I know what you’re already thinking, how can you call a man who at the time of his death was the best heel in the world and who’s promotion was gearing up to break the all-time wrestling attendance record with him as the headliner, a bust.
Trust me, it was hard to start writing this piece because I hate to use that term on Art Barr. The term has such a negative connotation, it typically describes professional athletes who are lazy, don’t work hard enough, aren’t as good as they were made out to be, guys who had all the physical tools in the world but none of the mental. I’m not sure any of that describes Barr, but as stated in the first part of this series, I have a criteria I’m using to judge what I call a bust.
Did Wrestler X have at the very least two of the three the following attributes?
- Above average to good promo skills
- Above average to good in-ring ability
- Above average to good “look” (in shape, tall, muscular, etc.)
Did Wrestler X ever make it big in a major American wrestling promotion?
When taking this criteria into consideration, it becomes clearer why Barr is consider a bust. While he didn’t have the above average to good look — in fact he was so undersized he wasn’t even heavily pushed in Portland, he had stellar promo skills and tremendous in-ring ability, maybe one of the best all-around wrestlers of all time.
I will defend Barr’s selection in these ways as well:
- Barr had an awesome career in Mexico, as mentioned he was the top heel in two of the biggest promotions in the world (CMLL and AAA). He had a historic sellout streak and had one of the top matches of all time on one of the top wrestling cards of all time (When Worlds Collide).Unfortunately, his untimely death curtailed any chance of him making it big in America and don’t get it twisted, he WAS going to make it big in America. Extreme Championship Wrestling’s Paul Heyman was after Art Barr, when Barr died, his reluctant backup plan was Barr’s tag team partner Eddy Guerrero. Think about that. By that measure, you can’t help but call Barr disappointing and in this case, a bust.
- Barr, himself, made it difficult for any sustained success in America, as his checkered past forced him out of his hometown of Portland and while he did eventually get a job with a major company (World Championship Wrestling) it was never the same for Barr. As a child of the wrestling business, Barr was quite familiar with, “the business”. This included drugs (he had a cocaine possession arrest before his 18th birthday) and sex. Most notably one night in July of 1989 would set the stage for the career disappointment that was Art Barr. We’ll get into more of that later.
Either way, Barr is a bust. It may not be the best term for him and you shouldn’t look at it in the same light that you’ll look at a Nathan Jones perhaps, but he’s a bust nonetheless. Art Barr should’ve been one of the biggest stars in wrestling history, unfortunately, he wasn’t and here’s the story of why one of the best there ever could have been, never really started.
Art Barr was the son of preliminary wrestler Ferrin “Dandy Sandy” Barr, who gained most of his success in Portland, Oregon as a referee on the famed “Portland Wrestling” television show. As mentioned, Art literally grew up in the business, most notably the Portland Sports Arena. It was there that he met his idol and the man that would give Art his first big break and be the biggest inspiration for the 175-pound Barr, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
Inspirational because Piper, at a mere 210 pounds was thought to be too small to ever make it big in the professional wrestling business. Barr would deal with this same phobia until he went to Mexico and in spite of his small stature, ended up being one of the biggest stars in that country’s history. I think Piper did well for himself too.
Barr, who was trained by his father, older brother and recently passed Matt Osborne, made his debut in April 1987 and immediately impressed crowds with his high work rate. At a mere 175 pounds, Barr could do things his steroid-filled contemporaries couldn’t. The problem, of course, is that promoters didn’t think that way. The business was still obsessed with the more muscle bound performers and Barr was unable to achieve tremendous success in Portland.
Roddy Piper, back home in Portland during one of his many World Wrestling Federation hiatus’ came up with an idea that would be Barr’s first big break. On January 1989, Piper encouraged Barr to take his ring gear off “EVEN YOUR PANTS” (this was some frightening foreshadowing) and transform himself into a new character, a character with white make-up on his face and flour in his hair. Art Barr was now, “Beetlejuice”.
The Beetlejuice character caught on right away and Barr became one of the top babyfaces in the Portland territory. His entrance became a full-out party as Barr would grab kids from the crowd and dance around the arena. His in-ring style, while still well regarded for its polish became an act in itself as Barr would shake the flour from his hair during comebacks and generally receive tremendous support from the younger crowd in Portland. The gimmick was working and while it wasn’t a main event character, it was a character that took Barr from generic preliminary wrestler to a star in his territory.
Then came July 16, 1989, a day that Barr would never forget. After a show in Pendelton, Oregon, Barr was with a 19-year-old wrestling fan named Angela in a deserted armory. Barr and Angela ended up having sex underneath a stairwell and immediately following the encounter, Barr was charged with first-degree rape.
Local television covered this event heavily considering Barr’s character at the time was that of a kid-friendly, kid-interacting cartoon character in Beetlejuice. The local promoters, tone deaf to the coverage outside their wrestling bubble added fuel to the fire week in and week out by continuing to book and promote Beetlejuice. Each week, he’d grab kids and dance to the ring like nothing had happened. This would prove to be fatal to the career of Barr.
In July of 1990, on the exact day when his trial was to begin, Barr made a plea-deal. Instead of a first-degree rape charge, Barr would be hit with first-degree sexual abuse, ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and pay for all of Angela’s medial and counseling bills. Barr was additionally sentenced to 180 hours of community service and placed on two years’ probation. It was a hefty price to pay but it was certainly better than rape.
The exact details of the event are still murky but Barr without a doubt had sex with the woman that night. Barr claims she wanted to have sex, just not at the armory and not at the moment, they did. Angela claimed he never wanted sex that night.
The plea deal should have been the end of it for Barr, but it turned out to only be the beginning.
Barr was constantly targeted by local papers that used his case as an example of a lax justice system that let a local TV personally essentially have sex with a woman without her consent and didn’t serve any prison time for it. The outcry was huge (and perhaps, rightfully so). Finally sensing that Barr was a hot button issue, the Portland territories stopped using Barr temporarily. In August 1990, the Oregon boxing and wrestling commission discussed revoking Barr’s wrestling license based on his guilty plea.
“They didn’t want to turn their back on somebody who could make money for them. They’d rather have turned their back on the young woman who was raped and the gang of children following him around the ring.”
-Margie Boule, Oregonian columnist
After initial pushback, the commission found a loophole — when Barr had filled out his license earlier and answered “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” with a “No” answer, he forgot something. Barr forgot his cocaine possession charge as a teenager. The commission seeing an opportunity to save face and make all parties (except Portland Wrestling) happy simply stated that Barr’s license wouldn’t be revoked, but when it was due for renewal, he would not be granted a new license.
It appeared the end of the road had come for the still young Barr.
That was until a tape of Barr portraying the character “Beetlejuice” ended up in the hands of then-World Championship Wrestling President Jim Herd. Herd’s tenure as President is quite notorious, in addition to green lighting a team called “The Ding Dongs” that had bells attached to their bodies, he also famously told Ric Flair he should cut his hair and go under the name “Spartacus”. Flair told him to stick it and was eventually fired by WCW, ending up in WWF with the WCW World Heavyweight Title. You can read my Double Turns and You piece for more details on that situation.
Regardless, Herd took a liking to Barr, or more specifically his Beetlejuice character. WCW, having struggled mightily to reel in the young children demographic, felt the character of Beetlejuice would get children to not only watch the matches on television but the ultimate goal, have them go to the arena. The allure of Barr’s entire pre-match festival (dancing with kids and bringing them to the ring) drew Herd in. This is the character his WCW needed! Well, Beetlejuice and Big Josh, of course.
Herd probably didn’t care, but he was getting a top notch, plus plus worker in Barr. While undersized, Barr has molded himself into a solid worker whose blend of high flying and traditional wrestling made him unlike anyone else in the business at the time. Of course, that meant nothing to Herd, he cared about the character and the rush to hire Barr and adopt the Beetlejuice character in WCW caused Herd and the WCW offices to overlook the elephant in the room — WCW had no idea or at least a willful ignorance to Barr’s sexual abuse conviction.
Barr debuted in WCW as “The Juicer” since copyrights exist and calling your rip-off Beetlejuice character Beetlejuice is probably not the best idea. The Juicer remained in opening matches but the crowd immediately took a liking to The Juicer. Maybe it was familiarity with the movie character or Barr was just that damn good at his job, either way, the fans, especially the young children were into Barr.
The Juicer became a regular on the WCW House Show scene winning his first 12 matches against the likes of Barry Horowitz, Dutch Mantel and some guy named Kamikaze. On the surface, things were finally looking up for Barr. However, behind the scene of WCW things were not so rosy. Herd and WCW’s ignorance on Barr’s sexual abuse past came back in a big way. Oregon newspapers (The Oregonian and Margie Boule specifically) began publishing columns about Barr targeted at WCW. The publisher of the newspaper went as far as to pen a letter to Ted Turner (WCW’s principal owner) telling him to exercise better judgment in hiring someone who sexually abused someone only a year or so ago.
Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer claims things got much worse for Barr when someone (he claims someone from a Northeast area code) began faxing Boule and The Oregonian’s columns and all of Barr’s negative press to local newspapers where Barr and WCW were scheduled to appear. This way, the local newspapers would pick it up and many began writing stories about WCW’s pushing a sexual abuser as a kid-friendly character.
Herd, to his credit, initially said he would stick up for Barr and back him fully. Herd felt it wasn’t necessary to punish him further and due to his plea deal, he paid his debt to society. The columns didn’t stop though and eventually the crowd began chanting “rapist” at The Juicer. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, unable to decide what to do to curtail the chants, Herd agreed to use Barr for his remaining bookings and then cut ties with the 24-year-old. On the January 5, 1991 edition of WCW Main Event The Fabulous Freebirds (Jimmy Garvin & Michael Hayes) defeated Barr and his teammate Norman (Norman the Lunatic, another awful gimmick) in a nearly eight minute television match. This would be Barr’s final appearance with World Championship Wrestling and presumably the end of the line for Barr’s wrestling career.
By now, you should realize that only two things would survive a nuclear bomb: cockroaches and Art Barr’s wrestling career. Of course, it didn’t end with WCW. Near the end of his run with the company, WCW brought a number of foreign stars into the fold for Starrcade 1990’s Pat O’Connor International tag Team Tournament. Some teams were poorly thrown together tandems like South Africa’s Sgt. Krueger and Col. DeKlerk (Rocco Rock of Public Enemy fame) or Canada’s Troy Montour and Danny Johnson. Seriously, those are the two best guys you could find to represent Canada? Anyway, WCW brought an actual team of Mexicans to represent Mexico in the form of Rey Mysterio Sr. and the still extremely young, extremely green Konnan.
Konnan and Barr hit it off immediately and when Konnan returned to Mexico and EMLL, he spoke with promoter Paco Alonso about two wrestlers he met with WCW that he thought had the potential to be special in Mexico. The two men were Black Magic better known to most current wrestling fans at Norman Smiley and The Juicer, Art Barr. With that, the masked American “Love Machine” was born.
Clearly oblivious to any sense of public relations, he was given that name. I can’t fathom a reason why nobody said a thing or maybe it was a tongue-in-cheek joke. The newspaper that now appeared to have a full-time job slamming Barr were not happy and said the Love Machine and the fact he was hiding himself under a mask was a complete slap in the face. At this point, it didn’t matter to Barr; he had new life in a new country and took the ball running.
Barr entered EMLL, a company on-fire. Not only was it the top promotion in Mexico, it could make a legitimate claim for being the top promotion in the world at the time. Barr had a hectic but lucrative schedule with EMLL that included double and sometimes triple shots on the weekends. Easier to swallow that amount of work when you’re making in excess of $3,500 per week. It’s safe to say Barr found the right opportunity. Again, Barr tried his best to mess it all up. Things behind the scenes were rocky; Barr was having trouble adjusting to life in Mexico and life away from his family. During a backstage altercation, Barr punched Blue Panther, a man he was feuding with at the time. EMLL was predictably upset by this backstage fight but could do little because of Barr’s tremendous success and ability to work. Likewise, Barr’s feud with Blue Panther was begin to draw tremendous gates, culminating in a Mask vs. Mask match at the famed Arena Mexico on April 3, 1992.
Nearly 18,000 fans packed Arena Mexico to watch the contest. On its face that doesn’t seem like a huge crowd but be aware, Arena Mexico only holds a little over 17,000. Also, be aware that another 8,000 (!) fans were staged in the parking lot watching the Panther vs. Love Machine match on gigantic screens. This was big. Machine lost his mask to Panther because he used a Piledriver, a move at the time banned in EMLL but regardless of the result, Barr was a success. The crowd packed in Arena Mexico that night is still the largest to ever see a match in one of the most famous wrestling venues in the world.
Of course, there couldn’t be stability in young Art’s life, of course not! A month after the Panther Mask vs. Mask match Barr was on the move, this time to AAA. Konnan, the man who originally brought him to Mexico and Antonio Pena, head booker of EMLL left the company to form a new organization, Asistencia Asesoría y Administración. It wasn’t a bad thing for Barr because upon arriving at AAA he received a sweet three-year contract worth an estimated $3,500 per week.
Barr returned to Oregon at the end of 1992 only this time Barr was once again fully licensed to wrestle in Oregon. Surprisingly, the past outcry that had doomed Barr’s career was gone. Konnan and Barr, wrestling as “American Love Machine” captured the Pacific Northwest Tag Team championships and took the belts back to Mexico where they became AAA’s World Tag Team Titles.
Barr’s success picked up where it left off, in fact, his running mate, Blue Panther was now also apart of AAA. The two continued their feud like nothing happened main eventing a 13 sellout in 15 week period climaxed by the first-ever TripleMania. On July 18, 1993 in the first major show since TripleMania Barr and Panther battled in a hair vs. mask match in front of an all-time record (for the Guadalajara area) 20,000 fans.
It what happened during the match that turned Barr’s career around. I limited my Double Turns and You article to only American promotions, which was a bit of an oversight because one of the more important ones of all-time occurred that night in Tomala, Jalisco. Barr, the Love Machine was a huge good guy babyface. It clearly got over and it took Barr’s career to new heights. However, during the course of this match, very subtly, Barr’s demeanor started to change. It came to a head during the third fall of the match when Barr began lifting Panther up after pins, looking at the crowd with a smug look. No intricate booking, no crazy promo or crazy backstory, simply, the crowd began booing Barr and cheering Panther. The double turn was completed and Barr was now a full-fledged heel and it fit him perfectly. Barr once again lost by using a banned move — this time the Tombstone Piledriver and had his head shaved.
A month or so later came another turning point in the career of Barr and really all of professional wrestling. Barr battled Eddy Guerrero and a masked El Hijo del Santo in a trios match (don’t have Barr’s teammates or the other team, sorry!). Towards the end of the match Barr unmasked Santo, only to put the Santo mask on his own head and started beating down Guerrero. Barr returned the mask to Santo and Guerrero upon waking up from the beating had assumed the real Santo beat him up, Guerrero then turned on Santo (don’t show this to Russo, guys) and the next week, Eddy Guerrero and Love Machine officially formed a tag team, the Gringo Locos.
Barr and Guerrero would never look back.
The Gringo Locos turned the world of professional wrestling upside down, their unique style and blend of Japanese, American and tradition Mexican wrestling styles made them unlike any other tag team in the world.
“I learned so much from Art…he could make the fans laugh, he could make them cry and he could make them pissed off. (He made me realize) there’s more to wrestling than just wrestling. He helped me change my personality in the ring. He had a big effect on me.”
It was during this time that Barr once again got himself into trouble, this time working a show for his father’s (Sandy Barr) promotion. Sandy was having issues with the local wrestling commission dealing with his license. At some point during the show, a (reportedly) drunk wrestler ran up to Barr and told Art that his opponent for the night (John Rambo) was a stooge for the state athletic commissioner. During the match, Barr threw a forearm right into the nose of Rambo shattering his nose. The match itself turned into a complete shoot and the planned finish did not happen. There was a treat of criminal assault and battery charges but nothing came of it because it all happened in a wrestling ring and that shit’s fake, remember?
Barr and Guerrero captured the AAA World Tag Team Titles from Santo & Octagon when the Gringo Locos paid off the heel referee in the ring. Three weeks later, Konnan joined forces with Barr and Guerrero to form a dominating trio, which held nWo-style dominance over AAA.
Perhaps Barr’s most famous match took place on November 6, 1994 in Los Angeles, California at the famous AAA pay-per-view “When Worlds Collide”. The PPV was a co-promotion between AAA and WCW. Executive Vice-President of WCW Eric Bischoff helped AAA secure the show on American pay-per-view providers. What Bischoff’s motivation was remains to be seen, but it was great exposure for AAA and most importantly Barr and Guerrero, the stars of AAA at the time. During some point of the booking changes, Barr was taken off the card and Santo vs. Guerrero was set up as a singles hair vs. mask match. Barr and the other AAA wrestlers lobbied for the singles mask vs. hair match to be turned into a tag team double mask vs. hair match — The Gringo Locos vs. Santo and Octagon.
To say Barr was motivated for this match would be an understatement, this was the big “Fuck you” match to everyone who doubted him, everyone that chanted racist at him, everyone that put him down and forced him to run away to Mexico to avoid bad publicity. This was the one event where he could show the world just how good he had become.
Although Barr was apparently disappointed by the match, he had no reason to be. It ruled. In fact, it’s one of the best ten matches of all time and received the highest of honors, a five-star rating from Dave Meltzer (one of four AAA matches to ever receive the honor and one of five all time in Mexico). The match is nearly perfect save for the standard three-fall lucha libre fare where the first fall is rushed and the second ends up being predictable. That’s nitpicking though, it’s an amazing contest.
Barr took the first fall via his patented frog splash, Octagon won the second via submission. Octagon was stretchered out of the match after receiving a Barr Tombstone and Santo was left to fend for himself. He won the fall, defeating Guerrero and the Gringos had to shave their heads, but Barr and Guerrero didn’t care, they made their name.
Because this card was available in the US this was the first exposure of the tag team to a general American audience and the reviews were raved, Guerrero and Barr were hot free agents and it seemed like only a matter of time before the team was snagged up by a major American promotion.
That’s unfortunately, where the story of Art Barr ends. On November 23, 1994, while home for Thanksgiving, Barr passed away in his sleep. He had a mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs in his blood stream but that was never ruled as the definitive case in his death. In fact, it’s still unknown exactly what killed him. There were rumors of an enlarged heart, perhaps from excessive steroid use but one look at Barr made that look next to impossible. It could have been just a normal heart attack, perhaps an underlying heart condition. Regardless, Love Machine/The Juicer/Beetlejuice/Art Barr was dead at age 28.
What would’ve come next in Barr’s career is unknown. One can look at the career path of Eddy Guerrero to see what may have happened. As mentioned earlier, Barr was being pursued by Paul Heyman and Extreme Championship Wrestling, when Barr passed away, Heyman signed Guerrero. Eddy parlayed his ECW tenure into a job with WCW. He famously jumped ship to WWE as a member of the Radicalz and despite having his own issues with drugs and alcohol, eventually turned into one of the most popular and successful professional wrestlers in the world during the 2000s. Guerrero would tragically pass away in 2005, in the midst of peak in WWE.
“He (Art Barr) and Eddie broadened the style (of Mexican wrestling)… Art opened their eyes to his style and made the young guys like Rey Misterio Jr, Psicosis and Juventud Guerrera who came up from AAA to WCW into the best workers in the world. He and Eddie had that much influence.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that he joined his friend and tag partner Barr in leaving “on top” but it’s hard not to think and wonder what Guerrero and more tragically, Barr could’ve done with a few more years of their lives. Barr most certainly would’ve gone to ECW and likely followed Guerrero to WCW. His small size may have prevented him from getting a gigantic push, but it would’ve been hard to argue with his charisma and pure drawing ability. We’ll never know though and that’s what makes Art Barr one of wrestling’s biggest busts.
“I think if he was still alive today he would be one of the top guys in the business…He had such good personality and the ability to piss people off.”
– Chris Jericho