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Dark side of the Moondogs: Remembering Memphis wrestling’s most fetching tag team

June 30th, 2010 5 comments

“Now, Scott, I’m gonna lay that chair shot in there. Try to keep your back straight.” I’m listening attentively as Larry Booker pulls me aside backstage at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1995 prior to the violence we’ll both soon be orchestrating. When a veteran like Moondog Spot throws you a bone, you’d best pay attention.

Explosive team: The Bombers with their Southern tag straps.

Years ago, in 1979, Booker had wrestled in the area as “Larry Latham,” teaming with Wayne Ferris (the eventual Honky Tonk Man) as the Blonde Bombers, with manager Sgt. Danny Davis.

The Bombers had a good run as AWA Southern tag-team champions, which began in infamy in Tupelo, Mississippi, on June 15, 1979.

Besides being known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley, Tupelo for years after the Bombers’ title win over Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee conjured up visions of mustard-covered mayhem for Memphis wrestling fans–yes, the legendary Tupelo concession-stand brawl between the two teams. This extreme footage was so far ahead of its time that it served as the catalyst for a young Jimmy Cornette to purchase his first VCR so he could have a copy and watch it repeatedly, which he did. (Undoubtedly, a young Paul Heyman received a copy somehow as well.) I love how Lance Russell, struggling to get the cameraman focused on the action as he descends the stairs to commentate on the brutality unfolding before his eyes bellows, ”They got a hell of a fight going on down here!”

After turning back challenges from such teams as Hulk Hogan and Tommy Gilbert and The Freebirds, the duo traded the belts with Rick and Robert Gibson before dropping the titles for good to Hector Guerrero and Steve Regal on November 19, 1979.

 

Larry wouldn’t again have an impact on the Memphis tag-team scene until 1983, when he reappeared as Spot, one of the Moondogs, along with partner Rex (Randy Colley). Although the Moondog gimmick had been around for years, the Memphis version can be traced to Capt. Lou Albano’s team, Rex and King (Sailor White, a Canadian grappler) who captured the WWF tag titles from Tony Garea and Rick Martel on March 17, 1981, in Allentown, Pa. Latham was called in for, um, Spot duty, on May 1, 1981, when the Moondog King character was put to sleep when White for some reason was not allowed to enter the United States from Canada. To explain the replacement, Inside Wrestling ran a story that King had been hit by a car he was chasing—even for the Apter mags that was farfetched.

The true origin of the gimmick was a few years earlier. Legendary wrestler Lonnie “Moondog’” Mayne ate glass, live godfish, raw eggs and canned dog food, among other things, on TV in the ’70s in Northern and Southern California and Portland, feuding with the likes of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Reportedly, Mayne’s behavior was even more crazed and erratic outside the ring. He was killed in a car accident days after conducting this interview–promoting, of all things, an upcoming ”Mexican Death Match”–at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.


Resembling nothing of his Blonde Bomber character of old, Spot was nevertheless recognized as Larry Latham by several Memphis fans. With scraggly hair and beards, Spot and Rex wore tattered blue jeans and simple black boots to the ring, always carrying their trademark oversized, dinosaur-looking bones. Jimmy Hart, at the peak of his Memphis run, supposedly had brought the Dogs into the area to sic them on the Fabulous Ones, Steve Keirn and Stan Lane.

In one of their first TV appearances, Rex and Spot shredded the beautiful sequined jackets of the Fabs before using their big bones to bloody up the blonde babyfaces. It may not sound like much of an angle, but you have to understand that these jackets had been given to the Fabs by the godfather of Memphis wrestling himself, the “Fabulous” Jackie Fargo. As girls everywhere cried, a bloodied Keirn blurted out, “We’re pissed!” on live TV—strong stuff for the day.

After taking the Fabs’ pride, the Dogs took their AWA Southern tag belts the following Monday night. The feud later escalated when the Dogs used the ring ropes as a noose of sorts, trapping Keirn’s head between the top and middle strands. Keirn dangled between the two ropes gasping for air as the crowd reacted like Pavlov’s dogs at the sight of the near-death babyface . When some babyfaces from the back made the save and finally freed Keirn, his head snapped back in dramatic fashion as his limp body crashed onto the canvas— you just knew he was dead.

Alas, Keirn didn’t die, but he was deemed unable to wrestle the following Monday night. Back then, if a guy wasn’t able to come back and work the next week, the fans bought it as a legit injury. For years, fans had seen guys take beatings and return the next Monday ready for revenge. Since Keirn was “injured,” it was up to Fargo to come out of retirement to serve up some knuckle sandwiches and show those Dogs who was the alpha male of Memphis. After hitting the dogs with everything but the kitchen sink, Fargo and Lane called in Keirn from the back. Despite his neck injury, Keirn laid in some stiff-looking shots with a 2’ x 4’ on Rex, who was left to play dead. The Dogs then played up the injury angle, leaving to tour Puerto Rico, but not before a funny video aired of them in beds literally licking their wounds as their brokenhearted master vowed revenge.

The Dogs returned over the next few years, most notably working a hot program with Lawler and Jeff Jarrett in the early ’90s. Spot and Lawler even tried to recreate their concession stand mayhem from years ago to spark the feud. By this time, Spike (Bill Smithson) had replaced Colley, who had moved on to such gimmicks as the masked Nightmare in Mid-South and as the original Smash from Demolition in the WWF. Colley came up with the Demolition gimmick for Vince McMahon, but he was unceremoniously dumped from the team and replaced by Barry Darsow (the eventual Repo Man) after too many fans recognized him under the makeup, similar to the problem with Larry Booker’s initial debut in Memphis in the Moondog role.

With Hart long gone, the Dogs had such masters as Ronnie Lotz and Richard Lee, the latter whom penned a song about his canines from the moon: “You’d better watch out for the Moondogs/Or you’ll meet your maker tonight.” Sound advice.

Never the best athletes, the Dogs were now especially limited to brawling, and administering and taking the stiffest chair shots in the business. That style suited Memphis fans just fine; however, the TV job boys weren’t exactly thrilled. This lethal litter eventually produced rookie Moondog Splat in 1995, and the young pup teamed with Spot to beat the hell out of TV jobbers. One Saturday morning, jobber Charlie Laird (who I often referred to on the air as “Charlie Lard”) learned he was working the Moondogs in a squash match and walked out on the promotion, sneaking out the back door like a scolded dog after Eddie Marlin questioned his manhood in front of the boys.

Now looking a lot like Santa Claus, Larry was one of the first who recognized my talent as a finish guy. At first, he’d find me backstage and privately ask for advice on a finish. When it came time to go over it in front of the boys, he’d give them the same finish to the match as I suggested. He did this knowing that some of the other boys might not appreciate a young punk like me coming up with the finish. Eventually, Larry would ask in the company of other boys, “What do you think, Scott?” Before long I was helping Lawler come up with finishes and angles, which didn’t exactly thrill booker Randy Hales.

After another heel run, the Moondogs were turned babyfaces to feud with my team of Tommy Rich and Buddy Landell in 1995. To set up a bout for the following Monday—a Chair-a-Mania match (in which chairs would be scattered about the ring for anyone to use)—the Dogs were booked to dish out a particularly brutal beating to Rich, Landell and … me. When I interfered to save Rich from being pinned, Splat knocked me to my knees. Rising to my feet—and keeping my back as straight as possible—Larry nailed me with a chair shot that sounded like a gun going off. Amazingly enough, it didn’t hurt—at least not until I woke up the next morning.

During next week’s Chair-a-Mania, I’m scheduled to get clobbered at the beginning of Chair-a-Mania and crawl to the back. This time, however, Larry wants to change things up, y’know, for “the people.” (The Memphis boys rarely called the fans “marks.” It was always “the people.” And scary people they could be.) Instead, I’d take this shot on the head. When I ask how I should protect myself this time, Larry looks me in the eye and laughs: “You’re better off not putting your hands up to block it—just close your eyes and take it.” Yeah, easy for him to say. Besides, I seem to recall a certain Moondog Spot using his paws to block all those chair shots from Fargo and Lane more than 10 years ago. When I mention this, he responds: “Yeah, and it looked like shit, didn’t it?” So, I listened to Larry. I took the shot, and he didn’t kill me. In accordance with the boys’ philosophy: More important than my head still being attached, it looked good on TV. For the people. That old Dog had taught me another trick of the trade.

The last time I saw Larry was at the Big One Expo Center, where the Memphis cards were relegated to during the summer of ’96. The Moondogs were, appropriately enough, scratching and clawing in the same building where the town’s largest flea market was held on the weekends.

After years of entertaining Memphis fans, Larry Booker died of a heart attack in the ring at the Mid-South Coliseum while working a match as part of a birthday celebration card for Lawler on November 29, 2003. He was 51…or 9.5 dog years.

Dragon Masterpiece: new WWE DVD spotlights Ricky Steamboat

June 29th, 2010 4 comments

Just as important as the top dog in a territory in the kayfabe days was the No. 2 drawing card. In a sense, No. 1 was only as good as No. 2; in fact, they co-existed as stars and drew money because of the chemistry between the two. Simply put, No. 1 couldn’t have captured the imagination of wrestling fans—not to mention all those title belts–without No. 2. Meanwhile, in most cases, they both were probably each taking credit for the houses at the time, i.e., the money drawn at the arenas, because, well, that’s how the business was back then. A little legit professional jealousy was always considered good for the business, with the lines of fantasy and reality blurred.

In the late ’70s, the money-drawing rivalry in Memphis was Jerry Lawler vs. Bill Dundee, while Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat helped ignite the Crocketts’ Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling (MACW) not long after a plane crash crippled one of its biggest stars–and nearly the territory itself. The tragedy that ended the career of longtime U.S. champ Johnny Valentine, a true legend in the area, also seriously injured Flair’s back, which he rehabbed like a man possessed to come back months ahead of schedule. Valentine’s retirement forced the territory to usher in a new era sooner than expected.

Although the stage was set for Flair to rise from the wreckage as an inspirational babyface, booker George Scott went another direction. Before he was ready to work again, Flair appeared at ringside as a heel, ensuring that MACW fans wouldn’t feel sentimental about the Nature Boy as he prepared to make his return. Flair ridiculed the fans during a memorable studio appearance for making the mistake of sending him get-well cards. When he ripped up those cards, crowing that the fans were fools for caring about him, his heel fate was sealed. Flair may have returned more despised than he was before the plane crash—now that’s heat.

Timing is everything in all forms of entertainment, and the wrestling business is no exception. Not long after his actual in-ring return, Flair reportedly asked booker Scott to be paired up with the athletic Steamboat, real name Richard Blood, a chiseled rookie who had adopted the well-known surname of ring-veteran Sammy Steamboat. Scott trusted Flair’s instincts, which resulted in a new style of working, first in the Carolinas, and, later, the rest of the country. While the Valentine era was known for stiff, methodical contests, especially his bouts with guys like Wahoo McDaniel, Steamboat and Flair set a new standard of pure athleticism. The two young lions immediately clicked, with their athletic, state-of-the-art (especially for the time) bouts captivating MACW fans.

One underrated, unique aspect of the kayfabe era was the effect of the national wrestling magazines, later referred to as “the Apter mags,” on young marks back in the ’70s. Much like fans today flock to the Internet every day for the latest rumors, ’70s- and ’80s-era wrestling fans at the time thirsted for as much actual “news” as they could decipher in those largely fictional Apter mags, sold at supermarkets and drug stores. The notion seems ridiculous now, since we all know that nearly all of these Apter stories were as imaginative as the angles themselves. There was a time that, much like the razorblade-induced scar tissue on stars’ foreheads, these kayfabe-suited stories helped fans put aside common sense and believe that maybe pro wrestling was legitimate. The fact that I never saw Flair or Steamboat wrestle during the late ’70s made them larger than life to me–I knew they must be good because, hey, they were always listed near the top of the NWA’s top-10 contenders, while Lawler was rarely included in the “Official Wrestling Ratings.” Like fellow heartthrob Tommy Rich, Steamboat appeared on dozens of Apter covers as he and Flair feuded. Little did I realize at the time that the majority of the magazine coverage was given to guys who were working territories like New York, Georgia and Mid-Atlantic, where the mags were hot-sellers.

Crockett’s “World Wide Wrestling” program began airing in Memphis in late 1982, so I was finally able see what the fuss was all about. Unlike the WWF, whose TV I found extremely boring, or Georgia, which to me came off like a watered-down version of Memphis by the time my family got cable (I missed three incredible years of WTBS rasslin’ in ’79, ’80 and ’81), Mid-Atlantic was entertaining, realistic TV, with a “real” sporting event-type feel. I recall my mother watching World Wide with me once and making the comment: “Now, see, this stuff doesn’t look as fake as our wrestling.” My reply was something like: “Mom! Gosh, why do you have to go and say that?” I was a such a little diehard Memphis mark who was still in denial that rasslin’ was sports theatre.

I must admit, though, that I was impressed with Flair and Steamboat, the area’s two top stars who were good friends and partners at times…but even better enemies. Flair and Steamboat battled over the area’s TV title, the Mid-Atlantic championship and, eventually, the U.S. title and NWA World title through the years. While the flamboyant Flair was the man whose name was synonymous with the Crockett territory, Steamboat was nearly just as important in their success, especially after the Nature Boy had captured the 10 pounds of gold. While Flair was defending the belt around the world, the red-hot feud between Steamboat and partner Jay Youngblood vs. Sgt. Slaughter and Don Kernodle was as entertaining as anything in wrestling at that time, culminating with the Final Conflict cage match in March 1983, which sold out the Greensboro Coliseum with reportedly more than 10,000 fans turned away.

Steamboat was in phenomenal shape for the era, and the girls loved him. But he was so athletic in the ring that the male fans didn’t consider him a pretty boy. Work-wise, I’d say Steamboat was in an elite class inside the ring, along the lines of Jack Brisco and Shawn Michaels. As Harley Race says: “Steamboat was very, very good. He was easy to work with–if you could keep up with him, that is.” Clips I saw of a one-hour Broadway between Steamboat and Race back up the former NWA World champ’s remarks. He was super smooth very early in his career and, with the possible exception of Ricky Morton, nobody sold an opponent’s offense quite like Steamboat. His realistic style of taking abuse always seemed reminiscent of a heavyweight boxer on the ropes after 10 rounds. He was the total package—he really could do it all.

Not just blowing smoke: Steamboat's DVD has some of the best matches you'll ever see.

Flair and Steamboat’s battles for the NWA  title were legendary, including a one-hour draw on March 17, 1984, in Greensboro, and the main event of a card in enemy territory when the NWA “invaded” East Rutherford, N.J., on May 29, 1984. When Dusty Rhodes took over the book for Crockett in 1984, he appeared to have handpicked Magnum T.A. as his top ally, leaving Steamboat the distant number three babyface. After losing to Tully Blanchard at Starrcade ’84, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat debuted in the WWF in 1985. As good as Steamboat was in the ring, he was horrible on the mic, so he agreed to the addition of a martial-arts gimmick a la Bruce Lee and, later, to carrying a komodo dragon to the ring to help distinguish himself under Vince McMahon’s expanding circus tent. He told Wrestling Perspective: “It looked like Noah’s Ark. Vince was the proclaimed Noah.” Later, he begrudgingly added a spectacular fire-breathing display to his entrance. “I’d have to go about every three months to get a blood check,” he says. ”Kerosene has a lot of lead in it, and it’s the same thing as kids eating lead paint.”

While Steamboat never worked heel (Flair’s lone criticism of the Steamer), the longtime Mid-Atlantic babyface went on to have an amazing career (and incredible matches along the way) in the WWF and later in the NWA/WCW with the likes of Randy Savage, Flair, Rick Rude and the team of Steve Austin and Brian Pillman. Steamboat and Flair seemed to get better with age; their classic 1989 series featured some of my favorite matches of all time. Of their major bouts that year for the NWA title, I’d rank their New Orleans bout first, the Chicago title switch a close second and the Wrestle War bout in Nashville a distant third, despite the incredible angle afterward with Terry Funk. (Steamboat was miffed that he was not told about the Funker’s post-match attack, thinking he and Flair would be meeting in immediate rematches over the next few months, continuing the rivalry.) I immediately left a high-school soccer game my senior year in April 1989 so I could arrive just in time to catch the main event of Steamboat defending against Flair at the Mid-South Coliseum. Although less than 3,000 fans showed up, Flair and Steamboat went 35 minutes and tore the house down with an amazing bout–a far cry from the predictable 10- to 15-minute Lawler bouts in the same building during that time.

A new WWE DVD release–Ricky Steamboat: The Life Story of the Dragon–including a documentary chronically Steamboat’s career, is available today via Amazon (just click the link below)*. The Nexus (the official name of the former NXT rookies) brutalized Steamboat last night on RAW, which had to have him thinking, “There’s gotta be a easier way to plug a DVD.” Still, it was pretty cool seeing Lawler and Steamboat standing back to back in the ring to fend off the attack, as their paths rarely crossed throughout their careers. Storyline-wise, the angle also made sense, as clearly these punks have no respect for anyone, including Steamboat, one of the spectacular performers the business has ever known

Although I can think of about a dozen other bouts that should be included, the new WWE DVD includes some of the best matches you’ll ever see, including:

NWA World Tag Team Championship Match
Jack & Gerry Brisco vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat & Jay Youngblood
Starrcade November 24, 1983

NWA World Heavyweight Championship Match
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. “Nature Boy” Ric Flair
Boogie Jam March 17, 1984

Intercontinental Championship Match
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Randy “Macho Man” Savage
WrestleMania III March 29, 1987

2 out of 3 Falls Match for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. “Nature Boy” Ric Flair
Clash of the Champions VI April 2, 1989

Iron Man Challenge Match
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Rick Rude
Beach Blast June 20, 1992

No Disqualification Match for the WCW World Television Championship
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Steve Austin 

 *Your favorite wrestling Web site gets a commission for each Steamboat DVD when you buy clicking the link below, so buy dozens for your family and friends. (Also, check out the new Mattel WWE Legends figure featuring the Dragon–very cool.) I hope to have a full review up next week.

 

The Mega-Million-dollar man: Ric Flair offers hope for Tennessee economy

June 25th, 2010 4 comments

Money in the bank: Flair advises Lance Russell to invest in Apple stock in 1982.

While Ric Flair’s career as a financial advisor didn’t last long, the Nature Boy is back with a viable investment option for struggling Tennesseans as the new pitchman for the Volunteer State’s Mega Millions lottery.

Does my heart well to know that folks in my home state can turn to the 16-time World champion for inspiration in these uncertain economic times.

In the commercial below, I love how Flair bullies the puny jackpot (Kurt Angle off the gas) into pumping up his payouts, kicking dollar signs in his face. (Brings back memories of Jerry Lawler bodyslamming the Masked Inflation for Fleming Fine Furniture back in the late ’70s.)

Flair is certainly pumped, nearly more ripped today than he was in his lone appearance for Jerry Jarrett’s live Memphis wrestling show in August 1982. Guess he’s been…uh…working out with Hulk Hogan in TNA.