THE GREAT AMERICAN BASH--FSM#131

It's hard to believe it's been 30 years, but it has. It was July, 1986 when Jim Crockett Promotions mounted the biggest tour ever staged by any wrestling promotion--including the WWF--and called it the Great American Bash on Tour. It was also the most successful, at least in terms of box office gross, ever held, and it was a centerpiece for the biggest year pro wrestling was to have in the modern era.

Yes, wrestling was bigger as a mainstream attraction in the 1930's under Jim Londos, or the early 1950's as a result of the advent of television, but the year 1986, with the war between Crockett and the WWF pushing ticket prices higher than ever before and TV ratings skyrocketing, was the benchmark year for the sport, one that pro wrestling would never achieve again. By the time of the Monday Night Wars and the "Attitude Era", sports entertainment had taken hold, and the sport was not nearly the same animal, nor would it ever be again.

The 1986 Bash tour was the result of all the pieces falling into place--led by booker and top babyface Dusty Rhodes and his evil nemesis, NWA World Champion and top heel Ric Flair, Crockett's business had exploded in the previous two years. The talent roster Dusty had assembled to fight Vince McMahon's expansion was the most star-studded ever seen in one company. Underneath the Flair-Dusty battles for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, the first half of 1986 had seen a string of sellouts and gate records in major arenas with the first national exposure of the Midnight Express vs. Rock & Roll Express rivalry, and classic matchups featuring top heels like Tully Blanchard, Ole and Arn Anderson, Russians Ivan and Nikita Koloff and Krusher Kruschev and more battling some of the most over babyfaces in wrestling, like Magnum TA, the Road Warriors, Wahoo McDaniel, Ronnie Garvin and Jimmy Valiant.

The WWF had the lead in the national expansion West of the Mississippi and certain parts of the Northeast, but Crockett held an impenetrable hold on the South, and the two companies were dueling neck and neck in Midwest markets like Chicago, and former WWF strongholds like Baltimore and Philadelphia. Television ratings--and the sheer volume of programs airing--for both companies were huge, with Crockett producing two hours of national syndication per week seen in almost every market in the country, nearly 200 cities, plus three weekly hours of national cable programming on WTBS, and the WWF airing an equal amount in both syndication and on the USA network.

Crockett's in-ring product was vastly superior, obviously, and was traditional wrestling, presented as a life and death struggle with blood and violence, and as such the NWA fans were much more fervent and devoted. WWF, to counter, was beginning to create "sports entertainment", heavy on glitz, comedy and buffoonery, and using that style along with the mainstream media it could get as a result of being centered in the New York market to create "Hulkamania" around Hulk Hogan, creating "fad fans" who were often more interested in the "sizzle" than the "steak". This led to some bizarre "culture clashes"--Southern fans laughed at the idea of watching that "fake New York wrestling", while the best in-ring matches of the era often fell on uninterested eyes in New York and Boston, fans that would come unglued for a five minute Hogan match where it was obvious no one was going to get hurt.

The seeds of the Bash Tour had been planted in 1985, when the first Great American Bash was held on July 6 at Charlotte, North Carolina's Memorial Stadium. The main event featured Charlotte's favorite son and sports star, Ric Flair, defending the World Championship against the Russian Nightmare, Nikita Koloff. The patriotic image of an American facing a Russian on the Fourth of July weekend, our nation's birthday, drew well over 25,000 fans to the Stadium and was the talk of the wrestling world. Dusty immediately had the idea to expand on that concept the next year, with a tour of stadiums and major arenas featuring a combination of wrestling and live music spread over the entire month of July. Borrowing liberally from the "package show" concepts pioneered by his mentors Eddie Graham and Bill Watts, Dusty arranged to peak all the angles and programs with his major talents for the tour, sprinkled liberally with first-ever dream matchups and his favorite music acts, country legends like Waylon Jennings, George Jones, David Allen Coe and more.

The entire month of June, 1986 was one of anticipation. While still running a full live event and TV taping schedule that month, all the talk and attention, both publicly and in the locker room, was about the Bash Tour. Ric Flair was high on the concept, telling the other talent we would be getting "14 Starrcade payoffs in one month". Since that, based on Starrcade 85 in the case of myself and the Midnight Express, would have been around $70,000 PLUS our pay for the other non-Bash July dates, you can see why we were as giggly as schoolgirls with shiny new vibrators. Of course, while that had been the intent, it didn't materialize, but as you will soon see, we made out fairly well in the end.

The Bash Tour kicked off in Philadelphia on July 1, 1986 at Veteran's Stadium, and to this day is the most controversial of the Bash dates. Eyeballing the crowd during the first match, Flair, who had plenty of experience assessing stadium crowds, estimated there were 15-20,000 fans in the seats. Standing next to him, I was not quite sold on 20,000, but I knew the crowd definitely would not have fit inside our normal home, the Philadelphia Civic Center, which held just north of 10,000. The main events were well-received, with Nikita topping Magnum in match 1 of their best of 7 series, the Rock & Roll and Baby Doll beating the Midnight and I in a 6 person tag, Dusty and Animal topping the Andersons in a cage, and Flair successfully defending the World Title against Road Warrior Hawk in a first-ever dream match. Possibly the best match of the night was in the locker room, where Hawk and Ronnie Garvin got in a friendly shoot for shits and grins, and Ronnie stretched Hawk and blew him up right before he had to go out and work with Flair.

However, when the gate figure was announced to the talent, it started the tour off on a bit of a buzzkill. The house was reported as $215,000, an all-time gate record for any wrestling event in the state of Pennsylvania, but at the Bash ticket prices that figure translated to only around 10,000 fans. Dennis Condrey put it best when he said "Well, they just took the expenses for the month out of one house!"

The next day was off, as the Philly show was so important they had held a rain date just in case. Many of the top talents, including the Four Horsemen, had rented a limousine to take them down to Washington, DC for the next event on July 3rd. Always being careful with our road expenses, the Midnights and I planned to stick with our standard rental car, but then my old friend, New Jersey promoter Dennis Corraluzzo, mentioned he knew "a guy with a limo". Thus, on July 2nd, off we went from Philly to DC with a guy who, indeed, had a "limo", just no idea where he was going. The Barbarian had hopped in for a ride with us, and you have never lived until you've seen three pro wrestlers and their wimpy manager in a beat up limousine, cruising the crime-ridden streets of downtown Washington, DC, looking like a lost ball in high weeds in those pre-GPS and cel phone days. Our driver kept pulling over trying to ask directions, with his favorite quote being "Yo, I'm from South Jersey!" One person we tried to get directions from was a scantily-clad young lady standing on a street corner, who eagerly tried to hop into the limo as it pulled over. Once she saw the cast of characters inside--and the look in the Barbarian's eyes--she spun on her spike heels to escape at the quickest pace her footwear would allow. We finally got to our hotel, and swore off limos for the rest of the month.

July 3rd, the RFK Stadium in Washington drew a gate of $135,000 and the Rock & Roll beat the Midnights in a cage, earning Baby Doll five minutes with me, which she won also with a knockout punch that would have made Muhammed Ali jealous. One thing was becoming obvious--the country music acts that Dusty loved were not playing well with the crowds in the Northeast, who were tolerating them to get to the matches, and we were anxious to get back down South where we belonged. Which was not, unfortunately, in Memphis, Tennessee on July 4th, where the Bash at the Liberty Bowl was the only true stinker of the Tour. Despite a double main event of Flair vs. Nikita and Dusty, Magnum and Baby Doll vs. the Midnight and I in a cage, there couldn't have been 1,000 fans there and the gate wasn't even reported. The previous year, Crockett had co-promoted major events in the Memphis territory with Jerry Jarrett, and featured Jerry Lawler on the cards, and had set gate records in those cities. This time, they decided to go it alone in a show of ego, and found out Lawler was still the King in Memphis, as Jarrett's regular weekly show at the Mid-South Coliseum crushed the Bash house.

Thankfully, July 5th saw us back home in Charlotte at the Memorial Stadium, where 20,000 fans paid $234,000 to see Flair defend the Title against Ricky Morton for the first time ever, and Dusty, Magnum and Doll again top the Midnights and I in a cage, along with the first angle between Dusty and Big Bubba Rogers. Bubba, who had just recently debuted on TV as my bodyguard and had probably had less than 20 matches as a Tv jobber at that point, was so excited that every punch he landed to Dusty's head sounded like someone hitting a watermelon with a hammer, and Dusty had no problem at all selling in a believeable fashion.

The next day, July 6th, was not a Bash event, but Crockett was still running a regular schedule around the Bash dates, and Raleigh, North Carolina's Dorton Arena drew a sellout and record gate of $74,000 to see a loaded lineup topped by Dusty and the Rock & Roll beating Flair and the Andersons in a Bunkhouse match, and the Midnight defending the World Tag Title against the Road Warriors. In that one, Baby Doll ran to ringside to knock me out for interfering in the match--problem was, she was late on her cue, so I took another lap around the ring to wait on her while being chased by Paul Ellering. When she arrived, she was a bit flustered, and drove a straight right into the base of my skull from behind that made me think a fan had hit me with a chair. I was beginning to think the Bash tour might be my swan song in wrestling.

Two nights of TV tapings followed, in Greenville, South Carolina on July 7--after 6 hours of local Tv promos at Crockett's office that day--and a sellout of 2000 fans in Spartanburg, South Carolina on July 8. Business was so hot even the taping in Greenville was a record house. Then, on July 9, we resumed the Bash Tour at Cincinatti, Ohio's historic Riverfront Stadium, where we decided we had seen enough outdoor events to last us awhile. It rained on and off all day, and we drew a meager crowd of 3500 or so, in a city that we had sold out the Cincy Gardens to the tune of 10,000+ just a few months before. George Jones was the musical act, and he showed up so drunk they had him in the shower the better part of the afternoon trying to get him sober enough to go on stage.

Working our way back down South, at least we were indoors on July 10 and 11, when we set all time gate records of $113,500 and $72,000 in Charleston, West Virginia and Roanoke, Virginia, before arriving at another of those damn stadiums on July 12. It hadn't been raining that day in Jacksonville, Florida, at the Gator Bowl--but it was about to. Ominous storm clouds were blowing in, and the thought was to get the matches started and get the main event on at least by third match, so no refunds on the city record gate of $113,000 would have to be given. But Waylon Jennings was having fun playing and wasn't about to hurry off, so the decision was made to--literally--pull the plug on him. In mid-song, the PA went dead, and he finally got the idea. The matches ended up all getting on, but once again, the music, even down South, seemed to be something the fans were tolerating instead of paying to see, and we all wondered how much our payoffs would suffer for these "big-name" acts.

The very next day, inexplicably, we flew halfway across the country, and out of the Crockett Promotions comfort zone, to San Antonio, Texas, where we drew a meager house of a few thousand fans for a non-Bash event at the giant Hemisfair Arena on July 13, before flying halfway BACK across the country to the Carolinas the next day. A non-Bash event in Wilmington, North Carolina sold out the Legion Stadium on July 14, and a TV taping in Gaffney, South Carolina on July 15 was a sellout of almost 2000 fans in advance. July 16 was our long-awaited first day "off" of the month, where the top talent, including myself, spent about 6 hours at Crockett's office in Charlotte shooting local TV promos before going home to collapse on our couches. We were just 80 miles down the road from Charlotte on July 17 for a special WTBS taping at Columbia, South Carolina's Township Auditorium, drawing another sellout crowd there with the Midnight defending the World Tag Title against Dusty Rhodes and Magnum TA in the main event, before resuming the Bash Tour in Richmond, Virginia on July 18 with a record gate of $115,000 at the Coliseum.

Non-Bash house shows followed in Baltimore, Maryland on July 19 drawing $106,000 at the Civic Center, then July 20 back in Greenville, South Carolina where the old gate record, set on July 7, was shattered with high ticket prices and a loaded show doing $62,000. The Bash event in Fayetteville, North Carolina on July 21 saw the biggest crowd for any event ever at the Cumberland County Memorial Arena, with a gate of $105,000 for Dusty, Magnum and Doll beating the Midnight and I underneath Robert Gibson's first-ever singles match with Flair for the World Title. The arena was so jammed the air-conditioning was overwhelmed, and condensation from the heat and humidity literally, at one point, caused it to rain INSIDE the building.

July 22nd was another TV taping, this time in Greenwood, South Carolina, before we got to one of the more amazing sights I would see all month on July 23. On a Wednesday night, in tiny Johnson City, Tennessee--a future monthly town for Smoky Mountain Wrestling beginning in 1992--a sellout 6500 fans paid $101,000 to see the Bash tour stop at Freedom Hall, and that convinced me there was money to be made in those Tennessee hills. July 24 was our first true day off of the month, that we could spend at home, before a big weekend. The Bash in Norfolk, Virginia's Scope Coliseum on July 25th drew a statewide record wrestling gate, $157,000, to see Flair defend against hometown hero Magnum TA.

But we had no time to rest on our laurels, as the next morning, July 26, we were up at dawn to fly to Atlanta and tape that night's WTBS program at the studios on Techwood Drive, before hopping back on a plane to Greensboro, North Carolina. The Bash at the historic Greensboro Coliseum saw a double cage main event--The Road Warriors and Baby Doll beat the Midnight and I, then Dusty defeated Flair to win the NWA World Title before a $257,000 gate. Even though Charlotte's Bash drew more fans, the higher average ticket price in Greensboro beat the Charlotte gate by twenty grand.

The next day? You guessed it--BACK halfway across the country to Dallas, Texas, where a non-Bash event at Reunion Arena on July 27 drew just under $100,000, before--incredibly--flying back to Charlotte on July 28, hopping in our cars at the airport, and driving another 200 miles to Wilmington, North Carolina for our second show there that month, a non-Bash event where we defended the World Tag Title against Dusty and Magnum before about 1600 fans. We then drove 200 miles BACK home to hit our beds at around 3AM. Thankfully, the next day, July 29, was a TV taping in nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina so we were able to sleep late.

On July 30, we spent the day at Crockett's office doing six more hours of promos before driving a 6 hour round trip to Raleigh and back for a house show, then back to Columbia for another house show on July 31, and--astonishingly--BACK to San Antonio, Texas for an even WORSE house on August 1st than the one we had drawn on July 13, before finishing the tour with the final Bash event in Atlanta, Georgia at Fulton County Stadium on August 2, where the Warriors and Doll beat the Midnight and I in a cage again, and Dusty retained the World Title against Flair before a $185,000 house.

The next day, August 3, we got one more TV taping in, in Greenville, South Carolina, before our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow--four straight days off. But the real rib was on the Andersons and the Rock & Roll Express. Ricky and Robert were so hot in the Carolinas, they were sent on a week-long tour on a bus around small towns in North and South Carolina, headlining the "Rock and Roll Express Super Summer Sizzler Series" against Ole and Arn in local ballparks and community stadiums to sellout crowds, supported by prelim talent and missing the days off the other top stars got.

The final statistics on the most arduous tour since the Bataan Death March? In the 34 days between July 1 and August 3, we had appeared on 14 Bash events, 11 regular house shows, and 6 TV tapings--at those tapings, counting dark matches, the Midnights and I appeared on about 12 different shows and wrestled at least 8 times. We did 3 different 6 hour sets of local promos at Crockett's office, and had a total of 3 nights off. You can see why my heart bleeds so badly for modern era wrestlers who complain about their "tough" 3-4 day per week road schedule.

The 14 Bash dates grossed $1.9 million by themselves, and the other house shows and TV tapings added more than $600,000 to that. In calendar 1986, Crockett Promotions, according to testimony from Jim Crockett himself in one of the Midnight's lawsuits, grossed 21 million dollars from it's pro wrestling business.

But wait--what, you ask, became of those "14 Starrcade payoffs"??

Well, the rent on those stadiums wasn't cheap, and remember, in wrestling the promoter ALWAYS gets first count. For the schedule I just recounted, Bobby Eaton, Dennis Condrey and I each made $17,320 for the Bash Tour, and $5,640 for the other dates, making a total of $22,960 for the month. In today's money, as the kids like to say, that works out to $50,326. I would figure Dusty and Flair made at least three times that figure. Were we disappointed? Somewhat. But, I was a main event star on national Tv for one of the two biggest promotions in the sport in my dream job and still hadn't hit my 25th birthday, so I was just pleased as punch to be there. And Starrcade 86, where we made $10,000 in one night, was still to come.

But one lesson was learned. In the Bash tours in 1987 and 1988, the number of Bashes was increased, but the number of stadiums was decreased--the law of diminishing returns, and all that. Better to sell out indoors than draw a bigger crowd in a much more expensive stadium. The schedule wasn't any easier on us physically or mentally, but that came with the territory. But the next time someone says to you that wrestlers today have it so hard on the road, take it with a grain of salt. The next time someone tells you that Vince McMahon made wrestling "big", scoff at them. The next time some wiseass says the sport is better off now that all the "secrets" are out, you have the evidence to the contrary. And, most of all, the next time you hear from one of these indy wrestlers that there's nothing wrong with superkicking grade schoolers and wrestling blowup dolls because wrestling has "evolved" and it's all about "entertainment", ask them when's the last time they made 50 grand in a month.

That won't shut them up. But it ought to.