WANT TO BE A TOUGH GUY OR A SMART GUY?

Want to be a Tough Guy

or

Want to be a Smart Guy? 

Starting out in the wrestling business is different than starting out in any other business.  Not only is it a physical business but its a political one as well and sometimes you just had to feel your way along.  Wrestling isn’t as physical as football or amateur wrestling but in the middle.  A stiff move or being too snug during a match could easily be identified as being too rough.  Veterans didn’t like that and many of them, when I started,  didn’t like rookies to begin with.  To tell the truth,  I didn’t either when I became a veteran.  Rookies can make mistakes that can and will hurt you and when that happened,  you didn’t make any money.  When I broke in, if you didn’t work,  you didn’t get paid.  And in wrestling,  there was no insurance, no pension plan, no benefits, no unions,  no paid vacations, no Human Resources departments and you could get fired on a whim.  Where was Bernie Sanders when we really needed him?  

The business when I started was so much different than it is today.   Problems were real but answers to them were at a premium and early in my career,  I ran across a problem that I didn’t know how to handle very early on   But thanks to a wise old veteran,  I solved it by listening to his very sage advice.  This was where I first learned the art of diplomacy and when to apply it.  

This is a photo taken several years after I started in Georgia. In Georgia I was probably 30 pounds lighter and inexperienced. But as you read this, experience comes along after when you need it most.

The territory was the old Atlanta, Georgia franchise of the old NWA network way back in the 70’s. It was owned and operated by a man named Jim Barnette. Mr. Barnette always had a fondness for pro wrestling and was born into a family with money so when he started promoting wrestling events,  he started with a sizable bank account.

In today’s “woke” generation, he could have been called privileged. He was a white male with money or a lot more money than the rest of us had. His only detraction from being totally privileged was that he wasn’t totally heterosexual which might have contributed to his fondness for the game. Just an observation just to be clear.

Barnette’s idea succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings.  Barnette’s TV network was owned and operated by the Murdoch Family…of which Rupert was the head of. Rupert Murdoch is a name that most cable network fans know as the founder of FOX news here in the US. The meeting with Rupert and Barnette would play out in spectacular fashion years later as I’ll explain below. Fans in Australia were highly supportive of American style pro wrestling and sellouts were common in the big cities like Perth, Brisbane and Sydney.  Barnette’s time in  Australia was about the time I was breaking in so I never got to see first hand or work Australia.  If there was ever one regret that I had, it would be that Barnette left Austrailia before I ever had an opportunity to go there.   

Jim Barnette back in the day. Very intelligent man and greater business man. He was the Vince McMahon of the times at that point.

After a strong run during the early 70’s,  Barnette grew homesick for the States and wanted to return home.  He sold his company to an Australian investor and returned back to the states with more money than he left with.  He more or less remained on the sidelines for a year or so studying the American wrestling climate and decided to buy into the Georgia Championship Wrestling promotion based in Atlanta.  Barnette didn’t just buy things on a whim and had studied the American wrestling landscape for over a year when he finally made his move and he had reasons why he wanted GCW.   One was that it was a promotion that was going through a wrestling war and knew the owners wanted out…and the other one,  he felt like he was the only one who could make the promotion successful.   He was right on both counts.   The second reason and the MAIN REASON was that GCW was on a station that he knew was going national on cable.

Cable TV at the time was cutting edge. Barnette knew that a TV Cable Wrestling promotion would put him way ahead of any other competitor in the market. Also, the channel he was going to be on was Channel 17 owned by, in Barnettes’ estimation a visionary in seeing the future, Ted Turner. Turner was the one who envisioned the power of cable TV long before anybody else in the country realized its potential.   It didn’t hurt Barnette’s chances that Ted Turner reminded him of Rupert Murdoch who was his support system in Australia.   

Companies like Georgia Championship Wrestling dotted the wrestling landscape when I started. GWA was one of the bigger ones with WWWF (New York), Texas and Mid Atlantic were the choice ones. If you got to one of them early in your career, you were ahead of the curve.

The fascination with the Georgia promotion and what made it stand out so much from all the rest of the companies in the US was the TV coverage.  All of the other promotions in the country were all local promotions with only regional coverage but GWC aired on a SuperStation with coverage all over the country.   There were only a few SuperStations, in the entire country at the time…which included, WGN out of Chicago and one maybe in NYC.  But there were no SuperStations carrying pro wrestling and wrestling proved very profitable for Turner and his station.  

Turner later on stated that pro wrestling was the one staple product that kept his station in the black and without it, his station could have filed bankruptcy. Turner’s fascination with pro wrestling could also explain why TBS ended up buying the old Mid-Atlantic territory in the 90’s.  

So back to my story about being a smart guy or a tough guy. Wrestlers back in those days unbeknownst to most of them were traded back and forth most of the time almost like cattle without them even knowing about it. One day at the matches the booker (whoever he was) would sidle up to a guy and just tell him that they were finishing him up but most of the time, he had been traded to another company a couple hundred miles away. That was to keep the talent working and to keep fresh talent moving through. That was how I ended up in Georgia.   When I was informed that I was going to Georgia, I was elated. The company was on fire, Barnette had a rep as a good payoff guy and I thought that I had just got lucky.

At the time, a position in the Georgia territory was a highly sought position.  Barnette had hired Bill Watts as his booker and  Watts was a no nonsense type guy who liked hard nosed wrestling and not a lot of theatrical displays.   Business was good and the ratings on the show…which started at 6:05EST/5:05 CST was gaining popularity all across the country.  Even though Georgia was national,  they had to pay their bills so like every other company in those days, they ran weekly towns within the state of Georgia.   Later on, Georgia Championship Wrestling started running mini-tours up in Ohio and Pennsylvania due to the coverage of the SuperStation.  

We always did the weekly Georgia Championship Wrestling tapings early on Saturday mornings.  The show was taped and aired later on Saturday afternoon.   Many fans, in those days,  thought the show was LIVE but we taped it around 10AM on Saturday morning and it played back at 6:05PM EST.   The 05 start time turned out to be a wise marketing tool because the ending of a show would always spill over into the next hour thus preventing viewers from channel surfing at the top of the hour.  I don’t know why more TV programs don’t employ that start/stop time strategy.   

The talent in Atlanta during that period was very good with guys like Abdullah the Butcher and Mark Lewin, who Barnette had booked in Australia along with Wrestling 2, Dick Slater,  Bob OrtonJr.,  Tommy “Wildfire’ Rich, Roddy Piper, the Assassin and The Great Mephisto among others.   My job in the company was strictly as a mid-card wrestler because I was still learning the business.   But with that position came a little bit of follow the leader and you had to take a little bullshit from the top guys.   Most everybody in the top tier were cool…but as with everything,  there is ALWAYS one jackass amongst them. 

Mr. Wrestling 2 or Johnny Walker was one of the top guys in Georgia in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He drew a lot of money but was sometimes a pain in the ass to work with. He was known to take advantage of young guys in the business. Learning to work with these old timers was a chore.

Don’t leave now…this is where the story gets good.

As I mentioned a JACKASS above, the photo of him is right beside us right now. I ran smack dab into a situational story and it’s a story that started and ended in one 8 hour period. But I learned more in that 8 hours than I had learned about wrestling up to that point.

 Every Saturday morning,  our call time for the TV taping at the WTBS Studios on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta was around 8:30 AM.  I know, that’s really early to perform especially since we probably didn’t get in from the LIVE event the night before until 2 or 3 AM. But that’s the nature of the business we were in. 

I showed up early one Saturday morning and walked into the studio locker room…which wasn’t a locker room at all.  What it is really was,   was the lobby of the station.  We all dressed in a medium size lobby with a desk for a receptionist and a hallway leading down to the other offices.   It wasn’t very big and you can imagine 14 to 20 wrestlers all stuck in a small space and all trying to get dressed and go over the show at the same time.   It amazed me that the show came off at all.   The studio was right around the corner and if you’ve ever watched the old tapes on YouTube from Channel 17…you might be able to fit 100 people into the small, cramped area that Channel 17 called a studio.  But it was functional and it worked.   

I found out that day that I was scheduled to wrestle Mr. Wrestling #2.   I had never worked him before and I had heard rumors that he could be a little bit of a hard ass at times, especially with younger guys.   Wrestling 2, whose real name,  was Johnny Walker had been a top star in Georgia for a couple of years before I got there.  In fact,  Mr. Wrestling was such a big star,  that he was named as the favorite wrestler of then-President Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian.  When Jimmy Carter won the Presidency in 1972,   Mr. Wrestling had actually been invited to attend the Presidential Inaugural Festivities in Washington, DC but declined for professional reasons.  The reasons were that he would be required to appear without his mask on in which he didn’t agree with.  Yep folks you know that little term, KAYFABE??? The wrestling profession used to honor the CODE.

Walker had come up the hard way in the wrestling business and his style was very aggressive in nature and very physical.   But I didn’t mind that.  I, more or less,  wanted it the same way.  But I found out that he was also very moody and he took that attitude into the ring at times according to who he was working with.  

When we were called together to go over the match,  we were told that the match would go about 5 minutes or a typical TV match in those days with the result being that Mr. Wrestling would end up beating me with his patented driving knee lift.  Both of us understood what was needed for the match.  I asked Johnny was there anything he wanted to do and he just looked at me, with his mask on I might add. Wrestling 2 was such a stickler for KAYFABE, he even kept it on in the dressing room  and said we’d work it out in the ring.   Wow I thought. So much for preparation.

The taping started and we were on something like 2nd or 3rd that day.  As I entered the ring, during a commercial break,   I saw Mr. Wrestling come in from the other side of the ring.   The ring announcer was the legendary Freddie Miller who coined the phrase….BE THERE!!!…on most of the wrestling commercials that aired on the show.   The play by play announcer was also the legendary Gordon Solie who I thought was one of the best announcers of all time and he gave any match an aura of credibility when he called it.   

 I remembered Wrestling 2 telling me in the back that we’d work it out in the ring but when the match started, I saw immediately that Johnny had one thing on his mind and his idea of working it out was simple.  He would give me nothing.   And nothing is what he gave me.   I understood my purpose in the ring and within the pecking order of the company and that was to make Mr. Wrestling look good and look tough.  But I was always taught that even though you were getting pinned,  that didn’t mean you were to get squashed.   When the finish was given to me,  especially with 5 minutes in duration, that would have mandated that I would be on top…at least for awhile.   Apparently,  Johnny didn’t share the same philosophy as I did.

  He took me over in a headlock…beat me up…and when I tried to take over on him,  he blocked any and all my attempts and kept his offense moving.  Then he beat me up some more. And he wasn’t easy either. Some of those punches were very stiff. I got ZERO offense in on him.  If the match had been over in a minute or so,  that would have been preferable to what he did and would have been accepted more from a fan’s viewpoint.   However,  he kept his attack going on for 5 FULL MINUTES which, to a viewer, is not only overkill but boring as hell. 

The crowd inside the studio was just dead.  I mean, what did they have to get excited about?  Here was their hero (not me BTW) beating up a helpless not to mention inept opponent (that would be me) and for a minute there,  I thought the crowd started feeling a bit sorry for me.  Hell, I knew I was. The studio was so quiet at one point,  I could even hear Gordon calling what little action there was to call.   At one point, I even heard a horn beeping outside on the street.   

Finally,  the match ended and the crowd sort of cheered…a little bit. I think they cheered more for the fact that it was over rather than the victory that had been achieved.   I knew that Johnny had taken advantage of me but what was I to do?   I was low man on the totem pole and I was in no position to call Wrestling 2’s hand on anything.   He was the STAR and my job was to keep him a STAR but what he had done is really a no-no in the business unless directly ordered by the booker. He completely destroyed me but more than that,  he didn’t really advance himself in the process. 

Since I didn’t put up much of an offense…or any offense,  he beat a nobody and it took him 5 minutes to do it.   If he had beat me within 2 minutes, it would have been much better but he took 5 minutes to do something that he should have been able to do in a relatively short amount of time.  Looking back on it,  the case could have been made that I was tougher than he was because it took him 5 minutes to put me away.   

When I walked back into the dressing room…or I should say,  slowly “crept” back into the dressing room…I was embarrassed.   Embarrassed by my performance but I was also embarrassed that I had allowed it to happen.   But there was no way I could have prevented it short of actually fighting it out with Johnny in the ring.   If that had happened,  my future in that company would have ended that day because I would have been fired.  So I was not only embarrassed,  I was impotent to even do anything about it.   

Wrestling protocol has always dictated that the winner should always seek out the loser and thank him for the match.  I waited while I sat in a chair next to my bag for Johnny to come and thank me for the match but he never came.  Finally,  I stood up and found him sitting next to his bag around the corner in the hallway. When I approached him,  I extended my hand and said,  “thanks for the match.”  Johnny didn’t even look up at me but extended his hand almost condescendingly as he said gruffly,  “Thanks kid.”  But he said it without sincerity, not that I expected much, but it made me feel like I was just a piece of garbage.  Have I mentioned that Wrestling 2’s social skills were limited to say the least and he was considered a “jackass”?

At the time,  there were what we called ‘job boys’ who didn’t work full time in the wrestling business.   Their job in wrestling and their only job in wrestling was to get beat on TV.   Since I didn’t consider myself a straight up ‘job guy’,  that lack of respect didn’t sit well with me.   Since I had a full time job with the company,   my belief was that I should have been afforded a bit more courtesy than what Johnny had shown me that morning.   I never had a problem with Wrestling 2 until that day but it solidified the rumors that I had heard about him.  That he was a shot taker but only took shots at those who were beneath him and those who had no political clout of which I qualified for both.   I didn’t know how I should have handled the situation but I was glad that it was behind me.  Chalk it up to a learning experience.   

After the early morning taping…I wasn’t done.  Back in those days,  we worked sometimes two or three times a day.   On this particular Saturday,   after the Atlanta tapings,  we had to get into our car and drive 110 miles to Columbus, Georgia in order to make another TV show but this time it would be LIVE at 4PM.   We just had enough time to hop in the car,  grab a bite to eat and drive down HighWay 41 to Columbus.   These Saturday taping days were sometimes 20 hour days.

 I was riding that day with an old timer, Frankie Caine, who worked under the name of the Great Mephisto.   As I drove south out of Atlanta toward Columbus,  Frankie and I were talking.   He had been in the wrestling business for years and what had happened that day hadn’t escaped his notice.  I was hoping that nobody had noticed it but that was just merely wishful thinking.   He looked over at me about 30 minutes into the trip and asked me what had happened that morning with Wrestling 2.  

I replied that nothing had happened.  

Frankie said,  ‘well something happened because he gave you nothing’ which was absolutely true.   Frankie took a deep breath and started giving me a mini- lecture on how wrestling protocol and politics worked  inside the wrestling business.   Frankie began by telling me that I needed to confront Wrestling 2 and flat out tell him that I did not appreciate him crushing me on TV.  

Frankie Cain or as he was known to the majority of of wresting fans The Great Mephisto gave me some of the greatest advice I’d ever been given up to that point. I listened. I learned. Never forgot this man.

I didn’t know what to do as I was torn but I decided to let sleeping dogs lie and not say anything just to keep the peace.  I’ve always heard that sometimes you had to go along to get along.  So I wasn’t going to say anything but I damn sure wanted to.  I just had to bite my tongue.   As soon as I walked into the little building that served as a wrestling arena in Columbus,  I looked at the lineup sheet posted on the wall and saw that I would be working with Wrestling 2 for the SECOND TIME that day and I feared a repeat of what had just happened on Atlanta TV earlier that morning.  

Atlanta TV and Columbus TV weren’t booked by the same people.  Columbus had an independent promoter who used Atlanta wrestlers for his TV show and all he did was book the wrestlers and give a booking fee to the Atlanta office.   Whoever booked the Columbus TV had no idea what had happened in Atlanta that morning so they were clueless.  

I didn’t know what to do but old Frankie was watching what was going on and he pulled me aside and gave me some great advice. He knew by experience what Wrestling 2’s plan was. Ol Frankie knew that 2 was going to do a repeat of the morning session.  Later on I learned that Frankie, who was becoming one of my best friends at the time, had had a few run-ins with Wrestling 2 in their dealings in the past. Needless to say, no love lost.  

As we were called together,  for our little pre-match meeting, Wrestling 2 wouldn’t even look at me and I knew that he planned a repeat of our match earlier that morning.   When the instructions were over,  I asked Wrestling 2 was there anything he wanted to change from earlier that day and he said, for the second time, that we’d work it out in the ring.   Well, he more or less told me what to expect which was more than he had done in Atlanta.   

Frankie, after the meeting called me over. I didn’t week his advice but he voluntarily gave it to me who he could see was struggling on how to handle the situation. This situation was not only a physical one, it was a political one too.

Frankie looked me right in the yese and said I could be a tough guy…or a smart guy. One option was that if Wrestling 2 tried the same thing with me as he had in Atlanta,  I could physically make a stand and fight him….FOR REAL and on LIVE TV.  He also said that if that happened…I could get the hell beat out of me or I could beat the hell out of him but in the end,  he would still win…because whatever happened,  I would end up getting fired and probably blackballed from ever working in wrestling again.  

Then he gave me option 2.   

The match was scheduled for 6 minutes and on LIVE TV…6 minutes is an eternity.   All Frankie said to do was to let Wrestling 2 take a headlock, take me over in a headlock l…and GO TO SLEEP.

The fans were absolutely dead. Funeral homes had more energy. I just laid there. Johnny even as dense and as selfish as he was beginning to realize that he was the one looking like crap, not me.

WTF I thought? GO TO SLEEP? I’D NEVER HEARD THAT TERM IN WRESTLING BEFORE. I asked, quite sheepishly, “what’s that”? He said just call a headlock, let him take you over and then do absolutely nothing until he wants to work. The match started and as expected,  everything was exactly as it had been in Atlanta. I called a headlock and 2 took me over and I just laid down. And for the next 30 to 45 seconds..nothing happened.  Remember, this was eons before WWE’s slick TV presentation with only the one camera …no editing,  no special effects, no nothing and LIVE TV.   You got what you got.   Finally, 2 made a move to bring me up..and I just laid there. 

The fans were dead. Coma patients had more energy. Finally, it dawned on Wrestling 2 that this match was dying the death of a broke tail dog. Finally I said to Johnny while I was still in the headlock these exact words.  

I said very quietly “Johnny…I can get up and we can have a match.   Or I can lay here and have you pin me right here.  So what do you want to do?  You want to work…or you want to pin me right here”?    The crowd was so dead, I think a couple of the fans at ringside heard me tell him that.

After a long and agonizing not to mention boring match up to this point,   even 2 realized that he was looking like crap not doing anything.  So he said begrudgingly, OK kid,  lets work.  When he said that…I came up firing. And lo and behold, the old bastard started selling. And when he came alive, guess what? The crowd came alive.   2 started selling for me like he would have sold for Brisco or Funk.  I thought to myself…now really…how hard was just a little selling?  

We went on to have a half decent match    Or at least a match that made Wrestling 2 struggle just a bit to achieve the win. Believe me, before I took over, you could hear the announcer in the studio and nothing else. Finally, back in the dressing room…2 thanked me for the match…and I thanked him.   And I learned something that day.  

Use your head and seek advice when you can. Wrestling 2 thought that I was just some underneath job guy…which frankly I was at the time…but I knew enough to know that if he made me to be a tough guy..then he beat a tough guy. If he beat somebody who didn’t put up a fight..then he beat a nobody.  But if he beat somebody that gave him a run for his money…if only for a minute then he overcame a hurdle.  

I think that Wrestling 2 knew that I had been traveling with Frankie Cain that day and I believe Wrestling 2 thought Frankie had put me up to that little maneuver that I pulled. And he didn’t appreciate it I learned later. I also learned that there had always been heat between the 2 and Frankie going back 15 or so years. But little did I know the heat would play out between them about a month later in Macon, Georgia about a month later.

Frankie was managing a wrestler that Wrestling 2 was working with and something wasn’t right with the finish. I didn’t see what happened but when they returned to the dressing room…Johnny was upset with Frankie about the match and was confronting him in the dressing room. I witnessed this while I was getting dress dressed after my earlier match. Johnny was starting to get loud. Frankie, being the politician he was, suggested they both go off and discuss this amongst themselves without everybody being a witness to it.  They both went into a small restroom area close to where I was sitting.    After a minute or so inside the little restroom…I heard Johnny raise his voice which was loud enough to hear down a short hallway and then I heard a couple of thumping sounds as though somebody was hitting the walls inside the rest room.  

Then it got quiet.  Really quiet.  I heard nothing.  About 20 seconds later…Mephisto emerged,  by himself,  from the rest room and walked by me without saying a word.   I wondered why he came out by himself.   2 was still in the rest room.   He didn’t come out for another 2 minutes but when he did,  his white mask was torn and there was blood coming from his eye and his nose through the mask.   He went straight to his bag,  grabbed his keys and left the dressing room area without taking a shower or getting dressed.

It didn’t take a detective to figure out what happened but sometimes Karma bites you in the ass. Karma never forgets an address.


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