During my 1995 heel run in Memphis as the top (i.e., only) heel manager, I was hanging out on Beale Street, the legendary strip of restaurants and blues clubs located downtown. Although the WMC-TV studio wrestling show’s popularity had fallen off, it was still something of a cult favorite, so I was dealing with the occasional finger-pointing as I finished up my evening. I enjoyed the recognition for the most part, but was somehow both relieved yet disappointed that no one tried to kick my ass for costing Jerry Lawler a crucial match the previous evening or tried to follow me home for bitch-slapping Ms. Texas on Saturday morning TV.
When I first started managing, I was tentative whenever I realized that a fan had recognized me on the street: I unsure whether they were going to approach me with a right hook or a Sharpie. They usually just wanted an autograph—again, much to my relief initially, but later, to my chagrin.
After a short time in the business, I realized that even the hardcore fans who showed up at the Mid-South Coliseum each week hurling insults, death threats and the occasional cowboy boot would greet me on the street like I was one of their drinking buddies. While the intensity of the heat of the kayfabe days was gone outside the ring, USWA fans (the remaining ones, anyway) were still able to suspend disbelief while at the matches.
One Saturday night, my college buddies and I stopped at a gas station to pick up a cheap 12-pack a la Downtown Bruno, and the cashier gave me “that look” that let me know he was familiar with me. Uh-oh. But my fears were unfounded. He shook my hand, and exclaimed, “I’m the ‘boot guy!’” Yes, indeed he was the drunken ringside regular (a bit redundant) who nearly every Monday night tossed his cowboy boot into the ring for the babyfaces to use as a weapon to maim me. And just in case I might’ve had him confused with another boot guy, he removed his cowboy boot and slammed it down on the counter: “See?!” I simply smiled, saying, “Yep, that’s you, alright.” I signed an autograph for the boot guy, and we were on our way. Two nights later at the Coliseum, his boot flew past my head, missing me by inches. The adoring public.
Beside the house (money drawn for that evening’s card), one of the measuring sticks for a manager’s success in the kayfabe era was if the fans truly hated him—if he had enough heat for the marks to come after him. I’d heard stories of Jimmy Hart being attacked several times by Memphis-area fans, while Jim Cornette’s tales of the Mid-South Wrestling fans in Louisiana are the stuff of legend. As I documented previously, a fan once waved a switchblade at me while the two security guards (one of whom was an unarmed washed-up wrestler) were on the other side of the building trying to ward off fans from the action that had spilled out onto the floor. But, alas, that fan never came close to touching me. Years earlier, Moondog Spot (the late, great Larry Latham) wasn’t so lucky when an irate knife-wielding fan nearly neutered him.
Memphis rogues: Jim Cornette and Jimmy Hart run the Family business in 1983.
On this particular night on Beale Street, I hailed a cab back to my apartment in Midtown, mere blocks away from the mayhem that transpired every Saturday morning at the WMC-TV 5 studio. As soon as I sat down in the backseat, the driver looked at me in his rearview mirror and said, “I just want you to know that I think you’re the next great Memphis manager. You’ve got more heat than any manager here in years.”
I focused my eyes on the cab driver. Yep, it was him. I asked, “Including your time working as a manager?” My driver was none other than Nate the Rat, a longtime manager of jobbers whose most notable stint came as Lawler’s hapless flunky in 1990. After a brief time as the King’s servant, Nate was unceremoniously dumped on the air when Lawler smashed a Big Mac, fries and an apple pie in the Rat’s face. (Nate hadn’t gotten the order wrong. He just scurried up with it at the wrong time, presenting it just after Kerry Von Erich had dumped a bucket of water over Lawler’s head.)
I appreciated Nate’s compliment, especially considering that Hart and Cornette, two of the top managers in the business, started out at that same studio on Union Ave. And then, of course, there was Paul Heyman, who as Paul E. Dangerly (later “Dangerously”) managed heels Austin Idol and Tommy Rich in their hot program with Lawler in 1987, which featured the infamous head-shaving of the King. Memphis had more heat that one night than Verne Gagne’s AWA had all that year. Heyman’s heat with the fans obviously carried over to the boys backstage. Like he allegedly did with Hart in Evansville, Indiana, years before, Lawler purposely broke Heyman’s jaw after he tried to weasel out of a scaffold match booked in Louisville.
While notables such as Dr. Ken Ramey and Sam Bass had come long before my time, I grew up watching Hart and Cornette.
Most of the managers who followed those two immortals were forgettable, with Heyman being an exception. Like Cornette (and me), Heyman grew up a student of the business, somehow finagling his way to the ringside area of Madison Square Garden as a teenager to take photographs. Guys like T.H. Hart (a Jimmy Hart look-alike), J.D. Costello, Tux Newman, Brother Earnest Angel and Bert Prentice just didn’t cut it.
No, not until that heel referee kicked Jerry Lawler in the back of the head with his Doc Marten shoe that fateful Memphis night in 1994 to assume the role of Eddie Gilbert’s best friend had a manager come this close to capturing that same magic as Hart, Cornette and Heyman years earlier. (Hey, don’t take it from me—take it from Nate the friggin’ Rat.)
Of course, I stole plenty from the managers I hated as fan in my youth but later idolized in late teens (the “smart mark”/”smark” years), including Cornette’s gimmick (passed on to him by Bill Watts) of personalized introductions for the Midnights. (“Scott Bowden’s Germantown Estate proudly presents the Innovator and Master of the Moonsault, Tommy ‘Wildfire’ Rich!”) And like my predecessors, I was also subjected to such indignities as being stripped of my clothes, tarred-and-feathered and, occasionally, beaten up by women (shades of my personal life, really). But, hey, fans like the boot guy made it all worthwhile.
I’ve already explained that I believe Hart’s work in Memphis makes him the best ever for that time period. But Cornette’s drawing ability in Mid-South—especially at such a young age—and, later, his NWA run as part of the record-breaking Great American Bash series and huge money-making matches as part of Starrcade throughout the ’80s might make him the most successful…perhaps the best all-around.
Up Next: The Midnight Special, a three-part look at the 25th anniversary of the Midnight Express.