Published on March 11th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews2
“… pro wrestling is a haunted thing. Its past lives always at the edge of the present.”
—Ian Williams, Vice Sports
Millions of viewers who watch World Wrestling Entertainment–on cable or the WWE’s industry-changing Network–don’t realize it, but when they watch their favorite superstars face off in the ring, they’re seeing more than the scripted fights that take place between the ropes.
They’re watching a ghost story, too.
Officially known by three different names over the course of its decade-long life (Southeastern, Continental, and CWF), the territory was simply referred to by wrestlers as Pensacola. Wrestling historian Dave Meltzer has referred to the territory as the ‘Lost Promotion,’ because so little about it is known today. But its legacy is out there, if one knows where to look.
The ghost of Southeastern lingers in the creative direction of Brian James, the executive producer and head of creative for WWE Smackdown! Live, and in the work of Joseph “Scott Armstrong” James, also a producer for WWE. The James brothers’ roots in the wrestling industry are deep. They’re sons of WWE Hall-of-Famer and perennial Southeastern/Continental headliner ‘Bullet’ Bob Armstrong. And the influence is there in Michael ‘PS’ Hayes, too, as Hayes–who now leads the road agents for WWE—grew up watching Pensacola wrestling and began his craft as one of the Fabulous Freebirds in the late 1970s. It’s there in the presence of Arn Anderson, whose formative years in the business were spent tagging and feuding with “Mr. Olympia” Jerry Stubbs.
The presence of Southeastern can be felt in the members of The Shield, whose three-man unit had its roots in tag teams like the Freebirds and the Midnight Express, Inc.–a heel team featuring Dennis Condrey, Randy Rose, and Norvell Austin–prior to the Shield’s breakup.
Southeastern sustained itself through a mixture of homegrown talent, veterans who wanted easier road trips, and young up-and-comers. In many ways, wrestlers who worked the territory considered it a little slice of heaven.
Second-generation wrestlers Ron and Robert Fuller bought the territory—then named Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling–from their cousins, Bobby and Lee Fields, joining with several other wrestlers to extend their Knoxville-based Southeastern Championship Wrestling from Tennessee all the way down to the Florida coast.
“The reason that promotion was so good was because of the Fullers. That’s it,” said Rip Rogers, a veteran wrestler who headlined the territory multiple times. “They were part of the Welch family, and the Welches were one of the biggest and most influential wrestling families there’s ever been. They knew what they were doing when it came to building the territory, to being a part of the community, the whole thing.”
The clannish Fullers ran the promotion as if it were two distinct entities for awhile before merging the two, using different TV sets and casts of on-air talent. One set of wrestlers ran Knoxville and the surrounding areas, while another worked Alabama and Florida. In addition, the Fullers were selective in who they brought in as business partners, offering ownership stakes to other Welch family members. But a key turning point for the promotion would be bringing in an ally with a history of main-events in Southern wrestling—a man the Fullers had grown to know well and to trust like one of their own.
“My father, Bullet Bob Armstrong, bought a 10 percent stake into the company along with Ron and Robert Fuller, Jimmy Golden, and Roy Lee Welch,” Scott Armstrong remembers. “My father had been a longtime friend of the Fuller family, so much so that my brothers and I looked at them as uncles! When the Fuller family decided to buy the territory based in Pensacola, they made my father the offer to buy in, and he jumped at the opportunity.”
Bob Armstrong and Robert Fuller had been tag team champions together in Georgia, and they’d grown to be close friends. So with the addition of the Bullet, things began to roll. Over the first year or so of Southeastern, the Fullers began to phase out the Gulf Coast wrestlers. Aging staples like The Wrestling Pro (Leon Baxter), Ken Lucas, Dick Dunn, and Cowboy Bob Kelly were shuffled out. Superstars like Austin Idol, Jos LeDuc, Kevin Sullivan, and a young Hulk Hogan—then calling himself ‘Sterling Golden’—began to emerge.
“You were working in front of thousands of people every week, and you’d piss them off to the point where they’d say they weren’t ever gonna come back—until they were sitting right there in the same seat the next week,” Rogers said. None of the towns were enormous, with Knoxville, Birmingham, and Pensacola being the largest cities on the loop. Still, the towns were often sellouts. Dothan, Alabama’s Houston County Farm Center held around 5,500 people, and at bell time on Saturday night, the venue was often packed.
“At that time, what the hell else was there to do in Dothan, Alabama, on a Saturday night?” Rogers asked. “For that matter, Birmingham was the same way at the time. Wrestling was the show. Saturdays in Dothan, Sundays in Pensacola, Monday night at the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham.”
Similar to the way Tampa, Florida grew into a great wrestling city because there were no other professional sports until the NFL expanded with the Buccaneers, wrestling in Alabama had gotten a foothold into the imagination of the people, and it was about to take off.
“The farm center was a great building for wrestling,” said Tom Prichard, who came into the territory in the mid-1980s after it was renamed Continental Championship Wrestling. “Just the shape of the building and the way it was laid out, and then with the name, you know, you’d think of a great old wrestling venue like the Cow Palace out in San Francisco.”
But Dothan was a little bit lower rent than San Francisco. The Farm Center in its heyday was floored with red clay dirt. With a domed metal roof and no air-conditioning, the Farm Center was a memorable—and hot, and loud—hub for the weekly loop. It helped that the promotion shot its weekly TV show from the same city. Fans could catch up on the latest happenings with their favorite wrestlers, and then head to the arena.
“Our TV show aired from 5:30 to 6:30 on Saturday afternoon and two hours later at 8:30 p.m., the national anthem played … and the first match would get underway,” Armstrong said. “The building seated about 6,000, and on more than one occasion the fire marshal made us turn customers away.”
The crowds in Southeastern, especially in the Farm Center, were always memorable. The wrestlers understood that the fans were always appreciative of the level of effort from the performers. And no matter what the wrestlers did in the ring, they’d work up a sweat just entering the ring from the dressing room, Robert Fuller told The Dothan Eagle in 2015:
“You could walk in that back door in Dothan and it was just like momma had opened her oven and she was taking her pie out,” said Robert Fuller, a longtime star and promoter in Dothan throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. “You’d get in there and it was hot. Man, it’d be 110 degrees in there, and a little smoky because they’d let people smoke, and you had the gravel in the ring. But then you’ve got those fans there, and they are just incredible. It’s just a different kind of place.”
With territories still separate and distinct, wrestlers like Rogers could work Southeastern as well as Georgia and Florida. The road trips from the panhandle of Florida were easy, with most of the wrestlers living near one another in Gulf Breeze. And while the Alabama towns didn’t get much—if any—national attention, the wrestlers were making money. At one point, wrestling at the Houston County Farm Center was out-drawing Georgia Championship Wrestling’s weekly shows at the legendary Omni, according to Southeastern TV announcer Charlie Platt. And the packed houses meant that even the underneath talent for Southeastern were making a good living. Plus, the easy road trips offered many wrestlers something better than money: quality of life.
“So many amazing athletes came through the area due to the short drives from show to show,” Armstrong said. “There was always a long list of talent wanting to come in but with a limited number of spots the company was able to pick and choose. To be able to live on the beach and then drive short trips and be back home every night was a dream come true for any wrestler.”
Almost all of the crew lived in Gulf Breeze, Florida, a small peninsula on the far south side of Pensacola Bay, with water on three sides and protected from the Gulf of Mexico by Santa Rosa Island. On his podcast, Jim Cornette talked about the appeal of Southeastern, saying that the wrestlers could stay on the beach until four p.m., and still make bell time in Birmingham at 8:30 p.m.—although Rogers says that’s an exaggeration. Usually, wrestlers would need to leave the beach by 2 p.m.
“We all lived down there,” Rogers said. “The drives to the towns were easy, and you could get back home every night, sleep in your own bed. That was one of the best things about it.”
Prichard, who was six years into his career by the time he got to Southeastern, admits that he was often one of the boys who would slide into the dressing room at bell time.
“I was riding with Robert Fuller and Jimmy Golden and we would usually arrive 5 minutes before bell time. Robert would ask ‘Hey boy! Think you can lace up your boots and get out there?’” Prichard said.
Of course, beach living wasn’t the only perk from working the small territory. There was also good—sometimes great—money.
“The opening card guys were making $400-$500 a week and then add their merchandise, which they were able to keep 100 percent of the money, it ended up being a good week, and that was in the 80’s,” Armstrong said. “You could double that for the top guys.”
For perspective, $500 in 1981 is equivalent to approximately $1,399 in 2017. And for even more perspective, Southeastern was drawing the same kind of houses that non-televised WWE shows are currently drawing. In a week, Southeastern or Continental might have drawn 25,000 people for a hot angle on a series of sold-out shows. While WWE is running larger venues, they often have to tape off a portion of the arena, and the hard numbers for their house shows are similar to the 1980s numbers of Southeastern. On an episode of the Jim Cornette Experience, Idol told Cornette that his deal with Southeastern guaranteed him $1,000 a week–which translates to nearly $2,500 a week in 2017. Idol claimed he made twice his guarantee every week from selling photos and T-shirts prior to the show.
“It was a different kind of thing—I mean, it was ’rasslin’,” Rogers said. “You had to go out there and work the marks every week. You’d work the same towns in front of the same people for weeks. I used to keep a book with all of the finishes to my matches so that I wouldn’t repeat them in the same town. Now, it’s different. WWE might come to your town twice a year. It’s like the Harlem Globetrotters. People just look at it like something else to do.”
That wasn’t the case with Southeastern. In the uncomplicated world of 1980s wrestling, the people in that territory found heroes to cheer, and villains to hate. It was, Armstrong says, a unique bond between the fans and the wrestlers. The fans legitimately cared about what happened in the ring. At one point during Austin Idol’s feud with hulking Canadian strongman LeDuc, a fan brought Idol a chain wrapped in duct tape—essentially a makeshift set of brass knuckles—for Idol to use in self-defense. The fan waited patiently in line at Idol’s merchandise table before bell time in Dothan, and then proudly showed him what he’d brought. That’s the kind of crowd Southeastern drew. They wanted their good guys to win.
“The crowd consisted of salt of the earth kind of people that believed in ‘Family’ and low and behold … Bullet and the Boys were born,” he said. “My family (Bullet Bob, Me, Brad, and Steve … Brian aka Road Dogg was still in high school) was in the right place at the right time and we were all born and raised in the South, which made it easy for the fans to connect.”