The name Herb Abrams conjures up a series of images in wrestling fans’ minds.
The most obvious one, thanks to the Dark Side of the Ring documentary, is cocaine and hookers. Other images are the failure of the Universal Wrestling Federation, UWF. And to those that have watched UWF reruns on ESPN, is of wonder about who this crazy and fascinating guy on the screen is.
Jonathan Plombon answered the question of who Herb Abrams is and told the complete story of the UWF in “Tortured Ambition”, which is quite a ride that when I got deep into it, I could not leave. Who doesn’t love a train wreck?
The book has two goals: find out who Herb Abrams was and to tell the complete story of the UWF, an upstart promotion that came out in 1989 after the demise of most territories. The way Plombon did this was by interviewing anybody he could find that was involved in the UWF and that personally knew Abrams, and he did find important and key people on both subjects. You also get an episode-by-episode tale of all of the “Fury Hour” episodes, the UWF’s TV show, and its special shows, “Beach Brawl ” and “Blackjack Brawl”. Just like AEW, the UWF had its themes too.
Who is Herb Abrams?
The short version is that he is a New Yorker that always dreamed of being big. He made a fortune in the women’s garment industry and used his money to fund his dream as a wrestling fan, his own promotion. He hired his childhood hero Bruno Sammartino to be his commentator alongside him, and hired wrestlers like Paul Orndoff, Brian Blair, Cactus Jack, Ivan Koloff, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, Bob Orton and many others that were on and off the promotion due to them going to the greener pastures of WCW or WWF or AJPW or simply because Abrams did not pay them. More than anything, he wanted to be one of the boys, no matter the cost.
Abrams is a complicated guy and he gets a fair shake in here. We are talking about a man that spent money like there is no tomorrow on his vices, cocaine and women. He spent money on wrestlers so he could feel like he was part of the brotherhood. He liked to help and make people happy even to his detriment. Yet, he owed a lot of people money, be it wrestlers, owners of buildings, or whatever rumor you may have heard. A lot of people did not like him, which is where I’m getting at.
Abrams is a fascinating guy to read about, and even though he is controversial, Plombon interviewed people that loved and hated Abrams. From family members to close friends, this is as close as it gets to the biography of an interesting man that loved pro wrestling and just wanted the business to love him back, no matter what he did or how many bridges he burned. There are tons of burned bridges here, and you will get to read all of the controversial, sad, and hilarious stories. We even get the different sides to some of those stories. This is not a bury job, but an attempt to understand the man.
Let’s talk about Abrams’s baby, the UWF, which is the other main focus of this book.
This is the definitive history of the promotion, from inception to the end. You will learn about the week-to-week episodes, the only PPV, their only show at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, big matches, and the big feuds. You might wonder “Why would I want a detailed account of a dead promotion that only registers today due to the antics of the owner?” Well, because everybody loves a good clusterfuck. Consider the UWF a “don’t do this” example for future promoters, especially those with a TV deal.
The UWF’s weekly show was called “Fury Hour” and each one is filled up with squash matches, and all of the main events that feature known wrestlers always had a screwy finish. ALL OF THEM. Imagine any type of bullshit finish, the UWF did it and even got creative on some of those. This was to protect the ego of those main eventers and big names. The endings were so bad that sometimes the main events ended on the following episode with a…..screwy finish, which certainly made the fans that had to wait a week for the result happy.
Wrestlers came and went, some disappearing after only one show. Dan Spivey appeared on the first episode, came back only for the last show, yet they kept promoting him and selling his merchandise. There is a meme that if a wrestler said “I’m coming here to stay” they were gone, an example being Barry Horowitz. The only UWF wrestler the booking managed to get over was…a referee, since the promotion only relied on known names.
The story of that referee? Col. DeBeers, from South Africa, refused to be in a match with the African American referee, Larry Sampson. He berated and abused the referee. Now, did this referee, who was a trained wrestler, laced up his boots and beat DeBeers’s ass at the end of the story? Of course not, he was gone one day and Iceman Parsons wrestled in his place. The UWF is weird, I tell you.
As the show kept going through the years, it got weirder. I’m talking about continuity errors nonstop, the announcer saying something and the graphics saying something else, managers losing wrestlers overnight, the commentary team not caring, and even old footage on what were supposed to be new episodes.
Even the matches were illogical since the wrestlers could be beating the hell out of each other all over the floor and hitting each other with chairs, and a DQ was called because they use a lead pipe. Wrestlers that went over naturally, like Cactus Jack and Steve Ray, obviously were ignored, because why not. In the last episodes, the shows were centered around Herb Abrams, because why not? He’s the booker and money guy (even if he failed to pay people and arenas). And this is barely scratching the surface of what was the UWF.
The UWF is the type of awful promotion that has no logic, nothing makes sense, and you can’t help but laugh. You get here all of the awfulness of the UWF with details and a LOT of stories of those that came and went. I mean, this was a promotion where Steve Williams shoot on a referee and it was shown on TV…on a show that was not live. There was no care and love for editing. The UWF is a special kind of something, just like its owner.
What I consider the weakness in the book is that sometimes I think that some of the match recounts aren’t necessary. I understand one explaining a crazy match or infamous one, like the “legendary” Mad Man Pondo vs Super Ninja, but some of the normal matches could have been shortened a bit, explain what it was and go straight to the finish instead of a play-by-play.
The story of Herb Abrams and the UWF is fascinating. When talking about the man, Plombon did his best to be fair to his memory and shared both sides of his story. The UWF is a funny warning for future promoters to beware and think things through. At least to hire a booker. Plombon clearly loves the subject and he had a lot of fun with some of the chapters, which was infectious while reading it.
Funny enough, and to paraphrase part of one of the book’s thesis, Herb Abrams ended up being part of the wrestling business, which is what he strived for in life. He is remembered as the cokey crazy promoter of the UWF and one of pro wrestling’s most interesting personalities of the ’90s.