Article By Mike Mooneyham
Published Dec. 17, 1995
Smoky Mountain Wrestling, a grand experiment started by Jim Cornette in 1991, ended several weeks ago in Cookeville, Tenn., when Jim Cornette announced to his crew that the promotion would be closing shop effective immediately.
Cornette, booker and creative genius behind SMW, kept the promotion afloat on a shoestring budget. But, like other regional promotions that existed a decade before Smoky Mountain Wrestling, it eventually fell victim to the changing times and the much deeper pockets of the major national wrestling companies.
Daryl Van Horn, who served as a manager in SMW from 1993-94, was one of many former Smoky Mountain workers lamenting the loss of the promotion.
“It’s a sad day for wrestling,” said Van Horn, who earned rave reviews as manager of an ill-fated character known as Prince Kharis. “Smoky Mountain was one of only three places in the country where any talent could be developed to move on to better things. Smoky Mountain caused WCW and the WWF to recognize that fans were more interested in quality wrestling and storylines than they were in sterile, big-money production.”
Van Horn, whose style has been compared to fellow managers Cornette and Paul E. Dangerously, said Cornette was a boost to the profession.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“Jim Cornette did more with what he had to work with than anybody else could have. He took talent nobody wanted and made them stars. I was honored to have had the chance to work with him and learned a lot. His talent and wit scream out for one of the major promotions to put him in a creative position.”
A little-known team Cornette named “The Gangstas” rose from obscurity to notoriety during their stint in SMW. Others who made their mark in SMW and later went on to bigger promotions include Chris Candido (Skip), Tammy Sytch (Sunny), Al Snow (Avitar) and “Unabom” Glen Jacobs (Isaac Yankem).
The Gangstas, in particular, was the brainchild of Cornette. It was also a gimmick that was perceived by many fans as being racist, and an old-time promotional ploy used to get what is known in the business as “cheap heat.”
“He (Cornette) said that being the area like Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, we’d get a lot of heat because it’s rednecks and Klans,” The Gangstas’ New Jack (Jerome Young) told Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter in a 1995 interview. “So we did it.” That heat, however, intensified to the point that New Jack, an ex-bounty hunter, began bringing a gun to the shows.
“I started, not worrying, but getting concerned about somebody maybe taking a shot at me one night. So then I started bringing my gun. I didn’t know if it would happen, but that was always in my head that maybe one of these marks might try to take a shot at me. So I started riding with my gun. Believe it or not, a couple of times when I left the show I would have on a big jacket and I had my vest on under it … You’re way up in the mountains and you never know.”
Cornette, Van Horn said, was a perfectionist, and because he oversaw every aspect of the company, he never passed the buck.
“I was amazed at how many responsibilities he had,” said Van Horn. “He oversaw every bit of running SMW down to the smallest detail, and juggled it with a WWF schedule and was still able to turn out the single best hour of television around for a long time. He was a harsh critic and a demanding teacher, but he wasn’t a blowhard just for the sake of throwing his considerable weight around. He truly loved what he did, and he had a passion for his work.”
Smoky Mountain Wrestling also became known as a promotion in which veteran stars and retired greats were not forgotten. A special “Night of Legends” show in 1994 honored such mat luminaries as Nelson Royal, Ronnie Garvin, The Mongolian Stomper, Ron and Don Wright, Al and Don Greene, Frank Morrell and Ron West. Cornette earlier this year brought SMW to Charlotte’s Grady Cole Center, formerly known as Park Center and site of the town’s weekly wrestling shows during the Jim Crockett Mid-Atlantic era. The show, dubbed “Carolina Memories” and billed as a step back in time, featured appearances by some of the old Mid-Atlantic area’s most revered performers, such as Johnny Weaver, Tim “Mr. Wrestling” Woods, Sandy Scott, Nelson Royal, Abe Jacobs, Swede Hanson, Terry “Magnum T.A.” Allen and Tommy Young.
The 58-year-old “Bullet” Bob Armstrong, one of the South’s top stars during the ’70s, revived his mat career and became one of the promotion’s top attractions, along with sons Brad, Brian, Steve and Scott. Despite his age, the elder Armstrong used his experience and interview ability to fashion major feuds with such fellow veterans as Terry Funk, Abdullah The Butcher, and, of course, his seemingly never-ending feud with arch-nemesis James E. Cornette.
“Jim Cornette revived the careers of Paul Orndorff, The Rock ‘N Roll Express, Tracy Smothers, The Mongolian Stomper and many others,” said Van Horn. “Cornette grew up in that area and he knew what the people wanted to see. To those people, a Ron Wright meant much more than a Sid Vicious.”
For now Cornette will most likely continue his duties in the WWF, which include managing heels such as Yokozuna and The British Bulldog, but most importantly he will finally have time to recover from the past four years. His present situation can best be summed up by his latest message machine greeting: “Hi, I’m going to be hard to get a hold of, so pick the response that best fits your situation from the following: If you have a problem that I know about, I’m already working on it. If you have a problem that I don’t know about, leave it at the tone. If you have a disaster, tell somebody else, I don’t do those anymore. And if you’re just calling to say `hi’ … hi!”
Smoky Mountain’s final two major shows, as part of the promotion’s annual Thanksgiving Thunder tour, took place Nov. 23 in Knoxville (attendance 1,100) and Nov. 25 in Johnson City (500).