By Jim Phillips, Columnist
Welcome back to my new series, Breaking In. I hope you all enjoyed last week’s first run and found this concept as exciting as I do. Everyone hears the homogenized stories let out by THE network, but there are deeper stories to tell and ideals that need to be focused on and instilled more in the young workers of today. Rip Rogers gave us some great insights into the road of paying dues and how he trains the workers of our wrestling future at OVW. This time, I want to take a look at a story of being raised in the old school business of wrestling, and what it’s like to break into international markets as an American talent/promoter.
Bruce was born in 1961, and was around the business from a young age. His father worked with Eddie Graham, as well as many of the NWA contingent of the Fifties. He started working as a ring announcer for “Cowboy” Clarence Luttrall in territory that eventually became the Champion Wrestling from Florida under Graham. As a young child Bruce was around the biggest names in the wrestling world at that time, and it turned the kid into the most important thing that a worker or talent can be to succeed in the business; a fan.
Another pastime that Tharpe fell in love with, was magic. One may make the link that it’s the working of a spectator in magic that is the biggest thrill, not unlike wrestling. Another aspect of a good magician, as well as wrestling talent, is being able to keep your mouth shut about the trick and not divulge the secret of illusion, otherwise known as kayfabe. While that ideal, for all intents and purposes, is near extinct these days under the unrelenting gaze of social media, back then it was essential.
Bruce was practicing some magic in the stage area one afternoon when his father and Eddie Graham passed by talking about the show that evening. Graham stopped and asked him to show him what he was doing. Bruce obliged, and performed a levitating cloth trick for him. He took his handkerchief and began to make it rise in the air. He looked on fixated, as the young magician floated the cloth in mid-air. Graham peered under it and looked to see if there were strings but could not find any, nor figure out the trick. He looked on in amazement, congratulated Bruce, then the two men continued on walking and talking. Tharpe didn’t give a second thought until a few days later when his father told him that Graham had asked him how the trick was done. Being honest, he told him he did not know, and his son would not even tell his own father how he did it. Based on this ability to keep the secret of the illusion, or in the term Graham was familiar with not breaking kayfabe, the seventeen year old was offered the job working in the office at CWF.
He began to work on a daily basis with names like Gordon Solie, Jerry Brisco, and Dusty Rhodes, who was the booker at that time. I asked him that when he came to the crossroads of sorts, why he chose to take the path of wrestling and not make magic his focus, he had this to say:
“Brutha, I grew up around this. Wrestling is my passion. I’ve always been a fan, I’ll always be one. I love this business. Once I got the opportunity to work with some of my heroes, my mind was made up. That’s why I didn’t go to the university of Florida like my brother and sister. I went to college in Tampa so I could do TV every Wednesday. I was working as the ring announcer for the television spots every week, and things just went from there.”
Kayfabe and protecting the business meant so much more back in those days. Even after showing that he could keep the secrets of the business and office quiet, he was still shunned when it came to being in the dressing room. That was sacred ground, and he told me a really good story to illustrate this fact.
“When I started working in the office, I would see the boys come in and get their payouts, and we’d talk, but the big dog, the booker, Dusty Rhodes had kicked me out of the dressing room a few times. They knew I was smartened up on things, but he still would make me leave. It really bothered me, because I didn’t know why he wouldn’t trust me to be back there. Years later, while I was out of the wrestling business for a bit and focusing on my law practice, Dusty had passed away. I heard Dustin tell a story in an interview, about how his father worked an angle where the Four Horseman had broken his arm, and the arm was in a cast. Dustin recalled that he protected the business so well, Dusty would wear the cast until the kids had went to bed, and then take it off to ensure that they wouldn’t see him without it on, then go to school telling their friends that he wasn’t really hurt. That’s the extent that he went to, to protect the business and not break kayfabe, even around his family. I had so much more respect for him after hearing that, and it made me understand why he would kick me out of the dressing room. It was about the tradition, and keeping it secret. I wish I coulda talked to him about that before he passed. He was a brilliant, one of a kind performer.”
We went on to talk about the NWA and his term as President and owner of the brand as well. Bruce took the helm of the NWA in the Summer of 2012, an immediately began to establish it, once again, as a world-wide brand. He connected with New Japan Pro-Wrestling and made inroads to take his NWA to the Land of the Rising Sun. I asked him how hard it was for him to break into the overseas market after such a long absence by the NWA there, and how they received the American product
“I reached out to Masao Hattori the American agent for New Japan, and we set up a meeting in Dallas, with him, myself, and Gedo, the booker there, and we discussed what I wanted to do, and they were very much interested in that and bringing the NWA brand over there. I had a second meeting with Hattori in Manhattan not long after, and we sealed the deal. In November of that year, myself, Rob Conway, and Jax Dane went over to make our debut, not knowing really what to expect.”
He continued on to tell me how he unwittingly was cast in the role of the arrogant American, and how he embraced it, rather than let it intimidate him:
“We went through the curtain with a good response, and they wanted me to get in the ring and cut a promo. I basically told the crowd that we were in Japan to win, to defeat the Japanese wrestlers – and prove that NWA wrestlers were superior in every way. The crowd didn’t like that and started to boo me. It was music to my ears. Shortly after that we were in Taiwan, and I felt I needed something flashy to wear other than the drab lawyer suits to add to the direction that the audience was taking me. I went and had three suits tailor made for me, because everything off the rack was made too small to fit this six foot tall, broad-shouldered Florida boy frame.”
While he was working with NJPW, the coveted “Ten Pounds of Gold” was held by Satoshi Kojima, and Hiroyoshi Tenzan after both defeated Rob Conway on separate trips to Japan. Jax Dane took the belt from Tenzan at the World War Gold event in San Antonio in 2015.
Billy Corgan purchased the NWA from Tharpe in 2017.
As most in the business know, once you’re bitten by the in-ring bug, it’s very hard to step away from the squared circle. Bruce Tharpe is not immune to this need for the ring, as he showed recently when he made his return to the wrestling scene after nearly a two year hiatus. Knowing that when a talent of any capacity is out of the ring for more than a year, their memory begins to quickly fade away. I asked Bruce if he felt any of that in the fan reactions to his return, or if he felt like they remembered him and were ready to see him back“I’ll always be very passionate about the business. When the opportunity presented itself recently for me to work with Lions Pride Sports – one of the hottest new wrestling promotions in the country, I welcomed the chance to get back in the spotlight. We worked a show in Texas and the fans weren’t expecting to see me there, and some of them definitely remembered me and recognized me when I came out. I’d love to get back into the business more, and hopefully go back to Japan. Once my law practice affords me the time for those things, I’d like to see them happen in the future. There’s no feeling in the world like being in front of a live crowd and performing. There’s just nothing like it.”
Bruce will be appearing at the next Lion’s Pride Sports event in College Station, Texas on June 30th. Lance Hoyt, with Tharpe in his corner, will be defending the LPS Championship against former champion Mike Dell. Get out and support the local product if you’re in that area on June 30th.
Big thanks to my Brutha, Bruce Tharpe, for taking the time to give us a look at breaking into the business from a little different perspective. Building lasting relationships and keeping the business safely protected is one of the things lost in frenetic world of our social media lives these days. It is the underlying lesson to be learned this week if you were being observant, and reading beyond just what the words have to offer. Though kayfabe may very well be in the verge of completely being rubbed out, the values it represents need to be resuscitated with new life in this next generation of workers.
Well that wraps it up for this week, until next time, Bruthas, Sistas, Marks, and Maniacs…..no matter what you do to get your foot in the door, when you’re given the opportunity, break it down!! Peace.