Mid-South Wrestling Association was one of the hottest wrestling promotions of the 1980s, where many diamonds of the professional wrestling business began their careers or passed through its doors.
In time, Mid-South became the Universal Wrestling Federation. Soon later, battle lines with the WWF and NWA were drawn. But, just as wrestling was about to enter its most significant boom period, things crumbled.
Here is the story of this once-great wrestling territory’s rise and ultimate demise.
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!
Welcome back to our exploration of the history of the Wrestling Territories, friends. We have filled up the tank and are heading on a 13-hour cross-country journey from where we left off at Big Time Wrestling in Detroit to Tulsa, Oklahoma, the home of Mid-South Wrestling.
The Rise and Fall of Mid-South Wrestling Association
Much like other promotions in that part of the country, Mid-South Wrestling brought a hard-hitting style of wrestling to its fans. Led by the example of the irascible "Cowboy" Bill Watts, the ground and pound ethic of the roster was not only a key to its success but a keystone to its legacy.
Some have described it as a "wrestling boot camp," where Watts focused on keeping kayfabe, hard work, and strict rules. So grab a seat, and let’s get started where it all began, back in the late ’70s.
"Cowboy" Bill Watts
Born in 1939, William Watts Jr. grew up in the dust-blown state of Oklahoma around the horse ranches and cattle herds that would lead him to adopt his familiar nickname of "Cowboy."
He took to wrestling early on and became a journeyman in the ’60s, traveling all across the United States, and out to Japan as he learned his craft. He was so over with the fans in the NWA Tri-State territory that he purchased part of it from Leroy McGuirk after their relationship became strained in August 1979.
Watts initially took control of bookings in Louisiana and Mississippi. At the same time, McGuirk kept Oklahoma and Alabama, though, by ’82, McGuirk ceased operations which left things open for Bill Watts and Mid-South Wrestling to take over.
Watts soon re-launched the promotion as his own Mid-South Wrestling Association and withdrew from the previous partnership with the NWA.
Mid-South would remain loosely aligned with the NWA. However, the NWA World Heavyweight Champion would continue to defend the title on MSW shows, which helped hike up live event sales.
Over the next few years, the territory grew to include cities in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and eventually as far south as Texas after securing a working relationship with Houston promoter Paul Boesch. This allowed Watts the opportunity to have his workers featured on wrestling cards at two of the greatest venues for professional wrestling in the country, the revered Sam Houston Coliseum, and the Louisiana Superdome.
For any promotion to rise to the next level and draw big crowds, it needs three essential things: creativity in the booking, a solid roster to pull it off, and an equally adept broadcast team to make it all sizzle to the fans on television.
Watts had all of these at his disposal. He used them to bring national attention to his promotion and was responsible for launching the careers of some of professional wrestling’s biggest names.
The voice behind the Mid-South product would soon become synonymous with the sound of professional wrestling for a generation to come.
Jim Ross in Mid-South
Jim Ross initially held the job of referee for the first three years of his time at NWA Tri-State but became a member of the broadcast unit after Bill Watts took the company over and changed it to Mid-South Wrestling.
Ross was soon promoted to the familiar play-by-play spot that would highlight his career in professional wrestling. Ross also took on the job of Director of Marketing during this time.
With JR on the mic, Mid-South had the voice it needed to put the fans on the edge of their seats.
By late 1979 and into early 1980, all the dominoes started falling into place for Watts.
Standout Mid-South Wrestling Stars
Ted DiBiase had returned from a short-lived run in the WWF, just after Vince McMahon Jr. had taken over the promotion from his father.
DiBiase went on to have a long run in Mid-South in both tag team and singles action, and he was famous for winning matches after hitting his opponents with a "loaded" black glove he would brandish when the ref was looking elsewhere.
Watts’s creative eye was behind the formation of The Fabulous Freebirds the year before, and the duo of Hayes and Gordy tore up the tag team ranks and terrorized Mid-South Wrestling after adding Buddy Roberts to the mix.
Watts was also behind the moniker that George Gray would take to worldwide fame when Gray was working with Devastation Inc. and attacked a babyface and several other wrestlers during a match when he exclaimed, "He’s like a one man gang!!"
Ernie Ladd had also returned to the area and began to help Watts with booking and was instrumental in building one of the biggest names to come out of the Mid-South territory.
The Junkyard Dog
Sylvester Ritter had started his wrestling career in Tennessee and then ventured to the cold north of Canada and Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, where he had made a bit of a name for himself as Big Daddy Ritter. It wasn’t until he came to the office of Bill Watts in Shreveport, Louisiana, that his professional wrestling career transcended to another level.
He took on the persona of The Junkyard Dog, complete with an entrance including him pushing a shopping cart to the ring filled with junk he aptly called his "junk wagon" before he started using his trademark collar and chain gimmick.
It wasn’t long before JYD’s charisma with the fans and in-ring timing propelled him to the front of the babyface scene at Mid-South Wrestling.
He had feuds with all the big heels in the company at that time. One of his most significant feuds was with the Freebirds, where they had blinded the Dog with hair cream.
The Freebirds fanned the heat through the feud until it reached a white-hot state when Ritter’s wife gave birth to his first child, and Watts brought this into the angle.
The fans were furious at the ‘Birds for blinding their favorite hero and leaving him unable to see his baby because of it. They built it to a sellout in the Superdome that drew a crowd of nearly thirty thousand.
After the tipping point of the feud went in favor of the Freebirds, JYD began to work another famous gimmick used in several territories and still do this day, as he went under the disguise of a mask and wrestled as an alter-identity.
After JYD came out on the losing end of a feud with Ted DiBiase and partner Matt Borne during a Loser Leaves Town match, he worked as the masked Stagger Lee in singles and tag action with several different partners. The Stagger Lee character would continue until the time ran out on the loser leaves town clause.
JYD returned to his unmasked self and regained the North American Heavyweight Championship.
Soon after, he was drawn into his final feud there over that title with his student, Butch Reed, before the lure of big money in New York drew him away from Watts and into the hands of Vince McMahon.
His easy-going personality and relatability to the everyday man made JYD an instant fan favorite and one of the stars that Vince McMahon centered the new creative direction of his family-friendly WWF around.
Watts had other acts growing under his wing at this time as well.
The Midnight Express
In 1983, Bill Watts started a talent exchange with Jerry Jarrett at the CWA. He took the amazing, established tag team of the Robert Gibson and Ricky Morton (The Rock’ n’ Roll Express) and several other wrestlers, including a trio of talent that he would bring together as one of the most notable tag teams in wrestling history and give the R’n’R Express their most despised rivals ever.
The tag team of Bobby Eaton and Dennis Condrey was put together by Bill Watts, but it wasn’t until the addition of spoiled mama’s boy Jim Cornette that the Midnight Express was born.
The young twenty-two-year-old tennis racket toting, big-mouthed, cry-baby was an instant foil for many of the boys on and off the camera. The dissention between the two Expresses started early on when the R’n’R smashed an unsuspecting Cornette’s face into his own birthday cake.
Watts threw gas on the flames by showing the piece of video repeatedly on television.
After a run of matches against Watts and Stagger Lee that sold out every venue they went to, the rivalry between the two Expresses began to really heat up.
The natural chemistry between the two teams could be felt every time they stepped in the ring together. They went to the bank in every town they traveled to, and they still have that drawing power today.
It wasn’t long before the siren song of better offers pulled another of Watt’s creations to green pastures, and the two teams went their separate ways. They would, however, cross paths many times in the years to come to make history in other areas of the territorial map.
From Mid-South Wrestling to the Universal Wrestling Federation
In the late ’80s, Mid-South Wrestling underwent an attempt at a nationwide expansion when Bill Watts secured television time on the Superstation, TBS, after Ted Turner had a sour business dealing with Vince McMahon over the content that McMahon was supplying him.
Watts was poised to take over the two-hour slot occupied by the WWF when Jim Crockett and his Mid-Atlantic promotion swooped in and backdoored Watts out of the deal. This led to Watts changing the name of Mid-South to the Universal Wrestling Federation and attempting another nationwide launch in March of 1986.
Many future superstars made their way through the UWF over the next year and a half.
Sting and Jim Hellwig (the Ultimate Warrior) came into the territory from a short run in WCCW as the Blade Runners, and creative consultant Ken Mantell also came aboard from Texas.
Jim Duggan made a name for himself during the transition from Mid-South to the UWF. He feuded with Ted DiBiase, who was still working between Watts’s promotion and time in Japan.
Not long after, Duggan would pick up a 2×4 and take on the nickname of Hacksaw and be remembered as one of the biggest fan favorites of the WWF ’80s.
Dr. Death Steve Williams also made a name for himself in the UWF by winning the Heavyweight Championship from Big Bubba Rogers, better known as Ray Traylor, or The Big Boss Man from his later WWF career. He was a primal force of nature in the ring, and not many could match his explosive power.
After his time in Universal, Williams went on to a storied run in the NWA. He held the extinction of not being pinned for a decade until he became involved in the fiasco that was the Brawl For All tournament in the ’90s in WWF.
This caused friction between Williams and longtime friend and fellow UWF alumni, Jim Ross, who had brought Dr. Death into the WWF and the Brawl For All series with some considerable fanfare. Williams lost before the final round, though, and Williams resented Ross for years later. He was outspoken about his ill feelings at how JR and the WWF handled his run.
Steve Williams retired from the ring in 2009 and died from throat cancer not long after, on December 29, 2009, at the young age of 49.
The Demise of Mid-South Wrestling and the Universal Wrestling Federation
After suffering financial losses, mounting near $500,000 from the attempted expansion, Bill Watts was forced to sell the UWF to Jim Crockett Promotions on April 9, 1987.
Despite promises by Crockett to keep the promotion going, the UWF folded and was absorbed by his Mid-Atlantic Wrestling promotion just six months later.
All of the UWF titles were then summarily won by Crockett’s own workers and then left to fade out of use altogether.
In a strange twist of fate, Ted Turner bought out Crockett promotions to form WCW later and presented Watts with the opportunity to run the show as the lead booker.
One Man Gang lost the UWF Title to Big Bubba Rogers just before he departed for his career-changing run in the WWF in May of 1987.
Traylor would follow soon after, and the pair would combine forces to become one of the most feared tag teams of that generation in the WWF: The Twin Towers.
George "One Man Gang" Gray is retired and lives in Baton Rouge. He suffered the loss of nearly everything when his home was submerged during flooding in 2016.
Ray Traylor continued to work in both the WWF and WCW during his career and stints in Japan. He died suddenly of a heart attack in his Dallas, Texas home in 2004 at age 41. Like so many others in this business, he was taken from us too soon. The WWE inducted him posthumously into their Hall of Fame in 2016.
Ted DiBiase also went on to a storied career in the WWF and was also inducted to their HOF in 2010. He has three sons, all of which worked in the wrestling business, and he has become involved in the Christian Ministry in the years since his retirement.
Ernie Ladd became an advocate and worked to further the position of wrestlers of color after he retired from the ring. He was instrumental in the success of Junkyard Dog. He was also one who influenced Bill Watts to crown the first African American World Heavyweight Champion in WCW, Ron Simmons.
Ernie Ladd is a member of every significant Hall of Fame in wrestling, including WCW (1994), WWF/E (1995), Wrestling Observer (1996), Cauliflower Alley Club (2005), and the NWA (2013).
Ernie passed away at the age of 68 in 2007 from colon cancer. He lived almost three years longer than doctors said he would. He was a fighter and defied authority until the end.
Sylvester "Junkyard Dog" Ritter tore down boundaries wherever he went and brought smiles to millions of faces during his career. His song off of The Wrestling Album, ‘Grab Them Cakes,’ even landed him on a Soul Train appearance with show alumni Vicki Sue Robinson.
He was the favorite of children of all ages and races worldwide. He was active in professional wrestling until the end of his life and made a famous appearance at the ECW pay-per-view, WrestlePalooza, in 1998.
He was tragically killed in a car accident in Mississippi just one month later. He was returning home from visiting North Carolina to see his daughter graduate from high school. He was only 45 years old. Ernie Ladd inducted him into the WWE Hall of Fame on March 13, 2004.
Jim Cornette has led one of the most outspoken lives, not only in professional wrestling but in the media in general. His willingness to tell it how he sees it has made him a jewel to some and a bane to the existence of others (yeah, we see you, Vince Russo, restraining order or not).
Jim’s loathing of Russo is the stuff of legend and should be taught as a college course called Holding A Grudge 101.
He has appeared on several podcasts, including his weekly shows The Jim Cornette Experience and Jim Cornette’s Drive-Thru.
Cornette has been honored as Manager of the Year on numerous occasions, Booker of the Year multiple times, as well as being a member of several Halls of Fame himself, including Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame (2015), Wrestling Observer (1996), New England Pro Wrestling (2015), NWA (2005), Cauliflower Alley Club (1997), and the Southern Wrestling (2015).
On a related note, Cornette was banned from entering Canada in 2007 due to his criminal record. Most of which because of fights with fans during his career as a manager to the heels of wrestling. The best heat is always real heat. Cornette is a classic case in point here.
Jim Ross’s announcing career goes way beyond his time in professional wrestling. It spans into MMA, boxing, working with AXS TV to bring his iconic brand of play calling to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling promotion, as well as most recently as a commentator, analyst, and senior advisor for All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
His knowledge of this business is rivaled by few and questioned by none. Though he will never put himself above his commentating idol, Gordon Solie, JR is considered by most to be the greatest play-by-play guy the wrestling business has ever produced.
Bill Watts was never a stranger to controversy, nor was he afraid of it. He led his Mid-South promotion against the grain, brought a smash-mouth brand of wrestling to the fans, and changed the dynamic in how the product was presented.
Watts went against racial stereotypes and social mores in the business to champion the black athlete when it wasn’t accepted or wanted, in some cases. His outspokenness often came back to bite him, no matter how hard he tried to do the right thing. This was what led to the release from Turner Broadcasting.
Hank Aaron, baseball legend in Atlanta and EVP for the Braves organization, pushed for him to be fired after specific comments and opinions that Watts had voiced came to his attention. He was replaced by Ole Anderson and moved onto the WWF for a short-lived stay of employment.
Watts is a member of several Halls of Fame, including Wrestling Observer (1996), WWE (2009), Professional Wrestling (2013), Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling (2013), as well as being honored by the Cauliflower Alley Club in 2001.
The legacy that Bill Watts left behind rises above any controversial statements he may have made or the wrestling career he had. His legacy can be felt in how he instilled the old-school attitude in a generation of wrestlers that passed his doorstep.
His ways may have been disliked by some and held in high regard by others, but one thing you can say for sure is that they got a reaction from his workers and peers. In most cases, it brought out their inner strengths and tested their heart for this business. The old school mentality of a fraternal brotherhood that you must earn your way into resonates in many workers and fans still today.
Much like diamonds, great wrestlers are forged over time, through the sacrifice of self and from the pressures of learning the business the right way. Not everyone can be cut into a Tiffany diamond afterward, but many who came through Mid-South most certainly shined like one.
Well, here we are again at the end of another wrestling territory road journey. Thank you for following along with us. Our wrestling history is gold!
Listen to Pro Wrestling Stories’ own Jim Phillips, Dan Sebastiano, and Benny Scala discuss the glory days of Mid-South Wrestling on Dan and Benny In The Ring:
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