by Liam ORourke
The wonderful thing about the wide world of wrestling is that there is always more than one flavour of ice cream to try. If no current flavours happen to take your fancy, there’s always a litany of excellent programming from yesteryear that’s waiting to be watched and enjoyed. This brings me to a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a little while – Mid South Wrestling in 1984.
1984 was Bill Watts’ best year of business, in a promotion that saw a lot of success and has received a great deal of acclaim. While it isn’t the easiest to track down, it’s worth going out of your way to get the raw, untouched shows from this era (and they are out there) to see these shows as they were meant to be seen. Even for a long-time studious fan, if you’ve never seen them before, it’ll be a total education when you finally do.
There are so many elements that go into what makes the shows great that I couldn’t possibly do them justice in the span of a short article. But at a high level, let’s touch on a few things that made these shows so special.
You have the ongoing drama between Magnum T.A. and Mr. Wrestling II. For years before I watched, the term “episodic” was thrown around liberally to describe Bill’s booking style for the show, and right away in 1984, they hit a home run with this ongoing saga.
A teacher-mentor dynamic that goes all the way to the Tag Team Titles goes awry when the Mid South Championship Committee elects Magnum, rather than Wrestling II, as the next viable challenger to Junkyard Dog’s North American Title. Wrestling II is superb as the jealous, contemptible old veteran who still sees himself as the team’s superior, but knowing deep down he’s having to clutch on to his top spot tighter than ever. Magnum, who was still relatively early into his career, plays his role perfectly – never backing down, standing up for himself, but maintaining enough humility to be sympathetic. The contract signing segment with Magnum and JYD, where Magnum finally calls Wrestling II on his selfish ways, only to be slapped in the face and feel ashamed of himself, is edge-of-your-seat stuff.
You have fantastic personalities and tremendous talent coming into their own before your very eyes. Jim Cornette and the Midnight Express rolled onto the scene in Mid South like they owned the place. Cornette’s digs on Boyd Pierce’s wardrobe alone are enough to merit a rewatch (“Boyd, that jacket is bright enough to make a blind man see, and go blind all over again”). The Rock and Roll Express appear a short time later (and ELO’s “Rock and Roll is King” is still one of the best entrance songs ever), and you have magic unfolding before your eyes.
You have clever angles that have come from the mind of a genius, in that they’re so simple and so perfect that they’re universally relatable, while maintaining unpredictability. Moments of drama that you can watch and revere as masterful moves to enhance the heat of a heel or the momentum of a babyface.
We have a hot new teeny-bopper tag team that the girls love? Send out the Russians to ambush them and cut Ricky Morton’s hair, as the females in the front row hold their hands over their mouths in dismay. Pure heat.
We need to enhance Mr. Wrestling II as a heel and get new babyface Terry Taylor some fanfare? Book a match with Wrestling II and Magnum against the Midnight Express where the losing team takes ten lashes with a belt, and have Wrestling II walk off and leave Magnum to take all ten shots himself. Then, when the people can feel poor Magnum’s pain as he uses the ropes to pull himself to his feet, send out Terry Taylor to volunteer himself to take five lashes to save Magnum any further, undue punishment. Immediate respect and sympathy.
We have to build Butch Reed? Have him attack Junkyard Dog and paint him yellow. Instant shock and awe.
Not only that, but the use of music videos is perfect. While the modern eye can’t truly appreciate how unique and effective these were in their infancy, it’s still easy to fall under the spell of “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics, as Magnum TA rides around on his motorcycle. Or to feel the pride, integrity and courage in the old Cowboy as “Eye of the Tiger” plays, a showcase of past glories spliced in with Watts’ current day training in preparation for “The Last Stampede”.
It’s not just the disparate elements, however, The way everything is presented and positioned is so refreshing, and serves as the real magic behind this promotion.
Jim Ross is utterly superb on commentary. Even though he may be inclined to say he was still developing his style at this time, his raw enthusiasm and pitch-perfect choice of words make for a captivating listen. Every wrestler, match and angle is enhanced by his mere presence.
Scarier yet, Jim Ross is only neck-and-neck for most effective announcer with Watts himself. Bill’s unflinching ability to logically explain any situation and convince you to buy into it is sublime. With no criticism intended, it is perhaps a lost art on younger WWE announcers who work within a comfortable environment, where you don’t need to put the same butts in the same seats on a regular basis.
Though I haven’t watched the episode in years, I can vividly recall Bill Watts’ explanation for why, after years of hating the Russians, the newest member of the group, Krusher Darsow (later Krusher Kruschev) was the scariest and most despicable of all. For he, you see, isn’t a Russian. He was a man who sold out every principle he was raised with in order to don another nation’s colours. We can all relate to national pride, after all. Though we feel the Russians are aggressive and misguided in their angst, we have to at least respect their conviction. But this turncoat, Krushchev, was a man without pride and conscience. Thus, there was no low he wasn’t willing to stoop to, so long as it progressed his end game. This heartless outlook was to be feared.
Watts and Ross are the perfect soundtrack. It’s become often repeated by fans that the best commentator is an effective backing track that enhances what you’re seeing. But the all-time greats go beyond even that – they say the perfect thing at the perfect time. Words and phrases you maybe didn’t expect, but as soon as they’re uttered, encapsulate the feeling and the message brilliantly, casting things in a new light. And failing that, their passionate pleas and declarations as the babyfaces are done wrong are as authentic as can be. It makes you feel it. Despite the passage of years, it makes the moments timeless.
Of course, you have the God of New Orleans in the Junkyard Dog, early Dr. Death, Butch Reed, Buddy Landell and many others rounding out the show with their own antics. Some acts are more polished and established than others, but everything they say or do has purpose. They’re not put on the show to simply exist. There is a reason, a direction. Even if it’s as simple as establish them a little bit more.
It’s well produced without being overproduced. It reeks of legitimacy, no matter if it’s Steve Williams destroying an unknown foe, Mr. Wrestling II breaking bags of concrete with his trademark knee lift, or Jim Cornette getting a birthday cake in the face. Everything is framed in such a way where any silliness is perfectly acceptable. Jim Cornette having to wear his mother’s pink dress after a Midnight loss? Perfect, because it’s silly for a reason after all – a heel humiliation people paid to see.
I feel an entire book could be written about what made this show so fun in 1984. It isn’t a mile a minute. It’s not cramming things down your throat, one after another. You have your share of what Bill would call “formula” matches (squashes), and plenty of wrestlers that come off as unrefined by today’s standard of what makes a wrestler great once the bell sounds (looking at you, Masao Ito). But if you love pro wrestling and want to see a world where everything makes sense, the stars feels like stars and you can’t wait to watch the next episode unfold, track down 1984 Mid South.
No matter what issues you have with the current ice cream, there’s no need to complain if you have undiscovered flavours this good.