Wrestler of the Day – January 25: Honky Tonk Man

Tonight it’s another famous name as we look at the greatest Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion of all time: the Honky Tonk Man.

We’ll start with one of the most famous moments of all time in Memphis wrestling: the Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl from I believe 1980. This is a rare occasion where I won’t be reviewing the match because it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

So this one needs some backstory. We have Bill Dundee and Lawler teaming up against Larry Latham (Moondog Spot) and Wayne Ferris (Honky Tonk Man), collectively known as the Blonde Bombers. The Bombers cheated like CRAZY to win the tag titles. The show looked like it was ending but as they faded to black you heard Russell saying stay with this because there’s a big brawl going on. The brawl went down to the concession stand, and this is what followed.

The Blondes are all busted open and they beat on each other with EVERYTHING. Mustard goes flying and they’re filming from the stairs. This is totally serious stuff in case that wasn’t clear. Everyone is bleeding. Lawler destroys Ferris while Dundee is stomped on. Jerry Jarrett comes in and finally gets Dundee away for a second. Also this isn’t one of those fake WCW concession stands. This is the real concession stand where the fans are buying food. The Blondes run so Lawler and Dundee chase them but the Blondes come back and destroy Jarrett, stripping his clothes off. They’re FINALLY pulled off to end this.

 

I won’t go into details on the whole history of this (if you’re interested in why this was booked and why Jerry Jarrett is one of the smartest men ever in wrestling, look up Jim Cornette’s commentary called “The Slippery Slope of Hardcore Wrestling.” It’s incredibly interesting and well worth the read, as is almost anything Cornette writes) but the main idea is that this is pretty much the birth of modern hardcore wrestling.

 

The key difference though: it was believable. This wasn’t something that you saw every day (first time ever for the most part) and EVERYONE talked about it. It saved the territory and worked because it was treated as a huge deal. This is something you’ll still hear about from time to time and you’ll occasionally see tributes to it even today. This is incredibly historic stuff and possibly the most famous moment in southern wrestling.

 

A few years later it was off to the WWF for another rarity: Honky Tonk Man as a face. More on that after this squash from October 4, 1986 on Superstars.

 

Ron Shaw vs. Honky Tonk Man

 

This is Honky’s TV debut. Vince actually calls him Wayne Ferris. Honky is in suspenders stil here. Mr. Fuji doesn’t wank Honky’s greasy hands on his tuxedo. Honky works on the arm to start but Shaw gets in a thumb to the eye. Honky rams him into the buckle but Shaw comes back. He beats on Honky for a bit until Honky slams him down and the middle rope fist (which isn’t like his cousin AT ALL right?) gets the pin. Honky was light years better as a heel.

Like many a midcarder before him, Honky Tonk Man wasn’t getting over as a face but the company wasn’t sure about turning him heel. For the first and I believe only time ever, they literally asked the fans. Honky Tonk Man asked if the fans would give him a vote of confidence and asked them to call a number and vote yes or no. There were more “no” votes and he turned heel. It’s never been tried again and I’m glad it hasn’t as I prefer my turns to be natural, but that’s quite the different idea.

 

About nine months later, Honky Tonk Man got an Intercontinental Title shot in what should have been a squash, but turned into a shocking upset. From the June 13, 1987 episode of Superstars/Best of the WWF Volume 13 (I really need to post that entire series someday).

 

Intercontinental Title: Honky Tonk Man vs. Ricky Steamboat

This is about two months after Steamboat beat Savage for the title in Detroit and is perhaps the biggest upset and one of the biggest shocks in company history. Steamboat was untouchable at this time. See, one very important thing to remember about the title in this time frame is that title reigns were A LOT longer at this point. The title had been around for over 8 years here and there had been one title reign that went less than six months and only two had gone under seven months (Steamboat was the 11th champion). In other words, this title did not change hands often.

Honky jumps Steamboat almost immediately and throws him over the top. This is of course, REALLY STUPID, as Dragon skins the cat and sends Honky to the floor. Steambaot gets a suplex and takes over. Steamboat’s movements are absolutely perfect. Everything he does is incredibly crisp and he doesn’t take a break on a single move. Even something like a chop is perfect as he follows through on them and they look awesome. He’s someone that you need to watch every single motion of because they’re all great.

Anyway Steamboat gets sent into the buckle and here comes the challenger. The same awkward middle rope elbow as the first match misses and here comes the Dragon. He ducks low though and almost gets caught in the Shake Rattle and Roll. A top rope chop should put Honky away but Jimmy distracts the referee. Steamboat rolls Honky up but Honky grabs the ropes and gets a (weird as the first count was before Honky was on top and was probably the one for Steamboat’s cover) three count for the title and the shock of the decade.

Rating: C. The match itself is ok but it’s totally inconsequential. The point here is that Honky won the title and it was indeed shocking. This would be like Zach Ryder (this was written before Ryder meant anything as a singles guy) beating Kofi for the title. See, back then there were championship squashes. Today (February 3, 2011 if you’re reading this years later, my 23rd birthday for you KB trivia fans. Yes I’m reviewing on my birthday) Edge is the Smackdown champion and this would be like him defending against Heath Slater.

The thing is that today, everyone would expect there to be something up because when the title is defended on TV it’s either a huge showdown or something is about to happen. Back in the 80s, it was perfectly common for the IC or tag titles to be defended two or three times a month on TV.

They would usually be glorified squashes with random challengers that posed zero threat to the titles though, and that’s what you have here. This wasn’t some big hyped up showdown for the title. This was a typical title defense for Steamboat and more or less just another day at the office. That’s why this is so shocking and the biggest upset in the 1980s.

Honky would hold the title for nearly 15 months in one of the most brilliant booking runs in wrestling history. The idea was the same one over and over again: Honky was always the underdog and against far better competition but he would cheat to escape with the title. Here’s one of those title defenses against Brutus Beefcake at Wrestlemania IV.

 

Intercontinental Title: Honky Tonk Man vs. Brutus Beefcake

Sherri Martel is with Honky as Peggy Sue here which is a pretty amazing character change for her. This is during Honky’s insanely long run that drew a ton of money and is pretty awesome all around. Brutus hits a quick atomic drop and messes with Honky’s hair to play with his mind a bit. Honky bails to the floor as Jesse and Gorilla debate crooked referees. Back in and Beefcake rams Honky’s head into the buckle a few times as this is one sided so far.

A high knee sends the champion back to the floor but once back in, Beefcake gets caught by a shot to the stomach. Honky takes over and stomps away which is about the extent of his offense. He loads up the Shake Rattle and Roll but drops it and goes back to stomping. Honky tries it again but Brutus grabs the rope to block it. Beefcake pounds away a bit and grabs his sleeper but Jimmy knocks out the referee. Honky gets knocked but but there’s no referee so Brutus celebrates like an idiot. Brutus cuts Jimmy Hart’s hair for fun and Honky walks out. It’s a DQ I think.

Rating: D+. Nothing to see here as this show is just going WAY too long at this point. We’re only about two and a half hours into it and we’ve got four matches left. Brutus was just another guy in there to not get the title off Honky, which adds him to a list of about 10 guys who couldn’t do it. Honky would get his soon enough though.

 

During this time, Honky Tonk Man would feud with every midcard face on the roster, including an awesome feud with a now face Randy Savage where Honky Tonk Man would shove Liz down, insuring him a spot in eternal torment. It wasn’t until Summerslam 88 that the Ultimate Warrior of all people outsmarted Honky and beat him in thirty seconds to absolutely blow the roof off of Madison Square Garden and win the title.

 

Intercontinental Title: Honky Tonk Man vs. ???

Honky says to get him someone out here to wrestle and he doesn’t care who it is. After a few seconds, the Ultimate Warrior charges to the ring, pounds Honky with right hands, hits a shoulder block and splashes him for the pin and the title in thirty seconds. The crowd ERUPTS, as this is what they’ve been waiting over a year to see.

So why was this so awesome? This was one of the most perfectly told stories the WWF ever produced and they nailed it every step of the way. Back in 1987, Ricky Steamboat was Intercontinental Champion but wanted to take some time off. The solution was to put the title on the comedic newcomer the Honky Tonk Man, who cheated to win the belt. Honky viewed as a total joke as champion due to his lack of skill and his gimmick of a wrestling Elvis impersonator.

The fans looked at him as someone who would lose the title the first time he defended it against someone far more competent than he was so it wasn’t that big of a deal. This is where Vince had the fans: what if Honky just didn’t lose the title? If there is one thing pure fans hate, it’s seeing a guy who doesn’t deserve a title holding onto it against people they like. Honky did this for the next 18 months by coming up with every way imaginable to cheat, ranging from getting counted out, disqualified, having Jimmy Hart interfere, walking out of matches and all points in between.

Honky continued to hold the title against far better talent, such as Jim Duggan, Randy Savage, Jake Roberts, Ricky Steamboat and Brutus Beefcake, with the idea being “he has to lose eventually.” All of a sudden, Honky was one of the biggest draws around because people would pay their money to see him get beaten up, thinking that the lucky streak couldn’t go on much longer. Well the streak DID keep going, stretching into the longest title reign in the history of the belt which still stands to this day and will likely never be broken.

This is why having Warrior out there was so brilliant. Warrior was the last guy on earth that you would expect to pull off something clever, but he did what everyone else had overlooked: he didn’t bother trying to outsmart Honky, but instead just ran over him and beat him in thirty seconds. This is EXACTLY what the fans had wanted to see for over a year and they got it to perfection. That’s the kind of storytelling that you never get anymore which is a shame.

That was the point to the whole story: Honky wasn’t a deserving champion and got a total of one pinfall (that anyone remembers) but kept the title forever anyway by cheating. People would pay money to see faces beat the fire out of Honky in the hopes that it HAD to end sometime. When it did, the payoff was perfection and is still one of the coolest moments ever. Like I said, he held it for fifteen months. Since then, the longest title reign is less than ten months. That record will NEVER be broken.

 

That was pretty much it for Honky Tonk Man’s success in the WWF. He would spend the next few years jobbing to everyone in sight before forming a tag team with Greg Valentine called Rhythm and Blues. They never would do anything of note but their last match of note in the company was a pretty famous one. From Survivor Series 1990.

 

Million Dollar Team vs. Dream Team

Ted DiBiase, Rhythm and Blues, ???

Dusty Rhodes, Koko B. Ware, Hart Foundation

Rhythm and Blues are Honky Tonk Man and Greg Valentine and the Harts are the tag champions. Dusty and DiBiase are feuding for obvious character reasons. Now we get to the legendary part of the match: the mystery partner. DiBiase gets on the mic and introduces for the first time ever…..THE UNDERTAKER. Who on the planet would have imagined what this guy would become over the next twenty two years? Unreal indeed. The look on Taker’s face is eerie and he stands there like a zombie which makes it even better.

Quick sidebar: the Undertaker is probably the greatest example ever of someone being the only person that could pull off his character. Mark Calaway is PERFECT as the Undertaker with the look and the size and the dead looking eyes and the tattoos and everything like that. Before this he was just Mean Mark Callous in WCW and was a generic big villain. Sometimes it’s about finding what works and Taker has worked for a very long time. Also a bit of trivia: he debuted at a Superstars taping three days before this under the name Kane the Undertaker.

Undertaker and Bret start with Taker pounding the tar out of him. Well if you want to make someone look like a killer, call Bret Hart. Bret hits the ropes and charges at Taker, only to get caught by the throat and slammed down. It was more like a clothesline that Taker went to the mat with than the usual chokeslam here but he did have Bret by the throat.

Off to Neidhart who can’t move Taker at all and gets slammed for trying. Jim looked TERRIFIED and tags out to Koko, who is too stupid to be afraid. Koko misses a charge and clotheslines himself on the top. The Tombstone (I believed named by Gorilla on the spot here) debuts but isn’t exactly the famous version yet, as Taker has both of Koko’s legs on one side of his head and covers with the folded arms but from the sides. It looked and sounded great though.

Bret comes in and hammers on Undertaker who just stares at him. Taker tags in Valentine and gives one of the most evil glares you’ll ever see at Bret. Off to Big Dust who starts gyrating. They chop it out in the corner and it’s off to Anvil. The Harts take their turns working over Valentine’s arm but Greg gets a knee up in the corner. Off to Honky who is rapidly on his way out of the company. Bret makes a blind tag to Neidhart who sneaks in and powerslams Honky out.

DiBiase comes in to jump Neidhart but it’s quickly off to Dusty for the big showdown. It’s back to Neidhart quickly but Virgil trips Jim up and DiBiase clotheslines him down for the pin. Here’s Bret again who pounds away and it’s back to Dream for more of the same. Back to Undertaker who gets some HEIGHT on a jumping stomp to the back of Dusty’s head.

Bret comes in again and chokes Bret in the corner and somehow shows no emotion while at the same time looking angrier than any wrestler I’ve ever seen. Bret fights off DiBiase out of the corner and it’s off to Dusty. Taker comes in, goes up, walks (a little way) down the rope with no one to hold onto, and hits a double ax to eliminate Dusty. Brother Love stomps on Dusty a bit so Dusty chases him off. Undertaker stalks Dusty to the back to get counted out, which is the only thing they could have done with him here.

Back in the ring Bret rolls up Valentine very quickly and it’s DiBiase vs. Hart. Bret pounds on DiBiase and atomic drops him to the floor, followed by a pescado to take Ted out again. DiBiase’s shoulder goes into the post and his head goes into the steps and they head back inside. They slug it out but DiBiase sends him chest first into the buckle to take over.

A quick backslide gets two for Hart and now it’s time for a classic: Bret trips over DiBiase and fakes a knee injury, resulting in a small package for two. Virgil interference messes up and another rollup gets two for Bret. The backbreaker and middle rope elbow get two for Hart but DiBiase rolls through a cross body for the pin.

Rating: C+. This is a very interesting match as you could see stars being made and stars going away. DiBiase clearly didn’t mean as much as he used to and would shift into a tag team run soon after this. Dusty would be gone in January as would Honky. On the other hand you can see the rise of Bret Hart on the horizon as the crowd was LOSING IT over those near falls at the end. Oh and the Undertaker. That’s kind of a big deal.

He would jump to WCW after about four years in the indies and be right in the TV Title scene. Here’s one of about five matches he wrestled in WCW against TV Champion Johnny B. Badd at Halloween Havoc 1994.

TV Title: Honky Tonk Man vs. Johnny B. Badd

Honky is billed from Honkyland USA which is about a million jokes that write themselves. Apparently the singer was named T. Graham Brown, a country singer that I doubt anyone north of Tennessee has ever heard of. Naturally WCW puts him in front of a crowd in a state that borders Canada and expects everyone to just know who that is. Still no recognition of Ali either.

We see a huge group of middle aged men in suits which makes me think this isn’t going to go well. Badd has in fangs and that confetti shooter. Again, this is the time period where he was portraying a gay man without saying that. Yes, shooing confetti is a great way to get cheers from the crowd. Honky stalls to start, as he’s from Memphis. He hasn’t been relevant in about four years at this point so of course he’s in a title match here.

Yeah that has nothing to do with Hogan at all. To the shock of no one, the fans are more or less dead. Oh the main event is a cage match too as I forgot to mention that. He’s the exact same worker that he was when he had the IC Title for a year, but minus the heat or anyone caring. He hits a chinlock so we go to a long shot of the crowd to break the boredom I guess.

Oh hey, ten minutes into the broadcast, Heenan mentions Ali, and WHAT A COINCIDENCE, he’s here! That shows that either WCW is freaking stupid or Ali isn’t as big of a star as he used to be. Ali would light the Olympic torch in less than two years in one of the greatest moments in sports history and in 1994 WCW has Honky Tonk Man opening a PPV. You figure out the right answer.

We get the standard announcement of five minutes left in the 10-15 minute TV Title matches. And it’s obvious now. Also, I love how the Television Title is being defended on a PPV broadcast but whatever. We hit out third chinlock of the match because it worked so well the first two times.

Orton has nothing on Honky. We get to the last minute of the match and Badd goes for the Kiss That Don’t Miss. Tony’s commentary here is kind of funny: “He’s going for the Kiss That Don’t Miss! He missed it!” Ok so that passes for funny to me here. They fight to the time limit and then Honky runs. This was brutally bad.

Rating: D. Seriously, the FREAKING HONKY TONK MAN was the best you could do here? Why? What possessed you to think this was a good idea? Who booked this? Honky wasn’t good in the ring more or less ever and was ok at best on the mic. To say he’s watered down here is an understatement as this was just awful and boring to boot. This just made my head hurt.

Honky Tonk Man would just walk out on the company soon thereafter and be back in the WWF a few years later as a commentator. He never got in the ring, but would eventually come back as a choice to face Santino Marella for the Intercontinental Title at Cyber Sunday 2008.

Time to pick a legend to fight Santino for the IC Title. Beth looks MUCH better in her usual attire. Santino talks for a bit and we see the Honk-a-Meter, which would have been a lot better if it had come closer than a year away from passing Honky’s record. We get a basic promo about Phoenix (the town, not the Diva) being full of old people like Shaq, and he’s in the front row, ending the promo quickly. Oddly enough the Cardinals would make the Super Bowl this season so the joke kind of backfired.

The choices are Honky Tonk Man, Piper or Goldust. The vote is far closer than expected with everyone getting over 30%. Piper looks FAR better than last year and probably 35 pounds lighter. After the Honk-a-meter, who do you think wins here?

Intercontinental Title: Honky Tonk Man vs. Santino Marella

How brilliant is a wrestling Elvis impersonator? That’s just awesome. Honky Tonk may be old here but he doesn’t look bad, even though it’s bizarre to see him as a face. Total comedy match with the big wrestling move being a headlock. Beth hits him with the belt for the DQ about a minute in. Santino yells at her for no apparent reason and the beatdown follows for Santino as Piper and Goldie come out. Side note: Beth is absolutely gorgeous. It really is good to see Piper look so much healthier. Considering about a year earlier he had Hodgkin’s Disease, this is a great thing to see.

Rating: N/A. Just for a feel good moment and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially in a one minute match.

You know, for a legend, Honky Tonk Man really didn’t wrestle all that much in the big leagues. He was around from late 1986 to 1991 and was only prominent for about two to three years. That speaks volumes about great that Intercontinental Title reign was. It’s obvious that Honky Tonk Man was better on the mic and as a character than he was in the ring and that’s all you need to be a lot of the time.

He’s definitely entertaining and a great lesson in how to make a crowd want to kill a wrestler. If nothing else, the full story of him stealing the title and holding it as long as he did combined with the blowoff might be the most perfect story ever produced by WWE. I even did a Thought of the Day about it:

Thought of the Day: Possibly The Most Brilliant Storyline WWF Ever Produced

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