Whilst wrestling fans have stereotypically been viewed by the ‘real’ world as stupid or backwater hicks who should know better, they have never been stupid enough just to accept what is presented in front of them. That isn’t to suggest that a wrestling storyline or angle needs to be high art to be appreciated, just that fans are a little more discerning than promoters sometimes give them credit for.
One of the clearest indications of this has been how rarely a replacement for an old gimmick, tag team or stable has gone on to be accepted or embraced by the fans. There are the odd examples (different incarnations of the Midnight Express have their champions and their detractors, if you ignore the ‘New’ version), but they become the exception that proves the rule. Stan Lane may have been a more than capable replacement for Dennis Condrey – and Bobby Eaton a better initial partner for Condrey than Randy Rhoads or Norvell Austin – but that doesn’t make up for New Blackjacks, Fake Diesel and Razor Ramon. Nor does it make up for those almost-alikes that pop up from time to time: Danny Spivey as a like for like replacement for Barry Windham, or Corporal Kirchner as a dollar store Sergeant Slaughter.
A couple of years ago, I spoke to Jerry Jarrett on the Booking Memphis podcast about his time in the territory during 1984. It was a year that I had been researching for a series of reviews and eventual books, and I had been blown away by the quality and excitement of Memphis television. Having never had a chance to see it properly until then, the wild brawls, blood and fire were amazing to witness for a fan that had grown up on WWF.
His one regret from that year? The new Fabulous Ones, Eddie Gilbert and Tommy Rich.
With both men born in Tennessee, they had the potential to be brought back as returning heroes. However, with February of that year seeing Stan Lane and Steve Keirn leave Memphis to try their hand in other territories, there was a space left open for a new ‘blowjob babyface’ tag team. Gilbert and Rich were chosen to fill that gap. Not only were they chosen to fill that gap, but they were backed by Jackie Fargo, who even went as far as to denounce on television the actions of Lane and Keirn (a decision made all the more confusing when they returned later on in the year).
Having watched the brief genesis and spectacular implosion of the new Fabulous Ones, the worst thing I can say about it was that they genuinely really tried to make it work. Rich seemed more at home in the gimmick and on the microphone, yet they both went out every week, engaging in bloody brawls that took them around the arena. They couldn’t be blamed for their willingness to put their bodies on the line to try and get it over.
When Lane and Keirn first began to wrestle as the Fabulous Ones, there was a concern that their good looks may have made them a challenge to get over with the male fans who were accustomed to wrestlers like Jackie Fargo and Jerry Lawler, men known for their brawling above and beyond their attractiveness to the opposite sex. Luckily, they had the rivals to showcase that they weren’t just a pretty boy tag team – they could more than hold their own in a fight. First, The Sheepherders, then the Moondogs shed buckets of blood to help the Fabulous Ones make their mark in Memphis.
One of the biggest problems with this new incarnation was the almost immediate end to their initial program opposite…Jimmy Hart’s Fabulous Ones. In a great, if potentially offensive, piece of television, The Bruise Brothers team of Dream Machine and Porkchop Cash were killed off, only to be announced as the new Fabulous Ones. Unfortunately for the feud, Machine broke his leg before it had really got off of the ground. Whatever was planned needed to be changed.
(The ‘death’ of The Bruise Brothers)
(The debut of the Fabulous Ones, Eddie Gilbert and Tommy Rich)
The willingness of the teams Gilbert and Rich faced were hard to really complain about either, though they were cut from different cloth than that of the Sheepherders and the Moondogs. Norvell Austin and Koko Ware as the PYT Express were involved in matches that took the combatants all around the Coliseum (as well as a fight in Nashville that saw them fight all the way backstage).
(versus PYT Express in Memphis)
(versus PYT Express in Nashville)
When they moved on, it was time for Phil Hickerson and The Spoiler to be the main opposition; Hickerson in particular an effective foil to any babyface during this time period. Though they won a bloody Tennessee Street Fight (Rich using a loaded mask for the win), this was bracketed either side by losing and subsequently failing to regain the Southern Tag Team Titles.
By June, the bloom was very much off of the rose as Lane and Keirn returned, retaking their spot at the top of the card. Even before this, interviews on television in which the response from the crowd was referenced didn’t speak highly to the run as a whole – pleading for fans to like you is never a good look.
(A rambling Rich promo that highlights some of the concerns)
If Jarrett was unhappy about their stint as a babyface tag team that aimed, and failed, to recapture the glory days of The Fabulous Ones, he should at least look back with fondness on their break up.
Heading back to the aforementioned Jarrett booking philosophy of taking stories from literature, there was something Cain and Abel-esque about the dissolution of the Rich and Gilbert friendship. In successive weeks, Tommy defeated Masao Ito and Ric Rude to take the CWA International and Southern Title respectively. The green-eyed monster began to rear its ugly head. Whilst Gilbert was stuck helping Ron Mikolajcyzk, Jerry Lawler’s footballing buddy, Rich was getting all of the glory. Not only that, but when Rich defeated Ito, it was Tojo Yamamoto in his corner rather than his own tag team partner.
Things came to a head when Gilbert was positioned as the special guest referee when Tommy defended the Southern Title against King Kong Bundy. A chain-assisted punch from the monster was enough to keep Rich down for the three count, yet it also served as the catalyst to blow the New Fabulous Ones wide open.
(Gilbert voices his concerns about Tommy Rich)
The following week, the Mid-South Coliseum saw eleven teams compete to become the Memphis representative in an AJPW Tag Team Tournament later on in the year. With Gilbert a non-starter, Rich chose Jackie Fargo as his partner. A second-round contest saw the team come up against formidable opposition in the form of Ric Rude and King Kong Bundy. Further slighted by Rich’s choice to go with Fargo over him, Gilbert decided to get involved, even though he had been the man who had distanced himself from the duo. As Tommy had Bundy down with the Thesz Press, Eddie hit the ring, dropped an elbow on the back of his partner’s head and gifted the win to the heel team.
(Gilbert turns on Tommy Rich)
Whilst Gilbert had been more than competent in the ring, it could be argued that he hadn’t quite found his character or persona yet. Having spent the first half-decade of his career as a babyface who was more often than not just a plucky underdog rather than anything substantial, the turn-on Rich saw him run as a heel for the first time. It was as a heel where Gilbert would become most recognized and do most of his most notable work.
In the weeks that followed, ‘Hot Stuff’ Eddie Gilbert was born.
Like a lot of feuds in Memphis, it was often the angles on television that the fans remember nowadays more so than the actual matches outside of the odd exception. Rich’s involvement in Georgia (for Georgia Championship Wrestling and Championship Wrestling from Georgia post-Black Saturday) meant that his runs in Memphis were often fits and starts. With the New Fabulous Ones splitting up, Rich hung around long enough to lose the International Heavyweight Title to Gilbert and to be involved in an angle that was another that is remembered fondly by fans of the territorial days.
The decision to give a tag team of the year award in the height of summer probably gave the game away somewhat that something was going to happen. The WFIA Tag Team of the Year award was given to the New Fabulous Ones on an episode of Championship Wrestling, though only Gilbert came out in the first instance. Using this platform to deride his ex-partner, Gilbert earned himself a brutal beatdown when Rich did come out, ending up covered in his own blood as Rich took out all of his frustrations from the past few weeks.
What Memphis, as a promotion had always done well when it came to television, was the escalation of events. You felt things were over, but they were only just beginning. Things could have ended with Gilbert beaten down and bloodied, yet they weren’t over just yet. A contrite offer for Rich to come back out and for Gilbert to apologize unsurprisingly led to Hot Stuff gaining immediate revenge with his own assault. Violent, gory and running to nearly ten minutes worth of television time, this was an angle that almost made the misjudged decision to throw them together under the Fabulous Ones moniker worth it.
(A bloody brawl on Memphis television)
At a time where Rich wasn’t in the territory week in, week out like Gilbert was, it was Hot Stuff who largely came out the victor in the feud. In the most notable contest between the two men, Gilbert won the CWA International Championship from around Rich’s waist on August 27. The following week did see Rich eliminate Hot Stuff from a tournament to win a Cadillac, but further attempts to win the gold back saw him come up short.
Bigger things sat on the horizon for Gilbert. If you were a heel holding a title belt in Memphis, there was only one way things were going to play out. Gilbert had become a target for the King of Memphis, Jerry Lawler. However, the Memphis territory was not averse to running with a family feud angle when they had the opportunity. Next step? A feud with the Poffos, before the inevitable collision with the King.