Smoky Mountain Wrestling: Death Of A Promotion (Part One)
An Article By Mike Mooneyham
Published Dec. 10, 1995
"If Smoky Mountain Wrestling does not succeed, then I will concede that the world will not support and does not want real wrestling anymore, in which case I'll find something else to do."
- Jim Cornette
- Nobody loves the business of professional wrestling more than Jim Cornette. As a youngster growing up in Louisville, Ky., he followed the sport with a passion, putting out the wrestling programs and running the concession stand for the local promotion. He later became a
photographer for wrestling magazines in the United States and Japan.
Cornette pursued his dream and went on to become one of the top managers in wrestling history. But when the dynamics of pro wrestling began to change, when pro wrestling became more of a politically charged environment and a byproduct of a large company structure, Cornette decided to launch his own promotion. Cornette, abandoning the big-money contracts and national exposure on TBS, returned to his roots in 1991 and formed Smoky Mountain Wrestling, a regional promotion whose trademark became "Wrestling
- the way you like it and the way it used to be." Along with Sandy Scott and Tim Horner, and backed financially by the record industry's Rick Rubin, Cornette banked his future on the hopes that wrestling could again thrive on a regional basis.
Nearly four years later, Cornette came to the painful conclusion that Smoky Mountain Wrestling could not survive. On Nov. 26 during a house show in Cookeville, Tenn., Cornette met with his crew and made the announcement that the territory was shutting down.
"I've done everything I think I can do," Cornette told The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "Up until last year we were showing good growth. This past year we cut expenses, but every time we would get extra money, some costs would come up to offset it. We cut costs this year but we took in less and never could come out ahead. I couldn't foresee an upturn in business and had exhausted every possible source for new revenue."
The promotion, which debuted on Oct. 30, 1991, in Greenville, had its high points - among them one-night spectaculars such as the Night of Legends in 1994 and the Super Bowl of Wrestling in 1995, shows that packed nearly 5,000 fans into the Knoxville Coliseum,
and testaments that Cornette's old style of wrestling still, in fact, worked.
"Everybody is talking about Smoky Mountain Wrestling being a throwback to the '70s," Cornette said in a 1992 interview. "We're not consciously, on anybody's part, trying to be old-timey, but that was the last time wrestling was done right. We're trying to do wrestling the right way on everybody's part - the announcers, the wrestlers, the managers, the officials, the whole nine yards. That's the way people categorize it. We're not going back to the '70s. We're just doing wrestling. Nobody's interested in the '80s and '90s version of wrestling. It's not very entertaining or very exciting."
Cornette also said at that time that he would never entertain offers from the major mat companies - namely WCW and the WWF.
"Not a chance," said Cornette. "This is the only promotion that's come along in the last 10 years that has consistently gained in interest, ratings, attendance and quality of talent. Everything that we're doing now is better than when we started."
Money talks, however, and Cornette was eventually forced to compromise some of those principles when he signed a working agreement with Vince McMahon's WWF to trade talent, manage and serve as an on-air talent for that company. To many of his Smoky Mountain followers, Cornette had sold out to the enemy, working for a promotion whose style he had openly opposed.
Although the compromise benefited SMW financially, with some of the WWF's top stars occasionally venturing into Smoky Mountain territory for special shows, it also tended to downplay the importance of Smoky Mountain's own top performers, in many cases young talent who didn't have "the name" but whose workrate and interview ability exceeded that of the WWF superstars.
Cornette had initially envisioned a territory reaching from Kentucky into as far as South Carolina and Georgia. Those plans, however, never materialized. With the promotion's biggest towns being Knoxville and Johnson City, most of the stops on SMW tours included high school gyms and fairs in small cities off the beaten path such as Pikeville, Ky.; East Ridge, Tenn.; Lenoir, N.C.; Saltville, Va., and Bluefield, W.Va. The strain and pressure of running Smoky Mountain Wrestling, for the most part on a shoestring budget, took a personal and professional toll on Cornette. Widely known in the business as one of its hardest-working proponents, Cornette attacked the job with a vengeance. Ultimately,
it cost him in severed friendships and relationships, and a loss of sleep that constantly produced burnout.
Cornette was arrested last year on a misdemeanor charge of vandalism after allegedly pounding a 1992 Toyota Tercel with a baseball bat. The car belonged to a former office employee at SMW who Cornette claimed took his video camera and refused to return it. In vintage Cornette fashion, a message on his answering machine the week after the incident included this greeting: "Hi, this is Richard Kimble and I swear it was a one-armed man
with that baseball bat. If you've got a message about Smoky Mountain, leave it. If you've got a message about my new paint, body and auto glass shop, leave that, too."
- Smoky Mountain Fell Victim To Changing Times (Part Two)
- An Article By Mike Mooneyham
Published Dec. 17, 1995
Smoky Mountain Wrestling, a grand experiment started by Jim Cornette in 1991, ended several weeks ago in Cookeville, Tenn., when Jim Cornette announced to his crew that the promotion would be closing shop effective immediately.
Cornette, booker and creative genius behind SMW, kept the promotion afloat on a shoestring budget. But, like other regional promotions that existed a decade before Smoky Mountain Wrestling, it eventually fell victim to the changing times and the much deeper pockets of
the major national wrestling companies.
Daryl Van Horn, who served as a manager in SMW from 1993-94, was one of many former Smoky Mountain workers lamenting the loss of the promotion.
"It's a sad day for wrestling," said Van Horn, who earned rave reviews as manager of an ill-fated character known as Prince Kharis. "Smoky Mountain was one of only three places in the country where any talent could be developed to move on to better things. Smoky Mountain caused WCW and the WWF to recognize that fans were more interested in quality wrestling and storylines than they were in sterile, big-money production."
Van Horn, whose style has been compared to fellow managers Cornette and Paul E. Dangerously, said Cornette was a boost to the profession.
"Jim Cornette did more with what he had to work with than anybody else could have. He took talent nobody wanted and made them stars. I was honored to have had the chance to work with him and learned a lot. His talent and wit scream out for one of the major promotions to put him in a creative position."
A little-known team Cornette named "The Gangstas" rose from obscurity to notoriety during their stint in SMW. Others who made their mark in SMW and later went on to bigger promotions include Chris Candido (Skip), Tammy Sytch (Sunny), Al Snow (Avitar) and "Unabom" Glen Jacobs (Isaac Yankem).
The Gangstas, in particular, was the brainchild of Cornette. It was also a gimmick that was perceived by many fans as being racist, and an old-time promotional ploy used to get what is known in the business as "cheap heat."
"He (Cornette) said that being the area like Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, we'd get a lot of heat because it's rednecks and Klans," The Gangstas' New Jack (Jerome Young) told Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter in a 1995 interview. "So we did it."
That heat, however, intensified to the point that New Jack, an ex-bounty hunter, began bringing a gun to the shows.
"I started, not worrying, but getting concerned about somebody maybe taking a shot at me one night. So then I started bringing my gun. I didn't know if it would happen, but that was always in my head that maybe one of these marks might try to take a shot at me. So I started riding with my gun. Believe it or not, a couple of times when I left the show I would have on a big jacket and I had my vest on under it ... You're way up in the mountains and you never know."
Cornette, Van Horn said, was a perfectionist, and because he oversaw every aspect of the company, he never passed the buck.
"I was amazed at how many responsibilities he had," said Van Horn. "He oversaw every bit of running SMW down to the smallest detail, and juggled it with a WWF schedule and was still able to turn out the single best hour of television around for a long time. He was a harsh
critic and a demanding teacher, but he wasn't a blowhard just for the sake of throwing his considerable weight around. He truly loved what he did, and he had a passion for his work."
Smoky Mountain Wrestling also became known as a promotion in which veteran stars and retired greats were not forgotten. A special "Night of Legends" show in 1994 honored such mat luminaries as Nelson Royal, Ronnie Garvin, The Mongolian Stomper, Ron and Don Wright, Al and Don Greene, Frank Morrell and Ron West. Cornette earlier this year brought SMW to Charlotte's Grady Cole Center, formerly known as Park Center and site of the town's weekly wrestling shows during the Jim Crockett Mid-Atlantic era. The show, dubbed "Carolina Memories" and billed as a step back in time, featured appearances by some of the old Mid-Atlantic area's most revered performers, such as Johnny Weaver, Tim "Mr. Wrestling"
Woods, Sandy Scott, Nelson Royal, Abe Jacobs, Swede Hanson, Terry "Magnum T.A." Allen and Tommy Young.
The 58-year-old "Bullet" Bob Armstrong, one of the South's top stars during the '70s, revived his mat career and became one of the promotion's top attractions, along with sons Brad, Brian, Steve and Scott. Despite his age, the elder Armstrong used his experience and interview ability to fashion major feuds with such fellow veterans as Terry Funk, Abdullah The Butcher, and, of course, his seemingly never-ending feud with arch-nemesis James E. Cornette.
"Jim Cornette revived the careers of Paul Orndorff, The Rock 'N Roll Express, Tracy Smothers, The Mongolian Stomper and many others," said Van Horn. "Cornette grew up in that area and he knew what the people wanted to see. To those people, a Ron Wright meant much more than a Sid Vicious."
For now Cornette will most likely continue his duties in the WWF, which include managing heels such as Yokozuna and The British Bulldog, but most importantly he will finally have time to recover from the past four years. His present situation can best be summed up by his latest message machine greeting: "Hi, I'm going to be hard to get a hold of, so pick the response
that best fits your situation from the following: If you have a problem that I know about, I'm already working on it. If you have a problem that I don't know about, leave it at the tone. If you have a disaster, tell somebody else, I don't do those anymore. And if you're just calling to say `hi' ... hi!"
Smoky Mountain's final two major shows, as part of the promotion's annual Thanksgiving Thunder tour, took place Nov. 23 in Knoxville (attendance 1,100) and Nov. 25 in Johnson City (500).