Monday, April 20, 2009

Wrestling's Unsolved Mysteries: Tommy Rich

n an industry purposely mired in mystery, it's no surprise that professional wrestling has its share of mysteries that continue to puzzle its fans. Even with the explosion of shoot videos and tell-all books, fans still talk about some of wrestling's unexplained happenings, wondering what really happened.

During the days of kayfabe, fans were lucky if they could find out a wrestler's real name, let alone more substantial information such as why a wrestler left a territory unexpectedly or who was running the show behind the scenes. This was a time when promoters and wrestlers diligently guarded the business, leaving more than a few fans wondering whether or not what went on in the squared circle was legit.

The rise of the dirtsheets led to more insider knowledge followed by the expansion of Internet access began to change things but not always for the better. For every list of "wrestler's real names" published on the Internet, crazy rumors spread beginning with multiple Ultimate Warriors and ending who knows when.

Disproving some of these rumors has led good men to the brink. Anyone who prowled the old wrestling newsgroups like rec.sport.pro-wrestling can attest to the crazy stories that were passed on. No matter how much someone pointed out the follies of stories claiming that the original Warrior had died and been replaced, enough people were gullible enough (nastier folks might say stupid enough) that the story was passed on.

As a fan and amateur historian, the thing that interests me are what I call the unsolved mysteries of wrestling. These aren't the far-fetched urban legends that pop up on message boards and in fans' casual conversations but the real-life mysteries that no one is able to answer. These are legitimate situations that actually happened but which no one is able to conclusively prove what exactly happened. These are wrestling's unsolved mysteries.

One of the biggest mysteries in wrestling involves the NWA title reign of Tommy "Wildfire" Rich. In April of 1981, Rich defeated NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race to become the holder of the most prestigious belt in wrestling at the time. Four days later, it would be over and Race would be champion again. While Rich would compete for the gold again, he would never be world champion again.

The big question has always been why was Rich made champion and why was it such a short reign. Why Rich was made champion isn't difficult to understand. Rich was enormously popular, especially in Georgia Championship Wrestling. However his four day title reign was unprecedented, causing some skeptics to wonder what was going on behind the scenes. At the time, the NWA title was carefully administered with a board of directors convening to discuss who would be champion and for how long. Title switches were rare, sometimes taking place only every few years. Why would Rich be awarded the belt for such a short time?

Through the years, various theories have sprung up concerning the title switch. The simplest explanation (and one that pops upa lot) is human error. Fans have speculated that Race forgot to raise his shoulder at a three count and the referee was forced to award the belt to Rich or that the referee accidentally made a fast count. The belt was reluctantly awarded to Rich (in order to maintain kayfabe) but quickly taken off of him four days later.

Another theory holds that this was a screwjob by a shady promoter. This theory holds that a referee made a crooked pinfall count in order to put the belt on Rich, in order to enrich the promotion he was working in. This theory just doesn't hold up as it's doubtful the National Wrestling Alliance would have let anyone get away with this. Rich would have been blackballed and the rogue promotion would have been shut down by the NWA (This was during the era when the NWA still maintained a tight grip on its members and any would-be rivals). The final factor in this equation is the presence of Harley Race. Race has a well-deserved reputation as one of wrestling's toughest men and it's difficult to imagine anyone stealing the belt from Race without getting a receipt. I've yet to hear anything which supports this theory.

A third theory holds that this was hot-shot booking by Jim Barnett, co-owner of Georgia Championship Wrestling as well as booker for the NWA championship. The idea behind this theory is that Barnett booked a short title reign in order to jump-start GCW's business by giving the fans the idea that the title could change place at anytime or anywhere, and that Rich had the potential to win the title again in future contests. This theory holds a lot of water in my book, especially when you look at the NWA title situation at the time. Although the NWA title had rarely changed hands during the 1960's and 1970's, the belt changed hands a remarkable number of times in 1981. Rumor has it that several promoters got in on the idea of "hot-shotting" the title in order to boost local business. Of all the theories that have been thrown out there, this one seems to make the most sense.

The fourth and final theory holds that there was a quid pro quo between a promoter/official and Tommy Rich. Although wrestling has had its share of unscrupulous individuals, it's difficult to imagine the NWA allowing a title change for the personal pleasure of one of its members or officials. Still, given the allegations raised over the years by wrestlers such as Barry Orton and Jim Wilson, you can't completely discount this theory. The problem here is that I have yet to hear anything substantial to support this theory.

Whatever the reason for Rich's win, he will forever be among the elite few who have held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Rich's career would peak in Georgia Championship Wrestling during a feud against "Mad Dog" Buzz Sawyer. While Rich would have memorable programs afterwards in Memphis, his best days were behind him by the mid 1980's. Still, whenever knowledgeable fans speak of Rich's world championship reign, there is usually a brief hesitation as people wonder if there was something more to it than just business.

6 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Its #3, and Harley was in on it. They wanted to prove the title could change hands at any time or place (like Buffalo, NY) to draw fans in to the matches.

Anonymous said...

Its great Tommy made it to the top....no matter how or why....its just a shame the title didnt change hands during his battles with Ric Flair

Anonymous said...

exactly! Tommy should have taken the title from Flair at least one time! when those two went head to head it was great, I just dont see how dusty rhodes made it to the title so many times when Tommy was passed up

Craig Garnto said...

Tommy Rich was my favorite fighter of all time! I enjoyed meeting him in Dublin Georgia at huge fight card...me and my brother will never forget that and always brings excitement to us when we talk about it!

Brian Tucker said...

The one night I decided not to go to Monday night wrasslin' in Augusta, GA Tommy Rich wins the NWA belt. My dad was there and he said the place went crazy. Mr. Wrestling II, Andre the Giant, and JYD were there in the ring with him!