Published on March 11th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews0
Pensacola, A Ghost Story: How a Long-forgotten Territory Still Haunts WWE
“… 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.”
Many of the stars of Southeastern and Continental found ways to pass on what they know to future generations of wrestlers. Some, like Bob Armstrong, handed down lessons to their sons. Of Bob’s four sons, all of them have (or still) make their living in the wrestling business. Scott is a producer for WWE, while Brian is one of the chief producers for WWE’s SmackDown! Live show. Brad, prior to his death, had worked as one of the agents for WWE’s version of ECW, and Steve still pops up occasionally at independent shows.
Brad is still considered by many—including Stone Cold Steve Austin and legendary announcer Jim Ross—as one of the most underrated talents ever to lace up a pair of boots. Each has made his appreciation of Brad’s work clear through comments on multiple podcasts, blogs, and Twitter posts.
“If you couldn’t have a good match with Brad Armstrong, you didn’t belong in the wrestling business,” Prichard said. “It’s that simple.”
Rogers echoed those sentiments while also noting the entire family was extremely talented.
“Of course he was good,” he said. “He was an Armstrong, wasn’t he?”
As a producer for WWE, Scott works with the talent to help promote the WWE’s worldwide image. He remembers being a young man and learning the ropes of the business by literally standing on the ring apron while tag-teaming with Brad. But his real education came through working a program with an established wrestler.
“Tommy Gilbert (Eddie and Doug’s Dad) came in for a very short six months, and I learned more about ring work than I’d learned from anyone, ever,” Armstrong said. “When he passed away I truly hurt as that man really taught me how to work. I had started in the biz as a tag team with my late brother, Brad, and I learned from standing on the apron and watching him—he was the best in-ring performer in our family. We all readily admit it. When my tag run was over is when Tommy came in, and he was in his early 40s. I was in my early 20s and wanted to hit the ropes and bounce around like a rubber ball. I vividly remember my Dad telling me to shut my mouth and open my ears when it came to working with Tommy. I shut my mouth and literally went to wrestling school—and all in front of an audience. Tommy Gilbert was a great wrestler and an even better man.”
Prichard is famous for, among other things, helping to train The Rock, as well as helping to transition Kurt Angle from amateur wrestling to the pro ranks. He currently works occasional independent shows, but also gives seminars and classes to up-and-coming professional wrestlers on how to improve their craft.
“You could tell right away that the Rock had something,” Prichard said. “Of course, no one knew he was going to become the kind of star he became. He was big and athletic, but he was also confident—not cocky, but confident—he had that performer’s ego, which is something you have to have if you’re going to make it in this business.”
And, of course, Prichard treated Angle with the respect an Olympic gold medal-winner and 2017 WWE Hall-of-Fame inductee deserved.
“Before we locked up, I told him ‘I do not have anything to prove to you, and you don’t have anything at all to prove to me,’” Prichard said. “I had been working with Mark Henry and Achim (Albrecht, also known as Brakkus in WWE), and I didn’t really want or need to be thrown on my head any more than I already had been. But Kurt was great right from the start. He got it. We locked up, and he was a natural.”
Rogers teamed with “Nightmare” Danny Davis after Davis opened Ohio Valley Wrestling, acting as the top trainer for OVW’s wrestling school. The laundry list of talent to come out of OVW is astonishing: Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton, Shelton Benjamin, and Batista all spent time under the learning tree with Davis and Rogers.
Still, others were immersed in the wrestling business from an early age. WWE’s top agent, Michael ‘PS’ Hayes, broke in as a referee and later as a wrestler in Gulf Coast, and then Southeastern. The Freebirds’ first major breakup—a months-long program between Hayes and Terry Gordy—raged on Southeastern and Georgia television, with black-and-white footage of the blow-off cage match in Dothan being broadcast nationwide on WTBS. And when Ron Fuller was preparing to change the promotion’s name from Southeastern to Continental, it was Hayes he trusted to come in as the “reigning” champion to drop the newly-invented Continental Championship to Fuller. (Although in a rare misstep, Ron Fuller gave the finish of that matchup away when he showed off the Continental title belt a week prior to the arrival of Hayes to the territory.)
And Arn Anderson began his career under his real name, Marty Lunde, by losing a squash match to Bob Armstrong. Anderson would work for the Fullers as the masked Super Olympia, starting a years-long association with “Mr. Olympia” Jerry Stubbs that saw the two team with one another, break up and feud, unmask one another, and team again, only to feud once more when Arn was leaving to join Jim Crockett Promotions and go on to a hall-of-fame career. These days, Anderson works behind the scenes in WWE as an agent, passing along advice and wisdom from a nearly 20-year career in the ring.
When WWE wanted to remake Exotic Adrian Street’s gimmick for Rico Constantino in the mid-2000s, they went right to the source. Street was a standout British wrestler who could not only go in the ring, but used gaudy costumes and effeminate mannerisms to headline shows across the world, including high-profile feuds with Dusty Rhodes, ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, Austin Idol, and others. Street now owns and operates a wrestling school in Gulf Breeze, Florida. He spent weeks teaching Rico how to work the gimmick.
“The WWE sent Rico to me, wanting him to learn that kind of gimmick from the best that’s ever done that kind of thing, and Rico, he’s a bright guy, he got it, he understood the gimmick,” Street said. But the first time he saw Rico do the act on Monday Night Raw, Street knew that something had gone wrong. “I thought ‘Oh no. They’ve fucked it. It’s never going to take off.’ I guess it shows you there’s only one original, and I can’t be duplicated.”
Speaking of originals, Dennis Condrey, one-third of the original Midnight Express, was signed to WWE as a developmental trainer in 2010, working with the rookies. Condrey spent most of his career in the southern territories, and along with partners Randy Rose and Norvell Austin, gave the world the Midnight Express in 1980.
And former Heartland Wrestling Association owner Les Thatcher had been a veteran wrestler and then made the transition to play-by-play announcer for the Knoxville end of Southeastern in 1974, came with the Fullers to transition Gulf Coast TV into Southeastern, teaming at the desk with Charlie Platt and eventually turning the program over to him in 1981. Thatcher still trains wrestlers, including WWE superstars like Dean Ambrose and standout talents like Nigel McGuinness.
The Angle: Armstrong vs. Fuller
Like any regional wrestling promotion, Southeastern/Continental relied on hot angles to fill the house show circuit. With an abundance of talent, even preliminary matches were treated like a big deal, as with Scott Armstrong vs. ‘the Professor’ Bill Ash for the US junior heavyweight title. It was a simple formula that worked time and time again all over the South: put talented grapplers against one another for a championship, and then find a way to make it personal. With Armstrong and Ash, it was the young lion vs. the wily old veteran. When Adrian Street and Rip Rogers faced off, it was a clash of outlandish personalities pursuing the Southeastern title; when the Nightmares (Danny Davis and Ken Wayne) feuded with Robert Fuller and Jimmy Golden, it was over the Continental tag titles and then made personal when Fuller and Golden took a baseball bat to Davis’s newly won Camaro Iroc Z28.
But a few feuds defined Southeastern and Continental. We’ll get to the most famous one eventually, but first: The Armstrongs vs. the Stud Stable. Armstrong and Fuller were the top babyfaces in the company when Ric Flair was scheduled to defend the NWA world’s heavyweight championship. Bob was the Southeastern titleholder, and as such, he felt he should have gotten the title shot against Flair. Instead, Fuller took the match, while Armstrong was the special referee. When Ron locked Flair in the Fuller toehold after a nearly hour-long performance, Armstrong leaped into the air and came down across Fuller’s chest, turning heel and allowing Flair to keep his title. Armstrong, who had been an incredible babyface for the entirety of his career, was suddenly the area’s top heel. Business skyrocketed.
And it got even better when Bob slapped Brad across the face on WTBS’s Georgia Championship Wrestling, which was replayed on Southeastern’s TV. But the heat was about to intensify even further. Armstrong attacked color analyst, Ric Stewart, giving him a backbreaker and kayfabe ‘injuring’ Stewart. Then, during a verbal altercation with announcer Charlie Platt, Armstrong slapped him, as well. The heat grew so intense, Platt says, that they had to hurry that part of the angle to a conclusion. Armstrong was getting legitimate death threats during the loop after the incident aired, so on the next week’s TV show, Fuller held Armstrong in a full Nelson, while Platt returned the slap.
Eventually, Armstrong would turn babyface again. But a horrific weightlifting injury sidelined his career. On his comeback, Armstrong offered to team with Fuller against Jerry Stubbs and Arn Anderson, who were wreaking havoc as the top heel team in the territory. For several weeks, Fuller refused Armstrong’s apologies and offers to work together. But after Armstrong ran into a match to save Fuller from being beaten down by the heels, Fuller relented. The team of Armstrong and Fuller didn’t stay together long. This time, Ron Fuller couldn’t get over Armstrong’s original treachery, and this time he turned heel on Armstrong and left him to be beaten mercilessly by the heels. No matter how good their offscreen friendship, Armstrong and Fuller were even better onscreen enemies.
For the rest of Southeastern/Continental’s life, the feud between the Armstrong family and Ron (and later Robert) Fuller’s ‘Stud Stable’ would be a near-constant thread, with the heels defeating Armstrong, only to find a new masked wrestler named ‘The Bullet’ in the territory the next week. Wrestlers like Kevin Sullivan, the Flame (Jody Hamilton), and Mr. Wrestling II in a rare heel run would all enter the territory to try to claim the bounty that the Fullers placed on Armstrong. They all failed.
The Angle: “I’d like to talk to Tom.”
It could have been the feud to turn things around for Continental, pairing two young wrestlers fighting for pride and the Alabama heavyweight championship. Instead, it turned out to be one of the last gasps for a promotion that had tried to do too much, too fast. Tony Anthony—you’ll likely know him better as T.L. Hopper, the wrestling plumber in WWE—was enjoying his first real singles run after a solid career as one of the masked Grapplers with Len Denton, and Prichard was being groomed to be the face of Continental heading into the future. The pair had traded the Alabama title a few times, and when things got really heated, Prichard took a pair of scissors and cut off some of the Dirty White Boy’s mullet. The next week, Anthony’s valet, Lady Mystic (his real-life wife, Kimberly), showed up at the announcer’s desk and said, in a small, tired voice: “I’d like to talk to Tom.” She then pulled down her sunglasses to reveal a badly blacked eye, and implied that the Dirty White Boy had hit her. By this time, Continental had abandoned the small-time feel of a studio wrestling show and now taped its program at the Birmingham Fairgrounds. Charlie Platt carried the request to Prichard, who refused to meet with Mystic. Later, she came out again, pleading with venerable wrestling broadcaster Gordon Solie to carry her message to Prichard.
He did, and Prichard finally came out to confront Mystic. As she begged and pleaded with Prichard to help, she turned his back toward the heel dressing room, and Anthony attacked. The ensuing brawl destroyed the stage from which Solie and Platt commentated, and then Anthony handcuffed a semi-conscious Prichard and threw a hangman’s noose over his head. He then dragged Prichard to the ring and proceeded to hang him from the turnbuckles until a bevy of babyfaces made the save.
Most people give credit to Eddie Gilbert and Paul Heyman for booking that angle, but Prichard says it was he and Anthony who conceived and executed the whole thing. That was part of the fun—the talent in Continental had freedom to largely do what they wanted.
“I had seen Nick Bockwinkel get jumped by ‘the Hangman’ in El Paso when I was growing up,” Prichard said, “so that’s where I got the idea. After he won a match against a preliminary wrestler, the Hangman would hang his opponent over the top rope. Bockwinkel went to make the save, and the Hangman ended up hanging him. So we just took it a little farther by adding the handcuffs.”
Prichard’s hands were cuffed behind his back, so when Anthony yanked the noose too tight around his neck, there was nothing Prichard could do except go with it. He scrambled to find purchase, scooting along on the floor on his back as Anthony dragged him along.
“When you watch the video, you can see that when he put the noose on me, I was really choking,” Prichard said. “We were so committed to trying to do something really good. At one point I thought I was dying. And as dumb as it sounds now, at the time, I absolutely would have died for it. That’s how bad we wanted that angle to work.”
On the screen, the attack still looks brutal, even 30 years later. Prichard is in obvious pain, the corners of his mouth pulled down tight to fight against the rope around his neck. He’s wearing a bright yellow shirt, which was supposed to help a part of the angle that most people never saw.
“We had taken some blood from my arm and injected into a condom,” Prichard said. “We tied the condom off, and I had it in my mouth. Steve Armstrong had a blade, and he was supposed to cut the condom, and I’d bleed from my mouth. The blood was supposed to show up better against the yellow shirt.” But the cameras missed the blood. The only people who saw that part were the fans in attendance at the TV taping.
Still, the angle bumped business for a while, and the re-renamed promotion (CWF this time), staggered on through 1988 and into 1989. Prichard was the CWF heavyweight champion and in a feud with Dennis Condrey–now calling himself the ‘Lethal Weapon’ and employing the DDT as a finisher–for the title when the promotion finally folded, less than a month away from the new decade.
“It was a special era,” Prichard said. “We weren’t really making any money at that point, but the life, it was great. We all lived near one another on the beach. It was a great group of guys, and we had a blast.”
There were many reasons why Southeastern/Continental finally failed. National expansion by WWE, Jim Crockett Promotions, and Bill Watts’s UWF squeezed the territory until Ron Fuller pushed back, getting Continental a TV deal with the fledgling Financial News Network on cable TV. But it wasn’t enough—and it may have been too much. To make Continental look better, Fuller moved TV tapings to Birmingham, and the long tapings with little action exhausted fans. Soon Boutwell Auditorium wasn’t the hot ticket it had once been. Fuller eventually sold out to Alabama businessman David Woods, and TV production—and wrestler payoffs—soon went down. So did ticket sales. Even the injection of new bookers like Kevin Sullivan and Gilbert couldn’t save the promotion.
The number of wrestling stars who spent significant time in their careers in Southeastern/Continental is phenomenal, no offense to A.J. Styles. In addition to the Armstrongs, Hayes, Anderson, Davis, and Street, some other notable names made their mark:
Hulk Hogan: Simply put, this is where Hogan got his start, wrestling as Sterling Golden and then as Terry “the Hulk” Boulder. Hogan won the Southeastern title in Knoxville, but his reign as champion was also recognized in the southern division. The Southeastern title was one of only two singles titles Hogan held before becoming the WWE (then the WWF) champion. The other title? The IWGP heavyweight championship. Hogan met and wrestled Andre the Giant for the first time in Southeastern, as well. While their matchup at WrestleMania III in the Pontiac Silverdome was billed as their first go-round, that match had been booked in Dothan, more than six years before. (To be fair, they also wrestled in Memphis and other territories as well before the WMIII blowoff.)
Ed Leslie: The man who would go on to fame as Brutus “the Barber” Beefcake has made a habit of riding Hogan’s coattails. He was Eddie Boulder and ‘Dizzy’ Ed Hogan in Southeastern, teaming with veterans like Rick Gibson (not Robert—we’ll get to him later) in order to learn the ropes. He had at least two runs in the area, winning tag gold on a couple of occasions.
Paul Heyman: As Paul E. Dangerously, he’d been around the business for a few years already, notably in the AWA and in Jim Crockett Promotions as the manager for the ‘original’ Midnights. By the time Heyman followed Eddie Gilbert into Continental as assistant booker, he’d annoyed millions of people on cable TV. But the CWF was the place where he was first able to put that brilliant booking mind to work, crafting serious and engrossing angles with a small crew of underpaid and under-appreciated wrestlers. In fact, many people have seen the Gilbert-Heyman era of CWF as the forerunner to ECW.
Robert Gibson: One-half of the Rock & Roll Express got his start in the business in Southeastern, wrestling as Ruben Gibson alongside his established veteran brother, Ricky. While Gibson is deserving of his slot in the 2017 WWE Hall of Fame, wrestling historians like Jim Cornette will tell you that Ricky Gibson, whose career was cut short due to a severe car crash, was the better wrestler of the two.
Paul Orndorff: The Brandon Bull spent some time in the southern territories honing his craft, including a stint in Southeastern, where he held the promotion’s top title and feuded with Stubbs. He’d go on to more prominent work in Georgia as the National heavyweight champion and hold Mid-South’s North American title before signing with the WWE to come in as one of the top heels in the promotion. Orndorff also had high-profile stints in WCW and also trained wrestlers at the Power Plant in Atlanta.
The Honkytonk Man: Wayne Ferris, who was a mainstay in Southern wrestling for years before he went to New York, feuded with Bob Armstrong and Idol before turning babyface and defending the Southeastern title against Boris Zukhov. Both men went almost immediately from Southeastern to the WWE.
Kevin Sullivan: The former Taskmaster started his career as an undersized babyface in the southern states, and won the US junior heavyweight title. He recently told a podcaster that he’d known Hogan for many years before they crossed paths again in WCW, saying “I knew him when he lived in his van down on the beach in Pensacola.” Sullivan eventually returned to the promotion as booker when it became Continental, feuding with the Armstrongs.
Masa Saito and Masahiro Chono: The future world champions (AWA world title for Saito, and NWA and IWGP titles for Chono) both spent time in Alabama during the earlier part of their careers. Saito had a close association with, believe it or not, the Midnight Express while feuding with Bob Armstrong over the Alabama heavyweight title. Chono came into Continental while on excursion for New Japan, and was teamed with veteran Mike Davis, winning the Continental tag team titles.
Sid Vicious: That’s right, Psycho Sid spent time in Southeastern as the masked Lord Humongous, a gimmick that got over so well, at least two other guys did it after Vicious left for Jim Crockett Promotions. At the time he worked for the Fullers, Vicious drove a Chevy Chevette, and when he arrived at arenas, it often looked like he was wearing the subcompact car rather than actually driving it. He went on to become a headliner in WCW and WWE, winning the WWE world title.
Pro wrestling may be the most disposable of all mass entertainment. The things that happened 20 or 30 years ago seem to no longer matter. But underneath it all, the old ghosts still linger, rattling chains to remind long-time fans of an era that doesn’t seem so far gone after all. One day the ghosts will all be gone, the threads that bind WWE to the smoky, rowdy past of ‘rasslin’ will finally break. But right now, if you know the ghosts are still there, they’re easy to see.
Bobby Mathews is a novelist, freelance writer, and independent filmmaker in Birmingham, Alabama. Find him on Twitter: @BamaWriter.