Wrestlers You Need to Know: Southern Stars
When wrestling fans reminisce about the “good old days,” the discussion is bound to turn toward countless stars of their time: Gorgeous George, Bruno Sammartino, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Hulk Hogan or one of many others.
However, for one reason or another, there are a number of stellar competitors that get lost in the sands of time.
For the first edition of “Wrestlers You Need to Know,” WWE Classics decided to focus on the men who brawled in the smoky, dimly lit arenas of the southern United States. Fans across Dixie flocked to spur on their heroes as they stepped in the ring against some of the most hated evildoers of the day. Crowds at the Greensboro Coliseum were on the edge of their seats as Dusty Rhodes and Magnum TA tried to vanquish The Four Horsemen. Jerry “The King” Lawler’s loyal subjects in Memphis, Tenn., gathered at the Mid-South Coliseum to watch the regal combatant try and shut up Andy Kaufman. While they came to see those star-studded main events, the hungry competitors on the undercard often left fans buzzing for days. ( PHOTOS | VIDEO PLAYLIST)
In hopes of finding some of these underappreciated combatants, WWE Classics asked several WWE Superstars who their favorite under-the-radar grapplers are. Their answers didn’t disappoint us.
Is there a wrestler you think deserves to have the spotlight shone on them? Comment at Facebook.com/WWEClassics to let us know!
"Wildfire" Tommy Rich
In the late 1970s, a blond-haired, baby-faced grappler from Tennessee captured the hearts and minds of wrestling fans across the South. Tommy Rich’s red-hot offense earned him the nickname “Wildfire” as he blazed across the territories, building up a rabid fanbase that includes former Intercontinental Champion Cody Rhodes.
“Nobody was as great as ‘Wildfire’ Tommy Rich in the 1980s in Georgia,” Rhodes told WWE.com.
Rhodes’ argument is difficult to dispute. Rich was one of the most popular wrestlers in Georgia Championship Wrestling, teaming up with fellow do-gooders like The Junkyard Dog, The Crusher and Dusty Rhodes to take on The Fabulous Freebirds, Ivan Koloff and Ole Anderson. ( WATCH)
However, it was one fateful night in Augusta, Ga., where ”Wildfire” burned his name into the history books. Up against NWA World Champion Harley Race, Rich used his speed and agility to counter the tough veteran’s technical know-how. Slithering out of Race’s attempted suplex, Rich caught the WWE Hall of Famer with a Thesz Press to capture the championship. Though he lost it back to Race four days later, Rich’s fans were elated that their hero had reached the top of the mountain.
“I think it’s often forgotten that he won the World Championship,” Rhodes said. “The same one that we tout on WWE TV.”
While Rich’s time as World Champion was short-lived, it was his rivalry with another grappler on our list that made sure fans in the South would remember his name.
"Mad Dog" Buzz Sawyer
Few Superstars have commanded the fear of both opponents and fans like “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer.
“Whether you were sitting in the first row or in the back of the arena, you felt his presence,” Matt Striker said of the “Mad Dog,” who wasn’t the tallest of competitors, standing a hair under 6 feet tall.
Lack of height aside, Sawyer was one of the most fearsome competitors to step in the squared circle, which Striker was quick to note. ( WATCH)
“If you ran into Buzz Sawyer anywhere, you would know that you ran into a pro wrestler,” he opined.
Sawyer is perhaps best remembered for his seemingly unending rivalry with “Wildfire” Tommy Rich. The two engaged in brutal brawls throughout Georgia for nearly two years. Sawyer did his best to incapacitate Rich, but the fiery Tennessean refused to back down. ( WATCH SAWYER VS. TOMMY RICH)
Eventually, officials decided that enough was enough and that there had to be an end to this vicious rivalry. Both competitors agreed to be locked inside a roofed cage and wage war until only one man was left standing inside Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum.
In a crimson-covered contest dubbed “The Last Battle of Atlanta,” Rich emerged victorious. Unfortunately for fans today, little evidence remains of the war, only a few pictures. Rumors suggest that footage exists, in the possession of a mysterious tape trader, but nothing has surfaced.
Still, the battle has influenced a generation of Superstars.
“That one match is responsible for the WWE Attitude Era, 1,000 episodes of Raw, Hell in a Cell and for Superstars you’ve come to know and love like Mick Foley, Edge and The Undertaker,” Striker exclaimed.
While Cody Rhodes is a big “Wildfire” Tommy Rich fan, he also made it a point to tell us about another competitor he admired for many reasons: Thunderbolt Patterson.
“He was groundbreaking in so many ways,” the former Intercontinental Champion said. “Especially at a time when prejudice and civil rights were a hot issue.” ( WATCH)
Patterson was unafraid to be an evil competitor, a rarity for an African-American in the South during the 1960s. Eventually, though, Patterson endeared himself to crowds spanning from Florida to Texas with his colorful personality.
“He laid a foundation for a very rhythmic, sermon-type of interview,” Rhodes explained.
Patterson’s unique manner of speech influenced a generation of Superstars, including Billy Graham, Jimmy Valiant and yes, a certain “American Dream.”
“My dad is credited with stealing a little bit from Thunderbolt Patterson,” the son of Dusty Rhodes said.
Thunderbolt also held the NWA National Tag Team Titles with Ole Anderson when Ole’s nephew, Arn, arrived on the scene in early 1985. Ole couldn’t resist the opportunity to partner with family and turned on Thunderbolt, setting the Andersons on the path that would lead to the formation of sports-entertainment’s most infamous supergroup, The Four Horsemen.
Ed "The Bull" Gantner
Before he became the mastermind behind ECW and the super agent that steered Brock Lesnar to the top of WWE, Paul Heyman spent years bouncing around the territories as a manager, guiding the careers of Superstars like “Ravishing” Rick Rude and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. His eye for talent is unmatched. Heyman was quite possibly the best person to ask about overlooked Superstars.
The mad scientist of extreme had three words for us when WWE Classics inquired: “Big. Ed. Gantner.”
A standout football player at the University of Central Florida, Gantner turned to the rings of Championship Wrestling from Florida after a short career on the gridiron with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits and Jacksonville Bulls.
Though he was represented by another manager, Sir Oliver Humperdink, the competitor they called “The Bull” was admired by Heyman from afar.
“He was 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, with the right look and an extraordinary personality and boatloads of charisma,” he explained. “[He] had every asset and gift to become a WrestleMania main eventer.” ( WATCH)
Gantner captured the NWA Florida Heavyweight Championship, but he hung up his boots in 1987 while dealing with serious health problems, leaving Heyman and Floridian fans wondering what could have been.
“I don’t think that there’s someone that’s had more promise walking in the door than ‘Big’ Ed Gantner,” he said.