15 YEARS AGO - SMOKY MOUNTAIN WRESTLING CLOSES ITS DOORS - MY COVER STORY
It was 15 years ago this week in the PWTorch Newsletter that I wrote a cover story on Smoky Mountain Wrestling closing its doors. It might have been the last best chance at an old-school style full-time wrestling territory succeeding. Jim Cornette ran and booked the company. Here's the obit on the dream of his that didn't quite work out.
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Here it is...
Smoky Mountain Wrestling shuts it doors
After weekend of proo houses, promoter Jim Cornette throws in the towel after four years
Cover Dated: Dec. 1, 1995
By Wade Keller, Torch editor
"Basically, if Smoky Mountain Wrestling goes, I'm here for life. If it don't go, like I said, I will be very disappointed and disheartened and I will come to the conclusion that wrestling as I know it and like it is not going to work anymore and I will get something else to do."
-Jim Cornette, "Torch Talk," August 13, 1992.
Sunday night, Nov. 26 in Cookville, Tenn., Jim Cornette threw in the towel on a venture that began with high hopes but along the way cost him sleep, money, friends, his temper, and even a solid part of his reputation.
Smoky Mountain Wrestling began as a dream concept for Jim Cornette, Tim Horner, and Sandy Scott. Backed financially (and secretly) by the record industry's Rick Rubin, and with the reputations of the three co-promoters, SMW was wrestling's best chance to prove that the territories could be revived. As its slogan said, wrestling could once again be "the way it used to be and the way you like it."
Almost four years after the idea was born, it became apparent that this was not the time for an old time territory like SMW. Even though it was promoting in some hidden nooks of the South, it fell victim to a variety of factors, including paling by comparison to the big promotions whose television exposure reached even into the Smoky Mountains. SMW just didn't have the resources to promote competitive-looking television shows.
Cornette's unrelenting drive to make SMW succeed at any cost did not lead to overwhelming success. SMW had its moments, drawing two crowds in excess of 4,000 in 1994 in Knoxville. SMW, though, never reached a consistent level of success that brought profitability for the backers, a humane schedule for the promoters, or a payroll that attracted marquee talent.
After a disappointing Thanksgiving house show swing last weekend, Cornette announced to his wrestler that the territory was shutting down - effective immediately. With its two best towns, Knoxville and Johnson City drawing only 1,000 and 450 respectively, Cornette decided sticking with SMW was a losing proposition. He said his financial backers withdrew their support and to continue running SMW would mean him spending his own money. Cornette probably could have found a temporary financial fix, but told people if it didn't work the last three or so years, it would not begin working in the next six months.
Cornette began with a plan that made sense at the time, but proved over time to not be a profitable course in the '90s. Along the way, he compromised that course. He began by vowing to not become like all of the sleazy and incompetent promoters he worked for and complained about for years. While he kept his share of friends, as the boss he also lost his share for being too much like the promoters he used to despise. He wasn't good enough at delegating, keeping his temper, and accepting new ideas as the wrestling industry changed, to overcome SMW's obstacles.
He also had to steer away from his isolationist pledge. When he first began SMW, he vowed to disassociate himself from any of the big promotions because he said they exposed wrestling as fake while SMW was going to make fans believe again and thus recapture the disgruntled. He also explicitly said he would not align with the WWF or WCW because his wrestlers would come up on the short end of the stick within the WWF's roster.
Times got tough, the right offer came in 1993, and Cornette shocked everyone by establishing a working relationship with the WWF. He believed it was best for SMW because of the WWF. He believed it was best for SMW because the WWF would occasionally supply SMW with a major name and SMW main eventers would be brought into the WWF and get national exposure and thus, Cornette argued, they'd be seen as even bigger stars when they wrestled in Tennessee. Although a philosophical compromise, it seemed justifiable. But the fears Cornette expressed in August of 1992 when he vowed to never align with a national promotion all came true.
The Heavenly Bodies were lost in the WWF shuffle. Even Cornette himself came across as a mid-level player. Cornette played a heel in the WWF while acting as a babyface in his feud with the Gangstas in SMW. Big WWF names made guest appearances on SMW shows and after a while, those were the shows that drew big crowds. Fans waited for the national superstars to come, thus defeating the purpose of bringing the superstars in the first place. The superstars were supposed to draw the crowds and the quality of the action from the SMW regulars was supposed to keep them coming back every month.
Cornette also became part of the "circus atmosphere" that he originally argued would hurt his credibility, most credibility, most notably having to be involved in his Royal Rumble infamous resurrection of the Undertaker. Perhaps it did.
The stress of running a territory, almost single-handedly, took its toll. He blamed many of his shortcomings on lack of sleep. No one accuses Cornette of not trying hard.
Cornette's options in wrestling aren't many. He has a steady position with the WWF as one of their top managers. Reducing his role to just that should allow him to recharge his batteries and get his creative juices flowing again. His interviews have sunk in recent years from being among the best in the business to inconsistent - sometimes very good, but more often run-of-the-mill.
Down the line, Cornette could perhaps work for the USWA, maybe even book. Only Cornette knows if he would try his hand at running the show again. For some, being the boss means never being able to work for someone again. For others, it means appreciating normal working hours that come with being an employee instead.
As far as the wrestling business is concerned, SMW is sad failure on several levels. The industry needs promotions to develop tomorrow's main eventers. The fact that the WWF hadn't already stepped in to fund SMW, even with their own financial problems, is surprising considering their concern now over the lack of fresh faces on the horizon.
SMW was one of three promotions that ran full-time schedules, the other two being the WWF and USWA. WCW and ECW run part time schedules and don't run enough dates along to develop talent at the ideal pace. SMW, though, in some ways was a disappointment in terms of developing talent, with only Adam Bomb, Chris Candido, and Tammy Fytch moving up a level. SMW just couldn't afford to invest in unknowns when it was striving to keep its head above water. The Thrill Seekers (Chris Jericho & Lance Storm) experiment was the best shot they had at creating a new drawing card, but they just didn't catch on. The Gangstas were a strong act, but the black vs. white concept damaged the territory more than it helped.
For those who thought that Vince McMahon's expansion and devouring of the established territories during the mid-'80s hurt the industry, the SMW experiment can be read two ways. On one hand, the WWF has so scorched the earth that not even the relatively fresh markets of East Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia could support a low-budget territory run by a talented booker, thus proving the WWF was bad for the industry and has done irreparable harm.
On the other hand, the failure of SMW may be a sign of the times and evidence that the days of successful territories would have ended whether it was McMahon, Jim Crockett, Bill Watts, Ole Anderson, or someone else who seized the opportunity to go national first.
The SMW wrestlers aren't exactly losing lucrative jobs and most will find work elsewhere. In fact, the symbolism of SMW's failure is more demoralizing to the industry than the actual loss of jobs or loss of a developmental territory.
Cornette has told people since Saturday that he was burned out after nearly four years of booking. The industry better hope fans aren't becoming as burned out as Cornette.
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