Nov 19, 2020, 05:57AM

The Last Gasp of Tracy Smothers’ Rebel Yell

Smothers was a major part of Southern wrestling’s last great “youth movement” before tutoring many of the biggest stars of the past 20 years.

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Wrestling veteran Tracy Smothers, who died at age 58 from cancer, may not have gone out with his Confederate battle flag boots and trunks on, but he wore them to the ring right up until the bitter end. It’s strange, especially from the vantage point of 2020, to be eulogizing someone whose entire career was spent proudly boasting he was “Southern by the grace of god” and whose greatest feud involved defending the honor of the Smoky Mountains around Knoxville, Tennessee against the depredations of a full-mouthed invading “Yankee.”

Then again, everything about Tracy Smothers was a little off: his cockeyed good looks, his off-center curly mullet, his passionate but sometimes gaffe-laden rants directed at his opponents. The only thing that wasn’t ever off was his in-ring work, which saw him in matches spanning three decades, competing against everyone from the arch-heels of the 1980s, the Fabulous Freebirds, all the way to modern wrestling innovators C.M. Punk and Chris Hero (formerly WWE’s Kassius Ohno).

To hear Smothers tell it, in a five-hour interview spanning his entire career in the business, he fell into wrestling the way so many raw-boned Southern jocks did: while training at a local gym in Memphis, he caught the eye of Bill Dundee and some other wrestlers who worked for Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler’s Continental Wrestling Association. Smothers, who’d wrestled in high school, wound up getting a crash course in the professional game before landing on CWA television tapings, doing “jobs” as an enhancement talent.

Smothers’ big break came when he teamed with the equally raw-boned and athletic Steve Armstrong—one of several uber-talented sons of Southern wrestling legend Bob Armstrong, who also died recently—and they began working shows in Florida as “the Wild-Eyed Southern Boys.” Their first notable feud came against the New Breed, a team composed of Chris Champion and Sean Royal, another pair of high-energy youngsters who dressed in futuristic attire, at least from the perspective of 1987, and claimed to be from the year 2002.

Southern wrestling found itself then at a critical point, as promoters were mixing gimmicks heavily rooted in the rich traditions of the region, like those of Bob Armstrong and his son Brad or the Southern Boys, as against various “cool teams” that sported mohawks, flattops with rat-tails, wraparound shades, face paint, leather jackets, crotch-hugging neon spandex pants, and other accoutrements that the old men still running Southern wrestling, grizzled veterans like Ole Anderson and “Cowboy” Bill Watts, perceived as interesting to a younger generation of fan. The Road Warriors were perhaps the most notable team in this vein, but the New Breed, the Powers of Pain, and the Blade Runners (future greats Sting and the Ultimate Warrior) were all cut from this same cloth.

In other words, the world Smothers was entering, with second-generation grappler Steve Armstrong by his side, was already changing. Vince McMahon’s expanding WWF was running shows all over the country by 1987, drawing 93,000 fans to the Detroit Silverdome that year for WrestleMania III, but they still hadn’t hit their stride south of the line drawn by surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon between 1763 and 1767, that eponymous Mason-Dixon line separating Pennsylvania from Maryland, North from South, and eventually free state and slave state. But the old-school promoters knew a reckoning was coming, and were trying to shore up their little fiefdoms from the WWF’s inevitable Yankee incursion, with all its cartoonish pomp and circumstance.

From 1987 to 1990, Terry Smothers followed a path blazed by his immediate forebears like “Nature Boy” Buddy Landel, Robert Gibson, Ricky MortonTerry Taylor, and Tommy Rich—“ring-tailed roarers” in that grand Davy Crockett frontier tradition who shouted their promos, sometimes unintelligibly, and made fiery comebacks as their bleached-blonde mullets soaked through with blood from their foreheads. He was a few years behind rising second-generation stars like Barry Windham, son of Blackjack Mulligan, and a few years ahead of Dustin Rhodes, son of Dusty. And, as he and Steve Armstrong made their expected pilgrimages from the waning Florida territory to the Alabama territory in a brief revival due to astute booking and heel work from “Tennessee Stud” Ron Fuller and top-flight babyface work from Bob Armstrong, their stars began to rise, too.

And when they showed up in the WCW in early 1990, first as the “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys” and then as just the “Southern Boys,” they showed they had everything it took to get over, at least insofar as “getting over” in big Southern markets like Greensboro and Charlotte had been understood a few years earlier. They ran out to the ring waving the Confederate battle flag, in gray Confederate cavalry jackets, and slapped hands with the fans. They shouted their promos in that aforementioned “ring-tailed roarer” style, threatening to beat the tar out of anyone who threatened their Southern pride, and immediately found themselves scoring a quick non-title victory over US tag team champions and industry legends the Midnight Express—Bobby Eaton, among the greatest workers in the history of the business, plus “Stunning” Stan Lane and tennis racket-wielding manager Jim Cornette, whose genius for the business would be matched only by his stubborn affection for Southern-style wrestling and who has by now surely pulled ahead of the Honky Tonk Man for the most hours of candid “shoot” interviews ever recorded.

The quick win over the Midnights pushed them into a brief house show program with then-World tag champions Doom, the tandem of future WCW World Champion Ron Simmons and former WWF and Mid-South star Butch Reed, as well as a brief rivalry with the Fabulous Freebirds. These were a reduced iteration of the Freebirds, with a visibly slowing Jimmy “Jam” Garvin now working alongside Michael “P.S.” Hayes, who’d always preferred talking on the mic to working and now seemed to focus entirely on the former. Smothers and Armstrong made these Freebirds—once the South’s premier heel team when top big-man worker Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and bump-taker extraordinaire Buddy Roberts were part of the quad and they and Hayes were sometimes taking to the ring with Confederate battle flag face paint—look as menacing, or at least as devious and deceitful, as ever before. The Birds would roll out the Confederate paint at Clash of the Champions XII, in a losing effort against the Southern Boys in September 1990.

But those wins, though hard-earned against a villainous group that had tormented the likes of Southern babyface demigods such as the Von Erich brothers, failed to catapult the Southern Boys to the top of the card. Nor, for that matter, did their incredible losing effort at the July 1990 Great American Bash pay-per-view against Lane and Eaton of the Midnight Express.

This extraordinary match, approximately 25 minutes of high-flying and carefully plotted action that proceeds at a pace reminiscent of today’s AEW and NXT pay-per-view bouts, finished third in the 1990 Wrestling Observer balloting for “match of the year,” the highest domestic match in that year’s rankings. Here Smothers treated viewers to challenging aerial spots timed with Armstrong’s leaps as well as something that would come to signify his later career, which blended that bloody Southern-fried workrate with goofy comedy: the sight of him and “Stunning” Stan Lane engaging in an impromptu, exaggerated “karate fight” that legitimacy-obsessed announcer Jim Ross calls with the gravitas one might associate with an Olympic gold medal match.

Having fully transitioned from the WWF wrestling I watched when my family lived in Pittsburgh to the WCW product that emanated from the TBS SuperStation in Atlanta following my move to eastern North Carolina, I remember finding myself a bit puzzled by the Southern Boys gimmick, from the fact that the “Boys” were babyfaces to the fact that Confederate battle flags were all over their attire— and indeed, all over the region in which we now lived. New Country hits like “If the South Woulda Won” by Hank Williams Jr. and “the South’s Gonna Do it Again” (Smothers’ entrance music for the most notable stretch of his career as a singles competitor) chewed up airtime. What, I wondered, was the South going to do again? Why was it so important that they be “loud and proud?” 1990 was a time when this “rebel culture” was both ubiquitous in the South, and perhaps because it was regionally rooted, still free of the far more negative connotations the battle flag would develop when it began appearing in places like northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania, neither of which state had fought the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.

Smothers and Armstrong were the last bearers of this kind of unthinking, reflexive “Southern pride”—the pride that Bob Armstrong spent his career evoking, to great success, and the pride that drew scores of Southern fans to wrestling arenas in Memphis, Greensboro, Charlotte, Richmond, Atlanta, and all the smaller cities around them that were deprived of big-league sports aside from NASCAR and the Atlanta Braves (the football Falcons and basketball Hawks were both far less important, at least in North Carolina, given the popularity of college athletics). Confederate battle flags were part and parcel of how I comprehended most of my new Southern neighbors, long before their forceful  re-assertion of the flag, in response to talk of its removal from public view, had rendered it much more than an inescapable bit of merchandise available everywhere from the Wings t-shirt store at Myrtle Beach to the greasiest-spoon truck stop just west of Johnson City, Tennessee.

But the Southern Boys wouldn’t remain “Southern,” at least not in the WCW, for very long. By early 1991, in response to concerns by WCW executives that the product was too “Southern” and not marketable enough, in the cartoonish, WWF sense of the business, the Southern Boys became “the Young Pistols,” a pair of cowboys billed as hailing from “Wyoming.” From there, they fell into a predictable rhythm, sometimes teaming with Dustin Rhodes or Big Josh (“Maniac” Matt Borne, who later developed the Doink character in the WWF) to beat the Fabulous Freebirds and the masked “Badstreet” character (Steve’s brother Brad, under a mask), but usually losing to the Freebirds or some other team firmly fixed in the middle of the card.

This continued until Steve Armstrong left the WCW in late 1991, whereupon Smothers fell into a singles run that set the parameters of much of the remainder of his working career. He became a stalwart on WCW television programs, “jerking the curtain”—working highly technical and fast-paced opening bouts—against stars rising up the card. In this phase, he was still billed as “Young Pistol” Tracy, sometimes tagged up with other people just to round out a show, and still doing all of his trademark moves: hurling himself through the air when he’s selling a hip toss or back body drop, opening bouts with shadow boxing or some karate moves, and just generally putting more tender loving care, more work on the devils that are in the details, into his matches than their card placement warrants.

Smothers, however, was about to stumble on the greatest sustained singles run of his career. Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling territory, centered in and around Knoxville, Tennessee, from 1991 to 1995, inquired about his services in late-1992, and Smothers answered the call. There, Cornette said on a recent podcast about Smothers, the plan had been to pair Smothers with Steve Armstrong and revive the Southern Boys, but Armstrong was working in the WWF and, besides, the “Southern Boys” weren’t an especially memorable gimmick anyway, mainly because WCW had shelved it so quickly. So Smothers came in as the “Wild-Eyed Southern Boy” all by his lonesome, still wearing his Confederate cavalry coat and sporting the Confederate battle flag on his trunks.

SMW, for those who missed out on its heyday, was a legendary if doomed promotion that blended regional-wrestling aesthetics and storylines with frequent infusions of both gutsy old Southern legends, like Bob Armstrong who returned to serve as its commissioner, and new blood, such as Devon Storm, Chris Candido, Chris Jericho, New Jack, and a host of other young wrestlers who’d achieve far greater things in ECW, WCW, and the WWF after cutting their teeth here. Given its fairly limited distribution, most of us, myself included, missed out on its heyday, and so had to piece together the memorable storylines, like Bob Armstrong’s win-at-all-costs war to stop Jim Cornette, from grainy VHS footage, clips that were gradually uploaded to YouTube and eventually the WWE network, event summaries posted by fans, and interviews with the wrestlers themselves. But for its bloody authenticity, it was almost like territorial-era fanfiction: this is the way owner and booker Cornette had wished it had been, but eventually realized it never would be again.

It was here that Smothers, arriving draped in his flag, experienced three years of the sort of main event status, genuine headliner status, that he would’vve enjoyed in territories across the South for decades or more, had he broken into the business around the time that Jerry Lawler, Ron Fuller, Robert Fuller, and Dusty Rhodes were getting started. He’d never been given much time on the mic, the “stick” in industry parlance, when he was in WCW, but when he had been, Cornette appreciated the results, fondly recalling one time when Smothers got so steamed he gave out his home address on national television. Here, this wild anger and fearless boasting, this “ring-tailed roaring” that Southern audiences have enjoyed since the “rough-and-tumble” eye gouging circuit of the early 19th century was in full swing. And who better than Smothers, who earlier in his career had been among the last men to wrestle one of the bears in the famous “bear troupe” headlined by the great Ginger (true to form, he never failed to put over and compliment the bear in interviews, noting that it had gone easy on him)?

Smothers entered SMW like a lion, winning match after match against regional vets such as “Dirty” Dutch Mantel, Robert Fuller, and Jimmy Golden, all the while serenading the fans with his trademark “wild-eyed” promos. Entering the ring to the tune of Charlie Daniels Band’s “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” Smothers hopped onto the apron and stepped nimbly through the ropes, then shadowboxed and displayed foot-stomping, competitive “fire” similar to former NWA heavyweight champion Tommy Rich; only commissioner Armstrong seemed to get bigger pops from the crowd with this kind of manic fan-favorite behavior. “His shadow boxing to warm up is legendary,” tweeted C.M. Punk, some of whose earliest matches in the Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South came against Smothers. “I can hear it now if I close my eyes,” he added, a reference to how loud Smothers’ accompanying foot stomps were.

Cornette wisely placed Smothers in an angle with “Dirty White Boy” Tony Anthony—a good long-time Southern worker who, like Smothers, came of age in an era that had so little use for his obvious skills and thick-bellied “country strong” frame that he achieved his greatest notoriety as T.L. Hopper, Vince McMahon’s asscrack-baring “wrestling plumber” whose most notable WWF victory came over garbageman “Dumpster” Droese in a true clash of the working-class titans. But here in Knoxville, the Dirty White Boy was on top, holding the SMW Heavyweight Title and wearing New York Yankees jerseys while talking about how awful the South was.

This was the kind of epic cheap heat that, even as the feud came to fruition in 1993, would’ve blown my 12-year-old mind. How, I wondered even when I watched the likes of the Southern Boys, were these two dudes the “good guys?” And this Dirty White Boy-Southern Boy feud was next-level stuff, with the Dirty White Boy cutting promos simultaneously disparaging the South and managing to mock the crime-ridden state of New York City (as when the Dirty White Boy stuck a pistol in his belt to prepare to go “out on the streets” of NYC). It came to a head, truly unthinkable now, with the Dirty White Boy actually burning the Confederate battle flag and Southern Boy Smothers heroically rebounding from that unspeakable tragedy to defend the South’s honor in a chain match at SMW’s 1993 Bluegrass Brawl.

This match, 30 minutes of blood, guts, and intense storytelling, features just about every spot two men can perform, realistically, when chained together. As such matches go, it equals the Roddy Piper-Greg Valentine dog collar match from a decade prior at Starrcade ‘83, boasting similar intensity but better pacing and intensity. Smothers did some impressive selling, including “crotching himself” after one of his top-turnbuckle moves was interrupted by a yank of the chain, thereby making the Dirty White Boy look more like King Kong than a man who was several inches shorter and a few pounds heavier than he was, before “getting color”—bleeding—in the buckets-of-blood style favored by Southern audiences, seen most recently when Dustin Rhodes turned himself into a bloody mess while fighting brother Cody at AEW’s inaugural Double or Nothing pay-per-view in 2019.

That victory, which gained Smothers the SMW Heavyweight strap, stood him in good stead as he feuded for several more weeks with the Dirty White Boy, a feud that almost certainly ensured he won the Wrestling Observer’s “Most Improved Wrestler” award for 1993. From there, he went around circuit with the towering Brian Lee (best known as WWF’s “Fake Undertaker) and then entering into a series of innovative, if low-tech, ladder matches with stout, muscular rising star Chris Candido, who along with his valet Tammy “Sunny” Sytch, were bound both for bigger things as well as tragic endings, most notably Candido’s premature passing in 2005. The ladders, Cornette noted in his recap of Smothers’ career, were simple A-frames from Lowe’s and Home Depot, not custom-designed two-sided ladders of the sort used in “tables, ladders, and chairs” matches today. Smothers improvised those bouts on the fly, just as he had made one of the first table DDT spots work, when he allowed his head to be smashed through a table in Memphis in 1989 by members of Tojo Yamamoto’s heel stable.

From 1994 to 1995, Smothers would win one-off matches with the likes of Lance Storm, among the finest technical wrestlers of the era and someone who would “go over” Smothers regularly a few years later when both were in ECW, as well as prevail in a feud against heavyset powerhouse Bruiser Bedlam, whom Smothers’ selling abilities made look more fearsome than  even far bigger and more agile bad guys such as Mark Henry or Vader. And Smothers’ last great stint as a main-eventer came when he teamed up with former enemy Dirty White Boy to battle The Gangstas (New Jack and Mustafa Saed), who’d already defeated Smothers and another Armstrong brother, Scott. There, in the course of going over the Gangstas in a series of pinfall victories, Smothers hit upon the “T.H.U.G.” catchphrase he’d use up until the end of his wrestling career: “T is for terrible, H is for hell, U is for ugly and G is for jail because a thug can’t spell!”

Smothers and the Dirty White Boy enjoyed a run with the SMW tag championships, and held their own during an “invasion” angle involving Jerry Jarrett’s Memphis-based USWA promotion. But Cornette couldn’t pay the bills, and despite the T.H.U.G.s having some good matches with Jimmy Del Ray and “Doctor” Tom Prichard, the SMW’s “Heavenly Bodies” and by far their best tag team, all involved parties would soon be looking for new gigs. For the Dirty White Boy that meant becoming a wrestling plumber in the WWF; for Smothers, that meant getting saddled with a strange “Freddie Joe Floyd from Oklahoma” gimmick, an in-joke of the sort Vince McMahon seemed to become obsessed with, this one at the expense of the Briscos—Jack’s real name is Fred Joe Brisco, and Gerald was born Floyd Gerald. Freddie Joe Floyd didn’t do much, aside from scoring a fluke upset on a young John Bradshaw Layfield, then wrestling as John Bradshaw, and winning some throwaway matches against Dutch Mantel, who was working as Uncle Zebekiah. This was a strange time for the WWF, with so many otherwise-unemployed Southern workers wrestling there under weird, off-putting gimmicks, like legendary Southern big man Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy, who arrived much diminished by abuse of his body both inside and outside the ring and found himself wrestling under a hood as “The Executioner.”

Smothers took his losses in stride and headed for the less green but considerably more open pastures of the ECW in 1997. There he was still no better than a middle-of-the-card guy, but he and fellow high-energy Southerner Tommy Rich found themselves part of the Full-Blooded Italiansstable, billed from “Nashville, Italy” and cutting crazy promos that involved Rich and Smothers screaming in their thick accents while trying to learn how to make pizza. Smothers’ role was to give the rising stars of the promotion good matches, similar to what he’d done in WCW on the way out, and he had some good bouts against Taz,Doug Furnasand Phil LaFon, Rob Van Dam, Lance Storm, Balls Mahoney, and many others. He was frequently matched, and frequently on the losing end, of bouts against the now-deceased Axl Rotten; Rotten’s own protege Ian Rotten, who had founded the IWA Mid-Southpromotion in Southern Indiana, began booking Smothers on those shows, too.

There’s a significant amount of archival footage of Smothers from this ECW era, perhaps more than any other, that’s now available on the WWE Network. At the time, he was still quick and capable, but you can see the signs of impending slowdown. He was 37 in 1999 and, although still in good wrestling shape, he looked well into his 40s. He took every bump hard, and gave more than he had to, regardless of the bout or the opponent. And he was double tough: when he got called back to the WWF for the ECW’s 2005 “One Night Stand” nostalgia card, he got in JBL’s face after JBL had taken some liberties with the Blue Meanie—a roly-poly comedy character and anything but a shooter—during a scuffle at the end of the show. But he was also considerate: when a young C.M. Punk didn’t want Smothers to dump the nacho cheese on him that he’d grabbed from a fan, Smothers missed the spot on purpose and dumped it on himself, saving the younger and considerably poorer Punk the indignity of driving home smelling of the stuff.

As his career progressed, Smothers’ opportunities narrowed. He got to break in Chris Hero, Colt Cabana, and C.M. Punk in IWA-MS, but he also wasn’t getting many calls back to the big time, aside from occasional ECW “Hardcore Homecoming” events put on by WWE. Not that there was much big time left for anyone; aside from those ECW reunions and a brief stint in TNA, Smothers had begun to work the new territories, weird outposts like the surprisingly enduring Juggalo Championship Wrestling, where he got by with a lot of “dirt” and “garbage” wrestling, ugly hardcore work of the sort he began doing in ECW. It was bloody and messy, but it wasn’t as hard on the back and knees, increasing concerns as Smothers aged. Anyone can bleed, which is why men from the original Sheik to Dusty Rhodes wrestled for so long, doing so little, and left the sport with such huge ridges in their foreheads. “He made good money,” Jim Cornette said of his career, “But he didn’t make big money.”

Most of Smothers’ later years were spent as a heel, still wearing that Confederate battle flag and now using it to draw cheap heat the way it once drew resounding rebel yells of approbation, still blurting out that T.H.U.G. line of his next to a revolving cast of partners. In that respect, he had some good lines, cheap heat groaners such as “When I take my shirt off, the divorce rate's going to go up in this nothing town” or insults to local high school football teams, particularly if he had played against them in his youth. But Smothers, who had plenty of nagging injuries and enough lingering head damage that he was part of the class of wrestlers represented by Konstantine Kyros in his now-dismissed traumatic brain injury lawsuit against the WWE, was almost certainly groomed to be a good guy. Not just a good guy, but a Southern-fried good guy. He was meant to be the next evolutionary step in what Bob Armstrong had been, just like Armstrong’s two most jacked and athletic sons Brad and Steve were meant to be the next evolutionary step in that same process. All of them were talented, all of them could shout their promos in the “ring-tailed roaring” way Southern fans of Bob had liked them, but that version of the South wasn’t about to rise again.

A friend of mine compared this sort of quintessential Southern worker of the late-1980s, the Southern babyface about to blossom into a real world-beater, to a would-be king of disco who comes of age in 1979 with all the disco skills in the world— skills that beggar those displayed by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever or its sequel Staying Alive. This person could perhaps dance in any number of other venues, could teach others how to dance, could more than hold his own in such places, but the throne they were meant to ascend—the king of disco—was no longer there. It wasn’t a possibility.

Smothers, whose two years of genuine stardom in Smoky Mountain Wrestling paid off everything he had brought to the table, only to see the table cleared prematurely because that era, the original territorial era with all of its regional quirks, was truly past. He spent the rest of his working life putting food back on that table, but never again ate until he was full; and fans like me, still trying to reckon with whatever that dying era in Southern sports history had represented, ended up missing the fullness of what Smothers’ immense, idiosyncratic talent would have represented for it, too.  


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