Home > Uncategorized > Driver B. Ware!: Scott Bowden takes a road trip with WWE Hall of Fame inductee Koko B. Ware

Driver B. Ware!: Scott Bowden takes a road trip with WWE Hall of Fame inductee Koko B. Ware

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With the announcement of Koko B. Ware’s impending induction into the WWE Hall of Fame the night before WrestleMania in Houston (by Wayne Ferris, a.k.a, the Honky Tonk Man), I can’t help but think of a road trip I took with the Bird Man and Downtown Bruno not long into my would-be wrestling career back in 1996.

I was standing off the road taking a piss alongside former WWF stars Ware and Bruno (Harvey Whippleman) in 20-degree weather when I realized that maybe this wasn’t how I really wanted to spend my Saturday nights.

The stop had been necessary—we’d gone through the 12-pack of Coors Lite that Ware had splurged on miles earlier, and we were still about an hour outside of Memphis, on our way back from the evening’s matches in the hellhole that is the Nashville Sports Arena. I hadn’t objected in the least when Ware offered to pay for the brew—I had already chipped in $10 for gas and I’d spent $10 on food, wiping out half of my whopping $40 payoff. (Good thing I had those “rich parents in Germantown,” whom I often crowed about in my on-air promos, to support my wrestling hobby.) I had also been potatoed (a smack on the face that was way too hard) earlier by Ms. Texas (later known as the WWE’s Jacquelyn and TNA’s Jackie), and my left ear was ringing like one of Stan Hansen’s cowbells. From the time we had left the Nashville Fairgrounds, Ware had been bitching about how his career had turned out, though it seemed to me that he had come a long way from the days he used to wash promoter Jerry Jarrett’s Cadillac in the late ’70s.

Hell, maybe he had earned the right to complain, though most veterans subscribe to the belief that the business doesn’t owe you a damn thing. Buddy Landel, for example, knew that he had fucked himself out of headlining with Ric Flair in front of packed houses, to working in front of 500 people in a flea market with Tommy Rich, another guy who accepted the fact that his ride ended because of his own personal demons.

Ware was one of the few who had gone from Memphis TV jobber to main-eventer at the Mid-South Coliseum. In addition to having a way with car wax, Ware had a tremendous dropkick and natural athletic ability.

Even though Ware was usually on the losing end of his bouts, announcer Lance Russell usually reminded the audience that Koko had “the best dropkick in pro wrestling.” His first push past hapless-jobber status occurred when he won a battle royal on November 22, 1980, to determine the promotion’s first TV champion. Instead of an actual title belt, the winner was to receive a “new” color TV set. (Not sure if the TV was to be up for grabs for every title defense or not; would have been a drag carrying that thing to the ring each week.)

Before Ware could claim his prize, however, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant turned heel and busted the TV, much to announcer Lance Russell’s chagrin: “Hey, c’mon, Jimmy!” (The Valiant heel turn came from nowhere in order to, later in the same show, turn Rich babyface after it was decided that Wildfire’s stunning heel turn a few months earlier was not clicking.)

When Lawler, at his peak as the babyface King, faced rival Dream Machine in a loser-leaves-town bout on September 7, 1981, the promotion declared he could appoint a special referee of his choice. (Hart had been run out of town a week earlier in the Last Tango in Memphis, a tag bout where Lawler and Dundee had defeated the Dream and Hart w/Chick Donavan. The stips for the rematch: if Dream wins, Lawler has to leave town and Hart can return; if Lawler wins, then the entire First Family has to go.) Rather than gain an unfair advantage by selecting someone like Bill Dundee or Jackie Fargo, Lawler (ever the sportsman) decided do the honorable thing and select a wrestler who wasn’t considered a friend: young Ware. In what was an amazing swerve for the time, Ware turned heel, sneaking the Dream Machine a chain that he used to knock Lawler to kingdom come. Koko then delivered a fast three count that would put Paul Morton to shame, as the stunned fans at the Coliseum nearly rioted over their hero’s forced departure. (Morton, the father of Rock ‘n’ Roller Ricky Morton, was sort of the area’s tacit babyface ref, often administering quick counts when the heels had their shoulders pinned and slow counts on the babyfaces.)

For his efforts in preserving Jimmy Hart’s First Family of Rasslin’, Ware was deemed “Sweet Brown Sugar” by the Mouth of the South the following week on Memphis TV. (Florida wrestler Skip Young should have sued for gimmick infringement.) Ware lost his hair a week later in a gimmick battle royal at the hands of Bill Dundee, but his slick new look only seemed to complement his heel persona.

Ware developed into a top-notch heel, engaging in an intense feud with Lawler when the King returned to the castle a month later. The blow-off, a barbed-wire main event bout of Sugar vs. Lawler, drew nearly 7,500 fans at the Coliseum. Ware’s tandem with the super-smooth Bobby Eaton was easily one of the best teams ever to appear in the area, with Ebony & Ivory (as Hart sometimes referred to the duo) becoming multiple holders of the AWA Southern tag titles and having wonderful bouts vs. the likes of Flordian babyfaces Terry Taylor and Steve Keirn.

kokosugar

Ware also became known as one of the legit toughest guys in the business. During our drive home from Nashville, I enjoyed hearing the story of how he gave Keirn a fabulous beating in 1982.

Stealing a gimmick made famous by Junkyard Dog in Mid-South, Ware donned a mask and the ring name “Stagger Lee” (as in the old Lloyd Price hit of the same name in the ’50s) after dropping a loser-leaves-town match to former partner Eaton in 1982. Months earlier, Keirn and partner Stan Lane had turned the territory on its cauliflowered ear with the Fabulous Ones gimmick, which included shaking hands with the fans around ringside and occasionally carrying a boom-box radio to the ring.

Not realizing that this was an exclusive Fabs gimmick, Ware (as Stagger), had the same greeting for the fans as Price’s version of “Stagger Lee” played, sometimes on the ghetto blaster he carried to the ring.

In those days, the lure of the Fabs was so strong that the promotion often booked two shows on Saturday night, with Keirn and Lane headlining an overall weaker spot show, while guys like Lawler, Bill Dundee and Ware worked Nashville. When Ware walked into the closet that is the dressing-room area at the Nashville Fairgrounds, he was surprised to see Keirn and Lane standing there. Faster than you can say “Let me tell you something, Pal-y” (the catchphrase of the Fabs’ mentor, Fargo), Keirn was on Ware with a flurry of cheap shots. A tough son of a bitch in his own right, Keirn knew of Ware’s rep, but I he guess figured he could take Union City’s favorite son if he got the first licks in. He figured wrong. Ware regrouped and nearly knocked Keirn unconscious. He then turned to Lane and said, “What about you, Stan?” Lane gathered up his partner and the duo strutted out of the dressing room with their sequined-tuxedo tails between their legs.

Less interesting during our drive home, Koko’s conspiracy theories as to why he had been ousted by Vince McMahon were starting to wear as thin as referee Frank Morrell’s hairline. Besides, I had been leery of Ware ever since he nearly broke the neck of Kevin Christian Lawler, who was working as the hooded Yellowjacket, with an errant BirdBuster maneuver during a TV bug squash. (Even Hank Pym, the Marvel Comics superhero of the same name, never had it that bad.) A couple of years earlier, when I had just broken in as ref, Koko explained that he wanted to rough me up after I failed to notice his feet on the ropes during a three-count. He asked if I felt comfortable taking the ’Buster, which would involve my head traveling at great speed toward the canvas. I shook my head, calmly explaining that I was an inexperienced rookie and had no idea how to protect myself. He looked me right in the eye and said, “That’s OK, kid. I’ll just punch ya or something.” Of course, he grabbed me after the match, whispered, “Here we go.” And before I knew it, I was in the air–my head about to be busted by the Bird Man. Somehow, I made it out alive.

Staggering success: The alter-ego of Koko was over big time with Memphis fans.
Staggering success: The alter-ego of Koko was over big time with Memphis fans.

Bruno wasn’t in a much better mood during the journey. Although he still worked for the then-Fed in some kind of behind-the-scenes role, his main accomplishments of late appeared to be limited to scheming with perennial WWF jobber Steve Lombardi to successfully rip off rental-car companies and hotels on the road. Lawler told me that Bruno and Lombardi once beat the shit out of a rental, pulling out cables and wires from underneath the hood just before they were pulling into the parking lot. With smoke coming out from the hood as they pulled in front of the counter, Lombardi was supposedly screaming, “There’s NO WAY were paying for this piece of shit!” Bruno was going through a divorce from his wife, Karen, at the time, which had turned into a TV angle involving me. Bruno had met his bride on a WWF tour of Scotland, and somehow convinced her to leave for the United States, where fame and fortune awaited. I can only imagine Karen’s shock when Bruno showed up drunk to pick her up from the airport before driving her straight to their love nest: a trailer in Mississippi. For weeks, I’d come out with candy and love letters supposedly sent to me by Karen. After I read a poem she’d written,” Bruno was visibly upset and issued an on-air threat to “kill” me, comments that nearly killed announcer Dave Brown instead.

You couldn’t blame Brown really. He probably still had on his mind the angle in which Eddie Gilbert ran over Lawler with a car. During that angle, Lawler took a bump for the ages (assisted by elbow- and kneepads that were noticeable under his acid-washed jeans), enough to rattle Doug, Eddie’s brother, to say: “Oh, God. I think you killed him.” Eddie, who at this point had probably filled his shorts with Hot Stuff, panicked. I mean, yeah, he wanted to be the King of Memphis and all, but c’mon. The segment was so convincing that several viewers called the police to report that Gilbert had committed a hit-and-run involving Lawler. (Which, in Memphis, is like attempting to assassinate the President of the United States.) The cops caught up with Eddie, an easy feat with a precinct located across the street from the WMC-TV studio. Lawler was forced to come to Eddie’s defense and explain to the police that it was all just a part of the show. To prove his point, Lawler hobbled out on TV to challenge Gilbert to a bout two days later at the Coliseum, effectively killing the angle.

As much as Ware and Bruno bemoaned where the business had taken them, it occurred to me that night on Interstate 40 that despite all that, they were doing what they truly loved. Mixed in with a few regrets, the two talked of their brightest moments, most notably Ware’s performance in front of nearly 90,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome for WrestleMania III and Bruno’s appearance in the corner of Sid Vicious/Justice in the main event at WrestleMania VIII. Yeah, Ware complained about the biz, but he still loved it. He only wished he were somehow more a part of it, much like Bruno’s situation with his wife.

If anything, I admired their dedication to a business that had pretty much already forgotten them. Then again, how could Vince McMahon ever forget Bruno’s Christmas gift one year: a $5 canned ham. Lawler roared with laughter when Bruno confessed that during another road trip. Lawler’s reaction: “Bruno, you idiot! How could you give a multi-millionaire like Vince McMahon a canned ham?!” (Poor Bruno—I think he honestly felt that, hey, who doesn’t like canned ham?)

I ran into Bruno recently at the Memphis International Airport. Dressed in khakis and a button-down (the WWE’s dress code clearly in force), I barely recognized him—he looked like a suburban dad out of a Sears catalog. I really admire Bruno for his longevity in the business that he loves. It may not seem like much of a position to some, helping out backstage at WWE events, but the man’s still a part of a business he loves—and the boys are probably like his family.

In a business that often discards its aging stars and puts them out to pasture without a second thought, the WWE HOF is nice recognition for guys who have faded from the spotlight. It didn’t shock me that Lawler looked at his induction as more of nuisance than an honor, as the King’s enjoyed incredible longevity as a performer and celebrity in Memphis, and as an announcer on the most-watched wrestling program in the world. (When I called Lawler and jokingly congratulated him on his HOF induction, he laughed and said, “Yeah, right. That’s like congratulating someone for winning the fuckin’ World belt.” Keep that in mind when someone makes the argument against guys like Koko being inducted into the WWE shallowed Hall because “he never even held a major championship in WWE.” Of course, the baggy pants he wore as High Energy with the late Owen Hart are also a definite strike against him.

For guys like Koko, the HOF is an honor, a chance to bask in the spotlight one last time. I’m not saying Koko’s had a true HOF-worthy career: a few hot years in Memphis and a solid undercard run in the Former Fed in no way put Ware on the same level as fellow 2009 inductees the Funks, Ricky Steamboat, Steve Austin and Bill Watts. That said, those who dismiss the Bird Man as a lame gimmick never saw his outstanding work in Memphis. And if you look at the WWF Hall for what it truly is—a combination marketing ploy/company gold watch—then Koko’s selection shouldn’t be a surprise. Koko was one of the most memorable characters of the WWF’s juggernaut expansion years. (Who can forget Koko’s “Piledriver,” the title track for one of the WWF albums in the ’80s? God knows I’ve tried.) Frankie, er, uh, frankly, that holds more clout than any titles “won” in a worked sport, at least in the eyes of Vince McMahon. Not too shabby for a kid from Union City, Tenn., who dreamed of rasslin’ stardom.

We are family: Brown Sugar was the sweet soul of Hart’s rogues gallery.

We are family: Brown Sugar was the sweet soul of Hart’s rogues gallery.

  1. The Golden Spike
    March 11th, 2009 at 19:00 | #1

    That”s a really, really nice article – one point: Owen and Koko were High Energy, it was Owen and Jim Neidhart that were the New Foundation.

  2. admin
    March 11th, 2009 at 23:52 | #2

    Thanks for the assist, Golden Spike. I”m making the change now. (I tried really hard to forget that gimmick.)

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