Shining a Spotlight 12.06.12: The Fabulous Freebirds
Death isn’t fair. We’ve all learned that at one point in our lives. It’s been proven this week by the loss of Larry Hagman, who seemed in good health and making a huge comeback as J.R. Ewing on Dallas so tragic to see him lose his battle with cancer when he was on a career high. We’ve also seen it on wrestling with various young guys dying out while someone like Jake Roberts (who’s imbued enough drugs to wipe out an NFL team in his life) still goes on. I was reminded of that again this week by the passing of Buddy Roberts. I’ll be frank, of the three Freebirds, I never imagined Michael Hayes would be the last one standing. Then again, it’s a bit fitting as he was always the spokesman for the three. And in the wake of Roberts’ death, I thought I’d finally put the spotlight on a team that changed so much for the business.
The Fabulous Freebirds were the first cool heels. Before them, heels were meant to be booed, that was their purpose. Sure, you could respect some of them but still their job was to make fans hate them. The Freebirds, on the other hand, were the guys fans loved even when they were hated, the first bad guys who made fans go “man, I want to be them.” They were wild and stunning, as politically incorrect outside the ring as they were in it and it was because of that they helped forge arguably the most famous and profitable feud in wrestling history and a legacy that stands today.
On paper, they were as different as you could get. Michael Hayes was born for wrestling, maybe not a great worker but with his great looks and long hair, he had female fans but more importantly, was a master of the mic, doing promo work better than almost anyone of the time. Terry Gordy was a rough and tumble brawler who could go surprisingly technical and no bad shakes on the mic himself. Then you had Buddy Roberts, seemingly small and lithe but surprisingly tough and able to take plenty of damage. Put them together and you had magic although it wasn’t instant.
Gordy grew up a good athlete but eschewed baseball and football for wrestling, breaking into the business at only 13 and by 15, he was main-eventing in Mississippi before losing a “loser loses hair match” and leaving. In Memphis in 1978, he met with Hayes, calling himself “Lord Michael Hayes” and the two hit it off perfectly. Hayes himself summed it up at their meeting: “You’re going to make it for sure. I’ll probably make it somehow. But if we get together, we’ll make it that much faster.” The two were soon fast friends for life, working as a team through the territories in the south. It was Hayes’ idea to come to the ring to Lynard Skynyrd, something almost no one at the time was doing. With his flash and Gordy’s skill, they were soon a hot team, holding the Georgia National tag titles a few times.
In 1979, they made their way to Bill Watt’s Mid-South territory where Watts decided they needed a bit more stability in and out of the ring and brought in Roberts. Growing up in Vancouver, Roberts had been wrestling since the ‘60’s and was well used to tag teams as he and Jerry Brown were the original Hollywood Blondes, acclaimed throughout various territories. At first, Hayes and Gordy were suspicious of Roberts, thinking him a stooge from the front office. But it didn’t take long for Roberts to prove he was one of them, great in the ring but able to party as hard as the other two. They were soon holding tag team gold in Georgia with the loophole that any two of the three could defend the belts at any time. It was also here that they got their first brush with major fame as they feuded with the promotion’s biggest star, the Junkyard Dog. This included an angle where the Freebirds seemingly blinded JYD and kayfabe-lover Watts had the man actually go out in bandages as if it was real. This made the heat massive with the Freebirds literally needing police escorts to get in and out of arenas. JYD made his triumphant return to take on the Freebirds in dog collar matches and it all culminated in a steel cage battle at the Superdome in front of a monster crowd.
It was at this point that Hayes took a trip to Texas and worked with World Class Championship Wrestling. Hayes realized something was heating up at this place, calling up Gordy and Roberts to get them to join him, insisting it would be worth it. They were introduced as babyfaces, allies of the Von Erichs and the crowds were hot for them.
Then came that fateful Christmas night that changed everything.
Christmas, 1982. As usual, WCCW was doing a “Star Wars” show, one of their big events with the main event being Kerry Von Erich challenging Ric Flair for the NWA title in a steel cage. A “fan poll” had chosen Hayes as the special ref with Gordy outside to help. Earlier in the night, the Freebirds had won the first-ever six-man tag title with David Von Erich replacing an absent Roberts but giving up his part of the belt afterward. The match was up and down with Kerry having the advantage when Flair shoved Hayes. Hayes laid Flair out and urged Kerry to take the pin but the hero Kerry refused. A frustrated Hayes went to leave as Flair hit Kerry from behind, knocking him into Hayes but Hayes thought it was Kerry that hit him. So when Kerry went to leave the cage, Gordy slammed the cage door on his head. The battle would continue a bit longer but that finish is what fans remembered and it kicked off a feud still talked of today.
It was brilliant: The Freebirds, the Georgia-based guys who talked of decadence versus the all-American clean-cut Von Erichs. As Jim Ross put it on the WWE’s DVD on WCCW, it was a match made in promoter’s heaven and fans in Texas could not get enough of it. Single bouts, tag bouts, six-man bouts, whipping bouts, elimination matches, they threw just about every combination you could imagine and the fans ate it up in droves. The Freebirds got hotter as they’d come to the ring in sequined robes and jackets with the Confederate flag, sometimes going so far as to have a full-fledged Confederate band with them leading the way to the ring. It was exactly what WCCW needed as the Von Erichs had been facing the older guys on the downside of their careers, they needed an equal force of hot guys to face and the Freebirds were it. They were the first opponents the fans could buy as equal to the Von Erichs in star power and skill and that led to some epic clashes. The heat was insane for them, fans booing their lungs out time and again and going wild when the Von Erichs got the upper hand. Make no mistake about it: This feud is what made WCCW a force in the early ‘80’s and why it’s remembered well today.
The Freebirds were the living example of how the best wrestling personas are just the real guy taken to the tenth power. They wouldn’t do promos in the ring but rather have Bill Mercer meet them backstage or in bars. The debut of Hayes “Badstreet” video added to their rep as they’d talk openly on their wild lives, their exploits of partying legendary even among other wrestlers. They obeyed no rules, talked trash like no one else (even openly accusing the Von Erichs of being steroid users) and you believed it because they were truly as wild out of the ring as they were inside it. They were just slick and awesome so even the fans who booed them hard had to like watching them a bit. Together, these three would dominate the promotion for nearly two years with their wild battles against the Von Erichs. Occasional help would come from Jimmy Garvin, an old friend of Hayes who, while not officially a Freebird, would be an aid but was busy with his own great work as the arrogant fashion plate Texas champion. But the attitude was clear, exemplified by an infamous trip to Israel where a drunk Roberts stepped off the plane to yell at waiting fans “you sons of bitches killed Jesus!” Yet, it just made them hotter than ever and ready to beef up shows with their heat. Fans would scream at them, most prominently chanting “PRISSY SISSY” at Hayes to unnerve him in the ring.
It wasn’t just the Von Erichs as Roberts took to snipping off the hair of opponents after wins. The Freebirds did it to the very popular Iceman King Parsons so Parsons would hit back by facing Roberts in a match and rubbing “Hair removal cream” all over Roberts’ head. Thus, we had the fun of Roberts spending the next few months wearing not just a wig but a full-fledged padded helmet to cover his bald head. It was another great touch as they went along and Roberts was able to be the one to take the beatings Gordy and Hayes avoided but still a scrappy guy when need be. Of course, it also showed the rough side of WCCW: Without the Freebirds/Von Erichs, the promotion didn’t do as much business, that feud such the focus that without it, a show wouldn’t be a sell-out at all.
But things were still going great with business, the Freebirds holding not just the six-man belts but also the American tag titles, Roberts the TV champion and Gordy the American champ, boasting of their greatness all the while. But just as it seemed WCCW was rising, the death of David Von Erich knocked everyone for a major loop. The Freebirds faced Kevin and Mike along with Fritz, coming out of retirement at the first David Von Erich Parade of Champions with the Von Erichs winning of course. However, the damage was done. On the WWE documentary, Hayes says that the fun of WCCW died with David, it just didn’t feel right anymore, the fire gone. So it’s not surprising that the Freebirds would spread their wings elsewhere for a while.
The first stop was WWF and at first, it seemed a great fit for the larger-than-life trio. But when promoters had plans to split them up, the three decided loyalty was more important and left together. The AWA was next with Gordy and Hayes doing well as a team and Hayes even challenging Rick Martel for the AWA title a few times. However, the breaking point was when Hayes suggested a feud with the Road Warriors and Verne Gagne refused, dictating that “you can’t have two heel teams fighting each other,” missing how the Warriors were the most popular guys in the company. They had a match in Chicago but left before Gagne realized his mistake.
The Freebirds returned to Texas with a fun dynamic as General Skandor Akbar was making fun of Gordy for failing to sign on Killer Khan, allowing Akbar to do it. Hayes took exception to Akbar insulting Gordy and so the Freebirds and Devastation Inc were at war. You had the Freebirds interrupting matches to throw the Von Erichs out and then attack Akbar’s men to cheers and Gordy doing a fantastic promo going apeshit flopping shirtless on the gravely road. As more than one person put it “there’s a thin line between love and hate and they walked it better than anyone.” However, the Freebirds weren’t as hot for WCCW this time due to the problems like the addition of “Lance Von Erich” and such and they knew it. They did find further fame by appearing as themselves in the opening scene of the original Highlander movie.
In 1986, Bill Watts decided to take a major jump by turning Mid-South into the Universal Wrestling Federation. In a coup Vince would be proud of, Watts not only got WCCW’s booker Ken Mantell but also the Freebirds, Parsons, Akbar and his army, Chris Adams and other long-time Texas stars, a mass exodus that crippled WCCW. Watts had Gordy win a tournament to become the first UWF champion and with Hayes and Roberts backing him up, soon dominated for a while. It came to an end when he was attacked by Steve Williams, Ted DiBiase and Terry Taylor, his arm “broken” so he had to forfeit the belt to the One Man Gang. The Freebirds returned to WCCW but their time was clearly winding down. In 1988, they did an angle of splitting up, Hayes actually teaming with Kerry as a face while Roberts and Gordy teamed with Iceman “Blackbird” Parsons. The angle wasn’t that good, highlighted by the heels attacking Fritz Von Erich, who faked a heart attack and the fans hated how Fritz was using the family’s own terrible history to get sympathy for this.
Hayes would move to WCW, working as a singles star at first, even a two-week reign as U.S. Champion. He and Garvin finally teamed up as the Freebirds with Garvin going by “Jimmy Jam.” The two brought back that old Freebird magic with their combined arrogance and flashy drive and were a great mix in the ring. They held both the U.S. tag titles and later the World tag belts, feuding with the likes of the Steiners and many others. Hayes, Gordy and Roberts would all reunite in 1993 for a special tribute show to Kerry and had one last run together in 1994 in the Global Wrestling Federation. Sadly, Gordy’s stroke in 1993 robbed him of much of his skill and stability and Roberts’ age and long-time drug use were pushing him to retirement. Hayes would join WWF under the name of Doc Hendrix before going to his regular name. A fun bit is that when Hayes managed the Hardy Boyz, he had hoped to turn them into a new Freebirds but they basically told him it was time to let it go. Gordy finally passed on in 2001, Hayes spending most of that year in mourning for his brother in all but blood. Roberts was forced to undergo surgery after getting throat cancer, spending the rest of his life speaking through a voicebox. He, Hayes and Garvin all showed up together on WWE’s DVD of World Class, the last time the Freebirds would be together.
So now Hayes is the last of the original three left standing which may seem oddly fitting. He was always the leader of the group and the one with the most flash. But Gordy and Roberts more than supplemented him and made for a fantastic chemistry. They paved the way for more groups from the Horsemen to DX but that original style, these three hell-for-bent rebels doing whatever they wanted has never truly been duplicated. These three birds of a wild feather flew high in their time and that flight remains in the hearts of fans for a long time to come.
For this week, the spotlight is off.