Jim Cornette on Rescuing the Lost Carolina Wrestling Classics

Jim Cornette is one of the most outspoken figures in all of pro wrestling, but his journey to unearth rare, lost match footage from decades prior makes for a story worth telling.

If you’re over 40 and you grew up in the United States, it’s very likely that your city had an arena that scheduled weekly or monthly wrestling matches, and that your town had a local television station that regularly broadcast a regional pro wrestling program.

Beginning in the ’30s, professional wrestling was run by promoters, operating in specific areas called territories, who agreed to avoid direct competition with each other. Wrestlers traveled between territories and worked the live events organized by the various promoters, often wrestling hundreds of matches each year. Wresting was big business in some territories, with each one developing marquee stars who could draw 1000s of people nightly in the different cities that they appeared in. “When you think that in the ’50s there was wrestling and boxing; that was it,” explains Jim Cornette. “There wasn’t mixed martial arts at all; there wasn’t even karate in the United States. And wrestling was drawing huge crowds in every major city for live matches and network television. And it subsisted that way for better periods and good periods for 30 years until it blew up again and it started going every which way. ”

Cornette started in the wrestling business in 1976 at the age of 15, photographing wrestlers and selling the pictures he took to fans as promotional items, as well as to magazines for publication. He gained fame as the tennis-racket wielding, loud suit-wearing, manager of the Midnight Express tag team. In improvised promotional interviews, where his verbal skills truly stood out, Cornette made repeated references to a wealthy mother who was invisibly bankrolling his exploits in wrestling.

He endlessly infuriated fans and made himself and the Midnight Express wildly hated wherever they wrestled. “I came along the decade after the generation where a lot of heels were still getting stabbed,” Cornette tells me, “so I was always looking for it. I had a bullet-proof vest in a couple places.” In 1984, their feud with the Rock and Roll Express in the Mid-South territory helped bring out over 65,000 combined people to four different events at the New Orleans SuperDome.

The territory system of wresting broke down in the ’80s, when Vince McMahon, Jr, running the World Wrestling Federation (today’s WWE), began directly competing with other promoters. He signed their top talent to exclusive contracts and aggressively competed for local television markets. For much of the ’80s, Cornette and the Midnight Express were working for Jim Crockett Promotions, the WWF’s most serious competition. The Crockett family had controlled wrestling in the Carolinas and Virginia from their home base in Charlotte, North Carolina since the ’30s, as part of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA).

They expanded into other areas in response to the growing national reach of the WWF, spent lavishly along the way, and eventually ran into major financial problems. In 1988, the Crockett family sold their promotion to Ted Turner, who re-branded it as World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Turner and McMahon would compete for business for much of the ’90s in what became known as the “Monday Night Wars,” igniting a major resurgence in wrestling’s popularity.

As part of the 1988 sale to Turner Broadcasting, the Crockett offices in Charlotte were re-located to Atlanta and it was during the move that Cornette got a call from a friend who worked in the Charlotte office. “I’ve always been a huge wrestling collector, since before I got in the business, and I told the janitor, ‘These people are going to throw away posters or pictures or programs, or some old cool stuff you’d think would be in a wrestling office. Don’t let them do that. If they do, call me and I’ll come and get it.’ And he calls me one day and says there was a stack of posters.

“Then he said, ‘There’s a bunch of boxes of film.’ So I go over and just sitting on the curb, out on the street, right next to the dumpster, is all these boxes of 16mm film. I’d seen them before. They were up on storage shelves and probably had been since they were filmed in the ’70s. And the guy that did promos in the studio at that time, Klondike Bill, one of the wrestlers who was doing maintenance work for Crockett at that point, would always go over to Price’s Chicken Coop and get a huge box of fried chicken and bring it in for the guys as a cheap way to buy them lunch. So the guys would eat this fried chicken and they’d throw the bones up in these boxes. So the urban legend has become that I actually got them out of a dumpster and I had to crawl through a bunch of chicken bones to get them.”

To Cornette’s surprise, the reels contained the existing library of Crockett Promotion “house” shows from the ’70s. House shows were arena matches that were the main income generators for a territorial promotion. Televised wrestling programs in the ’70s were used to promote area shows that occurred nightly across the country in all of the territories. Wrestlers were judged based on their ability to sell tickets to these shows and to engage live audiences. Cornette transferred the almost 40 hours of film to tape, keeping the footage for himself and friends. Late last year, he began selling copies through his website.

The films that Cornette found contained early footage of a number of wrestlers who went on to national fame in the ’80s; including Ric Flair, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Jimmy Snuka, the Iron Sheik, Ricky Steamboat, “Big” John Studd, Paul Orndorff, and Greg Valentine. Of 22 wrestlers who performed at the WWF’s first Wrestlemania in 1985, nine show up at least once on these tapes in their pre-WWF days. “You get to see these huge stars, in some cases, for the first time they were being used as huge stars. You really get to see them find out what works for them and invent all their shit,” says Cornette.

It also has extensive footage of wrestlers who were major stars of the time, but had largely retired from active wrestling by the end of the 80’s, like Wahoo McDaniel, Harley Race, Blackjack Mulligan, Swede Hanson, Ole and Gene Anderson, Dory Funk, Jr, Jack and Jerry Brisco, and Johnny Valentine. “Johnny Valentine’s the one who said, ‘I can’t make them believe that wrestling is real, but I can make them believe I’m real,” says Cornette.

“It would take him forever because he was just stinkingly boring for 30 minutes of the 40-minute match,” he continues, “but he would let people hit him as hard as they could, and he would hit people as hard as he could. And he looked like he was a lunatic. And he would make people legitimately believe that he was this evil, soulless, psychopath, who was beating the shit out of people in front of your very eyes, and you’d want to see somebody kick his ass.”

“A lot of it is only for the purist, but this was kind of like a box-set of Dylan bootlegs or a Basement Tapes,” Cornette says, “where this is the existing archive, exactly as I got it, down to one two-minute Hager slacks commercial. This is, kind of, my treasure trove, in it’s entirety.”

The matches were shot with a single, stationary camera, and there’s no ringside announcers or entrance music. The only audio on the tapes is the crowd noise from the arena. “It was like going to a sporting event, where this was a series of fights,” Cornette continues. “That was what drew the crowd; you conveyed all the emotions through physicality. This was the last generation before the glitz and glamour took over and it became more about how good-looking everybody was and how good-looking the ring was. I liken it to old fight films, in that the crowd is reacting like a major boxing event. They’re obviously buying it. They’re believing it. They’re rabid at what’s going on, but it looks more like an old fight film than today’s UFC.”

Though the outcome of a pro wrestling match is pre-determined, the action that took place in the match during this era was the complete opposite. Wrestlers called moves in the ring, improvising as they went, based largely on how the crowd was reacting from moment to moment. House shows served as a way for wrestlers to hone their craft on the fly, in front of live audiences.

“There’s probably as many rules of thumb to wrestling as anything in the world, and then there’s just as many exceptions to every one of those rules because somebody doesn’t fit that thumb,” he explains. “There’s a bunch of old colloquialisms in the wrestling business, but it all boiled down to common sense and logic. And the old timers would just sit the guys down and say, ‘If you are who you are portrayed to be, would you logically have done that if what was happening to you in that moment was really happening to you.’ Those were the rules of thumb and from there it could be anything.”

Good matches generally alternated a slow-paced series of moves with flurries of action that would bring a huge response from the crowd. Matches routinely lasted 20 minutes or more, and often stretched out much longer. It was the business of the wrestlers to make sure things never got boring and that the audience believed every second of what was happening.

“In that generation,” says Cornette, “the guys who were trained and got into the business, they were approaching it with the uppermost thing in their minds being to simulate a legitimate physical conflict, whether it be a wrestling match or a fight or a brawl, or they’re strapped together, or whatever. First and foremost in their minds was how to put together something that the people wouldn’t see through. Of course it’s impossible and you can see through some of these things, but still, it was done enough in that respect that people didn’t look for holes that much.

“Whereas today, one of the reasons is because everybody knows, and the other is because over the last 20 years wrestlers have evolved and they want to be fancier than everybody else, so they have to do all their moves. So now it’s more of an exhibition and display of wonderfully choreographed violence but it’s not uppermost in the guy’s minds these days to actually simulate a realistic conflict.”

“To me, professional wrestling is a uniquely American performance art,” he continues. “From the 1880s, the concept was to create someone that the people had a strong dislike for and create someone the people had a strong like or identification with, and pit them in a fight and get people to pay to see who was going to win. And that was the logic of the wrestling universe. And these films are kind of the last generation of that, whereas then showbiz came calling in the ’80s, and pay-per-view, and the television networks, etc etc. And it not only changed the dynamics of the business, but it changed the way the people thought of it.

“The wrestlers in those days had no idea how wrestling was done, how it was manipulated, how it was arranged, how it was booked, how matches were made. You didn’t know anything until you got in the business. So your training was your first inkling. Now, everybody’s on the Internet, so by the time they’re ten they think they know how it’s done. So they go in wanting to create a performance and a character that may tear the house down in simulated combat, but it’s pretty much presented as simulated combat. And you can see the difference in the reactions of the fans.”

On Cornette’s films, it’s impossible to miss the fan’s reactions when, for example, Wahoo McDaniel fights his way out of the corner by chopping Ric Flair in the chest. Flair, in turn, not only falls the ground, but he does a backwards roll towards the opposite corner, extending his legs high off of the mat. Later in the match, McDaniel kicks out of a pin attempt not by raising his shoulders off the mat, but by rolling slightly and kicking Flair in the side of the head. In the next match, you can hear the fans shriek in delight when Blackjack Mulligan chases a cowering Flair out of the ring. Flair falls off of the ring apron and onto the concrete floor, where he has to be helped back to his feet by his tag team partner, the Masked Superstar. “The guys were good at what they did,” says Cornette, “and what they did was work and manipulate people’s emotions in front of big crowds every night of the week. And they had plenty of experience at it. And they looked the part, and they talked like they looked.”

In a particularly physical match between Greg Valentine and Ricky Steamboat, you can see fans leaping to their feet at different points during the match in anticipation of either a dramatic move or a shift in the control of the match. When Valentine hits Steamboat with three left jabs, Steamboat makes his knees wobble like a boxer losing control of his body, as he stumbles into the corner of the ring. You never doubt that they’re pushing themselves beyond their physical limits. Steamboat wins the match but after being pinned, Valentine throws the referee to the ground and bashes Steamboat in the head. Steamboat staggers for two seconds, does a 180-degree turn, and falls flat on his back and throws both of his legs straight-up into the air.

As Valentine leaves the ring, fans begin throwing trash at him and at least two, a young woman and a teenager, are clearly giving him the middle finger. It’s ridiculous and exhilarating at the same time. “There was no information other than you were going to see a magic show,” says Cornette, “and you knew that they didn’t make the fucking elephant disappear, but how the fuck did they do that? It wasn’t analyzed. The fans didn’t look for fancy moves. They’d rather see the good guy win a stinker than the bad guy win the best match they’d ever seen.

“[The wrestlers] knew there was no close-up camera, and they were playing to an audience of six or eight or 10,000 people in a big arena, so the body language is almost somewhat over-the-top. It looks like, today, if it was on television and they had close-up cameras it would almost be too much. But for the arena setting, it’s exactly right. It’s sort of like when the stage actors and actresses from Broadway and the ’20s and ’30s, and they had to make a transition to film and TV, which was more intimate, and they had to gear it down. But Dusty [Rhodes] would drop to his knees when somebody hits him over the head with something and throw his arms out to the side, like he’s on the cross. And the people are jumping up and down and going fucking crazy. That’s a lost art, because now guys are not trying to convey the emotions, they’re trying to execute the movements.”

In 2001, following the collapse of World Championship Wrestling, the promotion was purchased by the WWE. Territory-based wrestling was effectively over by this point, and the purchase was the final act of the McMahon family’s 16-year campaign to modernize, and ultimately, dominate pro wrestling. Included in the purchase was a vast collection of recorded wrestling from Crockett promotions and other territories that Crockett had purchased. WWE additionally owns tape libraries from most of the other territories, totaling over 150,000 hours of footage.

The fact that a single entity essentially owns and controls most of the recorded history of modern pro wrestling makes Cornette’s independent release of the Carolina footage even more significant. “[WWE is] doing a wonderful job preserving [wrestling history], because they have bought most of the tape libraries out there. There are still a few they don’t have, but most of the significant tape libraries they’ve got, and they store them in a climate controlled, earthquake-proof, vault. They’re preserving the shit great. Better than the promoters they got them from. The problem is they’re not doing a great job disseminating it.”

In 2014, the WWE Network was launched as subscription-based streaming service, making parts of the tape library available on-demand. “The Network obviously has to put out there what they think most people are going to want to see,” Cornette says, “and what they think is, is that’s the “Attitude” era and all the pay-per-views. But you know, to me, especially for the old-time fan, or the die-hard fan, or the jaded fan who has already been a tape collector or already been on YouTube and watched stuff: people have seen the Clashes and the pay-per-views and the zabadas from the last 15 years.

“[WWE has] the Florida library with all those classic matches with the Funks, and the Briscos, and Eddie Graham, and Dusty Rhodes, from the ’70s, but that’s a niche thing. They have the Mid-South library, and you’re going to see some of it but I’d love to just see the shows replayed, in context, over and over. The stuff that’s been hard to find, that most of the die-hard fans haven’t been able to see, there’s a market for that and it’s just that it’s so low on [the WWE’s] priorities that I don’t know long it will be, if we ever do get to see them. But sometimes they’ll put out the best of those battlin’ midgets. You know, what the fuck? At least it’s still there. We just have to figure out how we’re ever going to get to see it.”

The footage Cornette has released is as raw as can be; matches start in progress or cut off abruptly before they’re over. But for fans of classic wresting, they’re one of the last existing signals from a lost world. Pro wrestling has changed significantly over the years, both as a business and in how it is conducted inside the ring. Maneuvers have become increasingly risky, while the action, at the same time, is presented purely as entertainment.

“Here’s how smart we all were, collectively, in the industry,” says Cornette. “In the ’90s we managed to figure out that if we started hitting each other with shit as hard as we could, people would believe it. So now, you had a situation where we used to pretend to hurt each other, but not really, and the people believed we did, and it morphed into, now we really do hurt each other and the people think it’s all horseshit.” While it’s certainly debatable just how seriously one should take pro wrestling, it’s hard to argue against its rich history as a uniquely engaging, colorful, and controversial, spectacle. With the release of the Carolina Classics footage, Jim Cornette presents a piece of it, unedited and unrefined, that had been discarded as trash.

Splash image: press photo from Cornette’s website