FIVE COUNT: Five lessons to be learned from the Houston wrestling library including talent sharing, how great Duggan was pre-WWF, more

By Matt Seabridge, PWTorch Specialist

"Hacksaw" Jim Duggan (photo credit Wade Keller © PWTorch)

I’ve been wanting to write about the Houston Wrestling Library that was made available at nwaondemand.com for quite a while now but it ended up becoming one of those things that I kept putting back on the table in favour of something else. I figured something like this was going to keep going for years so this article wasn’t as likely to become outdated as most of the other articles that I’ve done about more current events. I was wrong.

Bit of context for those not aware. In 2015 Bruce Tharpe launched nwaclassics.com, which later rebranded to nwaondemand.com, with the courageously philanthropic mission of sharing with anyone with an internet connection, Paul Boesch’s video library of Houston Wrestling footage. What at first sounded like something potentially of interest quickly became a goldmine of previously available footage in siganificantly upgraded quality and new releases being viewed for the first time by everyone not watching at the time. And these were genuinely classic matches from wrestling history being introduced into the wrestling community. With the amount of footage that Bruce claimed to be sending off for converting from reels and uploading to the service, this was a service that seemed destined to carry on throughout the decade before they ran out of new footage to be uploading.

And then Billy Corgan brought the NWA. And after a nervously uncertain period, Bruce announced that the tape library had also been acquired and thus for the immediate future, the service was coming to a halt. Tears were wept.

So for now, watching all the footage from the library isn’t as simple as I assumed it would be when I originally planned to do this article. If you previously signed up you can actually go back, log in and watch everything without paying for another subscription. If you don’t already have a login to nwaondemand.com then you can still sign up for $5.99 a month, which is a steal for the amount of footage on the site. I don’t want to vouch for the process right now with the status of the service up in the air without going through it myself though. But if the sign up page is still there then they should still take your money and it’s is undoubtedly worth it because on the other side is an absolute goldmine of wrestling footage.

So with that little prelude out of the way, I’ll now get into the 5 lessons that can be learned from the Houston Wrestling Library, looking at what makes the footage so special and must see for any wrestling fan.

(1) Wrestling Used To Be FUN

If I had to pick one word to describe why I prefer wrestling in the 80s than wrestling today, it’d be fun. Wrestling was just so much more fun in that era. Sure there wasn’t the athleticism of today in the matches but they didn’t need to be doing higher risk spots to pop the crowds. That’s because everyone involved was working to entertain the live crowd, not thriving to have a four star match. And every aspect of the show benefited from it.

One of the great things about the library is that there’s such little content that isn’t worth watching. Even just a ten minute undercard match is immensely entertaining because through the heel stooging and selling and the babyface doing all the moves that the fans want to see, the crowds would be super into even the undercard matches. It’s pretty damn hard to produce a match that isn’t worth watching once you’ve got a hot crowd. Is the work top notch? God no, but they got whatever they were doing over and once you can get what you’re doing over, you’re almost home and dry in terms of producing a good match.

Take something like Tully Blanchard vs El Bracero for example. It’s nothing more than a short six minute midcard match that’s an “easy night” for both guys. But god is the match fun. It’s totally unique and unconventional but Bracero essentially dancing around the ring trying to knock Tully off rhythm while Tully sells the frustration of not being able to get hold of this lunatic is ridiculously entertaining. And it’s that variety that wrestling cards need. They need changes of pace but also changes of tone. Something more light hearted in amongst the more serious content goes a long way in balancing a show out.

It’s not just these undercard matches that are super fun either. Even the big money drawing matches are just so much fun. The pops for when Jake nails Dick Slater with the DDT at long last, or for when Buddy Landell has to shine Butch Reed’s shoes, or whenever Sharp Dressed Man or Another One Bites The Dust start playing. The object wasn’t to do the best moves or have the most critically acclaimed match, it was to pop the paying customers and ensure that they went home satisfied and brought a ticket to the next show. And when you do that, the fans go home happier and the promoter makes more money off of that.

The art of tag team wrestling has faded into obscurity since the turn of the century which is a real shame because it’s so hard not to have an entertaining tag match. Babyfaces run wild, heels stooge, heels cut the babyface off and cheat to work them over, all the time riling the crowd up before they get what they want which is the babyface making the hot tag and then they get to cheer all over again for the guys they like beating up the guys they don’t like. It’s so hard to find a tag match from this era that isn’t a ton of fun to watch, even with not super good workers like The Guardian Angel or a very green working such as Sting.

Is a match like The Junkyard Dog teaming with Dusty Rhodes to take on Ted DiBiase and Kamala as technically strong a match or as athletically impressive as something like the Sasha vs Alexa match from raw last week? Not even close. However, it’s the lesser athletes that have the more entertaining match. Why? Because they give the crowd what they want! Find a babyface that your fans like, ensure they get lots of offence in during their matches and that the heels sell and stooge for them and more often than not, let them get the last punch in to give the fans what they want to see and send them home happy. It sounds incredibly simplified (it is!) but it makes wrestling so much fun. More importantly than that though, a product where the live crowd are constantly reacting in positive manners is far more likely to retain new fans who are watching for the first time than apathetic or worse yet, rebellious crowds are.

(2) So Many New Discoveries

It really can’t be overstated how many gems have been introduced into circulation via this service. Even for a wrestling viewer familiar with the history of Mid South wrestling, a good 80-90% of the content that this service introduced back into the world are new discoveries. So for uneducated fans of especially the Mid South territory during the 80s but also for the more educated fans, there’s so much great new content made available by this service.

One of my favourite discoveries via the service is a 2/3 falls Harley Race vs Andre The Giant NWA World Title match from 1979. Andre footage isn’t exactly hard to find out there but Andre at the peak of his movement and wrestling ability is much less so, let alone getting to see a match where Andre comes in and works the NWA World Title match formula with a guy like Harley Race. The match is a genuine classic and even features Race bodyslamming Andre on the concrete floor, long before Hulk Hogan was “the first person to slam the giant”.

As well as Race vs Andre, there’s epic NWA World Title battles like Race vs Terry Funk, Gino Hernandez and Wahoo McDaniel, and then later into the 80s, epic Ric Flair title defences against the likes of Butch Reed, Magnum TA and Terry Taylor. The WWE Network is a fantastic resource for fans to educate themselves in the history of the NWA World Championship and Ric Flair’s peak years as an in ring worker, yet there’s so many holes that it simply can’t fill. So viewers end up missing out on some of Flair’s best broadway draws with Butch Reed and Terry Taylor as well as missing out on just how underappreciated Harley Race is in the same role due to a lack of footage available through WWE channels.

Getting to experience a match like the famous Coal Miner’s Glove Cage Match between Ted DiBiase and Jim Duggan for the first time or a previously unseen chapter to the Midnight Express vs Rock N Roll Express series is a magical feeling. But what’s even better is when something like Johnny Valentine vs Bull Curry shows up and you have no idea what to expect from it and it ends up knocking your socks off. That’s honest to god one of my favourite matches ever and undoubtedly falls under the must-see banner.

There’s also a lot of wrestlers who can be looked at in more positive light now with the introduction of this footage. A name like Gino Hernandez is someone who springs to mind straight away as someone who always had a good reputation among young adult wrestling fans who didn’t live through that 70s to mid 80s era. The introduction of this footage however has done wonders for bolstering the reputation of someone like Gino up to another level. Then you have someone like JYD who most wrestling fans look at as someone who was admittedly pretty terrible in WWF and then again in WCW. But with footage of WWF JYD being far more accessible than Mid South JYD, lots of wrestling fans miss out on just how exciting of an act he was before he jumped to WWF.

On top of that you’ve also got new discoveries being put into circulation from some of the best acts of the 80s such as The Midnight Express, Ted DiBiase, Tully Blanchard and Terry Gordy but to name a few. And you’ve also got more amazing finds like a very young pre Rock N Roll Express Ricky Morton looking as awesome as ever as early as 1982 against legends such as Nick Bockwinkel and The Grappler. Not to mention the midget matches that are ridiculously fun and have helped to bring someone like Ivan The Terrible to the attention of modern wrestling fans.

One of the many reasons that the service has been such a special treasure is that you get a fantastic overview of Houston Wrestling. It’s not just an isolated collection of the best matches. You get the novelty matches like the midget tags, you get to see guys like Arn Anderson and Shawn Michaels when they were enhancement talents and you get to see the progression of a guy like Jim Duggan or Butch Reed. You get to experience classics rivalries such as JYD vs Butch Reed and Jose Lothario vs Hector & Chavo Guerrero from start to finish. And of course I can’t go through all of this without mentioning how fantastically loveable Paul Boesch is on commentary. Those Self-Defence For Women videos!

So what’s to learn from all of these new discoveries being put into circulation? Well for wrestling fans, an absolutely immense amount regardless of how well educated of a wrestling viewer you are. For promotions? Well for starters, promoters and even wrestlers themselves can learn so much from studying the work on show. How the performers work the crowd, how they get the most out of every little thing they do and how they can achieve so much without even having to take a bump. Watch how Dick Murdoch and Jim Duggan get five minutes of electric atmosphere out of nothing other than Murdoch playing nice and trying to get a handshake out of Duggan.

As far as the WWE Network goes, I think investing in unreleased footage such as the Houston Wrestling Library is absolutely a worthwhile path to go down. If you go by the logic that everyone currently subscribing to the Network is either subscribing for the modern-day content or for the attitude era content, then adding more modern day and attitude era content is unlikely to gain more new subscribers. Where you could make a case for the content being lacking, is in footage from the territories. Theoretically, if that’s the area of content that you’re looking for and you’re not overly enamoured with the current product, then it’s reasonable to assume that they’re unlikely to be subscribers, or at least not month-after-month subscribers.

There were rumblings of WWE making an offer for the library and for the right price, it’s something that could help drive subscriptions from a new viewer demographic, especially with footage like the Houston Wrestling Library that isn’t in circulation in other places. And based on the online buzz that the release of The Last Battle of Atlanta created, releasing this footage through a broader medium would garner considerably more interest than it did through the NWA with their limited reach. Is this service proof that there’s a big demand? No, it’s a niche service for a niche audience, but from that niche audience, there’s huge interest and definitely a sizeable overlap between them and lapsed fans who have fallen out of love with the current product.

(3) “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan Was Awesome Before Going To New York

Anybody familiar with Mid South Wrestling will be aware that the Jim Duggan you got there and the Jim Duggan you got once he went to New York are two very different wrestlers. Anybody familiar with Duggan from the late 80s onwards won’t exactly get excited at the prospect of watching a bunch of newly released Jim Duggan matches. Trust me though, if you’re not familiar with Jim Duggan before he went to WWF, you’re going to want to check his earlier work out.

Arguably the very best match that the library offered up is the Coal Miner’s Glove Tuxedo Loser Leaves Town Steel Cage Match between Duggan and DiBiase. On the surface, that sounds like a Russo-riffic overbooked mess between the guy with the wacky Million Dollar Man character who seemed a good hand in the ring with and the halfwit with a 4×4 who shouted USA a lot. The reality however is strikingly different.

DiBiase in Mid South was a huge star as a heel in the early to mid 80s before turning babyface in one of the all time great wrestling angles when Dick Murdoch attacked him before and again during an NWA World Title match with Ric Flair. The defining rivalry of his run as a heel was working with Duggan. This was one of the hottest rivalries of the 80s that produced one of the best series of matches of the decade, the Tuxedo Cage Match being the pinnacle.

DiBiase was such a great wrestler who excelled no matter what position you put him in. Excellent heel and babyface. Could work a great technical based match and boy could he work a great brawl. Even throw him in the ring in All Japan and he’d thrive in that setting too. Duggan was a more one-dimensional wrestler as a stand and punch brawler but he was an absolute master of that style. So couple that with someone of DiBiase’s talent in front of red hot crowds and you get some really special matches.

Duggan was never a technically great wrestler but there’s one thing that will overcome any technical shortcomings. He. Got. Over. And those Houston crowds absolutely loved him and his quirky charisma. What he lacked in movement and pure wrestling ability he more than made up for with his charisma, his timing, his punches and most importantly of all his ability to work the crowd. A simple stamp of the foot and he’d have the entire arena going nuts chanting DOOGAN DOOGAN.

Certain wrestlers are a case of right time right place. In the right setting they get over like nobody’s business and if you see them in that setting you’d think they were mega superstars. A recent example would be Bayley. There’s a lot of WWE fans who don’t watch NXT who just don’t get the appeal to her. And I totally get that. If you just see this Bayley then you wouldn’t get it. Yes the character is largely the same but there’s a world of difference when you put it in front of an adoring audience compared to an apathetic audience.

That was the case with Duggan. In front of an audience that he wasn’t super over with he won’t look like much of anything. Same with JYD years earlier. Watch that act in front a tepid crowd and there’s nothing fun about watching it. In front of a rabid crowd though and it’s all of a sudden a heck of a lot of fun to watch when you have the crowd going bananas for every little thing that they do.

The WWE Network with their recent uploads of Mid South TV will give you a good idea of what Mid South Duggan was like and how it’s completely incomparable to WWF Duggan. The Tuxedo Cage Match I referred to it also on WWE’s Mid South Wrestling DVD with Jim Ross commentary. But for either an introduction to, or as a deeper dive into why Vince signed Duggan in the first place, the Houston Wrestling Library is a magnificent resource to educate yourself with on Jim Duggan. The DiBiase matches are the cream of the crop but you’ve also got electric brawls with guys like Kamala and One Man Gang that produce some of the best matches ever from both of those opponents, great great matches with a forgotten great in Buzz Sawyer, super fun tags tagging with the likes of JYD, Jose Lothario, Rock N Roll Express, Butch Reed, Steve Williams and even later on his old nemesis Ted DiBiase and even a couple of really fun matches against Dusty Rhodes and Mil Mascaras from his very early days before he turned babyface.

Jim Duggan was a really great wrestler once upon a time. Just because the footage of it isn’t heavily promoted or easily accessible doesn’t mean it isn’t out there.

(4) Jose Lothario Was A Hell Of A Worker

You can be forgiven if you don’t really recognise the name Jose Lothario. Or better yet if you only recognise the name as the guy who came to ringside with Shawn Michaels for a bit way back then. I wrote earlier in this piece about all the great discoveries and arguably the most fascinating discovery of them all through this service has been Jose Lothario.

Lothario isn’t someone that I’ve seen a lot of people praise as being a great worker in his day. There isn’t even all that much of a reputation for him in terms of wrestlers who get talked up by people old enough to live through their run but whose legacies are restricted by a lack of footage being available to modern day fans. Such as Ray Stevens for instance.

And then nwaondemand.com started dropping a lot of Jose Lothario footage. Fast forward to today and there’s now a whole host of Jose Lothario footage brought to us by the Houston Wrestling Library and boy is it good.

So what made him such a great worker? At the risk of repeating content from my previous point, he got over and got the fans of Houston to adore him. Like Duggan, Lothario wasn’t the most technically gifted performer but he could brawl with the best of them (that said this is old man Lothario footage rather than during his younger, presumably more athletic years). One of the best worked punches you’ll ever see and an amazing knack for showing vulnerability (helped by his age) during his selling while still maintaining that aura of toughness allowing fans to buy into that when does get back in this fight the other guy is done for, it’s just a matter of when not if.

He was also extremely humble as one of the top babyfaces of the territory. As well as the bonkers amount of excellent matches the service provided, there’s also a multitude of brilliant interviews between Paul Boesch and the wrestlers. Paul Boesch is so fantastic in all this footage too by the way. I could have done an entire point just on how loveable Boesch was as an interviewer and a commentator on this footage but I’ll get it in here. Paul Boesch was awesome! And he was great at getting over the wrestlers, making you despise the heels through his disgust at the garbage they were spieling and equally so putting over the admirable personality traits of the good guys. Lothario’s selling point during these interviews was more so his humble “I’m one of you guys” nature but he could also really turn it up to another level when he was wronged by the likes of Hector Guerrero and Gino Hernandez, leaving you clamouring for him to connect that right hand of his with their face, something everyone watching knew he could do extremely well.

As far as the highlight footage featuring Jose Lothario goes? The Lothario vs The Guerreros feud is incredible. A great feature of the library is that you get more than just a match here and there. There’s a good handful and change of matches from their rivalry from how it started to tags involving Jose and a variety of partners against Hector and Chavo to the big Mexican Death Match which absolutely delivers. Then you’ve also got a fabulous Cage Match against a very young Gino Hernandez from ’79 along with a truly fantastic match against Black Gordman that only goes around 8 minutes but is an absolute war of a slugfest. And to round them off you’ve got a whole host of tag and trios matches involving Lothario just throwing old man punches while everyone bumps around like crazy for him which are always fun.

(5) Talent Sharing Can Work

One of the most recognisable traits of Paul Boesch’s Houston Wrestling would be the talent sharing. From looking at results from Houston, you could be forgiven for mistaking them as being mixed up with Southwest Championship Wrestling and later on with Mid South Wrestling. That’s because Boesch’s talent roster was largely made up from talent sharing agreements with other promoters, especially Southwest and later Mid South. What this allowed Boesch to do was make the most of his capabilities to create a money drawing territory.

Now as far modern day promotions go, quite a lot of them do share talent. It’s a system that the independent scene is essentially built on. While less exaggerated there’s also plenty of talent sharing within Japanese wrestling, especially away from New Japan. PWG are the probably the closest comparison to Houston in terms of utilising a who’s who of talent from around the world and putting together great shows that drum up masses of attention. And that’s going pretty good for them right now. But for other promotions such as GFW for instance, talent sharing offers huge benefits to them.

With GFW, there’s definitely logic behind the idea of wanting exclusivity rights to wrestlers, at least when it comes to using them on TV. You want the security of knowing that the talent will be available when you need them amongst the other benefits that exclusive contracts bring. But beggers can’t be choosers either, and GFW aren’t exactly in a position of great bargaining power, nor are they exactly fortunate to have an exclusive roster of incredible talent helping to boost business.

GFW making better use of outside talent could really help give them the shot in the arm that they need, especially when you see the interest levels that independent promotions like PWG, Progress and so on are acquiring. And granted there is the dirty stain of bad will between the promotion and viewers over years and years of terrible booking and wasting incredible talent.

But for GFW, something as simple as bringing in four or five of the best independent talents and just providing them a platform to have kick ass matches that get people talking can help repair some of their damaged reputation and give wrestling fans a different reason to watch their show every week. Right now, without watching the show, it just feels like WWE lite but lacking any great wrestling that you really need to see. I mean, when even was the last TNA match that really created a buzz? At this point, trying anything different would be a positive for them, especially something different that is achieving success for other wrestling promotions within their market.

Talent sharing doesn’t have to mean bringing in someone who works for another company to be one of your most featured acts on your show. Nor does it have to mean putting them over your own guys in order to give them wins. Just bringing in a group of wrestlers to work with one another to help boost the popularity of your show has been a proven success throughout wrestling history.

WCW did it with the luchadores to get over their cruiserweight division. Ring of Honor and subsequently other Indy promotions brought in Dragon Gate stars to get their shows and their brand identity over. And more recently Revolution Pro Wrestling have done it by bringing in New Japan stars to expand their popularity beyond the UK. Even WWE have started utilising talent sharing in the last year in order to get over their Network shows with a certain niche part of their “universe”.

GFW don’t need exclusive TV rights to wrestlers like Matt Riddle, Jeff Cobb and Keith Lee to name a few who lit up Reseda this past weekend during PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles. Just bring a handful of those wrestlers in, showcase them doing what has got them over elsewhere and watch as at last, GFW starts to make some news with fans for the right reasons that make them want to tune into their show. There’s no obligation to push them to the main event or to put any of your belts on them. Just let them have kick ass matches with one another in a similar way to how WWE utilised Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne to add equity to the NXT TakeOver brand.

WWE and New Japan are both big enough that they can depend just on their own roster of stars without the need for help from elsewhere but smaller promotions don’t have the luxury of turning their noses up at the benefits they bring. Houston was evidence of how utilising talent from other promotions in your own market can pay huge dividends, and a great case study for promoters to study in order to maximise the returns in their markets.

NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons to Learn from WWE’s TV ratings – Post-Brand-Split, Versus, NFL, Cena and Brock influence, more

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