wrestling / Columns

Shining a Spotlight 07.19.12: Bill Watts in WCW

July 19, 2012 | Posted by Michael Weyer

History is always important to pay attention to, particularly in regards to the present. As people complain so much about the current state of wrestling, particularly WWE, I’d point out that twenty years ago, the business was in a poor slump as well. WWF was shaky with Hogan gone although the rise of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels would help. However, WCW was even worse. It’s been said before but has to be repeated that if it wasn’t for Ted Turner, the company would have gone out of business years sooner. Turner had a love of wrestling and was willing to pay to keep WCW going. Sadly, he allowed them to fall into the hands of people who knew little about wrestling. When people look at how the company fell apart, they ask why WCW wouldn’t put someone who knew the business in charge. The explanation for that is that the one time the company tried, it ended rather poorly.

As 1992 began, WCW was recovering from the loss of big names like Ric Flair and Lex Luger. With Sting as champion, the company was rising thanks to new boss Kip Frye who had the brilliant idea of offering a cash bonus to whoever had the best match on a certain card, increasing the workrate immensely. However, he was quickly shown the door just as things were getting good. So WCW turned to a man with a proven track record in the business who seemed to have all the ingredients to turn things around for the better. That he had the worst qualities of someone for a corporate structure didn’t seem to matter much at the time but would turn out to be bad down the road. Especially given how he broke the cardinal rule of a boss: Making his employees united in their hate of him.

The Cowboy

Bill Watts remains one of the most fascinating figures wrestling has ever known. Throughout the 1960’s, he carved out a career as a tough guy fighter, warring with various champions in territories and selling himself as good worker. But it was his booking that made Watts famous as his Oklahoma-based Mid-South territory was soon regarded as one of the best territories in the country. Watts was terrific setting things up, building storylines wonderfully, holding to kayfabe big-time to sell it all as totally real. He was amazing when it came to creating stars such as Steve Williams, Ted DiBiase, Jim Duggan and of course, the Junkyard Dog as Watts helped Mid-South stand out as one of the hottest places around. Watts had an affinity for real tough guys, especially Williams, who famously got busted open during an afternoon show, went to the doctor and fought a match that night with 138 stiches in his head.

In 1986, Watts recognized that expansion was the way of the future and so transformed Mid-South into the Universal Wrestling Federation. With help from announcer/officer Jim Ross, Watts got a good syndication deal going and managed a massive raid of talent from WCCW, giving him more star power to take off. The UWF got respect for being more traditional than WWF and NWA of the time with a good market for action and talent. Watts did run into problems as Duggan and DiBiase both wanted runs with the title, were refused, and both left for WWF. But Watts still had good stuff, creating the Western States Heritage title for more push to the mid-card and had some great new talent like Rick Steiner and Sting. Watts was the first to see the massive potential in Sting and was carefully plotting his course despite his dislike of “pretty boy” wrestlers.

Unfortunately, the oil recession of late 1987 hit things hard as the Oklahoma economy collapsed virtually overnight. Watts’ loyal audience found themselves trying to keep their homes rather than caring about a wrestling show. With his finances sinking, Watts managed to sell the UWF to Jim Crockett, making Crockett believe he was going to sell to McMahon to boost things. Watts assumed the UWF might stand alone with a good partnership and sharing of talent with JCP. However, Watts had vastly overestimated Crockett’s grasp of what he had. Instead of using the UWF, Crockett just squashed the entire company, their titles forgotten, talent scattered and with the notable exception of Sting, their stars unused. It would be bad for Crockett, putting him in the financial hole more taking on the UWF’s debts, helping to force his eventual sale to Turner. Watts, meanwhile, stayed out of the wrestling game, recharging and enjoying a break. But he still thirsted for the business and so when WCW made the offer, he was ready to grab it up.

On the “Rise and Fall of WCW” DVD, Michael Hayes sums up how so many guys were excited about Watts coming in, convinced he was just the guy to turn WCW around. What no one expected was that they were getting the full Bill Watts…which is not a good thing.

The New Attitude

For the ultra-PC corporate environment of the early 1990’s, Bill Watts was pretty much the worst guy you could have around. It’d be a bit much to call him a bigot (despite Ron Simmons’ famous comment of “he didn’t go so far as to wear the Klan hood in public” comment) or sexist. The thing was that Watts was from a different time and place, where calling blacks the n-word or women the c-word was no big deal, it was just regular conversation. He reportedly took a piss right off the balcony of Turner’s Atlanta headquarters and in the parking lot too, seeming to enjoy his rep as a “good ole boy” of the cliché order, complete with boasting of wearing a pistol in an ankle holster. Most of all, Watts was a man used to running things his way, not used to the politics of a corporation like Turner. All that was a recipe for disaster but Watts did himself no favors at all with how he laid down the law. When he came in, he called a massive locker room meeting to deliver a big speech on how they were going to take it to Vince, get back to basics, real wrestling, not a sideshow and do what it took to make the company great. Watts had the entire roster in the palm of his hand…and then in the space of five minutes, he threw it away.

The rules have become legendary among wrestlers, nicknamed the “Watts Commandments.” He no doubt thought they were great but in practice, they were a disaster. First and foremost was banning all moves off the top rope. Watts thought this would get matches back to old-styled hard wrestling but it was the most annoying of all his changes for fans and workers alike. It completely killed the light heavyweight division, which Watts thought was dull, ignoring how the Brian Pillman-Jushin Liger match a few weeks earlier had been one of the best bouts seen in years. He had the blue protective mats around the ring taken out, thinking they were too WWF-like, ignoring how this just raised the risk of injury to workers. He did argue against ringside brawling at all, thinking it just “cheap heat.” Old-time to the extreme was Watts insisting kayfabe be kept up as under no circumstances were faces and heels to be seeing together outside the shows. They’d have to have different hotels, eat at different restaurants and travel separately, which messed up a lot of schedules and more than a few guys annoyed at the boss basically telling them they couldn’t be friends because of their characters. Wives and families were banned from arenas as Watts considered it horrible if a heel was seen as a loving father. If a guy was beat up in the ring and was seen at a bar or restaurant later, he was fired on the spot. Finally, no wrestler was allowed to leave the arena until a show was over. That meant the guys who did the opening match would have to wait three hours to go home, which really pissed off guys wanting to see families or get on the road earlier.

All those alone would be enough to raise a ruckus but Watts just made it worse. He began cost-cutting to the extreme, doing away with catered meals backstage. He also started slashing contracts left and right. Jake Roberts had signed a good deal under Frye but the day before his WCW debut, Watts called him into his office, literally tore that contract up before Roberts’ eyes and forced him to sign a lesser deal. Watts hated these contracts and seriously wanted to set up a system of paying guys on a night-by-night basis, which pretty much everyone considered completely insane. Watts tried to bring back the retired Tully Blanchard for a Four Horsemen reunion but Blanchard laughed when Watts merely offered $300 a night. Frye had been smart in offering the workers bonuses, knowing guys would respond to those so Watts’ belief that slashing pay would get more work out of guys was completely illogical.

If that wasn’t enough, Watts’ various ideas on running the shows didn’t exactly win favors either. While WCW at the time was technically still part of the NWA, Watts hated the organization and refused to acknowledge it, such as cancelling a planned August PPV that would have shown the tag team title tournament. Watts also seemed obsessed with turning the Atlanta Omni into the “Madison Square Garden of the South” which wasn’t a bad idea in itself. However, having guys promote an Omni show that would be seen by only a few thousand, over an upcoming PPV or “Clash of Champions” card that could be seen by millions, didn’t make much sense. It just made WCW look more second-rate and local when they were trying to build up.

Watts had intended to unite the wrestlers with all this and he certainly did that. Unfortunately, it was against him and his rules. In his book Ring of Hell Matthew Randazzo paints the wrestlers as being children, acting insulted at “having to treat wrestling like a job” and not seeing the opportunity to let Watts lead them. The exception was Chris Benoit as after Stu Hart and the Japanese dojos, Watts was the most easy-going boss Benoit had. But the fact is that basically pissing off your entire roster is not the way to run a company and Watts just went out of his way to do that. And he’d just make it worse by insisting on pushing a guy he was convinced was the next WCW star in the making despite all evidence to the contrary.

The Pushes

Wrestling is filled with promoters who try to push their sons to stardom. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. One case of it not working was Verne Gagne. When Verne (in a bout of ego that makes Vince look humble) retired as AWA World Champion, he made no secret he intended for son Greg to be his successor. The problem was that while Greg was a fair worker (he and Jim Brunzell a great tag team), he was skinny and had pretty much no charisma whatsoever. But he was the boss’ son and thus was pushed time and again toward that belt. The popular story is that the only reason Greg never became AWA champion was that whenever Verne announced plans to do it, every promoter under him (who, unlike Verne, knew what a disaster Greg as champion would be) threatened to quit if Verne went through with it. For years, Verne’s obsession with pushing Greg was seen as the worst a promoter could do over his son. However, that would be topped by Eric Watts.

Eric has gotten a real bad deal from wrestling fans over the years and he can pretty much blame his dad on that. The guy had potential and with a bit more training, might have been a decent worker. However, his father’s insistence on taking him out of the Power Plant early and thrust right into the big leagues did massive damage to Eric’s career. Already ticked at Watts’ rules and control, wrestlers were now forced to job to a guy who clearly had no experience or charisma simply because he was the boss’ son. The fans were quick to realize this and poor Eric was getting boos that the announcers had to ignore as he continued to perform way above what he was ready for. If you need more proof how the Apter mags sucked up to WCW, consider how their “Rookie of the Year” award went to Eric when the man had pretty much no support among fans.

Meanwhile, while he was busy driving away most of the younger talent, Watts brought in old favorites Terry Gordy and Steve Williams, paired as The Miracle-Violence Connection. Just what sort of a connection between a miracle and violence was never explained but you have to admit, it’s a damn cool name. Showing his old style-thinking again, Watts had them with the goofy idea of being “Japanese sympathizers.” Yeah, that couldn’t be seen as insulting at all. The two were pushed to the tag titles quickly, beating the Steiners in a match that wasn’t quite the “dream battle” WCW had been promising. They also won the newly created NWA tag titles which was just Watts’ excuse to crush those belts after a rather poorly set-up tournament. Watts also liked Cactus Jack and his insane risk-taking moves although Jack’s injury mid-way through the year hurt his push.

However, despite all these problems, some things in WCW were clicking well. The Dangerous Alliance were tearing things up as an awesome heel group, stealing the show many times. Steve Austin was showing his stuff although Watts disliked his prissy image, ironic considering Austin would achieve fame as exactly the sort of kick-ass hellraiser Watts loved. Also, Big Van Vader was clicking as a true monster, destroying everyone in his path and wowing fans with his ability to take flight despite his size. Amazingly, WCW didn’t blow it as Vader demolished Sting, cleanly beating him in resounding fashion to win the WCW World title. Their rematch was set for August 2nd in Baltimore but as Sting was involved in a fight, Jake Roberts made his debut to DDT Sting onto a chair, taking him out. Watts announced Vader would defend the title and from his hat, Ron Simmons’ name was chosen. Their match was rough and stiff with Simmons powerslamming Vader to become the first black world champion.

Many believe the move was made by Watts to stave off talk of his racism and Watts no doubt figuring he could build Simmons into a major star like he had with Junkyard Dog. However, while good in the ring, Simmons just didn’t have the charisma like JYD did, stiff in promos and was a case of a guy fans loved seeing chase the belt but once he actually had it, his heat cooled. It hardly helped that he was given lame challengers like the Barbarian (leading to a classic list in Pro Wrestling Illustrated of why WWF was better than WCW, with three of the ten being “The Barbarian a World Title contender?”). That was rough and making it poorer was that more and more, WCW was doing shows at the Center Stage studios in Atlanta, a good place but still seeming low-rent for a major national promotion. That was shown at Clash of the Champions XX, big with the introduction of Jesse Ventura and a tribute to WCW’s time on TBS but it seemed small due to the size of the studio.

That night began the set up for “Halloween Havoc” with the first of what would be WCW’s infamous run of mini-movies as Sting and Jake Roberts met in a seedy bar with various seedy people (including one-eyed midget Cheatum) and setting up the “Spin the Wheel, Make the Deal” match with laser beams coming out of their eyes in a big explosion. Yes, clearly, the plan to not be like WWF was working. This paved the way for the horrific “Havoc” show, easily the worst PPV of the year. Rick Rude and Mashario Chono had a terrible bout with multiple run-ins, Simmons beat the Barbarian in a bad match and the rest of the show seemed listless. For the main event, after teasing a Wheel of choices like bullrope, cage, first blood and barbed wire, the wheel ended up on…a Coal Miner’s Glove match. That’s right, the blow-off to this big grudge feud was going to be Sting and Roberts trying to grab a glove on a pole to use on an opponent. That was okay for a small ‘80’s territory but for a 1990’s major PPV, it was insane to waste it like that. The match itself ended up even worse with Jake supposed to be bitten by his own cobra but even his snake appeared to be bored by this, refusing to comply so Roberts had to put it against his own face to make it look like he was being bitten. Yes, it was even more ridiculous than it sounds, making fans feel gypped and a waste of all that potential. Which would be a serious issue coming for the company.


As noted, Watts’ obsession with cost-cutting was growing to the extreme and it was actually costing the company. Reportedly, they wanted to get Bret Hart when his WWF contract was up but Watts stalled at the price tag, allowing WWF to resign Hart. Watts even refused to give a bonus to Sting, easily the hottest star of the company and it’s lucky for him Sting’s loyalty to WCW let him take a pay cut to stay. The Steiners, having been jobbed majorly to Gordy and Williams, finally had enough of his offers of a thousand dollars a night and left for WWF. Gordy himself had a clash with Watts over money and even being a long-time favorite wasn’t enough to protect him as Watts fired him. This forced Steve Austin to team with Steve Williams to lose the belts to Dustin Rhodes and Barry Windham. Immediately after the “Havoc” disaster, Roberts left the company, his personal demons once more overtaking him and thus making all those months of setup a total waste. Finally, Rick Rude, the hottest heel in the company, was let go in late November. The reasons behind his exit vary depending on who you talk to. Some say he failed a drug test, others say he wanted more money and there’s the popular story of him trying to put Eric Watts in his place and was personally fired by the Cowboy in a meeting where Rude actually came armed in case Watts pulled his own gun. Regardless, he was gone, thus ruining the anticipated Starrcade title match with Simmons. More shockingly, Watts went so far as to fire Arn Anderson, the heart of the locker room, sending Anderson to Smokey Mountain for a few months. Finally, Paul E. Dangerously was driven out after a conflict with Watts over, yes, money, which soured him so much that it drove much of Heyman’s run in ECW.

Still, the shows continued with both Brian Pillman and Windham doing great heel turns, Too Cold Scorpio showing his great moves and Scotty Flamingo (better known today as Raven) and Johnny B. Badd doing a boxing feud. But the numbers showed Watts was doing more harm than good. Forget filling thousands-seat arenas, WCW was lucky to get a few hundred people for house shows. This “hard-hitting” style Watts loved just came off boring and slow on TV and when the wrestlers clearly don’t care, the fans don’t either. This was shown at Starrcade as the horrible “Battle Bowl” concept of the previous year was brought back with the Great Muta of all people winning and Simmons and Williams having a dull title match ending in a double count-out. Just days later, Watts was forced to bow to the inevitable and Vader regained the title but crushing Simmons at a house show that was barely filled due to a blizzard hitting Baltimore.

Watts was stubborn to the extreme, refusing to acknowledge how he was making things worse instead of better. He believed he was being held back by the Turner brass like Bill Shaw so if he could just plead his case to Turner himself, things could work out. But in February of 1993, a single fax ended it all. It seems a year before, Watts had given an interview about a restaurant owner fired for not serving blacks and showed that bizarre outlook once more by saying “if I don’t want to sell fried chicken to blacks, I shouldn’t have to, it’s my restaurant. Why should I have to hire a fucking fag if I don’t like fags?” That nobody in Turner caught this before showed their poor vetting skills but when this crossed the desk of Turner exec Hank Aaron, it hit the fan. The baseball legend was hardly going to stand for an attitude like this in Turner and brought it to Shaw. What happened next is debatable as some say Watts was outfight fired while he claims he quit first and it had nothing to do with the letter, simply fed up by the politics of it all.

There were some good points to Watts’ run such as the Dangerous Alliance and the rise of Vader as a monster heel. But the bad far outweighed the good. Being traditional is fine but the fact is that a style of 1980’s territories was not going to work for a 1990’s major company. Watts’ desire to make things “real” just let to slow and dull matches. But his biggest mistake was being so dictorial to his workers. Yes, WCW became famous for letting the talent call the shots but Watts’ reign proved that being so strict can be just as damaging as rather than get the guys to fight McMahon, all Watts did was unite them against his own leadership and that hurt the ring work. Shoving aside talents like the Steiners in favor of his vastly unprepared son was another horrible move, nepotism at its worst and just drove fans away. That was also shown by Watts’ belief it was better to build up house shows than major PPVs or national TV broadcasts and fans just didn’t want to see what WCW was doing.

Watts would have a brief run for WWF in 1995 which, to the shock of roughly no one, ended badly. He’s stayed out of the limelight a lot, popping up on the “Rise and Fall of WCW” DVD to defend his decisions, still believing his strict measures would have led to success. But the facts speak otherwise and it ended up being damaging as ever his departure, WCW decided they’d never let anyone with wrestling experience be in charge. I don’t think I need to go into the long-term damage of that decision. It’s a shame as Bill Watts truly seemed to care about the company, really did think he was doing the right thing and would lead it to greatness. But good intentions can go oh so very wrong and for any future booker/promoter, Bill Watts’ 1992 WCW tenure certainly shows that.

For this week the spotlight is off.


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Michael Weyer

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