With a grandfather who wrestled at the fairgrounds and a father who was a fixture in the rings of Tennessee among other territories, it was always likely that Eddie Gilbert was going to end up going into the business. He was born into a wrestling family and it was wrestling that he ate, slept, and bled throughout his relatively short-lived career.
His father, Tommy Gilbert was only twenty-one when Eddie was born and didn’t actually debut as a wrestler until 1969, working for Nick Gulas. This made Hot Stuff about eight years old as his father entered the profession that was going to be his bread and butter over the fifteen to twenty years, first as a wrestler, then as a referee.
For many second-generation wrestlers (and third generation, in this case), the territory in which your father worked became a viable starting point for your own career. Gilbert made his debut in 1977 at the age of fifteen or sixteen, depending on the official given date; his television debut followed in 1979 just short of his eighteenth birthday. With Jerry Jarrett and Nick Gulas splitting the territory in 1977, Tommy had sided with Jarrett, meaning that Eddie began working initially in Memphis.
Considering how young Tommy was when Eddie was first conceived, and how relatively late he made his own debut, the father only had eight years more experience in the ring than his son. This also meant that, although the two wrestled at times as a father and son team, Tommy wasn’t yet into his forties. In a territory where age wasn’t necessarily an obstruction to getting a push, Tommy wasn’t over the hill yet. As a mark of respect for his father, Eddie even debuted as ‘Tommy Gilbert Jr.’, not desiring to shy away from the familial ties.
(Gilbert’s television debut – Eddie Gilbert and Tony Charles verus Larry Latham and Wayne Farris)
In a territory that prided itself on the reality of what they offered in the ring – ignoring the science fiction monsters and fireballs – the plucky young underdog was the role that Gilbert found himself playing. The tone was set with his debut as he lasted almost to the bell on a TV time remaining match against notorious heels, Larry Latham and Wayne Farris. That his father came out to save him from the beatdown didn’t matter; it just established the connection between the two men and that Tommy had his son’s back when needed.
It wasn’t long before Tommy Gilbert Jr. became Eddie Gilbert, teaming with his father against Latham and Farris, as well as another father/son duo in the team of Buddy and Ken Wayne. Jerry Jarrett’s booking philosophy centered on utilizing ideas from great literature texts to tell stories, creating storylines out of the obvious building blocks that helped to create narratives that people wanted to enjoy. The narrative of families feuding, feuds that pass down from father to son, are archetypal in nature and gave Eddie a chance to be positioned as a sympathetic babyface who could also fight his own battles when called upon.
(Eddie and Tommy Gilbert get into trouble with Buddy and Ken Wayne)
Titles followed at a local level alongside his father, though title runs in Memphis themselves were less the draw than the victory itself. Runs of three weeks (after defeating Killer Karl Krupp and The Mongol) and four weeks (after losing the gold and winning it back from Sonny King and The Angel) were about average for 80s Memphis, yet could be looked upon more positively than the occasional one-week hotshot title reigns that were also a booking choice during this time period.
Setting a trend that lasted Gilbert’s career, he wasn’t satisfied to only spend time in Memphis. Within a year of his television debut, he was not only winning tag titles in Leroy McGuirk’s Tri-State territory (one that was admittedly soon to be bought out by Bill Watts), but also found his way out to Puerto Rico, a territory that became a significant part of the Gilbert story. With these moves, the transition away from the father/son tandem began. Whilst Gilbert initially won the NWA Tri-State Tag Team Titles with Tommy, his second and third run with the gold – and subsequent one week reign with the AWA Southern Tag Team Titles – came alongside Ricky Morton.
(The first Tri-State Tag Team Title victory – Eddie Gilbert and Ricky Morton versus Jerry Brown and Ron McFarlane)
(Successful in Puerto Rico versus Jerry Finley, 82)
Morton himself was another second-generation wrestler, though one that was almost five years younger than Gilbert. Both were young and good looking, sympathetic and athletic. The two men ended up walking out on McGuirk due to a dispute over payments – not the first dispute that Gilbert would get into in his wrestling career.
The high point of his first run, or at least the moment that has had some resonance over time was the Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl in 1981. This was by no means the first example of this type of wanton destruction booked on a Memphis-booked show (the first was attributed to Bill Dundee, Jerry Lawler, Wayne Farris and Larry Latham in 1979), but it was perhaps a more interesting example.
Though the booking of Dundee and Lawler did often, if a little awkwardly, present them as good looking babyfaces,they were also more often presented as men who could hold their own in a wild brawl. For Gilbert and Morton, they were clean-cut, soft-spoken good guys. They’d proved they weren’t afraid of a scrap, yet this was another level of escalation. For ten full minutes, the duo smashed their way through the various produce and condiments that this Tupelo stall had to offer, with Mr. (Atsushi) Onita, Mr. (Masa) Fuchi, and Tojo Yamamoto giving as good as they got. Blood, sauce and broomsticks flew in scenes that still impress to this day.
(The Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl, ‘81 edition)
At the age of just twenty-one, the future seemed laid out at Gilbert’s feet, no more so than when Vince McMahon Sr. offered him a chance to come up to the WWF in 1982, the two having met at an NWA convention. Though WWF wasn’t the national juggernaut it soon become, it was a step up from Memphis, both in terms of notoriety and payoff. Seeing an opportunity to make something more of himself, Gilbert moved up to New York and began working under McMahon Sr.
Gilbert worked the territory for a year and a half: a run that gave him the chance to rub shoulders with some of the greats in the industry, but one that ultimately had a significantly negative impact in the long run.