By Mike Mooneyham
Sept. 26, 2004
James E. Barnett may be the most unlikely entry in professional wrestling’s hall of fame.
A man of diminutive stature who wore stylish three-piece suits and horn-rimmed glasses, his sentences usually began with the phrase, “Oh, my boooooy,” a line imitated by a generation of wrestlers who loved impersonating the flamboyant promoter. His passion for fine art, Mozart and penthouse living would lead a fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter, to appoint him to the National Council for the Arts during the 1970s. More significantly, in a business that was hardly open to change, Barnett was openly gay.
But Jim Barnett, who died recently at the age of 80, was one of wrestling’s most influential figures over a period that spanned the past half-century.
“He was an unforgettable figure, as much as anyone I ever met,” former NWA world champion Jack Brisco wrote earlier this year in his self-titled autobiography, “Brisco.”
Barnett died in an Atlanta hospital on Sept. 17. The official cause was pneumonia, but the promoter had been battling cancer and had never fully recovered from surgery after breaking his arm in a fall.The erudite Southerner was a creative, behind-the-scenes power broker who worked alongside most of the post-World War II era’s most influential promoters. A former board member and secretary-treasurer of the National Wrestling Alliance, at the time the most powerful governing body in the industry, Barnett became an outwardly wealthy man who lived large and owned substantial stock in the lucrative Georgia and Florida promotions. But according to those who worked closest with him, Barnett’s millionaire persona was more style than substance.
“He tried to portray someone who came from ‘old money.’ I have no idea if he did or not, but I do believe it was more of an act than reality,” recalled Brisco. “Jim looked like a character out of a Noel Coward play. He would always come up to me and say, ‘Jack, my boy, how are you today?’ When he had all the wrestlers together, he would say, ‘When I look at my boys, I see stars.’ He was quite a character.”
“At first we all thought he was a multi-millionaire,” said former mat star and booker Ole Anderson (Al “Rock” Rogowski), who added that the rarely photographed promoter sometimes would purposely leave outlandish stock notes on his desk so his staff would think he was making a killing in the market. “He created that illusion by having apartments in Louisville and Atlanta, and by frequenting a ritzy hotel out in L.A. He had a chauffeur in a Rolls Royce who drove him up to the office every day. It was all designed to make everyone think he was a multi-millionaire.”
But things weren’t as they appeared, according to Anderson, who says he was among many who made financial loans to Barnett over the years.
“I’m sure at one time he had a ton of money,” said Jody Hamilton, whose association with Barnett dates back to 1957. “I’m not sure what he did with it, nor does anyone else. Knowing Jim and knowing how he liked to live, I would dare say that he probably didn’t have as much money as a lot of people thought he did.”
There was, however, no denying that Barnett’s scope of influence in the wrestling business was far-reaching. He was an integral part of pro wrestling’s national television boom in the ’50s, oversaw the golden age of wrestling in Australia during the ’60s, and worked with Ted Turner in the ’70s in bringing the sport to a new cable audience. Brokering some of the biggest transactions in wrestling history, including the sale of Crockett Promotions to Turner in 1988, Barnett also was in on the grand floor of Vince McMahon’s national expansion in the mid-’80s.
Few figures in the history of the business were part of as many pivotal events as Jim Barnett.
IMPACT ON INDUSTRY
It seems as if everyone who ever worked with or for the promoter had their own unabashed opinions of Barnett. Some, like Ron West, a booker and referee who worked for Barnett for 15 years in the Atlanta and Knoxville offices, remember him as a thoughtful individual who would go out of his way for friends and employees.
“Jim was a very good businessman, and he treated my family very well,” said West. “There are many others in the business who also appreciate what he did for them. He knew the wrestling business and he put good people around him.”
“Back when I had my heart attack, when Ole (Anderson) ran me crazy,” said West, “Jim came to the hospital several times. Out of all the people in that company (WCW) in management, Mr. Barnett was the one to come and see me. I have nothing but respect for him.”
And in the 31 years he knew Barnett, West says he never missed a Christmas without calling him.
“He was one of the most influential people I ever dealt with in the NWA,” said 16-time world heavyweight champion Ric Flair. “He was a very good friend to me, and was an old-school guy who paid me a lot of respect. At one time he had as much political stroke as anyone in the industry, and he was a very good payoff man who made a lot of people a lot of money.”
“Jim helped me tremendously in my career,” Brisco said Friday. “Jim gave me one of my first big breaks in Australia. If you look back on his career, I would think that he has to go down as probably the greatest promoter of all time. He did just about everything in this business that could be done. A big part of this business is gone forever.”
For a number of wrestlers who claimed he unfairly pushed his favorite performers, Barnett was an easy target.
Jim Wilson, a former NFL player and All-American at the University of Georgia, claimed in his 2003 book, “Chokehold,” that Barnett irreparably damaged his promising wrestling career after he turned back the promoter’s sexual advances during a 1973 tour of Australia. Barnett, who claimed he sent Wilson home from the tour because Wilson, then 32, was having an affair with a stewardess whose airline was a sponsor for Barnett’s company, denied the allegations.
“The reason that Jim Wilson didn’t become champion was because he couldn’t work and he had no charisma,” argues Hamilton, a major star in the ’60s and ’70s as one of the masked Assassins along with the late Tom Renesto. “I knew and worked for every promoter in the country, and if they thought they could have taken Jim Wilson into their territory and made money with him, they wouldn’t have paid any attention to Jim Barnett. By God, Jim Wilson would have been there, and he would have been working on top. They (promoters) thought more of money than they did personalities.”
“Jim Barnett had a long life and did a lot in the business,” said Wilson, who has spent the past 30 years fighting unsuccessfully for the unionization of pro wrestling. “But there are no hard feelings. They saw things the way they did, and I just believed in another way. I’ve always tried to walk a couple miles in somebody else’s shoes, but it was what it was. I went through a lot of hardship. The business does funny things to people. But I hope he didn’t suffer, and I sincerely hope he’s in a better place.”
POLITICS OF WRESTLING
Although Barnett’s sexual persuasion was well known inside the business, former pro wrestling star and promoter Cowboy Bill Watts said he never heard of Barnett “crossing the line into wrestling.” He was discreet about his private affairs, said Watts, and didn’t mix his sexual life with business.
“Jim would get very infatuated with a piece of talent as far as who he liked and who he didn’t. He never came on to me. He loved Dusty Rhodes, but he never came on to Dusty. The same with guys like Ric Flair, Robert Fuller, Cowboy Bob Ellis and Mark Lewin when they were young stars. But I never heard about anything like that happening, and this is the wrestling business, where it would be very hard to keep a secret like that.”
Watts said he first met the promoter in 1962 when Barnett owned a part of the Detroit and Indianapolis territories. It was then that Watts, who was looking to break into the wrestling business, learned of a relationship that Barnett allegedly shared with Hollywood actor Rock Hudson when he lived in Louisville during the ’50s.
“Sam Menaker, who later became my television announcer and taught me to fly, was Barnett’s commentator at the time,” recalled Watts. “Sam had a Rolls Royce and Jim didn’t drive. But Jim would borrow Sam’s Rolls Royce whenever Rock was in town for a week, and he’d hire a driver.”
The fact that Barnett was gay ultimately limited his achievements in a business that socially was well behind the times. A president and chairman of Georgia Championship Wrestling who also booked appearances of the NWA’s world champion for a number of years, Barnett also served as NWA secretary-treasurer during the ’70s and had the connections to be president of the organization. Board members at the time, however, argued it would be bad for their image to have a homosexual as president.
“I know the wrestling profession inside and out, and I know the people that were involved in the wrestling profession, and I know Jim Barnett. And in all the years I knew Jim Barnett, I never knew him to make a pass at a wrestler,” said Hamilton. “Jim never tried to hide the fact that he was gay. But he didn’t cross the line between business and his own personal life.”
Dick Steinborn, who wrestled for Barnett during the ’60s in Indianapolis and in Australia, claims there was another side to Barnett.
“He was a fan of the business who could be a very vicious guy. He made a lot of promoters uneasy,” said Steinborn, who claims that Barnett paid Harley Race 15 thousand dollars to drop the NWA title to Barnett’s hand-picked successor, 24-year-old blond heartthrob Tommy Rich, in Augusta, Ga., in 1981. Rich, one of the NWA’s top drawing cards at the time, dropped the strap back to Race just days later.
“That was quite a deal,” Steinborn said wryly. “By the time the other NWA promoters had time to think about what happened, Harley had the title back.”
That’s not, however, the way Hamilton saw the title switch.
“It was Harley’s idea to put the strap on Rich,” said Hamilton. “He may have promoted it to get Tommy over and he may have promoted a 15 grand payoff, because Barnett was certainly not above doing things like that, but sexual favors had nothing to do with it. It was to get the guy over. To have been the NWA world champion, even for four days, had a lot of prestige. At that time they were running the Ohio and West Virginia towns and were starting to branch out. They needed to add some emphasis to Tommy.”
“A lot of people were envious of Jim and were willing to start these unfounded rumors because they were jealous of his position and the money he was making and the power that he had,” Hamilton added. “They were going to do anything they could to destroy his reputation. The only thing I can go by is my personal experiences with Jim and my association with him over a period of nearly 50 years – longer than all these other guys put together. I had never known him to cross that line.”
Anderson says he simply learned to get along with Barnett. To the burly Minnesotan, it was merely a matter of him handling the wrestling operation while Barnett tended to the office details, and keeping their personal lives separate.
“I knew what he was like, and he knew what I was like,” said Anderson, who worked with Barnett in Georgia Championship Wrestling from 1974-83 and in WCW during the ’90s. “But he knew I could do a good job. So every time I quit, he’d hire somebody. When those people ran everything into the ground, he’d hire me back. It went back and forth.”
“Jim was difficult to work for at times,” Hamilton agreed. “I liked Jim, but working for Jim as a booker was a nightmare. Jim didn’t know much about booking, but he would criticize every thing you did. It was his psychology of trying to keep his foot on your back to make you try to be the best you could be every day. But watch out if you did something and it didn’t quite work out.”
Barnett surrounded himself with quality talent, said Hamilton, which made booking the territory far from rocket science.
“Ole was so brash and overbearing that Jim was about half afraid of him,” said Hamilton. “But he was giving Ole a free hand. We had the greatest talent in the country at the time. It didn’t take a genius to put together cards that would draw money. Consequently the territory was doing well and drawing money, and Jim was willing to put up with Ole’s brashness and bullshit because of the fact that he was drawing money.”
Barnett owned pieces of the promotion in such territories as Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville and Atlanta, where his Georgia Championship Wrestling show was the flagship program for Turner’s “SuperStation,” becoming the first professional wrestling operation on national TV since the DuMont network in the mid-’50s, which Barnett also ran along with wrestler-turned-promoter Fred Kohler and Verne Gagne, the future AWA founder and world champion whom he helped break into the business.
Barnett had entered the profession in the early ’50s as the right-hand man of Kohler, who at the time was the most powerful promoter in the country. After splitting from Kohler, he established strong wrestling bases in Detroit and Indianapolis. Selling the Detroit operation to The Sheik (Ed Farhat) and Indianapolis to Wilbur Snyder and Dick “The Bruiser” Afflis, Barnett finally got to run his own national promotion when he opened up Australia in 1964. After business partner Johnny Doyle’s death in 1969, Barnett promoted five more years Down Under, assembling a stellar cast of touring performers that included most of the top names in the United States at the time.
“We had some great times over there,” said Jack Brisco. “I was as green as could be, and there were so many big stars over there. I was in awe of all those guys; I had never met any of them, but had followed them for years in magazines. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
Brisco recalled one particular incident when Dr. Big Bill Miller, a 6-4, 300-pound former collegiate star at Ohio State, botched the finish of his match with Spiros Arion. “It was in front of a sellout crowd in Melbourne, and Jim went running to the ring, shaking his finger at Miller. He chewed his ass out all the way back down the aisle to the dressing room. All the boys laughed like crazy at this big monster getting chewed out by Jim.”
Watts, who owned part of Georgia Championship Wrestling, brought Barnett in from Australia in 1973 to help in the Georgia wrestling war with Ann Gunkel. To entice Barnett, Florida promoter Eddie Graham sold Barnett 10 percent of the Georgia and Florida promotions.
“I learned a lot from Jim,” said Watts. “One of the most important things I learned was to cultivate relationships with the station managers who controlled your television show.”
Barnett was a master manipulator, in the same league with Vince McMahon and Sam Muchnick, and knew like few others how to play both ends against the middle. Barnett, who had introduced Gunkel to her late husband, Ray, would later get Gunkel to indemnify him in her antitrust suit against Georgia Championship Wrestling.
“Jim was very savvy as far as connections,” added Watts. “He tried to continually maintain strife among people and pit them against one another. But he had a certain knack. He was very fickle. But he was extremely successful in the business for a lot of years.”
“Jack Brisco and I once were so mad with each other that we were going to get into a fight,” recalled Watts. “We had known each other since high school. We finally compared notes and began laughing. Barnett had caused it.”
Thanks to the tremendous reach of WTBS, Barnett was one of the most powerful promoters in the country.
“In his heyday, he was the man,” said Hamilton. “When he was promoting Georgia Championship Wrestling, he was probably one of the biggest men in wrestling. Jim was the guy who really took advantage of Channel 17 (WTBS) as far as branching out. He was the forerunner of what wrestling has evolved into today. It was the beginning of a central-based wrestling promotion that promoted everywhere. Everywhere that Channel 17 went, they went.”
Barnett rubbed elbows with some of the state’s leading figures in politics, business and the arts. Those relationships helped him immensely with his wrestling business, to the point where few would challenge him.
“He had a lot of political connections,” recalled Hamilton. “He always maintained a working relationship with the police department, which was very important, and he always made sure that certain judges got very nice gifts, along with senators and state reps. That’s why he was so successful all these years keeping the athletic commission out of here.”
LEGEND IN THE BUSINESS
Barnett was a pivotal figure in some of pro wrestling’s fiercest turf wars. But he also had the uncanny ability of landing on his feet and living to fight another day. Whether it be as an ally of Ted Turner, Vince McMahon or Jim Crockett, or running promotions with Bill Watts, Verne Gagne or Fritz Von Erich, Barnett was a survivor.
Barnett, who was instrumental in the first three Wrestlemanias, had been a key man for McMahon during the wrestling boom of the mid-’80s due to his many television connections dating back to the ’50s on the DuMont network. Senior vice president of the WWF from 1983 to 1987, Barnett brokered the McMahon-Crockett deal for the coveted TBS time slot in 1985, with Crockett paying McMahon $1 million.
Perhaps getting a glimpse into the future, McMahon told Crockett, “You’ll choke on that million.”
While Barnett was working for McMahon in Connecticut, he had also kept in back-channel contact with Crockett, still confident in his ability to work both sides of the street. Shortly after Wrestlemania III in 1987, the most successful event in company history, McMahon called Barnett into his office, demanded his resignation and ordered him out of the building. Barnett, who had been one of Vince Sr.’s best friends, promptly went home and overdosed on sleeping pills.
Although the family sent flowers and Linda McMahon sat at his hospital bedside, there was no offer to come back. After he recovered, Barnett picked up and moved to Dallas, and started working for the Crocketts in the fall of 1987. Less than a year later, the Crockett family signed over their assets to Turner.
Barnett, again landing on his feet, would finish his final decade in the business working for Turner’s new Atlanta-based company, WCW, and later McMahon’s WWE, where the lifelong family friend was invited back as a consultant. In the interim he would be fired by then-WCW boss Eric Bischoff.
“He was yet another guy Bischoff aced out of his job,” lamented Flair. “Bischoff got him fired because he knew Jim could always go over his head.”
Hamilton said the two talked on the phone at least once a week over the past couple of years. He first found out about Barnett’s condition several months ago.
“Jim was a very proud man. Unless you made it obvious that you wanted to contact him or wanted to associate with him, he wasn’t going to initiate it,” said Hamilton. “He had often commented to me that nobody called him anymore. It was sad because at one time Jim was one of the most important people in the business. He made a lot of people a lot of money.”
Out of the 20 or so who paid their final respects to the promoter Friday,the only wrestling personalities who attended his funeral service were Hamilton, Gary Juster, Teddy Long, Chris Benoit, Scrappy McGowan, Bobby Simmons, Steve Prazak and Scott Hudson.
“The rest of the people that came were office people and a couple of friends. I thought it was rather sad, a man who made such an impact on the sport of pro wrestling not to be honored by more wrestlers that he made big stars of on Channel 17. It seems as if there is no gratitude anymore,” said Hamilton.
“I had a great deal of respect for Jim and I had a great deal of affection for him, especially toward the end, because I really felt sorry for him, having been the icon in wrestling that he was at one time, and then almost to be a forgotten man.”
But not everyone forgot.
“That’s one thing I’ll say about Vince McMahon,” said Hamilton. “He had been in touch with Jim right up to the end.”
Those who worked with the promoter over the years will never forget Jim Barnett.
Bill Watts will remember the days when he and cohorts like Dusty Rhodes and Jack Brisco would slip past the security guard during late-night binges, barge into Barnett’s luxury apartment and drink up his cognac. Or when he once locked the promoter out of his office for an entire week. “He complained to Eddie Graham, who died laughing,” said Watts. “Eddie finally talked me into letting Jim back into his office. But I guess I was just making a statement.”
Oddly enough, the man who was the butt of more than a few jokes probably saw those as acts of endearment.
Watts and Brisco say they’ll all agree on one thing.
“Jim Barnett was a legend in this business.”
Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected]. He is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment.” For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at 937-6000, ext. 3090.