Published on April 29th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews0
Stealing the Territory
How RON GARVIN & BOB ROOP Led a Wrestlers’ Rebellion
Last Best Chance
It wasn’t the first time Roop had thought about usurping a promoter. Even in the territory days of wrestling, when workers still occasionally went into business for themselves in the ring, Roop had a peculiar reputation as an outlaw. He wasn’t interested in playing by the National Wrestling Alliance’s rules. If a promoter didn’t keep his word, or if Roop thought he was being shafted, he felt no loyalty. Despite his all-American look and lineage, Bob Roop had a lot more in common with guys like Ernie Ladd and Bruiser Brody. Wrestling was a business, and Roop was looking out for himself and his crew, not necessarily the promoter.
As a heel booker in Roy Shire’s San Francisco territory two years prior, Roop had popped houses around the loop with a hot feud against a young Kevin Sullivan. Roop’s amateur credentials and condescending swagger were compelling, and a once-lukewarm territory was getting hot again. Sullivan, in contrast to his later days as an evil Taskmaster, was the white-meat babyface against whom Roop pitted himself. Eventually putting Sullivan over and writing himself off TV with an injury angle, Roop donned a mask and returned as the Star Warrior. The feud remained hot, but Shire’s hold in San Francisco was weakening. He was becoming less interested in promoting, so Roop moved in.
He began approaching local TV and spot-show promoters, as well as talking to the boys in the locker room, about potentially stealing the San Francisco territory from Shire. Roop had a couple of things going for him: 1) He knew how to book the territory. Houses had gone up and showed no sign of slowing down while he was running the show; and 2) He was a legitimate wrestler. His credentials as an Olympic wrestler gave his work credibility with fans, potential business partners, and the boys in the dressing room.
But eventually word about Roop’s rebellion got back to Shire, and the Olympic grappler was fired. Roop blamed wrestler Kurt Von Steiger for ratting him out. Von Steiger was at the end of his career, having re-teamed with his kayfabe brother, Karl Von Steiger, and running roughshod through teams in the Bay Area, notably feuding with the team of Moondog Mayne and Ray “the Crippler” Stevens. At the end of his time in Shires’ promotion, Von Steiger retired, later training wrestlers like Bobby Jaggers and Afa Anao’i of the Wild Samoans.
But Roop wasn’t done in the business, despite trying to take over the San Francisco territory. He still had a good reputation with several promoters. When he was hot, he could draw money–and a wrestler who could draw money was never really blackballed. Roop went into the Knoxville territory with a string of box office successes behind him in Florida, Georgia, and San Francisco. Championship Wrestling from Florida promoter Eddie Graham loved Roop. He loved his toughness and his strength and his unquestionable in-ring ability. Not only was Roop a really tough wrestler, he was also a worker–a guy who could make himself and other wrestlers look good. He could also put butts in seats.
And for a while, things looked good in Tennessee. Houses were up. The travel wasn’t bad when compared with territories like Leroy McGuirk’s Tri-States promotion (later Mid-South and UWF) that ran all over Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi, or Jerry Jarrett’s Memphis promotion, which ran loops every week into Kentucky, Indiana, and Arkansas, too. Knoxville had long been known as a good wrestling town, and while the boys weren’t going to get rich, they could make money and have an easier time on the road. The only other real draw in the area was the University of Tennessee football program, and by the late 1970s, the Volunteers weren’t a threat to anyone on the gridiron or at the box office.
Up until 1974, promoter John Cazana had run the office in Knoxville, using talent from Nick Gulas’s Mid-America promotion in Nashville. When Cazana decided to sell his territory, Ron Fuller stepped in and brought his own talent aboard. Fuller, the self-described Tennessee Stud, was part of the Gulas-Welch-Fuller-Fields family of wrestlers and promoters who dominated much of Southern wrestling for years. By the time he bought out Cazana, Fuller was a seasoned professional, having had runs on top in Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. As a second-generation wrestler, he knew how to make money and keep a territory running smoothly, and as a member in good standing of the NWA, he also ascended to one of the governing body’s vice-presidential slots. Fuller watched his money carefully, but he didn’t have the same tightwad reputation with funds as some promoters, like Angelo Poffo.
So where were the payoffs? The checks from the office weren’t increasing along with the gate receipts, and they should have been. So as the payoffs in Knoxville continued to be stagnant, Roop was able to gather support. The Great Malenko was no stranger to running opposition shows. He’d done so in Florida, teaming with Don Curtis to form Suncoast Championship Wrestling, which reached the panhandle of Florida and into southeast Alabama, where Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling made its home at the time.
Malenko had a long and successful history in the wrestling business. After beginning his career on the East Coast, he really made a name for himself in Tampa, Florida. He worked with Big Time Wrestling in Texas (the precursor to World Class) as early as 1957, holding the Texas heavyweight title, as well as returning to the area to win the NWA American championship in 1970 and headlining a show in the Houston Astrodome against Wahoo McDaniel that set attendance records at the time. Having Malenko in a prominent position on the card meant money, and promoters knew it.
Malenko and Roop had known one another since 1972, when they teamed up in Graham’s Florida promotion to win the territory’s tag team titles from Bearcat Wright and “the King” Bobby Shane. Malenko had been a headliner in Knoxville, holding the territory’s top title as well as the Southeastern TV title. Though short in stature, Malenko used his legitimate shooter’s background as well as an over-the-top Russian gimmick to maintain his role as one of the top heels in the company. Since Roop and Malenko had known one another previously and teamed together, there was already a bond of trust between the two.
Bob Orton, Jr. was well-liked by the majority of the locker room, praised highly for his ability inside the ring. But Orton–who would go on to more fame in the WWE as ‘Ace,’ the bodyguard for “Rowdy” Roddy Piper–had a severe setback: he stuttered. Despite the speech impediment, Orton’s in-ring work as a heel was top notch. He drove the fans in Knoxville into a rage. As the son of Bob Orton, Sr., he’d turned professional back in 1972 after dropping out of college and working under a hood as “Young Mr. Wrestling” or “The Invader,” and often teaming with his father. Orton went along with his friends.
Ron Garvin was a different matter. Most longtime fans remember him as “Hands of Stone” on WTBS, or “Rugged” Ronnie Garvin in WWE. He used a knockout punch to defeat his opponents on World Championship Wrestling on WTBS, and won the NWA world title from “Nature Boy” Ric Flair in 1987. But by 1979, Garvin had already been wrestling around the southern territories for 17 years, first under his real name–Roger Barnes–and then as part of a tag team with his ‘brother’ Terry Garvin. It’s almost impossible to overstate how much Garvin resonated with the fans in eastern Tennessee at the time, but before he became “Hands of Stone,” Garvin was simply “Mr. Knoxville.”
It was that type of popularity that led Fuller to book Garvin as the territory’s champion several times, and to keep him around the main event. When he wasn’t wrestling singles, Garvin had runs with the Southeastern tag team titles, teaming with Welsh standout Tony Charles and Orton. Smirnoff and Garvin had good chemistry in the ring together, and Knoxville fans never knew that two Canadians were, in fact, putting on the show. Garvin would end up holding the Knoxville version of the Southeastern title on five different occasions.
But it was that final time that was most memorable. Garvin walked away from the promotion with the title belt, and kept it, despite Fuller’s attempts to get the championship back.