By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor
Welcome once again, Bruthas and Sistas, to this our last installment, of the Wrestling Territories series.
We are coming off of the SummerSlam PPV and the Macho Man is still in the driver’s seat with the Heavyweight Championship, and the Mega-Powers had firmly sent DiBiase and Andre packing with a loss, even though we all knew that it wasn’t over between The Million Dollar Man and his pursuit of a championship. The Ultimate Maniac, as called during the match by Jesse Ventura, handily beat the Honky Tonk Man in mere seconds, which in this historian’s opinion was a tarnishing blemish on the amazing four hundred twenty plus days, that indeed, made him the greatest Intercontinental Champion to date. The Glamour Girls were still in possession of the Women’s Tag Team Titles, and Demolition were still holding court over the Men’s Tag Team division, during their long reign with the titles.
Vince had successfully changed the demographic of his audience since the turn of the decade, and he now had the market that he wanted to focus on, not only as his primary vein of income, but by also building a roster that would evolve to meet this vision and grow alongside this new fanbase. The children of the late seventies would only really know the cartoon gimmicked WWF for years to come, would also be that long-term invested adult fan that would continue to drive the business economically in the Attitude era revitalized the business a decade later. While the WCW would rise from the ashes of the these early battles to offer a segment of the audience the more realistic wrestling that was the hallmark of the NWA, which had managed to find circle the wagons around the strictly Southern based promotion where it had found it’s greatest draws during the end of the territories.
Even with the river of talent finally ebbing to a trickle as the decade ran to a close, there were still significant influences coming into the WWF throughout the Summer, and into the Fall of 1988. One of which was instantly reviled with his over the top fake approach to the audience, as well as embellishing to the point of creating a hyperbolic persona that only wanted to let you know that he “Loooovvvvvveeedd yoooouuuuu!!”
The pasty white, gold ring adorned sausages that Brother Love called fingers, always had that microphone jammed into his rose blushed face, which always reminded me of a mash-up between a Geisha and the obvious over the top preacher of the day, Jim Baker. The man behind the grime in the white suit was born in El Paso, under the big Texas sky in the Spring of 1963 and got his first tastes of working in the business at the young age of ten years old when he hawked programs and hung flyers for his local, Paul Boesch ran, NWA promotion there in the Houston metro area. He moved up the ladder of odd jobs and involvement that many young people did in those days who ended up being making a mark in professional wrestling. As Vince gobbled up the territories across the country, not only wrestlers followed their dreams to the bounty offered in the Northeast, but many of the technicians, and office workers of these now defunct territories headed there as well. Bruce Prichard continued to work in different positions in the office and behind the microphone until in June of 1988 he rolled out his Brother Love Show segment in front of the fans. Prichard would hold many roles in the company over the next several decades, including being the initial manager of The Undertaker, when the Deadman made his debut in 1990. The first year in the rise of Brother Love saw his fat lil hands in many of the nefarious schemes that played out in the company. While most hated him, for me, it was like Christmas every time he sauntered to the ring, bringing with him the endless entertainment for the young heel that I was being groomed into, as I sat in front of the television anytime I could find wrestling to watch.
The tag team of the Rockers, formerly the Midnight Rockers in the AWA, also showed up that summer at the beckoning of McMahon, after watching tape of them and hearing about the charismatic duo that were blowing up in Gagne’s faltering promotion. Though there is the famous story about Jimmy Jack Funk telling Vince about them tearing up a bar, which may or may not have happened, that led to him calling the into his office and telling them that he liked their boots, but they were made for walking, and then released them, the pair were eventually welcomed back and we all know of the legacy that HBK built from there. While I feel he may be a megalomaniacal, little shit that politic’d and cried like a bitch to get his way during his time at the company, there is no denying his abilities in the ring and the fact that he knows how to put together a great match, with anyone he wants to. The Rockers were immediately embraced by the fans for both their fast paced, high flying tandem assaults, but their luck of being at the right time in history, with the right look drove their success both as a team, and eventually individually. Jannety never reached the levels of success in the company that Michaels did however, and the two career paths, while holding some similarities in personal excesses, could not have been more different in how they were embraced by the company and pushed while there.
Another man to enter the ranks of the WWF at that time also came from the cold lands of Minnesota, which was, as we pointed out earlier in this series, one of the breeding grounds for the amazing talent that drove the business from the 80’s until this most recent generation of wrestlers took over in the 2000’s. Curt Henning needs no introduction to the wrestling world at this time, being a top selling talent and second generation kid of the business, and son to Larry “The Axe” Henning of North Mid-western fame Like many other established wrestlers, he changed his character up and left the babyface persona behind and arrived in the WWF as Mr. Perfect. The name alone let you know that he was going to be a heel to keep your eye on. The endless vignettes that were produced and aired on Saturday morning programming that summer let us know that this arrogant, better-than-you, smug guy was headed for greatness there.
After the purchase of Stampede Wrestling, the WWF began a working talent trade relationship with their new Canadian acquisition. Several stars came into New York to work the bigger markets and seek their fortunes. The Hart Clan were already well represented there by the Hart Foundation, and the British Bulldogs, but it was late that summer when maybe the most exciting of the family hit the scene. Owen Hart was born in 1965 as the twelfth and final child born to Stu and his wife, Helen. With twelve kids, and in those days more than likely born through natural childbirth, there is no doubt in saying that Helen was just as tough as any of her kids, or Stu. The baby of the family was known for his ribbing and fun loving embrace of life, both by his family and his peers at work. Originally debuting as the Blue Angel, in an attempt to bring a superhero type gimmick to the table, Vince changed the name to the Blue Blazer, and a legend the business was given life, even though it, and Owen would be forever, inexorably connected to darkness and the shadow of an untimely death.
A pair of new threats arose in the tag team division in the fall of that year as well, with the emergence of the One Man Gang’s alter-ego, Akeem the African Dream, who was introduced to the WWF universe in September. The Dr. of Style immediately teamed him with a young and hungry Big Bossman, and the Twin Towers rose above their tag team peers much like their namesake did above the NYC skyline at that time. It wouldn’t be long before the set their eyes to the gold.
The other team that arrived were known more for their intellect than their use of brute force, but when that was required, there were few better at the precision infliction of pain like the Brain Busters. Individually they had earned not only gold, but a reputation on the NWA circuit, and Tully Blanchard had made a name for himself at his father, Joe’s, Southwestern Championship Wrestling in Texas. The pair had risen to acclaim as members of the fabled Four Horsemen faction in Mid-Atlantic as well, which is no industry secret by any means. Many of the loyal Southern audience was outraged at their “betrayal” by heading to the enemy NYC market to cash in on the tide of revenue that seemed to grow on the trees there. It was October of ’88 that they made their debut in the WWF and all the other tag teams had to take notice of the finely tuned machine that they were, because underestimating them meant certain defeat.
The 1988 King of the Ring was the first big show after SummerSlam, and it was October 16th before it came around that year. They drew just over six thousand five hundred to the Providence Civic Center in Rhode Island, and it was a solely tournament focused event, except for the Flag Match between Hacksaw Duggan and Dino Bravo that gave a break after the first round matches. It looked as though World Champion Savage would repeat after his first round win, and the double count-out of Hercules and Bad News Brown that gave him a bye into the semi-finals, to win back to back KOTR Crowns, but he was upset by The Million Dollar Man with a count-out victory that kept the heat between the Mega-Powers and Mega-Bucks broiling.
Just a few weeks later they had their Halloween edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event, but it was more or less uneventful and did little to advance existing, or establish any new story-lines through its booking. The winter wrestling season was just getting fired up though, and it was time for Vince to make his new Survivor Series a Thanksgiving tradition, and rolled its 2nd rendition, once again in the Richfield Coliseum. The draw was over thirteen thousand but still several thousand short of the ticket sales of the inaugural Series the year before. The Mega-Powers had combined to address their newest threat of the Twin Towers along with the Million Dollar Man on their team. It was an all five on five team set-up with the original rules in place. It was hard for fans to sit through some of the matches, that ran nearly a half hour in length, with the tag team match lasting nearly an hour. In subsequent years the bookings of the match were changed to allow more time for singles matches and specialty bouts that normally involved managers, or stipulations.
What made this Survivor Series stand out was the number of face changes during the unfolding consequences of the matches. Hercules had already turned face just before the Series when his contract was sold to DiBiase by Bobby Heenan, resulting in Big Herc breaking the shackles of his imprisonment to the MDM on the Saturday morning programming. The Red Rooster also turned against the Heenan family and Bobby in particular after his shoddy treatment by the manager, and his other stable mates. The turn that shocked most of the fans was when Mr. Fuji backstabbed Demolition and sided with their Powers of Pain counterparts, which in turn spun the Powers into heels. This happened before the match was even over, which lent the Demolition to getting the big pops at the end for holding back the insurrection mounted by Fuji. They carried the Tag Titles on for months to follow as babyfaces before they were unseated by the Brain Busters on a SNME in July of 1989, in a rare two-out-of-three falls match.
To show how Vince would continue to relentlessly strike the hot iron, he put on the next SNME only two nights removed from the Survivor Series, on November 26th, all the was across the country in Sacramento. The card had a pair of title defenses with the Ultimate Warrior running through the Super Ninja, which was poor Rip Oliver under the mask. He, like many others, didn’t like the way the Warrior worked and was left stiff shotted and laid out in the ring. He left the WWF following this match. Duggan continued his run of flag matches against Boris Zhukov this time, and Hercules defeated Virgil, which began to lay the story-line of Virgil too, breaking away form the MDM. This would be the death knell for Virgil, and his WWF career. Andre the Giant went up against The Macho Man for the Heavyweight Title and lung Randy around like a rag doll for most of the match, but Savage retained, and yet again squashed Andre’s chance to regain the title, while Brother Love and Slick enraged Hulk Hogan during an interview segment.
There are a few more men who arrived in December that I want to address before we move onto 1989, and begin the Road to Wrestlemania. The first was a journeyman wrestler with time served in every major promotion in the United States, as well as overseas. He had gone by many names during that time, but it was “Rugged” Ronnie Garvin that showed up just in time for a Royal Rumble appearance.
Born Roger Barnes, in 1945 Montreal, he grew up active in sports and finally sought his training and was later took under the wing by Pat Patterson for his initial introductions to the wrestling business. Garvin worked his way through the “outlaw” promotions at ICW and Wrestling All-Stars in the Kentucky/Tennessee area, and then went to Jim Crockett Promotions before working the NWA circuit, and AWA. He finally worked his way into a contract offer from the WWF and arrived at the end of 1988.
Woooooaaaahhhhhh!!! Heeeeeeyyyyy!!! This should be enough to give away our next pair under discussion. Long before Butch and Luke were doing the Bushwhacker march to the ring and licking each other’s faces after a victory, the team were feared all over the world. They first came together as the Kiwis in the New Zealand NWA, but it was a trip to All Japan Pro Wrestling that saw them change their name to that of the Sheepherders. The New Zealand Sheepherders to be exact, but in whatever incarnation they performed in, the team would lay a beating on ya without batting an eye, or giving a damn. I loved watching old videos of these guys back in the tape trading days, and whatever wrestling we could find at all the local video stores in the towns around us. It got to the point that the video clerks knew me when I came in, and would be on the lookout for wrestling tapes for me. Good times, but I digress back to the subject. They made their debut the first week of January, and then ran programs against the Bolsheviks and Rougeau Brothers. The Bushwhackers became a mainstay in the babyface ranks of the tag team division for the next several years and remained there until 1996.
1989 saw Vince continue his push for national expansion of his brand, while gobbling up any territory that was still left, gasping for air as the tide of the indomitable WWF continued to rise against their throats. He moved to solidify his “Big Four” pay per views and give him the rolling momentum to push story lines and bookings from one major show to the next, and grow the stars in the interim.
That year’s Royal Rumble emanated from Houston, Texas that January, and held a stacked Rumble card, as well as few singles matches to fill it out. King Haku battled against Harley Race, who was in the quest to regain his Crown and Cape, which were on the line in the match, which Haku retained. Rockin Robin also held off Judy Martin in her lust for the gold, and kept her Women’s Championship. It was Big John Studd that won that year’s Rumble, after eliminating Ted Dibiase just after the hour and four minute mark. Ronnie Garvin made his pay per view debut at the Royal Rumble and was eliminated by Andre the Giant, just before the Giant eliminated himself after Jake the Snake arrived with Damien. Hulk Hogan had a hand in putting ten superstars over the top rope, including Mr. Perfect who stayed in the match longer than anyone else with a twenty-eight minute showing. This was a record for time in by Perfect, as well as one for Hogan for men eliminated, and fastest elimination when the Red and Yellow booted the Warlord out after only two minutes. This was also the new thirty man format that the Rumble would continue to maintain for years to follow, creating the tradition that we all have grown to love.
The slow boil of the tension between Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan continued to build its steam as 1989 drew on. The second Main Event was held during prime-time NBC and featured two matches on television that had DiBiase beat Hercules to Virgil as his servant, and the main event that pitted the Mega-Powers against the Twin Towers. The under card was full of dark matches that were not shown during the prime-time slot, just like the first Main Event a year earlier.
The fans that were there live at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee that February 3rd evening, with Duggan and Bravo in yet another flag match, the Ultimate Warrior retaining his IC Title against Greg Valentine, and Andre the Giant continued on with the Jake the Snake feud. Tag team action saw the Brain Busters and the Rockers put on a clinic in the new look of the division with a high paced assault that kept you on the edge of your seat the whole time. The Rougeaus and the Hart Foundation continued to battle as well with Brother Love serving as the guest referee, and putting the screws to he Harts, and costing them the win. The Champion Demolition slugged it out with the new disciples of Mr. Fuji, and defeated the Powers of Pain in just under ten minutes.
The main event saw the last blow to the then fragile ego driven pair of the Mega-Powers. Hogan had the “lust in his eyes” for Elizabeth for months now in the estimation of the Macho Man, and his insecurities about this would drive his Madness to a level that paranoia was rife in his head. The whole thing fell apart when Elizabeth was hurt and Hogan picker her up, and ran her to the back o that medical make sure she was alright. This fleeting act of, what was nobility in the eyes of Hogan and his Hulkamaniacs, left Savage in the ring alone with the massive wrecking crew, that was the Twin Towers. Savage managed to wrangle his way free and get to the back where the now infamous scene unfolded with Elizabeth on the gurney and Hogan explaining himself to Savage. The two started to point fingers, one of which grazed the nose of Hogan and set his adrenaline off, but not before Macho Man’s was already on overload. He hammered Hogan with the Championship belt, and left him laying as he shouted at Elizabeth for allowing the Hulkster to come between them. The train had left the tracks, and the Mega-Powers were no more, with everything devolving into the collision at the upcoming Wrestlemania V. But, first, they had to sign the contract and find out whose corner that Liz would stand in for the monumental meeting of the Madness and the Mania.
The forum for this announcement would be at the next SNME, which took place on March 11th, in Hershey, Pennsylvania. It was a card built around this, and had a match with Hogan against Bad News Brown with Elizabeth in the Hulk’s corner that evening. Savage, while not in a match, was all over the back and pressuring Elizabeth for her answer. Hogan got the better of Bad News in the match, but the big declaration was saved for the later portion of the show. Beefcake threw Rick Rude a loss, and the Red Rooster took it to Heenan’s stooge, the Brooklyn Brawler. The Brain Busters and the Rockers continued to feud, and make art in the ring, but it was the SNME debut of the Blue Blazer that stood out in my memory. That, and the Liz’s revelation that she would be in neither the corner of Macho Man, nor Hulk for their big match at Mania which was only three short weeks away.
The biggest event of the year did not fail to bring the top level matches that were expected by the near nineteen thousand fans that gathered at the Atlantic City Convention Hall that April, 2nd. The sound track for the show was laid down by the classic pair of Monsoon and Ventura, and it had fourteen matches on the card. With all the newly arrived stars having worked themselves into the forefront, there were so many great stories to be told. Hercules and Haku exchanged haymakers, with Haku going to defeat. Dino Bravo got the best of “Rugged” Ronnie Garvin, and Red Rooster once again, bested the Brawler. Both the DiBiase -v- Beefcake, and Bad News Brown -v- Hacksaw Duggan ended in no decisions with double count-outs and DQ’s. The Hart Foundation defeated the combination of Honky Tonk Man and Greg Valentine, which gave us fans the first taste of the new team that would start going by the name Rhythm and Blues that they would undertake later in 1989. They lost to the Harts that evening.
Mr. Perfect and the Blue Blazer lit up the ring, with Hennig coming out the victor. The Brain Busters defeated Strike Force in hard hitting fare, and in other tag team action, The Bushwhackers put down the Rougeaus. In one of the specialty attraction matches, Jake the Snake and Andre went at it again, but with Bog John Studd as the guest referee. They fought for nearly ten minutes, with Studd and Andre having words through the entire match. Jake got the win, and Andre got the Snake. The Twin Towers, who had finished up their run with the Mega-Powers, turned their attentions to the Rockers in the weeks leading up to Wrestlemania V, and this mis-match of power versus speed gave us more memorable moments that we would have suspected, and the intensity of the Rockers almost saw them through, but the Towers took them in the end.
There was also a special Piper’s Pit segment in the show that had television talk show host Morton Downey Jr., who at the time was the popular guy in America at that time in daytime talk TV, and kilt wearing Brother love. There is a famous backstage story that spurned out of this part of the show with Prichard being very unsure how Piper would take to his impersonation of the Hot Rod gimmick, as it was well known that Roddy was not a fan of ANYONE doing his shtick. The Pit went off like a diamond, with both men feeling the wrath of Piper, as he sent Brother Love running to the back in his jockey shorts after off his kilt, and gave Morton Downey Jr. a face full of powder from a fire extinguisher when the gab-master blew cigarette smoke in the face of the Hot Rod one time too many. This was after repeatedly hitting Roddy in the head with cigarettes the entire time he was talking to Brother Love. Piper rose to the occasion as he always did, and left the fans screaming for more.
All three of the major titles were on the line that night and two out of the three changed hands. The Demolition put the final boot to the team of Mr. Fuji and the Powers of Pain in a tag team handicap match. Fuji pulled out every trick in his books, but it was just not enough for them to take the gold from Ax and Smash, and the Walking Disasters retained. The same could not be said for the Ultimate Warrior however, with his loss of the Intercontinental Title to “Ravishing” Rick Rude. The two men had been feuding since their pose down at the Royal Rumble months earlier.
The time for the main event had arrived and the crowd was hot for the demise of the Mega-Powers, and on the edge of their seats as the bomb that was that team ticked away to its cataclysmic destruction. Each man came to the ring in full regalia, with Savage having all the pomp and circumstance that a champion requires. The tensions rose even more once the two emotionally charged gladiators were face to face, with Elizabeth in a neutral corner. The two went to war, and Elizabeth was finding herself in the midst of it through the majority of the match. It finally got to the point that Earl Hebner sent her to the back and if wasn’t long after that things went south for the Macho Man. After the requisite “hulk-up” by the Red and Yellow, came big boots, and the unavoidable leg drop to seal the win for Hogan and start his second run as WWF Champion.
Vince continued to forge ahead after seeing his grand vision for the business realized. He had maneuvered, out lasted, and over spent his competition into the poor house. All except for WCW, which was bank rolled by the equally savvy Ted Turner. We all know what led up to the Monday Night Wars, and how Vince came out the winner there as well. I chose to stop at this point in the growth of the company because for all intents and purposes the territories were dead after 1990. I will cover a few others in the book version of this series that highlights a few of what could be considered the last gasps at creating that system with what became known as Independent Promotions, but a knitted together national territorial system was rendered null and void with the nationalization of the World Wrestling Federation brand, who have since taken that same formula and went global. The are still a few international promotions that are staying successful, such as New Japan Pro Wrestling, and AAA Lucha Libre, both of which will also be given a deeper look in the book version.
I would like to thank you all for attending this little history class, and hopefully learning all kinds of things about the business that you never knew, along the way. As has been laid out before you all these last thirty six chapters, and year and a half, the history of the business is precious to me, and it’s preservation is the charge of us all, especially the members of my generation, and the one before me that were there to see the monumental moments that have occurred since the Sixties and early Seventies, when the Territories were at their zenith.
Well, so long for now my Bruthas and Sistas, and be on the lookout for new projects from the ole’ High Hat in the future. But no matter what, never forget, that our wrestling history is gold….DIG IT!!!! Peace.