On this day in rasslin’ history
April 27, 1987: The Idol, Rich vs. Lawler feud peaked on on this day in Memphis wrestling history, with the now-infamous hair match, which drew more than 8,500 fans. Along with his manager Paul Heyman (then known as “Paul E. Dangerly”) Idol and Rich cheated Lawler of his hair and the AWA Southern title in a steel-cage match. (The cage probably saved the lives of those heels from hell in the ugly aftermath.) While Lawler getting his hair cut was certainly enough to create a melee of Ron Artest-like proportions, to make matters worse, in the pre-match hype, Idol had promised to refund every audience member’s price of admission should he lose as well as have his own precious bleached-blonde locks snipped. (Imagine how angry the fans would have been if the match didn’t take place.
Before the bout, Idol held up the promotion for more money, vowing he wouldn’t wrestle if his demands weren’t met. Jarrett caved but he never forgave Idol for it and to this day doesn’t enjoy speaking of the Heartthrob.) Since the very idea of Lawler losing a hair match at that time was about as unfathomable as Rich regaining the NWA World title, Memphis fans eagerly plucked down their blue-collar cash thinking the Women’s Pet had made a wager he’d soon regret. For more on the last great Memphis feud that drew serious money, click here.
April 27, 1981: With the exception of Dusty Rhodes and Andre the Giant, Tommy Rich very well could have been the hottest box-office attraction in the business in 1981. Although a bit awkward in his movements around the ring, Rich was a good worker, better than most today give him credit for. He was certainly no Ted DiBiase, another young babyface who often worked Atlanta in the ’70s and ’80s (before becoming a dastardly black-gloved heel). Perennial NWA World champ Harley Race, who had a lot of say as to who he dropped the belt to and when, supposedly assured DiBiase at one point that he’d get the much-vaunted 10 pounds of gold for an extended run someday. DiBiase certainly had the ability to be a classic touring NWA champ—one who could wrestle any style and make the local hero look like a million-dollar man in the process. But Rich was more than capable and had a likeable, clumsy charisma that DiBiase didn’t have. According to a published report by Dave Meltzer of THE WRESTLING OBSERVER, Rich was under consideration to be a touring NWA World champion. But first he returned to Memphis in 1980, at a time when the territory’s top-draw Lawler was recovering from a broken leg. Nine-year-old mark Scott Bowden watched with much anticipation as Rich, in his first appearance back, wrestled longtime babyface Bill Dundee, with the winner to receive a Southern title shot. The two did some mat wrestling before Rich apparently head-butted Dundee below the belt as he attempted a backdrop. Rich picked up Dundee ostensibly to ensure he was OK, and then quickly wrapped up his foe in a small package for the win. Immediately after turning on Dundee, Rich further disappointed announcer Lance Russell and the viewing audience by shoving Lawler, who was doing commentary to the studio floor. Soon after, Rich aligned himself with manager Jimmy Hart and Bobby Eaton. Some speculate that he was being groomed for the NWA title and was sent to Memphis to learn the heel style, much like David Von Erich did in Florida in the early ’80s.
No, he didn’t get the proposed extended run with the most important title in the business. Promoter Barnett, the one responsible for pushing Rich to the moon, didn’t want to lose his top drawing card, but was able to convince Race to drop the title for a few days to Rich. Barnett asked Race to make Rich champion to make the young man a viable contender capable of winning the belt in the fans’ eyes in what could be lucrative rematches throughout the area after he dropped it back to Race. After all, if the gold belt never changed hands, the fans would wise up. And besides, Rich was the hottest babyface on cable TV in spring 1981. In Race’s shoot interview years ago, he claims he responded by telling Barnett, “Fine, but if you think I’m gonna let him have the title for more than a few days, you’re crazy.”
According to referee Ronnie West, who worked the match, Rich didn’t even know he was going to win the belt until he arrived to the small arena in Augusta, Georgia, for what was supposed to be nothing more than the usual spot-show main event against Race.
When Rich rebounded off the ropes to catch Race in the Thesz press — a move most recently used by Steve Austin—for the three count, the crowd erupted. In a classic moment, Rich appeared more dumbfounded than Race — he had become the third-youngest man in history to win the NWA World title. As West handed Rich the domed gold belt, the new champion hugged him and they tumbled to the mat together—a wonderful unscripted moment. As if Rich wasn’t already on top of the world, he got a boost from Andre the Giant, who picked up the new champion in his massive arms and lifted him toward the ceiling of the William B. Bell Memorial Auditorium as the crowd popped like crazy–and rasslin’ history was made. For more on Tommy Rich’s rise and fall, click here.