To say that wrestling’s territory system was on life support 25 years ago is an understatement. Where there once dozens of territories throughout the country dating back decades, by 1991 the World Wrestling Federation, for all intents and purposes, was professional wrestling throughout the United States. Sure, World Championship Wrestling was running nationally, and there were a few hold outs such as Don Owen’s Pacific Northwest Wrestling and Jerry Jarrett’s United States Wrestling Association, but by and large when people thought “wrestling”, they thought WWF.
1990 was especially tumultuous. Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association, which was the territory throughout much of the Midwest, held their last TV taping in August, and while they ran a couple of shows in the spring of 1991, they were dead in the water. The USWA was moved to Memphis exclusively, as the promotion that formed from World Class in Dallas never recovered from the Von Erich family tragedy.
But in every dark cloud, there is a silver lining, and a few attempts to keep the magic alive were made in 1991. In June, the Global Wrestling Federation debuted in Dallas, attempting to fill the void of the World Class/USWA departures. However, the expected funding wasn’t there, and while the company started out hot, by summer of 1992, they were down to exclusively local talent and began going so far into cartoonish angles that the WWF looked like Shakespeare in comparison (the bungee cord match, anyone?). But one promotion in 1991 showed a little more promise, thanks to the one person who wanted to make every possible effort to keep old school, logical wrestling alive.
If you intentionally clicked on this article, you have most likely heard the name Jim Cornette.
In the event you haven’t, Cornette is considered by many to be one of the greatest wrestling minds in the history of the business. Getting his start as a manager in his home territory, Memphis, Cornette quickly became one of the best talkers in the business. By working Memphis, and later for Bill Watts in Mid-South Wrestling, Cornette learned from two promoters with fast-paced television products how to promote. In fact, Cornette has said that Watts influenced how he felt wrestling should be presented. After a brief run in World Class, Cornette began working for Jim Crockett Promotions as Crockett was beginning to run nationally and compete with the WWF. When Crockett sold the company to Ted Turner, and Turner’s company became WCW, Cornette had proven to have such a mind for the business that he was added to WCW’s booking committee even though he was still just in his late 20s.
Some people said at the time (and say even moreso today) that Cornette might be too set in his ways for his own good. He consistently butted heads with WCW Executive Vice President Jim Herd, and in 1990, WCW was doing more and more angles that went away from the realism he expected and more of the “sports entertainment” that the WWF had become known for. Between this and the lack of a serious push for his tag team, The Midnight Express, plus a weird taping schedule where they weren’t used on one taping and used four times the following night, Cornette finally had enough and left the company.
Cornette and Stan Lane, whom he had managed for years, took a number of independent bookings throughout 1991, but Cornette had an idea in mind. He had always dreamed of running his own promotion, often saying that car rides led to discussions as to how he would book a promotion. So with WCW commitments no longer an issue, Cornette got a financial backer in record producer Rick Rubin, he began to promote his own regional territory under the name Smoky Mountain Wrestling. I also have records showing Tim Horner and Sandy Scott partially responsible for SMW’s founding but hell if I can find what their initial role was.
So Cornette, convinced that traditional wrestling could still get over and draw money, began running his territory. His initial plan was to run his territory extending into Lexington, KY, having regular stops in semi-major cities such as Greenville, SC, Roanoke, VA, and Charleston, SC, plus running spot shows in smaller cities based off the TV show. With this strategy, he was hoping he could run 20 shows a month. He also had an idea to try to mix his roster with known veterans and less experienced but talented younger workers, with the goal that the younger workers would be his future main eventers when it came time to stop using the veterans. I know that throughout 1994-1995 (and possibly sooner) the show was airing on Channel 23 out of Akron/Canton, Ohio of all places, so the show had a ton of penetration.
The company started with little fanfare, running two TV tapings in October and November of 1991 for shows that would begin airing on February 8, 1992.
This brings me to the format of these articles. Every time we do one of these articles, rather than cover just one week of TV, we will attempt to cover entire TV tapings, as well as the big cards when footage of the shows exists. There may be exceptions, such as when part of a TV taping comes after a major show and possibly spoils the big show, where we might split that up. But this way, there’s more of a feel for how the overall production of a show and easier to see the changes of the company as it progressed.
Attempts will also be made to give background for major players, new debuts, etc. as they appear.
With that, we’ll cover the first taping that took place on October 30, 1991, but first, the names to keep an eye on from the first taping (in no particular order):
Bob Caudle: The longtime voice of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, he served as the initial play-by-play announcer. According to Cornette, Caudle represented the average fan, asking the questions that they were likely to be thinking, which led to his appeal.
Dutch Mantell: He served as SMW’s initial color commentator while also wrestling. Had his biggest runs in Memphis and in Puerto Rico, and more recently had a role in WWE as Zeb Colter. Cornette said in a shoot once, “Dutch would say something that would have cracking up watching the monitor, and I wouldn’t say it went over Bob’s head, but it went by him because he was so in tune with what he was doing.”
Bob Armstrong: A legendary wrestler in the Southeast and one of the best promos in the history of the business, he began his run in SMW as the Commissioner.
The Fantastics: By this point, the Fantastics are Bobby & Jackie Fulton and are basically being pushed as the top babyface tag team.
Ivan & Vladimir Koloff: Ivan, of course, was the man that ended Bruno Sammartino’s historic first reign as WWWF Heavyweight Champion and was able to use that to main event virtually the rest of his career. Vladimir was Carl Brantley, and what limit information I can find show he was trained by Ivan and eventually became a poultry breeder after wrestling.
Ron Wright: Wright, along with his longest running rival Whitey Caldwell, were Knoxville wrestling for years. His feud with Caldwell was legendary in the area, drawing sellouts for years throughout the territory. Wright, the heel in the feud, became almost a lifelong babyface by replacing Caldwell in a tag team match just days after Caldwell died in a traffic accident. He transitioned into a managerial role in the mid-70s, which is his eventual role here.
Brian Lee: The top babyface in the early days of SMW, Lee was basically Cornette’s second choice, as he wanted Brad Armstrong for the role but couldn’t use Armstrong due to his WCW contract. Lee at this point had shown some promise but is only about three years in the business at this point.
Robert Gibson: Gibson is of course best known as being one half of The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express but is being used as a single act at the start of the promotion.
Killer Kyle: Kyle at this point had about three years experience and had worked preliminary matches for WCW. Cornette always said Kyle could have had a good run on a national level but didn’t want to do all the traveling necessary to be a national star.
Barry Horowitz: OK, Horowitz wasn’t a major player, but I loved watching the guy and wanted to give him some free publicity.
Tim Horner: Horner was a 13-year veteran at this point, and was a very underrated worker. A territory like SMW was really the perfect fit for him. I can honestly say I never saw Horner in a bad match (hopefully that doesn’t change during the course of this project), so I’m looking forward to seeing much more of him.
Bob Holly: Yes, that Bob Holly, several years before becoming a spark plug. Cornette had seen him do some prelim work in WCW and suggested he leave before he got typecast, then brought him in to SMW for the first several months. Of course, his gimmick didn’t work as well as was hoped, which we’ll get into.
Scott Armstrong: Bob Armstrong’s oldest son. He was probably the least talented overall of Armstrong’s four wrestling sons, but was still a good hand and eventually became a well-respected referee for WWE.
Paul Orndorff: Over a year after Orndorff had left WCW in what was thought to be his last run, Orndorff comes to SMW as probably the biggest name and is, at least at the beginning, positioned as the top heel. In a lot of ways, this run saved Orndorff’s career as he got a great run in WCW following this.
So with the major players set, Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling is set to begin with a non-descript television taping. Let’s take a look and see what Smoky Mountain has to offer, shall we?
October 30, 1991 – Smoky Mountain Wrestling TV Taping @ the Memorial Auditorium in Greenville, SC
Episode #1 (airdate February 1, 1992):
Bob Caudle welcomes us to Smoky Mountain Wrestling, “professional wrestling the way it used to be and the way you like it.” He then runs down today’s lineup, including THE BLACK SCORPION! Sorry, got a little carried away there. Bobby Fulton takes on Ivan Koloff in tonight’s main event. Caudle then introduces Dutch Mantell as his color commentator for the evening. Mantell says he’s looking forward to the main event but is especially looking forward to seeing how Brian Lee looks later today.
- One fall with a 15-minute time limit: Killer Kyle vs. “Rock & Roll” Robert Gibson
Kyle brings out a violin case to the ring, which of course leads to speculation as to what is in that case. I would guess a violin if this was anything but wrestling. The early portion of the match is Kyle showing off his strength advantage. To counter this, Gibson hiptosses Kyle to the mat to show he has a wrestling advantage. The match goes this way for a while, with Gibson finally taking Kyle down with a clotheslines for a near fall. Mantell mentions Gibson recovering from a knee injury, and Caudle acknowledges that Gibson isn’t favoring it. Gibson misses a charge into the corner, giving Kyle a chance to work on Gibson’s shoulder. An elbowsmash gets two. Kyle whips Gibson into the corner and charges, but Gibson leaps over and takes him down with a sunset flip for the pin in 3:18. Not enough time to get going but a decent opener.
Pretaped promo from The Fantastics where they discuss Bobby Fulton’s main event with Ivan Koloff later in the evening.
Pretaped interview from commissioner Bob Armstrong. Armstrong tells Caudle that SMW will be affordable for the family, fines will be heavy for violating the rules, throwing opponents over the top rope is a DQ and there will be no attacking the referee. The over the top rule is the only one of these I disagree with.
- One fall with a 15-minute time limit: Barry Horowitz vs. “Prime Time” Brian Lee
Lee comes to the ring to Billy Squire’s “Everybody Wants You” because…I don’t know. Some chain wrestling to start which Lee gets the advantage of. Horowitz breaks an armbar with a knee to the gut and begins to take control. A swinging neckbreaker followed by a legdrop gets two. A beautiful belly-to-belly suplex gets two. Another near fall with a unique cradle. This is a clinic from Horowitz for the most part. Lee avoids a dropkick and begins his comeback. Lee hooks Horowitz into an overhead backbreaker and drops down, which he calls the “Cancellation”, which gets the pin at 4:39. I was far more impressed with Horowitz than Lee here, but this was fun.
Pretaped promo from Ron Wright, who is in a wheelchair claiming he needs a hip and a knee replacement. He says he is looking to manage a series of wrestlers so he can make money for his operations.
- One fall with a 15-minute time limit: “Golden Boy” Joe Cazana vs. “White Lightning” Tim Horner
Horner’s entrance music is Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls”, and I can’t help but laugh because while it fits, that doesn’t scream “wrestling theme”. Horner gets an early near fall with a snap mare. Cazana gets some token offense but this is really the first pure squash of the show. Horner wins with an O’Connor Roll into a bridge (called the “Natural Bridge”) in 4:26. As a vehicle to put Horner over it was fine, but not much to it as a match.
Caudle interviews Jim Cornette, who uses the time to indirectly badmouth WCW and the WWF for going away from wrestling and turning it into a sideshow. Cornette said he made his name managing The Midnight Express, and will be bringing in a new tag team to dominate just like they did.
- One fall with a 15-minute time limit: Paul Miller vs. The Black Scorpion
Miller is best known as “Nature Boy” Paul Lee, and I bet you can guess his usual gimmick. According to my research, this version of Black Scorpion is Jeff Farmer, who had, among other gimmicks, Cobra, Lightning, and nWo Sting. Miller is placed in the jobber role, already in the ring with no entrance. Miller keeps Scorpion off balance early and gets a near fall with a high cross body. Miller misses a dropkick. Scorpion dominates the rest of the match, but Miller catches him off-guard with a small package for the upset win in 3:13. I don’t know this for sure, but this felt like a shot at WCW for their Black Scorpion angle the year before.
Caudle interviews Brian Lee, who says he wants in the SMW Heavyweight Title tournament, and he plans on winning it. Mantell interrupts and tells Lee he would have wrestled the whole match differently, and Lee says he’s right because Mantell would have lost. “You may be a good wrestler, but you ain’t ready for Prime Time.”
- One fall with a 30-minute time limit: “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff vs. “Fantastic” Bobby Fulton
Early in the match, a prematch promo from Koloff is shown where he says Fulton made a mistake in issuing the challenge and he plans on embarrassing Fulton and making him suffer. Fulton gets an early near fall with a roll up, but Koloff quickly takes him down with a chokehold. Mantell: “Old age and treachery will beat youth and agility every time.” Old school style match, with Koloff cheating to gain advantage whenever he can. Caudle and Mantell acknowledge Koloff beating Bruno Sammartino in 1971. Ron Wright comes to ringside in his wheelchair, apparently scouting someone in the ring. A neat spot has Koloff appear to go for a legdrop, Fulton rolls away, but Koloff stops and simply stomps Fulton in the back. Subtle but it makes sense. Fulton gets a near fall with a high cross body. A right hand sends Koloff through the ropes, and Fulton follows him to the outside. They fight near Wright, who offers to shake Fulton’s hand, and that enables Koloff to gain the advantage. Koloff sends Fulton into the ringpost, then hits Fulton with…well, two chairs stuck together before the match finally returns to the ring. Koloff hits a swinging neckbreaker for two. Fulton makes a comeback and knocks Koloff into the ropes by Wright. Wright shakes Koloff’s hand, and then Koloff turns and levels Fulton with a hard right hand that leads to the pin at 6:58. Hmm…. Jackie Fulton runs to the ring and accuses Wright of handing Koloff a foreign object, and they begin brawling, with the object dropping at some point. Vladimir Koloff, Ivan’s “nephew”, then runs in to save Ivan, and they double team Jackie until they hang him over the top rope with a chain. During this melee, the referee reverses the decision so Fulton is officially the winner.
Caudle interviews Armstrong, who fines Ivan Koloff $500 for using the foreign object, then signs the Fantastics vs. the Koloffs for next week. The Fantastics then cut a promo to push the match.
Episode #2 (airdate February 8, 1992):
Jim Cornette is taking Mantell’s place at the broadcast booth since Mantell is in action later on.
- One fall with a 15-minute time limit: Tim Frye vs. “Hollywood” Bob Holly
Ron Wright comes to the ring early in the match. I’ve never heard of Frye but he is controlling the match in the first couple of minutes. An elbow to the chin gives Holly the edge, and he takes control most of the rest of the way. A legdrop by Holly earns a near fall. Backbreaker followed by an elbowdrop, but the cover is arrogant and only gets two because of it. Vertical suplex for a near fall. Frye makes a comeback but runs into an elbow. Kneedrop off the top, then he DROPS THE STRAPS…and covers for the pin at 4:30. A showcase for Holly.
The Koloffs in a pretaped promo say they are going to end the careers of The Fantastics in the main event.
The first of several commercials where SMW encourages anybody looking for fundraising to contact SMW for live events.
Robert Gibson conducts a pretaped promo where he says he’s happy to be back from his knee surgery and happy to compete in SMW.
- One fall with a 15-minute time limit: “Hustler” Rip Rogers vs. “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff
If this match is half as good as it should be, this could be better than anything on TV this week. Rogers attacks Orndorff from behind and takes control, but Orndorff gains control early. Rogers rolls to the floor for a breather, but Orndorff follows and rams Rogers into the barricade, then hits Rogers with the ring announcer’s microphone. Back in the ring, and it’s all Orndorff. Armdrag into an armbar, and Rogers is nearly caught napping with a two count. Rogers rakes the back to break the armbar, then clotheslines Orndorff to the mat and takes control. Out to the floor they go, and this time it’s Rogers using the furniture on the floor to his advantage. Back in the ring, and Rogers locks in a sleeperhold. Orndorff eventually maneuvers Rogers face first into the corner to break the hold. Rogers tries to slam Orndorff, but Orndorff counters into an inside cradle for two. Orndorff reverses a suplex into one of his own. Orndorff telegraphs a backdrop and gets kicked in the chest. Rogers goes for a piledriver, apparently illegal in SMW as Cornette says Rogers will get disqualified, but Orndorff backdrops Rogers. Rogers attempts to hold on for a sunset flip, but Orndorff sits down on Rogers’ shoulders and scores the pin at 6:29. So far this is the best match of the taping, but it’s interesting to find out that Orndorff’s finishing move is illegal in Smoky Mountain.
Bob Caudle interviews “Nitro” Danny Davis (who would later be the head of Ohio Valley Wrestling), who said his days as “Nightmare” Danny Davis are over. After this, Bob Armstrong comes in and says fines will be levied for breaking the rules and encourages fans to come to the arenas. My guess is had there been house schedules scheduled, we would have had them localized here.
Caudle interviews Brian Lee, who sends a message to Dutch Mantell and any other takers that if they have a problem with him to come find him.
- One fall with a 15-minute time limit: Scott Armstrong vs. “Dirty” Dutch Mantell
Mantell comes to the ring to the theme from “Rawhide”. I love it! Not thirty seconds and we get a spot that drives me nuts: Armstrong has an arm wringer, Mantell grabs the ropes, and rather than break the hold, the referee kicks Mantell’s hand off the rope. As a referee, I hate that as it makes the referee appear to be playing favorites. Then we get a second time maybe ten seconds later. Mantell then pulls Armstrong’s hair to break the hold, and of course Armstrong’s upset as I immediately start rooting for Mantell since he’s in the right at this point. The match is pretty even in the early going. Mantell locks in the abdominal stretch and grabs the ropes for leverage. Now if the referee wanted to kick Mantell’s hand here, I’d get it, but he merely calls for the break. Mantell argues with the ref, then turns right into an inside cradle that gets two for Armstrong. Armstrong then goes for a dropkick and Mantell casually walks away from it. Mantell is firmly in control from here. Mantell then knocks Armstrong to the floor with a punch, and almost as quickly throws Armstrong back into the ring. Armstrong begins to come back, but Mantell grabs his bullwhip and catches Armstrong in the throat with it. Armstrong is the winner by disqualification in 4:45, but he continues getting beaten down until Brian Lee makes the save. Mantell grabs the mic and tells Lee that his whip can take down a 2,000-pound bull, and it can take Lee down if he gets involved in his business again.
Caudle interviews Jerry Williams, principal of East High School in Morristown, TN, about the advantages of hosting a live wrestling event.
Caudle interviews Bob Armstrong, who says Mantell can bring the whip to the ring since it’s part of his paraphernalia but he’ll be fined if he uses it. He then announces Mantell vs. Brian Lee for next week. Cornette then interrupts to say nobody will know who his new tag team will be until they are ready to name champions, then goes onto a rant about how in other organizations you become champion based on contracts and sponsorships, but you’ll win titles in SMW by winning matches.
Second round of info on how to host a live event.
Caudle interviews Wally Yamaguchi of Power Channel TV and Universal Wrestling in Japan, who says he is scouting talent and looking to possibly exchange talent as well as televise SMW in Japan.
Caudle then shows a replay of the Bobby Fulton-Ivan Koloff match and aftermath from last week.
Ron Wright, via the magic of pretape, denies handing Ivan Koloff a foreign object and says he’s just trying to mind his own business so he can find his man to make him enough money for his surgery.
Third round of info on how to host a live event.
- One fall with a 60-minute time limit: Ivan & Vladimir Koloff vs. The Fantastics
The Fantastics come in and attack the Koloffs before the bell, sending the Koloffs to the floor to regroup. Back in, and Jackie Fulton starts with Vladimir Koloff. Vladimir easily overpowers Jackie, so Jackie tries to use his wrestling skills to keep Vladimir off guard. Ivan comes in and gets more of the same. Bobby soon tags in, and they exchange a series of near falls. Jackie tags in and hooks a short arm scissors for two. Ivan works out of it. Bobby tags in, and the advantage continues until Ivan signals Vladimir to move to a different corner. Jackie tries to stop it, but that distracts the referee, and Vladimir jumps off the top rope onto Bobby’s back. Bobby Fulton is now firmly in place as the face in peril. Vladimir with a big backbreaker gets two. Bobby avoids an elbow, but Ivan tags in and rakes the eyes to stop the comeback. The next several minutes consists of the Koloffs utilizing quick (and sometimes illegal) tags while occasionally drawing in Jackie to distract the referee and allow for double teaming, with brief moments of hope from Bobby that go nowhere. Jackie eventually tags in and keeps both Koloffs at bay, then all four are in the ring. In the chaos that ensues, Jackie catches Ivan with a high cross body for the pin as Bobby trips Vladimir and holds his ankles to prevent the break at 9:01. This was fun, but as soon as it got going it was over.
Caudle interviews Jim Cornette and Terry Gordy separately to hype that SMW will be hosting live events in the near future.
Caudle interviews Tim Horner, who says he’s happy to be in an organization where the focus was not on bodybuilding or being a rock star and on athletic competition. Caudle then reminds us of Brian Lee vs. Dutch Mantell for next week and signs off.
So overall these first two shows were kind of a mixed bag. Production values were very good for a promotion of this size, and the wrestling was pretty good. I was also very happy to see that even the matches that were clearly designed to be a showcase for one specific guy were still somewhat competitive, so while you technically had some squash matches, there is at least a chance for the enhancement talent to have a chance to get over and get a push.
My biggest criticism of these two shows was the constant pushing of “We’re not like these other organizations.” Mentioning it once or twice was fine, but I lost count of how many times it was brought up over the two shows (I think it was brought up four times in the last 20 minutes of week two alone). I’m a big fan of letting the action in the ring tell that story.
The key to remember with an introductory taping like this is to establish the major players early so when you begin to run angles, fans have a rooting interest. This show did a good job of that and immediately planted the seeds for a couple of angles early as well. Mission accomplished.
Next time: Two more weeks of television, featuring Brian Lee vs. Dutch Mantell, plus a few new debuts and much more.