Cocaine, Cancellations And Even More Cocaine: Herb Abrams’ UWF

Colonel Red, no one has ever done anything like this to me! I am going to get you! – Herb Abrams

On March 10th, 1991 in the Penta Hotel, an ever-dwindling New York City crowd had just sat through 22 wrestling matches of varying quality. The television taping they were attending had started late, was running long and fans were leaving in droves. Considering there were only 400 people in attendance when the night started, Herb Abrams, owner of the just launched Universal Wrestling Federation couldn’t afford to lose “droves”.

Grabbing a microphone at ringside, Abrams implored the ambivalent masses to stay for one more match, the final match of the night. Several fans seemingly took pity on the man, returning to their seats. Others ignored the request entirely, making their way to the exit. A few seconds later, “Soul Man” by the legendary R&B duo Sam & Dave began playing over the P.A. and S.D. Jones emerged from the curtain (Mr. Haiti in tow). Almost immediately, a large number of those still in attendance began collecting their things and heading for the door. Roughly 30 seconds later, the UWF owner did the very same thing.

It could be argued it was the first and last time Herb Abrams made the right decision during his 5 years as head of the UWF.

The UWF Explodes Onto The Scene (With A Whimper)

Thanks to generous financing from “Nigerian investors” (yeah, that sounds totally legitimate) Herb Abrams’ Universal Wrestling Federation (not to be confused with Bill Watts’ promotion of the same trademark-less name) got up-and-running in August of 1990, securing a television slot on SportsChannel America, which found itself in need of pro wrestling programming after dropping the much-maligned IWA. Abrams boasted a stacked roster that included the likes of Terry Funk, Big John Studd and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, trading on their star power to seal the deal with the channel. Granted, none of these men had agreed to wrestle for the new promotion, but Abrams knew enough to know you never let the truth get in the way of a perfectly good lie.

After a press conference that included “Dangerous” Danny Spivey and B. Brian Blair, the UWF began taping episodes of Fury Hour in September of ‘90 in Reseda, California while simultaneously (attempting) to put on live events. Truth be told, the company did have a roster filled with stars, but by 1990, names like Bob Orton, Jr., “Mr. 1derful” Paul Orndorff and Billy Jack Haynes simply didn’t carry the same drawing power in the U.S. as they had a few years prior.

Abrams also managed to get Bruno Sammartino hired, but considering the longtime (W)WWF Champion had retired from in-ring competition, what he got was one of the worst commentators of all time rather than one of the greatest wrestlers ever. Bruno’s son, David, was also signed. Unfortunately for fans, he did wrestle for the company.

Purported UWF booker, Blackjack Mulligan, wasn’t even aware he’d been hired (you know, what with him being in jail at the time for counterfeiting and all). Abrams had a backup plan, however, expressing an interest in bringing Bruiser Brody on board for the position. 

The same Brody who’d been dead for a little over two years. Ultimately, the owner named himself as booker.

Things were off to a great start for Herb Abrams’ UWF.

The “Wild Thing” Ran Wild, Um, Brother?

With a roster loaded with known quantities, albeit ones looking for a payday more than a platform to showcase their skills, there wasn’t much room (or money) left for young guys trying to make a name for themselves. With one of the available spots in this sea of grizzled vets, Abrams hired a blonde haired, 20-something former bodyguard for Hulk Hogan by the name of Steve “Wild Thing” Ray.

Ray got his start in pro wrestling in late-’87, working throughout the Midwest and competing for a few regional championships in Kansas and Missouri. The 6’3” former football player had a good look and plenty of “want to”, but the UWF started disorganized and only got worse as time passed.

By May of ‘91, a supposed divide between Abrams and Ray had grown into a chasm, leading to one of the weirder stories in UWF’s short history. Abrams, suspecting his wife of having an affair with Ray, paid Steve Williams an extra $100 to break the young wrestler’s nose during a match. When you ask a guy nicknamed “Dr. Death” to hurt someone, you typically get what you pay for. After being thrown around for several minutes, Ray turned his attention to Abrams who was climbing into the ring. He took a wild swing at the UWF owner, but ol’ Herb was able to duck it and make an escape.

The question is, was this a shoot? Steve Ray has denied it, saying it was all set up by Abrams to garner some heat and that he owes a lot to his former boss for showing him the “dos and don’ts” of running a successful business. Former UWF vice president Zoogz Rift disagrees with Ray, claiming Abrams’ anger was very real, saying, “Ray allegedly screwed Herb in a drug deal”.  Ray stands by his account, evening pointing out the end of the match where you can see Abrams whisper something to the wrestler (presumably telling him to take a swing at him). Ah, yes, the joys of pro wrestling mythology!

Nonstop To Nowhere

On June 9th, 1991, the UWF held the first (and only) pay-per-view in the history of the company. Beach Brawl took place at the Manatee Civic Center in Palmetto, Florida before 550 people. The PPV started off on the wrong foot when the opening bout, a Street Fight between Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Johnny Ace, supposedly ran long, throwing the rest of the show into upheaval. The main event that night was a match between Steve Williams and Bam Bam Bigelow to crown the UWF Television Champion. Williams won the match, making him the only winner that night as with a buyrate of 0.1, Beach Brawl set a record for the least purchased PPV in wrestling history.

Cancelled events and poor attendance were the norm for the fledgling promotion, often due to incompetence on the part of Abrams or unrealistic expectations from SportsChannel. Credit to the owner for hustling every step of the way, but as Zoogz Rift said, “money was always around, but he (Abrams) spent it in the wrong places”. Wrestling finishes often made no sense, a product of Abrams’ lack of experience as a booker coupled with a veteran roster that had little respect for him. Rift, who would take over booking the promotion for a time in ‘93 and ‘94, leave, then return to serve as vice president of the UWF until Abrams’ passing in ‘96, believes the company failed because Abrams was “more interested in feeding his drug addictions”.

Between ‘94-’96, several shows and events were planned to relaunch the UWF. Unfortunately, if Rift is to be believed, the money “always went up Herb’s nose”. Event in places like North Dakota and Minnesota were filmed but never released. Existing episodes of the promotion were licensed to ESPN2, several international companies were sold “exclusive rights” to the UWF catalog (yes, you read that correctly…multiple companies were sold exclusive rights), but no real momentum was ever achieved, at least where a relaunch was concerned.

Herb Goes Out With A Bang

Herb Abrams’ “final stand” took place on July 23rd, 1996 in the very same part of the world where just five years prior, he’d pleaded with a disinterested audience to stay to the end of a UWF TV taping. Having already been arrested in five states and awaiting trial for a variety of charges, including attempted rape, robbery and drug possession, Abrams was confronted by police in his Manhattan office space after a disturbance was reported. “Mr. Electricity” was found naked, covered in Vaseline and cocaine and chasing two prostitutes around with a baseball bat. He’d destroyed several pieces of furniture and was quite unwell.

Police took Abrams into custody and headed to the nearest hospital. Ninety minutes later, he had a massive heart attack due to a cocaine overdose, dying instantly.

The UWF Shot Its Shot

The legacy of Herb Abrams’ UWF is far more “ha ha” than “holy shit” but here’s the part where I try and put a positive spin on it.

Remember when Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff made themselves evil authority figures on RAW and Nitro during an era when pro wrestling was as hot as it’s ever been? Well, Herb Abrams beat ’em to that idea by five years (albeit with far less success). Still, the man deserves a doff of the cap for being ahead of the game.

Abrams also deserves recognition for being a fan that went “all in” and tried to put out the kind of product he wanted to see. Fine, it was usually awful, but it was his to have and hold. He had zero experience to draw upon, but props to him for at least trying. In that way, he differentiated himself from the standard complaining wrestling fan, content to sit and whine.

That the UWF failed isn’t a surprise, but it shouldn’t be the only way we remember the ill-fated promotion. Instead, it should also serve as a reminder of just how difficult it is to build, grow and maintain a successful wrestling company.

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Today’s Heels Could Learn A Lot From Larry Zbyszko

I am Professional Wrestling’s living legend. I don’t care about you people, Billy Robinson or his Empire Championship. 1001 holds? I have 1001 records from coast to coast! I am number one! — “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko

I absolutely loathed “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko when I was a kid. He was smug, a braggart, cheated each and every time the opportunity presented itself, and topped it all off by never running out of things to say to make fans despise him. In short, he was one of the greatest wrestling heels in the history of ever and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his genius.

Underrated Genius

I’ve been watching pro wrestling for over 30 years and during that time, I’ve seen few wrestlers I’ve wanted to choke more than Larry Zbyszko. Yet, when it comes time to start naming some of the greatest bad guys to ever lace up the boots, fans and experts alike are quick to throw out names like “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

Both men entertained me for more hours than I could ever begin to count, but as great as they were, they each retained the same redeeming quality: Ric and Roddy were hilarious. Sure, they did some awful things, but they were almost so charming in how terrible they were being, I couldn’t help rooting for them. With Larry Zbyszko, that sort of thing was never an issue. I never did anything but hate that dude and I’m quite sure he’d be pleased to know that.

No Cheering, Spudhead!

There simply wasn’t a thing about Larry that made you cheer for him. He wasn’t a cool “shade of gray”, he wasn’t trying to impress the crowd with his wit and in-ring ability; he was just a complete prick.

Watching Larry’s old matches now, I marvel at how well he worked a crowd. When I was a kid, I wanted to punch him in the face every single time he’d stall on the outside of the ring, roll back in, then roll right back out to stall some more. It was infuriating stuff.

So good was he at being a heel, I’ve heard there were even wrestlers who would get angered at his in-match antics. When you’re getting the guy in the ring with you to lose it, you’re really doing work!

Zbyszko did everything he could to be a despicable human being, and regardless of how ‘smart’ you thought you were to the business, he still found a way to reel you in.

Old School Will Always Be Cool

I’m a bit too young to have seen “The Living Legend” in the WWWF, but his feud with Bruno Sammartino is legendary. Universally abhorred (with heat as white hot as you can get it), Zbyszko really took off when he turned on the popular babyface and mentor Sammartino, attacking him with a chair, leaving him bloody and broken in front of a sea of hardcore Bruno fans. This set the stage for a feud that accounted for many sell out crowds throughout 1980, culminating in their most famous match together, the Shea Stadium Steel Cage Match in which Bruno finally got his revenge in front of more than thirty six thousand fans.

I’m most familiar with Larry Legend’s work in the AWA and NWA/WCW. As a kid growing up in East Texas, I was afforded a good many wrestling options on my television each week. Everything from World Class to Mid-South, WWF to NWA could be seen weekly thanks to superstations like USA and TBS, and a local channel out of Dallas, KXTX.

When you consider the talent those promotions sported during the early to late-80’s, it’s more than a little overwhelming. Many of the all-time greats were plying their craft at the highest of levels then, and I had the honor of seeing them all.

I got up close to The Freebirds, Jimmy Garvin, The Four Horsemen, Bobby Heenan, and countless other heels, but none of them elicited a hate from me like the hate I felt when I watched Larry Zbyszko. If you’ve never yelled at your television screen, then you don’t really know how much fun it can be to get totally taken in by a wrestling bad guy. Larry Zbyszko was that guy for me.

Larry Legend Is The Measuring Stick

I wonder, if more of today’s wrestlers were willing to go that extra mile at being a heel and placed more emphasis on being legitimately hated, could wrestling reclaim a bit of what’s been lost since fans decided it was cooler to be a jerk than to be a superhero?

I know times have changed, but I still say there’s a place for the bad guy who just wants to be a loathsome character. Baron Corbin is doing a great job being just that, although wrestling fandom has changed so dramatically, I’m not sure he’ll ever truly be appreciated for his level of brilliance.

Perhaps, it’s just a sign of the times, but I believe many of today’s wrestlers would do themselves an enormous favor by going back and watching as much of Larry Zbyszko’s work as they can possibly find.

The WWE might not ever go out of its way to tell the ‘Universe’ how amazing “The Living Legend” was, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t.

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