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Rasslin’ in the New Year: Mid-South Wrestling delivers a slobber-knocker opening to 1983

December 11th, 2011 3 comments

No bull: With the same tenacity that made him a legend in the ring, Bill Watts' no-nonsense approach to commentary helped add an air of legitimacy to his Mid-South Wrestling TV show.

(I’ve started to regain feeling in my left hand as I slowly recover from carpal tunnel syndrome, so I’m resuming my ongoing look at the entire year of Memphis and Mid-South Wrestling in 1983.) 

Sitting in front of a modest studio backdrop featuring the colors of the good ol’ USA at the Irish McNeil’s Boys Club in Shreveport, La., announcer Boyd Pierce (who often sported more flamboyant garb than the wrestlers themselves) and color analyst (and the promotion’s owner) Bill Watts, welcome us to the January 6 show, the first episode of Mid-South Wrestling for 1983

Even just sitting there, long since retired, Watts looks like he could still kick the ass of any man walking the planet. Wearing headsets like announcers who call “real” sporting events is just one of those little details that added a sense of realism to the Mid-South product.

On today’s show: the Crying Wrestling fan’s favorite grappler, “Captain Redneck” Dick Murdoch; the late “Dr. Death” Steve Williams; two of the greatest gimmicks of all time, the Great Kabuki (presented by Gary Hart); Kimala the Ugandan Giant Warrior with Gen. Skandor Akbar; and the wrestling machines of second-generation stars Ted DiBiase (the future Million Dollar Man) and Matt Borne (the future Doink the Clown and Big Josh).

With a sly grin, Watts mentions that he’s received a phone call from the Junkyard Dog, whose loser-leaves-town suspension (after dropping a bout in controversial fashion to DiBiase) will soon be up. Ah, so me must be in the middle of the Dog’s run as the masked “Stagger Lee”–a gimmick Koko Ware and Memphis Wrestling would take for themselves months later, keeping with the Memphis territory’s tradition of ripping off established masked stars like Mr. Wrestling, the Masked Superstar, the Spoiler, the Super Destroyer and the Assassins. (For what it’s worth, that really was Aaron Rodríguez under the hood as Mil Mascaras–not Pepe Lopez, as Jim Cornette suggests–who did the stretcher job for Jerry Lawler and Jackie Fargo on the first live card I ever attended at the Mid-South Coliseum in January 1979.)

Watts suggests Lee and JYD  would make an excellent team, eliciting a chuckle from Pierce. (I get the sneaking suspicion they know something we don’t.)

Interestingly, Watts also brings up that on Christmas night in Dallas, NWA World champion Ric Flair retained the 10 pounds of gold with an assist from the Freebirds in Texas, most notably special ref Michael Hayes, despite the fact that Mid-South was not a member of the National Wrestling Alliance and had not booked the champion in years, concentrating on getting their own North American heavyweight title over as the belt to hold in the profession. (Like Jerry Jarrett, Watts wisely realized booking the NWA champion was often more of a headache–and an expense–than it was worth, especially when you drew so well on personal issues and feuds without paying a percentage of the house to the champ and the Alliance.)

In character, Watts says that he never liked the Freebirds, especially Hayes, whom he describes as the kind of guy he’d like to slap. (That’s probably a borderline shoot–Watts reportedly loved Hayes as a heel personality but hated his in-ring work and threatened to fire the ‘Birds if they didn’t add veteran Buddy Roberts to the mix to help carry the team, creating the controversial, brilliant gimmick that any two of three could defend the Mid-South tag titles, leaving the opponents at a schematic disadvantage.) Watts claims that Hayes grew his hair long because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to look like a man or a woman–that damn, dirty hippie—a joke that again pleases Pierce. Watts hopes to have a film clip of that action in Texas…uh, in two weeks. (Really? That’s an eternity today.)

Running mates: II's refusal to unmask cost him a chance at the vice presidency with Jimmy Carter.

Hayes is a sharp contrast to another wrestler whom Watts discusses next, a man of integrity who has nothing to hide…the masked Mr. Wrestling II. (Or as Pierce refers to him “Mr. Rasslin‘ II.”) Watts warns that anyone who tries to question II’s character will be met with “power and violence.” (I’m sure the same could be said for most men of integrity and character, like Gandhi, the Dali Lama and Buford Pusser.) Watts goes to an interview that Reesor Bowden (no relation to me, though he’s a dapper, handsome man) conducted with II, who’s wearing a suit along with his hood. (GQ later admitted it was a mistake recommending such a fashion ensemble, but Johnny Walker somehow pulls it off.)

II wasn’t a smooth promo, but damn, he was very believable in his delivery–no wonder the fans had faith in him. The words seemed from the heart and not scripted in the least, unlike today’s rigid, stiff promos. Interesting that in the background the fans sit so quietly as the legend speaks–that’s old-school respect. Apparently, as the promo unfolds, it’s clear that somone’s been messing with II’s masks and defacing other personal property in the dressing room. Hmmm…could it be another masked man in the territory jealous of II’s success? (Say, has anyone seen Jerry Stubbs lately?) The promo was so unpolished that Watts noted that II wasn’t eloquent–he’s a plain speaker, i.e., he means business. (You tell ‘em, Cowboy). Odd that such a promotion known for such exciting action on its TV show kicks off with so much talking. Still, effective segments.

Business doesn’t exactly pick up with the next segment–a bench-press session with Tony Atlas. Watts loved pushing real athletes and impressive physical specimens (the latter of which he would later knock McMahon for  when Hulk Hogan won the WWF title) as he felt it gave the business legitimacy, and Atlas was in his peak here. Spotting Atlas was the then-chiseled JYD…with Stagger Lee watching nearby (wait, what?!), along with a bunch of fans. Watts marvels at Atlas and his ability to benchpress 500 pounds…”you folks sitting at home can’t even imagine the preparation and concentration” such a feat takes. I love how Watts speaks like a legit sportscaster.  (That said, it’s a wonder that Atlas can focus at all, with Watts standing above him dissecting every second of the lift.) Now Atlas will attempt 550 pounds. As Atlas reloads, Watts interrogates JYD about his masked friend; the Dogs explains that Stagger used to beat him up as a kid and still his milk money before they became pals. Sounds reasonable. Finally, Atlas, with Watts screaming “Lock it out,” presses the additional weight as the segment ends. (I just knew Borne and DiBiase were going to interrupt the session like so many heels in these types of feats of strength demonstrations and attack the babyfaces with barbell plates, but no, nothing of the sort.)

The good (green) Doctor is up next, taking on Tom Renesto Jr. (son of the aforementioned original masked Assassin tag team, who would later work Memphis as “Tom Branch”). Williams is wearing a red robe with OU on the left chest–Boomer Sooner! This must be shortly after Doc’s debut as Watts says he’s “fresh off the Fiesta Bowl, where he played the whole second half with a cracked wrist.” Williams is wearing a singlet, showing off his lily white, bulky 285-pound body–nowhere near as physically cut as his Japan and WCW days. Watts, who along with Buddy Landell helped train Williams, says that while Doc is looking ahead to the NFL draft that he might stick with wrestling as well–years before Bo Jackson became a household name for being a two-sport professional athlete. During the bout, Watts discusses various big men from other major universities in the area, including LSU wrestler John Tenta, who would go on to fame as a sumo wrestler in Japan before making the transition to sports entertainment in the WWF in the late ’80s and early ’90s as The Earthquake and later as the Masked Golga during the Attitude Era. Doc is really green here, but finishes off Renesto with a powerful-looking Oklahoma Stampede powerslam. Again, Watts’ commentary is so convincing, the average fan has to believe Williams is a future star; in fact, Doc turned out to be just that.

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Next up is Marty Lunde…that’s right, Double A himself, the future Arn Anderson, who paces the ring as the entrance music–the theme from the USMC–blares for his opponent. Nope, it’s not Sgt. Slaughter, but the captain–Capt. Redneck, to be exact. Wearing a camo ballcap, Murdoch pushes a metal chair to the ring to awkwardly step into the squared circle but Lunde Pearl Harbors him. Lunde is young and agile here…and already losing his hair, which would be an asset to him later in his role as Ole Anderson’s nephew/cousin/brother (depending on the year in WCW). Lunde’s apparently borrowed Ernie Ladd’s kneepads as they both appear to be three sizes too big and quickly slide down to his ankles. Solid, solid bout between two guys who both had the ability to be NWA champion. I really appreciate how Mid-South squash matches weren’t one-sided jokes like like they were in Memphis and other territories in the kayfabe era.

Watts has a penchant for name dropping figures from other sporting backgrounds–earlier he mentioned bumping into Louisiana Tech’s Roger Carr in an airport–now he’s congratulating Arkansas coach Lou Holtz, whom he shared a flight with recently, on a victory in something called the Blue Bonnet Bowl. I always really liked Watts’ delivery and presentation of pro wrestling as sport–he even had a way of making midget wrestlers (whom he described as “mighty mini-men”) sound bad ass. After shaking off Lunde’s offensive flurry, Murdoch wins with his combination suplex/brain buster a la the late Killer Karl Kox in a competitive bout. At this point, Lunde was a glorified jobber, but when compared to the clowns who did jobs in Memphis during the same period, he comes off like Nick Bockwinkel. God bless the USA–and Capt. Redneck. Murdoch is one of those guys whom I wish would have had a crazed heel run vs. Lawler in ’81 or ’82.

Art Crews is the next sacrificial lamb for Kimala, who’s “handled” by the masked Friday and managed by the legendary Skandor Akbar. Total squash, with Kimala eating Crews alive with an offensive flurry of chops and slams before finishing him off with not one but two belly flops. Next up after a commercial break: the Great Kabuki. (Cue David Letterman: “Kimala…Kabuki. Kabuki…Kimala.”) Wisely, Watts is already building up to a bout with Kimala vs. Andre the Giant, a surefire draw.

Akbar calls an impromptu meeting with Gary Hart, inquiring about the services of Kabuki, who’s wearing an eerie looking mask of his namesake stage art and working the nunchucks like there’s no tomorrow. I’m paraphrasing here, but Hart tells the General to show him the money. (Although Kabuki did eventually appear in Memphis in 1986 when the gimmick was past its prime, I can’t help but think he would have drawn great money for Lawler and Jarrett in 1982 a la Kimala and Kendo Nagasaki.But there’s no way Hart would have worked for Jarrett after their incident in Georgia.) Great to see two of the most iconic managers of the era in negotiations for the services of this savage beast. (If only they knew that the Ugandan could be bought with watermelons and women, according to Jimmy Hart.)

Kabuki finishes off a young Tim Horner, who’s sporting a blonde porno mustache a la Little Bill in “Boogie Nights.” (Horner, a capable worker, would go on to have a decent run in Atlanta, including an upset of Road Warrior Hawk with a clean pinfall on a Saturday afternoon show of World Championship Wrestling.) Watts seems gravely concerned about this alliance with Hart and Akbar. Once the kimono and mask are off, Kabuki doesn’t look like much physically, but the combination of Watts’ commentary and Horner’s selling make the mystical figure appear to be unstoppable–again, classic old-school psychology. (Kudos for Hart for presenting the gimmick with such creativity and precision.) I’ll be damned if Kabuki doesn’t nearly take Horner’s head off with a super kick that Watts refers to as “karate” to finish off his opponent.

The Mid-South tag kingpins are up next, with DiBiase and Borne (two of the infamous Rat Pack heel faction) facing a yet-to-be-bleached-blonde Buddy Landel and Bruno (David) Sammartino Jr. Pierce immediately brings up Watts’ battles with Bruno Sr. at in front of the largest crowds ever at the old Madison Square Garden, which Watts humbly dismisses. DiBiase is sporting his mysterious black glove, which he was known to load with a piece of metal–a great old-school heel gimmick. David, who’s never impressed me much, looks like a million dollar man against DiBiase and Borne, who sell like crazy for Bruno Jr. in the early going. Watts mentions the demise of the Mississippi State tag titles in favor of the Mid-South tag titles, saying too many belts dilute the prestige of the championships–amen! The heels get the heat on Landell, who eventually makes the hot tag to David. Man, Borne and DiBiase were so smooth in that ring–in the same mold as Arn and Tully Blanchard as NWA tag champions in JCP years later. All four men brawl before DiBiase unabashedly loads the glove for the entire crowd (but not the ref) to see and knocks out Landell with one punch, much to the crowd’s chagrin, for the win.

Always known for their competitive TV matches, this episode of Mid-South closes with II vs. Gino Hernandez, one of the most naturally charismatic heels ever in the business. A lot of good mat wrestling in the early going, though Watts is bemoaning Oklahoma’s loss to Arizona State, stressing how important conditioning is in both football and wrestling. Hernandez slaps II while the two grapplers are tangled against the ropes. Even though II’s facial expressions are largely hidden behind the hood, the look he gives Gino could kill, which fires up Watts and the crowd. II reverses an armbar and slaps Gino for good measure and then breaks out his best Dusty Rhodes shuck and jive dance, which the crowd pops for. (My goodness–take away II’s mask and ropes and he’s a bald old man who no one cares about; Walker owes Jerry Jarrett and Jim Barnett for their creativity in creating a second Mr. Wrestling after Tim Woods left Georgia.) II whips Gino into the turnbuckle, with the Handsome Half-Breed taking Ric Flair’s trademark upside-down bump. II finishes off the cocky punk with his knee-lift finisher for a clean finish–a refreshing change from other promotions of the day, which usually ended a TV main event with a draw or disqualification.

Overall, a strong start to the year for one of the greatest territories and TV shows in the business at the time; however, it’s noticeable that the promotion doesn’t have many heartthrobs in the ring–nor many teenage girls in the audience. That would change by year’s end, opening up Mid-South Wrestling to a whole new demographic with the result of an influx of Memphis talent and booking. Stay tuned.

To order this episode and nearly the entire library of Mid-South Wrestling in pristine condition, visit my friend Micah Watts’ site at Universal Wrestling Archives.

 

Today, North America, tomorrow the universe.

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