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WRESTLEMANIA 25 WEEK: Historical perspective on Houston's top-drawing card featuring Bill Watts in April 1984

Apr 2, 2009 - 4:32:05 PM
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by Jason Hess, Torch contributor

Torch VIP member Jason Hess has been a pro wrestling fan for over 25 years. His historical pieces on Houston wrestling have been featured on classic wrestling websites. Hess will be joining Torch assistant editor James Caldwell this weekend to cover WrestleMania 25 events.

By the time WrestleMania 25 begins this Sunday, more than 70,000 fans will have paid over $6.5 million dollars to watch the latest installment of WWE's premier Pay-Per-View.

Back in 2001, WrestleMania X7 grossed in excess of $3 million. That would make WWE's two WrestleMania appearances approach the $10 million mark in ticket sales. What many current fans may not know is that WrestleMania is a continuation of a trend that started decades ago.

Beginning in the 1930s, Houston was a hotbed for professional wrestling during the Great Depression, and during the more commonly known era of the territory days.

First under the direction of Morris Sigel and then under Paul Boesch, Houston wrestling has had a long and rich history that today's fan may not have even known existed, especially since the landmark site of Houston wrestling, the Sam Houston Coliseum, was torn down years ago to create parking lots.

With this being WrestleMania 25, an interesting memory has re-awakened. One man in this year's class of the WWE Hall of Fame has intricate ties to the Houston wrestling scene.

Twenty-five years ago, the largest crowd in the history of wrestling at the Coliseum gathered to watch Cowboy Bill Watts' "Last Stampede." The storyline behind this match is one that even current fans, weaned on "crash TV" and its looming aftermath, would sink their collective teeth into.

Watts, who was used to drawing huge crowds including setting an all-time attendance record at the old-Madison Square Garden against Bruno Sammartino, was both on and off camera the president of Mid-South wrestling, and would regularly provide color commentary to heighten the feuds playing out on the weekly television show.

In the spring of 1984, Jim Cornette had established himself as a major manager with a big mouth as he led his Midnight Express of Bobby Eaton and Dennis Condrey to the Mid-South tag team titles. Soon after the title victory, Cornette had a celebration complete with a large cake for his team.

During the celebration, while Condrey and Eaton were gloating to fans who had packed the Irish McNeil Boys Club (the site of Mid-South television tapings until early 1986), Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson, better known as the Rock-n-Roll Express, shoved Cornette's face into the cake, sparking a legendary tag team feud that has lasted off and on until this day.

Bill Watts laughed heartily. In fact, he found the occasion so funny that he ran repeats of the incident multiple times over the remaining hour of the program. After one more showing, Cornette was ranting and raving, threatening to sue everyone of the fans laughing. Watts shot back, inviting Cornette to sue him. Within minutes, tension escalated as Cornette began to mock Watts's young son Joel until Watts slapped Cornette, who sold it as if he'd been hit with a shotgun.

The following week was Cornette's form of retribution - Midnight Express delivering a beat down that left Watts bloody. The act was so heinous that lead heel Butch Reed refused to get involved. Cornette was a "guest host" replacing Watts, as the attack happened "before they went on the air."

Soon after, a video was shown of Watts going to Wadesboro, North Carolina, which long-time fans would have recognized as the boyhood home of number-one hero Junkyard Dog. JYD, who lost a loser-leaves town match against Mr. Wrestling 2 a short time earlier would not be able to help out his long time friend and mentor. Watts knew that. He wasn't looking for the Dog. He was looking for Stagger Lee, for he knew he couldn't stand alone in a war against the Midnight Express.

Once before, when JYD lost a loser-leaves town match to Ted DiBiase, Stagger Lee suddenly appeared. The masked man, whom JYD said used to beat him up for milk money, became an instant hit in the Mid-South territory. He was in essence JYD's alter-ego. Everyone but the officials "knew" it was JYD, and fans were only too happy to play a part in the ruse. JYD would inquire of Lee's availability.

Not surprisingly, Lee answered the call. Watts then made the challenge. He and Lee vs. the Midnight Express. He didn't even want the titles. He just wanted revenge. Cornette, however, had a counter proposal that raised the stakes. If the Midnight Express won, Cornette would gain control of Mid-South wrestling for six months.

Watts countered with another stipulation: He and Lee would agree to Cornette's caveat if Cornette would agree to this: if Watts and Lee won, Cornette would have to dress in a man-sized diaper-dress and suck on a pacifier since Watts thought he was a big baby.

Cornette accepted.

The match was billed as "The Last Stampede," with Watts stating in promos leading up to the match that while he wasn't his old self, that he could get it together for one last go. And in April 1984, the "Last Stampede" made its way to Houston.

A completely sold out Sam Houston Coliseum of 12,000 fans (with estimates as high as 3,000 fans turned away at the door), paying a Boesch-record gate, clamored to see Watts gain his sweet revenge.

The match started tentatively, and Watts would receive fleeting moments of domination before becoming the face in peril during the match. Watts, at the time weighing at least 275 pounds, made the much smaller Midnight Express look legitimate in the eyes of Houston fans by selling expertly for them, making their offense look like the real thing.

Unlike today, where many larger wrestlers flat won't sell or cooperate with smaller ones, Watts did both - with great timing, and great results. Fans nearly came unglued more than once as Watts and Lee both escaped pin attempts.

Finally, the match came to the conclusion. All four men were in the ring when Bobby Eaton attempted to blind Bill Watts with illegal powder. Just before he was to do so, Stagger Lee made the save and kicked the powder into Eaton's face. Watts had just enough strength to attempt and deliver his "Oklahoma Stampede" on Eaton. The referee counted and the Sam Houston Coliseum faithful counted along as Watts and Lee were victorious. The pop was deafening and even came across that way on television.

Babyfaces ran out of the dressing room both to congratulate Watts and Lee, and to hold Cornette accountable to put his dress and baby clothes on. The Last Stampede had ended and the fans were supremely satisfied.

The results of the Last Stampede series of matches across the Mid-South territory were similar to that of Houston. In addition to the sellout in Houston, crowds of over 10,000 fans were seen in Oklahoma City, 23,000 fans went to the Superdome in New Orleans, and Tulsa turned away thousands as well.

Cornette is on record in saying that for that week of matches, those four men and one manager did over one million dollars at the box office.

Sure, compared to the $6.5 million WWE will pocket from WrestleMania, one million dollars spread out over a week's worth of dates would seem somewhat small, not taking the dollar change from then to now into effect. The effect of a well-booked, logically advancing, episodic angle has on the box office never is small.

And one of the masters of such angles, a man who thrived on it 25 years ago, will be attending his first WrestleMania on Sunday.


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