MATT BOURNE… HARLEY RACE, WAHOO…Tough Guys…

My sympathies go out to the family of Matt Bourne.  Matt was the original Doink in WWE and had a successful career in other territories prior to that.

Matt was an excellent amateur wrestler and as the son of a famous pro wrestler, he was a natural in the ring.  I knew Matt for over 20 years.  We shared some good times.  I’ve seen Matt do things that if I wasn’t there to witness for myself, I wouldn’t believe it…

There’s stories I can share; others I can’t but Matt was one of the boys and could take care of himself.

Elton Owen promoted Eugene Oregon and loved to get “shooters” or “real” wrestlers in the territory. He wanted to see two shooters go at it for the first minute of a match and had a special trophy for the champion.  He paid the winner an extra $20 and the loser got $15.  When I first got to Portland, Buddy Rose and Curt Hennig pulled me aside and told me about Elton. I already heard stories and knew some of the idiosyncrasies  he possessed,  but I soon found out how understated they really were!

The first words out of Elton’s mouth was “Can you shoot?” Not “How ya doin’ kid.  Where ya from?”  Buddy told me to tell him I was a shooter and it would be cool.  I did and immediately thought there’s no way I can pull off being a shooter in a crew like Matt Bourne, Curt Hennig and Scott Ferris.  Now THOSE guys were the real deal!

For whatever reason (a rib no doubt) I became the shooting champion in Elton’s towns.  Curt had been the undefeated champ but he was leaving and Elton needed to find a new, hungry young shooter so I became the obvious choice! Yeah right… Inevitably it was going to happen – I’m scheduled to wrestle Matt and Elton wants to see a “shoot.”  I told Matt I was going to put him over and his response was “The HELL you are!” Matt said just sit out and reverse everything he does for that minute and everything will be fine.  I just knew there was no way we were going to fool Elton. Matt had been a star amateur wrestler in Oregon his entire life and I was not…

Matt made me look like a million bucks and Elton bought it!  At least he appeared to buy it.  He gave me the extra $20 and Matt $15.  The guys split the difference anyway so if you were in the ‘shoot of the night’ you and your opponent made an extra $15.  This was 1984 and it helped with gas or buying beer on the way home.

I recounted some stories about Matt from Oregon several blogs back.  I felt we were always on good terms.  Matt was a tough guy and at times could be mis-percieved or mis-understood.  I don’t think anyone was perfect or an angel back then but I can’t remember ever having a cross word.

RIP Matt. You will be missed.

I got my first look at professional wrestling growing up in El Paso in the 1960’s.  There were no MMA or tough men contests back then. Pro wrestlers were supposed to be some of the ‘toughest men on earth!’ As a kid watching on TV, I had to agree the wrestlers I saw were pretty tough.  Some of the greatest wrestlers in the world came through West Texas and became superstars later on.  As the years went by and I became a student of the game I learned about the influence people like Dory Funk Sr. and Eddie Graham had in the wrestling world.  It made perfect sense that a guy like Harley Race would cut his teeth in Texas.

One of the first live cards I went to at the El Paso Coliseum had Harley against Nick Kozak.  They went to a ten minute draw and it was a hellova match.  Harley was billed as Handsome Harley Race but soon became Mad Dog Harley Race after his behavior became more erratic.

After Chati Yakuchi broke a brick with a karate chop on an interview, Harley took one half of the brick and bashed his forehead with it until he was split open.  Yeah, he was tough.  Or crazy.  Or both…

I watched Harley come off a 15-foot ladder onto Grizzly Smith’s throat and “end his career.” My family was moving to Houston around that  time and come to find out Johnny Valentine had ended Griz’s career in Houston by coming off the second rope with an elbow across his throat.

Grizzly Smith had a cast iron stomach and challenged anybody to break him.  Those dastardly heels Race and Valentine did just that!

It also opened my eyes that maybe there was a lot more to pro wrestling than meets the eye.

Harley Race was a tough guy.  No doubt about that in my eyes.  I thought all wrestlers had to be tough just to deal with the lifestyle.

I had the pleasure of spending a few days at Harley’s house outside of Eldon, Mo during a camp with Les Thatcher years ago.  Harley and  wife BJ along with Les and his wife Alice and I went out on the lake and had a great time.  We were telling stories and I got to ask Harley about many legendary stories and folklore throughout the years.

One story I wanted to ask about was the time the Lawman Don Slatton tried to steal the world championship in Abilene.  Slatton was the promoter as well as a legend in west Texas.  He booked a Russian Chain Match as the main event for the World Heavyweight championship between himself and the champion, Harley Race.

In the days before WWE being the dominant organization, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) boasted of having the longest lineage to the real world championship.  Anyone who held the title during that time would travel from territory to territory defending the belt.  Prior to the match against Slatton, Harley got a call from then president Bob Giegel telling him to watch his back because the Lawman was looking to steal the title.

Harley assured Giegel that no such thing would ever take place, much less attempted.

Both men were to be chained together at the wrist by a 10 foot chain. The only way to win  is to drag your opponent around the ring and touch all four corners in succession. This was the Lawman’s specialty match and had never lost one!  No problem. They would do something where the champ squeezed by.  But it was the wild, wild west in those days and sure enough Don Slatton tried to pull a fast one by saying he simply ‘forgot’ what was supposed to happen.

When the time came for the finish to take place Slatton ‘slipped’ and it looked as though he touched all four corners, therefore winning the match and the world title.  Harley wasn’t that stupid and even though Slatton had immediately taken the chain off his wrist and gone back to the dressing room, Harley went through the crowd, kicked in the door and drug Don Slatton through the people and threw him back in the ring. He then proceeded to wrap the chain around him and touched all four corners so there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who was the world champion.

About a year later Harley was back in Texas for another two week run and ran into Slatton again.  The Lawman had a belt made in the mold of the NWA title that said “World Champion Chain Wrestler.” Harley got wind of it and went in Slatton’s bag and took it with him when he left the territory.  I don’t think there were too many people who wanted to try Harley Race in or out of the ring.  There was nothing anyone could do to get Harley to return Slatton’s belt.  Don tried talking him out of taking it by saying it “cost him a lot of money.”  But after the BS he pulled before, Harley had no sympathy.

Fast forward a few years. Houston TX, Sam Houston Coliseum.  NWA World Champion Harley Race is facing Wahoo McDaniel in an Indian strap match. Both men strapped together this time by 10 feet of rawhide.  The winner must drag his opponent around the ring and touch all four corners.  Sound familiar?

This time the NWA sent Pat O’Connor to Houston as a special referee to insure nothing screwy happened.  Wahoo was leaving the territory after being the booker and my source told me he was in a foul mood for weeks.  Wahoo and Harley worked together many times before but the landscape was constantly changing and paranoia was always present within the NWA hierarchy.

During the match Wahoo gave Harley a suplex and the ring broke.  Wahoo covered the champ and told O’Connor to count.  Pat refused, so Wahoo took Harley to a corner, tied him up with the strap and told him to “stay here!”

I wasn’t there but I was told Wahoo walked up to O’Connor and punched him right in the nose!  Pat returned a punch of his own and the damndest fight took place until wrestlers from the back ran out and pulled them apart. Both had to be kept apart in the dressing room as they were cussing, spitting and threatening each other.  I was told the fans left happy after seeing the ring break and then the aftermath with Wahoo and Pat O’Connor.  That was one of those rare occurrences when something happened organically and turned out much better than what might have been planned.

Harley Race is one of many professional wrestlers I admired through the years. He convinced me and many others that he was one of the “toughest men on God’s green earth!”  Screw jobs were around long before Montreal. Even in this day and age you never know what’s going to happen.  Everybody thinks they’re smart and knows what’s happening.

Just when you got the answers, they change the questions…

Thanks for reading

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