Eighteen years ago, I was a skinny college senior finishing my BA in journalism at the newly christened The University of Memphis. (It was years before I stopped saying, “Memphis State,” when asked about my alma mater. Even then, I felt silly saying the new, apparently more prestigious name.)
This photo appeared in the U of M yearbook. I love the caption: Scott Bowden, journalism senior, prepares to make a ruling. Then it quotes me mentioning how getting hit with chairs is an inherent risk of the job.
In addition to a full class load (desperately trying to cram in all those math courses I’d put off for 4-plus years) and my part-time jobs as a writer for the Memphis State University The University of Memphis (Alumni) Magazine during the week as well as a tug driver/plane loader for FedEx on weekend afternoons, I was a working as a referee for Saturday morning rasslin’ and at the Mid-South Coliseum on Monday nights.
While it may seem odd that journalism led to my brief but exhilarating run in the business, in a way it made perfect sense as I was a voracious reader of not only comics books, but also sci-fi novels and any books on larger-than-life subjects such as the Loch Ness Monster, Alcatraz and the Bermuda Triangle as well as the newsstand wrestling magazines (a.k.a., the Apter mags) since I was about 7 years old.
I considered myself lucky to be in the right place at the right time to live my dream of appearing alongside the same heroes and heels I’d cheered and jeered as a kid, not to mention the voices of Memphis wrestling, Lance Russell and Dave Brown, who helped guide me through my initial interviews when I eventually turned heel. (And trust me, it wasn’t always easy being a heel in your hometown, especially when you’re feuding with Jerry Lawler.) OK, so one promo with Brown turned ugly….
But my heel turn was still months away on Saturday morning, March 5, 1994. On this day, the live Memphis TV show was geared toward promoting a reunion show with not only the regular crew but also special appearances by legends Sputnik Monroe, Don & Al Greene, and Jackie Fargo as well as the return of classic in-ring performers from the territory’s heyday, such as Terry Funk and Austin Idol.
“Handsome” Jimmy Valiant had come in early for the show, and just as Dave Brown described him years later, he was subdued before exploding through the curtain to hype the biggest card in Mempho in years. One of the fondest memories of my peek behind the curtain of the business: Lawler and Eddie Gilbert standing side by side at the backstage monitor (where most of the comedy happened), laughing hysterically as quiet “Handsome” Jimmy morphed into his boisterous, lovable Mempho persona on camera. It was a special moment–one that felt like the old days when I was a young fan watching at home yet somehow privy to this backstage experience.
At that point, the promotion was still hoping Jimmy Hart would make a cameo Monday night. Although it was not to be (scheduling conflicts, though Hart tried to the bitter end to make the show), the Mouth of the South quickly arranged a song saluting the Monday night mayhem that made him–and countless others–a damn good living in the age before cable TV. (Let’s face it: It’s not easy to come up with a lyric following “Tojo Yamamoto.”) I realize this likely comes off cheesy to those who never had the Memphis experience. To me, though, I nearly get teary-eyed every time I see it. Truly came off like a love letter from Hart to, ironically, the people who hated him for years. (I recall the spot in the following video when Tommy Rich punches Gypsy Joe and covers him: Lawler and Gilbert almost simultaneously bellowed, “Back then, that was a finish!”)
The nostalgia paid off-literally. Instead of the 2,500 regulars, more than 8,000 fans (paying more than $32,000) showed up, which was was reflected in my paycheck. (I made $75 instead of $50.)
Still, it wasn’t about the money. I’d practically begged to work the show, as I was anxious to meet Funk, one of my favorite performers. I confided in Eddie Gilbert (my first mistake, as Hot Stuff was a great ribber) that Funk and I had a mutual friend in actor Red West.
West was Elvis Presley’s former bodyguard and best friend, who’d forged a successful career as a character actor, including an appearance with Funk in the classic (ahem) Patrick Swayze vehicle ROAD HOUSE. West, a former member of Presley’s Memphis Mafia, had turned part of his home into a makeshift actors’ studio, located near my hometown of (ahem) Germantown, Tenn.
I had been a student at the Red West Actors Studio for a few months, adding to my busy schedule.
I later learned that Eddie had informed Terry that a nervous rookie ref would be approaching him, using the West connection as a way to break the ice. As I hesitantly approached Funk in the dressing room, his eyes widened before he said, “Who the hell are you?” I quietly introduced myself as the ref and quickly offered up Red West’s name. He looked at me incredulously, slowing saying, “I don’t know any Fred West.” I looked at the ground, shuffling my feet, before speaking up, “Um, no sir. I said, “Red West.” Funk’s reply: “I already told you: I’don’t know any Fred West!” Needless to say, I was scared shitless. I looked over at Eddie, who began shaking his head and waving me off. Undaunted, I pressed ahead, a little louder this time: “No, sir! RED West!” Funk stared me right in the eyes before he cracked. He began laughing, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Oh, Red West! I know that guy! He’s a helluva guy!” We then talked for a bit about Red, as I noticed Eddie with a broad smile on his mug. Clearly, I’d been set up.
Following the six-man tag introductions, I made my rounds to all the participants inspecting their boots and tights for foreign objects. Growing up in the kayfabe era, I’d seen refs perform the frisks to add to the realism, but given this was 1994—with six wrestlers in the ring, no less—I probably should have let it go. By the time I got to Idol, the boys had been standing in the ring for about two minutes. In that classic throaty delivery, Idol says to me, “Mr. Referreeee…have we rung the bell yet?” I mumble, “Um…no, not yet.” Idol glared down at me checking his boots, saying, “Well…why don’t we ring it then?”
Oh. Right. Yessir!
To give you an idea of just how highly Idol’s work is still regarded today, the Rock never saw much footage of the Universal Heartthrob until the late ’90s—Dwayne Johnson reportedly was blown away at just how brilliant Idol’s promos were.
Later that evening, Tommy Rich piledrove me in the ring, signaling the end of the six-man tag involving Funk.
Even though I was supposedly knocked out from the piledriver, selling it like the Kennedy assassination, Funk picked up my lifeless body by the hair, screaming, “C’mere, you sonuvabitch!” The former NWA World champ punched me before putting the boots to me. Then Rich scooped up my prone body and gave me my second piledriver. Brutalized by two ex-NWA champs in the same match–dream come true, really.
When Eddie Gilbert asked then 21-year-old Kevin Lawler in 1993 if he’d like to join him in Philadelphia as his assistant booker for a fairly new promotion called Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW), the would-be Memphis rasslin’ prince jumped at the chance.
For years, the youngest Lawler son had tried to no avail to further himself in the Memphis-based USWA promotion on which his father, Jerry, and brother, Brian, had applied a double chokehold.
“Eddie told me I’d be helping him book this small company in Philadelphia, in addition to doing things I was already doing in Memphis like refereeing and promoting towns,” Kevin says. “He said this Eastern Championship Wrestling had a lot of potential and that he wanted to bring the Memphis style to Philadelphia. I was excited.”
Hardcore King: Eddie Gilbert brings the Memphis brand of mayhem to Philadelphia.
It’s no wonder that Eddie and Kevin clicked. Both creative individuals grew up around the business, with both of their fathers for years being two of the biggest wrestling stars in the area. While he admired his father tremendously, Eddie idolized Kevin’s dad, envisioning the day that he took over as the cocky King of Memphis. Like Eddie, Kevin felt a place of influence in the wrestling business was his birthright–he wanted to be a booker more than anything. When Eddie and Kevin realized their dreams were derailed in part by the presence of Jeff Jarrett and Brian Lawler–and also because of their own borderline shady doings–they set out together for a clean slate in ECW, hoping that the roles denied them in Memphis would be theirs in Philadelphia.
After Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett, who supported Kevin’s move, broke the news to the King during a Saturday-morning TV taping at the WMC-TV5 Studios, Lawler was waiting to pull the strap down when his youngest walked in the door of the community center in Jonesboro, Ark., to ref that evening’s matches.
“In front of all the boys, my dad basically told me that if me being a booker involved getting as far away from Memphis as possible, then he was all for it,” Kevin says. “Basically, I think my dad for years didn’t want Brian or me or any of his friends becoming successful in the business without his help. I think that’s why acted like he never thought much of Eddie, because he knew that Eddie had achieved success and could do again independent of his help.”
In hindsight, though, Kevin views his dad’s initial reaction to his departure as a heel-like bluff. Appropriately enough, Kevin left for Philly on a Monday night after stopping by the Mid-South Coliseum to say goodbye to the boys.
“Back away from everyone else, my dad pulled me aside, gave me $1,000 and told me to be careful and to call him as soon as I got there,” Kevin says.
Kevin had a rude awakening upon arriving in Philly. Upon meeting Tod Gordon, owner of ECW, Kevin quickly figured out the scenario.
“Tod owned a jewelry store in Philadelphia, and he was your typical mark with money who wanted to be in the wrestling business,” he says. “After a few weeks, I could see that Eddie viewed this as just another payday, a company to run into the ground and suck dry, while stroking his ego for the short-term.”
Under Gordon, the company mostly used local wrestlers, including J.T. Smith, an employee at his jewelry store. Eddie used his connections– and Gordon’s money–to bring in established (i.e., older) stars, ostensibly to give the promotion credibility. He booked guys he’d worked with during his first stint in the WWF (Don Muraco and Jimmy Snuka) and legends he’d always admired (Terry Funk and Stan Hansen).
Trouble was, Eddie wasn’t using the older guys to put over and create new stars; he was keeping the old wrestlers on top.
“Basically, I think it was Eddie’s attempt to get himself over with these older guys,” Kevin says. “Eddie wasn’t interested in creating new stars like he’d done before with Bill Watts because he didn’t have a game plan. And it was evident he didn’t want my help with booking decisions.”
Kevin was relegated to helping edit the TV shows and refereeing, along with running Eddie’s errands and screening his phone calls.
“I hate to say it, but he was pretty paranoid at that point,” he says. “He’d never answer the door, and our apartment was always so dark– the blinds and shades were always drawn. He’d lock himself in his room for hours and wouldn’t answer when I’d knock. He always made me answer the phone; it was weird.
“Eddie used to have a stooge named John in Memphis, who accompanied him from town to town. I had a sick feeling that he picked me to serve John’s role in Philadelphia.”
Kevin’s spirits were lifted momentarily when he was turned heel during a match between Eddie and Terry Funk, giving Hot Stuff the win. It was then explained on TV that mild-mannered referee Kevin Christian was in reality Freddie Gilbert, Eddie’s long-lost sibling. Kevin even grew a beard to look more like his “big brother.” (Funny to see Kevin in the above clip mimmic his dad’s cocky facial expressions, much like Eddie had mastered.) Kevin, who later formed a bond with forgotten Funk brother Jimmy Jack, appeared to be stepping into my Cole Haan shoes as the latest-referee-turned-heel under Hot Stuff’s tutelage.
Kevin was fairly happy in his new role, and even grew fond of ECW’s Viking Hall, which was a far cry from the Mid-South Coliseum he practically grew up around.
“Viking Hall is located in a rough part of town, down near the docks, but it was actually a very cool facility,” he says. “People used to make jokes about it being a bingo hall, but it actually fit the promotion very well.”
Around this time, Eddie brought in Paul Heyman, who was working under the name Paul E. Dangerously (as opposed to his old Memphis moniker: Paul E. Dangerly). Although they’d turned around the Continental territory together years earlier, Gilbert and Heyman had a tumultuous relationship. Kevin believes it was because Eddie didn’t always appreciate the young manager’s ideas.
“Paul had a vision that no one else did about what ECW could be,” he explains.
Heyman eventually caught Gordon’s ear, explaining that he needed to create new stars and build up ECW as a rebellious faction that could be a serious thorn in the sides of the WWF and WCW. He advised him to drop the “Eastern” from ECW in favor of “Extreme” to better represent what the company now stood for: the anti-WWF.
“Paul had Tod convinced that, hey, this could really work. Paul was a visionary. He told me at the time that he had recently tried to develop a wrestling promotion with the Crocketts that would stand out because it would the only group broadcast in high definition. When I asked about what ‘high definition’ meant, he said it was the next great big thing in television. I guess he was a little ahead of his time with that one.”
Not everyone was convinced of Heyman’s genius. When Gordon broke the news of Heyman’s takeover as booker to the crew, after what would turn out to be both Eddie’s and Kevin’s last show with the group, Doug Gilbert (Eddie’s legit younger brother) destroyed the catering area with a baseball bat and then stormed off.
Heyman’s success in molding new stars was evident early on. He convinced the Sandman to change his surfer-boy image into the beer-swilling brute gimmick that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin would riff on years later.
“Sandman was hilarious when he had the surfer gimmick,” Kevin says. “He always put this self-tanning lotion on, but he’d do it unevenly and sometimes when wearing his wrestling boots. He’d get undressed later and he’d be about five different shades of orange and pink, with the bottom part of his legs and his feet completely white. After seeing what the gimmick evolved into, it’s hard to imagine him that way.”
The new Sandman quickly turned into one of ECW’s hottest acts, eventually feuding with Raven, another character strongly influenced by Heyman, a program that resulted in some of most personal wrestling angles of all time. No wonder Philly fans it ate up.
While countless wrestling promotions for years tried in vain to imitate Vince McMahon’s WWF, Paul Heyman in the mid-’90s was doing everything he could to distinguish his promotion from the former Fed. For example, despite the fact that Viking Hall (the famed “ECW Arena”) had a sophisticated lighting system, Heyman insisted on keeping ECW’s presentation as gritty as possible–the wrestling equivalent to the rough-cut 16 mm footage that is the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
“I was shocked that Viking Hall had all these great things you could do with the lights,” recalls Freddie, er, uh, Kevin. “I remember playing around with all that stuff when I first got there, but Eddie [Gilbert] didn’t want to bother with it. When Paul started taking over and having influence, I mentioned the things I could do with the wrestlers’ entrances. He said something like, ‘Nah, it won’t be as good as WWF, so why go there?’”
Although Heyman for the most part reportedly hated working in Memphis in 1987–a Yankee in King’s Lawler’s court–his ECW “hardcore” style was reminiscent of some the Tennessee territory’s grittier moments, such as the infamous Tupelo, Mississippi, concession-stand brawl, and the Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk feud. Hell, on April 27, 1987, rookie manager Heyman helped orchestrate more heat in night than Verne Gagne’s AWA did all year. (Granted, that’s not saying too much, with “Cool” Curt Hennig and Greg Gagne on top.) Along with his cronies Austin Idol and Tommy Rich, Heyman (then known as “Paul E. Dangerly) conspired to cut the royal locks of Lawler in one of the most memorable moments in Memphis history. (To make matters worse, in the pre-match hype, Las Vegas-native 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. Since the very idea of Lawler losing a hair match at that time was about as unfathomable as Rich winning the NWA World title for a second time, more than 9,000 Memphis fans plucked down their blue-collar cash thinking the Women’s Pet had made a wager he’d soon regret.
Little did the unsuspecting Memphis fans in attendance that night realize that Idol, much the house in Vegas, usually wins when the stakes are high–the ultimate sucker’s bet.
In many ways, Gordon’s wild-card bet on Heyman paid off–though some of the former Philly boys, even to this day, might cringe at the mere mention of ECW payoffs.
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