Startup Sidetrack Special: The fall of World Class brings the United States Wrestling Assocation

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I figured I should do the Global Wrestling Federation (GWF) as the next subject in this series of features about startup promotions, but it's hard to tell the story without first profiling the fall of World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) and the original life of the United States Wresting Association (USWA), which on TV was portrayed as being absorbed into the GWF.  Obviously, this required more research and is much longer than the WXO article, and I hope you enjoy it.

Full piece after the jump.

Prologue:

In 1987, World Class Championship Wrestling was a pathetic shell of its former self.  The booker, Ken Mantell and most of the roster had been raided in 1986 by Bill Watts (who had previously been an ally of the promotion who regularly booked the Von Erichs and top WCCW heels for big shows) to boost his Universal Wrestling Federation, which was moving into the WCCW homebase of the Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas "Metroplex" market, leading to a lawsuit.  Promoter Fritz Von Erich had a dispute with Continental Syndication, the company that put his territory on the map nationally and paid for the production costs of the syndicated TV show, also leading to a lawsuit and split between the two parties (production and syndication was taken over by Lee Martin Productions, but Fritz now had to pay production costs while the promotion was having trouble drawing).  The 1986 secession from the National Wrestling Alliance and creation of a World Class Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Champion made the promotion look like pretenders they accused the AWA and WWF of being, in addition to locking them out of NWA assistance when Watts raided the roster and ran in the Metroplex as opposition.  Top babyface Kerry Von Erich was out of action due a severe ankle and foot injury from a motorcycle accident, which got worse after an attempted comeback match (more on that later).  Mike Von Erich (suffering severe brain damage from his bout with Toxic Shock Syndrome in 1985) committed suicide.  Mantell's replacement as booker, David Manning (long-time head referee as well as a spot show promoter) did a terrible job, as did his replacement George Scott (booker of record for the Jim Crockett Promotions mid to late '70s and WWF '84-'85 boom periods), and Scott's replacement Bruiser Brody.

After much begging by Fritz, Gary Hart (booker from 1976 to the beginning of 1983) took over as Brody's replacement in exchange for 25% of what the booking office took in and health insurance for his family.  He did an admirable job, though the television shows were far inferior to their past heights.  Hart made an effort to build new stars, such as Eric Embry (who the Light Heavyweight Title was created for), the Simpson brothers (Steve, Shaun, and occasional Stuart), and heel world champion Al Perez.  Perez was a pet project of Hart, who prided himself in helping wrestlers develop their talent.  Hart figured that with Perez's good looks and technical wrestling skills (including top flight shooting ability learned via training with Karl Gotch), that he was the right heel to bring some credibility to the title, especially after the last heel champion was Black Bart.

Meanwhile, back in April '87, Jim Crockett Promotions bought the UWF and Ken Mantell found himself without a job.  He found some financial backers and started Wild West Wrestling, with TV taped at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth ("the world's largest honky tonk," a nightclub that was part of the same complex as the Cowtown Coliseum, where Watts taped his Power Pro Wrestling show after invading Dallas) and syndicated by WCCW's former syndicator, Continental.  The promotion's television show was largely pretty bad, featuring a mix of students from the former UWF wrestling school, a handful of former UWF wrestlers (The Missing Link, the team of John Tatum and Jack Victory, "Iceman" King Parsons, and job guy Jeff Gaylord under a mask as "The New Spoiler" while the original, Don Jardine, was in World Class), and The Fabulous Lance (the former Lance Von Erich, who jumped from WCCW and was exposed as a fake by Fritz on WCCW's local TV show).

According to Gary Hart in his memoir, Fritz Von Erich was growing paranoid about the pushes that Hart was giving to the Simpsons.  The Simpsons were pretty boy babyfaces with long hair similar to Kerry Von Erich, and their father Alec was an wealthy wrestling promoter in South Africa, and Fritz was afraid that Hart would use Alec Simpson's money to break away and form an opposition promotion with Steve and Shaun as top babyfaces.  The paranoia led to Fritz selling shares in the booking office to Alec so he could keep him close.

In November, Continental Syndication, having not done nearly as well with Wild West as they did with the successful WCCW show, approached Fritz Von Erich about taking over the production and syndication of WCCW from Lee Martin under their old agreement.  Happy that Continental came crawling back to him, he was content to agree tell Lee Martin that he found a syndicator who would pay production costs.  Continental still had its deal with Ken Mantell for Wild West Wrestling, which was still running opposition to WCCW, so Fritz made the odd decision to sell part of the promotion to Mantell, the man who had betrayed him over a year earlier.  Wild West was kept on as the syndicated B-show to go along with WCCW (though specific TV tapings were rare and it was often WCCW footage with new voicovers) Hart was still the booker of record, but (along with Al Perez) left after a few months that included Mantell booking angles himself (such as the infamous Fritz Von Erich "collapse" at Reunion Arena) and Missing Link ambushing him in the locker room.

Michael Hayes was installed as his Hart's official replacement as booker, with Skandor Akbar and Eric Embry  as his assistants.  Shows improved, as did attendance, as the roster became deeper and Hayes booked a fresh main event angle for the territory: The Freebirds break-up.  Hayes, as a top face battled Gordy, which was eventually resolved by a re-run of how they ended the 1982 version their feud in the southeast: A hair vs hair cage match where Gordy wins and eventually decides that he doesn't want Hayes's hair cut, turning face.   With Gordy now a babyface and around infrequently due to Japanese commitments, Hayes (assisted by Steve "Do It To It" Cox) started feuding more with Buddy Roberts, who then started managing the Samoan Swat Team, who had just debuted in the territory.  In addition to the bigger names on the Wild West crew (not including Lance), the Freebirds return, and the Samoans, Kerry Von Erich was around full-time, Chris Adams and Terry Taylor resumed their UWF feud, and an "open door policy" was instituted and pushed on TV, featuring quick stopovers from freelancers and wrestlers from the remaining territories.  The promotion also exchanged talent with Bob Geigel's WWA promotion in Kansas City and the CWA based out of Memphis, owned by Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett..

Superclash and a Savior:

In May of 1988, Jerry Lawler won the AWA World Heavyweight Title from Curt Hennig after a decade of trying.  The AWA was in shambles, only existing due to the money coming in from its TV deal with ESPN and months would go by without house shows.  Hennig was paid by the AWA to work the program with Lawler.  After the rematches, Hennig was gone for the WWF.

Lawler's handling of the title win was brilliant.  Since late 1986, the remaining territorial promoters had largely been cut off from booking the NWA World Heavyweight Champion (usually Ric Flair), so he started booking himself out to the remaining territories while issuing challenges to the other world champions: The NWA's Ric Flair, the WWF's Randy Savage, and WCCW's Kerry Von Erich.  This led Lawler to WCCW, where he first defended the title as a babyface against Terry Taylor.  Kerry confronted Lawler (who shortly tuned heel in WCCW while still a babyface on the CWA and AWA shows), and the title unification match was on.  Over and over, with multiple matches in WCCW, the CWA, the WWA, and FCW in Florida, usually with inconclusive finishes.   They traded the WCCW title a back and forth a couple times before THE big unification match was announced  for an AWA TV taping on September 17th in Nashville, which was followed by tapings in Memphis and Louisville that week, giving them months of all-star TV booked by Jerry Jarrett to work with.  In a creative finish, Kerry piledrove Lawler for the disqualification.  The piledriver was illegal in Tennessee, and the WCCW title changed hands on disqualifications, but if the piledriver isn't a DQ in WCCW...etc.  A pay-per-view event, Super Clash III (the first wrestling PPV event not promoted by the WWF or Crockett Promotions), distributed by FNN/Score, was announced for December in Chicago, with THE decisive unification match as the main event.

A funny thing happened in between the marathon taping session and Superclash III: The same week that Turner Broadcasting bought Jim Crockett Promotions, Jerry Jarrett bought controlling interest in WCCW (60%), with Kevin and Kerry Von Erich as the minority stockholders (20% each).  WCCW was badly late in paying for its local TV timeslot on KTVT Fort Worth for their two hour Championship Sports show, among other creditors, and needed a bailout, or else they'd go out of business before Superclash.  The Monday night (for airing on Saturday night) Fort Worth tapings at the Will Rogers Coliseum (and sometimes the smaller Will Rogers Auditorium in the same complex), which was essentially a televised house show for its entire run, had been drawing terrible crowds, and stopped running weekly, so the TV show was often made up of older highlights and footage seen a week earlier in syndication.  Jarrett decided to radically change the format.  Tapings would be moved to Saturday mornings at the Sportatorium in Dallas, just hours after the Friday night shows in the same building that alternated weekly between a taping of two television shows and a house show.  Admission would be free, and the format would be closer to that of Jarrett's Memphis studio show, with more squash matches, ringside interviews, and one star vs star match to close the show.  Eric Embry was made booker, and a Texas vs Tennessee feud was launched with the outsiders invading the other territory as heels, which included Marc Lowrance on KTVT blasting Lance Russell and his "biased Tennessee commentary."  Even promoter Eddie Marlin, a long retired wrestler and the father-in-law of Jerry Jarrett joined in as an evil Tennesseean, teaming with his grandson, Jeff Jarrett.  The angle began a long series of continuity issues, as the syndicated WCCW show aired in Memphis.  With the heavy talent crossover and common ownership, it looked like the two promotions would soon become one.

Having saved one of the three promotions involved in Superclash, a new problem arose: At an AWA house show in Las Vegas, Col. DeBeers was in the midst of a match with Kerry Von Erich when he pulled on his opponents boot, which slipped off, revealing a stump where his foot should be.  The rumors that had been floating around the business were true: Kerry's foot had been amputated after his aborted comeback the previous year, explaining why he always showed up in his wrestling gear and showered in the arenas with his boots on.  After wrestling on a badly injured ankle and foot numbed with Lidocaine or a similar medication, the damage was irreparable, and the foot was amputated at some point during his subsequent hiatus, believed by some to be when he underwent surgery publicly claimed to be for fusing his foot into a walking position.  Kerry immediately put his foot under the ring and put his boot back on as DeBeers and the fans looked on in shock (a fan shot a photo of Kerry putting his boot back on but did not catch the lack of foot).  Even though he had no real reason to see the promoters behind Superclash as a threat, Vince McMahon saw an opening, and reported Kerry's disability to the Illinois State Athletic Commission, which had a rule on the books from the 1920s prohibiting boxers and wrestlers with artificial limbs from competing.  Days before the show, the commission officially ruled that Kerry was allowed to wrestle on the show.  In spite of the brouhaha with the commission, everyone involved with Jarrett Promotions, the AWA, and the Von Erich family publicly claimed Kerry still had two feet.  Kerry's press agent claimed that the shower story was due to an ankle brace being needed to support him standing up.

Superclash was not very well received, full of short matches (including a lingerie battle royal featuring female wrestlers from Dave McLane's POWW) and production mishaps.  Kerry was apparently told that he would win to get him there, only to be told that Lawler was going over.  The compromise finish was that it would be stopped for Kerry's excessive blood loss as he had Lawler in the Iron Claw.  While it was their usual good match, Kerry showed up in a questionable state that led to him absent-mindedly blading his arm before the match while trying to scratch an itch.  Lawler covered for this by running Von Erich's arm into the turnbuckle hook at the opening bell.  Verne Gagne handled the payoffs...in manner of speaking.  Most of the wrestlers weren't paid.  The relationship between Jarrett and Gagne lasted another two weeks before money disputes ended it.  Lawler (having had a new "unified" belt made that featured the logos of the promotions that recognized it, including Alabama's Continental Wrestling Federation) went on CWA TV and announced that he was sending the AWA belt back to Verne Gagne, who he claimed didn't understand how the world worked in the almost-'90s with a unified champion and wanted him to wrestle on AWA shows that conflicted with title defenses in other territories.

"Chu-Hi charges, Eric out of the way, hooks the leg...HELLO USWA!":

As WCCW booker, Eric Embry promptly made himself the top babyface and buried the Von Erichs as much has he  could, which was no surprise.  What was a surprise was that it worked.  Embry feuded for months with General Skandor Akbar's Devastation Incorporated while building sympathy for himself by booking an angle where he was unjustly forced out of the promotion, booked Kerry Von Erich to do a clean job for Taurus Bulba via the claw while bleeding like crazy, and somehow it all worked.  The promotion drew surprisingly well.  The roster would constantly fresh as wrestlers switched from CWA to WCCW and back. While Embry drew criticism for booking himself on top and coming up with angles like the one where he vomited during a vicious attack, it seemed to be working.

Embry somehow overcame every obstacle beyond all reason, including the biggest one of all: A dispute over the World Class name.  With the Von Erichs forcing Jerry Jarrett's hand, the name of the Dallas promotion had to be changed.  The United States Wrestling Association was introduced as the governing body that oversaw WCCW and the CWA.  WCCW matchmaker Frank Dusek was suspended by the USWA for re-instating Eric Embry without authorization.  After being reinstated, Dusek suspended heel referee Harold Harris over his biased officiating, only to be attacked by Harris, The Blackbirds, and Skandor Akbar.  Long time Memphis area wrestler Tojo Yamamoto was introduced as WCCW President, and he refused to take action against the heels who attacked Dusek, establishing that everyone in WCCW other than Dusek that had any power was corrupt.  Yamamoto even attacked Dusek himself, was almost attacked by babyface announcer Marc Lowrance, and then brought in P.Y. Chu-Hi (Memphis mainstay Phil Hickerson as an evil "Oriental" assassin) as his enforcer.  The babyfaces sided with the USWA, trying to end the corruption, while WCCW was represented by the heelss.  A cage match was set for August 4, 1989 with control of the promotion at stake as Embry faced off with Chu-Hi.  Of course, Embry won.  The last episode of World Class Championship Wrestling ended with Eric Embry and manager Percy Pringle going up the aisle, ripping the WCCW banner off the wall, and throwing it the ring, where the babyfaces had congregated to stomp on it as the sold-out crowd of over 3,000 fans cheered wildly and Marc Lowrance compared it to other great moments in the history of the Sportatorium.

The Merger:

After a over a year of speculation, the Memphis and Dallas territories were merged into a single USWA at the beginning of 1990.  Eddie Marlin announced it on Championship Wrestling from WMC's TV studio in Memphis, and then he did it again on USWA Championship Wrestling, which aired a week later in the other markets on the circuit.  The markets that weren't Memphis had gotten an edited version of the WMC show for years, cut down to 60 minutes from 90, with new local promos added.  With the merger, the WMC show would stay the same, but other shows would now be a mix of Memphis studio and Dallas Sportatorium footage.  In a truly ridiculous premise, CWA announcer Michael St. John was now hosting the show from a control room, excitedly telling the fans that they'd now see live wrestling like the fans in Memphis did for years.  With the claim that the week old footage in the two venues were live, St. John would excitedly throw to different clips urgently.

This wasn't Jarrett's original plan.  He wanted to drop the live studio show in Memphis and replace it with footage taped in Dallas, but his contract with WMC called for market-specific show taped in their studio, so it stayed, but was much less of a priority than it had been in the past with the biggest stars in Dallas for the Friday night and Saturday morning shows.  Jarrett also planned to make Dallas the full-time focus of the USWA, with the old "Memphis loop" towns only being run once a month, but that idea also fell apart.  Jarrett also planned on selling the Saturday morning tapings into national syndication based on the idea that it would air live, to build for a June PPV event if they were picked up in enough markets, but none of that panned out., either.

There wasn't much continuity between the Memphis and Dallas ends of the territory, even though Memphis and other cities in that part of the territory got the USWA syndicated show.  For starters, title changes would happen in one end but be ignored in the other.  Longtime Memphis undercard wrestler King Cobra even had a fluke Unified Title reign after beating Lawler, who had challenged him because he took offense to a Memphis wrestler having "King" in his name after he successfully sued the WWF for advertising shows in Memphis based on the presence of "The King" (Harley Race).  P.Y. Chu-Hi was fully acknowledged as being Phil Hickerson in Memphis while he was a a legitimate "Oriental" in Dallas.

Personal Issues Draw Money:

Chris Adams had a promising student named Steve Williams (jokingly called "The Other" Steve Williams by some to avoid confusion with Dr. Death) who was coming into his own.  He appeared on the USWA undercard for awhile, even facing a pre-Undertaker Mark Calaway (then under a mask as The Punisher).  He took a hiatus from the USWA for a couple months before coming back with a new attitude.  The "star pupil" turned on his teacher, and they started a student vs teacher feud with attention even being paid to small details like Austin wearing an old pair of Adams' boots.  It was a good feud, but it was missing something.

Adams had been using Toni Adams, his then current wife, as his valet, and was still friendly with his ex-wife, Jeannie Clark.  It was decided that Austin would bring Jeannie in as his valet.  The feud was the talk of wrestling that Summer, as Austin was the consensus rookie of the years for his strong promos, ring presence, and impressive bumping ability for a man his size.  For months, they battled each other in exciting matches with wild angles like Jeannie bringing out old naked pictures of Chris and pictures of Chris embracing other women.  They had what was probably the first barbed wire match on national television, a fantastic "come as you are" street fight where Adams in Judo gear beat Austin (in football pads) with a kendo stick, a cage match, and of course mixed tag matches.  The feud led to a strong Summer for the promotion at the box office and plenty of attention from the newsletters and newsstand wrestling magazines, as well as story in the National Examiner tabloid.  Austin was already being touted as the next Ric Flair and Adams seemed to have revived his career.  Percy Pringle and Chris Von Erich were also brought into the feud, alligned with the heels and faces respectively, which prolonged the program.  Kerry Von Erich left the promotion around this time, but it didn't seem the phase them when they had a feud as hot as this one.

There was another feud with the valet as the centerpiece going on at the same time, but the results were a major disaster for the promotion.  John Tatum was feuding with Bill Dundee over the Southern Heavyweight Title when Dundee started putting the moves on Tessa, Tatum's (alarmingly hot) valet.  Tessa ended up with Dundee, and was the recipient of a brutally stiff superkick to the back of the head from Tatum, leading to her being stretchered out.  The same night, when Toni Adams covered her husband so Austin wouldn't hit him with a top rope splash after he was piledriven on the floor, he did it anyway, and she was also stretchered out.  Several stations canceled the syndicated show as a result only to be followed by KTVT cancelling Championship Sports effective in early September over the superkick on Eric Embry's frequent use of profanity.  That wasn't the only problem for Jerry Jarrett.  Kevin and Kerry Von Erich hadn't been getting any dividend checks.

Texas 'Til I Die:

The house shows were not believed to be very profitable for the office (if at all), since Chris Adams ran the spot shows himself rather infrequently and the Friday night Sportatorium shows had low ticket prices on top of small crowds before the Chris/Toni-Austin/Jeannie feud popped attendance in the Summer.  That said, it was believed that Jarrett and Max Andrews (whose Andrews Syndication had taken over for Continental) were making healthy profits from the syndication sales, but they hadn't paid the Von Erich brothers any of it.  The Von Erichs filed a lawsuit against Jarrett and Andrews, alleging that they were misappropriating funds.  They also brought an injunction barring Jarrett from writing checks, using funds from the company account, selling anything using the Von Erich name, or using the company's wrestling ring.  Jarrett didn't bother the fighting it and took the Memphis wrestlers back home while the Von Erichs ran shows (continuing the Austin/Jeannie/Pringle vs Chris &Toni Adams/Chris Von Erich feud) under the World Class banner with the Texas-based talent as well as wrestlers from Gary Hart's Texas Wrestling Federation.  The Von Erichs ran TV tapings for a few weeks, but they failed to pick up KTVT or any other clearances, so the shows went unaired and the promotion closed.

Jarrett now had syndicated TV commitments to fulfill without half of his roster or his usual venue.  The studio show wouldn't look good as a nationally syndicated hour, so he started with a mix of old matches from Championship Sports and recaps of recent Memphis angles using TV studio and house show footage.  Craig Johnson, who had replaced Marc Lowrance at the start of the Summer when the latter entered seminary, did the show, claimed to be in Dallas, from a similar "control room" to the one Michael St. John had been hosting from.  The Dallas matches were openly acknowledged as being from Championship Sports, which Johnson claimed was "one of many local USWA television shows seen across the country."  It was not as big a lie as it could have been at other points, as they actually had six TV shows at that point:

- USWA Challenge (Syndicated - The main show, formerly World Class Championship Wrestling - Taped at the Sportatorium in Dallas, Texas every other Friday night)

- USWA Main Event (Syndicated - B-Show consisting of the Championship Sports main event and old footage, formerly Wild West Wrestling)

- Championship Sports (On KTVT in Fort Worth, Texas on Saturday nights and seen on cable throughout the southwest - 2 hours taped that morning at the Sportatorium in Dallas, Texas)

- USWA Championship Wrestling (On WMC in Memphis, Tennessee on Saturday mornings - 90 minute live studio show

- USWA Championship Wrestling (Syndicated to the other markets in the Memphis half of the territory such as Evansville, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky - 60 minute mix of USWA Challenge and WMC Championship Wrestling footage)

- USWA Supercard (ESPN Tuesday through Friday afternoons - The former Legends of Professional Wrestling was now just a few months behind the same USWA Challenge shows in syndication and was thus renamed)

After 3 weeks of Johnson in the control room to start the Fall TV season, the next move was to tape USWA Challenge across the Memphis territory, starting with a USWA Unified Title tournament covering 5 weeks of TV on October 8, 1990 at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis.  The tournament was a result of the title being held up when the Snowman walked out on the promotion, taking the belt with him.  To make the tournament seem more legitimate, booker Eddie Gilbert brought in wrestlers that weren't Memphis regulars, including "Mean" Mark Callous (the future Undertaker, fresh out of WCW and about to sign with the WWF), Terry Funk, Dick Murdoch, Steve Keirn, and Bam Bam Bigelow (who no-showed).  The resulting 20 match card was fantastic, an excellent way to fill 5 weeks TV, and it was heralded as the best Mid-South Coliseum show in many years.

Jarrett continued to tape TV at the house shows in his traditional territory as he waited for Dallas to open back up, including a show in Louisville where Jim Cornette stopped by as a babyface.  At one Nashville taping, sometimes color commentator Joe Pedicino pointed out an African gentleman in the crowd flanked by a USWA representative and a woman said to be the man's assistant.  This man was Olu Oliami, a Nigerian businessman who they said represented the Global Wrestling Federation, the largest wrestling promotion in the world, which was only now pursuing a presence in the United States.

To be continued...

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