ARE YOU READY TO RUMBLE??--FSM#102

It's January, the time when every wrestling fan's fancies turn to the Royal Rumble, wrestling guru Pat Patterson's genius twist to the age old concept of the wrestling Battle Royal. The Royal Rumble has become, over it's two-decade plus existence, one of the two or three biggest WWE events of the year, as well as the event that sets the table for Wrestlemania, which is undoubtedly the biggest "sports entertainment" event in the world every year, and one of the biggest pay-per-view attractions of any type. I call Pat a genius because he was able to take a concept that was around in some form since the beginning of pro wrestling, had been a major box office hit where promoted properly, had fallen on hard times after being prostituted and watered down, and he rejuvenated it with a slight twist of the rules that made it multiple times more exciting, and an attraction that could basically carry a card by itself.

Going to the back issue morgue, I was fascinated by historian John Lister's article on the history of Battle Royals in FSM (Brian insert info here), and I learned several obscure historical facts on the match and it's evolution. But Battle Royals have always been of special interest to me, because it was a 14 man Battle Royal in Louisville, Kentucky on May 14, 1974 that enabled me to see my first live pro wrestling card.

As a 12 year old fan who had been watching wrestling on TV for a couple of years, and reading all the magazines, some 15 or more, dedicated to wrestling that were published in the US at the time, I was enamored of the idea of the Battle Royal. Wow, fifteen or twenty guys all throwing each other over the top rope for big amounts of money, what could be cooler than that? There were pictures in the magazines, but only verbal descriptions on TV, because why would the promoter show a top attraction on TV for free? You had to BUY a ticket to see one!

In 1974 a lot of downtowns and inner cities in America had crime problems--racial tension, assaults, drugs--New York City's Times Square, now host of the Hard Rock Cafe and the Disney Store, was filled with peep shows and muggers. By no means was Louisville, Kentucky comparable to New York on the crime stat sheets, but my mother Thelma was still reticent to accept the thought that it was safe for a mother and her young son to venture to a wrestling match downtown at night. We went to the same arena, the Louisville Gardens, a few times a year to see the Harlem Globetrotters or the Ice Capades, but generally with groups of friends, and those shows seemed "safer".

I began putting on the big pitch, that just once, the next time they had a Battle Royal on the card, she would take me to the weekly Tuesday night show, and she agreed--probably thinking these giant multi-man matches were a rare occurance. Well, they were--in some places. As Lister's article illustrated, the big California events in LA and San Francisco were annual extravaganzas featuring top stars, heavily promoted and with lasting implications. These Royals, and Pat Patterson's longtime association with them as the top star in SF for years, provided the inspiration for the Rumble. In other territories, they had been allowed to become "old hat"--probably nowhere as much as in the Tennessee territory run by Nick Gulas and Roy Welch.

Now, bear in mind, Tennessee wrestling is what I grew up on, what I still love, and they did a lot of things right. Most of that came from the booking and promotional work of Jerry Jarrett, who started under Gulas but took over the territory in the late 1970's, but Roy Welch and his family are thought of as pioneers of wrestling everywhere from south of Indiana to Florida, and had been successful since the depresssion-era 1930's. But one talent Nick Gulas had that was not generally as well thought of was that he was a notoriously poor payoff man--he was tighter than the skin on a sausage--and he liked to keep his expenses low. So the Tennessee territory, especially small-town spot shows, became the home of more Battle Royals than any area in the country. That way, wrestlers would have to work twice for the same money, and you could advertise a "big event" at absolutely no extra cost.

It wasn't two months after my mom made that pledge before a Battle Royal was being advertised for the Gardens, and she honored her commitment. I went apeshit over the show and the Battle Royal--I don't remember if it WAS good or I just thought so, because I had nothing to compare it to anyway and just seeing wrestling live was enough for me. It was won by Jerry Jarrett himself, who would go on to play a big part in my life, and my mom discovered that we could park right across the street from the front door of the arena and no one would mug us going in, so she agreed to take me back each week thereafter, thus starting a dynasty (but that's another story).

One of the more popular concepts Tennessee used from other areas was the two ring, triple chance Battle Royal. Two rings would be set side by side, and 20 or more wrestlers would start in ring one. They would be eliminated by being thrown into ring two, and ousted from the match by being tossed over the top from there to the floor. The last man (or sometimes two men) in each ring would then battle it out in a regular match for the "prize money".

In 1978, Jarrett actually debuted the world's biggest-ever Battle Royal, with 50 men. There were so many guys, in fact, that a regular ring wouldn't hold them, so wrestler/promoter Eddie Marlin built a special ring out of wood from a lumber yard that was 30 feet square instead of the standard 18. Problem was, between transporting that ring and booking 50 guys, the match was used only in Memphis and Lexington, Kentucky, the territory's two best-drawing cities. Another problem was discovered by Joe LeDuc in the first match of the night--doing his standard high flying legdrop, he landed on the ring, reinforced to hold all that weight until it was as hard as a concrete floor, and nearly shattered his tailbone.

There was also a combination of two foolproof gimmick matches--the Battle Royal and the Coal Miner's Glove match, where a metal-studded glove was placed atop a 10 foot pole in one ring corner. In this case, the "prize check" was substituted for the glove, and the first man to retrieve it won the money--it was entertaining, and gave 20 wrestlers the opportunity to pull each other's trunks down as they jerked each other to the ground. All these type Royals, though, required a big card, and to pay for themselves, a big gate. The other end of the Battle Royal spectrum was much more common on small-town spot shows, and/or when Gulas was in his more miserly moods.

I remember a spot show card in Madisonville, Kentucky promoted by Christine Jarrett, Jerry's mother, that featured two single matches, those four men back in a two out of three fall tag match, and then a 5 man Battle Royal involving those same four men and the manager as the main event--total men on payroll six, including the referee. There was a Gulas event in Rabbit Ridge, Kentucky that featured the famous "blindfold" twist, where all nine men involved would be blindfolded by wearing hoods over their heads. Gulas, while doing the TV promo for the event, called it in his grammar-mangling English a "Nine blind man manifold Royal" instead of a "Nine man blindfold Battle Royal".

If midgets or girls were on the card, even better, throw them in too and sell it as an added attraction--you've never lived until you've seen 3'6" Cowboy Lang try to climb a ten foot pole.
For reasons that have been lost to history, the Louisville cards went Battle Royal crazy in 1975, with a 12 man blindfold royal for $1000 on May 6, an 18 man match with $2000 on a pole on June 6, a 17 man two ring affair for $5000 on June 17, a nine man blindfold melee for $1000 on July 8, and a 22 man mashup for $1500 on August 10. They finished the year with a royal featuring five midget girls on November 4, offering $500 as prize money, which was won by Little Darling Dagmar.

It was a Battle Royal in Jackson, Tennessee that brought an abrupt end to my first managing gig. Sherri Martel was in the territory for two weeks, and as I had just started on TV, she was to be my first client, to give me something to do. This lasted from Memphis TV one Saturday morning, until the following afternoon about 4:30pm, when the 440-pound Plowboy Frazier accidently stumbled and fell on her in a 19 man, two woman Royal and broke her leg. As you can imagine, about three or four months into my managing career, when I began being booked in these free-for-alls with no formal wrestling training whatsoever, I approached them with much trepidation.

After a few bloody noses and various bumps and bruises, I adopted a strategy that got me less pain and more heat. Since these were generally 10 or 12 man spot show affairs, I would come out about midway in the pack of entering grapplers, and "behind the referee's back" I would simply slide underneath the ring and hide. I'd watch the floor underneath the ring apron for feet to see who was eliminated, and I'd play hide and seek from the referee when the angry fans were telling him I was avoiding my deserved arse-whipping. Finally, with one heel and one babyface left, I would emerge from my hiding place to help the heel, until eventually my mistake caused his elimination, and I would be left to the justice of the conquering babyface, who would toss me out--one bump, hopefully safely. I used this trick in many a Battle Royal in Smoky Mountain Wrestling, booking MYSELF in the damn match for the same reason I had been booked in them by others--I was cheap, and I didn't have to pay myself extra.

Dusty Rhodes is really the only other person in the last generation to come up with a Battle Royal twist that drew at the box office--the come dressed as you are, anything-goes Bunkhouse Stampede. They worked in the NWA, but I can't see the New York-centric WWE promoting any matches featuring Wild West cowboy themes in the near future. Lots of companies have ripped off and "improved" Pat Patterson's brilliant reworking of the rules, but there remains only one Battle Royal of any major importance in wrestling today--the Royal Rumble.

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I would be remiss if I didn't remind the FSM readers how excited I am to be undertaking my first-ever tour of the United Kingdom in February. If you're in the areas of Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, London's Leicester Square Theatre, or Cardiff, I hope you'll come meet me and see my show. I am promising the one man show version of a Bruce Springsteen concert--I won't leave the stage until I'm exhausted and everyone is satisfied! Come see A Corny In The UK, The Jim Cornette Experience Live--for tickets and information, go to www.JimCornetteLive.Co.uk.