By Jim Phillips, Columnist
Welcome back to our exploration of the history of the wrestling territories friends. This week I wanted to take a hard left out of Alabama, and head straight into the neighboring area that was the home of the Mid-South Wrestling. Much like other promotions in that part of the country, MSW brought a hard hitting style of wrestling to its fans. Led by the example of the irascible “Cowboy” Bill Watts, the ground and pound ethic of the roster was not only a key to it’s success, but is a keystone to it’s legacy. It has been described by some as a “wrestling boot camp”, where Watts focused on keeping kayfabe, hard work, and strict rules. So grab a seat and let’s get started where it all began, back in late Seventies.
Born in 1939, William Watts Jr., grew up in the dust blown state of Oklahoma around the horse ranches and cattle herds that would lead him to adopt his familiar nickname of “Cowboy”. He took to wrestling early on and became a journeyman in the Sixties, traveling all across the United States, and out to Japan as he learned his craft. He was so over with the fans in the NWA Tri-State territory that he decided to purchase it from Leroy McGuirk in 1979. He soon re-launched the promotion as his own Mid-South Wrestling Association and seceded from the previous partnership with the NWA. Over the next few years the territory grew to include cities in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and eventually as far south as Texas, after securing a working relationship with Houston promoter Paul Boesch. This gave Watts the opportunity for his workers to be featured on wrestling cards at two of the greatest venues for professional wrestling in the country, the revered Sam Houston Coliseum, and the Louisiana Superdome.
For any promotion to rise to the next level and draw the big crowds it needs three essential things: great creative in the booking, a strong roster to pull it off, and an equally adept broadcast team to make it all sizzle to the fans on television. Watts had all of these at his disposal, and he used them to bring national attention not only his promotion, but also was responsible for launching the careers of some of professional wrestling’s biggest names.
The voice behind the Mid-South product would become synonymous with the sound of professional wrestling for a generation, after he made his way to the WWF. Jim Ross originally held the job of referee for the first three years of his time at NWA Tri-State, but became a member of the broadcast unit after Watts took the company over and changed it to MSW. He was soon promoted to the familiar play-by-play spot that would highlight his career in professional wrestling. Ross also took on the job of Director of Marketing during this time. With JR on the mic, Mid-South had the voice it needed to put the fans on the edge of their seats.
By late 1979 and into early 1980, all the dominoes started falling into place for Watts. Ted DiBiase had returned from a short time lived run in the WWF, just after Vince Jr. had taken over the promotion from his father. DiBiase went on to have a long run in the promotion with several stars in both tag team and singles action and was famous for winning his matches after hitting his opponents with a “loaded” black glove he would brandish when the ref was lookin elsewhere. Watts’s creative eye was behind the formation of The Fabulous Freebirds the year before, and the duo of Hayes and Gordy tore up the tag team ranks and terrorized MSW after adding Buddy Roberts to the mix. Watts was also behind the moniker that George Gray would take on to worldwide fame when Gray was working with Devastation Inc and attacked a babyface and several other wrestlers during a match when he exclaimed, “He’s like a one man gang!!”. Ernie Ladd had also returned to the area and began to help Watts with booking, and was instrumental in the building of one of the biggest names to come out of the Mid-South territory.
Sylvester Ritter had started his wrestling career in Tennessee, and then ventured to the cold north of Canada and Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling where he had made a bit of a name for himself as Big Daddy Ritter. It wasn’t until he came to the office of Bill Watts in Shreveport, Louisiana that his professional wrestling career really transcended to another level. He took on the persona of The Junkyard Dog, complete with an entrance including him pushing a shopping cart to the ring filled with junk he aptly called his “junk wagon” before he started using his trade mark collar and chain gimmick. It wasn’t long before his charisma with the fans and his in-ring timing propelled him to the front of the babyface scene at MSW. He had feuds with all the big heels in the company at that time. One of his biggest was with the Freebirds, where they had blinded the Dog with hair cream. The Freebirds fanned the heat all through the feud until it reached a white hot state when Ritter’s wife in gave birth to his first child and Watts brought this into the angle. The fans were furious at the ‘Birds for blinding their favorite hero and leaving him unable to see his baby because of it. They built it to a sellout in the Superdome that drew a crowd of nearly thirty thousand. After the tipping point of the feud went in the favor of the Freebirds, JYD began to work another famous gimmick used in several territories and still do this day, as he went under the disguise of a mask and wrestled as an alter-identity. After JYD came out on the losing end of a feud with Ted DiBiase and partner Matt Borne during a Loser Leaves Town match, he worked as the masked Stagger Lee in singles and in tag action with several different partners. The Stagger Lee character would continue on until the time ran out on the loser leaves town clause. JYD then returned as his unmasked self and regained the North American Heavyweight Championship. Soon after he was drawn into his final feud there over that title with his student, Butch Reed before the lure of the big money in New York drew him away from Watts and into the hands of Vince McMahon. His easy going personality and relatability to the everyday man made JYD an instant fan favorite there, and one of the stars that McMahon centered the new creative direction of his family friendly WWF around.
Watts had other acts growing under his wing at this time as well. In 1983, he started up a talent exchange with Jerry Jarrett at the CWA. He took the amazing, established tag team of the Robert Gibson and Ricky Morton; The Rock and Roll Express, and several other wrestlers, including a trio of talents that he would bring together as one of the most notable tag teams in wrestling history and give the R’n’R Express their most despised rivals ever.
The tag team of Dennis Condrey and Bobby Eaton were put together by Watts, but it wasn’t until the addition of spoiled, mama’s boy Jim Cornette that the Midnight Express were born. The young twenty two year old, tennis racket toting, big mouthed, cry baby was an instant foil for many of the boys on and off the camera. The dissention between the two Expresses started early on when the R’n’R smashed an unsuspecting Cornette’s face into his own birthday cake. Watts threw gas on the flames by showing the piece of video repeatedly on TV. After a run of matches against Watts and Stagger Lee, that sold out every venue they went to, the rivalry between the two Expresses began to really heat up. The natural chemistry between the two teams could be felt every time they stepped in the ring together. They were going to bank in every town they traveled to, and still have that drawing power today. It wasn’t long before the siren song of better offers pulled another of Watts creations to green pastures, and the two teams went their separate ways. They would, however, cross paths many times in the years to come to make history in other areas of the territorial map.
In the late Eighties, MSW underwent an attempt at a nationwide expansion when Watts secured television time on the Superstation, TBS, after Ted Turner had a sour business dealing with Vince McMahon over the content that McMahon was supplying him. Watts was poised to take over the two hour slot occupied by the WWF, when Jim Crockett and his Mid-Atlantic promotion swooped in and backdoored him out of the deal. This led to Watts changing the name of Mid-South to the Universal Wrestling Federation and attempt another nationwide launch in March of 1986.
Many future superstars made their way through the Universal over the next year and a half. Sting and Jim Helwig came into the territory from a short run in WCCW as the Blade Runners, and creative consultant Ken Mantell also came aboard from Texas. Jim Duggan made a name for himself in the during the transition from Mid-South to the UWF. He feuded with Ted DiBiase, who was still working between Watts’s promotion and time in Japan. Not long after Duggan would pick up a 2×4 and take on the nickname of Hacksaw, and be remembered as one of the biggest fan favorites of the WWF Eighties.
Dr. Death Steve Williams also made a name for himself in the UWF by winning the Heavyweight Championship from Big Bubba Rogers, better known as Ray Traylor, or The Big Bossman from his later WWF career. He was a primal force of nature in the ring and not many could match his explosive power. After his time in Universal, Williams went on to a storied run in the NWA and held the extinction of not being pinned for a decade until he became involved in the fiasco that was the Brawl For All tournament in the Nineties in WWF. This caused friction between Williams and longtime friend and fellow UWF alumni, Jim Ross, who had brought Dr. Death into the WWF and the Brawl For All series with some considerable fanfare. He lost before the final round though and Williams resented Ross for years later. He was outspoken about his ill feelings at the way he felt JR and the WWF handled his run. Steve Williams retired from the ring in 2009 and died from throat cancer not long after on December 29, 2009 at the young age of 49.
After suffering financial losses, mounting near five hundred thousand from the attempted expansion, Watts was forced to sell the UWF to Jim Crockett Promotions on April 9, 1987. Despite promises by Crockett to keep the promotion going, the UWF folded and was absorbed by his Mid-Atlantic Wrestling promotion just six months later. All of the UWF titles were then summarily won by Crockett’s own workers, and then left to fade out of use all together. In a strange twist of fate when Ted Turner bought out Crockett promotions to form WCW later, and presented Watts with the opportunity to run the show as lead booker.
One Man Gang lost the UWF Title to Big Bubba Rogers just before he departed for his career changing run in the WWF in May of 1987. Traylor would follow soon after and the pair would combine forces to be one of the most feared tag teams of that generation in the WWF. George ”One Man Gang” Gray is retired and lives in Baton Rouge. He suffered the loss of nearly everything, when his home was submerged during flooding in 2016. Ray Traylor continued to work in both the WWF and WCW during his career as well as stints in Japan. He died suddenly of a heart attack in his Dallas, Texas home in 2004 at age 41. He, like so many others in this business, was taken from us too soon. The WWE inducted him posthumously into their Hall of Fame in 2016.
Ted DiBiase also went on to a storied career in the WWF and was also inducted to their HOF in 2010. He has three sons, all of which work in the wrestling business, and he has become involved in the Christian Ministry in the years since his retirement.
Ernie Ladd became an advocate and work to further the position of wrestlers of color in the years after his retirement from the ring. He was instrumental in the success of Junkyard Dog, and was also one of the people that influenced Bill Watts to crown the first African American World Heavyweight Champion in WCW, Ron Simmons. Ernie Ladd is a member of every major Hall of Fame in wrestling, including: WCW(1994), WWF(E)(1995), Wrestling Observer(1996), CAC(2005), and the NWA(2013). Ernie passed away at the age of 68 in 2007 from colon cancer. He lived almost three years longer than the doctors’ predictions said he would. He was a fighter, and defied authority til the end.
Sylvester “Junkyard Dog” Ritter, tore down boundaries wherever he went and brought smiles to millions of faces during his career. His song off the Piledriver album, ‘Grab Them Cakes’, even landed him on a Soul Train appearance with show alumni Vicki Sue Robinson. He was the favorite of children of all ages and races, all over the world. He was active in professional wrestling up until the end of his life and made a famous appearance at the ECW ppv, WrestlePalooza in 1998. Just one month later he was killed in a car accident in Mississippi as he was returning home from visiting North Carolina to see his daughter graduate from high school. He was only 45 years old. Ernie Ladd inducted him into the WWE HOF on March 13, 2004.
Jim Cornette has led one of the most outspoken lives, not only in professional wrestling, but in the media in general. His willingness to tell it like it is, or how he sees it, has made him a jewel to some, and a bane to the existence of others…..yeah we see you Vince Russo, restraining order or not. Jim’s vehement loathing of Russo is the stuff of legend and should be taught as a college course called Holding A Grudge 101. He has appeared on several podcasts and still holds the record, in my opinion, for one of the funniest road trip videos ever with his rant through a Dairy Queen drive-up window during a late nite ride with some of his Smokey Mountain Wrestling stars, Y2J included. If you haven’t seen it…..look it up on YouTube, it’s classic. Cornette has been honored as Manager of the Year on numerous occasions, Booker of the Year multiple times, as well as being a member of several Halls of Fame himself, including: Pro Wrestling HOF(2015), Wrestling Observer(1996), New England Pro Wrestling(2015), NWA(2005), CAC(1997), and the Southern Wrestling(2015). On a related note, Cornette banned from entering Canada in 2007 due to his criminal record. Most of which because of fights with fans during his career as a manager to the heels of wrestling. The best heat, is always real heat. Cornette is a classic case in point here. He is one of my top five favorite all time managers, and I rarely pass up a chance to listen to him speak or tell a story if I have the chance.
Jim Ross’s announcing career goes way beyond his time in professional wrestling and spans into MMA, boxing and most recently he has been working with AXS Tv, bringing his own iconic brand of play calling to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling promotion. His knowledge of this business is rivaled by few and questioned by none. Though he will never put himself above his commentating idol, Gordon Solie, JR is considered by most to be the greatest play by play guy the wrestling business has ever produced.
Bill Watts was never a stranger to controversy, nor was he afraid of it. He led his Mid-South promotion against the grain, brought a smash mouth brand of wrestling to the fans, and in the process changed the dynamic in the way that the product was presented. He went against racial stereotypes and social mores in the business to champion the black athlete during a time when it wasn’t accepted or in some cases, wanted. His outspokenness often came back to bite him, no matter how hard he tried to do the right thing. This was what led to release from Turner Broadcasting. Hank Aaron, baseball legend in Atlanta and EVP for the Braves organization pushed for him to be fired after certain comments and opinions that Watts had voiced , came to his attention. He was replaced by Ole Anderson and moved onto the WWF for a short lived stay of employment. Watts is the member of several Halls of Fame including: Wrestling Observer(1996), WWE(2009), Professional Wrestling(2013), Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling(2013), as well as being honored by the CAC in 2001.
The legacy that Bill Watts left behind rises above any controversial statements he may have made, or the wrestling career he had. His legacy can be felt in the way he instilled the old school attitude in a generation of wrestlers that passed his doorstep. His ways may have been disliked by some, and held in high regards by others, but one thing you can say for sure is that they got a reaction from his workers and peers. In most cases, it brought out their inner strengths and tested their heart for this business. The old school mentality of a fraternal brotherhood that you must earn your way into resonates in many workers and the fans still today.
Male or female, second generation or green wrestler; all need heart and the will to overcome adversity in the business, and thinking that something is going to be handed to them cause they bought some gear and went through a wrestling school is not how true talent is formed. Much like diamonds, great wrestlers are forged over time, through sacrifice of self, and from the pressures of learning the business the right way. Not everyone can be cut into a Tiffany diamond afterwards, but all will understand what it means to shine when its gotten the old way.
Well here we are again at the end of another week, and putting another notch in our territorial gun belts. I hope you enjoyed this edition and want to thank you for following along with me. Our wrestling history is gold Bruthas and Sistas……so DIG IT!!!