On March 4th, one of the greatest professional wrestling promoters in history succumbed to liver and kidney failure after battling through a bout of COVID-19. Jim Crockett Jr. was a brilliant promoter with an eye for talent whose unique insight for understanding the human condition helped shape the professional wrestling landscape of 2021. For more than a generation, WWE has tried to bend the narrative of professional wrestling history and erase Crockett’s name and legacy. Renewed interest in the 80’s wrestling boom has brought new life to Crockett and the JCP’s contributions.
It’s impossible to examine Crockett’s life without comparing him to his rival, Vince McMahon. McMahon has a bold and boisterous personality. Crockett was mild-mannered. McMahon became a fixture on WWWF television in 1971 and still appears from time-to-time. Crockett rarely appeared on JCP broadcasts. The two were born only one year apart. Both were named after their fathers, who were legendary territory promoters in the own right. Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic territory bordered McMahon Capitol Wrestling Corporation (the forerunner to WWE), which was based in Washington DC.
Both the younger Crockett and McMahon were from North Carolina, but this is where similarities end. Crockett grew up wealthy in Charlotte. While McMahon, who wouldn’t meet his father until he was twelve, spent his youth abused by his stepfather in a trailer park near Pinehurst. McMahon decided at a young age to follow his father into wrestling. Though Crockett worked in the family business, he had no intentions of running the promotion that shared his name until his father’s untimely death in 1973.
When Jim Crockett Sr. died, the family rallied to protect their wrestling promotion and the minor league baseball team. Initially, the elder Crockett decided that Jim Ringley, the husband of his daughter Frances, would run the company. Ringley was a salesman with a bold attitude and ideas for completely reshaping the promotion. Under Ringley, the decision was made to shift the territory from its focus on tag team wrestling into something closer to Eddie Graham’s Florida company with big-name talents. However, after a divorce from Frances, Ringley was out. Jim Jr. was thrust into a leadership position and shouldered responsibility for saving the family business.
Crockett learned from his father how to promote events but understood the need for a creative mind to help continue reshaping the territory. Crockett hired George Scott as booker, and under their leadership, JCP flourished. The promotion added major names like Wahoo McDaniel, Johnny Valentine, Blackjack Mulligan, and Paul Jones. The company also became known for the young talent who first made their name in the Carolinas, like Jerry Brisco, Rick Steamboat, and Ric Flair.
Instead of costly regional TV taping in Charlotte, Greenville, SC, and High Point, NC, Crockett consolidated to film one show, dubbed Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, taped at WRAL Studios in Raleigh. The master tape was syndicated to stations around the Carolinas and Virginia. The mix of dramatic storylines and athletic matches was a hit. By 1975, JCP added World Wide Wrestling as a secondary program. In 1978, they added a third program, The Best of NWA Wrestling, where beloved babyface Johnny Weaver and a guest would breakdown matches in an Xs and Os style presentation.
As the 70s wore on, the Mid-Atlantic show grew in popularity. The territory expanded into West Virginia and east Tennessee. A decade earlier, this move would have caused trouble. With the changing face of television and Crockett’s election to NWA President in 1980, the conglomeration looked past the encroachment. That same year, Georgia Championship Wrestling with booker Ole Anderson, thanks to its position on Superstation TBS, became the country’s most famous wrestling program. Crockett hired Anderson to book his territory, and the two promotions became intertwined, often sharing talent.
As NWA President, Crockett pushed hard for JCP’s top-draw, Flair, to become NWA Champion, and on September 17th, 1981, Flair beat Dusty Rhodes to his first of 17 World titles. Crockett controlled Flair’s bookings as NWA Champion but always made sure to feature Flair prominently on his syndicated programs and TBS. Under Crockett, Flair went from being the prince of Mid-Atlantic to the face of the NWA. In 1983, Crockett cemented that role as Flair won his second championship over Harley Race at the first Starrcade, a transformative wrestling event broadcast on closed-circuit televisions across the territory. The event served as an inspiration for Wrestlemania.
Legend says Vince McMahon pushed his Northeast promotion nationally, driving all the territories out of business. This is an oversimplification. The GCW show (renamed World Championship Wrestling) became popular enough in Ohio. Ole Anderson, breaking with NWA tradition, decided to run shows in the market. At the same time, Joe Blanchard’s Southwest Championship Wrestling became a staple on the USA Network.
Crockett’s successful syndicated show was picked up by the struggling Maple Leaf Wrestling promotion in Toronto. This allowed Crockett to book his talent and events in Canada under the MLW banner. However, when promoter Frank Tunney died, his nephew, Jack, shifted its allegiance to McMahon and the WWF. Wrestling in syndication and cable became an arms race, one that Crockett was ready to fight.
Under new booker Dusty Rhodes, JCP rebranded itself from the regional sounding Mid-Atlantic to the NWA, even if the actual NWA was a conglomeration instead of a single territory. In 1984, the WWF bought Georgia Championship Wrestling from under Ole Anderson and began promoting their shows under the WCW banner.
This became a disaster for TBS. Ratings plummeted, forcing network owner Ted Turner to give time slots to Anderson’s new promotion, Championship Wrestling from Georgia, and Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling. The Watts show became the highest-rated wrestling program on cable TV, beating the Hulk Hogan-led WWF show. Neither McMahon nor Turner was happy. To the surprise of everyone, Crockett offered to buy the show from McMahon, who reluctantly agreed.
JCP and Anderson’s group merged, and the World Championship Wrestling show became the hottest program on cable TV. Saturday Nights at 6:05 were the hub for fans who found McMahon’s offering to be too cartoony. Crockett and Rhodes’ brain trust created a national promotion that was a real alternative to the WWF. McMahon’s top-star was a larger-than-life superhero, while JCP’s was the epitome of 80s greed and indulgence. While fans watched WWF to cheer Hulk Hogan, they watched WCW to boo Ric Flair.
Rhodes, the everyman American Dream, became the foil for the vile Flair, who teamed with Ole Anderson, his kayfabe brother Arn and Tully Blanchard to form the legendary Four Horseman. With TBS as the driver on cable and World Wide and Mid-Atlantic in syndication, JCP embarked on the ambitious Great American Bash. The 1985 Bash was JCP’s challenge to Wrestlemania, a closed-circuit event featuring an hour concert from country singer David Allen Coe and the main event between Rhodes and Blanchard. The following year, JCP took the Bash on the road hitting major stadiums across the nation with a mix of southern rasslin’ and country music. The Bash was a success.
Crockett needed more television outlets to promote a tour like the Bash and with cable penetration being still being low. In the old territory days, stations paid promoters to film shows for cheap content. McMahon inverted the idea and would pay stations to run his program, hoping to make up the difference when the WWF would run house shows in the market. Crockett, as NWA president, couldn’t operate the same way. Instead, JCP purchased struggling territories and their TV deals, absorbing them into the company. Both methods were costly.
Crockett understood the appeal of the WWF’s Hulk Hogan. Though Flair was an excellent draw, the company understood the need to build a rival other than Rhodes. They needed a young, charismatic champion that would embody the rough-and-tumble spirit of the South. They choose Magnum TA. Born Terry Allen, Magnum had looks, charisma, and a no-nonsense attitude. The kids adored Hogan, but teenagers, girls, in particular, loved Magnum TA. After a star-making performance in the I Quit match against Tully Blanchard at Starrcade 85, Magnum was poised to take the NWA World title from Flair at Starrcade 86, setting him up as the top star for the next decade. That would never come, as Allen suffered a near-fatal car wreck that left portions of his body paralyzed.
Without Magnum TA, Crockett pivoted, turning Russian villain Nikita Koloff into a good guy. However, after two-years of Dusty vs. the Horseman, fans and the wrestlers themselves grew tired. 1987 was a challenging year for JCP. To keep up with McMahon, the promotion pushed into new markets, some of which struggled. The WWF stayed true to its base in the Northeast, treating Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden as special events. While Crockett moved major events like Starrcade out of the Carolinas and into Chicago, a town they promptly killed by doing a bait-n-switch finish with the Road Warriors and the NWA tag titles.
Complicating matters was JCP’s purchase of Bill Watts’ renamed UWF promotion. The initial idea was to keep the UWF and NWA separate and run joint events promoted as the Super Bowl of wrestling. That didn’t happen. Instead, Watts’ major stars like Jim Duggan, Ted DiBiase, and The One-Man Gang left for the WWF. The depleted UWF roster was then booked as inferior talents to the NWA crew. The experiment was a creative disaster, but the real nightmare was the amount of debt JCP inherited with the purchase of the UWF.
The spending woes continued as Crockett moved his headquarters from a converted shopping center in Charlotte to an office building in Dallas. The company also purchased a second private jet at a time when grosses began to sink. JCP could not find a new top babyface after the injury to Magnum TA. Rhodes seemed burnt out as a booker, as he relied too heavily on the same formula and the same bait-n-switch finishes. Plus, the company continued to focus on promoting towns where they didn’t have a strong foothold. Sometimes it worked, as in the case of Dusty and Big Bubba Rogers setting attendance records in the WWF-stronghold of Pittsburgh. Sometimes it didn’t, like the failed Bunkhouse Stampede pay-per-view.
By 1988, JCP’s debt was too much to ignore, and Crockett had no choice but to sell to Ted Turner, who didn’t want to lose TBS’s highest-rated show. Crockett was promised a consulting role in the new WCW but was let go one month into the deal. A non-compete clause in the contract kept Crockett out of pro wrestling until 1994. Jim Crockett planned to return to wrestling in a big way that year with his own World Wrestling Network promotion. The original WWN was to have a top-roster and would be headed-up by one of the most brilliant young booking minds of the era, Paul Heyman. However, the funding never came together, and the WWN died. Seeing what Heyman did with ECW, it isn’t hard to envision what that promotion would have looked like.
In the end, over-spending killed Jim Crockett Promotions. In a twist of irony, the struggling shows Crockett ran in 88 were far more successful than most of what most WCW would do until 1996. Jim Crockett’s fatal flaw in business was trust. He put too much faith in Rhodes’ creative vision and didn’t do enough to hold him back when it was necessary. He had too much trust in the accountant, who didn’t let Crockett know of the company’s financial sorrow until they were more than two million dollars in debt. However, Jim Crockett should be remembered for his insight as a promoter. The only promoter who challenged Vince McMahon during his meteoric rise to the top.
World Championship Wrestling, the television show Crockett made famous, is fondly looked back as the best product of its era. His creative DNA still runs through much of today’s product. AEW frequently showcases Blanchard and Arn Anderson, while Cody Rhodes clearly draws inspiration from JCP.
Ironically, the last vestige of Jim Crockett Promotions lies in the WWE where the United States Title, a belt born in the Carolina’s, rests around Matt Riddle’s waist.