“Freebird” Michael Hayes once referred to himself as “Your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler,” and it’s a good line for a promo, but Brad Armstrong was the real thing. Listen to people who know the business well, and they’ll tell you that Brad Armstrong–whom many people only know from his days as an underneath talent for WCW–was one of the great professional wrestlers of his time. Bookers could utilize Armstrong at any point on the card, from the opening match to the main event. He always put on athletic, credible performances in the ring, and his coworkers loved him for it.
There’s always that one guy. When you’re watching a movie or TV show, there’s that one guy whose work shines through, regardless of the size of the role he’s given. Think Ed Harris, who achieved a level of notoriety and acclaim from his fellow actors long before he was ever nominated for an Oscar. Or consider comedians like Patrice O’Neal or Colin Quinn–not household names, but their work was (still is, in the case of Quinn) often on another level from more accessible comics. Performers like O’Neal and Quinn have been referred to as “the comedian’s comedian.”
That brings us to Brad Armstrong.
“Did Brad ever get any big shots?” Dusty Rhodes said in the Ring of Honor DVD Secrets of the Ring. “I thought Brad was tremendous, and I still do to this time. I felt very comfortable putting him in the main event. Brad Armstrong didn’t want to stay mediocre. He wanted to be on the top.”
And he was on top in several promotions, first coming to prominence on WTBS in Atlanta tagging with his father, “Bullet” Bob Armstrong. The Armstrongs held the national tag team titles when Ole Anderson was booking Georgia, and then Brad also got a singles run with the national championship after defeating Ted DiBiase (with a little help from “Wildfire” Tommy Rich). After trading the title with the Spoiler, Brad moved to Bill Watts’ Mid-South, where he won the North American title from Ernie “The Cat” Ladd.
Put another way: Two of the biggest hardasses in pro wrestling–Ole Anderson and Bill Watts–saw the star potential in Brad, and they never hesitated in putting him over as the promotion’s top champion. Brad was so good in the ring that workers like DiBiase, Ladd, and Don Jardine didn’t mind putting the youngster over, either. He also held the Continental championship in his home territory, feuding with guys like the criminally underrated Jerry Stubbs and Dr. Tom Prichard. He also formed successful tag teams with his brother, Scott, and with Magnum T.A., and “White Lightning” Tim Horner. Armstrong also won the WCW light heavyweight title from Scotty Flamingo (you know him better as Raven). Working under a hood as “Badstreet,” Brad teamed with Michael Hayes and Jimmy Garvin to win the WCW six-man straps, too. He even won the USWA and Smoky Mountain championships.
In the ring, Brad Armstrong could do anything.
He could work the straight American style. He could mat wrestle, and he could fly off the top rope. He could work the Lucha style, and he could work the stiffer Japanese style. Brad was a true professional. In another era, we’d probably be talking about Brad Armstrong as one of the biggest stars in the business. On interviews, he came across as likable, humble, and sincere–maybe a little too sincere for the national audience, when antiheroes were beginning to really make a push to the forefront of the mass-market entertainment industry. But there was still a place in the wrestling industry for Brad. Instead of becoming the star he should have been, however, Brad became a carpenter: He might not be able to draw a house, but he could build one.
WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross remembered Brad Armstrong on his blog:
“Behind the scenes, Brad Armstrong was one of the funniest, most personable men I’ve ever met in the business. He could light up any locker room and seemingly got along with everyone. If someone had an issue with Brad Armstrong, they really needed to take a long look into a mirror.
“One of the greatest things someone in our business can say of any wrestler is that said wrestler could have a good match with anyone, no matter who. Brad Armstrong certainly fits on a rather short list of wrestlers that could literally have a good match with anyone.
“I’ve called 100’s of Brad Armstrong bouts, in singles and in tags, in main events and in prelims, and I never saw him have what would be perceived as a ‘bad match.’ Not one time.”
When he heard about Brad’s untimely passing in November 2012 at the age of 50, Stone Cold Steve Austin wrote the following:
“Before I shut down for the night I want to say RIP to Brad Armstrong. I held this man in a very high regard. Smooth… One word… Smooth. That was Brad. European style, Japan style, American, Luche [sic] Libre style. Brad could do absolutely everything. Great fire. Brad was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Funny, no, scratch that. Hilarious. That’s what Brad was. Giving and unselfish. A-1 psychology. A pro’s pro. Brad could go any night, anywhere, with the best in the world. And he would always shine…Very well liked. And highly respected by all.”
Behind the scenes, Brad Armstrong was popular, but–especially later in his career–he couldn’t bring out that same personality that entertained the boys in the back to the forefront for the fans in the arena. He suffered through ridiculous gimmicks like the ‘Candyman’ and ‘Arachnaman.’ While none of those gimmicks proved successful, Brad was too valuable for WCW to part with. A testament to Brad’s ability: When the Great Muta’s opponent didn’t show for a TV taping, Brad was asked to fill in–for a 2-out-of-3 falls match. With less than 10 minutes’ notice, Armstrong and Muta put on a classic.
“He was a sellout at the monitor,” former WWE insider Bruce Prichard said of Armstrong’s wit. Brad would watch matches going on at the monitors in Gorilla position and comment on them for other wrestlers. These behind-the-scenes moments were a must-see for the workers. This resulted in Armstrong, then a behind-the-scenes producer for WWE, to be given a commentary slot for the relaunched ECW. But Brad Armstrong didn’t feel the same freedom he experienced behind the scenes, and his work on commentary was short-lived.
“Nature Boy” Ric Flair, arguably the greatest pro wrestler who ever lived, toured for many years as the NWA world champion. Early in Brad’s career in Southeastern Championship Wrestling, Flair asked to wrestle him. Flair loved Brad’s ability, and the two had excellent matches whenever they were paired. Flair would continue to request matches with Brad whenever he came through Southeastern or Continental.
Finally, Dr. Tom Prichard summed up Brad Armstrong this way:
“If you couldn’t have a good match with Brad Armstrong, you didn’t belong in the wrestling business.”
Armstrong is in my thoughts because 31 years ago today, Hiro Saito defeated Brad Armstrong in a tournament final to become the first PWF world junior heavyweight champion in Tokyo, Japan, on the same card where Stan Hansen defeated Jumbo Tsuruta for the NWA international heavyweight title in the main event. It seemed, to me, to sum up Brad’s role in the wrestling business: the utility guy who could do anything, whose talent and ability was sadly overshadowed by larger wrestlers and flashy personalities.
But during a phone conversation with his father, I learned that Brad never worried about his place in the wrestling industry, and was happy to be earning a living to support his family.
“Don’t feel bad for Brad,” the Bullet told me. “He earned $2,000 a week just to be available (for WCW) if they needed him.”
Most people will remember Brad as the underneath worker–the jobber–in WCW toward the end of his career. But he was far more than that. He was the guy who could go out and wrestle anyone, anytime, any place, and have a good match. Every single one of his family stipulates that Brad was the best worker out of all of them. And as good as the Armstrongs were, that’s saying something. A pro’s pro. That’s a great legacy to leave behind.
Brad Armstrong died on November 1, 2012. He was 50 years old. He left behind a wife and a young daughter. And, of course, I can’t tell you that Brad was really your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler. But he was sure as hell mine.
Trivia: Brad Armstrong’s first singles title was the United States junior heavyweight championship, which he won from “Mr. Olympia” Jerry Stubbs.