The United States Wrestling Association (USWA) saw many young superstars come through its doors that would change the business of professional wrestling forever. Three wrestlers, in particular, shook the wrestling game to its core!
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, wrestling fans, as we take another look back into the history of the Wrestling Territories. Our last stop saw us traveling up the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Time Wrestling in San Fransisco. Today, we set our clocks back to the year 1989 and set off for the home of Elvis and the United States Wrestling Association (USWA): Memphis, Tennessee!
The Rise and Demise of the United States Wrestling Association (USWA)
I have vivid memories of the United States Wrestling Association wrestling promotion and its signature Renegades Rampage logo in the center of the ring.
Even though the USWA took over when World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) eventually faltered, it never lost its hard-hitting, uncompromising style of wrestling.
Many young superstars came through its doors that would change the business of professional wrestling forever. Three of these men would rattle the wrestling game to its foundations, while two of them began their time with the company just before the takeover of WCCW.
Coincidently, their careers would become more intertwined than they would have ever realized back in their days in Texas.
“Cactus Jack Manson” – Mick Foley in the USWA
Mick Foley came to WCCW in November of 1988 and soon joined forces with Skandor Akbar and his nefarious Devastation Inc. faction.
Working under the name Cactus Jack Manson, Foley quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with within the stable of heels.
Foley held the USWA Tag Team Titles and the WCWA World Tag Team Titles with “Sheik” Scott Braddock. They had the distinction of being the first tag team champs in the new USWA federation.
He also traded the WCWA Light Heavyweight Title back and forth with Eric Embry during Embry’s feud with Akbar’s Devastation Inc. Eric Embry beat him for the title in his last match for the company in 1990. The match lasted 9 seconds.
“The Punisher” – Mark Calaway (Undertaker) in the USWA
Mark Calaway (or The Undertaker, as the world knows him) first joined WCCW in 1987 and debuted in the promotion as “Texas Red.”
In his debut match, he was pitted against Bruiser Brody, which he lost.
Calaway wrestled for a few more years until he moved on to the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) promotion under Jerry Jarrett, where he worked as “The Spoiler” and several other lackluster gimmicks.
Fate brought him back to Texas when Jarrett became part owner of WCCW. Calaway would re-emerge under the name “Master of Pain.”
In his second match back, he challenged Jerry Lawler for the USWA Unified World Heavyweight Championship.
One week later, on April 1st, 1989, Calaway won the title from Lawler. This would be the first of many championship reigns for the future Deadman.
While competing as “The Punisher,” Calaway also won the WCWA Texas Heavyweight Championship from Eric Embry on October 5th, 1989, by forfeit before departing from the company.
Kerry Von Erich would take that title from him just fifteen days later.
Eric Embry and the Start of the USWA
Eric Embry had the job of booker at WCCW from 1989 until 1991, under the watchful eye of Jerry Jarrett and the Memphis office of his CWA wrestling organization. Jarrett held the sixty percent controlling interest in the Texas territory.
WCCW and the USWA were embroiled in a feud that saw Eric Embry beat PY Chu-hi (Phil Hickerson) in a steel cage match to finally settle the ownership of the territory. With his win, Embry cemented the end of WCCW.
In reality, Fritz Von Erich would have never let the majority owner of WCCW at that time, Jerry Jarrett, continue forward under its banner if he wasn’t at the helm.
In true defiance and looking to show that WCCW was very much a dead territory, after the match, Embry and his manager, Percy Pringle (later known as Paul Bearer in the WWF/E), proceeded to march to the back of the Sportatorium and rip down the WCCW banner.
During the celebration, several wrestlers showed their disdain for the old company. However, some chose not to participate in the spectacle out of respect for what the Von Erichs had given to the business.
It wasn’t long after this that a facelift was given to the Dallas Sportatorium, including a new ring and apron that was brought in to reflect the Renegades Rampage identity of USWA.
The next step in re-tooling the old WCCW was to rename its television programming to focus further on its new branding.
The “World Class Championship” and “Wild West Wrestling” TV shows were renamed “USWA Challenge” and “USWA Main Event.”
The following year, with everything in place, saw several feuds in the USWA, including a hot rivalry between Eric Embry and heel Billy Travis.
Travis used a gimmick that could be seen earlier in Honky Tonk Man and later in Jeff Jarrett. He would carry a wooden guitar to the ring while singing and tormenting the crowd with his bravado.
He used the guitar as a foreign object on many opponents, and in one famous story, he hit Percy Pringle with a guitar and then told everyone how it was given to him by Mick Jagger.
The feud ended in a blinding angle where Travis used a substance that he smeared in Embry’s eyes that sidelined him for several weeks after.
That year also saw a feud begin between Eric Embry and Chris Adams that lasted until the end of the decade.
At that same time, Adams started to train a green student who had traveled to Dallas to start the next phase of his life and begin his wrestling career.
Little did he know that this young man from Edna, Texas, would change the world of professional wrestling and become the biggest modern era draw ever to lace up a pair of boots.
Steve Austin in the USWA
Steve Williams passed through Chris Adams’s wrestling school at the Sportatorium and made his in-ring debut in 1989 for WCCW. He worked there for a few months before the merger with CWA.
When the companies merged, Dutch Mantell suggested he change his last name to avoid being confused with CWA performer “Dr. Death” Steve Williams.
Soon, he became Austin, although Steve had reservations about it due to the famous “Six Million Dollar Man” series, as he felt it would take away from his character.
Austin became embroiled in a memorable feud in 1990 with Chris Adams that began with a slow build. The two fought back and forth as the feud between them grew.
Having a good eye for an angle, Adams decided to bring in his former girlfriend from Great Britain, Jeanie Clarke, to become a valet for Austin, while Adams’ wife, Toni, would become his valet.
With his ex-girlfriend and his current wife at the time involved in the same angle, there was most undoubtedly natural heat that rose and added to the drawing power of their feud.
Austin used old photos of Adams and other women from his time in England and other promotions to sow the seed of infidelity between them. The whole thing came to a climax with Austin facing Adams in a “Come As You Are” match.
Adams came to the ring, kitted out in his Judo gi attire, brandishing a kendo stick.
The weapon would prove ineffective when Austin emerged wearing his old University of North Texas football gear, including the helmet.
The relationship between Austin and Clarke blossomed off-camera, and eventually, they moved from Texas to the WCW promotion, where he became known as “Stunning” Steve Austin.
It wasn’t until his then-wife, Jeanie (Clarke), gave him the nickname that would take his career into overdrive by becoming the biggest draw of the next decade. He was famously drinking a cup of tea when his wife told him to finish it before it became “stone cold.” The rest of that story lives in wrestling infamy.
You can learn more about how Steve Austin became “Stone Cold in 1996 here.
During the years that Jerry Jarrett ran the Dallas branch of his USWA promotion, he managed to get it out of the red and turned a nice profit.
He would eventually pull his interests out of Dallas shortly after a television taping for their programming on KTVT saw Austin hit a piledriver on Adams while he was out on the concrete floor.
This, combined with an incident at the same show where “Hollywood” John Tatum superkicked Kerry Von Erich’s valet, Tessa, in the head, led to the station that aired USWA saying that the program had become too violent to air.
The dropping of on-air profanity was also a point of contention for the network, making their decision to cut programming even easier.
Without television exposure, the promotion was left a lackluster affair.
In 1990, the USWA made its final run in Dallas.
In the summer of the following year, the new wrestling promotion of the Global Wrestling Federation was launched. This splintered the old CWA, WCCW, and USWA crews between several promotions in that area, while still others left the territory entirely to pursue their fortunes elsewhere.
After 1992, the USWA kept its mainstay headquarters in Memphis.
Jerry Lawler and the Final Days of the United States Wrestling Association
By this time, the two major promotions of WCW and WWF had already begun to eat up the territorial landscape. Once Jerry Lawler signed with the WWF, a surge of talent exchange and transitions started.
Just three years later, the two flagships (WCW and WWF) would become locked in the Monday Night Wars, leaving the USWA in its wake and a casualty of that war in many people’s opinions.
The USWA ran live shows on Monday nights at the local arena in Memphis, and it wasn’t long before people chose to stay home to watch the war instead of coming out to see live local entertainment.
Lawler and a partner bought out the rights to the USWA from Jerry Jarrett in 1996, only to turn around and sell it the following year. The United States Wrestling Association was no more.
The company was dissolved into XL Sports, which later fell into litigation as its owner was found guilty of RICO statutes in a federal court in Ohio.
Many promoters and territorial figureheads had to band together as the rush of USWA workers left for the WCW and WWF in 1996 and ’97.
As their headliners trickled out for better offers and brighter futures, they had little choice but to try to band together, to stand against the rising of a tide that would eventually overtake them all.
As the floodwaters receded, only the two juggernauts (WWF and WCW) were still visible to the wrestling audience. All territorial roads ended at either one or the other.
This brings us to the end of another chapter in the annals of our wrestling history.
With each territory we delve into, we will undoubtedly discover and unearth more history of interconnected promotional territories across the country. This rooted network kept that system alive and allowed its denizens to travel between regions, perfecting themselves and their wrestling styles. This individuality is one of the things that made professional wrestling so great during that time.
Until next time, brothers and sisters, remember: our wrestling history is gold!
Editor’s update: After reading this article, Steve Austin offered his two cents on these two “up-and-comers” on Instagram!
Listen to Pro Wrestling Stories’ own Jim Phillips, Dan Sebastiano, and Benny Scala discuss the glory days of the USWA on Dan and Benny In The Ring:
These stories may also interest you:
- WWF vs. USWA – The Wrestling War You Likely Never Heard Of
- A Ghost Story: How a Long-forgotten Territory Still Haunts WWE
- Jacqueline Moore – A Tough, Shining Star Out of Texas
- Verne Gagne and the Rise and Fall of the AWA
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