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The beauty of the Beast: Bam Bam Bigelow, the last of the Memphis monsters

December 3rd, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
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Beast unburdened: The no-frills rookie Bigelow was the last great Memphis monster.

Beast unburdened: The no-frills rookie Bigelow was the last great Memphis monster.

As WWE builds up Sheamus as the new heel monster challenger to heavyweight champion John Cena, I’m reminded of how Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett did a masterful job of building up new blood in the territory. Similar to how Vince McMahon Sr. for years would book oversized heels to challenge the underdog babyface WWWF champion, Memphis often featured local-boy-done-good Jerry “the King” Lawler facing the challenge of a foe much more physically imposing—a monster. (Only fitting that as part of his buildup, Sheamus recently attacked Lawler at the announcer’s desk during an episode of Monday Night RAW.)

For years, all the giants came through Memphis—the Mongolian Stomper (Archie Gouldie), Joe LeDuc, Kamala, King Kong Bundy…even Andre—and they all eventually bowed before the King. In one of my earliest memories of Memphis wrestling on TV, five or six wrestlers were trying to restrain the Stomper following a bout at the Mid-South Coliseum. I was mesmerized as the Stomper tossed them around like they were sacks of garbage. Next to the Incredible Hulk, I thought the Stomper must be the toughest man alive; he was downright menacing. (Apparently, I wasn’t the only one spooked by Gouldie as a boy. As Bret Hart recalls as a youngster watching Gouldie pummel his father in matches: “Archie scared me pale many times as a boy.” Later in life, Hart recognized Gouldie as the “ultimate package,” an impressive evaluation coming from one of the all-time greats.

The last great Memphis monster heel of the modern era arrived on the scene in the summer of 1986, a rookie fresh out of Larry Sharpe’s Monster Factory in New Jersey: the Beast of the East, Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow. Hailing from Mt. Laurel, N.J. (though he billed himself as being from Asbury Park), Bam Bam was a hell of a natural athlete who stood over 6 feet and weighed more than 350 pounds at the time of his debut.

It was two years into Vince McMahon Jr.’s expansion, and the longstanding Memphis territory was starting to feel the pinch. Many of the Memphis regular stars had bolted for McMahon or Jim Crockett Promotions. And just as fast as promoter Jerry Jarrett and Lawler could create new stars-like “Ravishing” Rick Rude and Randy Savage-McMahon and company would sign them away. The timing was right for Bigelow to make a splash in Memphis-figuratively and quite literally. Bigelow’s Nuclear Splash from the top rope remains of the most devastating-looking finishers ever in the business.

Nuclear attack: Lawler was the first high-profile casualty of Bigelow's Nucelar Splash.

Nuclear attack: Lawler was the first high-profile casualty of Bigelow's Nucelar Splash.

Memphis had for years pushed unorthodox gimmicks regardless of ability, as Lawler was a good enough worker (and, more important, a master psychologist) who could make a greenhorn appear not only passable but also impressive in the ring. Although he was pretty green, Bigelow was so physically gifted that the biz came easy to him. Bam Bam Bigelow was perfect for Memphis, perfect for Lawler.
Although Bigelow would go on to receive huge pushes in both the WWF and the NWA/WCW, Memphis for years was the only promotion to properly use “the Bammer,” as announcer Lance Russell referred to Bigelow. Jarrett and Lawler brought Bigelow along slowly, establishing the Beast as an unstoppable force before the eventual showdown with the King on his home court. According to Jim Cornette, that’s booking 101: “The art of booking is that you find someone who the people are naturally predisposed to have a negative opinion of…but who’s a good performer. Then you find a good performer who the people are naturally predisposed to have a positive feeling about, and you put those two on trajectories by getting over people until finally the fans say, ‘Holy shit—they’re gonna fight each other!’”

With the top of his head completely tattooed with flames—and attired simply in cut-off shorts and a cut-off T-shirt with the crudely ironed-on “I AM MONSTER” on the back—Bigelow was the most menacing heel in Memphis since Bundy. Bam Bam’s baby face and pudgy frame didn’t hurt him-despite looking a bit like a larger-than-life Garbage Pail Kid. The fact that Bigelow could also work was gravy. Standing dropkicks that would make Koko Ware envious. Cartwheels. Overhead press slams. Bigelow could do it all.

Bigelow’s agility was amazing for a man of his size. Writes Dave Meltzer of THE WRESTLER OBSERVER: “Scott Bigelow was something of a phenomenon when he came into pro wrestling in 1986. He beat out Owen Hart for Rookie of the Year and from his first major program, in Memphis with Jerry Lawler, was a superstar. He had many ups and downs over the past 20 years. He did well in some places, and not so well in others. Some viewed how he looked as a positive, and others didn’t. He was one of those guys who fell out of organized sports young…but with his size and agility, he probably should have been a football star. One NFL coach who was a friend of mine was blown away seeing a guy of that size with that kind of lightness on his feet and couldn’t understand how he didn’t play college and pro ball.”

For weeks in that summer of ‘86, Bigelow burned through his early mid-card Memphis competition, sometimes bear-hugging two wrestlers at once in making them submit during handicap matches. However, most of his matches ended in disqualification: Bigelow’s top-rope slash was illegal in Memphis, and referee Jerry Calhoun disqualified the Beast each time he hurled his massive frame toward a hapless foe like David Haskins, Lou Winston or Tracy Smothers. No matter-it only made Bigelow more feared in the fans’ eyes as he clearly didn’t care if he won or lost. Bam Bam Bigelow was out to hurt people; namely, Lawler, Memphis’ number-one son. And if he happened to pick up the AWA Southern heavyweight championship in the process, so be it.

A wonderful moment occurred during a “Bad Guys vs. Good Guys” softball games at Chicks Stadium. (Jarrett and Lawler hosted the game for free to combat a McMahon/WWF card held at the Mid-South Coliseum the same night.) Using a wooden bat, Bam Bam knocked one of Lawler’s first pitches over the stadium wall. (OK, Lawler was giving him “meat”-slow pitches hanging right over the plate-but still…pretty impressive.) Later, Bam Bam was playing first base, and as Lawler rounded first, he and the Bammer collided like two bulls. A wild brawl followed, highlighted by Lawler breaking a doctored bat across Bigelow’s back; the Beast responded by body-slamming the King directly on home plate.
For weeks, Bigelow’s mouthpiece (and trainer) Sharpe challenged Lawler, who largely ignored the gauntlet being tossed at his royal feet. But after Bigelow won the Southern championship in a battle royal July 28, 1986, the Beast was not to be ignored. Bigelow simultaneously tossed Smothers and Winston over the top rope-scooping the two wrestlers under each of his massive arms and heaving them over-to win the match and the title. That same night, the Bigelow challenged Lawler for the International and was again disqualified for the Nuclear Splash.

Bigelow quickly became one of my favorite wrestlers, helping to reinvigorate my interest in the Memphis territory, which had slightly waned with the emergence of Jim Crockett Promotions and the Four Horsemen on WTBS and NWA World Wide Wrestling, which appeared on a local independent channel. On my soccer team that year, a few of us had wrestler nicknames-I was called Bam Bam. I’d like to think the coach picked that for me because of my physical play as goalkeeper. Truth be known, though, I think I was the one who encouraged the nickname. See, I was a huge mark for the Bammer, whom I believed was destined for eventual stardom in the WWF as foe for champion Hulk Hogan.

A royal pain: Bam Bam triumphs to capture his first title.

After weeks of failing to convincingly defeat Bigelow, Lawler did a memorable, emotional promo at the WMC-TV studio with announcer Lance Russell. Lawler put Bigelow over as the wrestler who might make the King abdicate the throne once and for all. The gist of the story was something like this: When Lawler was a rookie he asked an old wrestler who was retiring how he knew it was the right time to hang up the tights. The old-timer looked up at the man who would be King and said, “Kid, someday another wrestler will come along and let you know when it’s time. Lawler then told Lance: “Well…Bam Bam Bigelow just might be that wrestler for me.” Lance, who often came off like a father figure to Lawler, quietly replied, “Well, Jerry, I…I don’t know.” Great stuff. This promo set up the showdown for Sept. 8, 1986. Lawler finally defeated Bigelow, who had already given his two weeks’ notice.

After the bout, Bigelow turned babyface and teamed with Lawler on his last night in the territory to thrash manager Sharpe and Man Mountain Link. The following year, Lawler brought Bigelow as his tag partner to get revenge on Tommy Rich and Austin Idol, and the foursome had some incredible brawls at the Coliseum as part of the territory’s last great feud.

Not long after, the WWF came calling, signing the rookie and pushing him toward the top of the cards almost immediately. In a McMahon misfire, Bigelow debuted as a babyface with manager Sir Oliver Humperdink, a swerve after teasing for weeks that the Beast would sign with a high-profile WWF heel manager like Slick or Jimmy Hart. Gone was the rough-around-the-edges, “I AM MONSTER” attire. In its place was the full-bodied, flame-covered suit that somehow made Bigelow look smaller. To ease the strain on his knees a bit, Bigelow no longer came off the top rope. Instead, he used a slingshot-type finisher, catapulting himself over the top strand onto his foe, known as “Greetings from Asbury Park.” I understand his reasoning for eliminating the top-rope dive, but the new move wasn’t nearly as impressive.

To help get him over, Bigelow was booked not as Hogan’s foe but as the Hulkster’s partner, a move that proved unpopular backstage, according to Meltzer. Writes Dave: “[Bigelow] also had the drawbacks mentally that come with being a star from day one, and then going to WWF where some didn’t respect that he hadn’t proven anything but started out at the top there, often teaming with Hulk Hogan. Some tough veterans like Andre and Sika roughed him up on that first run. He became a bigger star in Japan, where he became the foreign monster with credibility, who could carry newcomers and get them over. It was a role he later played with [headlining against] Lawrence Taylor at WRESTLEMANIA 11.”
In 1988, Bigelow had a stint in WCW, and the Atlanta-based promotion apparently didn’t learn from WWF’s mistakes. WCW also used Bam Bam as a babyface with manager Humperdink, engaging in a short-lived feud with U.S. champion Barry Windham and the Four Horsemen. Windham and Bigelow had good bouts—not great—but something was missing for the Beast from the East.

Bah, Humperdink: DOA babyface Bam Bam and the amazing techni-colored dream coat.

Bah, Humperdink: Lackluster babyface Bam Bam and the amazing techni-colored dream coat.

I was pleased when Bigelow returned to the Former Fed in the early ‘90s, this time as a heel. He shined in the role, highlighted by some fantastic matches with Bret Hart, including the finals of the King of the Ring tournament in 1993, which capped off an impressive night of matches for the Hitman. Hart has since referred to Bigelow as one of his favorite “big man” foes and asked their April 23, 1993, bout from Barcelona be included on his DVD release. By that time, the WWF had begun working with Jarrett and Lawler, who appeared the night of the KOTR tournament to attack Hart, the eventual winner and “pretender to the throne.”

A year later, WWF loaned Bigelow to Memphis for a tag-team bout: Bam Bam and the Dream Machine (the late Troy Graham) vs. Lawler and “Too Sleazy” (as I called him) Brian Christopher. I had turned heel the week before in a tag bout involving Lawler, Jeff Jarrett vs. the Dream and the late Eddie Gilbert. So, in my first official night as a heel manager in May 1994, I interfered in Bigelow’s return match to Memphis, hitting Lawler with a “steel-plated” leg brace. As Lawler lay prone on the canvas, Bigelow ascended from the top rope with a headbutt to give the heels the win. It was a huge thrill for me. Scott Bigelow the person didn’t disappoint me, either, joking with me backstage, which helped me shake my nervousness.

Monsters came and went in Memphis after that. But none had the impact of the Beast from the East.

Scott Bigelow was found dead in Florida on January 19, 2007. He was 45. According to Meltzer, Bigelow had severe back problems prior to his death stemming from his years in pro wrestling, and was involved in a bad motorcycle accident that nearly killed his girlfriend a few years ago. Divorced, broke and hurting, Bigelow had dropped out of sight for years before re-emerging in 2005.

RIP Bam Bam Bigelow

RIP Bam Bam Bigelow

Hard to believe that most of my favorite wrestlers growing up—Gilbert, Dream, Rude, Hawk, Curt Hennig and now Bigelow—are all dead. Is the fame, love for the business and the money they earned worth the price they all paid in the end? I’ll leave you with a quote from Bigelow from a 2005 newspaper article in the St. Petersburg Times: “I don’t know if it’s hiding or disappointment or what,” he said of his seclusion. “But being Bam Bam Bigelow is a pain in the ass. You did this the first half of your life, and now this is the second half, and now you’re bruised and battered. So what the hell can you do? What can you do?”

  1. December 3rd, 2009 at 17:05 | #1

    It’s really interesting how much WWF’s in the 70’s and 80’s booking style was derivative of Memphis when you think about it. The Dragon Slayer as champion and even right down to Hogan’s “Hulking Up” comeback which was the same as Lawler’s “dropping the strap”. It seemed most southern promotions were very heel dominated, except for Memphis.

  2. William Burnett
    December 4th, 2009 at 08:52 | #2

    I too enjoyed Bam Bam when he first came to the Memphis area. He did have that “monster” look & feel.

    I liked the mention of The Mongolian Stomper, who when he came to Memphis did not talk in interviews with Lance Russell. His manager — Bearcat Wright — was a good accent to The Stomper, who stood to the right of the TV screen while Bearcat spoke, flexing his muscles with a “Bull-Worker” excerise devise.

  3. December 4th, 2009 at 10:26 | #3

    I always liked the Stomper’s “inner ear” gimmick where it would cause him great pain if the fans got too loud

  4. Sean D
    December 4th, 2009 at 11:56 | #4

    Bam Bam was always one of those “Coulda been a hall of famer” guys. I would smile when he’d turn up in WWF or WWE because I remembered watching him break in. But that was tempered because I knew the stay would be short. After the miscue of making him a babyface coming into the Fed, I think a lot of people were unsure what to do with him. Thinking back, I wonder if Vince did that to protect Hogan more than seeing Bam Bam as a potential #2 babyface. A heel Bam Bam could’ve split the crowd’s cheers as much as Piper or Savage did when they faced Hogan. Hell, even a heel-turn against Hogan would’ve had the fans cheering Bam Bam. Better to use charismatic black holes like Bundy, Tugboat, etc.

    Looking at that Survivor Series pic…Was Bigelow the only member of the Hulkamanics that wasn’t pushed as a monster heel against Backlund?

  5. Old School Sammy
    December 5th, 2009 at 13:03 | #5

    My question of the Survivor Series picture is more like “was Scotty the only guy in the shot not on the gas?” Muraco looks GIGANTIC there!

    “looking a bit like a larger-than-life Garbage Pail Kid”—awesome line, almost made me spit my drink on my screen!

    These are great stories, the one about the softball game with the brawl made it sound both fun as well as hysterical-again good stuff!

  6. Calcifer
    December 15th, 2009 at 23:37 | #6

    I response to Sammy’s comment…

    Patera wasn’t anymore by that point. This run was after his return from prison, and it was very obvious he was no longer on the stuff. He was a lot smaller than in previous years. Orndorff may or may not have been, it’s hard to say. He seems to be in a middle period as far as size goes, don’t know if he was slimming or growing though… Hogan likely was and there’s little doubt with Muraco. He was naturally a big guy, but whenever he wasn’t on the stuff his gut was bigger.

    That went longer than planned… Anyway, another great article Scott, this blog is one of my favorite stops along the information super highway. Bam Bam was an amazing wrestler who never really gets his due, sadly.

  7. Fartberg
    October 26th, 2010 at 09:11 | #7

    I’m a big fan of your columns and read them every chance I get.
    I seem to remember you in a lumberjack match vs. Brian Christopher where they gave belts to some of the fans at the flea market on Hollywood in Memphis. What was the story behind that or have you covered this before?

  8. Andy
    October 26th, 2010 at 10:51 | #8

    Bam Bam had some great matches in ECW, too, most notably with Taz.

    I remember Lawler nailing Bam Bam with a chair over the head once so hard that the bottom of the chair broke right out of it, and the King left the frame of the chair hanging around Bigelow’s neck as he stood there dazed. It was either a well-gimmicked prop, or a great piece of improv.

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