Idol worship: The Universal Heartthrob returns to his adoring public (Pt. 1 of 2)
After working at the Miami Convention Center on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 1975, wrestler Buddy Colt was piloting his single-engine Cessna to Tampa International Airport. Accompanying Colt to Tampa for the next evening’s card of Championship Wrestling from Florida were wrestlers “Iron” Mike (Dennis) McCord, who sat to the pilot’s right in the front, and Gary Hart and “King” Bobby Shane, who were in the back.
Colt’s plane, sometimes jokingly referred to as “the bad guys’ plane,” encountered thick fog and increasingly overcast skies along the way and was redirected to Peter O. Knight Airport, located on Davis Island near Hillsboro Bay. However, the fog and clouds proved too daunting a tag-team, making it nearly impossible for Colt to see as he attempted to land the plane. At around 1:30 a.m., Colt overshot the airport runway. McCord reportedly shouted, “My God, we’re going to hit the water!”
The bad guys were in trouble.
The Cessna crashed into the dark waters of Hillsboro Bay at about 100 mph. Colt and Hart were thrown from the plane. McCord, 27 at the time, was trapped momentarily when his seat belt jammed; he escaped by shedding his pants and sliding out of the restraint. Shane, 29, considered by many to be a rising star and a brilliant booking mind, was killed, reportedly on impact.
All told, Colt’s extensive injuries relegated him to managing and announcing after the plane crash. Hart, who broke his back and clavicle and suffered several gashes to his face, was mainly a manager from that point forward. Comparatively, McCord fared better than the other survivors, “only” breaking some ribs and both ankles, along with suffering deep cuts to his feet because he didn’t have his shoes on at the time of the crash.
A piece of McCord might have died on that plane as well. And it wasn’t long before “Iron” Mike McCord was gone forever. Rising from the ashes stood Austin Idol, “The Universal Heartthrob.”
About three years before Shane died, he worked Georgia, teaming a few times with young heel Jerry Lawler from Memphis. Shane was so impressed with his partner’s potential that he did not mind that Lawler wanted to use the King of Wrestling gimmick in Memphis to play off Elvis Presley’s celebrity status as the King of Rock n’ Roll. In an impromptu coronation, Shane gave Lawler his first crown. It’s probably no coincidence that Lawler soon added a Tarzan-like strap to his ring attire shortly after working with Shane, who wore something similar. The King was dead in 1975. Long live the King.
McCord eventually resurfaced in Texas with the Idol gimmick in March 1978, although a newspaper ad promoting one of his first appearances had him listed as “Often Idle,” which might have been an office rib. During his sabbatical, he apparently had been training, saying his prayers and eating his vitamins. He was more cut, more ripped than before, and probably about 20 pounds lighter. No doubt inspired by Superstar Graham, the hottest heel of the time, McCord bleached his hair, shaved his chest clean, and often wore tie-dyed trunks and tights.
His newfound gimmick landed him mostly in the middle of the cards, working with the likes of the Von Erichs and Jose Lothario. His stay lasted about three months before dropping a match to Kevin Von Erich on May 29, 1978, in which the stipulation called for Idol to leave town if he lost.
Idol worked the Portland area a little and then Detroit before heading to Memphis in December 1978. If he had come in with the no-frills McCord image years earlier, he probably would have made the middle of Memphis-area cards as well. But as the flamboyant Idol, he was treated as a superstar from the beginning, yet another example of Jerry Jarrett elevating a young star to the another level. In the fictionalized autobiography of Hulk Hogan’s life, Bollea claims that his arms were bigger than Superstar Graham’s by the late ‘70s. And if that Bollea boast (really, though, couldn’t it just be called “a Hogan” at this point?) is true, Idol’s guns would be right up there with Graham and Hogan. Ironically enough, Idol and Hogan met several times for the Southeastern heavyweight during Sterling Golden’s (Bollea) run in the territory.
Although most agree he wasn’t regarded as a worker the caliber of say, Ric Flair, Idol had amazing ring psychology, oozed charisma and cut promos on par with the elite. And in Memphis, that was far important. (Besides, I’ll take Idol’s Las Vegas leglock over Flair’s figure-four every day of the week and twice on Monday nights at the Mid-South Coliseum.) In the days before catchphrases became an annoying crutch for many stars, Idol frequently declared himself to be “the Women’s Pet, the Men’s Regret, dah-ling.” Idol made his Coliseum debut on Dec. 11, 1978, defeating Robert Gibson, who was about four years away from his Rock ‘n’ Roll Express gimmick. Two weeks later, on Christmas night, Idol ruined the holidays for young Memphis marks by dethroning the King and taking the AWA Southern title. The two had a hot feud in early 1979, drawing steady, if not spectacular, houses, with crowds usually around 5,000 to 6,000. (Not bad, but nowhere near the magic of the Lawler vs. Dundee or even Lawler vs. “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant programs in 1977-78.)
The feud heated up following a match in Memphis on January 8, 1979, in which Lawler reportedly received a stiff kick in the gut accidentally from Idol. Suffering from internal bleeding by Wednesday in Evansville, Lawler was passing blood before his main-event tag match with Pez Whatley vs. Dennis Condrey and Phil Hickerson for the Southern tag titles. He worked that night anyway, drove home, and the following morning, passed out at the Nashville airport prior to his flight to Memphis. Lawler spent a few days in the hospital, which the local newspapers picked up on—tremendous free publicity to sell a feud. (Lawler told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that “he felt like was dying.”
Of course, the promotion turned this into an angle, coming back with a stretcher match on January 29—which happened to be 7-year-old Scott Bowden’s first time in attendance at the Mid-South Coliseum. The main event of Lawler and Jackie Fargo vs. Idol and Mil Mascaras drew nearly 7,000 fans. (Leave it to Memphis to use Mascaras, one of the biggest Apter-mag cover-boy babyfaces of the time, as a heel.) After dropping a match in which Lawler agreed to leave town vs. Idol’s hair as the feud’s blow-off, the Heartthrob went to Georgia to feud with Tommy Rich. Some would say Idol took the gimmick to the next level in this Atlanta run, working a major program that involved NWA World champion Harley Race, Mr. Wrestling II and Rich. Idol’s comments about II wrestling under a hood because he was an ugly ex-con were hilarious.
Around this time, singer Daryl Rhoades and his band—known then as Chip Taylor and the Idolators (sic) recorded “Heart Throb.” Set to the tune of “Wild Thing,” the lyrics went something like this: “Heart Throb…with the body of Apollo and the mind of Einstein/Harley Race…soon the mat will meet your face…and you’ll go down in disgrace…Harley Race/Well is that really Wrestling Number II…How can I really know for sure? Well, let me take a look under that mask…Ewww…An impostor!”
Gordon Solie was the perfect straight man to Idol’s braggadocios ways, especially following an angle when Idol seemingly steamrolled Wrestling II on Georgia TV, making the masked legend submit to his leglock. His opponent was revealed to be an impostor (which is where the line in the song might have come from) when the real II showed up in a jacket and slacks to attack Idol following his “victory.” The following week, Solie chastised Idol for the ruse, saying that someone disguising his voice had called II at the studio prior to their match to inform him that there was a family emergency—while Idol looked on anxiously puzzled at the accusation…great stuff.
Idol continued to work Georgia and Knoxville, before returning to Memphis when Lawler broke his leg months later. The Women’s Pet was recruited back into the territory for some dates as a heel as part of the CWA World tag titlists with Dutch Mantel, eventually winning the CWA “World” title from Billy Robinson on Oct. 6, 1980.
Lawler and Idol wouldn’t meet again until the King returned from his injury toward year’s end. After Lawler disposed of the Dream Machine in his first bout back in December, Hart called in the biggest names in the business to face Lawler, usually with stipulations. Lawler beat Idol to win Hart’s gold record for the Gentrys’ hit “Keep on Dancin’” on Jan. 12, 1981. The two met later in a rematch, and as Idol had Lawler trapped in the Las Vegas leglock, the King elected to take a less-than-conventional approach to reverse the hold: He tossed a fireball at the Heartthrob’s neck.
With Idol gone to sell the injury, Lawler continued to feud with Hart. Months later, Lance Russell announced on the air that he had received a wire from Mexican promoter Salvadore Lutteroth saying Lawler had been elected the most popular wrestler in Mexico City. Russell explained that the Memphis show was airing on cable in that area and that somehow Lawler’s popularity and pull-down-the strap comebacks had transcended the language barrier. (To his credit, Russell said all this with a straight face and made you believe it.)
For the presentation, last year’s winner, the Black Diamond, reportedly affectionately known as “El Casa Grande,” (The Big House) would be on hand to present Lawler a plaque. (In a nice subtle moment, the masked Mexican wrestler giggled a bit when Lance said his nickname in Spanish.) The Mexican star showed up in a dark trench coat and failed to communicate with Russell until Lawler came out and put on the sombrero that the Diamond had brought. As Lawler smiled for the cameras, the Diamond declared him “Numero uno! Numero uno!” Lance soaked up the moment, calling the local boy done good “Senor de King.” The Diamond then held up the cheap-looking plaque, which consisted of an 8 x 10 color glossy of Lawler pasted on a small piece of wood with the word “MEXICO” across the top, with a blue ribbon attached.
The touching ceremony didn’t last long, as the Diamond promptly smashed the plaque over Lawler’s head. The stunned studio audience sat in silence, with a half-dozen babyfaces making the save, including Mexican babyface Hector Guerrero, prompting Lance to utter probably the most unintentionally funny line of his career: “Yeah, Hector, tell him in Mexican to get the heck outta here!” With a teenaged Eddie Gilbert restraining him from behind, the Diamond removed his mask to reveal Idol, who apparently hadn’t forgotten about the fireball incident. “I told you, Jerry Lawler, I told you I’d be back. Get that piece of garbage out of here!” The segment was inspired by similar a angle with Jody “the Assassin” Hamilton, who pulled the same dirty trick on Dusty Rhodes, claiming to be Mexican legend El Santo. Funny how Florida fans feel their version was superior, poking holes in the Memphis angle, while I had to laugh when Hamilton presented the Dream with “el béisbol… béisbol.” Both angles were quite camp and entertaining but not nearly as believable as I remembered when I was a kid. (Imagine that.)
Lawler eventually sent Idol packing again, but the Heartthrob returned about a year later and brought the International title with him to the area. (It was announced that Idol had won the belt “from Terry Funk in front of 20,000 screaming fans in Tokyo, Japan,” a match that almost certainly never took place.)
Explaining that he didn’t want to get caught up in a long feud with Idol again, Lawler promised to defeat his foe in less than five minutes, or he would return the price of admission to every fan in attendance at the Coliseum. (Similar stips would come into play for hair match in 1987, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Not only did Lawler pin Idol in about four minutes, but he also tossed another fireball at the prone Idol, who scurried from the ring and the arena.
But the Heartthrob would be back—this time, loved by the fans.