Legends of Wrestling Roundtable: The Territories
Panel is JR, Hayes, Foley, Tazz and Pat Patterson
Ross quickly explains the territory system with the help of a graphic. All the ones you've heard of are there from Mid-Atlantic (Crockett Promotions), Florida (Eddie Graham), Memphis (Jerry Jarrett), Mid-South (Bill Watts), World Class (Von Erichs), Stampede (Stu Hart), San Francisco (Roy Shire), etc. etc.
Basically these smaller promotions ran their weekly towns and did their own syndicated television shows. If you lived in Dallas, you watched World Class. At the height of the territory system there were 25-30 territories. For the most part they are gone with WWE running the show and TNA in second (albeit not mentioned). The WWE came from the World Wide Wrestling Federation and of course it ran primarily in the Northeast.
(What weekly territory TV did you see? In the panhandle of Florida I saw Mid-South's weekly TV, CWA and WCCW on a weekly basis. Every now and then you'd get a few months of whatever Florida Promotion Dusty and Mike Graham were trying to revive.)
We start with Patterson and Ross asked him what are the fans missing without the territories. Patterson isn't sure if they are missing anything per say but the territories gave the workers a chance to build a closer relationship with the fan because you worked the same cities each week and had to bring something different. You change territories and you have to start over again. Hayes says that the fans aren't really missing anything but the talent is absolutely lacking. The TV shows didn't cross so if you did something that worked in one territory, you could try it with another and see if it worked there.
Ross talks about how The Assassins and The Kentuckians carried their feud to several areas and made plenty of money. Ross asks Foley what the territories did for him. Mick said working the territories helped him get a reputation so when he met Ross in WCW they already knew a lot about him. He said it worked for him because he didn't necessarily look like a star so he had to build an audience somewhere. Hayes cracks a joke about Tony Garea.
Patterson started in Montreal and went to Boston at the age of 19 and didn't speak English, had no money and no contract. No guarantees. Patterson says he was eating crap everyday but he was happy to do it. He says that territories were great for the young guys because that's how they learned back then. Today they learn in schools and it's not the same because everything is formulated. In the territories you just had to go and do it until you got it right (i.e. the crowd responded).
(Clips of Jimmy Snuka's WWWF debut...You would never guess who his daughter is)
Mick's first territory were Memphis and he didn't enjoy it. Mick said one strike against him was that he was college educated and Tazz adds that being from the Northeast was a strike since most of the territories were based in the South. He said that wrestling 5-6 nights a week in the same cities and wrestling the same guy but you couldn't wrestle the same match. He said he helped you ad lib and learn how to wrestle on the fly.
Patterson said the travel in territories could be grueling. He talked about money and said in Boston he made 80-90 bucks a week. He talked about the road life and driving hundreds of miles a day. Ross cracks a joke about while the guys were on the road the bookers would visit their wives. Patterson and Hayes said that every territory had a little faction and they would try to hog the money. Mick said that the good thing was if you couldn't hack it in one area you could move. Nowadays it's a few guys deciding if a guy is going to succeed or not. Mick talks about the Cohasset Tent Tour where Steve Austin couldn't get Jimmy Miranda to make him a t-shirt because the office didn't see any marketing potential in him (oops). Mick's point is that if that conversation happened back in the day Stone Cold could move on and find his place in another area whereas today these unfinished products have one chance to succeed in a WWE ring and if it doesn't work they don't have many places to rebound and save their careers. Taz says it's too bad because some guys develop and evolve different than other. Mick says that Austin had eight years in the business before he got to WWF and Mick had 11 years and even then it was a tough sell.
(Clips of Mankind's infamous long-form interview with Jim Ross which was sort of the turning point in his career with the promotion. If you've never seen it it's a great series that put Mankind, Dude Love and Cactus Jack in play for WWF television)
What happened to the territories JR asks? Well duh, Michael Hayes says Vince bought them all. To Vince's credit he offered working agreements but people didn't think he'd be successful so he ran over them. Well how did he do that? He would see what the territories were paying for weekly TV shots and offer much more money for the same slot that the territories couldn't match and boom they are eventually swallowed up without TV. Hayes said that it took a while for Vince's version of wrestling to catch on in the south.
(Clips of "Black Saturday". That was fun...for me to poop on!)
Tazz talks about training with Johnny Rodz and he was working independents because when he broke in the territories were disappearing. He did work a little in Memphis and Smoky Mountain and with the Savoldis in New England. He worked a lot and it helped him get better. He said ECW was the last territory in the industry. They worked the same towns and we were bonded but they had no where else to go. Ross said the original ECW was successful because the fans grew with the talents.
Hayes said that Paul Heyman helped with the bonding process and he motivated those guys to do anything to make ECW last.
After a commercial we talk about the AWA. Patterson loved it but hated the winters. Hayes hated working for Verne. Verne loved traditional wrestling and Patterson fit that mold but Hayes wasn't an amateur shooter (Hayes: Well I was but I always hid that). Hayes talked about the unwritten rule between promoters to where they had their area and that was their area and no one could cross it. Ross said he never understood that rule and talks about World Class. Hayes said the WCCW wasn't hot until the Freebirds got there. Patterson says back in the day Texas was not a good territory because of the car rides. Hayes explains what he meant by saying that the Freebirds were the first young talents to challenge the Von Erichs before that Fritz's boys were getting the rub from older wrestlers in the twilight of their careers.
(Clips of a Von Erich vs. Freebirds match with Hayes, Roberts and Jimmy Garvin as the 'Birds. FYI Hayes and Garvin teamed up throughout most of the 80s. The were a face team for a few months in 88 but before that they were a team in the AWA in the mid 80s and before that occasionally teamed in the WCCW. In later episodes they really spotlight the Garvin-Freebirds relationship. Kevin Von Erich had some crazy in-ring charisma.)
Patterson (now with cigarette in hand) said that if you could work in a main event the WWWF was the best territory bar none. Patterson said that during the winters the workers wanted to go to Florida or San Francisco because of the weather and even if they made a little less it was nice to not be in the cold. Patterson explains how nice San Francisco was because the trips were short and you got home every night. He compared that to Texas where the drives suck. Ross said when he started in the mid-70s that it was all about trying to get to Florida. Patterson said that was because the best teachers were there and they worked with the talent.
(Awesome clips of Pat Patterson training Hulk Hogan in the late 70s.)
Hayes said that the issue with Florida is only Eddie Graham and Dusty drew money. Patterson agreed but he said it was still great for young workers because either you listened to Eddie or you got shipped out.
(Clips of a Dusty Rhodes-Harley Race match from the Florida territory. Dusty won the match at the NWA title but it was overturned I believe...Gordon Solie was on the call. The minute he made the pin the crowd rushed the ring. It was a cool scene.)
Ross brings up the Mid-Atlantic territory and Crockett Promotions. They ran from Virginia down through the Carolinas. It was a big-time territory but Patterson said everyone was bitching about the trips. Patterson said generally the underneath guys were paid to do the driving and that with hotel costs could take much of the money the guys made for the night. Ross said Ric Flair because the Nature Boy in Mid Atlantic. He brings up the great names from Mid Atlantic and Patterson said that Mid Atlantic was great because they had good bookers and teachers to bring young guys along.
(Clips of a Ric Flair-Jack Brisco match from Mid-Atlantic. I think I have this match on a DVD, it's pretty great if I can remember although I hate when guys win with a backslide.)
Patterson explains how the underneath guys or maybe a referee would drive the talent and charge them 2-3 cents a mile per wrestler. The smart ones would pack coolers with sandwiches and drinks and they would sell them food as well. Ross asks Patterson if he ever worked Stampede and Patterson said hell no, the winters suck. Ross talked about how cheap Stu Hart was but they learned their craft off Broadway. Mick talks about promos and how the guys had to just wing it and learn how to talk people into the building.
(Clips of an AWA TV show with Gene Okerlund interviewing Pat Patterson and Ray Stevens. Both of them look like they are heading to Hooters for beer and wings.)
Patterson tells a story about Don Owen forcing Patterson to cut a promo while working the Oregon territory in the early 60s. Patterson couldn't speak much english so he had to wing it. Hayes talks about going to OVW (back when they had it) and talked about telling the developmental kids how disappointed he was in their promos. He said some guys who couldn't work could still sell places out based on their abilities to talk. Tazz talks about how his gimmick was that he didn't talk until one day his manager Paul Heyman handed him a mic in an ad-lib. (Tazz's words: Fonzie must die.) Heyman said Tazz snapped at him afterwards and used the energy and intensity that ley him know he was eventually going to be one of the best interviews in the sport.
Mick said he wasn't allowed to talk early because he was supposed to be from New Mexico but still used words that made it clear he was from New York. He tells a funny story about how he and his partner "Gorgeous" Gary Young were faces and cutting a promo on Jimmy Golden and Robert Fuller and calling them "Tennessee hillbillies" while Mick is thinking "our viewing audience is nothing but Tennessee hillbillies."
Ross talks about Montreal (geez, someone's obsessioned) and says in the old days what happened in Montreal was commonplace. Mick says he doesn't think Bret was asked to do the right thing. Patterson says he was. Mick says he just didn't want to do it with Shawn, Patterson said it didn't matter. Patterson said he was the one who got screwed in Montreal because he was in charge of that match and he never knew what was going to happen (Wow). Hayes said he was in Georgia in 1981 when Tommy Rich was going to screw over Harley Race for the NWA title and Hayes said he was scared shitless. Hayes also said that was what was kind of cool about the territories. And they were all marks for the Apter mags because that's how you learned about the new acts that were created a buzz. Hayes says even to this day Vince has some regrets that he depleted the avenues to find new talent.
(I've brought this up in many discussions. What's the WWE going to do to fix this void, presumably when Triple H takes over full operations. They have to figure out a way create some territories and give the talent better chances to succeed. Obviously they can't run them the old way because syndicated television isn't what it is but with YouTube and the internet in general there's plenty of ways to get territory-based TV shows out to the public. I think about the way some of the guys talk about Shelton Benjamin and I think about guys like Ted DiBiase Jr. that can work but clearly couldn't find a place in the WWE without some more work. They should be able to be sent to a few places to get the necessary work and time needed to find out what can work a crowd best.)
Ross this says the issue with territories is there were managed by wrestlers but Vince was a marketing guy. Ross said that years ago that Vince had made a big run and a lot of old promoters met in Kansas City. He was there with Bill Watts and he heard from the bathroom that the promoters wondered why they were meeting about Vince McMahon when they could just kill him. (The way Ross tells the story about his ass tightening up is fucking hilarious) Tazz says a lot of the promoters were thieves and scumbags. They all agree that territories had their major role in wrestling and they are generally missed.
The Bottom Line: This remains one of my 2 or 3 favorite episodes. I've watched it about a dozen times and always learn something new. Tremendous storytelling from the guys here.