The match that inspired Hell in a Cell: Tommy Rich, Buzz Sawyer and The Last Battle of Atlanta
Every fan knows that Hell in a Cell first entered the WWE Universe on Oct. 5, 1997, when Shawn Michaels survived a vicious match against The Undertaker. However, the sinister bout began taking shape 33 years ago in arenas across the South.
Fans tuning in to TBS each Saturday night in 1983 had the date and time pounded into their heads: Sunday, Oct. 23 at 8:30 p.m. Two of Georgia’s biggest stars would collide for the final time. To ensure that the fight stayed in the ring, officials declared the ring would be fully enclosed in a steel cage with a roof.
After tearing the South apart with chaotic brawl after chaotic brawl for nearly two years, “Wildfire” Tommy Rich and “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer would be locked inside the hellacious structure to settle the score once and for all. The brutal battle that ensued inside The Omni set the stage for the Superstars of today. WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels recalled the vicious encounter and came up with the idea that evolved into one of WWE’s most dangerous bouts: Hell in a Cell.
In the three decades since, tales of Rich and Sawyer’s war had reached mythic proportions, in part because no footage of the match was thought to exist, until now. Originally thought to be lost in time, complete video of the steel cage showdown was discovered in the WWE vaults and made available to the public for the first-time ever as a part of WWE Network’s Hidden Gems collection.
This is the story of “The Last Battle of Atlanta.”
TOMMY RICH: I started in Tennessee and came to Georgia when I was about 19 or 20. It was the first time I’d ever been away from home. Shoot, the fans were great [to me]. Everybody liked me. There might have been some jealous boyfriends out there that didn’t.
SHAWN MICHAELS: My buddy Kenny Kent and I used to watch Georgia Championship Wrestling at his place [in San Antonio] every Saturday. We were watching channel 17, WTBS. When he came in [to Georgia] against The Freebirds, they showed him in a black Firebird Trans-Am. Oh my God, it was the coolest thing. “Wildfire” Tommy Rich was coming.
BILL APTER (veteran wrestling reporter/photojournalist): Tommy Rich was the perfect good guy. The women adored him. He had long blond hair and a charismatic smile. What made him great was the charm that he exuded. Not everybody can get in front of a microphone on live TV like he did in Georgia Championship Wrestling and exude something that people would want to tune in again to see. And when he got in the ring, he could let all that go and battle as rough as anyone else, which is where “Wildfire” came from.
PAUL ELLERING (Buzz Sawyer’s manager): He would wrestle and it looked like he’d never survive, but then a spark came.
MATT STRIKER: If you know your wrestling history, you know that Tommy Rich just captured the hearts of every single wrestling fan. They were completely emotionally invested in him. Buzz Sawyer, he was the antithesis, the exact opposite of Tommy Rich.
APTER: Buzz Sawyer was irrational, unpredictable, a keg of dynamite.
ELLERING: Buzz was very intense. He had one gear, wide open.
APTER: In contrast to Tommy Rich having charm that lured people to watch him, Buzz was so maniacal that you had to watch to see what he was going to do next. They nicknamed him “Mad Dog.”
ELLERING: The moniker “Mad Dog” was him. He could be vicious.
MICHAELS: He was a brawler, this little, short, stocky guy, but he had a wicked powerslam. He was a wrecking machine.
RICH: That was Buzz. He was what he was. He didn’t really have a nice word to say about anyone or anything. That was his personality.
APTER: Tommy Rich debuted in 1974. Sawyer in 1979. They crossed paths in Georgia early on when they got there. It just seemed to be a natural rivalry, with who was going to command the top spot in the company.
Rich and Sawyer first butted heads in early 1982. Even in its infancy, the rivalry between the two was extremely heated. Nothing could keep them from getting to each other, despite the best efforts of fellow wrestlers like Jimmy Garvin and Kevin Sullivan.
STRIKER: The beauty of this whole rivalry was that Buzz Sawyer made Tommy Rich, who was otherwise known, for lack of a better word, as a “pretty boy,” ugly. He brought the ugly out of Tommy Rich.
RICH: It was a fight every night. He had a bad personality. He was rough. I just went in there and threw it back at him.
ELLERING: They’d go a half-hour every night. They were brutal.
APTER: I photographed a lot of their matches. I had seen barbed wire matches and cage matches. When they got into the ring, no matter what kind of match it was, the intensity was incredible.
ELLERING: It was perfect.
APTER: I would see both of them in the back before their matches. Buzz Sawyer would be pacing back and forth in the hallways, going “AH! AH! AH! GET OUT OF MY WAY!” while I was trying to get pictures of him. Tommy Rich was just hanging out with Mr. Wrestling II and “Pistol” Pez Whatley, just very calm, waiting to go to the ring. Buzz, however, was working himself into a fever pitch, into a frenzy, every time I saw him.
RICH: Buzz was like a pit bull dog. I knew how he wrestled. It was always rough.
APTER: At that time, Georgia Championship Wrestling was on TBS and everybody all over was seeing this rivalry. Every place they went, if the two of them were in the same arena, whether they were wrestling each other or not, the fans came hoping that they were going to see them go after each other.
They had been battling so much, verbally, on television that the crowds couldn’t wait. It was fight fever any time they got there. They were uncontrollable. Their matches rarely stayed in the ring. They went all over the arena, to the parking lot, into the dressing rooms. Nobody could control the action.
RICH: We took it to Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan. We had concession stand fights, stuff that had never been done before. [The fans] must have loved it, because they kept coming back.
ELLERING: Tommy and Buzz never left anything in the dressing room.
APTER: It wasn’t just when they wrestled [each other]. When one of them was wrestling another opponent, the other would run in and attack him during the match. It got so bad that the National Wrestling Alliance put down a ruling — I think it lasted two or three months — that neither of them were allowed to be in the same arena at the same time.
RICH: It was time for it to be over.
APTER: They were disrupting the TV shows. They were disrupting the flow of everything that was going on. There were other matches taking place and people trying to get air time on TV, but everything was being dominated by either Buzz Sawyer or Tommy Rich. That’s why they had to [end the rivalry.]
With Rich and Sawyer interrupting anything and everything to get a piece of each other, the rivalry became larger than Georgia Championship Wrestling. National Wrestling Alliance President Bob Geigel was forced to intervene, noting that it was unusual for the NWA to get involved in local matters. However, when he was presented with the chance to end the carnage that the two combatants were causing around the country, Geigel jumped on it.
Rich and Sawyer both agreed to one last bout. They would do battle one more time and then never cross paths again. To ensure that things would come to an end, officials threw out the rulebook. There were no time limits, no disqualifications or count-outs, in addition to the bout taking place inside the fully-enclosed cage — the first of its kind. And to make sure that Paul Ellering wouldn’t get involved in the brutal proceedings, Sawyer’s manager was locked in a cage and raised up above the ring, forced to watch the bout while dangling from the rafters of The Omni. The cage, the combatants and a city eager to see them settle the score was the perfect formula for wrestling history.
ELLERING: For Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer, it had to be a sellout.
RICH: Atlanta, Ga., was a great place for wrestling. It had to be one of the best places to wrestle in the South. People would come from all over the country to The Omni to see wrestling.
APTER: The Omni was the Madison Square Garden of Georgia. What made it so special was that the territory ran all their major shows at that building and all their major stars were there. The Omni had the feel of local Georgia.
ELLERING: You couldn’t get that atmosphere anywhere else.
STRIKER: Imagine a Steel Cage Match. Then put a ceiling on top of it. It was something that no one had ever seen before. It told you that these two men were not getting out; that someone was going to have to walk out of Atlanta a winner.
MICHAELS: Tommy Rich being trapped in the ring with “Mad Dog,” it was very cool to wrestling fans back then.
RICH: It was wild. It was sold out. They were turning folks away at The Omni’s door. This was a regular cage with a top on it. If I’m not mistaken, Paul Ellering was in a cage on top of the cage.
ELLERING: It was an interesting angle, to say the least.
RICH: We both knew what we had to do. I just remember going out there and looking at the crowd and thanking God for the opportunity to be able to do something. A lot of kids [as young as I was] had never been where I have.
APTER: I remember the sheer brutality and the fans reacting to it, because they wanted to see Tommy Rich practically kill Buzz Sawyer. They were so passionate about their hatred for Buzz Sawyer.
STRIKER: Tommy Rich had this almost white, blondish hair. When Buzz Sawyer busted him open, Rich’s hair became this stomach-churning maroon and orange. Sawyer seemed to be enjoying this. His nickname was “Mad Dog” and Buzz Sawyer became a dog, tearing apart a bone in the backyard. That bone was Tommy Rich.
ELLERING: Tommy was Ali and Buzz was Frazier. Buzz would throw haymakers and Tommy kept going with the rope-a-dope.
RICH: It was wild. They called it the bloodiest battle in the South.
STRIKER: You can chart how the careers of Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer went on after that match. They were never the same again.
APTER: That match was so brutal. I compare it to the third Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier fight. They had fights before that, but after the last one, they were never the same again. I’d say the same thing about Rich and Sawyer. After The Last Battle of Atlanta, they were so beaten up and drained, that they both remained good competitors, but they both lost something.
The Last Battle of Atlanta has become ingrained in wrestling history as an all-out war. Those who were lucky enough to witness Rich and Sawyer’s final battle still wax poetic about the sheer brutality that the two combatants dealt to each other that night.
Originally, there was no way of proving their tales true, as very little, if any, video footage of The Last Battle of Atlanta was thought to exist. There were rumors that a Georgia Championship Wrestling official may have erased the footage by mistake. Every now and then, rumors popped up online of a mysterious tape trader who got hold of the footage, only for nothing to ever come of it. All we had that confirmed the match took place are a few photographs.
That is, until now.
In 2001, WWE purchased longtime competitor WCW and its video library. WWE’s video team admitted to WWE.com that WCW’s library arrived in “very unorganized” condition. “But that’s part of the fun,” they said. “It’s a tedious process to transfer and log all this footage, but we’re able to unearth some real gems.”
Gems like The Last Battle of Atlanta.
In 2016, a group of reels from the WCW library, simply labeled “Omni Live Events” were digitally transferred and logged. During the process, Eric Stefanowicz, Producer and Researcher/Historian for WWE’s Legacy Content team, discovered what many have referred to as the holy grail of wrestling video: The Last Battle of Atlanta. The video was in pristine condition. No restoration was required before it was uploaded to WWE Network, fulfilling the dreams of a generation of fans.
Now that everyone — from those who were there on that fateful October night in 1983 to fans who grew up on the Hell in a Cell Matches it inspired — can finally see just how Rich and Sawyer changed the wrestling industry.
ELLERING: I think The Last Battle of Atlanta should be remembered in the context of time. It opened doors for everything that transpired through the rest of the 1980s.
STRIKER: From a historical point of view, the concept of Hell in a Cell probably wouldn’t have been imagined had it not been for the structure that was in The Last Battle of Atlanta.
MICHAELS (from “WWE From the Vault: Shawn Michaels”): Undertaker and I had done a Lumberjack Match the month before [the first Hell in a Cell Match]. The next logical step is a cage. I can remember saying, “We’ve done cage matches.” We had that big blue steel cage that was brutal. It hurt so bad. It was tight up against the ring. I remembered years ago, Buzz Sawyer and Tommy Rich in The Omni, they had a top on the cage. I remember suggesting that. I had no idea the cage itself would turn into what it turned into.
RICH: It gives me goosebumps now. I was lucky to get in wrestling. For guys today, 30 years later to remember that, that’s a blessing.