Friday, March 7, 2008

Goodbye to Mr. Mid-Atlantic

by David Chappell

My real interest in professional wrestling started in the late 1960s and continued unabated through to the late 1980s when Jim Crockett Promotions ceased operations. During that two decade period there was one performer that was a constant that you could count on every week, and that wrestler’s name was Johnny Weaver.

Johnny was part of my very earliest wrestling memories. I don’t remember a lot of those Saturdays in front of my black and white TV in the 60s, or even how I wandered onto Channel 6 in Richmond at 5:00 for All-Star Wrestling. I do remember that my Dad used to watch the World Series of Golf from the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio with me at 4:00 on those Saturday afternoons way back when. And I remember when that show ended, All-Star Wrestling came on. While I don’t remember much about that time, I do remember one wrestler, and his name was Johnny Weaver.
Johnny was the consummate good guy. He and his partner at the time, George Becker, would do battle with some real villains. I mean, villains that scared me at the time as a young child, to the point that I would turn the TV off. It was amazing to me that Johnny could stand up to the likes of outlaws such as Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson. But he somehow did, and I think that’s what kept me watching wrestling…I was drawn to that weekly confrontation between good and evil. And Johnny was there every week, representing good.

As the 1970s arrived, my interest in professional wrestling became an obsession! And Johnny was right there with me nearly every Saturday. Not only every Saturday, but a lot of Friday’s as well, as I started going to live matches in Richmond. Regardless of where Johnny was on the card, his match was always one I looked forward to seeing. Particularly if he was in a tag team match, I looked forward to joining in Johnny’s foot/ stomp and hand/clap when he was on the ring apron.
After his late 1973/early 1974 program with the Super Destroyer, Johnny was no longer a main event performer for Jim Crockett Promotions, and in fact was absent from the Mid-Atlantic area for the first three-quarters of 1975. But in the aftermath of the terrible plane crash in Wilmington, North Carolina in October of 1975, there was a bit of good news…Johnny Weaver returned! I remember how glad I was to see Johnny back in the ring on the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling TV show, and in his first reappearance, he also showed his versatility by doing color commentary with Bob Caudle, subbing for David Crockett who was recovering from injuries sustained in the plane crash.

During the mid/late 70s, and on into the early 1980s, Johnny morphed from a main eventer, to the respected veteran who the top level bad guys had to overcome to earn that spot. Main event villains Greg Valentine in 1976/1977, Roddy Piper in 1980, and Tully Blanchard in 1984 all had to earn their stripes by getting by Johnny. And without a doubt, Johnny put them all through their paces!

In addition to the programs with Valentine, Piper and Blanchard, Johnny’s in-ring activity from the mid-70s to the mid-80s saw his memorable Claw versus Sleeper feud in 1978 with Baron Von Raschke, where Johnny also captured the NWA TV Title. Johnny battled Ken Patera over the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title in late 1978/early 1979. In 1981, Johnny was one-half of the Mid-Atlantic Tag Team Champions with both Dewey Robertson and Jay Youngblood. A memorable feud in 1982 saw Johnny battle Lord Alfred Hayes and the Russians. And in 1984, Johnny took the mask off of the Assassin, and wore it himself as the "Ultimate Assassin." As late as 1987, Johnny taught the "Weaverlock" to Dusty Rhodes, and appeared in Dusty Rhodes’ corner against Lex Luger in Starrcade 1987. And speaking of Starrcade, Johnny wrestled in the inaugural Starrcade in 1983.

While Johnny would properly be classified a "mid-card" wrestler from 1975-1985, he was much more than that. He won the majority of his arena matches, often giving the fans a good feeling going home, even when the bad guys may have won the main event match later in the evening. And Johnny would still get a main event match here and there even as the years wore on. My favorite memory in that sphere was from a card in Richmond in August of 1976, where Johnny headlined against Blackjack Mulligan for Mulligan’s U.S. Title. In the promos leading up to that match, Blackjack said there was gonna be a hanging…he was gonna throw a rope over the rafters in the Richmond Arena and hang ol’ Johnny Weaver, and have a good laugh! While Johnny didn’t win the U.S. belt that night, fortunately, he wasn’t hung from the rafters either!

But into the 1980s, most fans associated Johnny with his television announcing. When the World Wide Wrestling TV show came into the Richmond market in March of 1979, one of the first shows that aired had Johnny doing guest commentary with host Rich Landrum. Johnny would soon thereafter become Rich’s regular co-host, and the two meshed together wonderfully. Rich nicknamed Johnny "The Dean of Professional Wrestling," and Johnny would sing "Turn Out The Lights, The Party’s Over" to signal the end of a match. Johnny also announced with David Crockett, and later with Bob Caudle on NWA Pro Wrestling.

After Jim Crockett Promotions bit the dust in the late 1980’s, Mid-Atlantic fans like me were left to our memories, and often wondering what ever happened to our heroes. When Dick Bourne and I started the Mid-Atlantic Gateway in 2000, we hoped to sharpen our collective memories of the Mid-Atlantic years by doing a website. One of the wonderful results, and really unintended, was actually making contact with many of our Mid-Atlantic heroes from the past. With the help of Peggy Lathan, one of those was with "Mr. Mid-Atlantic," Johnny Weaver. It was a wonderful feeling to have a small part in reuniting Johnny and his former adversary, Rip Hawk, for two recent get-togethers in Charlotte. Likewise, it was wonderful to be a part of a surprise birthday party thrown for Johnny in Rocky Mount Virginia this past November. Little did I know, Johnny would pass away in a scant three month hence.

I received an email from Johnny just two days before he died. I still find it hard to believe that I was a regular on Johnny’s email list! I’m proud that the Gateway was able to get information out to Johnny’s fans about his illustrious career. There would have been so much more, had Johnny lived longer, and that is so sad. But one thing that I’m happy about, is that through the Gateway, Johnny truly realized how many fans still remembered him and his career, and the extent to which he touched so many lives. I have no question that when he passed away, Johnny knew without a doubt that he was still the "Dean of Wrestling" to so many wrestling fans, and not merely a forgotten ghost of wrestling’s past.

What a lot of wrestling fans didn’t know about Johnny was that he worked for years with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department near Charlotte after his wrestling career was over, transporting prisoners. Being a prosecutor for many years, I know that inmates are not often at their best going to and coming from Court. Transporting them is not an easy job, and is often thankless and always dangerous. But it is oh so important for everybody that works in the criminal justice system. From all accounts, Johnny was as reliable in his job as a Deputy Sheriff as he was working for Jim Crockett Promotions. I know, many times in trying to set events up for Johnny, we had to work around his schedule with the Sheriff’s Department! And his schedule there was brutal, much like it was as a wrestler in the Mid-Atlantic area. But somehow, I don’t think Johnny would have wanted it any other way.

Whether it was wrestling, announcing, booking (yes, Johnny booked matches as well!), or transporting prisoners, Johnny Weaver was a constant, and rock solid at whatever he did. Unassuming, and never one to try to draw attention to himself, Johnny’s abilities did that for him. When I think of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, Johnny holds my earliest memories, and he was that person that you always were going to see in some capacity every week. And somebody you needed to see for your wrestling week to be complete! To me, Johnny Weaver was and always will be, "Mr. Mid-Atlantic." The consummate good guy in the ring and on TV during the Mid-Atlantic years, I was blessed to get to know him as a good guy outside of the ring and when the glare of the TV lights were off… at the end of his full and eventful life.

Goodbye Mr. Mid-Atlantic…you have left a lifetime of wrestling memories for the many wrestling fans you’ve left behind.

David Chappell
March 2008