An Ode to Mid-South Wrestling

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As its DVD is released, a Louisiana native looks back on the promotion that helped shape his love of wrestling

It was early 1997 and pro wrestling programming at the time had a clear and defined message: Out with the old and in with the new. The New World Order was taking over WCW and also clinched ratings victory all year that year for Ted Turner. Vince McMahon had just ditched the old Raw set to make a metallic, jumbo screen stage and renamed his Monday night show the harder edged Raw Is War. The popularity of wrestling was on the cusp of a boom, but the older names seemed more and more like relics or forgotten heroes of an age long gone by. It was around that time at my local Wal-Mart’s entrance, at a table for autographs, sat a man that I had not seen on television in many years: It was Sylvester Ritter, a.k.a. the Junkyard Dog.

Even as shy and void of self esteem as I was at 14 years old, I had no problem walking right up to JYD and getting an autograph from him. In actuality, it was in the early evening and there was no one at the booth, so I got to do a one-on-one with him. I was not aware of his rich local history at the time and assumed that he was just using my hometown of Chalmette, LA as a random stop on his autograph tour. So the only question I could even think of asking him was about his WrestleMania III match with Harley Race and how he refused to bow to him after the match. He laughed and mentioned how Race was a good friend of his and gave that big smile for just a second. I went home with my autograph from the Dog, but it was not until a year later that I realized how lucky I was to meet him. On June 2, 1998, only months after a random appearance at ECW’s Wrestlepalooza pay-per-view, Ritter was driving home from his daughter’s high school graduation in North Carolina when he fell asleep at the wheel in Forest, MS, and died in a single-car accident. When I read the news on the internet, I starred at my autograph, the only one I had, and said a prayer for his family during such a tragic loss.

But with the death of JYD came a revelatory moment for me as a wrestling fan at an indy show in Chalmette a few months later. I was sitting next to an older man at the show and we got to talking about Junkyard Dog passing away. It was then that this man gave me the history lesson of a lifetime, about how engrained Louisiana really was in pro wrestling, all the way to the 1950’s and 60’s. He told me about a company that Cowboy Bill Watts had built called Mid-South Wrestling and how it was the best territory promotion a fan could feast his eyes on. He mentioned one great name after the next who had wrestled in this very Civic Center, then turned and looked at me and said, “But there was no one like the Dog.” When I got home, with my improving internet searching skills, I gathered up as much info as I could about Mid-South Wrestling and the Universal Wrestling Federation, and what I discovered felt like pro wrestling treasure.

Mid-South Wrestling, like most territories back then, came from origins all the way back to the first TV boom of professional wrestling in the United States back in the 1950’s. It was originally called Tri-State Wrestling and consisted of most of Oklahoma and Arkansas along with Shreveport, LA, Joplin and Springfield, MO, and Wichita Falls and Tyler, TX. The first pioneer of the promotion was a man named Sam Avey, an Oklahoman who served in World War I then moved to Cherryville, Kansas. It was there that he was brought into wrestling as a referee by Billy Sandow, a member of a group that ushered professional wrestling into the United States at the start of the 20th century, the “Gold Dust Trio,” along with Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Toots Mondt. He moved up to become a promoter for the legendary Lewis in the Tulsa area. Avey would become a businessman who owned the Tulsa Coliseum, where Tri-State Wrestling would run many of its events. It was during his promoting days in 1930’s that Avey discovered a former NCAA wrestler at Oklahoma A&M named Leroy McGuirk. Some might recognize that last name because Leroy’s daughter Mike was an announcer for the WWF in the 80’s and 90’s.

Leroy McGuirk next to Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, and Ed "Strangler" Lewis.

Leroy McGuirk next to Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, and Ed “Strangler” Lewis.

McGuirk was a talented junior heavyweight who had won an NCAA championship at the 155 lb. class. He held the NWA Junior Heavyweight Title in the Tri-State territory for 10 years and 7 months, still considered the longest single men’s title reign in wrestling history. But lightning would strike twice on McGuirk in his hard-knock life to cost him his wrestling career. He lost sight in one of his eyes as a kid in a swimming accident but braved through it to become a renowned grappler. But in February of 1950, McGuirk was in a car accident in Little Rock, AK, that blinded his other eye and permanently took away his eyesight. After an abrupt retirement, Avey, who was like a father to him, made McGuirk a partner in Tri-State Wrestling and they both shared executive board membership in the National Wrestling Alliance. McGuirk’s main position behind Avey was to train and promote the junior heavyweights at 220 pounds or lighter. One of his brightest discoveries was Dick Hutton, who eventually defeated the great Lou Thesz for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. In the late 50’s, McGuirk and Lewis helped train an undefeated NCAA Champion from the University of Oklahoma who had won an Olympic silver medal and could amazingly crush an apple with one hand. His name was Danny Hodge, who went on to become one of the most decorated junior heavyweights of all time.

Avey had confrontations with the NWA regarding the lack of presence of World champions like Buddy Rogers visiting his territories as often as he did in the glitzier and more populated Northeast area, costing Tri-State a lot of business. Avey left the wrestling business on January 4, 1958, and sold the Tri-State Wrestling promotion to his trusted partner McGuirk. Four years later, Avey passed away. As he had done under Avey as a booker, McGuirk using many smaller heavyweights like Hodge, Skandor Akbar, Jack Brisco, and the original Hollywood Blondes to go with the bigger guys like Grizzly Smith, Luke Brown, the Assassins, Ernie Ladd, the Spoiler, and Haystacks Calhoun. One of those legit heavyweights that he brought in was an outspoken 300-pounder named Bill Watts. Watts was a former football player from Oklahoma who was influenced to wrestle by another ex-footballer who became a legendary wrestler, Wahoo McDaniel. He started training in Indianapolis and wrestled for Tri-State Wrestling before one of his many falling out’s with McGuirk. He wrestled legendary names all over the world, from Giant Baba in Japan to Bruno Sammartino in New York. His nickname “The Cowboy” was fitting because Watts made stops at every territory (along with plenty of enemies) and got over with his Foghorn Leghorn-like charisma. 

Watts also learned from the brightest minds in wrestling at the time as he soaked in the wisdom of head promoters like Roy Shire in San Francisco, Verne Gagne in the AWA, and the man whom Watts considers his greatest influence as a booker, Eddie Graham at Championship Wrestling of Florida. Watts eventually returned to Oklahoma in 1975 to be a booker for Leroy McGuirk. Although they did not get along too well, the partnership of Watts and McGuirk showed signs of promise as a 1978 show at the recently built Superdome in New Orleans, which featured talents like Dusty Rhodes, Billy Graham, Bruiser Brody, Ernie Ladd, and Paul Orndorff, attracted close to 30,000 with a gate of over $140,000, a staggering sum for a local promotion. But the relationship went sour again in August of 1979 when Watts formed Mid-South Sports Inc., which took control of the Louisiana and Mississippi areas along with parts of Oklahoma. McGuirk tried to rival Watts’ new promotion with the territories he had left, even enlisting as his booker George Scott, who later became one of the architects behind WrestleMania and Saturday Night’s Main Event. But by the early 1980’s, even after bringing in Scott, the wrestling business had passed McGuirk by to go with his failing health. Like his mentor Avey had done for him in 1958, McGuirk officially gave in and sold the remainder of the Tri-State Wrestling promotion to Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling in 1982. In a shocking move, one of Watts’ first decisions was to officially disassociate Mid-South as a member of the National Wrestling Alliance while keeping loose allegiances with them along with promoters like Fritz Von Erich in Dallas, Paul Boesch in Houston, Jim Crockett in the Carolinas, and Jim Barnett in Georgia.

Dory Funk Jr., Leroy McGuirk, and Bill Watts.

Dory Funk Jr., Leroy McGuirk, and Bill Watts.

Although there are many fans in the deep South that have adoration for what Avey and McGuirk did for Tri-State Wrestling in the earlier decades, it is hard to find many promoters in the history of pro wrestling let alone the 1980’s that put it all together like Bill Watts did at Mid-South. If you mixed the Southern bred, boot-laced tradition of Fritz Von Erich with the rigorous training persona of Stu Hart and the bombastic showmanship of Paul Heyman, then that would be a perfect blend of what Watts was like as a promoter. While many wrestling companies liked to advertise that they were pushing the boundaries, Mid-South did all of them one better: It shrunk the boundaries down and compartmentalized them into a total package of pro wrestling so perfectly melded with homegrown values, young blood, and episodic format that the shows were impossible to miss on your rabbit-eared television set.

In my eyes, Mid-South trumped all of the prevalent territories by a wide margin in a variety of ways. World Class Championship Wrestling had hot crowds and groundbreaking camerawork, but the wrestling was not very lengthy and you knew those Von Erich’s were going to win in the end. The AWA has probably every territory beat in terms of alumni and history, but the matches were dreadfully boring and Gagne refused to turn a new leaf to the future stars of wrestling until they left to take Vince’s money. Championship Wrestling from Florida was the Gordon Solie-narrated template for Watts’ vision at Mid-South and produced amazing matches, but the TV shows were poorly produced and a lot of the stock footage from Eddie Graham’s best days was lost when the WWE bought it not too long ago.

What Watts did was well ahead of its time, and it shows when you watch the shows today and see how beautifully they’ve aged compared to the others. Instead of focusing too much on match details or the bottom line or which stars got over, Watts made a program that excelled in every category and used forward thinking to make up new angles, evolving feuds, and, most importantly, exciting, must-watch shows. If the girls would tune in to see a music video of Magnum T.A. riding a motorcycle, let the ladies swoon! If the visceral fans wanted to see blood spill over in an epic feud, then here comes Ted DiBiase leaking like a faucet after being attacked by Dick Murdoch during his title match with Ric Flair. (Jim Cornette still calls this the greatest television angle ever done in pro wrestling). If you like spine-tingling promos that make you want to see evildoers like Skandor Akbar and Kamala get their just due, look no further that this fantastic promo by Watts that echoes the sentiments of many today. Plenty of stars dipped their toes in the sides of good and evil like Terry Taylor’s shocking betrayal of his partner Gentleman Chris Adams, igniting a rivalry that culminated in a wild brawl at a concession stand in New Orleans that also involved Eddie Gilbert, Sting, and Rick Steiner. Instead of established stars easily beating the tar out of jobbers week after week, you got star-studded, quality main events like Terry Gordy versus Steve Williams. If you were of the horndog variety, you had the seductive Missy Hyatt and Dark Journey as female characters.

Watts moderates a feud between Mr. Wrestling II and Magnum T.A.

Watts moderates a feud between Mr. Wrestling II and Magnum T.A.

For the African American wrestling fans who rarely saw black wrestlers in other promotions, they had plenty of Mid-South heroes like the Junkyard Dog, Butch Reed, Porkchop Cash, Iceman King Parsons, and Brickhouse Brown. JYD’s “dog collar” match against Michael Hayes in 1980. in which the Dog had been blinded months earlier by Hayes. is still deemed one of the promotion’s most important matches. A man who was sent by Watts to train in Calgary along with the Dog was one his partner Grizzly Smith’s sons, a tall youngster named Jake Roberts. It was at Mid-South in a match with The Grappler that Roberts slipped while applying a front facelock and wound up inventing the DDT. There were great tag teams like the Rock ‘N Roll Express, the Midnight Express, the Russians, the Fantastics, and the Sheepherders. There were future WWF stars like DiBiase, Orndorff, Jim Duggan, Big Bubba Rogers, Shawn Michaels, and Bob Orton. Watts got the most out of guys who were labeled as territory heroes who never became superstars like Buzz Sawyer, Ray Candy, Buddy Landell, Jack Victory, and Mr. Wrestling II. There were indescribable monsters like Kamala, King Kong Bundy, the One Man Gang, and the Missing Link. There was a tag team called the Blade Runners managed by Gilbert that debuted Sting and Rock to the wrestling world. Five years after their debuts, Sting was the WCW Champion and the renamed Ultimate Warrior was the WWF Champion. The talent at Mid-South was so plentiful and the local ratings were so sky high (clocking in at a 50 or 60 share in some local markets) that Watts created a second syndicated program to go with the main show called Power Pro Wrestling. Whatever a Southern wrestling fan, or a fan in general, wanted in the 1980’s, Mid-South had you covered.

Watts was not afraid of any competition but was inquisitive enough to take chances on young up-and-comers in order to freshen up his TV product along with the growing concern of Vince McMahon’s impending national takeover. You had guys like Terry Taylor, Sam Houston, Rick Steiner, Barry Windham, and Magnum T.A. all in their twenties or early thirties making their names on Watts’ programming long before they even sniffed the NWA or the WWF. He also brought in a young man who had been a referee during the McGuirk days in the late 1970’s named Jim Ross and made him the promotion’s lead announcer. That worked out well for J.R. Watts was also unafraid to buck tradition at times and go his own route when it came to building new champions of the territory and booking shows. When a newspaper outed that Jake Roberts was going to lose in his last match at Mid South, Watts flipped the script that had Roberts win on his way out of the company, something that had never been done by a promoter up to that point. Watts, coming from his intense football environment, was also a huge believer in weight training and molded the best athletes out of even the stockiest of his stars. Watts told a story about how he drove Orndorff and Dr. Death Steve Williams so mad about a match one time that they went to a 60 minute draw in spite of him. Football draft guru Mel Kiper would have called a lot of the Mid South talents at the time “wide bodies with high motors.” Duggan (to the disdain of PTBN co-founder Scott Criscuolo) would be one of those guys, but no one represented the “freight train hoss” mentality that Watts always followed the way that Dr. Death did. Williams, along with JYD, DiBiase, Duggan, and Ladd, became a standard bearer for Mid South Wrestling at the end of the day.

What many fans do not realize is how agonizingly close Mid-South Wrestling was to becoming Ted Turner’s flagship wrestling program in the early 1980’s. While Watts was clicking on all cylinders down South with his promotion, Vince McMahon Jr. was aggressively planning the WWF’s national takeover of pro wrestling beginning with the signing of Hulk Hogan and “Black Saturday” on July 14, 1984. McMahon bought out the WTBS Saturday evening time slot that Georgia Championship Wrestling owned from Barnett and Gerald and Jack Brisco, immediately replacing the biggest stars of the NWA with syndicated WWF programming. It was met with shock, hatred, and even death threats from Southern fans and wrestlers alike. Ted Turner did not like the swerve either and made a deal with two local territories to counteract the WWF programming on Saturday’s and sway Vince to take his WWF show elsewhere. The two promotions Turner handpicked were Ole Anderson’s Championship Wrestling from Georgia, which was bought by Jim Crockett, and Watt’s Mid-South program, which was based at the Irish McNeil Boys Club in Shreveport, LA. When McMahon begrudgingly high-tailed Turner’s station not too long after, it was Crockett who bought “World Championship Wrestling” program from the WWF for $1 million. The NWA was now the exclusive wrestling promotion of TBS, and because of Watts’ controversial decision to secede the Alliance, Mid-South Wrestling got left out in the cold.

Jim Ross interviews UWF Heavyweight Champion Dr. Death Steve Williams.

Jim Ross interviews UWF Heavyweight Champion Dr. Death Steve Williams.

If Watts had been able to garner the money and buy the time slot from Vince, World Championship Wrestling would have basically become a grander vision of a national push that Watts eventually attempted with Mid-South Wrestling in 1986. He renamed the promotion the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) in hopes of extending his brand of wrestling around the country to compete with not only Crockett and McMahon, but also the many local promotions like World Class, Memphis Wrestling, and the AWA that had made national cable TV deals of their own. But along with this renewed vision came a fallout with fellow promoters that garnered him ill will and no safety net. Watts made the calculated move to raid a lot of talents from World Class, including booker Ken Mantell, as Von Erich’s promotion slowly began to crumble. He was also determined to run shows opposite the Crocketts and the NWA, who had banned all of their wrestlers, including World Champion Ric Flair, from appearing at Watts’ shows. His relationship with Paul Boesch was so badly strained at the end that Boesch cut a deal in 1987 with McMahon, cutting off Watts’ close affiliation with Boesch’s wrestlers. Not only was the loss in NWA imports devastating for the UWF, but Vince McMahon’s plan of dominating the wrestling landscape with Rock ‘N Wrestling was in full bloom.

The wrestling and the shows were still top notch in the UWF, but the battle lines in the WWF and NWA were clearly drawn, talent was harder to come by, and then came the farm and oil crisis of the late 80’s that ravaged the economy in Oklahoma, right where the UWF had their headquarters. Watts always found a way to replace his stars, but the defections of local legends DiBiase and Duggan to the WWF in early 1987 felt like nails in the coffin. By the middle of the year, Watts was going bankrupt and going through a costly divorce. The local recession along with the lost allegiances from the NWA and the national domination of the WWF finally did in the Cowboy. On April 9. 1987, only 11 days after WrestleMania III, Bill Watts sold the UWF to the Crocketts. The promotion stuck around as a disguised shell of what it had been until the end of 1987, when the top remaining stars in the UWF like Sting, the Freebirds, Eddie Gilbert and Steve Williams eventually worked full-time for the NWA roster on TBS, which in turn became WCW. As the UWF officially dissolved in 1988, Leroy McGuirk, the forefather of the promotion along with Sam Avey, passed away in September.

Many did not hear again from Watts until 1992, when WCW hired him as the Executive Vice President to replace Kip Frey. After just barely missing out on being Ted Turner’s premier wrestling program in the mid 80’s, it was fun watching what Watts had in store now that he had talent and money on his side to run his own show. But for a lot of the wrestlers and WCW fans, Watts’ “back to basics” approach got quickly debased. Although many of his decisions in WCW were considered by many as too folksy and behind the times, it is impossible to argue that WCW produced some of their best shows ever under Watts’ tightly gripped reign. There may not be a better trilogy of shows by any wrestling promotion than Watts’ first three pay-per-view’s running WCW: SuperBrawl II, Wrestle War ’92, and Beach Blast ’92. He was also responsible for crowning Ron Simmons as the first African-American World Heavyweight Champion in wrestling history.  Unfortunately, racially insensitive comments he made during a newsletter interview flooded the Turner office, where he drew the wrath of baseball legend Hank Aaron, who was an executive at the time. Watts was fired and replaced by Ole Anderson in 1993.

Watts briefly worked as an agent for Vince in the WWF in 1995. Legend has it that he was one of minds behind Jeff Jarrett’s fantastic match with Shawn Michaels at In Your House in Nashville. But only a few months later, he was gone almost as soon as he had gotten there. After a long career as a stampeding heavyweight, going his own way as the leader of Mid-South Wrestling, and doing tours for the big boys in WCW and the WWF, Watts, in uncharacteristic fashion, quietly retired from the wrestling business. He became a born-again Christian and wrote an autobiography titled The Cowboy and the Cross. He also did sports radio while settling in a suburb of Tulsa called Bixby. If you watch his shoot interviews, however, you can still see that treacherous defiance and self-belief that made Watts such a dynamic leader and a controversial vagabond. What really pained many wrestling fans was the entanglement of the rights to Mid South Wrestling’s footage, which wound up being owned by Watt’s ex-wife Ene as part of their divorce settlement and run by his son Micah. For many years, if you wanted to watch Mid South Wrestling or UWF on DVD, you had to either visit this web site, buy this DVD, or scour the internet for tape traders or amateur compilations. The archives for one of the most legendary promotions in U.S. wrestling history were being packaged together on the cheap by a service that looked like a GeoCities school project. It made me sick.

Bill Watts was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in Houston, TX, in 2009.

Bill Watts was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in Houston, TX, in 2009.

My wrestling buds and I would talk many times about how cruel it was that of the many historical tape libraries that WWE and their oodles of money could get their hands on, the one territory that they could not close the deal on was probably the best one and the most timeless one. I always kicked myself years later for not appreciating the Junkyard Dog for how important he really was when I saw him as a 14-year-old kid and did not ask him a more educated question. That is why I took special satisfaction in being at the arena in Houston, TX, when Bill Watts, with a cowboy hat and a white goatee, was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009. Even though his best days were long, long past, I knew how important the man was to everything I loved and still love about pro wrestling. And thankfully, many others soon will, too. In October of last year, the news that I had been praying for finally broke. After years of negotiations, the WWE and the Watts family came to terms for the company to purchase the 1,200 hours of Mid South Wrestling footage. The footage, and all of the greatness that went with Mid-South, will finally be unveiled for all wrestling fans to see in pristine quality in a DVD that comes out this week. I never buy Blu Rays, but for this one, I will gladly make an exception. Even with the lengthy documentary and the many fantastic interviews and matches on this compilation, one could argue that there is enough room to have a really good second volume in the coming years.

When fans of pro wrestling young and old get the opportunity to watch this newly released Legends of Mid South Wrestling DVD, it would be easy to quickly peg it as what many of Bill Watts’ critics called backwoods TV or “good ole boy rasslin.” But look closer and tune in to the great moments shared in there and you will see a wrestling program that within that Southern comfort and old time tradition was not only ahead of its time but still stands the test of time as the best local wrestling territory the business has ever seen. There is a reason why Justin Rozzero picked it fifth on his Wrestling TV Program Draft even though he admitted to not seeing much of it. Not too long ago, Rozzero also mentioned on the Place to Be Podcast that when WCW was in its dying days in 1999, the company may have been better off if they had not hired Vince Russo and gone with the “back to basics” approach that Bill Watts had gotten so much ire for doing back in 1992. Again, Watts was ahead of his time, it seems.

As I watched a lot of what WCW during its sad, awful downfall and screamed, “Where is the wrestling?!” I realized how much the company needed a wrestling mind like Watts to try to right the ship. Sometimes, the old fashioned way is the best way to keep the fans roped in, and no one put it together like Watts did. When the WWE Performance Center opened, Triple H said in many interviews how one of the pitfalls of his generation of wrestlers was the fact that there were no more defined territories in the business where wrestlers could learn from the best and hone their craft. He envisions the Performance Center as a hi-tech simulation of what the territories represented back in the 80’s: To build the best and brightest in the comfort of a well-equipped and monitored setting and mold them into diamonds. I find it funny that the WWE has spent millions of dollars on a beautiful facility to replicate something that Bill Watts was able to do with a small TV studio, a gang of so-called “rasslers,” and unmatched desire. Maybe Triple H should give the Cowboy a call sometime about how to do things right.