When “Cowboy” Bill Watts got divorced and the vast tape-library was awarded to his now ex-wife in the court settlement there was a good chance that we might never see the footage again. Indeed she threatened to destroy the tapes just to spite Bill but thankfully wiser heads prevailed. Although the WWE couldn’t reach a deal with her in the first instance, they finally did last year and old school wrestling fans have been waiting for a release like this ever since.
Was it worth the wait?
Some expressed disappointment when details of the set first leaked out that this, unlike the World Class Championship Wrestling and American Wrestling Association collections that we’ve previously seen from the WWE, wouldn’t be based around a documentary on the promotion. Whilst I would still have liked to have seen this (basically because I will watch any seriously undertaken two hour documentary feature on wrestling) you certainly cannot argue with the way the WWE has set this out.
In brief, hand-picked matches from 1981 to 1987 are showcased, with short biographical introductions for wrestlers or a feud preceding them. Perhaps thanks to Jim Ross, who was an integral part of the Mid-South machine and producer of this DVD, the video packages do an excellent job of priming you for what is coming next and usually leave you understanding just how good Mid-South was and why the matches/superstars being showcased were so important. The sheer range of talking heads is fantastic too and following on from other recent WWE releases is both wide ranging and spot on in terms of relevance. No unnecessary Steve Lombardi appearances here, folks.
Disc one starts with Ted DiBiase and ends with Magnum T.A via the Junkyard Dog, Jim Duggan and Tony Atlas. That three of these went on to “bigger” things in terms of the WWE and NWA quickly highlights what a breeding ground Mid-South was. Ted’s start with the company is looked at (and it’s weird to see him in the archive footage without his now ubiquitous beard) and we also see footage of his Rat Pack faction which included Duggan and the late Matt Borne. I hadn’t much knowledge of this particular slice of Mid-South prior to the DVD but as stated it does a very good job of highlighting not only the trio’s time together but the subsequent break up too. A DiBiase &Borne tag match against JYD and Mr Olympia is followed by a Coal Miners Glove Steel Cage Tuxedo Loser Leaves Town Match (which they admit on the DVD was slight booking overkill!) between DiBiase and Duggan. In a pattern that becomes somewhat familiar on the disc the action itself isn’t particularly great, but the storytelling is perfect and the reaction of the crowd proves that the formula worked. We also get some Tony Atlas action, as he not only joins forces with Andre The Giant to take on the Rat Pack in some tag team action but also benches 500 pounds in a special presentation.
The popularity of JYD is often talked about and it is clear to see on this DVD that there was no exaggeration in the stories you’ve heard. The reactions to him are off the charts in the two tag team matches he features in on this disc. And although the one that sees him team with Andre The Giant and Dusty Rhodes to take on Afa, Sika and “The Big Cat” Ernie Ladd is again average at best in terms of action, it’s held in front of a rabid audience that is into every move. Disc 1 ends with perhaps a perfect example of just how good Bill Watts was at creating compelling storylines as it recaps the Magnum T.A. feud with Mr. Wrestling II. Follow the storyline as Mr. Wrestling announces that he is to manage Magnum (complete with entertaining footage of their training), how he betrays him in a tag match before we witness Magnum get his revenge. It all sounds simple, and it is, but it’s so well done that you would hope modern day wrestling bookers and writers will see this and realise just how to craft compelling angles.
Disc 2 starts with more JYD, this time his feud with “Hacksaw” Butch Reed. If you thought painting your opponents was an nWo thing you will be surprised here and things progress to the climactic Ghetto Street Fight from May 1984. From there we take a look at Mid-South’s portion of one of the classic tag team rivalries of all time, The Midnight Express versus The Rock N Roll Express. This features the best in-ring action of the set so far and the always entertaining sight of Jim Cornette having to adhere to a wacky stipulation; this time he’s put in a straight-jacket and raised to the roof of the arena in a cherry picker. We even get video comments from Jim Cornette which is a nice surprise although it looks as if these are taken from previous interviews Cornette has done rather than new ones specifically for this release. Still, it’s nice that his enmity with the WWE hasn’t led to them cutting him out of the story altogether.
The Shawn Michaels section seems here simply because he’s Shawn Michaels, rather than it being particularly exciting and/or important. A squash match with Ted DiBiase is interesting to watch once, especially with HBK’s introduction in mind, but it’s not something you will keep going back to. The Terry Taylor/Ric F lair match from June 1985 that follows and concludes the disc is much better and may surprise those who only know Taylor as the Red Rooster. It’s worth watching just for Taylor’s introduction about a drunk Ric Flair turning up an hour late for the event. They could have been a little kinder to Taylor though by cutting out his comments about a “48 minute match”, especially as the timekeeper at the conclusion states the time at 39 minutes. It’s perhaps a little too long for those used to modern day WWE but it builds nicely and is an effective showcase for just how perfectly Ric Flair fitted the NWA World Champion mould of the touring champion who had to go to the territories but put over their top stars whilst still retaining the belt.
Disc 3 kicks off with Muhammad Ali’s 1985 appearance in “The Snowman’s” corner against Jake Roberts. There’s some nice footage of the build up (including Jim Ross accompanying Ali to a mosque) and it’s fun to see the often told story about Roberts no-selling, or at least under-selling, Ali’s punches on the screen. The match is by no means great though. From there it is perhaps the most famous hour of Mid-South television as in the space of one show the hated heel Ted DiBiase becomes the number one good guy in the company and nearly sneaks away with Ric Flair’s NWA World Title in a shower of blood. Although the story is well known, given that numerous personalities of the time have referenced it in interviews over the years, I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t already seen it/got knowledge of it. Suffice to say it is a brilliant slice of wrestling storytelling that many have tried to copy over the years without ever quite matching it.
There is a little bit about Mid-South’s attempts to go national and the change to becoming the Universal Wrestling Federation. As we all know, that failed, largely due to the fact that an oil crisis hit the Mid-South area, with huge unemployment hitting Watt’s territory just when he needed the security of success on home turf to be able take on the world. Television ratings held firm, but his core audience simply didn’t have the disposable income to attend events anymore. Watts admits he was losing $50,000 a week at this time, and a sell out to Crockett Promotions was inevitable. The nuances of the deal are glossed over here, namely that Watts overplayed the WWE’s interest in his promotion to secure the NWA deal and that the NWA would later greatly regret the purchase when they could have just picked up the stars they wanted later on when the UWF had gone under, and there’s little acknowledgement that Vince took a number of the territories stars to New York, but there’s enough detail to fill in the uninitiated.
We get a couple of squash matches to showcase Bill Watt’s record in finding new stars. Rob Ricksteiner’s match (who, of course, dropped the first name and split the last one) has curiosity value purely because his opponent is future WCW and WWE referee Nick Patrick and whilst The Bladerunners were pretty awful, the fact that they later became the guys you now know as The Ultimate Warrior and Sting means that it’s an interesting exercise to seem them from 1986.
The UWF years mainly showcase The Fabulous Freebirds, Terry Gordy and Steve “Dr. Death” Williams. Gordy’s UWF Heavyweight Title defence against Jim Duggan is one of the best Duggan matches you’ll ever see, whilst the Lumberjack match pitting DiBiase and Williams against Michael Hayes and Buddy Rogers is fun. The September 1986 title match pitting Gordy against Williams will be a disappointment to any who have fond memories of their team together in the 1990s and suffers from a non-finish that is never fully explained. The One Man Gang versus Big Bubba Rogers (who fans will better know as The Big Bossman) is seemingly only here so we can finish the disc with Steve Williams finally winning the title against Rogers, in a match that is only shown in highlight form. It’s a slightly anti-climatic end to the presentation, even as Williams discusses the NWA buy-out and claims that the proposed feud between the UWF and the NWA petered out when Ric Flair didn’t like William’s style in their title unification match and said he wouldn’t face him again.
Just looking at the names involved over these three discs should give you an idea of how influential the Mid-South region was. Ted DiBiase, Junkyard Dog, Andre The Giant, Dusty Rhodes, Jim Duggan, Magnum TA, Midnight Express, Rock N Roll Express, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair, Jake Roberts, Sting, Ultimate Warrior, The Fabulous Freebirds, Terry Gordy, Steve Williams…the list is pretty impressive indeed and that is by no means exhaustive even in terms of this set. For anyone who has fond memories of the 1980’s and 90’s stars that made their names in Mid-South, or who passed through the territory amongst other runs, this DVD release is a no brainer. It does a great job of emphasising the relevance and importance of Mid-South in wrestling history and the video packages are so well thought through and put together that even a fan with no prior knowledge of the in’s and out’s of the promotion will fully understand the feuds and legends that it showcases.
The only thing that stops it being a full five-star release for me is that some of the matches simply haven’t aged well and whilst it is understandable that matches from thirty years ago won’t always match the pace of the best of today’s action there’s just a few too many matches for my liking that you might not wish to see a second time. That said, this is still a “must see” DVD for any wrestling fans interested in the history of the territory system and who want to see that the stories about the great, episodic storytelling excellence in Mid-South were every bit the truth.
– By Matthew Roberts
Thank you to our partners, WWEDVD.co.uk for providing our copy of WWE Legends of Mid-South. WWE Legends of Mid-South is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from 16th September. You can pre-order your copy from WWEDVD.co.uk now by clicking here.