The facts are easy to come by: Bullet Bob Armstrong has bone cancer, and it’s bad. The disease is shot through his ribs, shoulder, and prostate according to his son, Scott. And at 80 years old, Bob has decided not to seek treatment.
I’ve been sitting at this computer for the better part of half an hour, trying to find the words to say about one of the greatest professional wrestlers of the sport’s heyday, and I can’t figure it out.
I knew he was sick back in November, when I showed up at The Crossing at Big Creek in Dothan, Alabama, for a tribute night to Bob’s career. Before the event, I sat down with longtime Southeastern and Continental announcer Charlie Platt to talk about the good old days of wrestling, and about Bob in particular, when the man himself came in and sat down at our table. Charlie and Ron Fuller had both warned me that Bob wasn’t doing well physically, but asked me not to say anything publicly.
I guess I could’ve had a big scoop, but I did what they asked. Maybe that makes me a bad journalist, but here’s the thing: There’s not a man in the wrestling business that I respect more than Bob Armstrong, and I’m pretty damned sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.
“There’s not a man in the wrestling business that I respect more than Bob Armstrong, and I’m pretty damned sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.”
Things you maybe don’t know about Bob Armstrong: When the Georgia territory split, with most of the talent going with Ann Gunkel, Bob stayed with the NWA promotion. Gunkel reportedly offered Bob a $500 a week guarantee to come work for her upstart All-South Wrestling Alliance–that’s more than $3,000 a week in 2020 money–but Bob remained loyal to the NWA (and specifically loyal to Paul Jones, who was the Atlanta promoter at the time).
It paid off for him. All-South folded in 1974, but Bob got a run at the top in Atlanta in late 1972, trading the Southern Heavyweight Title back and forth with Buddy Colt. In 1974, he headed to Florida, where Bill Watts was booking for Eddie Graham, and got a run at the top of the card there, winning that territory’s version of the Southern title, too. He also got his first NWA world title shot, too: against Jack Brisco.
Bob Armstrong – The Man Behind The Curtain
Bob’s career started in 1960, and for the first 10 years, he split time as a professional firefighter. He was even billed, early on, as “the wrestling fireman from Marietta, Georgia.” In 1970, he was finally able to wrestle full-time.
But that’s all stuff you can find elsewhere. I want to talk about the man.
Maybe this is a little too much inside baseball, but guys who have shared a locker room with the Rock & Roll Express don’t call them Ricky and Robert. They’re Punky and Hoot. Old-timers who have shared a locker room with Bob Armstrong don’t call him Bob. He’s Pep.
But a lot of us who grew up watching him just call him Bullet.
Bob has lived a hell of a life. Unlike a lot of wrestling marriages, his has lasted. He and Mrs. Gail had four sons: Scott, Brad, Steve, and Brian. He served honorably in the United States Marine Corps and was Honor Man for his platoon at basic training on Parris Island.
He’s responsible for starting Arn Anderson’s hall-of-fame career. Anderson was working as a meat-cutter and doing jobs on Georgia TV when he got the chance to work a match with Bob and Brad. Arn got two weeks of work in Southeastern, and then Bob helped him get booked into Mid-South for Watts.
Bob sold-out houses in Mid-Atlantic while not being booked on Jim Crockett television. Bob and Roddy Piper were feuding in Georgia, and the program–and the Georgia Championship Wrestling TV show–was so hot that Armstrong and Piper sold-out houses in the Carolinas without Bob ever showing up on TV for Crockett.
(Bob uttered a great comeback to Piper on TV once, and it’s one of the few times I’ve known of the Rowdy Scotsman being one-upped on the mic: Piper was consistently making fun of Bob’s well-developed upper body, but his admittedly thin legs … Piper told Armstrong that he looked like a horse with that big upper body and those ‘little bitty legs.’ Bob piped back up that Piper needed to understand that “jackasses don’t run with racehorses.”)
A couple of years ago, I got to interview Bob in what was probably his most in-depth shoot interview, and he told me that in the mid-1980s, he was working the Carolinas, Georgia, east Tennessee, and Alabama … he still lived with his wife in Gulf Breeze, Florida, but had to take an apartment in Atlanta for a time, just to make his bookings. You can listen to the full interview here.
But people will tell you that the wrestling business is bigger now than it’s ever been.
Bob Armstrong is also one of the few people to pin Hulk Hogan clean. Hogan had already begun his first run for the WWE–as a heel, with Freddie Blassie as his manager–but there was one problem: he was still the reigning Southeastern Heavyweight Champion.
WATCH: Bob Armstrong pins Hulk Hogan clean in a blow-off match in Knoxville, 1979
If there’s one thing that eluded Bob Armstrong, it was the NWA World Title. But for years I’d heard rumors that Bob was in line for a short run with the belt, kind of similar to the runs of Tommy Rich or Kerry Von Erich. I asked Bob about it, and he told me it was true. But for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. Some of it, I’m sure, was timing. Bob was in his forties in the 1980s, and he was part owner of a hot territory. Jim Crockett was consolidating power in the NWA and buying any promotion that wanted to sell out.
There are millions of things I’m not saying about Pep. I want to talk about his ultra-hot heel run in 1983, where he slapped Brad across the face on national TV. I want to talk about how he commanded respect in the locker room, how Bob wanted to strangle Tim Horner for making him look bad on Smoky Mountain TV, how Bob was STILL over as a top babyface in SMW some 25 years after his main event run in the Knoxville territory, how a guy who never set foot in a WWE ring was inducted into the 2011 Hall of Fame class.
I want to write about his feuds with Bobby Heenan, with Piper, with Ric Flair. I want to write about how there was real heat between him and Piper, but they were able to be professionals and eventually quash their beef. I want to write about the weight-lifting accident where his nose was torn completely away from his face, and how he came back to wrestling despite that horrific injury. God, there’s so much about Bob that’s fascinating.
Maybe I’ll get to those things in time.
I got to see Bob Armstrong wrestle literally hundreds of times. In short TV matches, in hour-long draws at the Houston County Farm Center or the Civic Center in Dothan. I got to see him on spot shows in New Brockton, Alabama, too … the Bullet was always a crowd favorite, and he always gave the fans their money’s worth.
But the thing I really want to say is this: I doubt there is a wrestling personality that is as loved and respected behind the scenes as Bob Armstrong. He has always been a decent man in a profession where decent men don’t seem to last long. He wrestled his first match in 1960, and his last one in 2019. He could work his ass off, he could talk, and he drew money everywhere he went.
And he’s as proud of and loyal to his family as anyone I’ve ever known.
Thanks for everything, Pep. Watching you wrestle was an education in itself, but watching how you conducted yourself behind the scenes was even more meaningful.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- Ghost Story: How a Long-forgotten Territory Still Haunts WWE
- Triumph and Tragedy: Wrestling Families Who Went Through Darkness and Light
- Brad Armstrong – Your Favorite Wrestler’s Favorite Wrestler