Friday, September 8, 2023

A Close Encounter with the Ten Pounds of Gold

by Dick Bourne
Mid-Atlantic Gateway

I suddenly realized the referee in the ring was walking towards my position. I thought, well this is it, someone is finally going to ask me to leave. But as I looked up, he reached out with the NWA world title belt - - the beautiful "ten pounds of gold" - -
- - and waited for me to take it.

The year was 1982. I was 21 years old. I had just moved from Tennessee to begin work for Russell Corporation in Alexander City, Alabama. For the first time ever, I was isolated from Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, unable to watch the weekly adventures of my favorite group of wrestlers in my favorite wrestling territory.

I had settled in to my shabby little apartment on Highway 280 and hooked up local cable. I could get "Georgia Championship Wrestling" on the Superstation out of Atlanta, and saw some of my guys there -  Roddy Piper, Ole Anderson, Ray Stevens, and Ric Flair. I was getting familiar with the NWA promotion based out of Pensacola, Florida that ran the panhandle of Florida and the lower two-thirds of the state of Alabama. This would be my new home territory. Their TV show aired twice every Saturday - once in the afternoon out of Montgomery, and again late Saturday night out of Birmingham. People in the business called this territory the Pensacola territory. But most fans called it the Southeastern territory, taken from the name of their television show for so many years, "Southeastern Championship Wrestling."

I liked their TV show well enough. Charlie Platt and Ric Stewart were excellent studio hosts. I was familiar with a lot of their wrestlers who used to be regulars in the Southeastern promotion based out of Knoxville, TN, in the 1970s - - guys like Ron and Robert Fuller, Bob Armstrong, and Jimmy Golden. But nothing was ever going to quite replace Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and Jim Crockett Promotions for me. That was the wrestling I had grown up on. And I missed it terribly.

However, that fall, Southeastern Championship Wrestling was running a tour called "October Fest" and the NWA World champion Ric Flair was coming to the territory to put his title up against a different challenger in a different town in the territory each night of that week. Ric Flair was a "Mid-Atlantic guy," having cut his teeth in the Carolinas beginning in 1974 and eventually becoming the NWA World champion in 1981.  he was the first ever wrestler in the 46 year history of Jim Crockett Promotions to have ever developed through the territroy and been selected by the NWA to be their champion. As fans, we were proud of that! And even though he was now the world champion and just passing through to defend the title, having him come through my new home state of Alabama made me feel a little less homesick.

My first decision was where to go see him. The closest towns where Flair would be were Montgomery and Birmingham, AL. We received most of the TV stations on our local cable from both markets. Flair was scheduled to defend against "The Tennessee Stud" Ron Fuller on Monday 10/25 in Birmingham, and "the Universal Heart Throb" Austin Idol two nights later on Wednesday 10/27 in Montgomery.

Montgomery was a little bit closer, a little over an hour's drive away, and the Montgomery Civic Center was a little easier to get to than Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham. So I chose to go to Montgomery for that stop on the "Southeastern Wrestling October Fest" tour.

The Montgomery Civic Center in Montgomery, AL. Circa 1960s. "Wrestling Tonite" on the marquee!

Another factor in that decision was the opponent for Ric Flair. I had always been a big Austin Idol fan, and had always wanted to see what would happen if these two guys ever met each other in the ring. It was a dream-match of sorts - - a battle of Austin Idol's "Las Vegas leglock" against Ric Flair's "figure-four."

I hadn't made any wrestling friends in my new hometown yet, so I decided to go to the matches alone. I got off work early that Wednesday and drove down to the Montgomery Civic Center box office as soon as it opened to get the best tickets possible. I was able to secure seats in the ringside area, although I was about four rows back. I took my camera and hoped to get a few good photos up near the ring.

There was surprisingly little security at this show. When Flair and Idol had entered the ring, I was able to sort of stoop low, scoot up and kneel down next to the ring with my camera. Surprisingly, no one said a word to me. I couldn't believe how lucky I was.

The ring announcer introduced Idol first and then introduced Flair. Ric opened his robe, took the NWA belt from around his waist and handed it to the referee. He then handed his big heavy robe over the top rope down to the ring attendant on the floor who was already holding Idol's full-length heavy robe in his arms as well. He left the ringside area to take the robes back to the dressing rooms. I watched all this and again, nobody said a word to me as I knelt at ringside.

I suddenly realized the referee in the ring was walking towards my position. I thought, well this is it, someone is finally going to ask me to leave. But as I looked up, he reached out with the NWA world title belt - - the beautiful "ten pounds of gold" - - and waited for me to take it.

I couldn't figure out what was happening. Like in a movie, everything sort of started to go in slow motion and I couldn't hear a thing.

I've always thought that the referee had turned to give the title belt to the ring attendant, but the ring attendant had failed to wait for the belt, having two large heavy robes to carry to the back. Looking back on it, I have no idea why he wouldn't have just handed the belt to the ring announcer who I think had already exited on the other side of the ring at this point after his introductions. But he didn't. Instead, incredibly - - perhaps thinking I must be at ringside for a reason - - he was trying to hand the belt to me.

So I took it.

And I want to tell you that for one brief moment - - one fleeting, crazy, impulsive, irresponsible, disrespectful, do-I-dare, moment - - I thought about walking right back down the aisle with that belt, right out the back door, never to be seen or heard from again!

I wouldn't really have done that. Even at age 21, I had so much respect for the belt, for the championship, for Ric Flair and all the others that had held it. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit I thought about it! For one brief second....

Ring attendant with the NWA title in Dothan, AL.
This wasn't me, this wasn't Montgomery, it just
reminds me of that moment in my life.

Instead, I just looked at it. I couldn't believe what I had in my hands. This was the famous domed-globe belt; the Lombardi trophy and the Stanley Cup and every championship trophy in every major sport all wrapped up into one. Ric Flair's world title. The same world title that had been held by Brisco, Funk, Race, and Rhodes. And now I was kneeling at ringside in Montgomery, Alabama with that belt in my hands.

If I had really wanted to run away with the belt (which I did not), my window of opportunity quickly closed as the ring attendant had returned and I suddenly realized he was right behind me. He snatched the belt from my hands.

"You need to get back to your seat, bud," he said with a cold stare. And so without a word, I complied.

Can you imagine how badly this might have ended otherwise? I'm guessing the boys in the back would have had a field day with the young punk who tried to steal the champ's belt. More likely, I would have been arrested and spent the night in the Montgomery county jail.

My pulse was still racing as I thought about what had just happened. It was my one brief moment to touch history, to touch this belt I would have never thought I would have a chance to get anywhere near.

Many years later, however , on October 28, 2008, Dave Millican and I had the opportunity to photograph this very same belt. These photographs would later wind up in our book "Ten Pounds of Gold."

I would have never dreamed I could have gotten that close to it again.


Edited from a story originally published in October of 2015 on the Mid-Atlantic Gateway.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Review: The Last Real World Champion: The Legacy of "Nature Boy" Ric Flair

One of the great frustrations for wrestling fans interested in wrestling history, especially fans a little older like me, is the lack of focus and context on the early aspects of Ric Flair's wrestling career, especially during the era when the territories were still going strong in the 1970s. 

A less familiar observer who spent time reading or watching popular culture presentations on the life and career of the "Nature Boy" might think things took off for him professionally about the time he defeated Harley Race for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship at the landmark Starrcade event in 1983.

Not so in "The Last Real World Champion" by respected wrestling historian and author Tim Hornbaker. He is nearly 130 pages into his biography before he ever gets to Starrcade.

Spanning over 400 pages, "The Last Real World Champion: The Legacy of Nature Boy Ric Flair" covers every aspect of Flair's remarkable in-ring career that spans nearly half a century. But in a pleasant development, to my experience, there has never been a more thorough review of the ten years before that famous win over Race in Greensboro. So much of Flair's career before his historic run as world champion often gets glossed over by others, hitting only a few high spots. Hornbaker goes deep into Flair's early career, especially concerning his development as a major star and box-office draw in the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling territory promoted by the Crockett family. He covers Flair's arrival in the Carolinas in great detail, his development under booker George Scott, life on the road, and his early tutoring by Johnny Valentine, Wahoo McDaniel, and others. Long-time Mid-Atlantic fans will revel in the details of the significant angles and achievements early on, while fans less familiar with that era will find lots to learn, love, and celebrate.

The rest of Flair's unique story is told throughout this amazing book, including the NWA title era, WCW and Nitro periods, and the latter years in WWE and Impact Wrestling. 

When it comes to the more challenging aspects of Flair's personal life and entanglements outside of wrestling, Hornbaker doesn't flinch there, either. But with regards to the personal drama, he reports on all of it succinctly and cleanly, unlike some other accounts, which look more like wide-eyed gawkers slowing up to pass an accident on the side of the highway. If you want that dirt, help yourself; it's been done to death in many documentaries and articles over the past years and even by Flair himself. Hornbaker doesn't gloss over any of it, to be sure, but he doesn't dwell on it either. There are no judgments here. The title, after all, purports to examine the legacy of the "last real world champion," and the more interesting aspects of the book focus on Flair's remarkable and unparalleled legacy in the ring, not out of it. 

"The Last Real World Champion" is the perfect title for the book. Not only does it call back to a fun moment in time when Flair took the Big Gold Belt to the WWF, but it is also factually accurate. Flair was the last in a long line of touring world champions before guys with belts were nothing more than company champions. It's also a positive reflection on Flair's in-ring career as a whole.

With great affection for the subject matter, Tim Hornbaker brings Flair's amazing career into focus unlike any other. It is a tour de force with respect to thorough research and is impeccably documented with nearly 55 pages of end notes. This type of exhausting research is a hallmark of Hornbaker's work generally. 

A walk along this rich historical journey is great fun. Available for pre-order now, it is highly recommended reading for fans of Ric Flair and of pro-wrestling history and sports entertainment in general.

- Dick Bourne, Mid-Atlantic Gateway

Available September 12, 2023

ISBN-13: 9781770416260
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 09/12/2023
Pages: 420
Size: 6 x 9”