A Perfect Episode: How Bill Watts and Bill Dundee Created The Best TV Show in the 80s

Pro Wrestling and television were made for each other. Going back to the DuMont days and Gorgeous George, the two were a perfect fit. In the early days of cable TV, territorial pro wrestling was a great, cheap content source. Stations needed programming, and wrestling (not just Vince McMahon’s WWF) was ready to break into the national scene. In 1984, it wasn’t just the WWF making waves. The Von Erich’s led World Class to syndicated stations across the country in Texas, while Ole Anderson’s Georgia-based World Championship Wrestling program was already a staple on TBS. But the most compelling, and at one point highest-rated show came out of a three-state territory that might not be thought of as a traditional wrestling hotbed. Bill Watts’ Mid South Wrestling was producing some of the best, serialized programming that would influence wrestling programming for generations.

Under Watts, who bought part of the old Tri-State territory from former partner-turned-rival Leroy Mcguirk before taking the entire thing, Mid South exploded. At the time, Watts made the highly charismatic Sylvester Ritter, who he christened The Junkyard Dog, his top star, and the results were undeniable. After selling out the Superdome with Freebird Michael PS Hayes in 1980, the Dog was called the King of New Orleans. Feuds with Ted DiBiase’s Ratpack helped keep the territory hot. However, by the fall of 1983, the formula had gotten a tad stale. After drawing only 8,000 people to New Orleans Lake Front Arena show where JYD faced Butch Reed, the hot team of Magnum TA and Mr. Wrestling II took on the Road Warriors, with Kevin and Kerry Von Erich on the show, along with Dusty Rhodes. With all that star power, Mid South was struggling to draw.

After a conversation with Jerry Jarrett, whose Memphis territory was booming, Jarrett suggested spicing up Watts’ shows with a hint of formula. The feud between manager Jimmy Hart and Jerry Lawler had proven to be a consistent hit, as Hart could use multiple wrestlers against the King (including actor Andy Kaufman). Jarrett also suggested adding a young babyface tag team that would appeal to female fans. The Fabulous Ones (Stan Lee and Steve Keirn as essentially Chippendales dancers) were a hit in Memphis. Watts built his territory on rough-n-tumble tough guys. Burly bruisers with legitimate athletic backgrounds similar to Watts. No one on the Mid South roster would’ve been a candidate for Tiger Beat magazine of the era. 

Watts brought in Memphis-mainstay Bill Dundee to book his promotion to implement these changes. Dundee had a long history with Lawler and wanted the chance to show his creative mind. Along with Dundee, Jarrett and Watts negotiated a trade of sorts. King Kong Bundy, Jim Neidhart, and Rick Rude went to Memphis. Coming with Dundee was an undercard tag team of Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson. Without the Fabs, the Rock n Roll Express, with the speed and wholesome looks, become a quick favorite in Mid South, a completely different demographic, teenage girls. But every hero needs a villain. Veteran heels Bobby Eaton and Dennis Condrey were teamed together as the Midnight Express with a twenty-two-year-old manager who started in Memphis the year before. Without the long shadow of Jimmy Hart, Jim Cornette quickly became the most despised man on Mid-South TV. For a good reason, Cornette is entirely unlikable.

With top heels Ted DiBiase and Jim Duggan heading out of the territory and JYD splitting time between Mid South and World Class, Dundee took the opportunity to set the deck. The territory’s top tag team, Magnum TA and Mr. Wrestling II, were built around the idea of the veteran II mentoring TA. However, the team began to drift apart during their rivalry with Cornette and the Express. The loss of the tag titles didn’t matter much to II, who set his sights on the Mid South North American Championship and the Junkyard Dog.

Presented here is the March 15th, 1984 episode of Mid South Wrestling. Here, Watts and Dundee masterfully weave six different storylines together to move the promotion in a promising direction. Most wrestling shows of the era found a comfortable mix of presenting matches and promos. Mid South does the same, but its execution, effortlessly mixing the different plots, gives the show an episodic flavor that feels more akin to a serialized drama than an exhibition of matches. Here is an episode of WWF Championship Wrestling from the same week. Judge for yourself.

The show opens with Watts interviewing the new North American Champion, the freshly-turned-heel Mr. Wrestling II. Watts interviews II and uses match footage from arena shows from the previous week. Not only did II defeat the Junkyard Dog for the title, loading his knee pad to crush Dog with the Million Dollar Knee Lift. The loss forces JYD to leave the territory for ninety days. This isn’t the first time JYD had been forced out of Mid South, and the audience responded by chanting, “Stagger Lee.” 

Lee was the Dog’s masked alter ego, a Mid South play on Dusty Rhodes’s Midnight Rider gimmick. The crowd knows the Dog will return, but Watts quickly shifts into showing clips from another match between the Midnight Express, the new Mid South tag champs, and II and Magnum TA. The stipulation was two-fold, the winner got the belts, while the losers got whipped with belts. During the match, II walked out, leaving Magnum to take the lashes on his own. However, after taking five lashes from the Express and Cornette, Terry Taylor, another young babyface, came out and offered to take the other five lashes for Magnum. II ends the interview segment shrugging off Watts. He doesn’t care because he is the champion.

In one segment, Watts and Dundee have built five different storylines. JYD, who is on his way to Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic to team with Jimmy Valiant against the Assassins, is off the board temporarily. Wrestling II is now the company’s top villain, literally stealing the title from the beloved Dog. Another rivalry is set up with his former partner Magnum. Terry Taylor just so happens to be in a tournament final to decide the first Mid South Television champion. The entire segment builds not only II as a coward but establishes Cornette and the Express as just as vile.

The angle was well laid out, the execution did real damage to Dog and the territory, as II missed the knee lift. It was obvious to the NOLA crowd that II’s knee comes nowhere near Dog’s head, but JYD bumped anyway. The crowd thought their hero had taken a dive in losing. JYD continued to bounce between his home promotion, Crockett, World Class, and Memphis. Though he’d become a major star, when JYD did return to Mid South, it wasn’t the same. The New Orleans faithful, in particular lost faith. By the summer, Junkyard Dog would show jp in the WWF.

In the next segment, Watts and announcer Boyd Pierce showed clips of The Rock n Roll Express facing the Midnights. After that match, the Russians attacked the babyfaces (Nicolai Volkoff and Krusher Kruschev), who cut Morton’s hair, only to be saved by Magnum and Taylor. The RnR’s then defeat Jerry Grey and Pat Rose in a squash. Again, four different rivalries are explored. 

Jim Cornette and the Midnights have a somewhat childish birthday cake celebration with Jim Ross outside the ring. The Rock n Rolls, of course, break it up and do what wrestlers do when a birthday cake is introduced. They smash it in Cornette’s face. In real life, the incident breaks Cornette’s nose. It’s a silly angle, but it lays the groundwork for something much stronger.

The next match, Taylor vs. Volkoff, ends with Kruschev (formerly known as Crusher Barry Darsow before defecting to Russia) jumping Taylor. Unfortunately, Magnum TA doesn’t make the save, but Hacksaw Jim Duggan does. Duggan left the territory at the end of 83 and went to Florida as part of Kevin Sullivan’s Army of Darkness. After losing a loser leaves town match to Dusty Rhodes earlier that week, Duggan returned to Mid South as a conquering hero to fill the void left by the Junkyard Dog. That would become Duggan’s permanent role when Dog left later in the year. 

The show wraps up by Watts replaying the cake incident, much to the chagrin of James E. Cornette. The manager demands that Watts apologize. When Watts refuses, an incensed Cornette proclaims that his wealthy mother will buy the promotion and put Watts and his family out of business. The Cowboy shrugged Cornette off until the punk dared put his hands on Watts, who responded by slapping the spit out of Cornette’s mouth.

The crowd cheered as the episode wrapped, but they didn’t realize the framework for one of Mid South’s most lucrative programs had been set. Watts would come out of retirement to face The Midnight Express in a series of matches that toured the territory called The Last Stampede. The Cowboy’s partner on that legendary tour? Why none other than Stagger Lee himself.

Watts and Dundee built six different programs in one hour and set up Mid South’s entire spring. A genuinely masterful episode of television.