Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Greatest Finish Man Ever

A Conversation with Blackjack Mulligan about his friend Johnny Weaver
by Dick Bourne

Blackjack Mulligan and Johnny Weaver had reunited with each other via the internet a year or so ago, and since then the two had enjoyed the exchange of memories and reminiscences, as well as the usual e-mail jokes that go around. Johnny had only recently learned to use the computer for e-mail correspondence, and was enjoying keeping up with some of the guys he had worked with over the years, including Blackjack, Rip Hawk, Ivan Koloff, Jim Nelson, and others.

Blackjack reminisced about Johnny Weaver, who passed away in February, during a recent phone conversation.

“I still can’t believe Johnny’s gone,” he told me. “We had just exchanged e-mails and we had spoken on the phone before Christmas.” Jack had invited Johnny to come spend Christmas with him and Julia and Barry at Jack’s cabin on the San Saba River, south of San Angelo, Texas. “He told me he’d have to pass, he was going to see his daughter Wendi on Christmas day.”
Jack’s nickname for Johnny was “J-Dub”, short for “JW”. The name was actually given to him by Dick Murdoch who liked the character by that name in the 1972 cowboy movie “JW Coop.”

“He called me Mully, I called him J-Dub,” he said. The two had not seen each other in over 15 years.

“We were close, we shared so much on the road.” Jack told me. “The best times were in 1978 travelling with J-Dub and Dickey Murdoch all around the Mid-Atlantic territory. We spent a lot of time and rode a lot of miles, Johnny always chewing tobacco, listening to 8-track tapes of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Ernest Tubb.” Those 8-tracks resulted in a slight clash of musical tastes while driving those Carolina back roads. “Over and over and over again, those tapes would play, I got so sick of Merle Haggard,” Jack laughed as he told me. “I was into the new Southern Rock, the Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, and those guys, and Johnny liked that old traditional stuff. Of course, all those guys Johnny loved, those guys are all on my iPod now,” he laughed, “but wow, he used to wear those 8-track tapes out!”

Thinking about that now, it makes sense that Blackjack remembers those times with Johnny in 1978. Back in those days, the good guys and the bad guys didn’t travel together, and up until the spring of 1978, Blackjack was one of the top bad guys in the territory. But the famous “Hat and Robe” angle changed all that, Blackjack became a fan favorite, and he and Murdoch formed the M&M Boys tag team, and Jack finally had a chance to travel with Weaver, even occasionally co-hosted a TV show with Weaver, for whom had a great respect.

“Riding with Murdoch and J-Dub, you were always learning,” Jack said. “Weaver had one of the greatest wrestling minds ever, one of the most creative people I ever met in the business. Back in those days, I’m talking the 1960s here, matches were two-out-of-three falls, and were long drawn out affairs. And the finish you came up with in that third fall was designed to sell tickets to next week’s show. It wasn’t so much the TV back then, TV was very different, you didn’t have all those wild and crazy promos to sell the tickets back then. It was what you did in that third fall in that town that week, and how you left the crowd, was what sold tickets for the next show. You didn’t wait until TV to find out what the next show was and then buy your ticket. Back in those days, they wanted a big advance from the fans as they walked out the door that night. They walked right by the ticket window on the way out, and bought their tickets to next week’s show. So the psychology of the match and the finish was key to the success of that town.”

Blackjack couldn’t say enough about how good Johnny was at making that all work.

“Johnny was a master. And you had to be creative, because you ran those towns every single week. Finishes had to be different from one show to the next; the people couldn’t see the same thing happen again. Now days, they (the WWE) run Greensboro once a year, so you don’t have to even think about things like that. But then, it was key to the success of a town.”

“Weaver was a master thinker,” Jack continued. “He and his partner George Becker both had good brains. Becker booked and Weaver helped him, and then later Weaver got the book. George Scott was probably the greatest booker of all time, but Johnny Weaver was the greatest finish man ever.”

Blackjack knew of Weaver’s reputation when he first came to the Mid-Atlantic territory in 1975.
“I had heard a lot about Johnny from Bronko Lubich,” Jack told me. Lubich and partner Aldo Bogni had been main opponents for Becker and Weaver in the 1960s. “I was with Lubich down in Houston. Paul Boesche and I didn’t see eye to eye, and Lubich suggested that I call George Scott, who was booking Charlotte. Lubich told me that Scott had always liked me, liked my work. But when I finally got the call from George to come to the Carolinas, I had just taken a spot with Vince Sr. in New York, Lanza and I were bringing our team there. The way the WWWF did things, you would go up there for several months and just do TV, and they would expose you that way before you ever started going to their towns. I was just getting ready to start their TV, and so I told George I could come in for a few months and do a few programs and put guys over on the way out. All I would need is two days every month to go to New York and do their TV in advance of me going there.”

Scott agreed and Blackjack burst upon the scene in the Mid-Atlantic territory. He stayed for a few months, and then as planned left for the WWWF where he and Lanza held the WWWF tag team championships. Following the Wilmington NC plane crash in October of 1975 that ended the career of the territory’s top bad guy Johnny Valentine and sidelined Ric Flair for months, booker George Scott brought Mulligan back to be his lead “heel”. He also brought back Weaver, who had left the territory early in the year after Scott had removed him from his “babyface” spot.

It was then that he met Johnny Weaver for the first time.

“Johnny and I hit it off pretty well from the minute I got there. He had quite a reputation in the territory where he had been on top for nearly 12 years, which was very hard to do.” In those days, wrestlers moved frequently from one territory to the next. This allowed promoters to keep talent fresh, and allowed talent more opportunities to work and stay on top by moving place to place. But once Weaver arrived in the Mid-Atlantic area after an early career in the Central States and Indianapolis, he basically never left except for a couple of short stints in Texas and Florida.

Following Jim Crockett Sr.’s death in 1973, the territory was in upheaval as son-in-law John Ringley took over the company, followed not long after by sons Jimmy Jr. and David. There had long been differing opinions over who should be booking the territory. George Becker was squeezed out in 1971, replaced by Weaver and Rip Hawk. Johnny mentioned in his 2007 interview with the Mid-Atlantic Gateway that Jimmy Jr. wanted him out as well, and had long pushed for the removal of the old guard. Weaver said that he felt Ringley was in his corner, but that Jimmy Jr. was adamant a change be made, and in 1973 George Scott was hired to book the territory.

“Johnny told me years later of how they fired him. Called him down late one night to meet them in the parking lot of the Coliseum on Independence. Very cold. That always hurt him, stuck with him.”

After Weaver and Mulligan independently returned to the territory following the Wilmington plane crash, they first got to know each other well during those long days of taping local promo spots to be inserted into the Mid-Atlantic and Wide World Wrestling TV shows. The wrestlers would tape these promos at WRAL TV in Raleigh NC during marathon sessions that lasted all day, and then they would tape the two one-hour television shows there as well. “There was a lot of time to spend sitting around and talking, all the guys sitting around for hours. You got to know these guys pretty well doing that,” Blackjack said.

Blackjack wrestled Johnny a few times over the years as well, including a series of matches in 1976 where he defended the US title against Weaver in several towns across the territory. Blackjack was another in what would be a long line of guys over the next few years (including Greg Valentine, Roddy Piper, and Tully Blanchard) who had to get past the legendary territory stalwart to prove his metal to the fans. Blackjack reminded me during our phone call - “Johnny Weaver was the man.”

“I had not seen him in a long time,” he said after a brief silence. ”But we had enjoyed keeping in touch with each other with e-mails and phone calls over the last year.”

A couple of days after Johnny died, Blackjack sent an e-mail to Johnny’s address, telling his old friend he missed him and he wouldn’t be long behind him. “I thought no one would ever see it, but his daughter Wendi got it and sent me a nice note back. Probably thought I was nuts. I just wanted to tell Johnny goodbye.”

This article is also archived on the Mid-Atlantic Gateway in Smoke Filled Rooms.