Rich man, poor man: How Tommy “Wildfire” Rich burnt out much too quickly
I had only smoked pot three times previously when a former NWA World champion handed me a joint in the backseat as we traveled from Memphis to Louisville, Kentucky, in October 1994. No, it wasn’t Lou Thesz. It wasn’t Jack Brisco. And it sure as hell wasn’t Giant Baba.
In reality (and, yes, I do recognize the irony of using that term in relation to the business), it was Tommy “Wildfire” Rich, who for years was considered the Memphis-area local-boy-done-good— but maybe not so much now in hindsight. Even without the benefit of hindsight, some in the business at the time were probably associating Rich’s monumental push—and on this new technology called “cable TV” no less—with the old adage “right place, right time.” In his early 20s, he feuded with the biggest baddies on an ever-expanding WTBS stage, such as The Masked Superstar, Ivan Koloff, Tor Kamata and Ray Stevens, often with the Georgia (later “National” to shed the Southern image) title on the line.
For years, the story circulating around wrestling circles was that Rich, a former football player at Hendersonville High School, had gotten his start in the business because his mother, Peggy Richardson, was friendly with area wrestler Eddie Marlin. The story goes that through Marlin, Rich got hooked up with Tojo Yamamoto (the late Harold Wantanabe), who was often used by the promotion as an enforcer of sorts to run off would-be ‘rasslers by beating the hell out of them. A young Jerry Lawler was one of the few to endure Tojo’s beatings and live to work another day in the ring.
Although that seems hard for me to imagine, given that I never saw Tojo in his heyday, Jerry Lawler has always told the story that way. Apparently, Tojo was incredibly stiff with the greenhorns, including the man who would be King in his first few bouts with the Memphis promotion in the ’70s.
While Rich did team with Tojo often early in his career, it was Jerry Jarrett who was responsible for Tommy’s big break into the biz. Jarrett recently spoke highly of Tommy’s determination to get into the business, as the promoter admits he was less than enthusiastic about breaking in a new wrestler. After attempts to run off Rich by working him like a dog on his farm failed, Jarrett relented, impressed by the young man’s work ethic.
Rich debuted around 1974, and similar to Lawler, he moved up the cards pretty fast. About two years after his debut, 20-year-old Rich was working main events with Lawler for the NWA Southern title in early 1976. He eventually won the belt from Lawler on Sept. 14 of that year, drawing over 8,000 fans to the Mid-South Coliseum. The girls, including my older sister, were crazy about him, and the guys liked him because he came off like one of them. Tommy was the good ol’ boy in all of us.
Rich made his way to Atlanta around 1977—at the right place, the right time— and eventually became just about the hottest babyface in the country via Ted Turner’s fledging WTBS network. Reportedly, he was initially scheduled to be the latest pretty boy to be fed to menacing heel Abdullah the Butcher; however, promoter Jim Barnett saw something in Peggy Richardson’s son that would appeal to teenage girls, moms, grandmas and even men alike: a legit country boy with a temper.
On those Channel 17 broadcasts of the time, which started precisely at 5 minutes past the hour (and often after an Atlanta Braves loss), Rich was never a strong interview but that almost worked in his favor. He came off unpolished—though often polite to announcer Gordon Solie—and ready to fight at a moment’s notice, which carried a lot of weight in the South. Often, his interviews were downright incoherent: “Somebody say something about ‘crazy time’? Well, it’s gonna be crazy time when I get a hold of you.” Um, not exactly a catchphrase of the time.
The Apter mags fell in love with Rich and included him in the regular rotation of cover boys like Dusty Rhodes, Andre the Giant, Harley Race, Superstar Graham, Bob Backlund, Mil Mascaras, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat.
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 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 (with nary a mention of puppies or any such nonsense), 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.
In those days, wrestling news traveled slowly—I often heard about World title changes first through the Apter mags. The Rich heel turn was sure to be a magazine seller, so the country boy turned heel was plastered on the covers of both THE WRESTLER and INSIDE WRESTLING, with the latter featuring the fabricated quote “The fans can go to hell!” (Yeah, those Apter interviews were a work.) Of course, by the time those mags hit the newsstands Rich had already turned babyface after former mentor Yamamoto and “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant attacked Rich’s mother during an interview. While disappointed female fans outside the Memphis area unquestionably cried upon reading Apter’s report (and I’m not kidding there), they wouldn’t be upset long.
Instead of the usual intro to the WTBS wrestling show in early 1981, viewers saw a hand putting an 8-track tape into the deck of a Firebird. As Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” blared, the camera pulled back to reveal Rich, who apparently was headed back to Georgia. Atlanta’s brave babyface was back. Upon his return, Rich was even more over than before, if that’s possible. According to some of the boys who were around then, Rich made as much as $5,000 a week as he appeared in towns ranging from Columbus, Georgia, to Columbus, Ohio. With the exception of Rhodes and Andre the Giant, he very well could have been the hottest box-office attraction in the business in 1981.
To explain Rich’s absence, Solie had sold the story that Tommy had left the area over disappointment in his inability to defeat Race for the World title. But now Rich was not to be denied. 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 of a few years ago, he claims 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.
Race was already scheduled to defend the NWA’s laurels against Rich for the rest of the week, so the impromptu plan was for the ex-champ to regain the title five days later, on Friday, in Gainesville, Georgia, in front of an even smaller crowd than in Augusta and with no TV cameras to capture the moment. Along the way, Rich defended the title twice, pinning Race again in Columbus, Ga., on Tuesday, and again on Thursday in Rome.
The whole scenario was a bit odd—even for the wrestling business. If the idea was to put Rich over as a legit top-tier grappler to the fans, why wasn’t he allowed at least one appearance with the title on the most-watched wrestling program in the world? And, why, after years of close calls in front of big crowds at Atlanta’s Omni, did Rich win the title in front of less than 1,000 fans at a spot show? Adding to the controversy, Race had already dropped the title to Florida-fave Dusty Rhodes less than a year before for the same time period—five days —before regaining it, which some felt cheapened the belt and only made Rhodes look weak.
Because of the circumstances surrounding the title change, years later a rumor emerged insinuating that Barnett, a homosexual, arranged the switch only after blackmailing Rich to sleep with him. I address this because it’s not only a frequent topic on message boards such as wrestlingclassics.com, but it’s also a rumor that again picked up steam in 2004 with the publication of Chokehold, the memoirs of disgruntled ex-wrestler/pro football player Jim Wilson (best known for appearing with Eddy Mansfield on the “20/20” expose on the biz in 1985).
It’s simply not true. Most of the rumormongers don’t understand just how much Rich was over at the time. Think Race would have dropped the strap to Rich otherwise? No way. At the time, it appeared certain Rich would be a top draw well into the next decade.
Unfortunately, like hotshots in any profession, Wildfire couldn’t handle that much success at age 24. He partied a lot. He drank heavily. He put on weight. He gigged himself so many times with the blade that his forehead started resembling the “roadmaps” of legendary bleeders like Rhodes and Jimmy Snuka. Less than five years after winning the most prestigious title in the business, Rich’s star had faded. And with the emergence of Hulk Hogan and sports entertainment, he was done as a player in the industry.
Wildfire had burned himself out by the time he was 30. Some say the warning signs were painfully apparent as early as 1983. Years of partying with Roddy Piper will do that to a man.
I first met Tommy during my initial ref stint around 1991. Wearing an outdated three-piece suit, he introduced himself as “Big Dick Hertz” as he gave me the boys’ working handshake backstage at the Mid-South Coliseum.
Three years later, I was his heel manager, accompanying he and Doug Gilbert to the ring in cities like Memphis, Nashville and Louisville. Overweight and looking nothing like the WTBS hero who broke hearts years ago, Rich sometimes worked matches intoxicated. One night, with the former World heavyweight champion reeking of tequila, I helped carry him to the dressing room area as his blood gushed over my starched Polo button-down. If it sounds sad, it was. (Yes, the stains once again came out, but that’s not the point.)
I asked him once about footage from his glory days as a superstar on the SuperStation. Before I could finish my sentence, he cut me off: “I don’t have any of that stuff. None.” He clearly didn’t enjoy talking about the past, which, in my opinion, haunted him.
Shortly after we smoked that joint on way to Louisville, we stopped at Subway. The excited old woman behind the counter beamed: “Oh, my gosh. Are you Tommy Rich?” His reply: “Yessum.” And when she asked for his autograph on a Subway napkin, he again replied, “Yessum.” Apparently, Peggy had taught her son well.
I’ll never forget Rich’s comments to me in private backstage at the Coliseum after I graduated from the University of Memphis with a BA in journalism toward the end of our heel run together in 1994: “Put that diploma to work. Don’t let this business screw you up like me.”
Unlike some of the wrestling stars of the ’80s, Tommy survived to tell me his cautionary tale—hell, he lived it right in front of me. Others wouldn’t be so lucky. But then judging from how many of the boys have so much trouble adjusting after leaving the bright lights of the ring, maybe the ones who didn’t survive were the lucky ones.