Georgia Championship Wrestling had many glory years that saw wrestling’s finest journey through its doors. However, greed, Vince McMahon, and a dark day in wrestling forever remembered as Black Saturday led to the demise of this territory, leaving many to wonder what could have been.
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!
Savannah, Georgia is steeped in U.S. history as much as it is the wrestling business. The oldest city in Georgia and a strategic port city in the American Revolution, Savannah was the last city occupied by the British before they sailed back home in 1782.
Likewise, Savannah was one of the last cities ran before the folding of WCW and its assimilation into the WWE.
As our story unfolds, we will see how this little city by the Atlantic, with its moss-laden live oaks and old money, had a hand in guiding the outcome of Georgia Championship Wrestling.
Well, time’s a-wasting, y’all. It’s only a five-hour drive up I-95 from our last stop, Championship Wrestling in Florida, so let’s get going. We’ll discuss one of the most prolific territories to have ever opened its doors on the way.
The Rise of Georgia Championship Wrestling
Georgia Championship Wrestling has roots in Atlanta dating back to 1944. It was launched under the ABC Booking company run by Paul Jones (not to be confused with Paul Frederik, who was later given the name), a former wrestler who went by the name of Andrew Lutzi. Jones ran shows out of the Municipal Auditorium for nearly thirty years before his retirement.
It was a regular stop-off for the NWA Champion, but they maintained their own set of NWA-branded Georgia championships.
The two main titles in the promotion in those days were the NWA Georgia Heavyweight Championship and the Tag Team Championships, both of which got their starts in the early ’50s.
The NWA Georgia Heavyweight Championship was a sought-after belt from its inception in the territory, but it was the man from Mexico known as El Mongol that really made the title his for the taking throughout the ’60s and as far up as 1972.
Buddy Fuller and Mr. Wrestling Tim Woods gave El Mongol his best matches, but he managed to capture the title ten times in that stretch of time.
El Mongol worked in Championship Wrestling from Florida during this time, and he ventured into the tag ranks while he was at Georgia Championship Wrestling and floating between the two territories.
He held the Georgia Tag titles with Tarzan Tyler for a short time, but it was short-lived as the Torres and Vachon families battled for the straps for most of 1968.
El Mongol would retire from wrestling in 1982 to open a pair of Mexican restaurants with his wife in Doraville, Georgia. The restaurants were sold in 2000, and Ray "El Mongol" Molina passed away in 2016 at 86.
The Assassins: Jody Hamilton and Tom Renesto
The NWA Georgia Tag Team Championships also saw their origin in the late ’60s.
While The Torres Brothers and The Vachons went to war in the fall of that year, there was another powerhouse that was about to get the titles in their grasp. Once they did, the tag ranks became their turf.
After losing the titles for a final time in Savannah, The Vachons were pushed out of the way and sent packing by the team of Jody Hamilton and Tom Renesto, better known as The Assassins.
Hamilton began wrestling as the original Assassin in the Georgia territory in the mid-’60s. However, once he paired with Renesto, the team of The Assassins tore through the Southern and Southeastern wrestling area and left no prisoners in their wake.
They captured their first tag titles in November 1968 and held them a record ten times over the next four years.
Though many teams like Buddy Fuller and Ray Gunkel managed to wrangle the belts away from them on a few occasions, The Assassins always seemed to get them back in short order.
Georgia Championship Wrestling at The Omni
As the Georgia Championship Wrestling promotion headed into 1972, some major changes were set into motion.
The new Omni Coliseum had opened up in the facility that would become the CNN Center in later years. GCW moved its weekly live shows to the new venue, and it held wrestling events there over the next 25 years.
Alongside the new spot at the Omni, Ted Turner also secured the rights to produce wrestling for his WTCG station that would eventually morph into the TBS cable station.
The Omni would become synonymous with WCW wrestling in later years.
Learn more: 11 Unforgettable Wrestling Moments at The Omni.
The Death of Ray Gunkel and Rise of an Outlaw Promotion
Although positive changes were being made internally, things were not good at Georgia Championship Wrestling during this time.
After his death, Ray’s widow Ann wanted to take over her husband’s share in the business, but the promotion was sold from under her to Bill Watts, who began to spin off his own Mid-South Sports out of the business move.
Gunkel quickly made moves to open her own outlaw promotion outside of the NWA banner and run shows against Watts. Several loyal wrestlers went with her, including then Georgia Tag Team champs Dick Steinborn and Argentina Apollo, which left those titles vacant.
Her new All-South Wrestling Alliance looked to be stronger than Watts had anticipated, and they began to draw business away from his new promotion.
Gunkel also used her inside connections with Ted Turner, rumored to be romantically linked from their college days at Brown University, to acquire the television spot occupied by Watts at WTCG.
It looked like Ann had Mid-South against the ropes, but it was an audible call by Watts to bring in outside help that would finally help him win the insurrection. That man? Jim Barnett.
Born in Oklahoma City in June of ’24, Jim Barnett started working around the wrestling business in his teens for Fred Kohler in his NWA Chicago territory. There, Barnett learned the workings of the office and how to book to draw from Kohler during his early years.
In 1955, Barnett leveraged his way into the Chicago promotion and bought into the NWA franchise.
He continued to achieve and grow with further expansions into the Indianapolis office as well, where he ran shows with Johnny Doyle.
The two sometimes ran shows against the NWA Detroit brand periodically but mostly kept within the confines of the organization’s umbrella.
Following a 1962 scandal that involved film star Rock Hudson and accusations of homosexual improprieties with some of Barnett’s wrestlers, the promoter began to sell off shares and stockholdings he had in several ventures across the country.
After moving to Sydney, Australia, Barnett would open the original World Championship Wrestling there in 1964.
Barnett stayed in Australia for the next decade until he got the call to return to Georgia in 1974.
Once back on American soil, Barnett was involved with the wrestling business full bore, and things started to turn around for Watts and his Mid-South one-off.
When the gates returned, so did the wrestlers, and the Omni once again was cranking out the classics.
By this point, Ann Gunkel’s ASWA went out of business, and everything was re-absorbed by Barnett’s newly built juggernaut.
The 1970s – Years of Transition for Georgia Championship Wrestling
The changing of hands and promotional banners that Georgia Championship Wrestling went through in the early ’70s leaves its history somewhat clouded during that time.
Watts pulled out and headed to Oklahoma full-time with his Mid-South brand that would morph into the UWA before its eventual demise at the hands of national expansions.
One such leap of growth was catalyzed by Barnett himself when he saw an opportunity to go nationwide in 1976.
Barnett wasn’t the only one growing a company in the ’70s. Ted Turner had taken his investment capital and made the right moves to secure himself a swath of prime real estate in downtown Atlanta.
The CNN Complex housed the now booming Omni Coliseum and his ground-breaking twenty-four-hour news service and the newly crowned "Superstation," WTBS.
Barnett saw this as an opportunity to go beyond the confines of just his home base of Atlanta to get his product into any cable market in the country.
Though he had a tough time getting his product out there as easily as he thought, things began to pick up swiftly.
With Gordon Solie providing the soundtrack that only he could, Georgia Championship Wrestling began to tape shows for television at a small studio on Peachtree Street. Word began to spread between workers who lived on the East Coast and out to California that Georgia was one of the places to get over and make some money.
Wrestlers from all over began to pour into the promotion, and the title scene exploded. No matter how many top-tier competitors came after it, the Georgia Heavyweight Title was dominated by one man.
From Bill Watts and Buddy Colt to Abdullah the Butcher and Stan Hansen, they all lost their titles to one man, who in total held that championship almost a dozen times between 1973-78.
Mr. Wrestling II
John Walker was born in the midst of the Turbulent Thirties in the beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina.
He got his early training in part by Pat O’Connor and made his professional debut as Johnny Walker at 20.
Walker made a name for himself, working with NWA promoter Paul Boesch out of Houston but opted to start a family and retired as a young man just ten years after his debut.
This did not last long, and after starting a family, he went back to wrestling under the mask, firstly as The Grappler, but then as the name that would be his legacy: Mr. Wrestling II.
He first started as the tag partner to the original Mr. Wrestling but would eventually take the character full-time once Tim Woods moved on to work the Mid-Atlantic territory.
Walker would also travel to the transplanted Mid-South territory in the early ’80s to work, and while he was there, he trained a few names that would change the business: "Magnum TA" Terry Allen and Rick Rude, among others.
Mr. Wrestling II worked as a singles and tag competitor during his time at Georgia Championship Wrestling, but two of his opponents really moved that promotion into the ’80s and stood out among the many who worked there. One worked under the mask, while the other lit the territory up like… wildfire.
The Masked Superstar Bill Eadie
The Masked Superstar was born under the name Bill Eadie on December 27, 1947.
Though he got his break in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, it was in Georgia Championship Wrestling that he really made his mark on the NWA.
Eadie was a hard-hitting bruiser that met every challenge with a flurry of fists and a hail of boots. He brawled his way through the Georgia heavyweight division, capturing the title four times during his time there, and he unified his belt with the newly formed NWA National Heavyweight Championship in September 1981.
The Masked Superstar became known for his hour-long cage matches against Blackjack Mulligan. The old NWA cage matches are some of the bloodiest I’ve ever seen, and The Masked Superstar was up at the top of that list with Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair for the amount of blood let onto the canvas.
His battles with Wahoo McDaniel were also the stuff of legend in GCW.
The Masked Superstar Bill Eadie would later make a significant impact in the WWF as Ax in Demolition.
Wildfire Tommy Rich
Tommy Rich was born in the Volunteer State of Tennessee at the height of the 1956 summer.
Rich got his training from Jerry Jarrett when he was still a young man, and he took to the roads and worked most of the major NWA markets in the South and Southeast.
Jim Barnett quickly saw the marketability in Rich and christened him "Wildfire" Tommy Rich due to his ability to captivate and pop a crowd.
Rich defeated Harley Race for the NWA Heavyweight Championship in April of 1981, only to lose the title back to Race four days later.
It was considered a power-brokering move by Barnett to secure his tight hold on the NWA office during that time.
Before he left GCW, Rich also feuded with the newly arrived Road Warriors.
He ended his time in Georgia with a series of matches against Ted DiBiase, where he lost his title and began wrestling under the mask against DiBiase as Mr. R.
Tommy wrapped up his time in GCW in 1984 before he headed on to Memphis.
Notable Tag Teams in Georgia Championship Wrestling
The Georgia Tag Team Championships also saw more than its fair share of action in the late ’70s and into the ’80s.
The Grahams worked there for a bit, and Eddie managed to get a piece of the promotion as well.
The Brisco Brothers also worked GCW during these years. They bought into the promotion alongside Graham, Barnett, and Paul Jones. A small percentage was even owned by part-time booker and a man with one expression: Ole Anderson.
The Garvins, Ronny and Terry, also held the titles in the early ’70s and battled with Bullet Bob Armstrong and Robert Fuller until a new pair of heels took the title scene and made it their playground.
The team of Gene and Lars Anderson originated the Minnesota Wrecking Crew back in 1966. Still, the incarnation with "nephew" Arn Anderson is the unit that memory evokes when you hear the name.
With the grizzled, stoic Ole calling the shots, and the pitbull of a young worker in Arn delivering the heavy hits and suffocating spine busters that looked like Rembrandt in motion, the two decimated any pair that they laid their gaze on. No one was safe, and no quarter was given when the Wrecking Crew hit the ring.
Mr. Wrestling I & II gave them their most competition while at GCW, but very few teams stood in their way for long.
The Minnesota Wrecking Crew sold out anywhere they wrestled in Georgia and tore the house down in Arn’s birthplace of Rome anytime they made their way through the area.
The Wrecking Crew left Georgia for a short time and formed the four-man powerhouse, The Four Horsemen, in the Mid-Atlantic territory.
After a falling out there, Ole was booted out of the faction, and he returned to Georgia Championship Wrestling. He brought with him his former partner Lars to continue as The Minnesota Wrecking Crew, where he and Arn had left off.
Although Ole had a run in the tag division with many partners, including Stan Hansen, the two lost the titles due to too many disqualifications.
These teams dominated the tag division until The Fabulous Freebirds came to town.
They took the titles in 1980 when they defeated both teams of The Assassins and Mr. Wrestling I & II.
Then, only a month later, in a match where they defeated NWA National Tag Team Champions Robert Fuller and Stan Frazier, better known for his time in the WWF as Uncle Elmer, The Freebirds unified the NWA and Georgia Tag Titles.
The Georgia titles were absorbed, and The Freebirds carried on as NWA National Tag Champs.
Notable NWA Georgia Television Champions
The Tag and Heavyweight Titles weren’t the only championships in the Georgia Championship Wrestling territory being fought over in the promotion’s heyday. The NWA Georgia Television Title was also battled for by some of the best in the business.
Long before some territories adopted a Light Heavyweight or Junior Heavyweight Title, the Television Championship was one where the smaller wrestlers, or workers that weren’t in the major title hunt at that time, could still achieve gold and carry the notoriety that went along with it.
In 1979, Austin Idol made his bid for the belt and took it from Ray Candy, and captured it two more times by the end of 1980, feuding with Tommy Rich and Kevin Sullivan, who held it three times himself.
The NWA Georgia Television Championship shuffled around a lot, but it also gave many wrestlers the chance to make it their own and push their careers in the process.
As the NWA tried to broaden its scope and unify the territories, instead of seeing them bought out by the McMahon machine, many titles were absorbed and ceased to exist, as we’ve learned so far.
This does not mean by any chance, though, that those divisions cooled down. It opened the door for more nationalization of contracts and the shuffling of top-tier talents between the existing NWA promotions.
To this point, the NWA National Heavyweight Title and the NWA National Tag Team Titles were the only really active titles, along with the NWA National TV title in the background.
Black Saturday and the Unfortunate Fate of Georgia Championship Wrestling
No matter how hard they tried, the might of Vince McMahon would not be stymied from reeling in everything he could, and Georgia Championship Wrestling would be no exception.
What became known as Black Saturday happened solely due to greed and spite.
In 1983, Barnett was edged out of any shot calling in GCW through politicking and backroom dealings. This left the trio of The Briscoes and Paul Jones in the decision-making end of the office with Ole along for the ride with his little percentage of stock.
While Barnett still held stock, it was less than even Ole, so they all thought they were in fairly safe waters, but McMahon smelled the stench of a dying animal and went in for blood like any good predator.
In the Summer of 1984, McMahon began a correspondence with Barnett in an attempt to buy his portion of GCW.
Simultaneously, unbeknownst to Barnett, McMahon also began making deals with the majority stockholders, The Brisco Brothers.
McMahon worked one against the other and bulldozed down the middle like something out of Fistfull of Dollars, coming out a winner of everything in the end.
While Barnett is scapegoated with the demise of GCW, when he sold his shares to McMahon, it allowed the WWF to run its product in the venerated 6:05 time slot on TBS.
This was considered heresy in the wrestling world and probably did Vince more harm than good over the decade and a half that followed.
Once Barnett sold, The Briscos were quick to follow, leaving Paul Jones little choice but to scramble and get what he could out of his piece of the pie.
This left Ole out in the financial cold with his drawls in the breeze.
While it probably wasn’t a good idea to screw over Ole, the partners all came out of the deal financially or occupationally sound for the rest of their careers in the business.
According to Ric Flair in his book To Be The Man, Ole vowed revenge, and he even attempted to pay the Road Warriors to cripple The Briscos in a tag match over the NWA National Tag Titles in Georgia.
While that may only be a story, it always tells the truth if you follow the money.
Jim Barnett went on to become Vice President at Titan Sports, the parent company of the WWF. It would be a position he would hold for the next several years.
Barnett would actually be the one to broker the deal between Jim Crockett Promotions and Titan Sports to sell the 6:05 time slot to JCP when Vince’s product wasn’t received well by the Southern loyalist fans, and it took a big dump in the ratings.
Meanwhile, The Briscos payday, besides the near one million dollars they sold their stock for, was guaranteed spots at the WWF as road agents and later an on-air role for Gerald in the Attitude Era.
Following Black Saturday, Ole sued Barnett and tried to continue with his own Championship Wrestling from Georgia.
This failed to last, and JCP took over everything that was GCW when Crockett bought out the contract from Vince in late 1984, as McMahon was trying to pool all his resources for WrestleMania I.
All of the NWA National Titles that were active in GCW went on to see time in JCP and the later World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in one capacity or another.
Jim Barnett also worked for JCP for a short time as well. He died on September 18, 2004, from complications of pneumonia. He was 80 years old.
The footprint left by Georgia Championship Wrestling can still be felt in the way the product is presented today. While the new WWE may not have the freeform promos that made the territory days great, or the bloody cage matches and specialty stipulation matches we all came to love as kids, so many of their stars today still have roots in not only the NWA but in the Southern Wrestling movement, and GCW as well.
Thank you for keeping up with us in this series as we delve into the history of the wrestling territories. We’ll see you here next time and never forget: Our wrestling history is gold.
Learn more about the rise and fall of Georgia Championship Wrestling:
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