WWE has always been a company that has had peaks and troughs in terms of their ability to tell a good story. Right now we’re in the middle of a narrative arc that could culminate in a satisfying conclusion or could leave us underwhelmed, depending on how Orton and Bryan are booked. Whether or not they are booked well, they’ll probably deliver in the ring. But, ultimately, it will be what comes out this at the other end that we’ll remember. The same is true of TV and theatre – the French term ‘denouement’ is used – literally meaning ‘the untying of knots’: we’re presented with a tangle of storylines and we want to see how it gets untied. How we get to the ending is interesting and fun but it’s the ending that the majority are concerned with.
The same has always been true: tell a good story and people will come back for more. When Bill Watt’s took over Mid-South Wrestling from Leroy McGuirk, it was a territory that spanned a huge area and was internally in a state of disorder. What Watt’s did was attract talent; names migrated to Mid-South and Watt’s moulded starts out of green young potentials. He created an interesting, weekly, syndicated TV show and he taught the workers a great deal about the business. Fans watched every week as good booking saw slow-built feuds culminate in satisfying pay-offs over time.
The WWE Legends of Mid-South Wrestling DVD collection doesn’t offer us the best in-ring action that we’ll ever see from a WWE release but it documents a time where storytelling was at the heart of an expanding promotion in a growing industry.
Disc 1 gives us a range of talking heads who comment on their experiences of Mid-South, starting in 1981. Ted DiBiase, who is always an engaging interview, tells of how he came in as a babyface but was quickly turned heel. His match against Paul Orndorff which is all pace and looks really stiff, culminates in a wonderful figure four battle. DiBiase sells beautifully in the final moments of the match when time is called. His stock rose hugely in the 80s and, as this set shows, he went on to become a perfect villain in this territory. His popularity when he eventually turned back to being a face, however, was nothing to rival that of Junkyard Dog’s.
JYD came in as green as anyone from Calgary “but just had it” as Bill Watts points out. Ross argues that “he was simply the biggest star in the history of Mid-South”. Watching JYD captivate crowds in Louisiana is a treat. He was an excellent promo but would largely be involved in squash matches early on. The match that he’s tied to here is not the best to showcase him – a 6-man tag that involved huge men like Andre, Dusty and Ernie Ladd.
DiBiase, Jim Duggan and Matt Borne as the Rat Pack are also profiled. Duggan is an articulate advocate for this period and talks about how much he learned under Watts. The Rat Pack were successful but internally didn’t click; Duggan notes, “DiBiase was the brains, I was the brawn and Borne was the jerk, so it turned out”. As a result, it was often DiBiase and Borne that would tag together. The late Matt Osborne was a really good worker and this comes across in his No DQ tag match against JYD and Jerry Stubbs (Mr Olympia). Duggan interferes in a gorilla costume and DiBiase wins using a loaded glove. They were fun heels, great promos and would get up to lots of antics in order to ensure that they won.
Duggan laughs and points out that his feud with DiBiase to break them up was “the most gimmicked match of all time”. Yes, folks, this is the Coal Miner’s Glove Steel Cage Tuxedo Loser Leaves Town Match! The match is reasonable but is really a great battle that, crucially, is the culmination of a 2 year storyline where both men are covered in blood. It’s worth noting how awesome Jim Ross’ commentary is here and on the rest of the set - the irony is that the last released work of Jim Ross as an announcer for WWE was on this collection and it was released the day before his being let go.
The first disc also sets the scene for the difficulties that traveling around these states would cause. Highs and lows are described by many, particularly Dusty Rhodes who notes, “we would be driving 2000 plus miles per week”. Watts also insisted on a non-negotiable policy that saw heels ride with heels. Terry Taylor, who is phenomenal on this collection, describes (and not for the last time) what a machine Ric Flair was in those days. Flair was always first up, first to the car rental place, first in the gym and was always immaculately turned out.
Other than watching Tony Atlas bench 550 lbs, the other highlight of disc one is the profile and footage of Magnum TA. Terry Allen would have been a huge star if he’d never been injured in the late 80s, I have no doubt about that. Brought in by Ernie Ladd, he commands a certain amount of cool and has a rugged believability about him. We’re shown his workouts when Mr Wrestling II took him on as a protégé in a coaching role. We’re also shown two good matches where he is portrayed as a sympathetic yet plucky and tough babyface: firstly when Mr Wrestling walks out on him leaving Magnum to be beaten in the middle of the ring against the Midnight Express and, lastly, when he won the North American title from Mr Wrestling, despite his best attempts to cheat, in 1984.
The territory was keen to push African American athletes, especially since JYD was so popular. ‘Hacksaw’ Butch Reed was a big, agile, charismatic athlete who assumed the role of the main event star well. Watts’ vision was to turn JYD and have him feud with Reed. On the way to their Ghetto Street Fight (!) we see JYD take Reed out in television segments, firstly to paint him yellow and secondly, to cover him in tar and feathers. Again, the story turns out to be better than the work in the ring but they have a slow, climactic epic that is worth watching.
Ross notes that he has “never seen a greater tag team rivalry” in his whole career than that of the rivalry between the Midnight Express and the Rock n Roll Express. Their profile is a pleasure and arguably should be longer. Here, ring work and storylines combine – these were two teams who had great chemistry and in-ring psychology. Midnight Express were the country boys who people wanted to hate while Rock n Roll Express were the cute guys, adored by fans everywhere. Jim Cornette made this feud even stronger as the weasel heel manager who could cut a deadly promo. The two matches we’re given vary in quality.
The No DQ match for the tag titles from May 1984 sees Cornette apply chloroform to Robert Gibson while the ref has taken a bump. When Eaton pins him for the win, the crowd are infuriated. It leads to Cornette being put in a straightjacket and raised above the ring, out of harm’s way but the footage of this match is really poor and less enjoyable as a result.
Even though he was an ‘enhancement’ guy (jobber) in Mid-South, Shawn Michaels discusses his work with Ted DiBiase next. He puts Ted over as a great teacher and says that in one match he taught him enough to last him a career. DiBiase had given Shawn the chance to look credible despite only being afforded the chance to hit a couple of moves in the match. Shawn says he has always taken on the advice that DiBiase gave him and, really, made a career out of it: being still in with a chance at all times, never quite looking beaten even if you don’t really belong in the frame. Their match is ok, but Michael’s insight is far more interesting.
As already noted, Terry Taylor is excellent on this collection. He is an erudite, cultured man who talks with great insight into the period, particularly here with his feud with Ric Flair. He says that he still felt new to the business at this point and was delighted to get his opportunity to wrestle Ric and he didn’t want to blow it. Taylor goes on to tell the story of the day that he wrestled Flair at the Superdome on June 1st 1985: he arrived at 2pm, way earlier than necessary; he worked out, did his hair several times and got ready for his match. By 7pm, Flair was nowhere to be seen, same at 7:30, same at 8.
Flair turns up at 8:30 “stinking of booze, looking like he was wearing the same clothes he’d warn for the past three days” and he tells them, “wake me up in an hour”. Worst still, he tells Terry, “bring me a coffee in an hour”. Taylor was mad to say the least and concerned that he’d have to try and carry Flair for a 12 minutes match, “which wasn’t something that I was sure I could do” he says. Anyway, 35 minutes into the match Taylor says, “I was begging him to pin me because I couldn’t breathe anymore; he was a machine”. As the match shows, Flair comes to ring looking immaculate and gives a pacey Flair match with Terry to the fans for 39 straight minutes, when hours before he’d been plastered.
When JYD left, Watts searched for the next black star of the company. Ross claims that this idea was a mistake and that they had white talent that were just as strong. As they trialled Eddie Crawford as Mr Snowman, Ross had a lot to do with bringing Muhammad Ali in to the company to be in his corner. Jake Roberts, who is also a talking head here (but frankly has looked better), is becoming the company’s top heel by 1985 and laughs off how he was so glad that at the finish of their match, Ali didn’t catch him with real punches, “I was so grateful that he didn’t knock the s*** out of me”. There’s also some nice footage of Ross interviewing Ali in the build up to the match and also tape of Ross and Ali at his mosque.
We then learn of how DiBiase was turned babyface “in one night” in November 1985. As a heel for 4 years now in the territory, they used Dick Murdoch (who had brought DiBiase in to the company in the first place) to turn DiBiase for his match against Ric Flair. We’re shown Murdoch ramming DiBiase into the ring post which causes him to bleed profusely from his forehead, squirting out blood in worrying amounts. As the perfect never-say-die babyface, he still comes out to fight Flair that same night after fans have seen him stretchered off. This is probably the finest match in the collection.
By 1986, Mid-South attempted to go national and, with it, would change to its name to the Universal Wrestling Federation. Ross and Watts were convinced that this was a feasible, viable option. However, due to the oil crisis that hit the Mid-South area and the resulting swell in unemployment in and around Watts’ territory, the average fan couldn’t afford to attend live shows anymore. Just when Watts assumed he would be able to build on his core audience, he couldn’t count on it. Just as TNA does today despite its money problems, television ratings were actually stable - it was live attendances that were down. Watts admits he was losing $50,000 a week at this time and being bought out by Crockett Promotions was unavoidable and in the end made fiscal sense.
As with many WWE releases, we’re told a version of the full story and so the light and shade of the deal is only mentioned, specifically that Watts exaggerated the WWF’s interest in his company to secure a deal with the NWA. Of course, later, the NWA would regret the deal, realizing that they could have waited and merely pinched the talent once UWF struggled.
Apart from the interest viewers may have in seeing figures such as Watts, Roberts and Duggan as talking heads on this DVD, there are certainly some matches that will pique interest, out of curiosity alone. Rick Steiner (Rob Ricksteiner at this point) and soon-to-be controversial referee Nick Patrick wrestling on Power Pro Wrestling in May of 1986 is one of those matches as is The Bladerunner’s match: watching Sting and Ultimate Warrior as green, young pretenders is fascinating in itself. In fact, as the company became UWF, the set becomes interesting in its showcasing of The Fabulous Freebirds, Dr Death Steve Williams, Terry Gordy and One Man Gang.
The Freebirds were awesome heels and great talkers, particularly Michael Hayes. Hayes as a talking head throughout this collection is very definitive in his views. He puts over the period as one that really helped a lot of workers in their careers but never quite says more than that personally. The Freebirds arguably, though, enjoyed even more success by the time the NWA took over. Buddy Roberts, it is explained, joined on Watts’ say so and was considered a great addition; Roberts feels he lived the gimmick anyway and provides insight in pre-recorded interviews carried out before his death in 2012. The match between DiBiase & Williams and Hayes & Buddy Roberts is fun because of the Lumberjack stipulation but you will find better Freebirds matches than this.
Terry Gordy is put over as being a complete natural by all who speak about him. DiBiase comments that you always felt safe in the ring with him and notes how smooth he was for such a big man. Hayes says that it was in the Fabulous Freebirds that Gordy received praise for being a good worker. Gordy’s match with Jim Duggan is very fine indeed and is probably one of the best Duggan matches you’ll find on tape. Gordy was known under the moniker of ‘bam bam’ at this point and had the body and attitude of the ‘enforcer’ in the Freebirds and as a singles star. His match with Dr Death Steve Williams is mouth-watering in prospect but writhes with a non-finish that isn’t clarified in the end.
There is short profile of One Man Gang in which Ross asserts his belief that he was a real star because of his desire to improve in the ring and because he was booked so well. Steve Williams, on the other hand (who is on this collection fleetingly, speaking before his death in 2009), is revealed to be “dangerous” in the ring in his early days. It is sad to hear him sound so hoarse but is only right that he should appear here. He wrestled between college terms initially and Terry Taylor notes that “he was just so strong; I don’t think words could do it justice”. His story is the one that ends this collection – humbly, Williams suggests that his title shot came about because the other stars had been picked up by Vince at this point which only left him to take the belt.
We’re given a bridging match between One Man Gang and Big Bubba Rogers (a slightly lither and younger Big Bossman) so that the culmination of the set can show us highlights of Williams’ title win against Roberts from July 1987. Williams laments the sale to the NWA and claims that he and Flair were to supposed to have a title unification match that would top the bill of a company-wide UWF and NWA feud but Flair didn’t like William’s style (so Steve claims, despite praising Flair as the “best ever”) and so he said that he would never face him again. The idea was buried, the rest is history and the collection ends there.
WWE have been careful in their treatment of this story. It is well-told, well-structured and well-balanced so that even the most casual fan, bringing no prior knowledge to the table, will enjoy the narrative of the rise and fall of Mid-South Wrestling. But in this case, to negate my opening sentiments, it is not the ending that is interesting; it’s how we get there. In-ring wrestling still needed the edges smoothing off back then but storylines were everything and everything was about storylines. Because Mid-South knew better than many, if you tell people a good story, they will come back wanting another.