Tarnished legacies: From George Gulas to Mike Von Erich to Shane McMahon…the worst moments in wrestling nepotism
George Gulas’s 45-minute draw with NWA kingpin Harley Race in 1977. Mike Von Erich’s 10-minute stalemate with NWA World champion Ric Flair in 1984, with the Nature Boy saved by the bell while trapped in the sleeper by the rookie (who had been wrestling less than five months). Greg Gagne’s enlistment as Sgt. Slaughter’s prized camouflaged recruit in 1985. Jeff Jarrett’s provocative poster commercial in 1986. Erik Watts’s repeated ass whippings of Arn Anderson in and out of the ring in 1993. Moments that will live in wrestling infamy. All these young stars in question had one thing in common–their daddy was running the promotion.
More recent nepotism-fueled transgressions against the business: Vince McMahon’s son-in-law Triple H and his 13 WWE heavyweight/World title reigns, daughter Stephanie McMahon’s promotion to director of WWE TV writing and creative despite no impressive credentials in the business, and son Shane McMahon’s Mega-Powers push as a performer, with Sweet Daddy O’Mac whipping Randy Orton as recently as last year, including a 2009 PPV main event for a card appropriately title “No Way Out.”
That PPV bout was set up by the Jan. 19, 2009, RAW debacle in which Shane blew up five minutes after attacking Orton and delivering the weakest punches I’ve seen since Randy Hales attacked me at the WMC-TV Studio on Union Avenue. Stephanie even got into the act on this episode, threatening the Legend Killer by saying she had “bigger plans” than a suspension for Orton, who had recently brutalized Vince with his punt. When, seconds later, Shane stepped onto the ramp to confront Orton, I just knew Steve Austin or Undertaker would appear behind him momentarily. The collective fart heard around the country when viewers realized “bigger plans” in fact meant “just my fat brother” was deafening. I’m not speechless often (imagine that), but I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing–an out-of-shape Shane destroying the WWE’s hottest heel faction at the time…without even the benefit of a single bionic elbow. (One of the many reasons why the Randy Orton vs. Triple H showdown didn’t work at WrestleMania last year.) I half expected a snippet of Shane thumping Legacy set to the Hank Williams Jr. cover of “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover,” airing repeatedly before commercial breaks the following week on RAW a la the Dusty vignettes that aired endlessly on WTBS and during the syndicated NWA WORLDWIDE WRESTLING shows. Any fan of Jim Crockett Promotions in the mid-’80s has to cringe at the mention of that. But as disgusting as it was seeing each member of the Horsemen line up and bump like crazy, one by one, for the dreaded bionic elbow, Dusty at the time was as least one of the biggest stars in the biz, so it sort of made sense. Shane, on the other hand was not even a wrestler…superstar…entertainer…or whatever WWE refers to its performers as nowadays. (Lucky for Shane, he’s a dancing machine.)
At least Shane displayed some personality and ability (including the knack for pulling off the occasional “Holy Shit!”-worthy high spot), which made him not as embarrassing as George Gulas, son of former Tennessee promoter Nick Gulas. If you asked several old Tennessee grapplers, or fans for that matter, who was the worst worker to disgrace a ring in the territory and many will say Scott Bowden. But a close second would be George, Nick’s son, whom the veteran promoter insisted pushing almost immediately as a top babyface. Just one problem: George was not a great athlete, and had very little ability in the ring and zero charisma. Nonetheless, George usually triumphed over the heels of the day around the area, although initially Nick tried to hide his boy in six-man tags with legends Jackie Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto. (Years later, Jerry Jarrett claimed that George didn’t endear himself to Tojo and Fargo when he kept calling his daddy from a pay phone every time they stopped for gas or food while on the road to the next town.)
George eventually graduated to “the Jet Set” tag team with Bobby Eaton, a young wrestler who was already establishing a rep as a talented worker. Eaton was so good, he almost made up for George’s ineptitude. When Nick started pushing George as a singles star, some ringside fans began riding the undeserving promoter’s son pretty hard–even the densest of marks found it hard to suspend disbelief. In his book, King of the Ring, Harley explained that after he carried the bum to a decent bout for the biggest prize in the sport, George actually had the confidence to confront his antagonists at ringside. A scuffle broke out, and Race ended up punching fan who got in George’s face, seemingly illustrating to the fans that Gulas’s son had earned his respect. When he returned to the dressing room, Race was surprised when Nick (a notorious tightwad) forked over $300, saying, “You made my boy!” Weeks later, when Race received his check, he noticed that Nick had simply deducted the $300 from his usual fee. What a guy.
By 1977, Nick was killing the territory with his son’s push on his end of the territory. Jarrett, who booked the other half of the area, most notably Memphis, wasn’t about to let that happen on his end as well. When Nick tried to ship George off to Memphis, his young booker balked. The promoters had a bitter split, with Fargo and Tojo siding with Nick, while young star Jerry Lawler went with Jarrett, who started his own wrestling company. Attendance at George-infected shows continued to drop, while Jarrett was hitting his stride as a not only a promoter but also as a major player in the NWA, and the rest is history. I couldn’t help but think of ol’ George when watching Shane make the save for the Undertake of all people on RAW last year. Maybe that’s because I’d seen this 1975 clip of George clumsily rushing to the ring in his street clothes to clean house on heels Don Duffy and Luke Graham. The post-match interview is equally as hilarious as George is more concerned about the heels ripping his pants (which had to be a rib by the veterans) than anything else, as is daddy Nick, who interrupts babyface Jimmy Golden to lament, “They tore his clothes off!”
Again, wrestling promoters pushing their sons is nothing new. Despite not being a legit standout athletes like his three brothers older brothers, 19-year-old Mike Von Erich made his debut on Thanksgiving night 1983. The Superman pushes of Kerry, Kevin and David were at least warranted by their in-ring abilities and charisma. When David died less than two months later, Mike was pushed even harder to fill his brother’s boot and and the third Von Erich spot in their ongoing feud with the Freebirds. Out of all the brothers, Mike resembled David the most; however, he didn’t have his older brother’s natural gifts or head for the business.
Mike was rarely pinned as it was felt he needed every advantage possible to get over. And yes, it was Mike who, per a prematch stipulation, gained his brother Kerry an NWA World title shot at Texas Stadium in memory of David when he held Flair to a televised 10-minute draw–with the champ in big trouble when the referee called the bell. Shameful. After nearly dying from toxic shock syndrome, Mike was a shell of his former self…yet Fritz pushed him back into the ring as soon as possible despite his increasing limitations. Never a strong promo, Mike’s interviews were embarrassingly bad after his illness, often slurring his words. A series of out-in-the-ring incidents and Mike’s increasingly erratic behavior should have opened some eyes, but it was swept under the rug until April 12, 1987, following an arrest for drunk driving and drug possession. On that day, Mike wrote a suicide note and killed himself with an overdoes of Placidyl, a sleeping pill that he and Kerry were allegedly fond of experimenting with. Mike Von Erich’s is probably the saddest of all these stories. Younger brother Chris also suffered a similar fate, killing himself not long after realizing he’d never be a success in the wrestling business despite his family’s name.
Of course, nepotism isn’t limited to bloodlines; sometimes, it’s just who you know. Despite being billed as brothers in Memphis and other areas in 1979, Terry Bollea and Ed Leslie were just close buddies who broke into the business together. When Bollea’s career exploded as Hulk Hogan in the early ’80s, Leslie came along for the ride as Brutus Beefcake in the WWF…and later as the Butcher, the Booty Man and the Disciple (and about half a dozen other lame gimmicks) in WCW. It wouldn’t shock me to see Brutus show up in TNA any day now as the new X Division champion.
AWA fans were polite enough when wrestling legend Verne Gagne pushed skinny-though-athletic son Greg as a tag-team champion with partner Jim Brunzell in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Greg was never strong on the mic, but he was more than capable in the ring, albeit quite bland. Still, fans never took him seriously as a threat to perennial AWA World heavyweight champion Nick Bockwinkel, despite Greg headlining several cards challenging for the title. In 1985, the game had changed, and Greg looked even smaller when matched against guys like the Road Warriors. Enter Sgt. Slaughter, who was fresh off a hot babyface run under Vince’s circus tent. I believe Verne was thinking that Greg would get a new lease on life as the Sarge’s private. But first, Greg would have to endure grueling (for the viewing audience at home, that is) boot-camp training under the guidance of Slaughter. Several fans took to taunting Greg with chants of “Rambo” in the months that followed until the angle quietly died — he never recovered from that humiliation. A few years later, when Jerry Jarrett was negotiating to buy the AWA, the deal soured when the elder Double J refused to hire Greg at Verne’s insistance…shades of the Gulas standoff years earlier.
There’s no question that Jeff Jarrett has developed into a good worker and a star who has enjoyed longevity, capable of having great matches with the right opponent (e.g., Shawn Michaels, and most recently, Kurt Angle). But when he debuted, I’d never have guessed we were looking at a future NWA World champ.
Fresh out of high school, Jeff was introduced during a Saturday morning incident in Memphis in 1986. With the big-haired Bartlett High School cheerleaders (like there were any other kind) in the front row (no wonder everyone behind them was standing up), Landell and Dundee were dishing out a beating to jobbers Jim Jameson and David Johnson that was even more brutal than usual. The heat on Dundee was already hot as a Lawler fireball, as the Superstar had dethroned the King two months earlier in a loser-leaves-town bout after tossing “industrial-strength ink” in his eyes. As Landell and Dundee continued to work over the lifeless Jameson, the ref intervened. Jeff was sucker-punched for his trouble and left for dead. Yes, one punch would have killed the typicalreferee in those days. But not Jeff the Ref. The young Jarrett showed his spirit, picking himself off the canvas and tackling Landell like he was a schoolyard fight. But the bullies of Memphis wrestling would have none of it. As they double-teamed Double J Jr., daddy Double J hit the ring. And then he hit the heels. But the heels hit back. Hard. Even more notorious, Dundee punched Jerry in his “one good eye.” The story went that the aging promoter had gone blind in one eye–and here were these dastardly heels trying to take out the other one. Outrageous!
The promotion was originally planning to have Lawler gone longer, but attendance crashed to Gulas-like levels using replacement babyfaces like Austin Idol, Dirty Rhodes (don’t ask), Terry Taylor and Big Red Reese in the interim. It was inevitable they would eventually run the dad-failing-to-save-his-son angle with the Jarretts, much like the promotion did years ago with Tommy and Eddie Gilbert, who I believe busted his cherry–juicing (bleeding) for the first time–at the hands of Buddy and Ken Wayne. In that angle, the Waynes handcuffed Tommy to the ringpost, forcing him to watch the beating. Good stuff–hot stuff–even. Eddie was brought along fairly slowly, often losing in prelims after a spirited fight. He and Ricky Morton (son of longtime Memphis ref Paul Morton) eventually became legit in the eyes of the fans after their upset win of Mr. Onita and Masa Fuchi for the Southern tag belts and their subsequent brawl in the concession stand in Tupelo, Miss.–which rivaled that of the original (with Lawler, Bill Dundee vs. the Blonde Bombers) for brutality.
While some may say they rushed it a bit with the Jarretts since Jeff had yet to debut as a wrestler, it was incredibly effective because the heels were way over. Besides they needed an angle to bring back Lawler to spark attendance without using the tired Midnight-Rider routine and killing the stipulation.
But the son of Memphis promoter Jarrett almost never got out of the gate in 1986 as an actual wrestler when he cut this taped (thank God) promo vowing revenge for injuries stemming from the beating he and his father endured at the hands of Landell and Dundee. Man, I wonder how many takes it took before they decided to use this one.
Shorty thereafter, a TV campaign for a full-color poster of Jeff further killed him off in the eyes of male fans in Memphis. (Poster commercial follows the ad for the videotape.) It didn’t help that they ran this ad about three times a week during the course of the 90-minute Saturday morning show for months.
I was a sophomore in high school around the time of the poster campaign. My friends and I would attend the matches holding signs that read “Jeff is a sissy” and “Daddy’s boy.” (Jeff would get his revenge years later when he delivered an incredibly stiff chair shot to my back in 1994.) It wasn’t until 1988, when Robert Fuller’s Stud Stable “broke” Jeff’s wrist and the young Jarrett toughed it out by wrestling in a cast, that male fans in Memphis started to rally behind him.
Of course, then there’s Erik Watts, who in 1993, not long after his debut, seemingly had the owner’s manual on Arn Anderson, the longtime Enforcer of the Four Horsemen. Despite still being one of the best workers and interviews in the company, Arn was relegated to doing a TV jobs for Erik, who was in no way ready for the push his father, “Cowboy” Bill Watts, was giving him in WCW. Watts even got the best of Arn in a “street fight” that aired on WCW, awkwardly ensnaring Arn in his STF finisher in a parking lot brawl that was “captured on home video by a fan.” Erik’s push thankfully ended not long after his daddy was given the cowboy boot after racist comments that the elder Watts had made during an interview with the Pro Wrestling Torch resurfaced. Years later, Erik later formed the poor man’s version of Legacy, with Brian Lawler and David Flair.
I’d like to think that we’ve seen the worst of nepotism in the wrestling business…but never say never in the former World Wrestling Federation. With Shane McMahon gone from WWE, at least we don’t have to worry about him coming back in a few weeks to crush the Nexus with his bare hands following the group’s dastardly attack on Vince McMahon–but can the lrecuperating Triple H be far behind? Speaking of Trips, you know it’s only a matter of time before he tops Ric Flair’s record of 16 World title reigns, especially now that Flair is working for TNA. (The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer confirmed recently that Flair-style chops have been banned in WWE to prevent the crowd from erupting with chants of “Wooooo!”)
But then there comes that day when Vince is gone (the next car bomb should do it), with his end of the bargain on the pact he made with the devil long ago coming due. Then and only then we will likely endure the full wrath of Stephanie McMahon, and eventually, the two offspring spawned from her diabolical union with the Game.