Where Are They Now? Hillbilly Jim
When WWE.com interviewed Hillbilly Jim by phone in late November, the WWE Legend wasn't sipping from a jar of moonshine whiskey or plucking on a banjo. Instead, he was preparing for his upcoming lecture to students at Western Kentucky University.
"Some professor's got me coming over, talking to some business and marketing classes," the former Superstar said. "They want to know the Hillbilly Jim story."
At first it seemed like a mistake. After all, what would a man who spent his life wrestling in overalls have to offer a class of undergrads? But then it became clear. In a career spanning decades, the man known as Hillbilly Jim was a marketing phenomenon. A familiar name to even the most casual fan, the big guy's bearded, grinning mug could be seen on everything from television cartoons to ice cream bars. (PHOTOS)
"We had toys, little lunchboxes, people on MTV were talking about us," Hillbilly Jim remembered. "WWE was just ahead of itself, doing stuff that nobody said could be done."
The country boy's journey to pop culture stardom began in rural Kentucky in the mid-70s. Big and agile, Jim had been a successful basketball player in high school, but it was the talented competitors of Georgia Championship Wrestling he saw on television that truly captured his attention.
"It used to be wrestlers were a bunch of fat guys that looked like they ate too many cheeseburgers," Jim cracked. "Then I started noticing athletes in the business and that's when I started looking into it."
Linking up with a local trainer, the athletic big man proved to be a natural in the ring and was quickly on his way to Calgary, Alberta, Canada to compete in WWE Hall of Famer Stu Hart's Stampede Wrestling promotion. From there, he made the move to Memphis, Tenn. where he performed as a rough-and-tumble biker named Harley Davidson.
"It was fun doing that, except you can't merchandise that," the Kentucky native said. "I couldn't merchandise until I was with [Mr. McMahon]."
That opportunity would come in 1984 when Jim signed with World Wrestling Entertainment. Thanks to his impressive size and strength, the newcomer was highly touted, but his motorcycle man persona wouldn't fly due to copyright issues. This setback would provide a huge opportunity, however, when Hillbilly Jim was created in an impromptu meeting.
"[Mr. McMahon], myself and Chief Jay Strongbow, we got together in the dressing room in New Haven, Conn. and we talked it over right there."
Influenced by southern-fried grapplers like Haystacks Calhoun and The Scufflin' Hillbillies, the persona of a tough, but lovable country boy was a perfect fit for a man raised amongst the farmlands and honky tonks of the American south. Clad in tattered overalls with a tangled thatch of beard around his smiling face, Hillbilly Jim truly looked as though he'd just fallen off the back of a turnip truck. This authenticity came in handy when the southerner was seemingly plucked from the audience and taken under the wing of the legendary Hulk Hogan.
"I'd never met him before in my life," Jim said of the WWE Hall of Famer. "But Hulkamania was for real, man."
Trained by The Hulkster in a series of memorable vignettes, Hillbilly Jim became Hogan's in-ring ally and a key figure in WWE's first major media breakout. Not only did the big man take off as a fan favorite in the squared circle, but he sang the ditty "Don't Go Messin' with a Country Boy" on the WWE rock record, The Wrestling Album, and had an animated presence on the cartoon, Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling. Suddenly, the mountain man from the backwoods of Mud Lick, Kentucky was a television star.
"Many of us guys to come up through the '80s, we got woven into the fabric of America in some kind of way," Hillbilly Jim said. "We came along at a very special time."
Jim's meteoric rise would hit an early snag, however, when he slipped on the concrete floor of the San Diego Sports Arena during a match and seriously hurt his leg.
"I kind of lost my steam after that," he admitted. "That knee injury put me on the shelf for 10 or 11 months, which reduced me to just coming back and managing some hillbilly guys."
The team of good, old boys Jim handled consisted of Uncle Elmer, Cousin Junior and Cousin Luke, three jolly hayseeds who shared Hillbilly's down home appreciation for dancing and duking it out.
"Everybody loved it," Hillbilly Jim told WWE.com. "And [Cousin Junior] made the best hillbilly you ever seen in your life. He looked as stupid as you could look."
The fun-loving family had a successful year in WWE, specifically Uncle Elmer's in-ring wedding to his lady love, Joyce, but were phased out when Jim recovered from his leg injury. Now healthy, the Superstar returned to the ring and locked up with monsters like Big John Studd and King Kong Bundy. This rivalry with Bundy would lead to one of the most unique bouts in WWE history when Jim teamed with midget wrestlers The Haiti Kid and Little Beaver to take on his 450-pound nemesis, Little Tokyo and Lord Littlebrook at WrestleMania III. But while Hillbilly loved the spectacle of the event, he couldn't help feeling sorry for his tag partners.
"[Bundy] picked Little Beaver up and slammed him and it sounded like a squeak toy, man!" Jim exclaimed with a laugh. "I said to myself, 'This is unbelievably wrong. He's killed a midget in front of 93,000 people!"
Hillbilly Jim continued to compete in WWE up until the early '90s, but this bout would represent the peak of his ring career in many ways. While his popularity remained, his victories became few and far between.
"I started getting hurt and stuff and I realized I had to make a cut," Jim said. "That's when I decided I would think outside of my world a little bit."
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