By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Welcome once again, Bruthas and Sistas, as we wind down this little history class. We are rounding the bases and in the home stretch of this series. As we leave Florida and cross the state line, I’m going to need to make a stop off in, what I consider to be, one of the top five beautiful cities in this country; Savannah, Ga. Savannah is steeped in the history of our country as much as it is in the wrestling business. Savannah was the veery last city to be occupied by the British before they all sailed out, after we handed them their colonial asses. Likewise, Savannah was one of the last cities ran before the folding of WCW and it’s assimilation into the WWE. As our story unfolds we will further see how this little city by the Atlantic, with it’s moss laden live oaks and old money, had a hand in guiding the outcome of GCW. Well time’s a wasting ya’ll. I had my Chicken Conquistador sandwich in the little park close to Zunzi’s, so I can head to Atlanta with a full belly and a smile in my soul. It’s only a five hour drive up I-16, so let’s get going. We’ll discuss one of the most prolific territories to have ever opened it’s doors on the way.
The roots of the GCW promotion go back to Atlanta in the Mid-Forties where it was launched under the ABC Booking company ran by Andrew Lutzi. He ran shows out of the Municipal Auditorium for nearly thirty years before his retirement. It was a regular stop off for the NWA Champion, but they maintained their own set of NWA branded Georgia championships. Their two main titles in the promotion in those days were the NWA Georgia Heavyweight Championship, and the Tag Team Championships, both of which got their starts in the early Fifties.
The Heavyweight title was a sought after belt from it’s inception in the territory, but it was the man from Mexico known as El Mongol that really made the title his for the taking throughout the Sixties, and as far up as 1972. Buddy Fuller and Mr. Wrestling Tim Woods gave the Mongol his best matches, but he managed to capture the title ten times in that stretch of time. Mongol worked in CWF during this time, and he ventured into the tag ranks while he was at GCW as well as he floated between the two territories. He held the Georgia Tag titles with Tarzan Tyler for a short time but it was short lived as the Torres and the Vachon Family battled for the straps for the most of 1968. El Mongol went on to open a pair of Mexican restaurants with his wife, and retired to work them in 1982. They sold them in 2000, and Ray “El Mongol” Molina passed away in 2016 at the age of eighty-six.
The NWA Georgia Tag Team Championships also saw their origin in the late Sixties. While The Torres Brothers and the Vachons went to war in the Fall of that year, there was another powerhouse that was about to get the titles in their grasp, and once they did the tag ranks became their turf. After losing the titles for a final time in Savannah, the Vachons were pushed out of the way and sent packing by the team of Jody Hamilton and Tom Renesto, better known as The Assassins.
Hamilton began wrestling as the original Assassin in the Georgia territory in the Mid-Sixties, but one he paired with Renesto, the team of The Assassins tore through the Southern and Southeastern wrestling area and left no prisoners in their wake. They captured their first tag titles in November 1968 and held them a record ten times over the next four years. Though many teams like Buddy Fuller and Ray Gunkel managed to wrangle the belts away from them on a few occasions, the Assassins always seemed to get them back in short order.
As the promotion headed into 1972 some major changes were already being set into motion, both inside and outside of GCW. The new Omni Coliseum had opened up in the facility that would become the CNN Center in later years. GCW moved it’s weekly live shows to the new venue and it held wrestling events there over the next 25 years. Alongside the new spot at the Omni, Ted Turner also secured the rights to produce wrestling for his WTCG station that would eventually morph into the TBS cable station. The building would become synonymous with WCW wrestling in later years and we will talk more about this Church of the wrestling world when we reach the WCW portion of Territories.
Internally however, things were not good at GCW during this time. The longtime booker, Ray Gunkel died suddenly form a heart attack shortly after a match with Ox Baker in Savannah. Ray’s widow Ann wanted to take over her husband’s share in the business but it was sold out form under her to Bill Watts, who began to spin off his own Mid-South Sports out of the business move. Gunkel quickly made moves to open her own outlaw promotion outside of the NWA banner and run shows against Watts. Several loyal wrestlers went with her, including the Georgia Tag Team champs at that time, Dick Steinborn and Argentina Apollo, which left those titles vacant. Her new All-South Wrestling Alliance looked to be stronger than Watts had anticipated and they began to draw business from his new promotion. Gunkel also used her inside connections with Ted Turner, rumored to be romantically linked from their college days at Brown University, to acquire the television spot occupied by Watts at WTCG. It looked like Ann had Mid-South against the ropes but it was an audible call by Watts to bring in outside help that would finally help him win the insurrection. That man was Jim Barnett.
Born in Oklahoma City, June 1924, Jim Barnett started working around the wrestling business in his teens for Fred Kohler in his NWA Chicago territory. He learned the workings of the office and how to book to draw from Kohler during his early years there. In 1955, Barnett leveraged his way into the Chicago promotion and bought into the NWA franchise. He continued to achieve and grow with further expansions into the Indianapolis office as well, where he ran shows with Johnny Doyle. The two sometimes ran shows against the NWA Detroit brand periodically, but mostly kept within the confines of the organization’s umbrella.
Following a 1962 scandal that involved Rock Hudson and accusations of homosexual improprieties with some of Barnett’s wrestlers, the promoter began to sell off shares and stockholdings he had in several ventures across the country. He moved to Sydney, Australia and opened the original World Championship Wrestling there in 1964. He stayed there working that brand for the next decade, until he got the call to come back to Georgia. I’ve talked to a few wrestlers in the interviews that I’ve done, with bits and pieces of information about this time trickling out from time to time. One of the wrestlers I spoke with, which I won’t name, told me that Barnett used to employ future Hollywood star Lee Majors as his chauffeur when Majors was going to the university of Kentucky, where the scandal had originated. This is just conjecture to say he was involved at all but the shadowy pieces to this puzzle have never been fully assembled, and the whereabouts and movements of all three men have been called into question during this time. The book The Thin Thirty, takes a look at the story and begs some still unanswered questions. This is Wrestling Territories, and not some spoiled housewife tv show, so that’s all we’re going to say about that.
Once he was back on American soil, Barnett got back into the business full bore and things started to turn around for Watts and his Mid-South one-off. When the gates returned, so did the wrestlers and the Omni once again was cranking out the classics. Gunkel’s ASWA went out of business and everything was re-absorbed by Barnett’s newly built juggernaut. Sometimes the business takes a funny turn now and again. These years of transition in GCW were more difficult to sort through than any other promotion I’ve researched. The changing of hands and promotional banners that Georgia went through in the early Seventies, leaves it’s history during that time somewhat clouded. Watts pulled out and headed to Oklahoma full-time with his Mid-South brand that we learned morphed into the UWA before it’s eventual demise at the hands of national expansions. One such leap of growth was catalyzed by Barnett himself, when he saw an opportunity to go nationwide in 1976.
Barnett wasn’t the only one growing a company in the Seventies. Ted Turner had taken his investment capitol and made the right moves to secure himself a swath of prime real estate in downtown Atlanta. The CNN Complex housed the now booming Omni Coliseum, as well as his ground-breaking twenty-hour news service, and the newly crowned “Superstation”, WTBS. Barnett saw this as an opportunity to go beyond the confines of just his home base of Atlanta, to being able to get his product into any cable market in the country. Though he had a tough time getting his product out there as easily as he thought, things began to swiftly pick up. With Gordon Solie providing the soundtrack that only he could, GCW began to tape shows for television at a small studio on Peachtree Street, and the word began to spread between workers that lived on the East Coast, and on out to California, that Georgia was one of the places to get over and make some money.
Wrestlers from all over began to pour into the promotion and the title scene exploded. The Georgia Heavyweight Title was dominated by one man, no matter how many top tier competitors came after it. From Bill Watts and Buddy Colt, to Abdullah the Butcher and Stan Hansen, they all lost their titles to one man, who in total held that championship almost a dozen times between 1973-78.
John Walker was born in the midst of the Turbulent Thirties, in the beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina. He got his early training in part by Pat O’Connor, and made his professional debut as Johnny Walker at age twenty. He made a name for himself working with NWA promoter Paul Boesch out of Houston, but opted to start a family and retired as a young man just ten years after his debut. This did not last long, and after his family was started he went back to wrestling under the mask firstly as the Grappler, but then as the name that would be his legacy; Mr. Wrestling II. He first started out as the tag partner to the original Mr. Wrestling, but would eventually take the character on full-time once Tim Woods moved on to work the Mid-Atlantic territory. We will talk more about him in that installment of Territories. Walker also traveled to the transplanted Mid-South territory in the early Eighties to work and while he was there trained a few names that would change the business, in the time that we had them, in “Magnum TA” Terry Allen, and Rick Rude among others. Mr. Wrestling II worked as a singles and tag competitor during his time at GCW, but it was two of his opponents in particular that really moved that promotion into the Eighties, and stood out among their many peers that worked there with them. One worked under the mask, while the other, lit the territory up like…wildfire.
The Masked Superstar was born under the name Bill Eadie, on December 27, 1947. Though he got his break into Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, it was in GCW that he really made his mark on the NWA. Eadie was a hard hitting, bruiser that met every challenge with a flurry of fists and a hail of boots. He brawled his way through the Georgia Heavyweight Division and captured the title four times around during his time there, ad well as unifying he belt with the newly formed NWA National Heavyweight Championship in September 1981. He became known for his hour long cage matches against Blackjack Mulligan, that have yet to be matched, even with modern day matches like HIAC and the Elimination Chamber vying for the title of most brutal match. The old NWA cage matches are some of the bloodiest I’ve ever seen, and The Masked Superstar was up at the top of that list with Dusty Rhodes, and Ric Flair for the amount of blood letted onto the canvas. His battles with Wahoo McDaniel were also the stuff of legend in GCW but it was the other man we mentioned that he really had amazing chemistry with, as did most heels during his run at GCW. We will pick back up with the Masked Superstar when we get to WWF, where he made his most significant impact, as one half of Demolition; the Ax.
Tommy Rich was born in the Volunteer State of Tennessee, in the height of the 1956 Summer. Rich was a fan favorite during his run in the NWA, working the babyface angle to the hilt as he battled with Buzz Sawyer, and the Freebirds, among many others. Rich got his training from Jerry Jarrett when he was still a young man, and he took to the roads and worked most of the major NWA markets in the South, and Southeast. Jim Barnett quickly saw the marketability in Rich, and christened him “Wildfire” Tommy Rich due to his ability to captivate and pop a crowd. Rich defeated Harley Race for the NWA Heavyweight Championship in April of 1981, only to lose the title back to Race four days later. It was considered a power brokering move ny Barnett to secure his tight hold on the NWA office during that time. Before he left GCW, Rich also feuded with the newly arrived Road Warriors, and ended his time there with a series of matches against Ted DiBiase where lost his title and began wrestling under the mask against DiBiase as Mr. R. Tommy wrapped up his time in GCW in 1984 before he headed onto Memphis to work there. We will talk more about him in our WCW coverage in two weeks.
The Georgia Tag Team Championships also saw more than it’s fair share of action in the late Seventies and into the Eighties as well. The Grahams worked there for a bit, and Eddie managed to get a piece of the promotion as well. The Brisco Brothers also worked GCW during these years, as well as buying into the promotion, alongside Graham, Barnett, Lutzi, and a small percentage was even owned by part time booker, and the man with one expression; Ole Anderson. The Garvins, Ronny and Terry, also held the titles in the early Seventies, and battled with Bullet Bob Armstrong and Robert Fuller until a new pair of heels took the title scene and made it their playground.
The team of Gene and Lars Anderson originated the Minnesota Wrecking Crew back in 1966, but the incarnation with “nephew” Arn Anderson is the unit that memory evokes when you hear the name. With the grizzled, stoic Ole calling the shots, and the pitbull of a young worker in Arn, delivering the heavy hits and suffocating spinebusters that looked like Rembrandt in motion, the two decimated any pair that they laid their gaze on. No one was safe, and no quarter was given when the Wrecking Crew hit the ring. Mr. Wrestling I & II, gave them there most competition while at GCW, but very few teams stood in there way for long. The sold out anywhere they wrestled in Georgia, and tore the house down in Arn’s hometown of Rome anytime they even made their way through the small parish, let alone wrestling in it. Ha! The Wrecking Crew left Georgia for a short time and formed THE faction, unit, four man powerhouse that has yet to be de-throned in my opinion, The Four Horsemen in the Mid-Atlantic territory. After a falling out there, that sad to say once again will be covered next time, Ole was booted out, and he returned to GCW and brought in his former partner Lars, to continue on as The MWC, where he and Arn had left off, though Ole had a run in the tag division with a myriad of partners including Stan Hansen, but the two lost the titles due to too many disqualifications. Stan Hansen would have made a great Horseman, but that’s just my opinion as well. The tag division was dominated by these few teams I’ve mentioned until the The Freebirds came to town. They took the titles in 1980 when they defeated both teams of The Assassins, and Mr. Wrestling I & II. Then, only a month later, in a match where they beat NWA National Tag Team Champions Robert Fuller and Stan Frazier, better known for his time in the WWF as Uncle Elmer, the Freebirds unified the NWA and Georgia Tag Titles. The Georgia titles were absorbed and The Freebirds carried on as NWA National Tag Champs.
The Tag and Heavyweight Titles weren’t the only Championships in the GCW territory that were being fought over in the heyday of the promotion. The NWA Georgia Television Title was also battled for by some of the best in the business. Long before some territories adopted a Light Heavyweight or Junior Heavyweight Title, the Television Championship was one where the smaller wrestlers, or workers that weren’t in the major title hunt at that time, could still achieve gold and carry the notoriety that went with it. Nick Bockwinkel and Thunderbolt Patterson both held the title three times in the Seventies, with Bob Armstrong holding it twice in those years as well. In 1979, Austin Idol made his bid for the belt and took it from Ray Candy, and captured it two more times by the end of 1980 feuding with Tommy Rich and Kevin Sullivan, who held it three times himself. The TV Title shuffled around alot but it also gave many wrestlers the chance to make it their own and push their careers in the process. After it was merged into the NWA World and subsequently the NWA National Television title, the duo of Ron Garvin and Bob Roop battled back and forth for the belt.
As the NWA tried to broaden it’s scope and unify the territories, instead of seeing them bought out by the McMahon machine, many titles were absorbed and ceased to exist, as we’ve learned so far. This does not mean by any chance though, that those divisions cooled down. It opened the door for more nationalization of contracts and the shuffling of top tier talents between the existing NWA promotions. To this point, the NWA National Heavyweight Title, and the NWA National Tag Team Titles were the only really active titles, along with the NWA National TV title in the background. No matter how hard they tried, the might of McMahon would not be stymied from reeling in everything he could, and GCW would be no exception.
What became known as Black Saturday, happened solely due to greed and spite. In 1983, Barnett was edged out of any shot calling in GCW through politicking, and back room dealings. This left the trio of The Briscoes, Lutzi in the decision-making end of the office with Ole along for the ride with this little percentage of stock. While Barnett still held stock, it was less than even Ole so they all thought they were in fairly safe waters, but like any good predator, McMahon smelled the stench of a dying animal and went in for blood.
In the Summer of 1984 McMahon began correspondence with Barnett in an attempt to but his portion of GCW. At this same time, unbeknownst to Barnett, McMahon also began making deals with the majority stock holders, The Brisco Brothers. Now, if you follow the logic behind the following series of events, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that McMahon worked one against the other and bulldozed down the middle like something out of Fistfull of Dollars, where a slick Eastwood worked the same type of flim flam, only to also come out a winner of everything in the end. Stick with me kids, cause the inner workings of this thing gets a little intertwined, but it all makes sense when you step away from the trees and see the McMahon forest.
While Barnett is scapegoated with the demise of GCW in that when he sold his shares to VKM, it allowed the WWF to run it’s product in the venerated 6:05 time-slot on TBS. This was considered heresy in the wrestling world and probably did Vince more harm than good over the decade and a half that followed. Once Barnett sold, the Briscos were quick to follow, leaving Lutzi little choice but to scramble and get what he could out of his piece of the pie. This left Ole out in the financial cold with his drawls in the breeze. That’s his underwear for you Northerners, hahahaha! While it probably wasn’t a good idea to screw over Ole’ the partners all came out of the deal financially or occupationally sound for the rest of their careers in the business. Ole vowed revenge and if one were to believe the story in Ric Flair’s book, he even attempted to pay the Road Warriors to cripple The Briscos in a tag match over the NWA National Tag Titles in Georgia. While that may just be a story, if you follow the money, it always tells the truth.
Jim Barnett went on to be a Vice President at Titan Sports, the parent company of the WWF and held that position for the next several years. He actually brokered the deal between Jim Crockett Promotions and Titan Sports to sell the 6:05 time-slot to JCP when Vince’s product wasn’t received well by the Southern, loyalist fans, and it took a big dump in the ratings. We all know what happened after that, and if you don’t stay tuned and well discuss that next week. Meanwhile, the Briscos payday, besides the near one million dollars they sold their stock for, was guaranteed spots at the WWF as road agents, and later an on air role for Gerald in the Attitude Era. We will see them again when we cover the WWF. Following Black SaturdayOle not only sued Barnett, but tried to continue on with his own Championship Wrestling from Georgia. This failed to last and JCP took over everything that was GCW when he bought out the contract from Vince in late 1984, as McMahon was trying to pool all his resources for Wrestlemania I. All of the NWA National Titles that were active in GCW went on to see time in World Championship Wrestling in one capacity or another. Jim Barnett also worked for JCP for a short time as well. He died on September 18, 2004 from complications of pneumonia. He was eighty years old.
The footprint left by Georgia Championship Wrestling can still be felt in the way the product today. While the new WWE may not have the freeform promos that made the territory days great, or the bloody cage matches and specialty stipulation matches we all came to love as kids, so many of their stars today still have roots in not only the NWA but in the Southern Wrestling movement, and GCW as well. If you don’t believe me look at the man the WWE has carrying their promotion right now as their one and only working Heavyweight Champion in A.J. Styles, who is not only a Georgia native, but an alumni of NWA Wildside, which many believe is the true successor to GCW. Be that the case or not, the facts are hard to refute.
Well, I know it’s been a slog this week and alot to take in, but as we get closer each week to the ultimate showdown between the last two of the original giants standing, there is just so much to try and cover so that it all makes sense. There is a history beyond the one that you will learn about on specialty dvd sets or what the network chooses to broadcast as it’s historical content. As always the victorious have the option or writing a history that best suits them, but the real stories are out there, and that’s the ones we want to hear more about. I thank you again, my Bruthas and Sistas out there for keeping up with us in this series. Next week we take on Mid-Atlantic, and the eventual building blocks of WCW. We’ll see you back here next week, and never forget….Our wrestling history is gold..DIG IT!!!