By Tony Cline, Staff Writer
In early 1984, my parents took me to see my very first live professional wrestling card at the Charlotte Coliseum. I was six at the time, and the main event contained my favorite wrestler, Jimmy Valiant, in a tag match with Pistol Pez Whatley against the Assassins. As a kid, the Boogie Woogie Man was my favorite wrestler, and the feud that gave rise to that night’s marquee match was a huge reason why. You see, before there were the Horsemen, there was Paul Jones and his stable, and before there was Sting to be a hero to the masses, Mid-Atlantic Wrestling had Valiant.
In 1983, Paul Jones and Jimmy Valiant kicked off a feud that would last three years…about 18 times the length of the average feud in WWE today. The Boogie Woogie Man led the fight against Paul Jones’s Army in the middle of the 1980s, enduring innumerable beatdowns, indignities, and lost friends. Yet, he always rose from the ashes to strike a blow for good against the evil of the Army. Valiant faced off against one of the most underrated stables in wrestling history: the Assassins, the Barbarian, Baron von Raschke, Ivan Koloff, Rick Rude, Superstar Billy Graham, Abdullah the Butcher, and many others…including Manny Fernandez and Shaska Whatley, both friends that turned on Valiant after being recruited by Jones. During this time, Valiant had other feuds and opponents, as did the Army, but this feud was always simmering just below the surface, and it would repeatedly flare up into a conflagration that kept fans engaged for years. Boogie lost his beard and his hair to the feud, and Jones gave up his hair as well. Valiant lost a loser leaves town match, only to return the following week in a terrible disguise calling himself Charlie Brown form Outta Town, leaving fans cheering for the cheating babyface. This was one of the greatest feuds of the last forty years, and it offers several lessons promotions would do well to take notice of today.
First, heroes are not made by being booked like a superman but rather by fighting through amazing amounts of adversity, suffering setback after setback, and still fighting through them to eventually come out on top. WWE books Cena and Reigns to almost
never lose a match, and the fans have largely reacted by jeering the performers the promotion sees as its biggest babyfaces. If they suffered through adversity, losing multiple times before finally coming back to win in the end, the fans would react completely differently to those stars. Second, the best feuds are ones that last years, not weeks. One of the best feuds the WWE has put on in recent years (though the climax was completely flubbed) was Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton. The slow burn of the revenge story made for a compelling story, much like the long and ever-present hatred between Jones and Valiant. Third, stables are great tools for a booker, and there should be more of them. Valiant and friends faced off in innumerable combinations against the Paul Jones Army, which would change composition regularly over the duration of the feud. However, because the beef was between Jimmy and Paul, they were able to have the feud last for a very long time without fans having to watch a constant repeat of the same match, something the WWE can’t seem to figure out with its 30-day feuds, much less ones of any real length. Fourth, turns should not be telegraphed! The turns by “Pistol” Pez Whatley (who became Shaska Whatley) and “The Ragin’ Bull” Manny Fernandez against Valiant were all the more gut-wrenching and compelling because no one saw them coming. Today’s heel turns, with the possible exception of Tommaso Ciampa, are so telegraphed that fans discuss them for months before they happen. If you want to keep fans interested and excited, keep surprising them.
As I said before, this feud was one of the defining features of my childhood wrestling fandom. It had great characters, real surprises, and it seemed realistic that the protagonist and antagonist would hate each other and keep butting heads for years rather than dislike each other only for thirty days at a time. I know that today’s product is different in many ways from the past, and some of those ways cannot and should not regress, but there are also some great lessons that can be learned from the older days, and much that could be put into action to make today’s product eminently more enjoyable.