When wrestling fans think about “screw jobs” or “double crosses” I would venture to say that Montreal, Shawn Michaels and Brett Hart immediately come to mind. Certainly in this day and age the Montreal screw job or double cross is the most famous for a number of reasons.
A film crew was following Brett around during what was to be Brett’s last days in WWE before going to work for WCW, and crucial elements were taped and shown in the movie “Beyond the Mat.” Of course this incident led to one of the most profitable times in WWE history and changed the dynamics of how Vince McMahon was now viewed not only by the wrestlers in his company, but the fans that bought the product. Most viewers knew Vince McMahon as an announcer and of course the owner of WWE but now he had done something so blatant and dishonorable to a loyal employee of his and made it clear that he was justified in his actions. He didn’t screw Brett; “Brett screwed Brett!”
History shows the Montreal screw job changed professional wrestling and changed the lives of the players involved forever. The question continues to be asked; Was it all a work or not? Only those who were a part of that historic event know for sure.
Reality can be stranger than fiction sometimes.
I was amazed at how many “world champions” there were at one time in pro wrestling. Before television, the carnivals would criss cross the country claiming someone as “The Greatest or Strongest in the World!” and who was going to dispute it? There was no way to really verify if the guy in the ring was the European champion, or the “most decorated wrestler in Croatia,” or if in fact he was a real live, bonafide Indian off the reservation!
Eventually, a conglomerate of promoters banded together to form the National Wrestling Alliance. They stepped in and agreed to recognize one world champion that would go from territory to territory and be a credible and respected champion to represent the ‘sport’ and bring credibility to the prestigious NWA. Historians can discuss all day long how the National Wrestling Alliance and National Wrestling Association became one and all the fragmented pieces, championships and promotions came and went. But along the way, there were more than one or two “screw jobs” or in the following case, “attempted screw jobs.”
Harley Race is one of the most respected men in this business. As an eight time NWA world champion, Harley delivered a main event, world championship match every time he stepped in the ring. The world champion’s job was to come in and work with the top guy in the territory and make that guy look like a world beater. Harley was a legit tough guy and one of the greatest NWA champions ever. He held the NWA title when it meant something; traveling to a new place every night, working with the very best the local promotion had to offer at the time. While Harley’s opponent wasn’t necessarily consider a top guy anywhere else, by the time the match was over the fans believed their local hero was a “contender.” Harley kept his credibility but he knew how to make his opponent look better and kept the world championship credible and in tact at the same time.
Considering many times Harley would be meeting his opponent for the first time the night of the match and have to go anywhere from 30-60 minutes in the ring and make the match interesting and creative, that was no small task! That’s also why Harley was given the responsibility of carrying the championship for so long. He was a legitimate tough guy who understood the business and knew how to work and take care of business if need be.
I had the pleasure of staying at Harley’s house many years ago, along with Les Thatcher while doing an evaluation camp. I’d met Harley during my days working with Paul Boesch in the office and ran into him through my years wrestling in various territories. He and his wife B.J. were living on the lake near Eldon, Missouri and I was transported back to that kid who watched Harley in his early years in El Paso and later as a young rookie breaking into the business, hearing all the stories.
I’ve learned “real” tough guys don’t talk about how tough they are. But there’s plenty of stories about how tough Harley was before, during and after his title reigns and I was ready to ask him about a couple good ones I heard over the years.
Out on the lake, Harley, Les and I were talking and I brought up a story that was somewhat folklore in the business and I wanted to know the real story from the man himself. We talked about a lot that day but this particular story involved a man named “The Lawman” Don Slatton.
Don Slatton was famous for bring Billy Sol Estes to justice and was in fact a deputy, sheriff or some kind of well known law enforcement officer around Abilene, Texas. The Lawman usually came to the ring wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and white jeans. He was billed as “The King of the Chain Matches” and it seemed like no matter what kind of match he was in, he always ended up a bloody mess.
The Lawman was the promoter in Abilene and during one of Harley’s tours as champion in the Amarillo territory, Don Slatton booked himself in the main event against the world champion in a Russian Chain Match!
The “King of the Chain Match” Lawman Don Slatton VS. The World Heavyweight Champion, Harley Race. Russian Chain Match Rules! No Disqualifications, No count outs, the ONLY way to win is to drag your opponent around the ring and touch all four corners consecutively! No stopping for blood! MUST BE A WINNER!
Well, as far as anybody in Abilene knew, The Lawman was “undefeated” in over 400 chain matches and the odds were definitely in his favor! The promos, newspaper ads leading up to the match did it’s job and the night of the match saw a turn away crowd.
I’ve heard this story from numerous people through the years but now I’m hearing it straight from the guy who was in the middle of it all. Harley said he got a call from Bob Giegel (NWA president at the time) asking if he was working with Don Slatton in a chain match that night. When Harley informed Bob that he was, Giegel told Harley not to do it because they got word that Slatton was looking to double cross Harley and take the title using “chain match rules.” Harley told Giegel not to worry about anything like that happening. Slatton would never try anything like that. Surely he wasn’t that stupid! So Bob told Harley to just watch himself and be aware that it was a possibility.
Harley got to the show that night and the dressing rooms were on opposite sides of the building, which meant the referee would be delivering messages back and forth. The match was set where a heel would come out for a distraction just as Slatton was about to get to the last corner and then Terry Funk would come from the opposite dressing room to make the save. In all the commotion, Harley would do something to Slatton, knock him out and touch all four corners, retaining the world championship.
Apparently all was going as planned, with Slatton dragging Harley around the ring touching three corners along the way and the crowd anticipating their local hero about to become the new champ when suddenly a heel came from one dressing room (Harley couldn’t remember who) and Terry Funk came out to stop the interference. At that point instead of letting the moment play out and have Harley stop him, The Lawman continued and touched the fourth corner! The crowd erupted thinking they just saw a title change!
The Lawman took the chain off his wrist and immediately made his way back to the dressing room with Terry Funk while Harley stood in the ring with the crowd still going crazy!
Harley knew he’d been had and was pissed! He made his way through the crowd, with the chain still on his wrist and went back to the babyface dressing room, kicked the door open and found Don Slatton hiding in the shower. Harley said he backhanded him twice and drug him to the ring, punched him out and drug him around the ring touching all four corners in front of a capacity crowd that wasn’t quite sure what they were witnessing. After Harley touched all four corners, he made sure the ring announcer made it clear to everyone in the building that “the winner, and STILL world heavyweight champion was Harley Race!”
Once Harley was declared the winner, he went back to his locker room but was so mad he decided to go back to the other side of the building again and kick the door in, looking for Don Slatton. But the room was empty. Harley kicked a few chairs, went back to his dressing room, showered and left.
Almost a year later, Harley said he was back in the Amarillo territory again and sure enough, The Lawman was still there. Harley noticed a belt on the bench of the dressing room that said “World Champion Chain Wrestler.” He picked it up as Don Slatton walked in. Harley said he looked at him and said “You won’t be needing this” as he took it and put it in the trunk of his car.
He said Slatton begged him not to take it as it cost him a lot of money to have made, but Harley didn’t care. He tried to screw the world heavyweight champion and it backfired on him. I don’t know how much longer The Lawman was involved in promoting Abilene after that. I heard he and the Funks had a falling out and Abilene pretty much dried up as a regular stop in the territory. Trying to pull a fast one on the world champion didn’t do him any favors, I’m sure.
This wasn’t the only time somebody tried to take matters into their own hands in the ring and that’s one reason for years a pre-requisite to holding the world championship was knowing how to handle yourself in the ring in case anybody tried to get cute and steal the title. The great thing about this day and age is the amount of books and coverage there is on the history of the business, promoters and various unscrupulous elements that were prevalent back then.
The wrestling business has come such a long way from the carny days and evolved into ‘sports entertainment.’ For those who are students of the game, there’s so much information out there to look up if for no other reason than to see how fortunate the guys and girls are today. There were not so many guaranteed contracts or payoffs back then. You got paid off the what the house drew that night, usually in cash in a small envelope. Some guys had a deal or agreement with a promoter when they came in, but if they didn’t draw they didn’t stay long.
The Lawman VS. Harley Race chain match in Abilene set the stage for a match many years later in Houston. It was an Indian strap match involving Wahoo McDaniel and Harley Race for the world championship. Pat O’Connor became the special referee by the end of the night. When I heard this story, my mind flashed back to The Lawman and the Russian Chain Match. That’s for another blog, another time.
Thanks for reading.