end of his run with Brown, Roberts all branched out as a singles competitor, wrestling in the CWF and feuding with legendary names like Jerry Brisco, Rocky Johnson and Pedro Morales (against whom he unsuccessfully challenged for the NWA Florida Southern Heavyweight Title).

After one of his final runs in NJPW as a member of The Hollywood Blonds, Roberts moved on to Texas, once again assuming the name Dale Valentine and getting himself into blood feuds with Al Madril, Bruiser Brody and Austin Idol over the NWA Texas Heavyweight Title. It was during this time he had the first of what would become a historic number of wars with The Von Erichs.  

The Freebirds Are Born

In 1980, Bill Watts would again give Roberts a helping hand up the next rung of the ladder to superstardom. Having already paired 20-year-old Michael Hayes and 18-year-old Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy together as The Fabulous Freebirds, Watts brought Roberts into the mix with the hopes of maximizing each man’s talents. Gordy and Buddy were both brilliant wrestlers; Hayes, however, left much to be desired in the ring. What “P.S.” did possess though was the gift of gab and an innate ability to infuriate the crowd with little more than a sideways glance. With “Bam Bam” and Buddy “Jack” (so named because of his love of Jack Daniels) in the ring and Hayes at ringside, The Freebirds exploded onto the wrestling scene. 

Taking on wrestlers like Ted DiBiase, Buck Robley and Junkyard Dog, The Freebirds became the hottest heel faction in the territory. When they blinded JYD, the three men legitimately feared for their lives. “I’ve never felt my life more threatened than in that era with Junkyard Dog,” said Michael Hayes. “We had our cars destroyed, people would fill up water pistols with Liquid-Plumr and you would fight your way from the ring to the locker room. It wasn’t a question of if you were gonna get your ass whipped. The question was how badly and would you make it back to the locker room.” During their short run, the trio carved out a path of destruction over four States, winning the Mid-South Tag Team Titles and holding them for three months before losing them and a series of Loser Leaves Town Matches that resulted in the trio moving on to Georgia Championship Wrestling. “Our last night in the territory,” said Hayes, “undercover police officers found a man in the crowd with a Saturday night special and a bullet in it with the word “freebird” engraved on it.”

The Freebirds made an immediate impact in Georgia, winning the NWA Georgia Tag Team Titles in a match against The Assassins and Mr. Wrestling I and Mr. Wrestling II in October of 1980. After a controversial double disqualification in a match between Austin Idol and Kevin Sullivan resulted in titles being stripped away from The Freebirds, they would defeat The Brisco Brothers and the team of Robert Fuller and Stan Frazier in a tag team tournament to reclaim the then renamed NWA National Tag Team Titles. Said longtime wrestling writer Bill Apter, “The Freebirds were sports entertainment before Vince McMahon ever had the thought in his mind.”

Roberts would go off on his own shortly after the win, even spending some time away from pro wrestling. Hayes and Gordy continued to work as The Fabulous Freebirds for the remainder of their 2-year run in Georgia. The trio again met up in late-’82, again working for Bill Watts as part of his Superdome Extravaganza show in New Orleans. By December of ‘82, The Freebirds were all in Dallas and business was most definitely about to pick up.

Badstreet

The Von Erichs were not only superheroes in the eyes of the Texas fan base, they were also “our boys”. Young fans loved them because of their looks, muscles and rock star appeal. Older fans loved them because their father, Fritz Von Erich, was wise to present his family as a wholesome, churchgoing lot. All fans simply assumed David, Kevin and Kerry were all destined for NWA Heavyweight Title stardom. The problem the boys had was they didn’t have anyone to work with in Dallas. They would continually chew up and spit out everyone brought into the territory to wrestle them, their stiff wrestling style the usual culprit.

In The Freebirds, the Von Erichs finally had guys both willing to take an ass kicking, but also dish one back out. Texans are a different sort of folk and for all the oil money and conservatism, at our core we’re basically still just a bunch of grimy people willing to fight you as quickly as we are to give you a home cooked meal and the shirt off our back. So, when Terry Gordy slammed that cage door on Kerry Von Erich’s head Christmas Day 1982 in front of 18,000 strong in Reunion Arena, every last Texan wrestling fan was ready to die to get our hands on those Freebird bastards! It was that real.

Instantly becoming the hottest feud in pro wrestling, the Von Erichs and The Freebirds went to war, and for the next 3 and a half years left buckets of blood all across the State of Texas. At the center of it all was Buddy “Jack” Roberts, the one member of the Freebirds without a single redeeming quality. Even while hating his guts, a fan could still find some humor in Michael Hayes. In Terry Gordy, you had a guy who almost came off like a big puppy dog trying to figure out the size of his paws. Where Buddy Roberts was concerned, however, there simply wasn’t a thing in the world to like about him.

He only amped up our hatred of him in ‘83 when he got himself into a dust up with “Iceman” King Parsons, cutting the hair of the fan favorite. Their feud culminated in a Hair vs. Hair Match with Roberts attempting to cheat to secure the win, only to have Parsons wrestle away the jar “Freebird Hair Removal Cream” and apply it to Buddy “Jack”. You would think the embarrassment of having his hair fall out would have satiated fans, but when Roberts secured a wig to his head with boxing headgear, thereby preventing us from basking in his shame, it only served to make us hate him (and The Freebirds) that much more.

Wearing Out Their Welcome At Every Stop

The Freebirds territory hopped for most of their run together. Dallas was certainly where they were the hottest, but they also had short runs in the WWF, AWA and CWF, always returning to Texas to pick right up where they left off with the Von Erichs.

By the summer of ‘86, however, Buddy and Co. saw the writing on the wall in Dallas. David Von Erich had passed away in ‘84, Gino Hernandez died of an apparent overdose in February of ‘86, the Lance Von Erich experiment was failing miserably and business was down. The Freebirds made the jump to Mid-South, reuniting, once again, with Bill Watts, diving headfirst into a whole new series of feuds with fresh opponents like The Rock N’ Roll Express and The Fantastics. Roberts also began wrestling more in a singles capacity, winning the UWF Television Title from Terry Taylor on two occasions over a year-long feud that proved to be one of the hottest in the territory.

In late-’87, The Freebirds returned to World Class, but their union was short. Roberts and Gordy turned on Hayes, who turned babyface and teamed up with the Von Erichs against his former Freebird brothers and Roberts’ former foe-now-friend, “Iceman” King Parsons. Buddy also began dialing back things in the ring, bringing in the Samoan SWAT Team and acting as their manager in matches against the Von Erichs and the tag team comprised of Michael Hayes and Steve “Do It To It” Cox. “You have your list of people you’ve learned from coming up in this industry and Buddy took us under his wing,” said SWAT Team member Rikishi Fatu. With Roberts as their manager, the SST were a dominant force, winning the World Class Tag Team Titles three times and the Texas Tag Team Titles once before leaving for the NWA’s Jim Crockett Promotions. 

By late-’88, Gordy and Hayes had also left World Class for Jim Crockett Promotions. Roberts, 13 years older than Hayes (and 15 years older than Gordy) decided to stay behind in Dallas with his wife Janice, working another five months before retiring in May of ‘89.

Free As A Bird

In Buddy Roberts, The Fabulous Freebirds had the glue that held the whole faction together. Michael Hayes was a loudmouth and Terry Gordy was a wrestling prodigy, but “Jack” was the real heat magnet. He bumped around the ring with reckless abandon, earned every last bit of vitriol from the fans (the hard way) and was likely the heart and soul of The Freebirds. Buddy’s viciousness gave bite to everything Hayes and Gordy did. Without him, the faction wasn’t the same.

“He was the guy who took the beating,” said Mick Foley after learning of Roberts’ passing in 2012. “He was the guy who dropped the fall, but somehow maintained his heat. He would do anything to make his matches exciting – including the rumored dropping of the first elbow off the ring apron. He could make anyone and anything around him look better. If someone around him was bad, he could make them look good. If they were good, he could make them look great. And if something was great – like The Fabulous Freebirds – he could help turn greatness to legend.”

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Pomp And Circumstance: The Brilliance Of Gorgeous George

I was 11 years old in 1988. I’d become a bit too much for my mom to deal with, so she shipped me off to live with my dad for awhile. By that time, I was already knee deep in my wrestling fandom and was a regular TV viewer of WWF, NWA, AWA and WCCW. Kerry and Kevin Von Erich were my heroes.

One evening, my dad and were wandering through the local Winn Dixie doing our weekly grocery shopping when I stumbled across some wrestling VHS tapes, one of which was an AWA tape with the Road Warriors on the box. The other VHS was called Wrestling’s Greatest Villains: The Golden Years and had a list of a bunch of black & white matches from the fifties and sixties on the box’s cover. I wanted the Road Warriors tape. My dad convinced me to also get the tape of the black & white wrestling, saying he’d watch it with me. I’d never known him to be a wrestling fan; him saying he’d sit down and check it out with me sounded pretty cool. We grabbed the tapes and headed for the check-out line.

After we got the groceries put away and fixed a couple of plates for dinner, we sat down in front of the TV and put his tape in the VCR. For the next 80+ minutes, I was given a glimpse of professional wrestling from a bygone era. That night, for the very first time, I was treated to matches by Killer Kowalski, Freddie Blassie and Buddy Rogers, but it was the appearance of Gorgeous George that left me captivated. It certainly didn’t hurt that my dad’s face lit up the second he saw him.

A Star Is Born

George Raymond Wagner was born March 24, 1915 in Butte, Nebraska to a poor farming family. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, George dropped out of Milby High School in Houston, TX and worked various jobs to help support the family. He also began competing in the carnival circuit, earning a reported 35 cents per wrestling victory.

By 1932 and at the age of 17, Wagner went to work for promoter Morris Seigel, wrestling for the next 9 years under his real name. While working in Portland in 1938, Wagner won his first championship, the Pacific Northwest Lightweight Championship. It was the first of four reigns he had with the title, carrying it for close to 21 months between May of ‘38 and November of ‘43.

In 1941, the name and character Gorgeous George were born. Having married Betty Hanson in 1939 in a Portland, Oregon wrestling ring (then taking the show on the road, “marrying” several times more during wrestling shows), George was looking for something to take his persona to a new level. According to Betty, said something took place after George overheard a woman in the wrestling crowd exclaim, “oh, isn’t he gorgeous!” Wagner asked Betty’s mother, Elsie Hanson, a talented seamstress, to make him some extravagant robes. He grew out his hair, bleached it blonde and curled it, putting it up with gold plated bobby pins (or, as he called them, “Georgie Pins”).

George then put together an elaborate ring entrance that not only included the throwing of flowers, but also a manservant (Jeffries) to disrobe him and carry his bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume to the ring and a beautiful woman (his wife, Betty) to spray the perfume around the ring. When the referee would check George for illegal foreign objects (see what I did there), he would recoil in horror, shouting, “get your filthy hands off me!” Gorgeous George all but created pageantry in professional wrestling. 

Hollywood

Wrestling all along the West Coast and thanks in no small part to the post-World War II television era, Gorgeous George became one of the most recognizable figures in the United States. It has been said he did more for establishing television as a viable entertainment option than any other person in history. So popular did he become with the American public, it is believed he was, by the end of the ‘40s, the highest paid athlete in the world.

With fame came a responsibility to his character and the wrestling business, one George took very seriously. As author Joe Jares wrote in his book Whatever Happened To Gorgeous George?, “On camera, in the ring or wherever, he usually stayed in character, with a little put-on routine for every occasion. Performing the Gorgeous George kiss, he would gallantly take a lady’s hand and bend down to touch his lips to it, but he would turn his wrist and kiss the back of his own hand instead.  He would sit in the lobby of a hotel and shriek until the manager had brand-new sheets and pillowcases put on his bed, then he’d have his room sprayed by his valet. He would pull the same sort of act in restaurants, even to the point of having other customers sprayed.”

Holding the Los Angeles version of the World Heavyweight Championship for 699 days between March ‘47 through February ‘49, “The Beautiful Bicep” turned pro wrestling into one of the most popular sports in North America. After losing the championship to Enrique Torres, George went on the road, wrestling in territories all across the U.S. and Canada, including for Sam Muchnick in Missouri, Nick Gulas and Roy Welch in NWA Mid-America and Frank Tunney’s Maple Leaf Wrestling in Toronto. It was actually in Toronto when Gorgeous George had what is, perhaps, his most famous match: a Hair Match versus Whipper Billy Watson. On March 12. 1959 in the Maple Leaf Gardens, 20,000 people saw George’s golden locks shaved from his head. Millions more watched on television from the comfort of their living room.

Peeling Away The Facade

Doctors forced George to slow things down in the early-’60s. He returned to California and bought a cocktail lounge and a 195 acre turkey ranch. In his final match, he again lost his hair, this time to The Destroyer in a Mask vs. Hair Match in the Olympic Auditorium.

His retirement was hardly a smooth one, as financial troubles and the divorce from his second wife led George down a lonely path. Over the years, “The Sensation of the Nation” had developed a drinking problem that only worsened in the final years of his life. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in ‘62, the main contributing factor to his retirement. Less than a year and a half later, on December 24, 1963, he suffered a massive heart attack. Two days later, Gorgeous George was dead. He was just 48 years old.  

Decades Ahead Of His Time

“The Model” Rick Martel, “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, Goldust, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and scores of other wrestlers all gleaned parts of their respective gimmicks from the trailblazing ways of the “Toast of the Coast”. Randy Savage’s theme song? It’s called “Pomp and Circumstance” and it was used by Gorgeous George 40 years prior to Savage’s first appearance in the WWF.

Muhammad Ali said on many occasions that through watching Gorgeous George he developed his persona of a loud, brash, fighter who could “talk ‘em into the building”. It is said that George once told Ali, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.” Even the Godfather of Soul, Mr. “Please Please Please” himself, James Brown, once said Gorgeous George’s bigger than life presence “helped create the James Brown you see on stage”. Imagine directly influencing two of the coolest men (and arguably the greatest in their respective fields) to ever walk God’s green Earth. 

Gorgeous George was pop culture before pop culture was even a thing.

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From The Gridiron To The Squared Circle: The Warring Ways Of Wahoo McDaniel

Tully Blanchard, I can beat you. You’re the National Heavyweight Champion, you’re coming to Cincinnati and I know you and JJ Dillon have something cooked up, but I’m just gonna go out there and do what I do best: win matches! – Wahoo McDaniel

Training Camp had just started for the New York Jets and their young rookie, quarterback Joe Namath, the first overall pick in the American Football League Draft. The man who would become “Broadway Joe” was in camp following a 29-4 career in Alabama, lucrative contract in hand. Several of the veteran players weren’t thrilled about the rookie’s payday. Included in this gaggle of jealous veterans was 5-year pro football linebacker and resident tackling madman, Wahoo McDaniel.

Catching Namath on the warm-up track, McDaniel tripped the young QB, sending him sprawling. Namath, to his credit, simply dusted himself off and continued his running. Even as a rookie, Joe had already learned an important lesson: Wahoo McDaniel was not the man to mess with, regardless of who was right or wrong.

From Humble Beginnings

Edward McDaniel grew up in Bernice, Oklahoma and was a handful from the very beginning. A fighter even during his early years, McDaniel wasn’t the conforming type and looking back on his life, it’s clear a “normal” job was never gonna work for him. When his family moved to Midland, Texas during his early teen years, Wahoo (a nickname he got from his father, whom everyone called “Big Wahoo”) got heavily into sports, playing baseball, football and wrestling. One of his middle school baseball coaches was actually George H.W. Bush, the future 41st President of the United States.

Bud Wilkinson recruited Wahoo to the University of Oklahoma where he played 31 games between ‘57-’59 as a 200 pound punter, wide receiver and running back. During that time he also set the record for the longest punt in Oklahoma Sooners history, a 91 yarder. His wild ways continued throughout college, and was regularly caught out drinking and partying well past curfew. Antics aside, Wahoo still managed to letter in both football and wrestling, despite his claims of not being “a very good rassler in college”.

Speaking on McDaniel’s wild ways, legendary pro wrestling manager Jim Cornette recounted a now famous tale, saying, “On a bet, he ran from Norman to Oklahoma City, which is like 26 miles, and followed that up by drinking a quart of motor oil to win another bet.” 

New York, New York

His hard-charging nature got him drafted in the 2nd round of the AFL Draft by the Los Angeles Chargers and he spent the first of his eight pro seasons with the Houston Oilers, winning the AFL Championship in 1960. He then spent ‘61-’63 with the Denver Broncos before joining the New York Jets via a nine player trade in ‘64. Then-Broncos head coach Jack Faulkner told Wahoo, “if he went to New York and prospered, he’d make a fortune”. With the Jets, he became an instant celebrity, due in no small part to the pro wrestling-style interviews he gave reporters. Truth be told, the hard-hitting linebacker arrived in the Big Apple at the perfect time. Former New York Giants great and future hall of famer, linebacker Sam Huff, had just been traded to the Washington Redskins. When asked about Huff leaving town, Wahoo went full “pro wrestler”, saying, “This place ain’t big enough for me and Huff. It’s lucky for him he moved.”

The gritty New York football fan, took immediately to Wahoo mouthing off then backing it up by flying around with reckless abandon, and took to chanting his name after he’d make a tackle. The Jets PA announcer picked up on the connection between McDaniel and the fanbase. Instead of “Tackle made my McDaniel,” the call became, “Tackle made by…guess who?”, giving the fans the opportunity to shout “WAHOO!”

McDaniel’s growing fame in New York not only made him more recognizable among football fans. In 1961, Wahoo had taken up pro wrestling training as a way to stay in shape in the offseason while also putting a few extra dollars in his pocket. Said Wahoo, “Jim Barnett, who books rasslers out of Indianapolis, called me and said he wanted an Indian rassler. So, I met with him, liked the deal and now I’m a pro rassler.”

By ‘64, and at the height of his fame in pro football, the proud member of the Choctaw-Chickasaw tribe began commanding higher payouts at wrestling shows, working for Vince McMahon, Sr. in the WWWF and wrestling against the likes of Boris Malenko and Dr. Jerry Graham.

Around this time, Wahoo added around 40 pounds to his frame, which was fine for professional wrestling, but many believed hindered his football career. As one AFL coach said, “at 205 pounds Wahoo could move with authority, but not at 240. The tackles can cut him off on the wide stuff. He can’t handle much responsibility on passes. He’s a good blitzer and is strong on running plays that come straight at him. But he’s a harum-scarum type, and you can’t build a solid defense around him.” Wahoo scoffed at such statements, but coupled with his aforementioned hazing of “Broadway Joe”, Jets management deemed the linebacker expendable, leaving him unprotected in the expansion draft the following season. He was selected by the Miami Dolphins.

McDaniel played three more seasons of pro football, retiring from the league at the end of the ‘68 season after being traded to San Diego (with whom he would have the odd distinction of both starting and ending his career w/o ever playing a down) following a brawl in which he knocked two police officers unconscious. In his final game with Miami, his team was shredded to the tune of 31-7. The opponent: Joe Namath and the New York Jets who would go on to win the ‘68 Super Bowl. McDaniel, who, by that time had been wrestling in the off-season for 8 years, went “all in” on pro wrestling.

The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright

With his focus now squarely on wrestling, Wahoo’s previous years of off-season work put him immediately in the main event picture, regardless of the promotion for which he was employed. “Six weeks before the football season began, I rassled every night. From January 1 until training camp I had 160 matches, sometimes two on Thursdays,” said McDaniel. “I’ve gotten to be pretty good. I’m just now a main eventer. It takes five years to be a good pro football player and about that long to be a big-time rassler.”

A profanity-laced tirade concerning a payout directed towards Phil Zacko, then part owner of Capitol Sports, a group that owned half of the WWWF, not only changed plans to make Wahoo a main eventer in New York, but facilitated Chief Jay Strongbow’s creation/arrival in the WWWF. Had it not been for McDaniel’s hard line stance on what he believed to be “right and wrong”, Strongbow might have remained Joe Scarpa for the entirety of his career.

Instead, Wahoo went to work for Ed Francis and James Blears and their Big Time Wrestling in Hawaii, getting himself into a short feud with Luke Graham. Wahoo did well in Hawaii, but the experience he gained on the island likely meant more than his win/loss record, because after moving on to his next territory, the massive Fritz Von Erich-run Big Time Wrestling in Texas, McDaniel’s career shot into the stratosphere. Spending the next 2 ½ years in Texas, he went to war against some of the biggest names in the industry, winning and defending multiple championships against the likes of Johnny Valentine, Killer Karl Kox and Mil Mascaras, and challenging NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk, Jr. on multiple occasions.

His years in Texas set up another main event run, working for Verne Gagne’s AWA in Minnesota. Feuding with Dusty Rhodes, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Nick Bockwinkel and Ray Stevens, McDaniel continued his push towards the very top of the sport of professional wrestling. When asked about Wahoo, Graham said, “When I took a chop (from Wahoo), I’d only take one, and then I’d go down. I’d tell Wahoo, ‘‘Now you can start working on me. Take over from down here, buddy. One’s enough for this boy.’ I wasn’t about to stand there and trade chops with a buzz saw. He’d always laugh at me and tell me a few little chops weren’t going to hurt me. I’d tell him, ‘’The way you throw them they do.’ At least I knew I wasn’t going to get chopped to death lying on the mat.” 

His wars with Graham were some of the hottest of that era, propelling Wahoo to his next stop (and the territory where he would become one of the biggest names in the industry): Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. 

Carolina In My Mind

Upon his arrival in the Carolinas in ‘74, Wahoo reignited his feud with Johnny Valentine from several years prior in Texas. Battling over the NWA Mid-Atlantic Title, the two men sold out venues throughout the territory. McDaniel also teamed up with Paul Jones for a program against Gene and Ole Anderson, resulting in the pair claiming the NWA World Tag Team Titles. In the summer of ‘75, however, Wahoo would begin a blood feud against (arguably) his greatest rival: “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

Warring over the NWA Mid-Atlantic Title, Wahoo and Flair traded wins and reigns for the better part of two months, a sign of things to come for the men. The ebb and flow of their blood feud would make money and draw sellout crowds for parts of the next 10 years. One such battle resulted in 42 stitches above Wahoo’s eyes after Flair hit him with a table leg, not realizing there was a nail sticking out of the end of it. “He and Harley Race were the toughest guys I ever met in my life,” said Flair.

Wahoo spent four years in the Carolinas, next moving on for a run in Florida for Eddie Graham’s CWF and a return to Minnesota for Verne Gagne’s AWA. In both territories, he was a main event mainstay, wrestling champions like Harley Race and Nick Bockwinkel. From the summer of ‘78 through the spring of ‘82, McDaniel would territory hop, making his way around the globe, including Japan for his first run with New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Between ‘81-’85, Wahoo would hold the NWA United States Title on five separate occasions. He was stripped of the title three of those times, leading to a vicious heel turn in ‘84 that would fuel white hot battles against Dusty Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat and Barry Windham. When asked about Wahoo’s heel turn, Jim Cornette once said, “When he turned heel in the Carolinas and the fans would try to attack him, he would knock them out with his chops. He’d knock ‘em over rows of chairs.”

After switching back to babyface, Wahoo went on another long run with Ric Flair over the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title. Flair always found a way to hold onto the championship, but his battles against McDaniel are the stuff of legend. “Wahoo was just an incredibly tough guy,” said Flair. “Not just the way he wrestled, but the conditions he wrestled under. He wrestled hurt, he wrestled sick. I remember he had a vasectomy at four o’clock in the afternoon, then wrestled at 8 o’clock that night. Wahoo would wrestle under any conditions. He had an incredible work ethic. He wrestled long matches and was as tough as anybody in the ring.”

Flair would go on to say, “To me, he was the one guy most responsible for me getting my career off to a good start. He was probably the most influential person in my career for the first 10 years. I respected him so much. If something was going down in the business, I’d always ask Wahoo’s opinion. He was responsible for bringing me down to the Carolinas. I asked him all the time and learned an awful lot about working from him.”

Going Out With A Bang

Wahoo continued to work as a main eventer for much of the next four years, slowing down in 1990 after a long run with AWA Heavyweight Champion Curt Hennig and a bloody feud with the “Raging Bull” Manny Fernandez. So violent were his wars with Fernandez, ESPN refused to air their Indian Strap Match from Superclash III. 

McDaniel’s hard-partying ways ultimately caught up to him, but even after becoming a diabetic, he refused to dial things back. “You couldn’t tell him (anything) back then,” said Ric Flair. “He’d say, ‘‘No, don’t worry about it, I’m fine.’ When he got diabetes, instead of quitting drinking, he’d double up on the insulin and drink just as much. I’d say, ‘’Chief, let’s go work out,’ and he’d say, ‘’Boy, I’ve been working out 30 years, I don’t need to work out any more. I’m tired of working out.’”

By the mid-’90s, health complications due to diabetes forced Wahoo to finally slow down. He ultimately lost both kidneys to the disease and was awaiting a kidney transplant when he passed away in 2002. Though perhaps not remembered in the same breath as wrestlers like Flair, Dusty and Harley, the “Nature Boy” bristles at such a thought, saying, “I’m sad that not enough people knew enough about him or remember him. What bothers me is here we have probably the greatest athlete to ever be in our sport – the best athlete period to ever be a professional wrestler. Wahoo was such a legend to my generation. He’ll always be that. That’s what saddens me the most. It’s called fleeting fame.”

Over the course of his 35 year career, Wahoo is said to have wrestled more than 3,500 matches, winning championships in 12 different territories (including 19 different runs w/ various regional heavyweight titles) while becoming the most popular Native American in the history of professional wrestling. “He was universally respected in the wrestling as one of the toughest guys in it,” said Jim Cornette. “Nobody fucked with Wahoo McDaniel.”

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