Throughout his career, one of the biggest drawbacks or barriers to success for Eddie Gilbert was his lack of size. Heading up to New York/WWF—a territory known for promoting wrestlers who were action figure-like in their definition—was a brave step. The confidence of youth, the confidence of Gilbert in his own ability, must have inspired him to believe he could make it in the WWF, somewhat against the odds.
Gilbert’s arrival in the territory coincided with that of Curt Hennig, another second generation superstar that the promotion was taking a look at and three years older than Gilbert. Like the aforementioned team with Ricky Morton, Hennig shared similar attributes to Eddie notwithstanding having a father in the business. During a time where the in-ring action in the WWF could be pedestrian, Gilbert and Hennig were fresh faces that offered more excitement from bell to bell.
The October 5 taping in Allentown, Pennsylvania saw the debut of Gilbert—the October 9 show airing a victory over Victor Mercado, one that seems to be lost to the sands of time (or beyond my rudimentary abilities at searching for it). What is readily available was his debut as a tag team with Hennig, occurring the following week in terms of airing but taped as part of the same show. Their opponents? Mac Rivera and Tony Colon.
(Eddie Gilbert and Curt Hennig’s debut as a tag team on October 16 Championship Wrestling)
To debut two potential stars in your promotion after a bloody altercation between Jimmy Snuka and Ray Stevens had seen Snuka carted out on a stretcher was somewhat cruel. The muted crowd. The response to the action was noted by Vince McMahon Jr. on commentary and it was an uphill battle to engage the crowd that Gilbert and Hennig never looked like managing. Neither man looked particularly impressive, though Gilbert hit the most impressive spot with a flying forearm to the face of Colon. It was Hennig, however, who got the pin.
When I first talked about a retrospective of Gilbert’s career, spanning out of some early WWF action that I’d seen him in, what one fan pointed out was how young Gilbert was compared to the rest of the roster. On the same episode of Championship Wrestling, you had Superstar Billy Graham (39), Rocky Johnson (38), and Andre the Giant (36). The hot angle that saw Stevens attack Snuka saw a forty-eight-year old bloodying a spry man of thirty-nine. Gilbert and Hennig were very much against the established grain of a WWF wrestler of the era.
Their position in the pecking order was quickly established as December 4th saw them teaming against the Wild Samoans. Though they had some success – Gilbert in particular avoiding a chop that caused some Samoan on Samoan violence – a dominant squash was the order of the day. The Samoans went on to win the WWF World Tag Team Titles in March 1983, so they were being primed.
Gilbert’s tenure in the promotion lasted a year and a half. Hennig, on the other hand, left partway through 1983. By that point, Gilbert had already been positioned as a protege of the current WWF World Heavyweight Champion, Bob Backlund. Two weeks after the defeat against the Samoans, Gilbert was teaming with Backlund on an episode of Championship Wrestling. A week later the champion saved Gilbert, whose match against Big John Studd ended prematurely when the giant shoved the referee out of the way.
What might usually be considered a positive alliance in terms of how you were perceived by the crowd only ended up hurting Gilbert in the long run. A new team that was formed alongside Tony Garea came up against the stumbling block of the Samoans once more, whilst there was limited upward trajectory in Gilbert’s singles aspirations.
Where his skills were most appreciated was his ability to hold his own in a number of matches against a touring Tiger Mask. Taking place at the tail end of 1982, the matches weren’t groundbreaking in the manner that the Dynamite Kid matches would be, but Gilbert was an effective base against which Mask could show off his quick exchanges, reversals and high flying moves.
Whatever momentum Gilbert had managed to create all but vanished in May. According to Gilbert, an invitation to eat at Vince McMahon’s place ended up with him ploughing his car into the back of a lorry. The injuries included him cracking his C5 vertebrae, an injury that could have cost him his in-ring career.
In Gilbert’s own words, he returned to the ring too early. In the words of Wrestling Observer Newsletter readers, he returned to shoot an angle that won the award for Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic that year. Having legitimately broken his neck, the WWF booked him in an angle in which, upon his brief return, the Masked Superstar broke his neck with two swinging neckbreakers on the concrete floor. Used as a means to build a feud between the Superstar and Backlund, it was a crass usage of a genuine injury.
This was where the association with Backlund hurt the most: the tail end of 1983. The WWF, and wrestling as a whole, was about to enter a new era, one in which Backlund was certainly not the guy at the top table for Vince McMahon Jr. Gilbert returned to the ring in November; Backlund lost the title the following month and was out of the company by February 84. Citing feeling homesick, Gilbert was gone by March – his most notable action of his final few months being a sacrificial lamb for The Iron Sheik before a post-match angle saw Sergeant Slaughter lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, officially turning face in the process.
In some ways, that summed up Gilbert’s run in New York. He was around at important parts, but nothing that ever elevated him. Even when things such as the Superstar attack happened, they were to the benefit of other people. A start that had begun with such promise was curtailed, both in terms of booking and the car crash.
Gilbert went home to Memphis, where things were only going to get worse before they could get better.