There are people whose lives are so extraordinary that they seem like something out of a book.

They walk this world like titans. They make the unlikely fact. They change everything they are involved with. They leave indelible marks in history.

Ted Turner is that kind of person. Just look at some of the highlights, shall we? Turner gets kicked out of Brown University for having a female student in his dorm room. He joins the Coast Guard to stay out of Vietnam. He inherited his dad’s billboard business at 24 after his dad’s suicide and proceeded to turn it into a media empire. He won an America’s Cup in sailing. He tried to beat up Rupert Murdoch. He bought the Braves. He even managed the Braves. His team won the World Series. He started the first television Superstation (TBS) and invented the modern media landscape. He started the first 24-hour news station: CNN. He married a movie star.

And really, I’m only scratching the surface of Turner’s life. He’s basically a mythical figure. The stories he and others tell about him almost sound like tall tales. This is a man tailor-made to be associated with wrestling.

The question, though is: does that apply for a wrestling hall of fame? Did he impact the history of wrestling enough in the 30-plus years he was involved with wrestling as a broadcaster, owner, and promoter to qualify for the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame?

I think the answer is unequivocally yes.

Ted Turner impacted the history of wrestling in a positive manner in a way and magnitude that very few people ever have. Wrestling history without Ted Turner is much different, and, in my opinion, much worse.

Let’s go over the life and times of Captain Outrageous and how he set the course for modern wrestling. There’s a reason Vince ran full-page ads attacking him.

We need to start with TBS or, more appropriately, WTCG (short for Turner Communications Group) out of Atlanta. As he recounts it in his 2008 memoir Call Me Ted: He bought the Atlanta UHF channel 17 station back in 1970.

In 1972, he added two critical pieces: he won the rights to air Braves games and he lured the local wrestling promotion Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW) over to his channel.

Turner describes himself as a lifetime wrestling fan, and to quote Eric Bischoff:

“If you read anything about Ted Turner, Ted believed the three things that could get eyeballs to his fledgling cable network, WTBS in Atlanta, were professional wrestling, baseball, and Andy Griffith.”

How exactly did Turner come to this belief in wrestling as a draw? Well, initially, things were rough for his plucky little UHF station out of Atlanta. To the point that Turner had to set up a telethon to keep channel 17 on air (and yes, that is similar to the movie UHF, and yes, the format of the proto-TBS was eerily similar to the channel in that movie).

But things turned around thanks in no small part to a funny thing that happened at the same time: The Battle of Atlanta.

The Battle of Atlanta was a wrestling war that broke out in and around the Georgia territory just after Ted Turner lured GCW over to WTCG. Paul Jones owned GCW, but Ray Gunkel ran it. 

The new television deal would be one of Gunkel’s last decisions. Ray Gunkel died of a heart attack later that year after a match versus Ox Baker in Savannah, Georgia. The death set off some internal problems, with Ray’s widow Ann, who had worked closely with Ray and expected to get her share of the promotion being shut out in favor of Bill Watts, with the promotion being renamed “Mid-South Sports.” Ann Gunkel decided to start her own promotion outside of the National Wrestling Alliance, which she named the “All-South Wrestling Alliance.”

Where does Turner come in here? Well, Turner apparently was friendly with Ann and backed her new spinoff by giving her wrestling promotion a TV slot, too. But Turner also took the opportunity to keep the old GCW on TV and take advantage of the sudden influx of talent and young hot creatives the NWA injected them with.

“Mid-South Sports’s long-term prospects were not good at that point, most of their wrestlers had gone with Ann, and Ann’s promotion had gotten Mid-South’s television time slot, though both promotions aired on WTCG. (Ted Turner and Ann Gunkel had both attended Brown University and were rumored to be romantically involved.) After two years of strife, a trouble-shooter was called in: Jim Barnett, who had owned promotions in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Colorado and Australia. (The Australian promotion was called World Championship Wrestling.) At this point, Ann’s promotion went downhill, being locked out of arena dates, with wrestlers defecting to Mid-South, and finally, Ann Gunkel’s All-South Wrestling Alliance folded in 1974.”

Turner’s mandate to the NWA in this affair had been to fight fair and let the best promotion win. The NWA brought in two promising young guns to book (the aforementioned Watts and Jerry Jarrett) and eventually brought in Jim Barnett as the promoter. Ann’s wildcat promotion lost, and a new Georgia Championship Wrestling emerged. A fuller account of the whole thing from Jerry Jarrett is here.

What’s interesting and important is how many historically important wrestling origin stories interact here: Watts Mid South, Jerry Jarrett, and the Jim Barnett Georgia Championship wrestling. We have the seeds of Turner’s connections to the NWA. More importantly? This is Turner’s first experience with a wrestling war setting a territory on fire and making him money.

But most important of all? By 1973, WTCG was in the black in no small part due to the wrestling war. This allowed Turner to proceed to his next big idea, and it’s this idea that changed the history of wrestling. Let’s talk about the Superstation and the birth of basic cable.

Picture this: It’s 1975, and HBO came up with the initial idea of using communications satellites to transmit its paid cable service to cable affiliates around the US as a cost-effective way to expand its coverage and thus became the first national cable channel. HBO did the first version of this for the Thrilla in Manila on September 30, 1975.

Turner hears about this and immediately comes up with the idea to use a similar setup to make his plucky UHF station the first national Superstation (this is wildly underselling the amount of technical, legal, and organizational shenanigans involved, seriously, it’s wild). The plan was to effectively make his station available coast to coast through, again, a wild series of technical and legal hurdles at a very low cost for cable operators to add to their channels easily. Ted had TBS national on December 17th, 1976 less than 15 months after HBO.

This was the birth of Basic Cable, and Turner brought wrestling with him. Georgia Championship Wrestling became the first nationally broadcast NWA affiliate. There had been earlier nationally broadcast and syndicated wrestling programs ( Wrestling from Marigold and Hollywood Wrestling ), and they were an extremely important part of the early growth and expansion of TV. Those programs collapsed as national programs with the combined demise of the Dumont and Paramount TV networks in the mid-fifties and the cartel nature of the NWA, which preferred wrestling as local fiefdoms for the promoter. Turner taking Georgia Championship Wrestling national on basic Cable broke that paradigm (and made the NWA, which recognized the seeds of its future doom very antsy).

Effectively, Turner had established the first national promotion (at least on TV) since the early days of television. This took the Southern style of wrestling that was prevalent in this promotion and made it available everywhere there was basic cable. Without Turner’s Superstation, the first broadly available wrestling on TV since the 50s would have been WWE when Vince McMahon took them national in 1982 and the domination of the northeast style and its defacto monopoly as the American style of wrestling would have probably come into being significantly earlier.

Which brings us to Vince McMahon Junior.

Let’s talk about Vince McMahon and Ted Turner now. Everyone knows the story of Vince buying his dad out in 1982 with the intention of going national and proceeding to do just that leading to the wrestling boom of the 1980s. Some details are forgotten in this. Pre-Vince’s takeover HBO (and then MSG) was already taking WWWF (the modern WWE) national on premium cable. This was not as broadly available as the GCW shows by virtue of being on a premium cable service. Vince however, was not sitting on his laurels, seeing that Turner had taken GCW and Southern style national he was going to do the same (and really, given that GCW was already national, his ambitions required a similar path). His model was not the satellite cable model but that other model for getting your show to a national audience: syndication. And that worked, but it wasn’t aggressive enough for Vince McMahon. Time to talk about our second wrestling war: Black Saturday.

On Saturday, July 14, 1984, regular viewers of TBS’s flagship wrestling show, the former Georgia Championship Wrestling, now renamed World Championship Wrestling, got a shock when, instead of Gordon Solie and the traditional southern wrestling, they ran smack dab into McMahon and a WWE clip show (effectively a repackaged version of the syndicated show). McMahon, in a move to take advantage of the reach of the Superstation and kneecap his only national rival, had bought out the GCW promotion (buying out first Jim Barnett, then Jack and Jerry Briscoe, his future stooges). McMahon had tried to buy the TV slot from Turner, but Turner had rejected him out of hand.

This is perhaps the most important inflection point in the history of wrestling in the last 50 years. If Ted Turner just surrenders and let McMahon have the time slot, then McMahon gets his goal of a monopoly on wrestling as a national promotion significantly earlier.

But that’s not how Ted Turner rolls. Turner didn’t take McMahon off the air. Turner reached out to both Bill Watts, who now owned Mid South, and to Ole Anderson, who inherited the NWA Georgia franchise and gave both those promotions time slots on TBS. Turner looked back to the Battle of Atlanta and decided that war was the right idea and put three wrestling promotions on a national stage.

And it worked.

All three shows did numbers for TBS and Turner. However, McMahon had bought out a slot on the USA Network in 1983 in a similar move and was basically putting his shows on USA and TBS. This caused issues with TBS because they wanted the exclusivity of content with WWE. McMahon refused, and they held out ad fees, and McMahon started to lose money on the show. Here’s an article on the breakup at the time.

McMahon effectively was cash-strapped from the failure of this move and needed Jim Crockett Jr. to bail him out. Crockett bought Vince out and bought Ole out, and this was the seed of WCW. Vince himself has been quoted as saying that Turner offered to buy WWE multiple times from him, and it’s not unreasonable to guess that this was one of those times (since the sticking point with WWE and TBS was exclusivity).

Oh, and the money McMahon got from Crockett helped him finance his response to his loss of the Black Saturday debacle: WrestleMania.

Another knock-on effect was that Watts Mid South was the highest-rated show on TBS during this period, and as mentioned WWE and Ole’s proto-WCW dig great numbers. This effectively proved that wrestling on cable worked nationally, and that led to multiple wrestling companies going national with TV cable deals or syndication.

If you’re keeping score so far? That’s creating the concept of basic cable while putting a wrestling promotion on TV coast to coast for the first time in 20-plus years, foiling McMahon’s monopoly ambitions in 1984 while proving that multiple wrestling shows on national cable could work, and helping kick off the wrestling boom of the 80s. We haven’t even gotten to WCW and the Monday Night Wars.

The next chapter is, of course, WCW and Turner getting directly into the wrestling business. This was really the continuing fallout of the war that started on that Saturday in 1984. Crockett proceeded to consolidate NWA territories and expand to try to compete nationally with McMahon, but by 1988, a combination of McMahon’s aggressive tactics, bad luck (Magnum TA’s car crash), overexpansion (buying Mid South) and the collapse of the price of oil severely depressing a lot of their core markets had Crockett on the brink of bankruptcy. This, again, would have left McMahon as the last man standing, but again, Ted Turner stepped in and bought Jim Crockett Promotions and turned into WCW.

And Turner wasn’t in wrestling as a lark, Turner wanted to win. He tried to buy the AWA. He footed the bill to bring in some of the biggest wrestling star in the world in Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. And most importantly, he kicked off the Monday Night Wars.

This particular war began with a question from Ted Turner to Eric Bischoff in a meeting: “What will it take to beat Vince McMahon?” Eric’s answer: “Give me and WCW a prime time slot.” Ted, of course, made it happen, and then some. WCW got their prime time show: WCW Nitro. Turner raised the stakes even more, giving WCW a prime time show every Monday night, head-to-head with the well-established WWF Monday Night RAW show. 

The Monday Night Wars were on.

I’m not going to waste time rehashing the Monday Night Wars here because if you’re reading this, you know. Nitro and its rival Raw effectively created the modern wrestling TV show over the course of their war from 1995 to 2001. Nitro, in particular, broke in a ton of new talent, introduced a US television audience to the lucha style and more different styles in both work and wrestlers. The rivalry also forced both sides to up the ante in production and stories. Yet again, another wrestling war that led to a boom.

But then it was over, and WCW lost. Turner himself didn’t lose, though. The success of WCW early in the war was a big part of increasing the value of his media holdings and allowing for the massive personal windfall that was the AOL Time Warner merger for him. This was another wrestling war that massively benefited Turner.

The problem was that at the end of the merger, arguably the biggest champion of wrestling on TV, Turner, was out of the TV business and was replaced by people who didn’t get it. We know from interviews with talent like Sting that even Turner didn’t expect to be out of the room where the decisions were made. With the AOL Time Warner merger, Ted’s involvement with wrestling sadly ended.

As wrestling fans, we know that great stories need great rivals with great chemistry. We need two sides fighting that are bigger than life, interesting and believable. They also need to have that magical chemistry that takes thing to the next level. And if Vince McMahon is the most impactful figure of the last 50 years in wrestling, then Ted Turner was always his greatest foil and the person that took him to the greatest heights. He was the Piper to Vince’s Hogan. Losing Turner left McMahon to his reign of terror over the US wrestling scene, that was the case for almost two decades.

Turner’s presence in wrestling changed what wrestling was. He was crucial in wrestling going national again. He was crucial in preserving and popularizing a style other than the WWE house style as a wrestling alternative in the US. He prevented Vince from ruling the roost unopposed in the US much, much earlier.

Ultimately, Ted Turner helped make wrestling more popular, more diverse stylistically, and simply better. His presence left a mark in wrestling, and not only that, but it inspired others to leave their own mark.

 That is what makes a Hall of Fame case.