And Another Thing: The Last Battle Of Atlanta
Of the whole bunch, my body of wrestling columns, I think I’m most proud of this one.
(originally presented November, 2000: 411 wrestling)
Let me tell you about the bloodiest feud of them all.
It was also the most pointless.
And… it might very well be one of the longest. Clocking in at eighteen months.
I don’t know how it started, or why it started, all I know is that at the very end, the two wrestlers were changed, and not for the better.
Let’s go back to the length. Eighteen months. Eighteen. How many feuds do you know go that long? I’m not talking company power struggles that raged throughout the late 90’s, nor am I talking about the rebel flipping off the company’s owner in a two year act of defiance. I’m talking about a fight between two wrestlers of equal standing that raged on for over a full year and a half. Non-stop. These two guys didn’t take a break for a few months to fight someone else, they just kept going at it. Night after night, for eighteen months. It doesn’t happen anymore. It hasn’t happened in a long time. Not since the advent of the pay per view, where feuds begin and end inside of a month, for the most part.
There were no titles involved for this feud. No elevations. Nothing was to be gained from this thing other than a small measure of pride. These two men, in the very heart of the Deep South in the early 80’s, poured it on and into each other for so long because they hated each other. The tossed all personal well being and career advice aside and tore it up. The WWF was two years away from taking over the fabled 6:05-8:05 Saturday evening time slot on the Superstation TBS. Dusty Rhodes was four years away from having his ankle broken by Ric Flair and the Andersons which kicked off a group called the Four Horsemen. Rocky Maivia was still in High School. Hulk Hogan was busy playing “Thunderlips”, and a Texan named Steve Williams was admiring his luxurious blonde locks while wondering if he should give this wrestling career a shot. Wrestling, in general, was only a couple of years away from becoming one of the biggest media attractions of the 80’s, welcoming millions of new fans. These two wrestlers never had any inkling of what was to come… their careers came during the time where wrestling was still a small time business. To them, their feud meant constant work. A constant spot on the card. The promoters kept asking them back to the houses… and why not? The crowd loved it. The blood feud between the Young Stud and the Wild Man. Between Georgia’s Favorite Face and it’s Craziest Heel. Between Wildfire and the Mad Dog.
Tommy “Wildfire” Rich was the youthful, blonde Hero that promoters loved. The girls squealed after him and the boys admired him. Clean-cut, wide, bright smile, he was exactly the type of Face that you can book an entire card around. In 1979, he was voted “Rookie of the Year” in the annual “PWI Year-End Awards” (although he made his technical debut in 1974). In 1978, he was voted “Most Improved Wrestler”. In 1981 he won “Most Popular Wrestler” and came in second to Andre the Giant one year later. Also in ’81, he finished third behind Ric Flair and Bob Backlund in the “Wrestler of the Year” category. In those first few years after his debut, “Wildfire” lived up to his nickname. In those days, most of the handsome babyfaces of the time were in Texas and shared the last name “Von Erich”. Almost everywhere else, Wrestlers still looked like hardened ex-cons… tougher than a piece of raw bull steak and twice as mean as the steer you took it from. Even the NWA World Champion, at the time, Harley Race, looked like he won the belt by drinking the most pints. In those days, wrestling was about watching beer guts hang over the tights as they punched and kicked each other into unconsciousness. Tommy Rich was different. He was good looking. He was a kid, only 25 years old. He didn’t have the roughened gravel-like voice from chain smoking Camels, instead he had an easy going, mellow Georgian twang that went nicely with his smooth grin. He was a pretty boy, the perfect Face for Heels to want to smash.
For a time, Wildfire was hot, hot enough to actually win the NWA heavyweight title from Harley Race in 1981. Not so hot enough to keep it, though. Four days later, Race beat him again and re-took the title. That was the closest Rich came to being a serious player in the Wrestling game. From 1978 to 1981, he was the future of Wrestling… and it would only be a matter of time before he would take his spot in the Upper Echelon. That’s what everyone thought.
Then he met “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer.
Buzz Sawyer was a man before his time. He made his debut in 1979, one year after Rich officially was voted “Rookie of the Year”. Buzz was bald on top, keeping the hair growing around his sides, but there was no mistaking him for an Accountant. He wore thick fur around his boots and made the look cool. Truly, had he been born a short ten years earlier, he would have been what Steve Austin is today. The Mad Dog was wild, inhuman, and frightening to watch. Like Rich, his star shone brightest in his early years, just not as brightly as Rich’s had. In 1982, he came in fourth place in the PWI’s “Most Hated” poll… just behind Ted DiBiase, Blackjack Mulligan, and Superstar Billy Graham. In 1982, he trailed behind Barry Windham and Otto Wanz in the “Most Improved” category. Finally, in 1983, he was third in the “Inspirational Wrestler of the year”, beaten out by Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. The reason why a monster Heel like him would be considered “Inspirational” was because of his brother, but I’ll get to that later.
The funny thing is, while Rich had the looks, it was Sawyer with all the skills. Rich was a strict puncher who had a few dropkicks, some basic lock holds, and the occasional Sleeperhold to his arsenal. His Finisher was as simple as it gets, the Lou Thesz Press, which is basically a vertical cross body-block. Sawyer knew how to work, what’s more… he knew how to flow. Buzz Sawyer was not afraid of climbing the top ropes, or taking a bump, or of creating a new suplex on the spot. He punctuated each spot with a loud, wolf-like howl that echoed throughout the building. He also had a perfected Powerslam before anyone knew just what the hell a Powerslam was. Maybe this was what made the feud so lucrative? Buzz Sawyer not only represented everything Tommy Rich stood against, but he could also out-wrestle him. The fans knew this, and even if they loved “Wildfire” or hated him, they couldn’t wait to see how he would deal with Buzz next. Mad Dog was the ultimate nightmare for the pretty boy. Mean, ugly, ferocious, and a hell of a fighter. It was a match(-up) made in heaven.
After eighteen months of blood, eighteen months of pain, and eighteen months of rage, enough was enough. Georgia wrestling was exhausted from this feud, and so were the wrestlers. Rich probably noticed that while he was getting mauled for the last year and a half, he was also two full years gone from his four day title reign. He was an “ex” NWA champion for two years now, and wasn’t making any serious bids to reclaim the belt and show the world that his first win wasn’t a joke. Buzz probably was just itching for a change. Plus, his brother, Bret Wayne had just joined the sport and he wanted to do some work with him awhile. Either way, the eighteen month journey had one more stop… it’s final stop. Fittingly, since both men were children of Georgia, it only made sense to finish the war at it’s capital, and in Georgia Wrestling’s home base. So, seventeen years ago this week, Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer stepped inside a Steel Cage in the Omni and finished the game in what was called “The Last Battle of Atlanta”. For one night, before Wrestlemania, before The NWO, before Cliques, before Monday Nights, before 3:16, before Luche Libre, before Horsemen… Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer made their last stand against each other. In a few short years, wrestling would take off and be re-defined a couple of times. Nobody knew this was coming… they just knew that there was one last score to be settled, old school style.
They say that it was brutal. I hear more blood came out of that match then ever before, for it’s time. AIDS was just starting to show up in San Francisco’s gay community, so nobody saw the problem with a nice, messy blade yanked across the forehead. If a few fans should catch a few drops of Mad Dog’s blood, they probably loved it. I didn’t see the match itself, but everyone saw the end results. Tommy Rich walked out of that cage the eventual winner, but only from a technical stand point. The truth is that neither man really walked out of that ring on that fateful October night. Both men left a part of themselves inside there.
Tommy Rich never really recovered. Oh, he still worked the circuit, but never adapted to the changing times or to the fact that his youthful good looks were now hardened and scarred from a year and a half of having a Mad Dog try to bite his face off. Rich never presented a serious challenge to the NWA title, which was now in the hands of this guy named Flair who everyone still called a “Buddy Rogers rip-off”. He really didn’t do much of anything while the WWF was steamrolling everywhere. Time marched on, Rich got pudgy, then downright fat. He even turned Heel a few times, telling the fans to go “straight to hell”. As a heel, he got a slot as a mid-carder in the Alexander York’s (Terri Runnels) stable and got a little mileage off that. Some years later, he turned up in ECW and managed the “Full Blooded Italians”. He seemed to be having fun.
Buzz Sawyer still had a potential career after the cage. In an effort to put the feud in the past, Georgia promoters gave him a heartwarming angle where his brother Bret would have a tearful, dramatic re-union in the ring. Tired of seeing Bret get beat up by the Road Warriors, Buzz ran into the ring and made the save. Babyface Bret Wayne would admit that he was a Sawyer after all and show the whole world that his Brother wasn’t all that bad by adopting his last name. Unfortunately, while Buzz had tons of skill and charisma, Bret was about as exciting as watching paint dry. The Storyline was hot for a while, but not for very long. Buzz migrated to Texas for a bit and gave the Von Erich’s headaches. Turned up in the WWF once or twice… but never made much of himself. Then, in 1992, thirteen years after he debuted and almost ten years after his feud with Wildfire began, Buzz Sawyer died quietly in his apartment in Sacramento from drugs. He was 32.
Wrestling is a hard profession. For every Flair, Hogan, and Funk who know how to stay active for decades, there are countless other men who know only too well what it’s like to flame out early and burn out before their ready. These men, who’s talent shined brighter than a wildfire and brayed louder than a rabid dog will tell you how cold the thousands of miles on the road can be, matched only by the heart of the promoter who tells you that at 30, you are already “yesterday’s news” and aren’t worth the cost of the gas you used up to get to the building. This is the real life of Professional Wrestling. The life nobody talks about. The life that breaks your heart, and your spirit.
Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer didn’t see what was coming. They just saw each other. For eighteen months they gave each other everything they had and bled gallons. Then, they had one final dance at the Mecca of Wrestling in the Deep South and bled one last time, pouring out their souls into each other in an ultimate blaze of glory that burned the house down. Atlanta burned famously once before, a century ago. Well, seventeen years ago this week, Atlanta burned one more time. Only no lives were lost this time around, and there were only two victims permanently scarred from the blaze.
I’ve just introduced you to them.
R.I.P Mad Dog. You would have loved the 90’s
This is Hyatte too