"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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Colonel DeBeers Was A Lot Of Things, But A Shade Of Gray Wasn’t One Of Them

I wanna get to the heart of my complaint against dirty sports in America: the use and abuse of anabolic steroids by Scott Hall! The man has obviously overstepped his bounds and he is dirty, filthy and eaten up with anabolic steroids! – Colonel DeBeers

On November 12, 1988, WCWA Heavyweight Champion, “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich put his title on the line against the hated AWA heel, Colonel DeBeers, in Las Vegas, Nevada. At some point during the match, DeBeers managed to lock onto Kerry’s right boot, and as he’d done hundreds of times before, the colonel gave the babyface opponent’s leg a nice twist. However, when Von Erich’s boot came completely off, revealing nothing but a stump below his ankle, DeBeers knew this was something entirely different from all the other times he’d applied an ankle lock. Immediately, he turned his confusion towards the referee while Kerry rolled under the ring and reattached his boot. 

Two and a half years prior, Von Erich had been involved in a horrific motorcycle accident that, ultimately, resulted in the amputation of his right foot. A prosthetic was made which allowed him to continue to wrestle, but virtually no one in the business knew of his amputation. Based on his reaction, Colonel DeBeers was most certainly not one of the few people “in the know”.

Almost surprisingly, this would not be the craziest thing Colonel DeBeers would be involved in during his 20+ year wrestling career.

What’s A Wiskoski?

I’ve previously written about the American Wrestling Association and the wealth of top tier heel wrestlers the company had its disposal in the ‘80s and early-’90s, scribbling at length on their greatness and need for a transcendent babyface to keep the company relevant as Vince McMahon went national and began steamrolling over the ‘Territory System’.

Casual fans of pro wrestling know names like Nick Bockwinkel, “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and The Nasty Boys. Bockwinkel became the face of the AWA, while the other men I’ve mentioned spent large swaths of time on the national stage with the WWE/F and/or WCW. One heel that often falls through the cracks when discussing AWA heels, however, was regional bad guy, Colonel DeBeers, who, during a time when pro wrestling was fighting to become more “kid friendly”, doubled down on “evil” to the point where some have argued he went too far.

DeBeers got his start in 1973 and was trained by Lord Littlebrook and Harley Race. Wrestling under his real name, Ed Wiskoski, he spent several years working in Florida and the Midwest, winning several regional titles, including the NWA Central States Championship in ‘75. As champion, he turned himself into a big enough draw around Iowa, Kansas and Missouri that it landed him an opportunity to face Terry Funk, then the NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion in a Two Out of Three Falls Match. He came up one fall short, but Wiskoski was off and running. 

After a month-long tour of Japan with AJPW, Wiskoski moved on to the Northwest, working the next two years (summer of ‘77 – summer of ‘79) for Don Owen and his Pacific Northwest Wrestling promotion. There he formed a formidable tag team with “Playboy” Buddy Rose, winning the PNW Tag Team Titles on several occasions. He also added two PNW Heavyweight Championship reigns to his wrestling resumé, feuding with Portland legend Dutch Savage.

In close proximity to San Francisco, Wiskoski also worked for Big Time Wrestling, winning the NWA San Francisco U.S. Title and tagging with Rose and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to capture the NWA San Francisco World Tag Team Championships three times. 

During the five years that followed, Wiskoski went on a territory-hopping tour that would land him back in the Midwest and Florida, and also New York, Mid-South, Canada and Germany. He even found his way back to Portland for another main event run, working part of the time under the name Mega Maharishi Imed, but in February of ‘86, he joined the AWA, taking on the new name and character that would make him more infamous than famous.

The Face Of Evil In The AWA

In the mid-’80s, the race-related political unrest in South Africa was a regular topic of discussion on the nightly news. The apartheid system enforced racial discrimination, separating people based on their race and features. Wiskoski, assuming the name Colonel DeBeers, the “heir to the De Beers Diamond Mines”, became the pro wrestling embodiment of everything that was appalling about the racial segregation that had been a fixture in South Africa for centuries.

For the first few months in the AWA, he wrestled against the likes of The Midnight Rockers, Brad Rheingans and Wahoo McDaniel, earning the hate of every last fan that watched him wrestle. But it was his blood feud with the legendary “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka that turned him into the most hated man in the Minnesota-based promotion. In July of ‘86, Snuka was one of the biggest babyfaces in pro wrestling. Having worked all across the U.S., Jimmy was known far and wide and for a time in the mid-’80s was widely considered the most popular WWF wrestler not named Hulk Hogan.

Dialing up his hateful rhetoric, DeBeers tapped into something beyond heat, grabbing the fans hook, line and sinker. Snuka would prevail in their series of matches, but the colonel turned himself into pro wrestling’s face of racism, a heat-seeking endeavor that not only kept him in the wrestling magazines (then a primary method for a fans to learn about wrestlers outside their region), but also under the employ of the AWA for over four years.

Goin’ Goin’ Back Back To Cali

Shortly after the demise of the AWA, Herb Abrams’ California-based UWF came into existence. Flawed as it was, it was still a place to work and DeBeers was one of the veterans signed for the first series of television tapings. The first televised show from Abrams’ UWF aired on September 24th, 1990 and the pro-Apartheid heel wasted no time in infuriating every last person possible. After spending close to two decades in the wrestling industry, the man was an expert on garnering attention from a crowd, and the brand new promotion for which he was employed needed just that.

Entering the ring prior to his match with Billy Jack Haynes, DeBeers turned his attention to referee Larry Sampson, a black man, and bellowed, “I will not have a black man refereeing my matches”! Just like that, everyone in the building hated the Colonel’s guts. This led to even more heat with fans after he tried to attack the very same referee a few shows later, leading to a short feud with another major regional name of that era: “Iceman” King Parsons. Though the UWF’s run was marred with failure, the colonel remained one of the few bright spots. He was detestable and reviled; he was everything he was trying to be.

Smart, not “smart”

Over the years, it’s been debated that Col. DeBeers went too far with some of his promos and actions. Some say he did more damage with his words than he did good in trying to parody this type of evil character. In my youth I watched Baron Von Raschke goose-step around a ring, Randy Savage damn near murder Ricky Steamboat by crushing his windpipe and Abdullah the Butcher carve up every last babyface hero I ever had. All these men worked to make you and me feel something more than that which can be expressed by simply booing. They needed our hearts.

DeBeers went down the same road as these men and when such a road is traveled, there are likely going to be times when a line or two is crossed. Did he go too far? Perhaps, but I miss the days when promotions thought enough of their fans to know we’d be smart enough (no, not “smart” enough) to hate the right wrestlers. The color gray is as boring as can be. The Colonel DeBeers character was a lot of things, but it was never a shade of gray.

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Wendi Richter And The Swerve That Set The WWE Women’s Division Back Three Decades

Moolah has seen her day. They couldn’t even put her face on a can of dog food to sell it and she knows it! – Wendi Richter

Captain Lou Albano was on a plane to New York, headed back from Puerto Rico. The longtime wrestling manager struck up a conversation with the people sitting next to him on the flight, talking shop and discussing ways they could work together on something. The two people, 2-time Grammy Award Winner Cyndi Lauper (who was on the cusp of releasing the smash record She’s So Unusual) and her manager, David Wolff, enjoyed Albano’s banter and seemed interested in seeing what might come of a working relationship.

When it came time to do a video for the first single off the record, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Albano was cast as her stepdad. The song was massive, reaching #1 in 10 countries (including the U.S.), leading to a partnership with the World Wrestling Federation that set off the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” era, a boom period for wrestling seen just one other time since.

At the same time, 23-year-old Wendi Richter had just re-signed with the WWF after stints in Japan, the AWA, Mid-South and Stampede. Now a 4-year veteran of several territories, she was being brought back to the WWF, thanks in no small part to her former trainer, Lillian Ellison, aka The Fabulous Moolah, the longest reigning wrestling champion in the history of the business.

“Rock ‘n’ Wrestling”, however, was about to put the women at odds in a very big way, leading to one of the biggest feuds, and, ultimately, shoot matches in the history of North American women’s pro wrestling.

She Bop

Wendi Richter first broke into pro wrestling in 1979 at the age of 18 when she joined the Lillian Ellison School of Professional Wrestling, making her in-ring debut the same year. At 5’8” and “150 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal”, Richter came by bookings easily (provided Moolah allowed it). At that time, women’s wrestling ran almost entirely through The Fabulous Moolah. She controlled bookings and paydays, meaning she also controlled how much money ended up in her pocket prior to the other women receiving their money. Her upfront rate was 25%, but Richter always assumed she kept more.

Wendi had extended runs in several Midwest and Deep South territories, often working with Joyce Grable, the pair twice teaming up to win the NWA Women’s Tag Team Championship. A 2-week booking in New York in the Spring of ‘82 (including a tag match in Madison Square Garden with Moolah as her partner) gave Richter a taste of the WWF. After spending the remainder of the year working all across the U.S. and Canada, the Dallas, Texas native made her way back to New York just after Christmas, finishing out the year with five tag team wins with Moolah again as her partner.

Her star on the rise, Richter signed a deal with Vince McMahon in late-’83, finished up her bookings and joined the WWF roster in late-March of ‘84, immediately teaming up with Peggy Lee, a fellow student of Moolah’s school. Three weeks later, on April 19th, she had a Dark Match vs. Moolah for the women’s title. She lost, but the message was clear: Richter was about to get pushed to the moon.

Money Changes Everything

When Richter signed with McMahon, she told him her pay was to go directly to her, not Moolah. Vince agreed, cutting off one of Moolah’s major streams of revenue. Wendi Richter was on the verge of becoming a breakout star and with the help of MTV and Cyndi Lauper, Vince McMahon had designs on making her the Hulk Hogan of women’s wrestling. Using MTV’s growing mainstream appeal, the WWF shot Richter out of a cannon, featuring her in vignettes with Cyndi Lauper promoting her July 23rd Main Event bout with The Fabulous Moolah on a show that would air on the music channel called “The Brawl To End It All”. The program drew a 9 share, meaning 9% of all televisions in the U.S. tuned in to see Wendi Richter become the new WWF Women’s Champion. The match was a massive success for MTV, the WWF and women’s wrestling. Everyone involved was ecstatic. Well, everyone involved except Moolah (despite the massive payday from Vince).

By putting Richter over, without complaint, she, according to legendary wrestling manager Jim Cornette, “got Vince McMahon’s loyalty for life”, but Richter tells a different tale. “Moolah was jealous of me because I was younger than her,” said Richter. “When I won that championship, everyone was up on their feet and cheering. Someone had finally beaten her after 28 years.”

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Wendi and Moolah wrestled no fewer than 20 more times over the next three months with Richter winning each time. The Women’s Champion had become a household name and was a featured wrestler on WWF merchandise, reigning supreme for seven months. Richter, however, didn’t believe she was being paid like a champion. “The men were being paid far more than the women, but I was the only one saying anything,” said Richter.

“Every time I saw (Vince) I brought up payoffs,” she would later say. “I wasn’t ugly or yelled or anything like that. I always told him, ‘Vince, I need to make more. I’m not bringing home enough to justify being on the road like this.’”

McMahon, in an effort to take Wendi down a peg, took the title off her, Richter losing it to another one of “Moolah’s girls”, Leilani Kai, whom also had a hand in training Richter. The women wrestled 8 more times prior to the first WrestleMania with Kai winning 7 of the matches. Leilani, however, was not going to be the face of women’s wrestling, not in Vince McMahon’s eyes, at least. Having served her time in Vince’s doghouse, Richter (w/ Cyndi Lauper in her corner) was given another run with the WWF World Women’s Title, defeating Kai (w/ Moolah in her corner) at WrestleMania I.

Wendi again held the title for seven month, defeating Kai and Moolah on multiple occasions. She was the biggest name in women’s wrestling, but still didn’t feel like she was being paid accordingly. Without Moolah in her corner, Richter was on an island. Yes, she was talented and gorgeous and everything McMahon wanted in a women’s champion. She was also making too many waves at a time when Vince was positioning Hulk Hogan as the face of the industry. Unable to come to terms on a new contract, a decision was made to take the belt off Richter, this time for good.

True Colors

Penny Mitchell became a professional wrestler in 1982. Yet another of Moolah’s “girls”, she was booked in several territories, gaining experience and honing her skills. The WWF was one of the territories she worked, signing with the promotion on a full-time basis in July of ‘84. Less than a year into her WWF run, Mitchell was repackaged as The Spider Lady, working under a mask to conceal her identity. The new look put her on a collision course with Wendi Richter, the two women engaging in a month-long feud that reached its apex on November 25th, 1985.

Before a capacity crowd in Madison Square Garden, The Spider Lady was getting her shot at the title against the recently unbeatable Richter. In those days, heels and babyfaces still dressed in separate locker rooms. When The Spider Lady entered the ring, that was the first time Richter had seen her that day, but after having worked with her eight times prior to this night, she knew something seemed off. Penny Mitchell was the same size as the champion. The woman standing across the ring was noticeably shorter. “I knew at that time I’ve gotta protect myself,” said Richter. 

When the bell rang, Richter repeatedly went for The Spider Lady’s mask, trying to remove it. The quality of the contest sailed downhill quickly. When The Spider Lady finally got the champ in a pinning predicament, everything went off the rails. “The referee counted ‘1’, I kicked out, had my shoulder up and he counted ‘2, 3,’” said Richter. The now former champion had just been swerved, but things were about to go from bad to worse.

Knowing she’d been double crossed, Wendi Richter went for The Spider Lady’s mask, ripping it off her head and revealing The Fabulous Moolah. Grabbing her by the hair as Moolah attempted to run away, Richter went into a series of odd-looking work/shoot moves, throwing the new (old) champion around the ring, slamming her down to the mat, then hooking and pinning her in much the same way Moolah had just done her. 

Furious, the former champion left the ring and went back to the locker rooms, searching for McMahon. When no one would tell her where he was, she grabbed her things, left the arena for the airport and didn’t return to the WWF/WWE until 2010, when she was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame.

Change Of Heart

Richter disappeared from the wrestling business for a time, resurfacing on the Independent scene in ‘87. She also worked for WWC in Puerto Rico and the AWA, winning those promotions version of the women’s title. Her feud with Madusa Miceli in late-’88/early-’89 was one of the hottest angle going in the AWA during that time. By the end of ‘89, however, Wendi Richter was all but done with professional wrestling.

It’s impossible not to wonder what might’ve been for women’s wrestling had Richter continued working for the WWF. Would she have become the Hulkster of the division? Would Hollywood have come calling the way it did for Hogan? What would a feud between Wendi and Sensational Sherri have looked like? What about Wendi and Madusa on the WWF stage?

Richter was the “chosen one”. Had she and Vince been able to reach an agreement and continued to build the division, I can’t help but think we might have been able to avoid the six and a half years (2/21/90-12/12/93, 12/13/95-9/14/98) the women’s championship title was either deactivated or simply forgotten.

Regardless, the former 6-time women’s champion is fine with how everything turned out. “It changed my career; it changed my life,” said Richter concerning her ending in the WWF. Speaking to Sean Mooney on his Primetime with Sean Mooney podcast, she would go on to say, “I started going to college and I just thank the Lord that I did that. I make far more (as a physical and occupational therapist) than I ever made in wrestling and I get to sleep in my own bed. I couldn’t have that when I was wrestling on the road.”

Oh, and what became of Penny Mitchell? She wrestled for another two years, but never again as The Spider Lady.

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Hulk Hogan And The Death Of The AWA

I am the people’s champion! They saw me beat Nick Bockwinkel! Just when I was ready to clamp down and take it home, Bobby Heenan interfered! Payback is due! – Hulk Hogan

By the late ‘80s, after years of declining interest, subpar rosters, and an inability to change with the times, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) was all but dead in the water, ultimately shutting down in 1991.

Did it have to be that way? Had Verne Gagne, rather than digging in his heels, gotten with the times (or hired someone to get with the times for him), would the AWA have had a puncher’s chance at not only surviving, but thriving into the ’90s and beyond?

When The AWA Thrived

From the early ‘60s into the late ’70s, the AWA was a very successful wrestling promotion. Verne Gagne, an amateur wrestler and alternate on the ‘48 U.S. Olympic Team not only ran the promotion, but was its most recognizable champion. From August 1960 to May 1981, Verne held the AWA World Title 10 times for a total of 4,677 days (almost 13 years), feuding with legendary names like Gene Kiniski, Larry “The Axe” Hennig and “The Crippler” Ray Stevens.

During that era, Gagne took his promotion from a local Minnesota show and expanded into several large markets, including Chicago, San Francisco, Denver and Las Vegas. His success in these areas made the AWA an extremely popular ticket, and his live shows regularly brought crowds by the thousands.

“I Want My MTV”

Then the Eighties happened. The “everything, all the time, right now” generation had no time for a long time. Don’t wanna sit through a 12 round fight? “Iron” Mike Tyson knocks everyone out in under three rounds! NBA games too slow? Have no fear, the “Showtime” Lakers are here!

Gone were the days when you could keep a kid’s attention for more than three minutes; Nintendo, Coca-Cola and Hostess made sure of that.

In the Sixties and Seventies, pro wrestling venues were smoke-filled, darkly lit and full of an older demographic. When the mid-’80s rolled around, young, loud and stuffed to the gills with cocaine and TV dinners, Verne wasn’t prepared.

Prior to Vince McMahon’s talent raids, the AWA boasted some of the biggest names in the business. Consider that in 1984, WWF’s number one babyface (and arguably the biggest draw in the history of the industry), Hulk Hogan, number one manager (and the greatest manager of all time), Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, number one color commentator, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and number one announcer, “Mean” Gene Okerlund had all been, just a short time prior, under the employ of the AWA.

What if Verne had worked with someone capable of marketing Hogan the way Vince and the WWF were able to do for the better part of a decade? What if he’d played ball with Hogan on merchandising, rather than trying to strong-arm or steal from him by selling his shirts at shows while Hulk was away on a Japanese tour? What if he hadn’t gone out of his way to keep the belt off Hogan, actually going so far as to say he wasn’t good enough to carry the AWA Title? Finally, what if Verne hadn’t angered Hogan enough to where, once Vince came calling, he was more than willing to not only jump ship, but do so without finishing up his scheduled dates with the AWA, effectively killing most of the territory?

How much different does the first WrestleMania look without Hogan in the main event? Does WrestleMania I even take place without Hogan on the WWF roster?

Greg Gagne Wasn’t The Answer

Verne’s stubborn nature (Greg Gagne’s words, not mine) cost the promotion dearly when it came to the acquisition and retention of marketable talent, forcing the promotion to rely on burly animals like The Crusher and Mad Dog Vachon, men who could draw a promotion all kinds of money for much of the previous two decades, but were dinosaurs in the eyes of the glitzy ‘80s pro wrestling fan. Beer bellies and cigar breath simply wasn’t gonna cut it anymore.

Sure, the AWA still had a contingent of die hard wrestling fans, many of whom attended every local show possible, but selling a guy a program and a beer is a far cry from selling a guy a program and a beer, while selling his kids t-shirts, action figures and foam fingers. This is where I believe Gagne was greatly in need of someone to put a fresh set of hands on his product, and by ‘someone’ I don’t mean his son, Greg. If you need history to be told through the eyes of a blind man, call Greg. Otherwise…

Hulkamania Ran Wild…Away From Verne

Consider that had Hulk and Verne been able to work together the way Hogan ultimately did with Vince, the AWA would have been all but set (creatively, at least). In Nick Bockwinkel, Larry Zbyszko, Col. DeBeers and later, Curt Hennig, the AWA was loaded with main event level heel talent, all of whom had quality promo skills and could work circles around most in the ring. Hogan was a superhero, his job was to look unbeatable. Surrounding him with these four pros, men capable of bumping all around the ring for him while retaining every last bit of their heat, would have carried the promotion for years. And let’s not even get into the next wave of guys (Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Leon White aka Vader) that ultimately left the AWA for greener pastures…

Without Hogan, did Vince have the leverage to buy off television stations, preventing them from airing other promotions’ shows? Who was Vince’s second choice had Hogan not gone to New York? Would he have stayed in-house and tried to go national with Jimmy Snuka or Sgt. Slaughter? Would he have looked to another promotion, possibly WCCW and Kerry Von Erich? Neither Snuka nor Kerry had Hulk’s promo and Sarge didn’t have the jacked, “bigger than life” look Vince so coveted. Whatever he would have decided, the WWF roster would have looked (and sounded) decidedly different.

What Might Have Been For The AWA

If WCW taught us nothing else, it was that the market would bear two successful promotions. Even ECW, using mostly smoke and mirrors (and a lot of Vince’s kickback money) was able to thrive in the Nineties as a somewhat viable third promotion. Certainly, with proper management and greater attention to what fans wanted to see, the AWA could have just as easily been in this mix. Fans like having options, and history has proven time and again that with competition, all involved up their game making for a better overall product.

There is no doubt Verne Gagne should be remembered for all he did for professional wrestling. Not only did he run a successful promotion for more than 30 years, he also trained some of the biggest names the industry has ever known, including Iron Sheik, Ricky Steamboat, Curt Hennig and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. His immense contributions to wrestling cannot be overlooked.

That’s what made his inability to move with the changing climate rather than becoming resistant to it so frustrating. Verne’s knowledge could have been useful to so many other future performers. Unfortunately, for him, for the fans, for the industry as a whole, it wasn’t meant to be.

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