All eyes will be on Survivor Series this Sunday, but November 24th also marks the 30th anniversary of Starrcade ’83, Jim Crockett Promotions’ wrestling extravaganza where former NWA World Champion Ric Flair challenged seven-time titleholder Harley Race for the “10 pounds of gold” inside a steel cage on Thanksgiving night.
For nearly two decades, Starrcade was NWA/WCW’s signature event, where some of the greatest wrestlers in history — Magnum T.A., The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, The Midnight Express, The Road Warriors, Sting, Dusty Rhodes, Steve Austin, Eddie Guerrero, and Goldberg, to name just a handful — gave defining performances.
Taking place at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, Starrcade ’83: A Flair for the Gold was the first wrestling event broadcast on closed-circuit television, taking Jim Crockett Promotions from a regional territory to a national promotion.
Eight matches were featured, including the Brisco Brothers versus Jay Youngblood and Ricky Steamboat, Abdullah the Butcher versus Carlos Colon, Charlie Brown verses Kabuki, The Assassins versus Bugsy McGraw and Rufus R. Jones, and the infamous Dog Collar Match between Greg Valentine and Roddy Piper.
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Starrcade ’83, WrestleNewz tracked down Jimmy Valiant, Bugsy McGraw, “The Assassin” Jody Hamilton, Abdullah the Butcher, and Harley Race for exclusive interviews to shed some light on the enduring legacy of the very first Starrcade.
Jody Hamilton is a Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee who spent most of his career wrestling under a mask as The Assassin, teaming with longtime partner Tom Renesto. The Assassins were one of the most feared and respected tag teams in the business, spending 14 years wrestling all over the world. At Starrcade ’83, The Assassins — now Jody Hamilton and Ray Hernandez (Assassin #2) — defeated their opponents Rufus R. Jones and Bugsy McGraw in the opening match.
WNZ: What do you remember most about being in the opening match of Starrcade?
Jody Hamilton: It was a good match, and the funny thing is Bugsy and Rufus had a comedy gimmick going on, but they didn’t come across with their comedy routine in their matches with us. Their matches with us were good solid wrestling matches. Both those guys were capable of doing it if they wanted to, and when they got in the ring with us, they both realized that we were going to wrestle them regardless of what the hell they did. So at Starrcade, they wrestled us back and we had some good matches with those guys all around the territory.
WNZ: There were three other tag team matches at Starrcade ’83: Wahoo McDaniel and Mark Youngblood versus Bob Orton Jr. and Dick Slater, Jack and Gerry Brisco versus Jay Youngblood and Ricky Steamboat, and Kevin Sullivan and Mark Lewin versus Scott McGhee and Johnny Weaver. Can you share some thoughts on some of those teams at that time?
JH: I didn’t see any of those matches, but the Briscos against Steamboat and Youngblood should have been a classic, as you got four top hands in there. They would have gone out there and had a tag team match, rather than go out there and have two singles matches within the framework of tag team wrestling, which I see a lot of guys doing today, which defeats the purpose of having a tag match.
Slater and Orton were a solid wrestling team and against Wahoo and Youngblood, who was a hell of a wrestler, that should have been highly entertaining. Wahoo was always exciting.
As for Sullivan and Lewin, I thought they were a total mismatch. They had no team coordination or timing whatsoever. One guy was going in one direction and the other guy was going in another direction and they accomplished bullshit. Nothing. Both guys individually were fairly capable hands, and of course at one time Lewin was a great performer until he tried that looney tunes gimmick as The Purple Haze. At that point he lost all perspective of the psychology of the business and from that point on he was the shits.
WNZ: The Mid-Atlantic territory was really hot in 1983 — what was the secret to its success?
JH: One of the reasons was it hadn’t been oversaturated with television, for one thing. They didn’t get television until, oh golly, it was either the late ’50s or very early ’60s, not like several other places around the country that had already had TV for ten years or so. But also, it was the type of fans you had there in the Carolinas. You know, fans are different everywhere around the country, or around the world for that matter. If you go to New York, the Mets fans are a hell of a lot different to Yankees fans, and so on. It’s that way everywhere. And to our advantage, the wrestling fans around the Carolinas — North Carolina, South Carolina, and up into Virginia — where Mid-Atlantic was promoting, those were probably some of the hottest fans in wrestling.
And when I say hottest, I’m talking about the most emotional, the most volatile fans you could find anywhere. It was to the point where unless you had really, really good security, it was dangerous.
WNZ: As masked wrestlers, were The Assassins able to come and go from the arena without being recognized by fans?
JH: No, because we had to put the masks on several blocks away and you’d never know what the hell was going to happen. And we always had fans trying to follow us in their cars trying to see what we looked like and see how far down the road it was before we took our masks off. And that was a pain in the ass, to be quite honest. But by the same token that was part of what we did, so we adapted and adjusted to it.
WNZ: Tell us about your partner Assassin #2, Ray Hernandez, who would go on to become Hercules in the WWF.
JH: Ray had a decent run in New York and everything, but he wasn’t a ring general by any means of the imagination and he had been a singles wrestler throughout his entire career. So all of a sudden he was thrown into a situation and given something new to do that was totally unfamiliar, which was tag teaming. But one thing I will say for Ray is, Ray and I became very good friends. But Ray was willing to listen and he respected the fact that Tom and I had so much success together as The Assassins prior, we had a hell of a 15-year run together, and Ray wanted to make this thing work because he knew it was a chance to make a lot of money in a good money territory, at that time.
WNZ: What do you remember most about Starrcade ’83?
JH: I remember how incredible the crowd was that night, being in the opening match I remember the fans leaping out of their seats from the very start. At that point, they had expanded the Greensboro Coliseum and made it larger than it was when Tom and I were there, wrestling as The Assassins. Of course, Greensboro was always a great town for The Assassins.
Thirty years later, I never imagined we’d be here talking about that night. I don’t think anybody did. To us, back then every event including spot shows was a big event because it was our livelihood, that was our living because we weren’t under contracts. We got paid according to how much we drew, so that’s why we busted our asses to give them the best performance we could. And we did that because we loved the business.
Wild and woolly, Bugsy McGraw broke into the business in 1967, wrestling as the Big O. He wreaked havoc throughout the ’70s and ’80s, busting heads and bloodying the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Don Muraco, Barry Windham, and the Funk Brothers throughout Florida, the WWWF, and around the world. With his partner Rufus R. Jones, they captured the Mid-Atlantic Tag Team Championship. The unorthodox and comedic team of McGraw and Jones battled The Assassins at Starrcade ’83.
WNZ: Jody Hamilton looks back fondly on the opening match at Starrcade ’83 between The Assassins and the team of you and Rufus R. Jones. Do you as well?
Bugsy McGraw: Yeah, I really enjoyed teaming with Rufus as we worked well together, and I really liked Jody and Ray. Jody had that persona, I always liked Jody, and he knew so much about wrestling. He also understood wrestling from the promoter’s perspective. He would be watching all the time and he knew who could work and who couldn’t work. Jody had a great mind for the business and as The Assassins, he was helping Ray out a lot.
You know what was funny: Jody wasn’t exactly into weight training but he was a great worker, one of the best in fact. He really knew his way around that ring and he was a great ring general, so I’m not in any way trying to knock him at all. I want to be very clear about that, ’cause I have all the respect in the world for Jody. So when we first saw this new team of Jody and Ray, who was really into weight training and he was young, they both came out dressed all in black with those orange masks. And next to Jody, Ray almost looked little! (laughs) It was because he was dressed in black, and he’s got that really trim waste line at that time. But I mean, the guy was built and if you saw him without his shirt you’d think ‘wow, there’s a big ol’ boy.’ But dressed in black he just looked so little beside Jody. They were great, though, as Jody was the worker in that team and Ray was really keen to learn everything, as he was really young at that time. And I liked Ray a lot too.
WNZ: How did you feel about your tag team match being first on the card at Starrcade ’83?
BM: Well, you always prefer to be on top for the money, but I understood the positioning of our match to kick things off. The first match is an important one, especially at a big event like Starrcade, because it sets the tone for the evening and emphasizes the emotions and what’s to come, from the bottom to the top, where you had the main event between Race and Flair. It’s like that first match at WrestleMania between Tito Santana and Buddy Rose (The Executioner). Promoters want to kick things off right so they position certain wrestler who they know can work and will deliver a great match and get the crowd on their feet. And that’s what we did there at the Greensboro Coliseum.
WNZ: At that time in your career, did you enjoy working as a babyface?
BM: I was fun, but truly the best times in my career and the most memorable matches I had were working as a heel. In my opinion, I was one of the greatest workers that ever walked into the ring, as I could do everything. I could lead a singles match, I could lead a tag team match, and I’m talking the whole match — you do this, you do that, you get out of the ring, you come back, bop, bop, bop! It was just that easy for me. And I could sell. That’s why I don’t understand some of these young guys I see in the indie promotions sayin’ they don’t want to do this and they don’t want to do that. They don’t get it, you make yourself look like King Kong if you’re willing to sell, and do it well.
WNZ: Who from your era didn’t sell?
BM: There were several guys who were only in it for themselves. I don’t usually watch my own matches but I had a friend over at the house a few months ago and they wanted to see some of my matches so they went on the WWE site and found this match with me against Ivan Putski. I remembered that I didn’t like that match when I was in it, but after watching it I thought, wow, that was actually a really good match. They did the filming back then in Allentown, Pennsylvania at the old civic centre that was made of wood.
Anyways, I remember walking in and Gorilla (Monsoon) says, “We want you to work with Ivan Putski.” I said, “Hell no, I’m not going out there with him because that guy doesn’t sell.” I was in the WWE and everybody wanted to work with me because I was the heel and I would take bumps. I mean, I got my ass whipped, so everybody was asking to work with me. So I told Gorilla that Putski wouldn’t sell a damn thing on TV, and that it would be a horrible match. I’m a worker and I’m great at it, but he’s not gonna sell shit. So Gorilla said, “I’ll be back” and went to the other dressing room to talk to Putski. When he came back he said, “He’s gonna sell for you,” and I said, “Oh yeah, why?” and Gorilla said, “‘Cause I told him that if he doesn’t sell, you’re going to kick him in the nuts.” (laughs) Anyways, that was years before Starrcade ’83.
WNZ: How would you compare wrestling at Madison Square Garden to the Greensboro Coliseum for an event like Starrcade ’83?
BM: Every arena, whether big or small, had its own atmosphere and vibe. The Garden was great, of course, but I also loved the smaller places with a few thousand people. When they’re not that large, you can have more control over the people and their emotions, compared to when they’re further away. In the Carolinas, the larger the house the larger the pay day. I don’t remember how many people the Greensboro Coliseum held, but Starrcade was a packed house and it was great to be a part of it. Something about the Mid-Atlantic there, even when you were in a big arena you still felt connected to the crowd because they were so passionate. It was a wonderful time to be in wrestling, and I think the four of us in that opening match felt very fortunate to be the ones to kick it off.
WWE Hall of Famer “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant was a classic villain throughout the ’60s and ’70s and one of wrestling’s top box office draws. In the ’80s, Valiant reinvented himself as “The Boogie Woogie Man,” thrilling audiences around the world as one of the most popular babyfaces in wrestling history. Wrestling as his alter-ego, Charlie Brown from Outta Town, he defeated his longtime rival The Great Kabuki at Starrcade ’83 to capture the NWA TV Championship.
WNZ: Tell us about your feud with The Great Kabuki over the NWA TV Title.
Jimmy Valiant: That was really one of the hottest feuds in the Mid-Atlantic territory in the ’80s, along with the feud I had with Paul Jones and his Army that lasted about five years. But with me and Kabuki, that feud lasted a good year and I know half of that year was spent with me wrestling under a mask as Charlie Brown from Outta Town after I lost a Loser Leaves Town match. So that was like a double jeopardy deal, and we didn’t skip a beat or miss a week because Charlie Brown rode up the moment I had to leave town (laughs).
And with Kabuki, I chased that belt and we were drawing money ’cause I was in hot pursuit of that title. But the way it worked was, if you didn’t beat the TV champion within 20 minutes the belt stayed with the champion, and somehow, someway, Kabuki would keep the title with Gary Hart, of course, there was a whole lot of cheating going on. Finally, that led up to the big blow-off at Starrcade where we had a mask-versus-title match, after a year of chasing him all around the globe. And it was just a thrill to be able to do it on that big event, the very first Starrcade. And what made it so special was it was in Greensboro, which was Jim Crockett’s favorite place. It was the house that Jim Crockett built, brother.
WNZ: For fans, The Great Kabuki had a real mystique as we never heard him speak.
JV: And he was very mysterious to the boys as well, as Gary Hart kept him apart from us. He was afraid that if anybody to know him, Kabuki would lose his magic. So he handle him and he kept him away from almost everyone. You know, we’re all pros and that was his gimmick both inside and outside the ring, that was his thing and I honored and appreciated that.
The Japanese guys, they understood our customs and our western style of wrestling. It was difficult to communicate with them, but they adapted to our western style really well and they took it back to Japan with them.
WNZ: Were you able to watch the infamous Dog Collar Match between Piper and Valentine at Starrcade that night?
JV: At that time, there was no way to see another match unless you went out to the wings and watched, and at the Greensboro Coliseum that was hard to do, especially on a night like that where it was packed. If it had been a regular house show, the boys could maybe get somewhere to see the match, but not at Starrcade. There were monitors around, but it wasn’t for the boys, but rather for Johnny Weaver and people doing the color commentating.
So really everybody just stayed in their dressing rooms and waited their turn. Referees would keep us posted and let us know we’re on next. So I didn’t get to see that match live but I did later see it on film and it was spectacular.
WNZ: At Starrcade ’83, did you have some sense that you were a part of history in the making?
JV: Honestly, it was just another night. We wrestled seven days a week, we wrestled twice on Saturday, twice on Sunday. So nine times a week we’d wrestle in seven days, so we had no idea how big Starrcade would become or the influence it would have on our business. Dusty Rhodes named it, and he was the mastermind behind Boogie Man Jam, the Crockett Cup, the Great American Bash, the War Games, and on and on. We had no idea it was going to come back — Starrcade ’84, ’85, ’86 — and that it would be an annual event for many years to come. I just feel really honored and fortunate to have been a part of it. It was a great event, a great night, and it made history.
Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow!