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Black Saturday: Vince McMahon takes over World Championship Wrestling in July 1984 (Complete Episode)

February 9th, 2011 5 comments

World beater: McMahon takes over the WTBS time slot.

As a kid in the early ’80s, I was delighted to find Ted Turner’s rasslin’ on WTBS, which was beamed out of Atlanta and into my grandmother’s Memphis home via this remarkable “cable TV” technology. I was thrilled that I was now able to again follow the career of local-boy-done-good Tommy “Wildfire” Rich, who had become the hottest babyface in the country, thanks to an ever-increasing audience nationwide on Turner’s network.

With savvy promoter Jim Barnett and his stars like Mr. Wrestling II, the Freebirds, Austin Idol, Dusty Rhodes, Masked Superstar, Magnificent Muraco, Roddy Piper, Ivan Koloff and Stan Hansen, the Georgia Championship Wrestling office had become one of the hottest promotions in the country.

Through WTBS, I finally got to see NWA World champ Ric Flair style and profile, though unfortunately at the time, he was locked in a heated feud with Bad, Bad Leroy Brown–an angle that started over the Nature Boy’s inability to beat the would-be Jim Croce character in an arm-wrestling match. (But with his Walter Cronkite-like delivery, announcer Gordon Solie made it all seem logical.)

The first sign of national prominence for the Georgia promotion was following an angle in which Wrestling II was cheated out of a golden opportunity to defeat NWA kingpin Harley Race for the 10 pounds of gold in 1980. Fans were encouraged to participate in a letter-writing campaign, which led to II being awarded the Champion of Champions Cup (pissing off Race and several members of the NWA board in the process). In addition to receiving thousands of cards and letters from Georgia and throughout the South, there also was a ton of correspondence from fans in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland and West Virginia.

As WTBS and Georgia Championship Wrestling began penetrating more and more cable markets located in traditional NWA strongholds, a few of the more observant Alliance promoters began to get nervous–fears that were compounded when Barnett began to extend his house shows into towns like Cincinnati, Cleveland and Wheeling, WV. GCW had an amazing run in 1981, including three NWA World title changes in Georgia within a period of a little over three months (Race to Rich and back to Race in April and then to Dusty in June). NWA promoters like Crockett were smart enough to realize the advantages of such exposure, sending his stars to make frequent appearances in Atlanta, most notably a young Flair, who would benefit when it came time for the NWA board to name a new World champion. Others, like Fritz Von Erich, couldn’t see the big picture and reportedly made it difficult whenever sons Kevin and David were contacted about coming in to appear on WTBS.

By fall 1983, to shed its Southern image, GCW had evolved into World Championship Wrestling, while its state titles were renamed “National” championships. The new WCW had a stranglehold over TV wrestling.

World Championship material: Ric Flair shined on GCW and, later, WCW.

Domination of the wrestling industry seemed destined for the NWA’s hands as WCW extended its house-show business north to Detroit (The Sheik Ed Farhat’s longtime territory, which was on its last legs) and in traditional WWF markets like Baltimore. Terry Funk saw the writing on the dressing-room wall when Amarillo fans kept asking to see WCW stars like Rich instead of the local talent; he and Dory Jr. sold their promotion while it was still profitable, realizing that it was inevitable that whoever secured national television would rule the business and kill the territories.

Of course, nothing lasts in the wrestling biz: WCW booker/minority stock owner Ole disliked Barnett and accused him of stealing from the company in an effort to oust him, a power struggle Anderson would win. With Barnett forced out heading into 1984, WCW was a mess, a combination of bad booking, poor management and stale stars, most notably, Rich, who had started to go downhill fast because of his lifestyle.

The emergence of the the Road Warriors pumped some life into the promotion, but there were inherent limitations in booking two inexperienced muscleheads whose gimmick was to eat up long-established stars like the Brisco Brothers and Mr. Wrestling I and II. Ole clearly demonstrated that he was in over his head booking a suddenly national promotion, pulling stunts like Brett and Buzz Sawyer defeating the Warriors for the National tag titles in several cities throughout the week…and then Hawk and Animal showing up on TV the following Saturday with the straps and no mention of a title change or reversed decision.

Even though by ’84–long after its heyday of ’79-’82–Atlanta TV came off like a watered-down version of Memphis wrestling,  the WCW show still gave a geek-boy like me something to look forward to on late Saturday afternoons as the Memphis crew was heading from the WMC-TV Studios to Nashville for a card that night.

Saturday, July 14, 1984, started off just like any other. That morning I watched  Jerry Lawler, Jimmy Hart, Austin Idol, Stagger Lee (Koko Ware using the name of the song and the infamous Junkyard Dog alter ego), Harley Davidson (the WWF’s future Hillbilly Jim), King Kong Bundy, Rick Rude and Randy Savage on Memphis TV, and arranged the rest of my day so I’d be home just in time for World Championship Wrestling. At 5:05 Central Time, my jaw caved like Bob Armstrong’s after an attack at the loaded-gloved hand of Ted DiBiase: Flair, Brad Armstrong, the Warriors, Ronnie Garvin, Pez Whatley–even Solie–were gone. I sat in amazement as longtime voice-over announcer Freddie Miller (noted for urging fans to “BE THERE!” for loaded cards at the Omni) introduced Vince Jr., who promptly promised to deliver the very best in “professional wrestling entertainment“–a sharp contrast to WCW announcer Solie, who treated wrestling as a legit sport.

In their place stood 38-year-old Vince McMahon Jr. and, over the next few weeks, a host of wrestlers who had abandoned the AWA and NWA as part of Jr.’s nationwide vision: “Mean” Gene OkerlundJesse “the Body” Ventura, Rick Steamboat, the Iron Sheik, Paul Orndorff, Roddy Piper and David Schultz. After a purchasing a majority of WCW stock from Jack and Jerry Brisco, who had become disenchanted with Anderson and the National Wrestling Allicance, General McMahon was launching a full-scale invasion on the business. (If you think I was surprised, you should have Ole’s face when he showed up at the WTBS studio to find Gorilla Monsoon, who told him of the stock sale and informed him that his services would not be needed that day.)

Wrestling, as I knew it at least, would never be the same. Prior to the WCW time-slot acquisition, Vince Jr. already had cable TV, on the USA Network, taking over the Sunday noon ET timeslot formerly reserved for Joe Blanchard’s Southwest Championship Wrestling in 1983. USA at that time, however, was more like the less-talented kid brother of WTBS. Following his removal of power in Georgia, Barnett had become an important ally of McMahon and helped put the stock deal together with the Brisco, enabling Jr. and the WWF to rule cable TV wrestling.

McMahon, however, immediately got off on the wrong foot with WTBS, when the station’s switchboard was flooded with calls from angry viewers complaining about the switch to the Former Fed. Tensions between McMahon and Turner escalated when Vince backed out on his promise to deliver matches taped in the WTBS studio consistently (WWF did tape a few shows there) and instead largely insisted on showing the same bouts that were already airing nationwide in syndication and on the USA Network.

In response to the fans’ outcry, Turner gave Ole and Solie an early morning Saturday morning timeslot, featuring a brief NWA “merger” involving Anderson, Crockett Jr. and Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett–a union that was doomed from the start. Turner then began airing Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling on WTBS, which soundly defeated WWF in the SuperStation ratings.

Of course, the McMahons have since claimed that WWF delivered very strong ratings in 1984–so impressive that Turner wanted to get into the rasslin’ business himself. Their version of history is that McMahon refused Turner’s offer to buy into the company, further straining the already shaky relationship between the two business moguls.

Regardless, by early 1985, Turner wanted the WWF off his station, and, eventually, Vince caved and sold the timeslot to Jim Crockett Promotions. And the war between McMahon and Crockett was on.

Even after all these years, it’s still surreal seeing Vince standing in front of the iconic World Championship Wrestling TV backdrop.

Here’s the full episode of that dark day in wrestling history.