Bruce Tharpe was born with professional wrestling in his blood. Through the work of his father, he was raised amongst some of wrestling’s most celebrated legends. He learned early on what it took to break into the international markets as an American talent and promoter, which led to a role he’s most known for today as former President of the NWA.
In life, destiny has a way of unexpectedly thrusting someone into something new. In Bruce’s case, his journey to success would begin one afternoon while performing a magic trick backstage.
Jim Phillips, author of this article and one of the great wrestling historians here at Pro Wrestling Stories, is in the challenge of his life after being paralyzed on January 21st, 2023. Learn his story and how you can help him reach his goal of taking his first steps again!
Bruce Tharpe – Early Years
From a young age, Bruce Tharpe was around the wrestling business. His father Chet worked as a ring announcer in the territory that would become Championship Wrestling from Florida under Eddie Graham. He also worked with many of the NWA contingents of the 1950s.
Growing up around the biggest names in professional wrestling led to a natural love for the business.
Another one of Bruce’s passions growing up was magic.
One afternoon, while practicing some of his magic in the stage area of CWF, his father and Eddie Graham passed by. Graham took an interest and stopped to ask Bruce to show him what he was doing. Bruce obliged and was soon performing a levitating cloth trick.
Graham, amazed as the young magician managed to make his handkerchief rise and float mid-air, peered under the levitating cloth to see if there were strings, but he couldn’t find any. He congratulated Bruce, then the two men continued on walking and talking.
Tharpe didn’t give this encounter a second thought until his father approached him a few days later. Graham had asked his father how the trick was done. Chet, being honest, told Eddie he did not know. His son would not even tell his own father how he did it.
Based on this ability to keep the secret of the illusion, or in the term Graham was familiar with: not breaking kayfabe, the seventeen-year-old was offered a job working in the office at CWF.
Breaking Into the Business
It wasn’t long before Bruce Tharpe began working daily with the likes of Gordon Solie, Jerry Brisco, and then-booker, Dusty Rhodes.
So why did he chose to take the path of wrestling and not make magic his focus?
"Brother, I grew up around this," Tharpe explained to me. "Wrestling is my passion. I’ve always been a fan; I’ll always be one. I love this business."
Tharpe continued, "Once I got the opportunity to work with some of my heroes, my mind was made up. That’s why I didn’t go to the University of Florida, like my brother and sister. I went to college in Tampa so I could do TV every Wednesday. I was working as the ring announcer for the television spots every week, and things just went from there."
Kayfabe and protecting the business meant so much more back in those days. Even after showing that he could keep the secrets of the business and office quiet, Bruce was still shunned when it came to being in the dressing room. That was sacred ground, and he told me a perfect story to illustrate this fact.
"When I started working in the office, I would see the boys come in and get their payouts. We’d talk, but the big dog, the booker, Dusty Rhodes, had kicked me out of the dressing room a few times. They knew I was smartened up on things, but he still would make me leave. It really bothered me because I didn’t know why he wouldn’t trust me to be back there.
"Years later, while I was out of the wrestling business for a bit and focusing on my law practice, Dusty had passed away.
"I heard Dustin tell a story in an interview about how his father worked an angle where The Four Horseman had broken his arm, and the arm was in a cast. Dustin recalled that Dusty protected the business so well that he would wear the cast until the kids had gone to bed, and then take it off to ensure that they wouldn’t see him without it on, then go to school telling their friends that he wasn’t really hurt. That’s the extent to which he went to protect the business and not break kayfabe, even around his family.
"I had so much more respect for him after hearing that, and it made me understand why he would kick me out of the dressing room. It was about the tradition and keeping it secret. I wish I could have talked to him about that before he passed. He was a brilliant, one of a kind performer."
We went on to talk about the NWA and his term as President and owner of the brand.
Bruce Tharpe as NWA President from 2012-2016
Bruce Tharpe took the helm of the NWA in the summer of 2012 and immediately began to establish it, once again, as a worldwide brand. He connected with New Japan Pro-Wrestling and made inroads to take his NWA to the Land of the Rising Sun.
I asked him how hard it was for him to break into the overseas market after such a long absence by the NWA and how the American product was received.
"I reached out to Masao Hattori, the American agent for New Japan, and we set up a meeting in Dallas with him, myself, and Gedo, the booker there. We discussed what I wanted to do. They were very much interested in that and bringing the NWA brand over there. I had a second meeting with Hattori in Manhattan not long after, and we sealed the deal. In November of that year, Rob Conway, Jax Dane, and I went over to make our debut, not knowing really what to expect."
He continued to tell me how he unwittingly was cast in the role of an arrogant American and how he embraced it rather than let it intimidate him.
"We went through the curtain with a good response, and they wanted me to get in the ring and cut a promo. I basically told the crowd that we were in Japan to win, to defeat the Japanese wrestlers, and prove that NWA wrestlers were superior in every way. The crowd didn’t like that and started to boo me. It was music to my ears.
"Shortly after that, we were in Taiwan, and I felt I needed something flashy to wear other than the drab lawyer suits to add to the direction that the audience was taking me. I went and had three suits tailor-made for me because everything off the rack was made too small to fit this six-foot-tall, broad-shouldered Florida boy frame!"
While working with NJPW, the coveted "Ten Pounds of Gold" was held by Satoshi Kojima and Hiroyoshi Tenzan after both defeated Rob Conway on separate trips to Japan. Jax Dane took the belt from Tenzan at the World War Gold event in San Antonio in 2015.
Along with strengthening ties between the NWA and international companies, Tharpe sought to put his footprint in the modern era by creating the NWA website, which featured NWA content from the past, namely Paul Boesch’s Houston tape library. He also brought in a lot of new champions to meet that footprint. Names such as Jax Dane and Rob Conway were amongst those brought in to carry the new banner forward.
Tharpe had an uphill battle throughout his time as NWA President, however. He struggled with the old guard mentality of territories unwilling to change and adjust to meet the business’s ever-evolving nature. To add, many territories were going through the change of becoming independents but still wanting to label their champion as “NWA Champion” without paying the appropriate fees or going through the proper channels. As a result, people were popping up “NWA this” and “NWA that,” but without proper affiliation with the NWA itself. This posed a bit of a hurdle for Tharpe, but he did his best to navigate the changing waters of the business.
On May 1st, 2017, Billy Corgan agreed to purchase the NWA, including its name, rights, trademarks, and championship belts. As part of the acquisition, Corgan would also purchase Tharpe’s stake in the NWA’s “On Demand” VOD service and licensing of the Paul Boesch wrestling library. Corgan’s ownership of the NWA took effect on October 1, 2017, thus bringing Bruce Tharpe’s chapter of the NWA story to a close.
Life After the NWA
As most people in the wrestling business know, once the in-ring bug bites you, it’s tough to step away. Bruce Tharpe is not immune to this, and he has made appearances up at various wrestling events in the years that have since followed.
"I’ll always be very passionate about the business. When opportunities present themself, I welcome the chance to get back in the spotlight. We worked a show in Texas, and the fans weren’t expecting to see me there, and some of them definitely remembered me and recognized me when I came out. I’d love to get back into the business more and hopefully go back to Japan.
Tharpe continued, "Once my law practice affords me the time for those things, I’d like to see them happen in the future. There’s no feeling in the world like being in front of a live crowd and performing. There’s just nothing like it."
We want to thank Bruce Tharpe for taking the time to give us a look at breaking into the business from a little different perspective. Building lasting relationships and keeping the business safely protected is one of the things lost in the frenetic world of our social media lives these days. Though kayfabe may very well be on the verge of completely being rubbed out, these stories keep them alive for eternity.
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