By Mike Mooneyham
March 24, 2002
For nearly 40 years Ron West has done practically everything that can be done in the wrestling business. He’s been one of the most celebrated referees in the profession, as well as a respected booker, events coordinator and promoter. He even wrestled a woman once for 45 minutes when her opponent didn’t show.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]West’s latest venture has taken him to another circus – this time the three-ring variety, where he serves as a marketing director with Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, the world’s largest circus under the big top. The 54-year-old West’s transition was an easy one; it was just a matter of going from one circus to another, he jokes.
West had been helping Dusty Rhodes promote his independent wrestling shows when he joined an Orlando-based circus last June. Several months later he accepted an offer from Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers, and the affable Tennesseean has been on the road ever since.
West, in town to promote the March 27-30 shows at the Exchange Park in Ladson, noted the strong similarities between the circus and the wrestling business. Like wrestling, the circus is a very unique form of entertainment, with a rich and varied history and tradition. When the lights go down and the show is about to start, West says he feels the same thrill that he does during a wrestling event.
“It’s action-packed excitement, the oohs and the aahs. You’re laughing, and your heart is in your mouth. They’re flying through the air. It really is the greatest show on earth.”
West also points out that, like in the wrestling industry, there is competition for top talent among the circuses. Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. fiercely competes with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and some of the top acts often jump from one circus to another.
What makes the circus particularly appealing, says West, is that it truly is a show for children of all ages.
“You can look at a group that comes in with the kids, the grandkids, the grandmother, and they’ll help that grandmother into her seat. But somewhere during that night, you’ll see a sparkle in her eye, a special smile, and she’s living that young age again. It’s worth it just to watch the people leaving. Everyone has smiles on their faces.”
West, a native of Cleveland, Tenn., broke into the wrestling business in 1963 with the help of fellow referee Jimmy Dykes, who later achieved stardom as the colorful J.C. Dykes, manger of The Infernos, one of the top masked teams in the business during the late 60s and 70s.
“I ended up going to a town for a show when one of the wrestlers didn’t show up,” recalls West. “J.C. had to wrestle, and he asked me to referee. All of the guys were very kind to me, and they took me under their wing. Back then it was hard to get into the wrestling business. But guys like the Welches, the Fullers, Len Rossi and Jackie Fargo all treated me well. I just sort of fell into place with all of them. I was very thankful.”
Initially the 5-8, 180-pound West wanted to wrestle, but his size didn’t match up well with his larger and stockier contemporaries, most of whom were legitimately tough brawlers.
“They were looking for guys over 200 pounds that looked the part,” says West. “Some of them may have had a big gut and stuff, but they were tough. If anybody off the street ever came up to them and challenged them, they could easily take care of themselves.”
West was able to work himself into a program when then-Chattanooga promoter Harry Thornton asked West to assemble a group of locals for his Friday night shows in Cleveland, which went up against the more popular lineups in the bigger markets of Knoxville, Tenn., and Huntsville, Ala. Surprisingly the group led by West fared exceptionally welll against the more established names.
“We were actually doing as well as the stars,” West recalls “It kind of surprised everyone.”
But West soon returned to officiating and became one of the most respected referees for the National Wrestling Alliance throughout the 70s and 80s. He spent 13 years working for Georgia Championship Wrestling, but also served as a top official for Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic territory, Cowboy Bill Watts’ Mid-South promotion and Eddie Graham’s Florida Championship Wrestling. Graham, says West, was the smartest man he ever met in the wrestling business.
“It was unbelievable the times I went down and refereed and just watched and listened to the ways he was doing things. He could sit down and lay out a match, and by the time he got through, you’d want to go out and buy a ticket. Bill Watts and Dusty Rhodes were students of Eddie Graham. When that territory was really popping, Eddie had his hands in it. Many promoters often went to Eddie for advice. If you had something you needed to work out, Eddie Graham was the man. He was amazing.”
While Graham may have been the most creative, Watts was by far the toughest man to work for, although West said he still respects the big Oklahoman to this day.
“I caught hell if things didn’t go right,” says West, who worked as referee, road agent and booker for Watts. “There were three people in charge – Bill Dundee, Grizzly Smith and myself – and if things didn’t go right, you better have a good reason. If you didn’t do what Bill said, you’d better get ready to pack your bags and leave. But I had total respect for the guy.”
Unlike most referees, West traveled from one territory to the other, working for a variety of promoters and bookers who realized West did what a good referee should do – not let his presence in the ring be known, to be seen and heard only when he needed to be. When West was asked to get involved in the fray, he was particularly noted for taking dangerous-looking backward and upside-down bumps through the ropes. The most fear he’s ever felt during a wrestling bout was when he took a Mick Foley-like bump off the top of a cage 20 years before Foley immortalized the spot. West was refereeing a cage match between The Bounty Hunters and Mr. Wrestling No. 1 and 2 at the Omni in Atlanta.
“It was about a 15-foot drop. My heart was in my mouth as I climbed to the top of that cage,” says West, who fortunately emerged from the fall unscathed. West grew up a wrestling fan and was raised on the “blood and guts” style of the Tennessee territory.
“Back then Tennessee was considered hard-core. Paul E. (Paul Heyman) didn’t invent hardcore. It came from Tennessee. We were already having scaffold matches and that type of thing. Jerry Jarrett was probably the first guy in a scaffold match.”
West counts a series of Dory Funk Jr.-Jack Brisco matches among the greatest he’s ever officiated, as well as a Lou Thesz-Gene Kiniski world title bout in Nashville during the late 60s. “I would have bought a ticket to see those matches,” says West.
West lists Ted DiBiase as one of the greatest workers of the past 30 years, but is quick to add that “Ric Flair will always be The Champ.’ We would always call him that, and he respected that. He was a true champion who will never be duplicated.”
West has two sons who have worked in the wrestling business in a variety of capacities (Rodney, 33, currently works for another circus, while Brent, 31, helps promote independent wrestling shows). The elder West, who served on the WCW booking committee during the early 90s, hasn’t ruled out a return to the squared circle someday. Once it gets in your blood, he says, it stays there forever.
“It’s kind of like putting grease on a pole. (If I got the right offer) I would slide down that pole so fast they wouldn’t know what happened.”
– The Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus opens Wednesday at Exchange Park and runs through Saturday. Local legend Burrhead Jones and myself will serve as guest elephant riders as part of the Parade of Stars at the 4:30 p.m. Saturday show.
– WRESTLEMANIA FALLOUT: The WWF enjoyed one of its most successful weeks in company history, with Wrestlemania X8 exceeding even the most optimistic expectations. The show at the Toronto SkyDome sold 61,069 tickets for gross ticket revenue of $6,138.22, the biggest gate in company history. Merchandise revenues surpassed one million dollars. Monday night’s Raw in Montreal was also a sellout, drawing 15,500 paid for $567,440 in ticket revenue, plus merchandise sales of nearly $120,000. The WWF also set a Canadian ratings record for last week’s Raw, drawing the biggest single episode rating ever with 890,000 viewers. In this country Raw drew a strong 5.3 rating, its best mark since August.
The biggest news out of the show, of course, was the incredible reaction for Hulk Hogan who, like the proverbial cat, seems to have found his ninth life. The Canadian crowd’s response and the surprisingly solid showing by Hogan (who worked the show with a cracked rib) and The Rock helped cement the match as one of the most memorable events in Wrestlemania history.
For my money, though, the best match on the show was Ric Flair vs. The Undertaker, a bout whose terrific buildup was exceeded only by the flawless execution of the match. The Undertaker, who had been less than complimentary of Flair in the past, obviously gained a newfound appreciation for the man regarded by many as the greatest performer in the history of the business. “Regardless of what I’ve done to him or said about him, Ric Flair, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is a true icon in this profession,” Taker told WWF.com. “It was a great thrill for me to be in the ring with a legend, and you can’t say anything other than that he is a legend. When I think of a world champion, Ric Flair is the first name that comes up. So to be paired with him on the grandest stage of them all, it’s a rush, no doubt.”
The Rock, who will be Vince McMahon’s first pick for the promotions split Monday night, called Wrestlemania the greatest night of his life. “This is, by far, the greatest night in the history of my career,” Rock told WWF.com. “In this industry, my main objective was to be the absolute best, period. And what Hogan did for me tonight – I can’t thank him enough.”
On the flip side, however, trouble in paradise looms on the horizon. Steve Austin, who wasn’t involved in any major storylines last week and has been unhappy with his character’s creative direction, flew home before last week’s Raw. Austin, who helped catapult the WWF to the top of the wrestling heap in 1998, reportedly has been increasingly annoyed by the lack of attention the creative team has shown him, and his displeasure has surfaced in recent heated talks with Vince McMahon, who has adopted the NWO as his pet project. Adding fuel to the fire, Kevin Nash and the NWO contingent arrived several hours late for Smackdown tapings on Tuesday, and Nash voiced his disapproval to McMahon and The Rock over an unscripted promo Rock cut on Nash the previous night on Raw.
Hogan, meanwhile, will team with Triple H for the first time at a house show Thursday night at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey. Their opponents will be Nash and Scott Hall.