"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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Toon Tumblers WWE Dusty Rhodes 16 oz. Pint Glass

World Heavyweight Championship Belt Buckle Gold

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.”

Escape from New York Blu-ray

Pinwheel Movie

WWE Defining Moments Chris Jericho Action Figure

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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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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