Published on May 2nd, 2013 | by Andrew Lutzke0
Kayfabe, Lies and Alibis: Bill Watts
Straight Shooting with Bill Watts and Jim Cornette
Presented by Ring of Honor Wrestling and Highspots.com
Bill Watts is everything his critics and admirers say he is. He is loud, obnoxious, stubborn, opinionated, unrefined and in your face. On the flip side he embodied personal strength, mental toughness, true athleticism, great business sense and a genius for booking ‘rasslin that drew the masses. One has to look no further than the rise of Sylvester Ritter as proof:
Ritter was a natural athlete. He claimed two All American Honors in football while playing at Fayetteville State University, and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers but injuries saw his career end before achieving much. (The Packers have had an odd amount of Pro Wrestlers in their team history – Ritter, Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, Mr.T, Reggie White and Steve McMichaels all wore the green and gold for a time.) Ritter sought pro wrestling as a career and floated around a few southern promotions before moving up to Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, taking on a slightly racist pimp gimmick named “Big Daddy Ritter” and headlining for the small promotion. Ritter moved back down south when Bill Watts came calling – Watts dubbed him “The Junkyard Dog” and had JYD haul a cart of junk out with him to the ring.
After a slow start JYD caught on and became Watts’ top star. The Dog’s signature feud would prove to be facing off with The Fabulous Freebirds, featuring the yet to be established duo of Michael Hayes and Terry Gordy (Hayes was 21 years old and Gordy was 19 to put this in perspective) along with tag team specialist and journeyman wrestler Buddy Roberts, who was to be the veteran of the unit. The key moment of the feud was when Hayes and Gordy were facing JYD and Buck Robley in tag action. The nefarious Freebirds took a scoop of hair removing cream and rubbed it into JYD’s eyes “accidentally”, burning his retinas and blinding him. Suddenly the Mid South’s favorite son was unable to see and was forced to retire. Worse yet, JYD’s wife was about to give birth and since he was blinded JYD missed the momentous occasion of his daughter’s birth. The Freebirds offered no remorse, mocking JYD for weeks in interviews and receiving death threats from outraged fans for their efforts. On one occasion, the JYD was almost sneak attacked by the ‘Birds at a live event while still suffering from blindness – only to have a fan jump out of the audience and point a loaded gun at the Freebirds to protect the JYD. Hard to argue that this angle had some serious heat!
Watts built this feud to a peak in the summer of 1980, culminating with Michael Hayes facing the Junkyard Dog in a steel cage dog collar match. The event was held at the Superdome in New Orleans, a building that saw the promotion draw near and just over 20,000 people during sporadic events during the 70’s with such top names as Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Andre the Giant, Ernie Ladd, Stan Hansen, Superstar Billy Graham, Bruiser Brody, Harley Race, Dick Murdoch, Terry Funk, Mr. Wrestling II and Bill Watts himself filling up the top of the cards. When JYD and Michael Hayes locked horns, the Superdome was filled with over 30,000 rabid fans – ready to see JYD get his revenge. According to available records, only 1 event out drew this attendance mark between 1962 and 1979 in all of wrestling– that being Bruno Sammartino returning from a broken neck to seek revenge on Stan Hansen in an event held at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1976. Watts bulked up the undercard by bringing in Dusty Rhodes and Andre, but few doubt it was JYD that the fans came for that day. When you consider that the two men in the feature bout could both claim only 3 years of experience at the time, this may be the most remarkable attendance mark in wrestling history. The angle was so renowned that Georgia Championship Wrestling copied it with JYD and the ‘Birds a few years after the original:
JYD would prove not to be a fluke as a draw for Watts though as he spent the next three and a half years headlining Superdome cards drawing over 21,000 fans more often than not. This historic success ended on a sad note though as JYD abruptly jumped to the WWF in the summer of 1984 and Watts felt compelled to bury JYD on air for “looking for weaker opposition” and he then showed JYD losing on TV in matches taped months earlier. Watts tried to capture lightning in a bottle again by using George Wells, Savannah Jack and Koko B. Ware as a top African American babyface but the fans wouldn’t embrace the replacements to the extent that JYD was loved.
In addition to JYD, Watts put a tremendous roster together throughout the early eighties. Ted Dibiase, Dick Murdoch, Butch Reed, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Ernie Ladd,”Dr. Death” Steve Williams and Mr. Wrestling II were staples of the promotion in the early to mid 80’s and young talent like Jake Roberts, The Rock and Roll Express, Terry Taylor, and Magnum T.A. all received pushes in their young careers that helped establish them as legit talents. This was complemented with special guests like Andre the Giant, The Von Erichs and Dusty Rhodes who popped attendance and moved along.
It’s to Bill Watts credit that unlike other wrestler/owners like Dick the Bruiser and Verne Gagne, Watts minimized his wrestling role almost as soon as he gained control of Mid-South Wrestling in 1979. Watts stayed on as color man and put over the storylines he and his bookers were weaving. Watts could also use this role to cut promos for the workers devoid of charisma he wanted to push (Steve Williams being a prime example).
Watts could be goaded to battle though and it usually meant a packed house would follow as Watts talked the people into the arenas to see him kick some heinous heel butt. Two very memorable angles that saw Watts return were: When Jim Cornette had a cake shoved in his face by the Rock and Roll Express.
Watts’ and Cornette had shared words before and now Watts’ used this clip endlessly to embarrass Cornette on TV, so Jim sent The Midnight Express to whoop up on the “Cowboy”:
This lead to a short series of Stagger Lee (JYD under a mask) and Bill Watts vs The Midnight Express matches that made over a million dollars at the gate over their run. (Cornette often brags about this fact still to this day.)
The other fantastic angle that led to Bill Watts’ returning was during a period where Eddie Gilbert was aligning with several Russians who took joy in covering downed opponents in the Russian flag. Watts being a mega-patriot was outraged and disgusted by Gilbert’s antics and called him out on his un-American behavior. Eddie responded with a fake apology to lure Watts into the ring and the “Hot Stuff” Army laid a beating to Watts – covering HIM with the flag! Jim Ross’ melodramatic call really helps make this work:
Problems arose though as Korchenko (one of the Russians obviously) wanted more money and Watts roughed him up in the ring in response and Korchenko quit. In addition, Ivan and Nikita Koloff were not Mid-South talent and they went back to JCP and a pair of inexperienced talents in The BladeRunners (Sting and The Ultimate Warrior) were left to try and salvage the angle. The heat was soon transferred to the Freebirds who also beat down Watts on TV weeks later and the angle mostly fizzled out from there.
On the business side, Watts would attempt to expand Mid-South into a national promotion in response to the AWA, WWF and JCP all doing the same in 1984 and ‘85. In order to sound less regional, Watts renamed Mid-South Wrestling into the Universal Wrestling Federation, Jim Ross secured a remarkably big syndication market for UWF TV, and snagged a slew of WCCW’s talent in an attempt to expand into Texas and overtake Fritz Von Erich’s dying territory. The expansion attempts failed as the syndication was eating up funds and the UWF failed to succeed in new markets, even with good ratings. The oil market also was hurting and thus the home base UWF fans were not able to afford to go to wrestling as often as was once the case. With all these factors weighing on him, Watts took an offer from Jim Crockett to buy out his syndication, offices and workers for a few million. (A move that would hasten Crockett’s own bankruptcy a year later.)
Watts would leave wrestling until 1992 when the company he sold out to brought him back into the fold and put him in charge. WCW under Watts is remembered as a disaster. Watts pushed his unpopular son hard on TV, took top rope moves away from exciting high flyers like Brian Pillman and pushed the rugged heels he liked such as Gordy, Dr. Death and The Barbarian. Watts also had heat with much of the locker room for his dictator like ways and attempts to cut many fat contracts the men had signed under previous presidents. Watts also tried to make Ron Simmons his latest black superstar but despite winning the World title, Simmons didn’t find an interesting feud to get the fans invested in him, and top heel Rick Rude was injured right before a high profile match with Simmons, blowing Ron’s last chance on top. Simmons would drop the strap soon after. Watts was ultimately removed from power when Hank Aaron of baseball fame was shown some racially dicey comments Watts had made and thus Watts was forced out.
The “Cowboy” got one last attempt at running a promotion when a desperate Vince McMahon briefly hired Watts to help turn his company around. Watts wanted to push big heels hard to set up his babyfaces to conquer but he ran afoul to the Kliq and they helped make his stint a short one. Watts did have one final match in the WWF, working as a substitute as he battled Mankind at a house show.
Watts turned into a hardcore Christian in retirement and wrote his autobiography “The Cowboy and The Cross”, which is a fine read in this author’s opinion. Watts entered his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009. He lives a quiet retirement down south, but still appears at fan conventions from time to time.
This shoot is Bill Watts going over his career with Jim Cornette as his interviewer and guide.
Leroy McGuirk’s promotion is buried by Watts, saying he didn’t watch it in college as it as it was a bunch of small guys who were washed up.
Watts and Wahoo McDaniel were drinking and when Watts saw Wahoo’s big check from wrestling Bill then wanted in the business.
McGuirk didn’t want to use young Watts as Bill was way bigger than Leroy’s usual roster.
Wahoo went back to football while Watts was trying to break in to the same territory as Wahoo, and it lead to Watts having to find a new way into the business.
McGuirk finally let Watts in as a special ref and he got enough reaction to get his break in Oklahoma.
Cornette and Watts tell some Danny Hodge stories.
We hear of “Wild” Red Berry’s days fighting in coal mines.
Watts get noticed by Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon Sr. and is called up to the WWWF.
Bobo Brazil and Bruno Sammartino are the only two men more popular than Watts during his first year run in the WWWF.
Watts turns on Bruno and the feud sees the highest attendance ever in the old Madison Square Garden as far as Watts can recall.
We hear how Andre the Giant was used as a bargaining chip when Vince Sr wanted to take talent from Watts.
Bobo Brazil overcoming racism is discussed. Watts would cut racist promos as that kind of heat was acceptable in the 60’s in wrestling.
Watts had buckets of urine tossed on him when cages were erected to keep the fans from tossing objects at heels.
The “Cowboy” claims to have personally injured 17 fans during a riot after he beat Brazil.
JYD was brought in to Mid-South after Jake Roberts told Watts about the talent he’d seen up in Stampede.
Watts goes over the mess he inherited in WCW and how he cut 8 million from the budget.
Bill claims he was planning on quitting the same day he was fired as WCW President.
They go over why having 15 writers for the WWE has the direction of the company all disorganized.
Bill shares what a learning experience working with Ray Stevens in San Francisco was.
Cornette talks about doing a worked neck injury in SMW and having a fan follow him all the way to the hospital’s X-ray room because he sold it so well.
Watts goes over all the vets who he learned from in his early years.
Da Crusher is put over hard for his mind for the business.
Bill talks about his fearless attitude. Sam Muchnick was President of the NWA and Watts refused to do a finish for him. He also told off Verne Gagne when he was asked to do a job.
Watts goes over how he ended up as business partners with Leroy McGuirk, Danny Hodge, Fritz Von Erich and Verne Gagne.
While booking for McGuirk, Bill had turned business around, but Leroy was a blind, paranoid, alcoholic and would often hinder Watts by demanding explanations for everything Watts booked. This is why (and how) Watts developed such sensible storylines.
Bill talks about Vince embarrassing Jim Ross and how it tarnishes the business and legitimacy of the announcers’ ability to sell tickets for your company.
Watts buys into Georgia Championship Wrestling and guides them through a territorial war.
Eddie Graham mentors Watts on match finishes.
Florida was so hot by this point that Watts claims the cards had “6 main events”.
Mid-South broke the traditional wrestling TV model and showed main eventers vs. main eventers on TV – although it was often cut off to act as a tease for fans to buy tickets to house shows.
UFC’s success is explained as being where fans can see two guys legitimately go after each other, in comparison to the WWE guys riding together and then acting mad once they get on TV.
Watts explains his dress code rules and how he made guys live their gimmick.
We hear some locker room fights involving Thunderbolt Patterson and Tank Patton, and John Nord and Butch Reed.
Jim Cornette puts over Watts’ iron fisted rules and the fines that went along with it.
Watts talks about taking Mid-South from doing $400,000 in “one state” under McGuirk in a year and turning it into making 4 million a year.
Bill defends his WCW decisions of removing ringside mats and banning top rope moves.
Jim and Watts celebrate WCW’s death.
This shoot clocked in at 2 and ½ hours and was never dull. Cornette and Watts went over Watts’ history so thoroughly that they only made it to 1980 before merely touching on a few subjects after that point. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as they fleshed out 20 years of history in a wonderful fashion, making sure to not leave details hanging. Watts was the professor here and Cornette stepped back from his usual motor mouth banter to engage in the role of moderator – one who was taking many sips from Watts’ cup of knowledge. Two great orators and a line of well-developed questions made this a very enjoyable shoot interview experience.
Photo Credit to Putnam City High School