The line stretched all the way down the
We were in front of the WRAL TV studios
in Raleigh, North Carolina early one Wednesday evening in 1980,
waiting to get into a Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling show
taping. I was the devout fan who would leave the UNC-Greensboro
Strong dorm keg parties at 11:30 sharp every Saturday night, bend
the rabbit ears around, and settle in to watch a slightly snowy MACW
show out of Raleigh on my portable black and white TV. The rest of
the group was pretty eclectic – Johnny, one of my old high school
friends, his brother Henry, a student at Duke Divinity School, their
mother Rose (I still don't know how that happened) and some of the
brother's buddies. This group was there for the spectacle, (Henry
had worked part-time at Dorton Arena and seen some shows from the
back) and included some skeptics. I was the only one who knew who
all the wrestlers were and who was feuding with whom.
Henry, the Duke Divinity School
student, came in handy, at least his sense of ethics did, because he
created a phony church name for us to use when requesting free
tickets from WRAL. They gave us more tickets that way.
Not surprisingly, Henry subsequently
left the ministry to become a successful lawyer.
As we waited in line it was pretty
clear some of the folks waiting with us were regulars who came to
the tapings every week. I was a closet wrestling fan at this point
who didn't know many other fans, so it was pretty cool to be able to
eavesdrop on people in line as they speculated on what was coming
next in the promotion. It would take me some years before I would
become a member of a community of fans like that.
The wait was broken up a little when
Rich Brenner, then the sports anchor at WRAL, came out and greeted
some fans on the way to his car. Brenner was drawing huge ratings in
the area at the time, and was soon lured to a big market job in
Chicago. I mention this because the weekend anchor, Tom Suiter, took
his place and remains at WRAL to
this day. Suiter is the best local sports anchor I've ever seen, and
Brenner isn't far behind. Brenner soon returned to North Carolina
and recently retired from WGHP in Greensboro, another station where
Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling was taped for years, so I've
been watching both guys off and on for three decades. In those days
of three television station choices, local news was more intertwined
in the lives of the community, so you can see how these two sports
guys, their station, and Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling are, to
me, all part of the same tapestry.
WRAL as it looks today.
After a wait almost as long as it took
me to connect Tom Suiter to pro wrestling, we were let into the TV
studio where the wrestling action was filmed. The first thing that
stood out, obviously, was the wrestling ring. Since we were all
sitting on one seat of bleachers every seat in the house was close.
I figured it was about as close to the front row at one of these
show as I was ever going to get.
Not only were the fans close to the
ring, we were close to each other. The real job of security that
night was to encourage us, as we settled into the bleachers, to
"move over", "scootch down", "scrunch up", and "C'mon, let's get one
more, folks," as they tried to fit everyone in before the taping
for one, was prepared for my big chance to be on TV. I worked
part-time at the late, lamented South Square Mall Belk's Department
Store in the Men's Budget department, so I was sporting a green
three-piece polyester suit that was sure to stand out even on a
black and white TV screen. The poor lady crammed up against me on
that bleacher for two plus hours probably didn't notice how much I
sweated that night.
It wouldn't be the first time I had
been on a TV show that had been taped at that studio, either. When I
was a kid my parents brought me to a taping there of The Uncle Paul
Show ("And now it's time for Uncle Paul and all his friends…"). Many
major TV stations had their own local kiddie show host, and Uncle
Paul was WRAL's version. I dutifully marched in the Happy Birthday
March that day, but my favorite part of the show was when the fleas
in Uncle Paul's hat would sing their little high-pitched songs.
Interestingly enough, Uncle Paul (Paul
Montgomery) was legally blind, and if you looked closely you could
see him at the podium reading his Braille show notes with his
One of the coolest things about this
night came before the taping. Wrestling news could be hard to come
by in those days, so David Crockett, the MACW color man, walked over
to casually chat with fans in the bleachers. He let us know that the
Iron Sheik had recently beaten the fresh-faced favorite Jumpin' Jim
Brunzell for the Mid Atlantic title, the second biggest title in the
territory. Most fans were distressed at the news.
Not me. I got a huge kick out of the
Iron Sheik, his unique interview style, his Iranian Club Challenge
toed boots, so I was glad he beat that goody-two shoes Brunzell. (I
also noticed how the Iranian Sheik or anyone else in the promotion
never mentioned the American hostages the Iranian government held at
the time. I'm pretty sure the fans got the point anyway.)
Crockett let us know that Brunzell
would get his re-match tonight for the title, so we had picked a
good night to be there. (Many, if not most, MACW television shows of
the time didn't feature main event matches, preferring to whet the
appetite of fans for those matches, not quench it.)
As the show started, I looked for
another high school friend, Aaron Thompson, who worked as a
cameraman at the station. I wanted to see the look on his face when
he saw us there, and sure enough, he recognized me and mouthed,
"What the hell are you doing here?"
I just laughed.
They were taping two shows (as they
usually did) that night – the syndicated hours of Worldwide
Wrestling and Mid Atlantic Wrestling. Worldwide Wrestling was taped
to begin the night, so that meant host Rich Landrum and the Dean of
Wrestling Johnny Weaver were out first.
Rich Landrum had a real sense of style.
Some of the leisure suits he wore on the show could hold their own
even against David Crockett's assortment of multi-colored sport
coats, and he had one of the great perms of the era.
was also a smooth, enjoyable play-by-play man who had a real respect
for the wrestlers and what they did. He had a pleasant chemistry
with Johnny Weaver, and it wasn't surprising to hear that they
resumed their friendship in recent years. Weaver used to tell
Landrum whenever some wrestler was trapped in, the corner of, say,
The Masked Superstars I & II, with no hope of making a tag, that the
poor guy was caught in "Rich Landrum's No Man's Land."
What, you thought "Stone Cold! Stone
Cold! Stone Cold!" was the first announcer catch phrase?
Weaver's trademark on Worldwide
Wrestling, of course, was singing Willie Nelson's Turn Out The
Lights, The Party's Over as some hapless wrestler was clearly beaten
once a show, just like Don Meredith did back then on Monday Night
Football when the game was clearly over back. I say, of course, but
former WCW announcer Chris Cruise didn't believe me when I insisted
he include that in his introduction of Johnny Weaver for his
induction into the NWA Legends Hall of Heroes.
Cruise, who grew up in Maine watching
Chief Jay Strongbow, thought I was ribbing him (even after a lot of
yelling), so he asked the audience at the Hall of Heroes ceremony,
"What was it that Johnny sang?" and was surprised when the fans sang
one last time for the Dean.
Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling had
a great talent roster back then. Ric Flair was the top star, the
heroic U.S. champion and number one contender to Harley Race's NWA
Heavyweight championship (at least in the Mid Atlantic and sometimes
St. Louis territories), and watching him up close laser-in on the
camera with that supreme confidence was something to see. I was
disappointed that Blackjack Mulligan wasn't there that night, as I
would have loved to hear him go on about Reba Joe and just how they
settled things out back at two in the morning. Greg Valentine was
strong and mean, and even then I knew he was an exceptional
wrestler. I was also a big fan of Ray "The Crippler" Stevens talking
out of the side of his mouth. You knew he could whip any and
everybody's asses in the bar, no problem.
Jimmy Snuka was, to that point in my
life, the single biggest and scariest bastard I'd ever seen. I had
just watched Flair beat him for the U.S. title in the Greensboro
Coliseum. Five years later, though, that same size would put Snuka
in the middle of the pack for pro wrestlers.
Number 1 Paul Jones had just turned
back good after an entertaining NWA World Tag Team Championship run
with Baron von Raschke and a brief stint in Florida Championship
Wrestling as Mr. Florida. I enjoyed the stories in the wrestling
magazines about the mystery behind Mr. Florida's identity, when one
look at Mr. Florida's picture solved the riddle for me. (I didn't
enjoy the looks on the convenience store clerk's faces when I bought
the magazines, with their blood-soaked cover shots, to the counter.)
Ricky Steamboat & Jay Youngblood were
there, and they are still the single best, most effective tag team
I've ever seen. Their synchronized style paved the way for all the
great tag teams that followed that decade, and man, did their
devoted fans love them. They would erupt in ecstasy and relief when,
say, Youngblood finally, finally, escaped the double-teaming
of Jones & Von Raschke and tagged in Steamboat for some much
It was cool to see the guys cut their
promos for the syndicated shows, how they calmly waited for the cue
and then either revved themselves up for revenge, or matter of
factly explained why it only looked they were cheating.
I was disappointed I didn't get to see
the wrestlers do my favorite part of the show – the localized promos
that came at the second and last breaks on the hour. (I didn't know
that taping those promos took hours every week, what with all the
markets the company had to cover.) First the bad guys would hype the
matches and explain the stipulations for the next local show, then
the good guys would get the last word, since (hopefully) they spoke
for the fans.
The fun part was how the wrestlers
would drop in local color, including the clubs they might party in
after the matches, and try to out-do and entertain the other
wrestlers who were waiting their turn to talk. Like any sport, pro
wrestling had its own code. For example, if, on a local promo, Ric
Flair said the magic words, "bleed, sweat, and pay the price of a
wrestling lifetime," someone was going to catch a beating at the
On the other hand, if Paul Jones said,
"Let me tell you something right now", that meant Paul Jones was
going to tell you something right then.
Even the localized promos had a WRAL
flavor, wherever you were watching them, because the man who intoned
the deathless words
"Let's take time for this commercial message
about the Mid Atlantic wrestling events coming up in your area"
(code for "Head's up – here comes the good stuff") was the station's
then Biggest Name in Weather, Bob Debardelaben.
The matches on Worldwide Wrestling were
pretty straightforward that night. The main event wrestlers took on
the likes of Nick DeCarlo, Young Lion Vinny Valentino, Don Kernodle
(who would main event his hometown of Burlington, North Carolina
years before he main evented the entire territory) and veterans like
Abe "Kiwi Roll" Jacobs and Swede Hanson, who at that point may have
sported the greatest perm in the sport's history, better than
Landrum's or Canadian Champion Dewey Robertson's.
My favorites on this side of the roster
were Tony Russo and Ric Ferrara, who looked like beer kegs with
short, stumpy legs. They teamed together this night, I couldn't tell
you against who, and the crowd enjoyed their work, well, actually
they enjoyed the slightly risqué sight of their boxer shorts peeking
over the tops of the trunks, the first hint of what Russo and
Ferrera would bring to the business in the years to come.
One of the coolest moments of the night
for me came just after the Worldwide Wrestling taping ended. Rich
Landrum caught the attention of referee Sonny "Roughhouse" Fargo,
who was still in the ring, and pantomimed with a nod and a wrist
twist asking Fargo whether he wanted to have some refreshment later.
Why they didn't invite me to go with them I'll never understand.
Maybe it was the green polyester suit.
Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling show was taped next, and the
long-time voice of MACW, Bob Caudle, came out. Caudle was a former
weatherman at WRAL. He worked during the day for the Constituent
Services department of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the
former news director and editorialist at WRAL.
(No wrestler or politician ever cut
more effective promos than the ones Helms delivered during his
famous "Viewpoint" editorials on the station – " I don't know why
taxpayers would be asked to build a zoo in Asheboro when you could
just put a fence around Chapel Hill.")
David Crockett joined Caudle. Crockett
told wrestling fans directly who to root for and why, so
enthusiastically that many fans secretly enjoyed it when bully Greg
Valentine knocked him on his butt for sticking his nose in his and
Ray Steven's business one too many times.
It was time for the promised main event
– Jim Brunzell's chance to regain the coveted Mid Atlantic title
from the Iron Sheik. Up to then, the fans in the studio had enjoyed
the matches, but they had a strong idea who was going to win each
match, and the skeptics, at least in my little group, remained
Jim Brunzell was the well-mannered All
American boy who any dad would be proud to have take his daughter to
the church social, and stood in stark contrast to the foreign born
Iron Sheik. He may have had the biggest teeth in wrestling.
Now, though, it was time for Jumping
Jim to get his chance for revenge. You see, Brunzell had had the
Iron Sheik all but beaten in their last championship match, when the
referee unfortunately went down, young idealistic Brunzell went to
help him up, and The Sheik took his opportunity to tap his right
boot toe-first three times on the mat.
Why did The Iron Sheik do such a
strange thing at such a critical time in this championship match?
His manager, Gene Anderson of the famed "A table with three legs
stand" Anderson Brothers championship tag team, explained that the
Sheik had problems with circulation in his legs, and was just
banging on the mat to get the feeling back in his foot.
Brunzell claimed that The Iron Sheik
did that to load the curved end of his boot with lead.
Whatever the reason, The Iron Sheik did
what he did, then kicked Brunzell in the ribs, Brunzell went down
like a shot, the revived referee counted three, and the entire Mid
Atlantic area was ruled by a champion from Iran, the country that
refused to return our American hostages.
So, as you can see, there was a lot at
stake in this re-match. What made it even better was that both Jim
Brunzell and The Iron Sheik were, at the time, damn good wrestlers
and a top level performance in a match like this across the MACW
syndicated TV network might lead to big money main events for both.
Brunzell had a tremendous standing
dropkick and The Iron Sheik at that point in his career had an array
of suplexes second to no one in the sport. (Sadly, a few years
later, during his famous WWF run, he had lost much of both his
in-ring energy and suplex array.) The two tore the studio down (if
only symbolically, since the action stayed in the ring) from the
very beginning of the match.
That action picked up even further,
though, when it became clear Brunzell had lost his manners and was
up to something more than just beating The Iron Sheik for the title
- something that the Sheik and his manager Anderson were desperate
Brunzell was trying to rip the Iron
Sheik's allegedly loaded boot right off his leg, and the fans in the
studio, who clearly thought he was justified in this action, were
Brunzell got the boot, too, but, alas,
he was disqualified and lost this chance to regain the Mid Atlantic
title for the people of the area. What Brunzell did get, thanks to a
ruling from the athletic commission, the National Wrestling
Alliance, the promotion, somebody important, that fair was fair, and
he deserved the right to wear that boot, the same boot The Iron
Sheik kicked him with to win the Mid Atlantic title, in any
subsequent rematches for the belt.
Anderson and the Sheik protested, but
to get what was now Brunzell's boot banned they had to admit the
boot was loaded in the first place, and risk both having the title
win rescinded and getting suspended from the territory. This was the
best wrestling territory in the country, so they couldn't have that.
So, you see, Brunzell was a shoo-in to
get his revenge and regain the Mid Atlantic championship from the
hated Iranian. After all, he had the Sheik's loaded boot, and the
right to use it.
I mean, you had to buy a ticket for
that match when it came to your local area, right? A Brunzell title
win was virtually guaranteed!
I knew I was in the hands of master
craftsmen when, after that match, one of the skeptics turned to
another and said, "I don't know about the rest, but that last match
Copyright © Bruce Mitchell and the
Mid-Atlantic Gateway. All rights reserved.
Photo selection by Dick Bourne. For photo
WRAL Studio Wrestling