THE WRESTLING TERRITORIES: The WWF part 11 – The Descent Into Madness

By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor


Jim

Welcome back Bruthas and Sistas for another installment of The Territories, and one that I have been looking forward to since I started this series. The first five WrestleManias were among my favorite, not only because of their historical significance, but because that was the period of time that I was deeply in the the WWF, and fully invested in all of it’s stars – especially the wealth of heels that they had during this run. It was the diabolical behavior and underhanded tactics that made me love them, but for all intents and purposes, I have always been drawn to the darkside.

Wrestlemania III had set the tone for the year to follow, and Vince was able to breathe deeply in it’s wake. He had shown that the WWF was the premiere promotion to work for, as well as the forerunner for the wrestling fans as well. He invested his profits off of the first two supershows in the burgeoning VHS videotape market, and the banks of video recorders at Coliseum Video were whirring non-stop as they cranked out the content. While live events were the happenings, (to quote Gorilla Monsoon), that drove the content, it was the merchandise market that was the hidden gold mine for Jr. that his father had neglected tap into, and Vince mined it wait a fervor. For every one of his competition’s videos on the shelves at the super popular, rising video rental stores, the WWF had three. By 1988, the VCR was the future and Vince was all in, allowing anyone to enjoy his content from the comfort of their living rooms.

This was the last year that we really saw the influx of territorial workers emigrating in to the company to hit their payday while they still had the chance. Who can blame them either? Few of them had a clue of the rigorous schedule that Vince Jr, would demand of his marquee talents. With three rotating crews blanketing the country at any one time, his new WWF brand was always being seen, or coming to the next time, somewhere near you. This schedule would be a grind to be sure, but would also sharpen the in ring skill of those workers that were in a ring 6 nights a week. It bought a cleanness to their product both on the road, and in front of the cameras, where it mattered most. This three crew rotation was the reason that Vince thought he could pull off a PPV scattered across three cities, and he did just that. Let’s take a look at some of these men and women who would be superstars, as they arrived in the Spring and Summer of 1987.

Born Adolfo Bresciano in war torn Molise, Italy in 1948, Dino Bravo moved to Canada as a child with his family to get a new start on life away from the violence of Europe. He became active in sports in his youth, and followed that into his adult life, when he made his in-ring debut in 1970 as Bravo in the Lutte Internationale promotion, before making his way to Maple Leaf Wrestling in Montreal, eventually the NWA circuit. He paid his dues and was picked up by Vince Sr. and the WWWF after the nod from Dominic DeNucci. We touched briefly on his early career but it was when Jr. took over and the push towards the muscled out monsters took hold that Bravo focused on his powerlifting abilities to make a name for himself. Bolstered by Jesse the Body’s who labeled Bravo the “World’s Strongest Man”, and championed his feats of strength, Bravo had feuds in the ring with Muraco, and Patera, with the men also holding weightlifting exhibitions on WWF programs during that time. His presence and impact would be felt throughout the nest few years in the company, more than ever. His career wound down after 1989, and he became more involved in the criminal activities of his wife’s family, who were connected with the Canadian Underworld. After becoming involved in a cigarette racket, things got dicey for the wrestling veteran, and he was found dead in his Quebec home in 1993. It is believed that he got in too deep or crossed the wrong person and was found with seven gun shots to the head and ten more to his body. He was only forty-four years old.

One of Dino’s rivals, and a man that also bulked up when he arrived to the WWF, was the 2×4 toting fan favorite that made his way to New York City via the fertile grounds of Mid-South Wrestling. Born in Glen Falls, New York, in the Winter of 1954, James Duggan Jr. He was in every sport he could possibly be a part of in his high school days and lettered in football, basketball, track, and of course, wrestling in which he won the New York State High School Championship. He played football for Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons but persistent knee injuries cost him that dream. It was a happenstance meeting with Fritz Von Erich at SMU that gave Duggan his introduction to the wrestling world, and it wasn’t long before he started his training at the legendary Sportatorium in Dallas, and soon after broke in as a heel, facing Gino Hernandez in his debut match. His time at WCCW drew the attention of the McMahons, and he stayed on their radar as he traveled to Mid-South, where he continued to make progress and turn heads. He headed to the Big Apple in January of 1987, and would quickly become a fan favorite, who received a pair of decent pushes while he was there, despite some dicey waters with The Iron Sheik, some banned substances and a State Trooper. We will hear more from Hacksaw later on in this edition.

The Summer months saw an explosion of talents hit the doors as well, as the future superstars continued to roll in. One of the newest and meanest of the big men additions was that of the One Man Gang. Born George Gray in 1960 Spartanburg, South Carolina, The Gang took to a career in professional wrestling early on, and began training and performing while just in his twenties. He worked his way through where he competed as Crusher Broomfield, and regularly worked matches with the wrestling bear that the Poffos, famously kept under the front porch of their house. Gray worked with Ronnie Garvin and Randy Savage at ICW, and thought it was during his run with the Crocketts in the Carolinas that Gray adopted his One Man Gang persona, it is my opinion that the seed was planted in his tenure at ICW, as Ronnie Garvin had that name there for a short time as well, and knowing the booking sensibilities of Garvin, I can easily see him giving the big man the idea then. Soon after Garvin turned to his Hands of Stone gimmick as well, coincidently in the Crockett’s NWA. The Gang showed up in the WWF on May 12, 1987 and was given to the Slick to manage. He was the welcoming committee for the next May arrival which was just a few days later in Texas.

While it wasn’t Ted Dibiase’s first run with the company, it would be this second term as an employee that would cement his legacy there. Starting out as a babyface, and having a run of matches against the Gang, DiBiase showed his salt early and Pat Patterson and the boys at creative had a special idea in mind for him. We all remember the Million Dollar Man, and his evil demeanor while trying to prove that everybody had a price for him in his vignettes. He used to flout his wealth to get his way, and each time he did he would revel in his victory over the dirty masses of unworthy working class folk. He worked fans out of the audience as well. The one that everyone remembers is when he kicked the basketball out from under the little boy just as he was reaching the agreed upon fifteenth bounce to earn his price of five hundred dollars. The look on the kid’s face cold that better than any wrestler could have, I believe, and it always makes me laugh deep down to my heel core when I see that spot. I loved the Million Dollar Man gimmick as much as I despised the overly smug Virgil. The pair were great together though, there is no doubting that.

While DiBiase would go on to make some of the biggest waves in the Heavyweight Title hunt, it was the next man that made even bigger ones in the ranks of the managers. While Savage had been the most sought after free agent of recent years, there was huge hype surrounding the arrival of the tattooed menace from Asbury, New Jersey. Born on the first of September, 1960, Scott Bigelow competed in amateur wrestling in school, and followed that love, with the agility possessed by few men of his size, and began his professional wrestling training in his early twenties as well. He began at the Monster Factory ran by Larry Sharpe in New Jersey, but soon moved onto Memphis in the late eighties and caught the nickname “The Beast From the East” there. He even took a short stint at WCCW where he ran with a Russian gimmick, but it was in May of 1987 that he came to the WWF and his free agent status was being drooled over by all the heel managers at that time. Bigelow would turn face without ever entering the ring when announced that he wasn’t going with any of said managers and introduced us to Sir Oliver Humperdink, and the pair began their run. That initial trip through the WWF only lasted a year but the impact he made left the fans wanting more and Bam Bam would return to the company in the early nineties after spending time in the NWA and overseas in Japan, where all the big Americans could go for a big payday, if they could get over.

One man that didn’t have any problem getting over with the fans, with his frenetic entrance, bursting through the curtain and beating his chest in a mad dash to the ring like a pissed off silverback, Jim Helwig had “it”, even if that was coming from another stellar plane that only an Ultimate Warrior could ascend into the heavens from to rain down lighting bolts upon the heads of the doubters of the Warrior. His ability to cut a promo from another world that only he had the ability to see was a characteristic that has left him in the lofty heights of the fleet footedness of the Shockmaster or Titus O’Neil, or the mathematical prowess of one Scott Steiner, who all make us laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I love those moments Bruthas and Sistas, and The Warrior never left us wanting for a laugh, a coherent understanding of Helwig-speak maybe, but never a laugh or the chance to sit on the edge of our seats for fifteen minutes of high intensity action.

James Helwig was born in June of 1959 in the small town of Crawfordsville, Indiana not far from Indianapolis. He was drawn to bodybuilding and worked towards that goal before he felt the pull towards professional wrestling. He got his training from Red Bastien, and debuted in Memphis with fellow trainee Steve Borden, better known as Sting in his later career. The two men worked an traveled together as they came up through the territories. The took on the name of the Blade Runners when they arrived form Memphis to Mid-South in a what was an obvious attempt by creative sculptor Bill Watts to build his own version of the Road Warriors. The two parted ways there and Helwig went on to WCCW, where he had a run of matches against the champion at that time, Rick Rude, despite both of them being heels. Helwig was over and the promoters could taste the money, and Vince smelled it all the way form the northeast. Helwig brought his Dingo Warrior character to the WWF and after a bit of polishing from the team there he unveiled his now famous, arm tasseled, ball of adrenaline to the fans in October of that year with a run against that same man he had battled in Dallas, who also was getting his feet across the threshold there just a month after Helwig.

As far as the heels go in the WWF during the mid to late Eighties, few of them had the ability to make me pop like Rick Rude. He was born Richard Rood in December of 1958, in St. Peter, Minnesota but was famously billed form Robbinsdale, Minnesota, where he had attended school, in one of the most fertile wrestling grounds in the country for talent. Aside from West Texas State University, which had more wrestling stars come out of it than any other school, Rude went to High School with the likes of Curt Henning, Tom Zenk, Nikita Koloff, Barry Darsow, and John Nord, just in his age group alone. There had to be something in the water in these places Bruthas and Sistas, to cause this rise of excellence in such a small clutch of townships.

Rude got his training from Ray Sharkey in 1982, and made his debut in the CWF territory where he worked as a heel managed by Percy Pringle, and after that the two men went on to Texas and found success in WCCW, where he first worked against the Ultimate Warrior. He left there and stopped off and worked with Manny Fernandez and Paul Jones in the Carolinas where they battled the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express over the NWA World Tag Team Titles. He popped up on the WWF radar in July of 1987, and joined the Heenan Family, where he began to show the sweat hogs in arenas across the country what a real man looked like, and what all their women wanted. He worked the famous program with Jake the Snake in the Fall of that year and into 1988. I was live at the match where Jake’s wife Cheryl slapped the taste of of Rude’s mouth and kicked that feud off. There have been so many great moments in the ring that I’ve been privileged to witness firsthand, and this is one that I will remember forever.

The last man in the singles division that I want to touch on was a legitimate bad ass, that hailed from Kansas City, Missouri. We talked about the early career of Harley Race when I touched on Bob Geigel’s Central States Wrestling promotion and Race’s run with the NWA Championship. His arrival in the WWF marked a new stage of his career that, I personally, even as an NWA old school student of the game, believe was a shining moment for him. In 1986 he arrived and began working with longtime friend, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. The gimmick that he became synonymous with was The King, and he owned it from the onset. Harley won that title at another of the ideas that came out of the McMahon Braintrust. While many people are only familiar with the pay-per-view renditions of the King of the Ring Tournament, it first began back in 1985 and continued on as a Summer tradition, with only a couple of exceptions that ran in the Fall of the year in ‘88, ‘89, and again later in 2010. Race won his match at Mania III against the JYD and the stipulation was the Dog was to bow down to the King, but that blew up in Race’s face and the JYD came away with the loss, but the moral victory. While Randy Savage won the title the following year at the third anniversary of the event, Race held onto the King of All Wrestling heel spot and carried that into 1988.

Before we touch on the tag team movements that happened during this time, I want to talk about a lady, that helped to shape the women’s revolution in wrestling long before any of today’s superstars were even born. Sherri Martel was one of the most brash, toughest women to ever come into the wrestling business, and it seemed a tailor made fit for her bigger than life personality.

Always a live wire, even as a kid, Sherri got her first exposure to professional wrestling not far from her Birmingham home, and she first tried to get into the business at the age of sixteen. She was turned away but the passion to be a wrestler would not die in her that easily. She trained for some time and worked with The Fabulous Moolah at her school in Columbia, South Carolina. It was Moolah that gave her the ring name that stuck, and from there she took what she had learned and went to Memphis to work with Jim Cornette. She spent time there wrestling but after catching an injury she shifted to her first role in the management capacity. Larry Zbyszko saw her and proffered an invitation to Minnesota, and a job with the AWA. On Sept. 25, 1985 at the AWA SuperClash event she won their Women’s Championship, and then took on the job of managing one of the great heel tag teams from that territory, the pair of “Playboy” Buddy Rose and Doug Somers. She also got her first introduction to Shawn Michaels, when the Midnight Rockers had a feud with them. Years later she would manage HBK as well, in his first big singles run at the WWF.
She showed up there near the end of July of 1987, after getting a referral from fellow AWA alum, Jesse the Body, and won the WWF Women’s Championship from Moolah in her debut match. She renamed herself Sensational Sherry and held that title for a year and half, representing the company around the world. We will hear more from her shortly, but first I want bring up a few tag teams that were new to the company, and rising the ranks with a fever.

The Heenan Family was swelling with talent, and laden with gold throughout the late Eighties, and the tag team ranks were not beyond the scope of his reach either. The team of The Islanders was always a favorite of mine, once they went heel and began to feud with the Bulldogs. Their combination of the power of Haku, and the speed of Tama, cohesively held together by their Samoan heritage, and hard hitting style. Haku was born in Tonga Fifita in the Kingdom of Tonga in February f 1959, while Sam “Tama” Anoa’i Fatu was born seven years later on American soil, in Sacramento, California. Tama got his start in the WWF as the Tonga Kid, whom we talked about earlier on in this series. Haku, however, had a bit of a different journey to NYC.

When he was still a teenager he was part of a contingent of Samoans sent to Japan to learn Sumo. He made it to wrestling in a couple tournaments, but it was not meant to be and after a dispute with their new stable master in 1976, the entire six man team was forced out of the sport by the Sumo Association. He worked his way to professional wrestling and in the early Eighties he went to Canada, and then the WWC in Puerto Rico, before he was picked up by the WWF. Not long after he was teamed up with Tama, and they leapt in to the tag title scene, and worked their way up that ladder. They battled the Can-Am Connection, but it was after Tom Zenk left the WWF, and the Islanders took the opportunity to attack a singled out Rick Martel, that he got a new partner, and a little payback.

The combination of Martel and Tito Santana yielded the Strike Force. Fleet of foot, and just as quick with their tag assault, they two men lived up to that name. After they ended things with the Islanders, they rode their popularity and drawing ability to a match against the Hart Foundation on October 27th of ’87. They won the Tag Team Titles that night and took to a series of matches defending the titles form both the Foundation, and their old nemesis Islanders as well. They held onto the gold into the holiday season, and didn’t see any major threats to their reign until the beginning of 1988, when they came face to face with Walking Disaster.

The rivalry between recent fan favorite, turned babyface, Randy Savage also began to have issues with the newly crowned Intercontinental Champion in September of 1987. The Honky Tonk Man had cheated the belt off of Steamboat with a roll-u and the help of the ropes to keep the Dragon cinched up in the pin for the true heel win. The fans loved to hate Honky, and watching him piss everyone off made me mark out for him and Jimmy Hart. The two were so great together.

On the October 3rd edition of SNME the two met in Hershey, Pennsylvania to finally put to rest who was the greatest Intercontinental Champion ever. Honky had been spouting his greatness at every opportunity and the Macho Man had taken exception to this claim after his own title run and the match with Steamboat at Mania III. This is one of the occurrences with Macho where life and art got smudged into a gray zone that even some of the boys weren’t sure if it was a work. Of course McMahon and his writers saw all the great stuff going there that they could turn into a great storyline, which is exactly what happened. The two worked a match for the ages in my opinion, and gave us all a moment to remember when the Hart Foundation came down to put the three man assault on Savage. The scene is seared into the memories of any fans that were there to see it unfold, and all the ones since that have relived that moment through footage on the network. When Elizabeth’s attempts to save Randy had gone unanswered by an act of pity from Honky, he plastered Randy with the guitar, and Elizabeth fled the ring for the back. She returned with the Red and Yellow avenger, and when Hogan saw what was happening in the ring, he ran down to give aid to the fallen Macho, while Honky and the Harts led the scene. This was the defining moment in the face turn for Savage, and it sealed the union of the Madness and the Mania, giving birth to the most powerful babyface combination in the company’s history to that point, and quite possibly for decades to follow. The Mega Powers had been born, but for any true student of the history, you know that any team with those kind of egos could not last forever. What did seem to last forever in the eyes of the fans was the run with the IC Title that Honky had. He held that title for 454 uninterrupted days, which is linger than any other champion in it’s history. Randy Savage holds the distinction of second place to that reign, with 414 days. As I said, life and art blurred to give us an amazing moment in time, and yes the Honky Tonk Man was the GOAT with that belt.

It was also in the Fall of that year that Vince unveiled his next major hammer blow to the industry, with the introduction of what has now become a November tradition to their pay-per-view calendar, but like WrestleMania, and the other major events that would roll out in the next ten months, it too was viewed as a gamble.

The Survivor Series originally began as a Thanksgiving Night show, to go along with the long lived custom of holding wrestling events on the holidays from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. It was also a play to be in direct competition with, and put the squeeze onto the Starrcade event that was the previous Thanksgiving Day by the Crockett’s NWA brand. McMahon used his already established PPV muscle to push the Crocketts out of the cable, and closed circuit market on that day, and forced them to move Starrcade to December.

There were no titles defended that Thanksgiving Day in 1987 at the inaugural event. The original blueprint for the show was that teams of five superstars, broken solidly into faces and heels, would go against each other until all members of one team were eliminated. It was definitely a unique concept, and has since been sculpted down to meet the needs of the current fanbase who don’t have the attention span to endure the near forty minutes that the twenty man Tag Team Survivor Series match encompassed. The Bulldogs, Killer Bees, Strike Force, Rougeau Brothers, and The Young Stallions faced off against the heel team of The Islanders, Hart Foundation, Demolition, The Bolshevicks, and the Dream Team, with newly added Dino Bravo in place of babyface turned Beefcake. It came down to the Islanders & Foundation versus the Young Stallions, and the Killer Bees, with the baby faces putting out goth heel teams in the last minutes of the match.

The heels didn’t fare well in the event overall. They also lost the opening match when Ron Bass, Hercules, Harley Race, and Danny Davis joined the Honky Tonk Man’s team, to come to losing blows against Jake Roberts, Ricky Steamboat, Jim Duggan, Brutus Beefcake, and team leader Randy Savage, with Miss Elizabeth of course. This was another chapter in the saga between Honky Tonk Man and Macho, with the story building more to the next big event. I miss the days of long invested storylines, again…..short attention spans today have nearly destroyed any of that, except for the occasionally ramped up WrestleMania match that may build for two months. But, that is another sermon for a different time.

The Women’s Survivor Series match held something very special within itself that I feel is one of the most pivotal moments in the progression of the Women’s wrestling movement that became a revolution. Firstly, we have Sensational Sherri leading her team as the Women’s Champion, with Dawn Marie, Donna Christianello, and perhaps the best thing going in the women’s division at that time, or since in my opinion, The Glamour Girls. It was the babyface team led by The Fabulous Moolah, of all people, with Rockin’ Robin, the always reliable Velvet McIntyre, and the team of the Jumping Bomb Angels from Japan. The match culminated in what became the first, in a series of amazing tag matches between the Bomb Angels and the Glamour Girls. It is a clinic on old school women’s chain wrestling, and the aerial assault the earned the Bomb Angels their name. These two teams would electrify every ring they stepped into for the next year and a half as they battled back and forth. They all belong in the HOF but most certainly the Glamour Girls should be there, for the road they traveled, and the miles that it represents.

The main event saw The Hulkster lead his team of Ken Patera, Bam Bam Bigelow, Paul Orndorff, and Don Muraco against a true team of monsters. When you start off by saying that Rick Rude, and Butch Reed represent the smallest men on the team, then you know the good guys had their hands full and three mountains to climb in that of King Kong Bundy, the One Man Gang, and captain, Andre the Giant. This was the only match that we saw a swerve, with the bad guys winning, when EVERYONE just knew that the Red and Yellow would prevail. This was done to help broaden the Hulk and Andre storyline that had persisted since Mania III.

Hogan was put out of the match just after the fifteen minute mark when he was held outside by Bundy and the Gang, causing him to suffer the count-out, leaving only Bam Bam to take on the three big men. With Bam Bam not being a little feller himself, he used that and his speed to his advantage, and bested Bundy, and then the One Man Gang, but he could not survive Andre’, and the heels took the match.

The show was one of the ones I remember most from those days, because it was just so different. IT became one of the four annual shows that the WWF would build upon and eventually launch their In Your House themed monthly ppvs. Verne Gagne at the AWA was paying attention too as in 1989 he too offered up his version of the Survivor Series, in his AWA Team Challenge. As most things Verne attempted in later years, it fell flat, and was just a sad knock-off of the original. While the AWA was a force in the early Eighties, along with many other of the Wrestling Territories that we’ve discussed, once 1985 rolled around, they were all in Vince’s shadow.

We’re going to stop there Bruthas and Sistas. It’s hard to believe we’ve only covered a span of nine months in this one, but the business at the WWF was spinning at ten thousand RPM’s and were just trying to keep up, like everyone else was at that time. I’ll be back in a two weeks with special editions of Road Stories and Ribs, as well as a very unique Life Through The Lens that are coming out of my trip to the 2019 Cauliflower Alley Club gathering in Las Vegas. Until then, always remember that our wrestling history is gold……DIG IT!!!!!!!

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