Legendary tough guy Steve "Dr. Death" Williams (pictured above with long-time friend Jim Ross) passed away last night after a long fight with cancer. Williams was best known for his runs for Bill Watts' Mid-South/UWF from '82-'87, WCW in '88-'89 and '92, All Japan Pro Wrestling throughout the '90s, and a brief but disastrous WWF stint in '98-'99. A bombastic powerhouse who was a dual sport star at Oklahoma University in football and wrestling, he was recruited by Watts in 1982. He was perhaps the definitive Mid-South star of the era as a big, tough, no-nonsense, hard-hitting, powerslamming wrestler in the Watts mold.
He really broke out of his shell in a tag team with Ted DiBiase, another burly powerslam master, which was one of the most underrated teams of the era. Initially heels, they turned under memorable circumstances. After DiBiase returned from being injured by Dick Murdoch during their legendary double turn, Williams turned with him. For an added boost, reality was brought into the mix: Williams had saved the lives of the victims of a car accident by pulling the door off the hinges and then getting them out. He was assisted by then fellow heel Rob Ricksteiner (the future Rick Steiner), but Watts didn't mention that.
When Watts expanded nationally and remodeled the promotion as the Universal Wrestling Federation, the feud between the Fabulous Freebirds (Michael Hayes, Buddy Roberts, and UWF Champion Terry Gordy) and Williams, DiBiase, Watts (sometimes), Jim Duggan, and Terry Taylor was the centerpiece of the promotion, featuring many memorable tag matches and a legendary series of title matches ("the battle of the bulls") between Williams and Gordy. The most memorable of the title matches was a television match where after the wrestlers broke the ring ropes, Watts ordered the ring crew to fix them without stopping the match. After the title was switched from Gordy to One Man Gang, Gordy and Williams continued to battle for the number one contender's slot.
In April of 1987, Watts sold his company to Jim Crockett Promotions. In spite of initial promises of keeping things as is to build to a "Superbowl of Wrestling" between the two groups, the reality was grim. One Man Gang left for the WWF right after he dropped the title to Big Bubba Rogers (the future Big Bossman, then a rookie who spent much of his time in JCP as a ringside bodyguard) while Williams did commentary at ringside. It was a great match, but a sign of bad things to come. Williams finally won the title during the Summer, but it was too late. By the end of the year, he left JCP for a while and spent much of his time working for New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he had earlier debuted when Watts was sending talent there. He returned in 1988, participating in Wargames & Tower of Doom cage matches during the Great American Bash before eventually turning heel and joining Kevin Sullivan's Varsity Club stable, all while regularly touring Japan.
After leaving WCW, he was largely based in Japan again when NJPW set up a talent trading agreement with AJPW. Williams worked for both companies for much of the year, becoming a much bigger star in AJPW and eventually staying put. He formed the Miracle Violence Connection with former rival Gordy and they went on to be the dominant American team in the promotion for the next few years. He was also pushed is the top star for Herb Abrams' UWF start-up (which had no connection to Watts' promotion), winning their title and somehow ending up as a guest on the The Tonight Show in one of the more bizarre mainstream moments in wrestling history. When Watts was brought in to run WCW, he naturally brought in Doc & Gordy to be his top heel team. They had memorable matches with the Steiner Brothers and the team of Barry Windham and Dustin Rhodes, but Gordy flaked out and Williams left a few months later.
He spent the next several years as a top star in AJPW. After Gordy had a near-death experience that damaged his brain and took away his natural wrestling ability, Doc took on Johnny Ace (current head of WWE Talent Relations John Laurinatis) and later Gary Albright as partners. He also held the company's top singles title, the Triple Crown, and had memorable matches with top native stars Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa, and Toshiaki Kawada.
With good friend and long-time co-worker Jim Ross in power in the WWF (in Laurinatis's current position), he was signed in 1998 with the intention of feuding with Steve Austin (who was initially known by those in wrestling as "the other" Steve Williams when using his real name as a rookie). Things went horribly wrong from there. Instead of a traditional push for Williams, he was put in to the shoot "Brawl For All" (essentially a toughman contest with takedowns) tournament. Expected to plow through the competition, he was injured in the second round fight, allowing Bart Gunn to knock him out and eventually win the tournament. Williams disappeared for months. He made one appearance under a mask in kabuki-style Japanese garb where he attacked Gunn, but that gimmick was dropped. He eventually returned as himself to attack Gunn who was being interviewed by the newly heel Ross in another disastrous angle that lasted only a few weeks and also featured Williams attacking Ed Ferrara (as "a fan" who did a Ross impression). He was eventually released and went to WCW in a short run most notable for his association with Ferrara's Oklahoma character, a Ross parody that stooped to making fun of his facial paralysis as a result of Bell's palsy (Ross did not hold any ill will toward Williams for participating since he needed work).
Williams eventually returned to All Japan, but he was broken down and a shell of his former self in the ring. He soldiered on, making independent dates and participating in an ill-advised MMA fight at a K-1 event, after which he announced that he was suffering from throat cancer, which eventually necessitated that his voice box be removed. He went through remission, wrote his autobiography, and even returned to wrestling, but the cancer returned last year and he announced his retirement.