Over the past few months, my column has centered on anniversaries of events both famous and infamous, memories bright and bittersweet of moments in the sport of wrestling that will never be forgotten. This month, I look back on the anniversary of an event that is considered infamous indeed, but it's connection to, and impact upon, pro wrestling has never been talked about--except for when I grumble about it on the phone with someone--until NOW!
I don't know if it was a huge news story in the UK when OJ Simpson went on his infamous "low-speed car chase" run from the police in Los Angeles on June 17, 1994, but trust me when I say this, it was HUGE in America. The same live helicopter shot was fed to every TV station in the country who broadcast it literally nonstop for the hours and hours it took to end. It was, in the days that followed, on every magazine cover, the lead of every TV newscast and the front page of every newspaper and would continue to be prominent for years to come. You may recall that OJ's wife, Nicole Brown, had been murdered, and within a short time the authorities were asking OJ to come on down and answer some questions--instead of going to the police station, he had a friend, Al Cowlings, start driving toward Mexico in a white Ford Bronco. The cops caught wind of it, and went after them, but while good old Al wasn't going to run, he wasn't going to STOP, either, especially with OJ in the back seat with a gun to his own head, the reaction of any innocent man accused of the murder of his wife.
Well, this gripping drama was, as I mentioned, broadcast live on every Tv in America on June 17, 1994. You'd have to be some unlucky son of a bitch to have anything important going on THAT night, you would! Well, my timing has often been suspect. And because of OJ Simpson, the course of the Smoky Mountain Wrestling Heavyweight Championship was changed forever. That, and the jailbird bastard owes me 5 grand.
To explain why, I have to digress a moment, and explain the events of the previous few months in SMW. In April, I had needed a new top heel to work with SMW Champion the Dirty White Boy, Tony Anthony. Someone had mentioned Jake "The Snake" Roberts, and while he was already a national star and one of the biggest names in the sport, Jake was in one of those periods where he wasn't employed by any US promotions, and probably for good reason. It actually spoke to the rep Jake had gained in that era, even 20 years ago, that with talent short and him being one of the best heels in the industry and living only 200 miles from Knoxville, I was still reticent to depend on him. However, after a few phone calls, I actually went to Marietta, Georgia to Jake's house to not only speak with him and make our final deal, but to shoot promos for his TV debut if all went well.
Jake had a lovely house, was cheerful, cleareyed, witty in his usual way, and seemed excited about coming in and getting our houses up to prove he could still do it. He knew we had a working relationship with the WWF at the time and were exchanging talent, and Jake not being stupid, I'm sure that occurred to him. He was at the time a top heel in Mexico and had been working there regularly for a year. He even got $25,000 for shaving his head in a dream match with Konnan just a few weeks after our meeting at his home, but Mexico was not a stable long term proposition. There didn't seem to be any issues with his "health". We agreed on a guarantee for any TV tapings, but when it came to house shows, he didn't ask for or want one. Having been a major box office draw in the US until just shortly before this period, he believed he was going to pop the gates (and I was smoking the same hopium). He told me "Pay me if it draws, you'll find me fair". That should have been an alert to my Spidey sense about snakes, but...
The meeting went great, he cut some killer promos, and I left with a general idea of my program for the SMW Title between Jake and White Boy that would culminate at the big show in Knoxville in August. I had an idea for that show that would become the Night of the Legends, the biggest SMW show of all time, and I wanted name stars in meaningful issues lined up for it. The only odd thing about my little visit with Jake was that his wife at the time, Cheryl, had an inordinate amount of involvement in the meeting. Yes, it was at their home and I didn't expect her to hide, but she sat right in on the discussion, kind of half-ass started selling me on what a star he was, and at one point acted like she was about to overrule him on something, but he glossed over it. That would have a little more meaning to me later as well.
Jake debuted on our May TV taping, doing great in his matches, promos and the angle with White Boy, winning the SMW Title and the return match being set for Knoxville May 20. It was part of a double main event, the other being Bruiser Bedlam with me in his corner versus Randy Savage, on loan from the WWF. That card ended up drawing over $15,000 at the gate with 1703 paid and 242 comps, a figure we were all happy with as it bested May 1993 by 800 fans and $7500. We shot a hot angle, largely of Jake's design, wherein while White Boy was tied in the ropes, Jake would grab his girlfriend, Kim the Dirty White Girl, and give her a DDT. It was Tony's hometown, a big crowd on hand, and the angle nearly had them hitting the ring, so I gave Jake his TV guarantee plus $200, the same as Savage was paid. Two days later in Marietta, the suburb of Atlanta that Jake lived in, we had a terrible house of just under 500 people with a card headlined by both Jake and Savage, which shows the state of Atlanta wrestling at the time. I still gave Jake his TV guarantee. Thankfully, I was also remembering to keep possesion of the SMW Title belt, even if Jake was champion. On June 6, Jake made his third (and last) TV taping with us and followed up on the angle with White Girl, and got his guarantee.
This brings us to the sunny afternoon of June 17. I always got to the Coliseum early as we usually did TV promos there, plus it was always good to allow extra time on a big show. Sandy Scott was there to give me the advance, which was decent though not earthshaking. Since in those days the final gate would be 3 to 4 times the dollar amount of the advance sale by 5PM day of show, if we hit that formula we would do well, but we hadn't found the Holy Grail with Jake yet, especially since on this show there was no Savage. Then I went to do promos.
About an hour before belltime, I saw Sandy again and asked him how the walkup was--and he said there was none. NONE. Just then, Robert Gibson burst in carrying his bags and announced to us that OJ Simpson had murdered his wife and was running from the law. Of course, Hoot's general practice is to, upon first seeing you, say something completely preposterous with a straight face and holding it until he sees the first glimmer in your eyes that you have taken it seriously, then horselaugh in your face. So I said "Sure he is", and went back to asking Sandy what the Bejeebus was wrong with the house until Hoot jumped back in, saying "No, it's on TV right now!" A few of the other boys were just walking in from the parking lot where they had been listening to live coverage on the radio. And they were the only ones walking in. The box office report says we sold 552 tickets with 200 comps out for a gate of $4886.00, one of the worst houses in East Tennessee wrestling history to that point in time. The comps, ticket packages we'd given out to our sponsors and the radio stations, were assuredly not there and I still believe a number of paying fans ate their tickets so as not to leave the TV, because the place looked deserted.
Everyone that was there still knew what was going on, and it seemed to cast a pall over their reactions. Twenty years later, OJ Simpson is a punchline, but at that time he was one of the most famous and beloved pro athletes in the country. The big White Boy vs. Jake title rematch in the fight for White Girl's honor was, as I recall, not well received nor did Jake break a record for hardest worked match.
The next day, June 18, the nation was still abuzz with OJ news and we had Freedom Hall in Johnson City, Tennessee running with the same main event. At least by then OJ was in custody, and the gate was a decent $5600 with nearly 700 fans in attendence, telling me we should have done $8-10,000 in Knoxville as shows there were always at least a few grand bigger than Johnson City. So to this day, I say OJ Simpson owes me $5,000. Unfortunately, OJ not owing me anything for Johnson City and the house still only being average meant Jake's box office magic had failed to blossom yet. I still had confidence in July, with the Funks in as well, to build, and August to be the payoff. So after the Freedom Hall match, I went to settle up with him for the weekend.
Since we had taken a bath in Knoxville, and with the words "you'll find me fair" ringing in my ears, I asked him if I gave him his TV guarantee for Johnson City, if he'd take $200 less, or half, for Knoxville. I also told him since we had him booked for 5 house shows and a TV in July, that if any of those drew better than average I'd make the amount back up to him. To Jake's credit, he immediately said OK, but suddenly my friend Cheryl popped back in. She accompanied Jake on the weekend trip, and placed herself right in his dressing room before and after the matches. She reacted badly to the idea of Jake accepting less money, even when HE told her it was OK, and finally I offered to meet him in the middle and offer him just $100 less, which he accepted and she mentioned something about this "being the last time it'll happen."
I was fairly confident that a worldwide star and veteran like Jake "The Snake" Roberts was not going to let his wife talk him out of a regular gig in the US on TV in a territory four hours from his house where he was the champion and got to do his own promos and finishes over $100--right up until it was obvious in Knoxville on July 1 that there was no way he was coming. With the Funk Brothers vs. Scott & Steve Armstrong and White Boy vs. Jake in a cage advertised, Jake never got there. Bruiser Bedlam and I did double duty first vs. Tracy Smothers, then wrestling DWB in the main event in front of a disappointed crowd of almost 1000 who paid just over $6,000, so not only did he no show us, he no showed a card he didn't draw on anyway. When I got home that night, there was a message on my machine that he'd had trouble but he would see us "tomorrow". The next night in Barbourville, Kentucky, the presence of big stars like Jake and the Funks drew over 800 fans paying over $5,000--and Jake no-showed again. Arriving home after Midnight, I heard a voicemail saying he would DEFINITELY be there the following night--in Marietta, the town he lived in! Guess what--three straight.
I changed that week's TV taping and revealed to the fans that DWB had won the belt back from Jake in "Bluefield, West Virginia" and off we went. We pulled Jake from the advertising of the rest of the shows we had him on that month, and that was that. The August show, as mentioned, was a raging success and the first SMW event to draw a $40,000 gate, and DWB defended the SMW Title on that card against FreeBird Terry Gordy. Ironically, the man I had gotten on short notice to replace Jake, Georgia star "Conan" Chris Walker, flaked off and no-showed after the first 3 days of August, and DWB ended up working with Bruiser Bedlam again for months.
I didn't see Jake again for a long time. Not a lot of people did. He went on a "hiatus" from wrestling from Summer 1994 to early 1996, when he reappeared in the WWF, having been "born again". The first time I saw him, we shook hands and made small talk, but when we were alone in the men's room later, he apologized to me for the way we parted, saying he had been in a bad place at that time. I accepted and didn't get into whether or not his wife had actually put the kibosh on his SMW tenure, at that point it didn't matter. During this 1996 run in the WWF, Jake promoted his new Christian faith to the point where heel Steve Austin coined the "Austin 3:16" response. Jake also got hired to the creative team, then fired from it due to his demons, and then phased out of the ring entirely due to the same.
On this anniversary of the most widely-seen police chase in world history, it's intriguing to reflect back on how it impacted the world of wrestling. If the chase hadn't happened, then Cheryl wouldn't have gotten mad over that $100, so Jake may have stayed in SMW, thus potentially preventing himself from having to be born again in order to get a job again a year later, thus not providing a context for Austin to deliver his famous line, thereby getting himself over as the biggest star in the history of pro wrestling. Therefore, I submit to you, gentle reader, that there are two things the world has never known until today--OJ Simpson created Stone Cold Steve Austin--and he owes me five thousand dollars.