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Les Thatcher Interview

Conducted by Jeremy Hartley for TWC Online
Transcribed by Earl Oliver

Jeremy Hartley: This ia a very special edition of "Up Close and Personal", one that I am very proud to present to all you wrestling fans and wrestling historians. This will be part 1 of an interview that I conducted with wrestling Hall of Famer and Superstar extraordinaire, Les Thatcher. Thatcher has spent the better part of 38 years of his life involved in the sport of professional wrestling and he shares some of his memories with us. In Part 1, we bring you the Knoxville era, the Smoky Mountain era, all taking place in the beautiful Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Les will recount his beginnings and some of the Superstars that he, along with Jim Ross and a few others helped induct into the Pro-Wrestling Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee on the "Night of the Legends" card, held at the Knoxville Coliseum and put on by Jim Cornette and Smoky Mountain Wrestling.

Welcome Les. I always ask this question first and see no reason to alter the practice. How did you break into the business?

Les Thatcher: Well, I became a fan when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. That would have been in the late forties which was when wrestling on TV was hitting it's stride and it was a fascinating thing, you know I had never seen pro-wrestling before but I just fell in love with it. As a child, I look back and realize that I picked the right guy to be my idol because he was one of the greatest talents ever in this business, and that was Buddy Rogers. Whatever it was about him that fascinated me, it did. You know, and he became the yardstick by which I measured professional wrestlers. Okay, well I started wrestling amateur at about 12 years old, and then in my later teens - about 17 - 18 - I really started to think seriously that I'd like to try this. So I went to one of the local area promotions, out of Columbus, Ohio, which was about 100 miles and some change to the Northeast of us, and was run by a guy named Al Haft who was one of the great promoters of the fifties, and the forties.

Jeremy Hartley: Oh yeah...

Les Thatcher: In fact, a lot of the old timers tell me that this territory was one of the largest and most productive of its time. These guys ran two-three towns a night and had like 70 wrestlers in their stable and promoted in about five States: West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. So wrestling was flourishing. I drove up and talked to a couple of the wrestlers here, talked to a local referee about getting started - nobody was really helpful. So the office was in a suburb of Columbus called Reynoldsville, so I drove up there one Saturday just "cold", walked in and introduced myself and as it turns out a guy named Frankie Toliver was the booker and that's who I ended up talking to and Al Haft was there. And their thing was, "Well, kid you're still a little small." And they were using Junior Heavyweights still at the time - I was like 175 - 180 lbs - so they said, "...well, you need some experience, blah, blah, blah..." I was kind of at wits end because I didn't know how to get any experience - it was like, "You can get credit if you have good credit..." So anyway, in looking through one of the old Wrestling Review magazines, I came across a story about a guy named Tony Santos up in Boston was training young wrestlers. I guess there could have been three or four other ones in the country but this was the only one that article had ever been done on so it was the only one I was ever aware of. So the address was in there and they had a picture of his gym and so forth and so on, so I just wrote him a letter. So they sent me back a letter and said, "You can be trained here, etc..." So the next day I got on a Greyhound and went to Boston and lived in a rooming house, got a job with a fuel and ice company delivering ice (because back then they were still using the old ice boxes down in the tenament section of Boston). Talk about some cardio-vascular exercise... I started hauling 25 lbs blocks of ice...

Jeremy Hartley: Les Thatcher, the original "Iceman of Wrestling"... (laughs)

Les Thatcher: Yeah...of course I was 19 years old - you can't kill a 19 year old (laughs). So anyway I started up there in Boston with Tony Santos and the good thing about that was that there was a good mix in a small territory of some old veterans that had come off the road and settled in that area, and some young guys still trying to find their niche, so I was able to work with some good guyd. I had guys like Luke Graham broke in up there, Pat Patterson, Terry Garvin, Ronny Garvin, guy named Ronny Dupree who was one of the Hell's Angels, Ronny's dead now, Alex Medina who was the Peurto Rican kid who was a tremendous high-flyer at the time. So a good opportunity to work with all these guys, it was a good little territory - so that's where I broke in up there. I had no idea that I would make it, had no idea where I would end up but I knew it was something I wanted to try and that was actually the only opportunity out there because nobody around this area was willing to give me a shot. So that's how I got started.

Jeremy Hartley: You know, I was listening to your induction speech into the Knoxville Hall of Fame, and one of the things you said which was repeated over and over again by guys like Ronny Garvin and even the Mongolian Stomper (who I never even knew could talk!) was the phrase, "I'm home now..." - and I was curious - what made Knoxville wrestling and wrestling in Tennessee such a special thing? You usually don't hear that, and to come back years later and have that same type of feeling...I mean it seemed pretty intense to me...so what made that so special?

Les Thatcher: Well, you know what, I of course can't speak for Archie, the Stomper or Ronny, but for me - part of it was that so many of the highlights of my career happened there. To give you a capsule history of my love affair, if you will, with Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1968 I left the Carolina territory after having been in there about two years, and went to the Nashville territory - which was (Nick) Gulas & (Roy) Welch at the time. And at that time a young guy was starting out as a referee, his mother was treasurer for that company, and he later turned into Jerry Jarrett, father of Jeff Jarrett. John Cazana was the promoter in Knoxville and had been for a number of years at that time and this is 1968, and he was picking up part of his talent from the Nashvile office and part of it was coming from regional, from Eastern Tennessee, guys who lived up there. The first time I went to Knoxville was in the late summer, the fair was going on and so we wrestled in the ball park, Bill Meyers Stadium - I do remember that - and the other thing that was amazing to me, I had been in the business 8 years, is that they had no TV in Knoxville. Cazana was promoting the old style, just what he could do in the newspaper - John himself had been a newspaper man - with the Knoxville Sentinal, he was able to go down to the sports department after the matches on Friday night and type up his own stories...

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs)

Les Thatcher: ...and of course they would insert them, no big problem. So the town was drawing but it was like pulling teeth with no TV. The other areas we worked in out of the Nashville office, Chatanooga had TV, Birmingham and Memphis, Nashville itself - Knoxville didn't at that time... So anyway, John liked my work, I seemed to get over there with the fans, so he started asking Nick to use me more often. So he first got TV in the winter, around January of 1969 and there was a local babyface by the name of Whitey Caldwell, a hell of a wrestler, and there were two other local guys called the Wright Brothers, not the guys who flew the plane, Ron and Don. As as it were, Whitey and I were the first two babyfaces featured on John's TV program in 1969 and Ron and Don were the first two heels. So we got red hot and the territory just blew wide open and had a heck of a run in there, and in fact that summer we set an outdoor attendance record at the local ampitheater. In fact we had one big house in a rain storm where he was on the verge of cancelling the show, but outside they had four box office lines and there were people lined up clear around the wall of the ampitheater, standing in the rain waiting to buy tickets, that's how hot the angle was - so we went ahead and worked in the rain and the fans sat there and watched it. So I got over real strong because I was one of the first babyfaces on the TV there in the new era. I was there in '69 and '70 then I went up to Eastern Canada for a while and when I came back I went down to the Tampa territory and then back into the Carolinas which was also one of the great territories for me during my run in the business. Even when I was in the Carolinas John would bring me into Knoxville occassionally, like when something would be going on with the Wrights or they would have Sam Bass as there manager for a while and they would shaft him in some way and then the angle would be, "...well I'm going to call Les..." we were a great team together, so they kept my name in there. So anyway, while I had been in Florida in 1971 I met a young wrestler there by the name of Ron Fuller, and we got to be good buddies, in fact I'm the godfather of his youngest son.

Jeremy Hartley: Oh yeah...

Les Thatcher: So in 1974 he purchased the Knoxville territory - John never really ran the Knoxville territory, I mean he would run Knoxville on Friday night, then he would run Morristown, Tennessee (which was about 40 miles away) on Saturday, maybe the next week he'd run Newport, which was about 45 miles way, but he really never did try to open it up as a six-day-a-week territory. It was just like a weekend thing for John. So he wasn't using outside talent enough, the business was falling off, the TV was badly run and he was ready to sell it. So Ron called me, I was in the Carolinas at the time, and said, "I'm going to buy the Knoxville territory, and I want you to do my TV and also wrestle for me." So that was in '74, I started there November of 1974 and...

Jeremy Hartley: This is Southeasten Championship Wrestling..?

Les Thatcher: Exactly. I had gotten my indoctrination into doing play-by-play in Canada in 1970, so then when I came back to the States, Crockett found out...I had never mentioned it at all but Crockett found out that I had done it up there and was pretty good at it so he had me wrestling and doing TV as well. So Ron said, "I want you to come in a produce my TV and host it." You know, he and I had gone up and down the road and I had always said, "If I was doing the TV show I'd like to try this..." so he said, "Okay man, here it is...I'll give you carte blanche because TV's not my bag, its not something that I know..."

Jeremy Hartley: Right...

Les Thatcher: So the first weekend I went up there, I was still working the Carolinas, but I went in there like on Friday and we sat down in his livingroom, and the TV had been running for a while but there was no format. They would just run a show, insert the commercial wherever, and so I organized the TV. We put in some new things. I'll tell you what we did first, that hadn't been done before anyplace in the country, and people believed it was bad for wrestling TV. The type of interview that Jim Ross did with Mankind when they exposed the Dude Love character - we were doing something like that in 1974 and on through the run of Southeastern Wrestling which I called "Personality Profile". We were feeding the people with some of the background stuff on the wrestlers. It was a low-key interview, we had a set just like Cactus and Jim were sitting on, you know, that type of thing with a little coffee table, and we would pre-tape that and roll just aout a 5 minute segment into the middle of our show. So we became innovators in a few things and I'm proud to say that some of that stuff that's going on now we did first there. Back then wrestling promoters weren't adventuresome - it was like, "Well this worked really good in 1945, so why would we want to change it..."

Jeremy Hartley: Right (laughs)

Les Thatcher: So anyway, the Knoxville territory took off and flourished. Nelson Royal, who later became the World Jumior Heavyweight Champion, and I were the Southeastern Tag Team Champions we were feuding with....uh...whoever, one big feud we had was with a guy named John Foley and a young kid named Dutch Mantell. We set records in the Knoxville Civic Coliseum for attendance. The TV show was red hot and I was a regional celebrity there. From '74 to '77 I was serving two masters. I was still living in Charlotte, doing the TV for the Mid-Atlantic territory, wrestling there and then going to Knoxville on weekends introducing the TV there, hosting it and wrestling there. So, thank God I was younger! But it was like that little mouse on the wheel, running with no end... So in '77, Ron asked me to move up to Knoxville and help with the administrative end as well as continue to do the TV. So I moved up there in 1977 and he was expanding into the Gulf Coast at the time - he bought the Mobile territory - Pensicola/Mobile, and so the TV we were first doing down there was in Knoxville, and I was doing shows for down the other end too. So then he sold the territory, got ready to move south to Atlanta. Jim Barnett, I stayed on with him for a while, then went down to Pensicola - it was more a creative disagreement then anything else - then Ron said, "...come on down here." So I went down to Pensicola, spent almost a year down there...

Jeremy Hartley: Did you work with Gordon at that time? Gordon Solie?

Les Thatcher: No, Gordon and I became friends in '67, when I first wrestled in the Tampa territory, but he and I shared the microphone in Atlanta in part of '73 and '74 on the old Georgia Championship program.

Jeremy Hartley: Oh yeah, right...

Les Thatcher: So then I was down in Pensicola and a group of guys bought Knoxville from Barnett, from the Atlanta office, and that group consisted of Jim Crockett, Jr., Ric Flair, and Blackjack Mulligan. Blackjack was moving up there to head the company, so Flair called me and said that they had talked to Channel 10 in Knoxville (which was a CBS affiliate at the time) and he said, "They have asked us one thing, they would like you to handle the TV, they liked working with you..." - and I was kind of the go-between for the wrestling promotion and the Television people. You know, like the station manager would call me and say, "Les, I saw something I wasn't real happy with on the show...", you know, and I would go back and say, "Hey guys, we need to kind of tone this down..." so I was kind of the mediator. But they liked the ratinga that we put up for them, so they said, "Look, we'll make you an offer - we'd like you to come back to Knoxville."

Jeremy Hartley: Uh huh...

Les Thatcher: So I did, I went back up there. Well, to make a long story short, we were supposed to get talent help out of Charlotte, we didn't for whatever reason, so the thing ended up going down the tubes. I lived there for a while, I ran a small business outside of the wrestling thing and it was just freelancing, doing some work for Ann Gunkel who was promoting at the time. I was doing a thing for Carlos (Colon) over in Puerto Rico, and then I handled the WCW (Editor's Note: not the same as the Turner promotion now, but it's pre-cursor) tours when they first started touring in the early 80's. In fact I was Vice President in Charge of Promotions for Ohio, West Virgina and Michigan. So I'd come here and handle the tours but I was still living in Knoxville, I always loved the town, its a great place. So anyway, when I left WCW they were having internal power struggles over ownership - you know, a lot of us got caught up in the middle of the thing, and you can't serve two masters and what-not - so you end up sitting outside watching everybody do the infighting.

Jeremy Hartley: Right...

Les Thatcher: So then I got involved in some syndication projects and one thing and another, and just kind of got out of the wrestling business for a while and came back home. My dad had passed away in '83, so I moved back up here to give my mom a hand, got into the body building and gym business and was actually away from wrestling, took a hiatus for a while. Then when Smoky Mountain Wrestling cranked up I got a phone call...and the funny thing was, I'd met Jimmy Cornette in 1977 when the WFIA (Wrestling Fans International Association) had had their convention in Knoxville. Jimmy was there as a fan.

Jeremy Hartley: No..!

Les Thatcher: Yeah, really, him and Eddie Gilbert. Of course I'd met Eddie before through his dad...Eddie used to come around to the dressing room. But yeah, that was the first place I'd met Cornette. He'll hate me for saying this but he won the award for the "Best Action Photo by a Wrestling Fan"...

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs)

Les Thatcher: Really...we had a couple of those guys on our show, I went to tape a segment of the show at the convention, we normally did our production on Satuday morning, but we went there Friday evening and did a pre-tape because of the convention with some of the people who were involved in the festivities and Jimmy was one of them. In doing so we had sat around and talked about ideas for this that or the other thing. Well the silly thing was, that was back in 1977, when Smoky Mountain fired up, Jimmy remembered some of the things I had said I would like to try - so when he called me to come and work for him he said, "You know, I've always wanted to try some of those things you talked about." I said, "Wow! You know I'd forgotten about those things until you reminded me..." But he said, "The people here in Knoxville remember you and will talk about you and I'd like to have you come back and do my TV. I guess my love affair with Knoxville was because the people were so friendly, my career went well there. I guess there was really never a downside. It's a great city. I mean, Cincinatti's home, but if they were ever kicking me out of Cincinatti and I had to go live some place else, my first and second choices would be Knoxville and Pensicola because Knoxville is not too large, you don't get caught up in the rush - and yet it's not a small country town. It's urban, modern in some ways, quaint in others. You're a few miles from the Smoky Mountains and Gatlenburg, which is very pretty, a nice place to relax and get away. In fact I was down there, two of my kids got a dark match tryout on Nitro...

Jeremy Hartley: Oh yeah, you sent me an email about that...

Les Thatcher: Right... And you know, I'm not really a pretentious guy, I don't expect everyone to recognise me, and we got to the coloseum and I was just going to park in the regular parking lot. So I pulled in to start to pay and the lady said, "What are you doing? You don't pay to park here..." I said, "Maam...?" She said, "You've never paid to park here..." she recognised me, and of course I didn't recognise her. The funny thing is, Jeremy, I was never a big star or well known in my home town here, right? But I can walk down the street in Knoxville and people recognise me.

Jeremy Hartley: Right... (Laughs)

Les Thatcher: And it was a great wrestling town too. There were fans, when we did that "Night of Legends"...

Jeremy Hartley: Yeah...

Les Thatcher: The funny thing was, we did these little segments that were interspersed though the "Night of Legends" broadcast. And we did one of those little segments every week. We got down to the last one...and let me say this about Jimmy Cornette, there's a line he does about being a traditionalist but I'm going to tell you what - more people need to love the business they're in - Jimmy does - he loves this business. Earlier we were talking about the foundations being shaky - I think that's one of the reasons - because too many people are just in it for the money. Which is not the wrong way, I'm a capatalist too, but you know, you've got to respect what you're doing and you've got to have a love for it. Jimmy did. Here's a guy who had been, in the peak years, in WCW and WWF, and he and I would sit down for lunch and he would start talking about the 70's and the Knoxville territory. I would say, "But Jim, you would make more money for a Pay-Per-View then I would make in three months back then..." and he would say, "Yeah, but it must have been so much fun!" And he was right, it was good. He just had such a love for the business and at that point he had been a fan, during that era.

Jeremy Hartley: Sure...

Les Thatcher: So anyway, we got to the end of the last segment we were going to do and I said, "There's just something I'd like to throw in here." He said, "What's that?" Well, there were these half dozen fans that I had seen the first time I'd ever wrestled in Knoxville back in 1968. These people had been buying tickets, the same front row seats virtually every week. I had not seen them return for a couple of the Smoky shows. So at the end of the thing, and I don't think this appeared on the program, I think it was edited out and I wish I had the original tape, but I said, "You know we've done this and this and that and we're going into the final week, the "Night of Legends" is just around the corner, and we've talked about a lot of these great wrestlers who have made Knoxville such a great wrestling town. But there's only one thing that's going to complete that circle and that is if Bernice and John..." and you know, I started naming off these people by their first names, didn't mention last names, I said, "If you don't show up a the "Night of Legends" it won't be the same." When I finished the segment, Jimmy said to me, "You gave me chills..."

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs)

Les Thatcher: (laughs) Well, that wasn't my intent. My passion wasn't something that was made up either, because I felt that. These people had been good to me, and more then just being fans, they had tried to be friends. The funny thing was, every one of those people showed up!

Jeremy Hartley: Well, that's a great ending to the story because I was going to ask you if they all showed up...

Les Thatcher: Oh yeah, and one lady came up to me, she hadn't seen the show, but her granddaughter had called her, she'd heard her name mentioned and knew I was talking about her grandmother. I mean, I just used the first name Bernice. When I saw her at the reception before the matches, I said, "Well, I wondered if you'd show up." She said, "You know, my granddaughter called me and said, 'Grandma! Les Thatcher's talking about you on the TV!'"

Jeremy Hartley: Oh boy, that's a great story...

Les Thatcher: I'll tell you one of the nicest compliments that I was given about those particular segments. Of course now, in our business, it's standard issue that we have a history. Back then we didn't. We weren't allowed to have a history, right? If I had wrestled for Vince, Bischoff wouldn't tell you and If I'd wrestled for Bischoff, Vince wouldn't tell you. As far as they were concerned, I had just started wrestling, I might have been 40 year old but I had just been born the day I walked into their company.

Jeremy Hartley: Yeah, they might have given you a character "Les the Crazy Magician" or something...

Les Thatcher: Exactly...

Jeremy Hartley: ...changed your name...

Les Thatcher: The WWF was here in Cincinatti the Wednesday before the "Legends" show and Cornette and Ross were there. Jimmy had called me and said, "Come on down to the show and I'll pass you along the formats for the taping, and that way you can kind of go over them before we get together Friday in Knoxville." So I went down to Riverfront and Scott Levy, Raven...

Jeremy Hartley: Oh yes...

Les Thatcher: At the time he was doing the Johnny Polo thing, doing one of the TV shows (All American Wrestling w/Gorila Monsoon) for Vince. He came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm Johnny Polo, I want to introduce myself." I said, "Sure, I know your work." And he said, "I just wanted to tell you that we watch the Smoky Mountain show every week up in the office in Connecticutt and I love those historical segments. I told Vince,'This is great because our business has never had a history, and it should'"

Jeremy Hartley: Right...

Les Thatcher: Coming from one of the young guys, I took that as a real compliment. And as I said, now everyone realizes that it's all right to have a history, so we do. I think, Jeremy, and I don't mean for this to sound wrong, but having been one of the first... like the personality profiles we did back in '74, which hadn't been done before, or the historical things that Cornette allowed me to do. Something that's little known about my history in the business, but that I'm very proud of is that George Napolitano and I did the very first four-color magazine for the WWF.

Jeremy Hartley: Now we were talking about the "Night of the Legends" and we talked about the Knoxville Hall of Fame, which I thought was a good gesture, a lot of good names came out but there were some names that I, as a young fan, wasn't really familiar with. I wonder if you could just touch upon some of those folks. Like Whitey Caldwell...

Les Thatcher: Whitey was a local, and when I say local, I mean he lived in East Tennessee up around Johnson City/Kingsport up on the Virgina/Kentucky/Tennessee border, where they all run together. Interestingly enough, when I first met Whitey, when John Kazan was promoting Knoxville. John had said to me, "You know, there's a young guy here locally and I think you and he would make a good tag team." Well, you have to realize that back in those days, if you were making your living at this, which I was, traveling around, local wrestlers were just guys with jobs - we called them "carpenters" in those days - enhancement people, jobbers, somewhere in between there at the time. For the most part they didn't get out there and work with a variety of guys, their talents weren't totally developed either. So I didn't say anything to Johnny, because I didn't know John that well at that point. I'm thinking, "Uh, I don't know...a local guy..."

Jeremy Hartley: Right...

Les Thatcher: ...and the other part was that he wasn't very big, I mean this guy was about 190 lbs. soaking wet and wiry - but probably pound-for-pound one of the toughest guys I ever met in my life! But when I saw him, I made sure to go out and watch his match and I was really impressed. I mean, this guy was good! And he was over in the area like a son-of-a-gun. To give you an example, you had mentioned to me before we started taping this that you had talked to Dory, Jr. - and I think fans, if they can remember seeing Whitey wrestle Dory in Knoxville - it was tremendous.

Jeremy Hartley: Yeah...

Les Thatcher: Now, when that match was made, even though Whitey was my partner at the time, I though, "Hmmm, I'm not really sure this is the ring mix..." plus the fact that he was spotting Dory about 40 lbs. Jeremy, they went one hour and it was one hell of a wrestling match! Of course, I tribute a great deal of that to Dory who was a tremedous athlete and could lead a paper bag into a match, and make it look good, but Whitey was right there with him and when that match was over after 60 minutes, I don't think there were too many people in that hall who didn't think that, given a little more time, Whitey couldn't have beaten Dory for the Title. One thing I mentioned in the "Night of Legends" two tape set is that fans still go and leave flowers at Whitey's grave site. This was one of the rarities of this business. I mean, guys get over with television pushes and all, but still to this day, fans in that area talk about Whitey Caldwell.

Jeremy Hartley: Hmmm...

Les Thatcher: I remember a gentleman by the name of Frank Morrell who would most recently be known to some of the younger fans as a referee with USWA, but Frank was wrestling at the time over in the Carolinas as was I when Whitey died and the Crockett family out their private plane at our disposal so we could make out bookings and go to the funeral as well. Because I had been a personal friend and a partner, and Whitey and Frank grew up together. So we were accompanied by Jim Crockett Sr's son-in-law, John Ringly, who also helped run the business. I'll never forget, when we flew into the Johnson City airport and rents a car to go to the church which was one of these white frames...if you were doing a Tennessee mountain scene for a church - this would be the one, right? In fact it had the long sidewalk leading up with the nice lush green grass and so forth...this was a sea of people - I mean hundreds of people. It was almost like running the gauntlet for us because we were of course, high profile - and they knew who we were - and everyone wanted to touch or ask our opinion about this or that or the other thing - but I couldn't even begin to tell you how many hundreds of people were in that yard at this church that could not get inside the building.

Jeremy Hartley: Wow!

Les Thatcher: Flowers, I mean, when I first got in there and I said to somebody, I don't even remember who, "Look at all the flowers!" And it was someone who had driven up who said, "If you think this is a lot you should see all the ones they could not get in here!" It was just a tremendous outpouring of affection and caring for Whitey. As I said, to this day, people on the anniversary of his death still leave flowers on his grave.

Jeremy Hartley: Wow, that's...

Les Thatcher: He was a battler, although he could wrestle, he did the drop-kick, switches, hammerlocks the whole thing. Today you'd know him as a hard core guy.

Jeremy Hartley: Now he had some battles with another man who I'm not quite familiar with, Ron Wright...

Les Thatcher: The Wright Brothers! Not those who flew the plane...

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs) You wouldn't want Ron as your pilot...(laughs)

Les Thatcher: Ron did fly though...

Jeremy Hartley: Really..?

Les Thatcher: Yeah, Ron is a pilot. But here is two brothers that again, a rarity - local guys that really got hot in that particular area. They wrestled in some other areas but not often, or not with any frequency, but they were the strong heels - and Ron and Whitey had some very memorable chain matches, death matches, cage matches - I mean just bloody messes. We drew big money with those guys - and at Smoky, Ron worked as a manager...

Jeremy Hartley: Right...

Les Thatcher: ...with us and still got a lot of heat. I mean, the guy was a legend there. It was again, amazing, because the wrestlers seen on television were a lot more physically imposing, a lot more mechanically sound..but this guy...he had the pitch of one of these holy rollers who would speak in tongues...

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs)

Les Thatcher: ...if you've ever heard some of the Southern Bible thumpers, that was him when he would do his interviews...

Jeremy Hartley: Yeah, I've seen a couple of clips...

Les Thatcher: He just got over like a son-of-a-gun. Both he and Whitey had a lot of longevity in that area. They must have drawn there off and on from the late 60's right up to...well, Whitey passed on but Ron was involved right up to the last year of Smoky Mountain Wrestling, I mean not wrestling, but managing one of the top heels or whatever. So he had quite a long run in tha area.

Jeremy Hartley: He's another guy that if you ever get a chance to listen too, some of his interviews amazed me. I thought that those days were long gone but he's one of the rare few who can give an interview like that that will just incite people from what I was able to see - to incite people just by opening his mouth! He'd just let loose one utterance and he's already start drawing heat...that's certainly a rare thing in today's interview skills.

Les Thatcher: Oh yeah, he had this plane he used to fly around to Knoxville from Johnson City or Morristown or wherever - and there was one of these towns where the people - somebody vandalised the plane, he had cars vandalised - I mean, he was cut...speaking of vandalised. I was not at the card but I have heard the story, leaving the card - he must have been wrestling Whitey - anyway he was leaving with security on all four sides of him and something broke out among the fans on one side or the other, one of the officers had to leave his side, and in doing so a fan snuck in behind him with a knife and opened him up from his waistline to the base of his neck! One hundred and seventy-five stitches...

Jeremy Hartley: Wow!

Les Thatcher: That brings me to another story. In Morristown, Whitey and I were wrestling the Wrights and and all four of us went at it and it got out of control, the referee had no control over what was going on - so anyway. I saw Ron go under the ring, for whatever reason there was no skirt around the apron - and I shot in after him. And as he turned to face me, he nailed me with knucks or something like that - and Ron was one of those guys where you never knew where half the stuff he got came from. He had a roll of adhesive tape and he taped me by my neck to one of the ring supports. So, in the position I'm in, I can see him but I'm not mobile so I can't see around me. I see this change of expression on his face, of seriousness and concern, and then I see him starting to back out - and here came a fan - some farmer with one of these hawk bill tobacco knives! Who came under the ring to save me!

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs)

Les Thatcher: Well, it was cute until he decided that he was going to cut me free - and I'm thinking, "My God! This man..." and I can smell the alcohol on his breath! I'm thinking, "This guy's going to slit my throat while trying to cut this adhesive tape with this hawk billed knife..."

Jeremy Hartley: (still laughing)

Les Thatcher: ...and I said, "I'll get it!" and he says, "By God Les, I'll help you..." and I said, "Please don't!" But anyway, that was the kind of thing that was going on when Whitey and I wrestled the Wrights. They were quite a team.

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs) Uh, another gentleman - Ricky Gibson, I guess the story goes that you helped him out..? getting into the business..?

Les Thatcher: Well, yeah, Ricky was probably twelve - thirteen years old when I first laid eyes on him - and for those who don't know - that is Robert's older brother - of the Rock & Roll Express - I was working in the Louisiana territory for Lee Fields, and Ricky's dad hauled the ring for Lee. Took it to some of the towns, set the ring up and so forth. So Ricky would be in the dressing rooms and he was just a kid who we'd send out for cokes. You know, he'd come in and kibbitz with us, he'd want to talk about wrestling or whatever. So anyway, I don't remember what town it was in but I had an old pair of wrestling boots, I'd just gotten a brand new pair and this old pair, they weren't lined and because of the sweat and everything they folded at the ankles and started to rot through. At the time I was there with Roger Kirby and Dennis Hall, we were working six mans around the State - and I said to them, "I think I'm just going to pitch these things..." and Ricky heard me and said, "Hey if you're just going to throw them away, I wouldn't mind having them..." I said, "Are you sure you want them?" and he said, "Oh sure, I'll have 'em fixed and wear 'em." So I said, "Okay."

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs)

Les Thatcher: So when I left down there, I went to numerous other territories, and never did get back into the Louisiana territory. Then, during the promotional wars in '73 in Atlanta, I was with the NWA at the time and they were looking to put all the big guns against the opposition, so there was a lot of top wrestling talent - and they brought me in, not only to wrestle but to help in the office - and this was when Gordon (Solie) and I first worked together, as color and play-by-play, in Atlanta in '73. But I'd flown down just for the day, to sit in on a show, Gordon and I had a certain chemistry and all, so anyway, I saw this young kid - nice looking athlete, he walks up to me and says' "Hi, Les." And I said, "Hi", and I guess he could see in my face that I hadn't any idea who he was, and he says, "You don't remember me..?" I said. "No, I don't think so..." "Well, you gave me my first pair of wrestling boots!"

Jeremy Hartley: Oh...

Les Thatcher: Of course he'd grown up from age twelve or thirteen - he was eighteen now and got a physique. But he got a real good push. Ricky was a tremendous young athlete, he got a real good push in Atlanta. A lot of great things could have come for Ricky - one thing though, he was kind of a free spirit, didn't adhere to instructions well... And the funny thing was, he had gone to Dallas - Fritz (Von Erich) was going to use him real good. Fritz called me in the office in Atlanta and we were talking and he said, "...how's he dress." And I said, "Well, you know just kind of plain, like a boy from Mobile, Alabama..." and he said, "Well, Dallas is a little more urban, how about taking him shopping? getting his whatever it is teenagers wear in 1973 or something." So he and I actually did spend the day going to department stores and kind of wardrobing him. So Fritz was planning this big push and he got out there and stayed two and a half, three weeks and got homesick. He just up and left!

Jeremy Hartley: I'll be darn...

Les Thatcher: But he worked with us in the Southeastern territory back in the 70's. Great worker! Robert's good but, no disrespect to Robert but I think Ricky is a notch or two above his brother - or would have been - but he had some injuries that slowed him down on occasion and then he was in a real nasty car wreck - and that was the end of it. Tremendous talent but his career was cut too short because of the car wresck and it was a real shame. He would have soared to tremendous heights because he was a great worker.

Jeremy Hartley: It's funny because I'd never really known that Robert Gibson had a brother and was only familiar with the Rock & Roll Express. I thought, "who is this guy?" He was coming out in a match with Chris Candido - and then he was inducted into the Hall of Fame and I was able to learn a little bit more about him. (Editor's note: Jeremy is referring to the "Night of Legends" video tape which he has seen)

Les Thatcher: As a matter of fact, I have a photo of him on the wall here in my office of me giving him a hip lock. We were wrestling one another in Savannah, Georgia - that was in '73 - you really can't see his face in the thing. When you get here...(pause) Of course you really can't see it anyway...

Jeremy Hartley: (breaks out laughing)

Les Thatcher: Well, I'll tell you - he was cross-eyed, ugly and had freakles...

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs) You're forgiven... (laughs) (Editor's Note: Jeremy is blind)

Les Thatcher: (laughs)...but anyway, he was a very good talent and learned a lot at a young age. He was one of the guys, like Terry Gordy, like Michael Hayes, like Harley Race in the South - who started as young wrestlers and got there grooming early and by age eighteen, was not quite a full bloomed star, but well on his way.

Jeremy Hartley: Right. Another name, and this guy was another one who I don't know much about - Sam Bass - he was another one whose career was cut short.

Les Thatcher: Yeah, in a car wreck...

Jeremy Hartley: Yeah, I know that he was a manager of a lot of teams...what kind of manager was he? Why was he so special?

Les Thatcher: Personality, again, timing - Sam was the kind of manager who, as a fan, you looked at him and thought, "Well this skinny runt, I could whip his rear end..." and there he is, the dasterdly SOB grabbing my favorite wrestler and doing this or doing that - actually Sam put on a little size later and was able to work a little bit - I mean, I worked some six man's with him, He managed Jerry Lawler and Jim White when they were at their height (1973).

Jeremy Hartley: Now, I'm going to very quickly interlude - wasn't he someone who Jim Cornette really looked up to?

Les Thatcher: Bass?

Jeremy Hartley: Yeah...

Les Thatcher: Yeah, I think Jimmy is a big student of the 70's, of that whole thing. I know that for the years that we did Smoky, we'd get a chance to sit down without any pressure and we just start talking about the business one way or another and he'd say, "Oh yeah, yeah - tell me more about this bit..." and like I said - he probably made more for one PPV then I would make for three or four months but, "I wish I was around then..." you know, and a lot of the younger guys, you know, that are really fans, were students of that particular era. But yeah, Jimmy looked up to Sam. Sam was a very good manager - he, guy named Pepe Lopez and Frank Kester were killed in a car wreck on Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.

Jeremy Hartley: Wow! There's an interesting story, its on the Funk web site, and this was what brought up Sam Bass to me. I guess Sam had had a little too much to drink and they had a little mock funeral for him, then just several weeks later he had actually passed away - it makes you think.

Les Thatcher: (laughs) So, your saying that if I get offered a casket match with the Undertaker that maybe I shouldn't take it!

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs) No! especially if someone decides to take a match too it! (laughs)

Les Thatcher: There you go! (laughs)

Jeremy Hartley: Ridiculous! (laughs) Where's the days of "mean' Mark Callous, eh?

Les Thatcher: Yeah, really...

Jeremy Hartley: Another gentleman, the Mongolian Stomper - you've brought him up a couple of times...

Les Thatcher: Archie Goldie - I first met him, okay, he was given that gimmick in 1963 in Kansas City. The territory was being run by Bob Geigle and Pat O'Conner along with a guy out of St. Joe, Missouri, Gus Karas, who actually started promoting there years before either Bob or Pat settled there. But Archie was a very impressive looking athlete. Now they had Sputnik (Monroe), and if you've read Dory's web site you've heard about Sputnik, and one of the things that that Dory's dad did was use Archie as Sputty's bodyguard. Not that Sputnik couldn't handle himself but he had this thing of getting into jackpots with more then one or two people - or letting his mouth overrun his capabilities or what have you.

Jeremy Hartley: Right...

Les Thatcher: So Archie was out of Calgary, that's Western Canada, I know he lived in Calgary - I'm not sure if he was a native of there - but anyway he was down in Amarillo and Archie was a tough sucker who was big and imposing looking - he was getting paid just to stick by Sputnik, who was the...I don't know, the Brass Knucks Champ or the Texas Champ or whatever the case may be at the time so that Sputty didn't get ganged (laughs) and left for dead someplace. (Editor's note: Sputnik Monroe was the NWA Texas Champion for a month or so in 1961 and also was a co-holder of the Tag Team Title that same year)

Jeremy Hartley: Right...

Les Thatcher: But he came into the Kansas, and it was the first time I had ever been in the territory, and they had just come up with this "Stomper" gimmick, and it went on to make him nothing but money. When we brought him into Southeastern Wrestling no one had ever seen anything quite like him. And he never spoke...

Jeremy Hartley: Right! I made a comment last week when we did this, I said, I never knew the guy could talk until he made his acceptance speech...

Les Thatcher: Yeah, believe it or not a lot of people didn't know that - the whole time that he was a heel with us in Southeastern he never spoke. He had managers all the time. Don Carson, who was an old time heel from, really from Cleveland, Tennessee, but got his real big push down around Mobile and the Gulf Coast - Don managed him in Southeastern for us for a while, and then Gorgeous George, Jr. managed him as well - but he always had a manager and never spoke, never talked, and he was the kind of guy - like the old Shiek (Edward Farhat)...

Jeremy Hartley: Oh yeah...

Les Thatcher: ...he was the type of guy that as much as you screamed at him in the ring you really didn't want him to come out on the floor because you really were afraid of him! That was the way he came across, right? I've seen people stand and shake their fist and the old Shiek would hit the deck, you know, jump off the apron and start into the crowd and they would just open like the Red Sea - and the Stomper was the same way. But with Stomp, he also was in tremendous condition - I mean to this day - I think he's my age, give or take a year, and he still does cardio like 45 minutes a day on his treadmill and I've talked to some of my friends that do these "Legends" matches where they bring some old guy back, and its funny, they say they'll put some kid in there with Archie and he'll blow them up! Right? I mean he's got these 22 - 23 year old kids just dragging butt and he's still moving around like he's a young man...

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs)

Les Thatcher: But a real nice guy, talking about the guys now who are given seven personnas within the course of seven months, the Stomper was the Stomper from 1963 until today!

Jeremy Hartley: Wow! (Editor's note: I have video of the Stomper circa 1986 from World Class Championship Wrestling and he was then performing at an extraordinary level well into the third decade of his career!)

Les Thatcher: One gimmick - one gimmick only, but it was enough to make him a good living for a long time.

Jeremy Hartley: Yeah. Um...another guy - Ronny Garvin - I bring him up in the same breath as the Stomper because, from what I've heard, they too had some classic battles. I remember him coming into the WWF and doing the referee thing and losing matches on occasion and really not the same...

Les Thatcher: You know, here was a guy who was a great talent, there were a lot of great talents. I mean, I think the business was more "talent deep" through those years, in other words, because you weren't a main eventer constantly or consistently didn't necessarily mean that you didn't have any talent - just that there was a lot of talent. When Ronny was brought into Southeastern Wrestling he was basically being used mid-card in the Carolinas. Ron Fuller and I talked about it and Ron had decided to give him the push of...again, you might have called him the "Hard Core" guy of his day. In fact, when you saw Stone Cold throw the belt in the river..?

Jeremy Hartley: Oh yeah...I was thinking, "That was what he did..."

Les Thatcher: Yes, exactly. That was one of the things that got Ronny over in Southeastern Wrestling. He went down to the bridge across the Tennessee River in downtown Knoxville and pitched the belt into the river. Also, I'll give you another example of how we got him over. We had a Cadillac tournament which the giveaway was a big Fleetwood four door - brand new whatever - and it came down to Ronny and Bob Armstrong - Roadie's dad - as the two finalist. And in some neat little deal, where it looks like Garvin's gonna put him away, Bob's able to slip up and end the thing. So, that particular night we had brought the car into the Knoxville Coliseum, into the main part of the Coliseum, and they had like the little chrome stanchions set up around it and everything so everybody could see it, right? So their in the ring presenting Bob with the keys - making a big presentation out of it. Garvin - no one's paying any attention to Ronny - he goes out and picks up one of the stanchions and puts it through the windshield of the Cadillac! (laughs) So these were the kind of off the wall - and I say, "off the wall" but today they would be mild...

Jeremy Hartley: I was going to say, you see it happening all the time now...

Les Thatcher: Yeah, by current standards they're commonplace...

Jeremy Hartley: " ...right...

Les Thatcher: But those are the things that he did,and those were the things that got him over like crazy, man - but he worked solid was a stud boy to work with, I mean, they "whooo..." for Ric's chops today, but I've woken up in the morning with Ronny Garvin's hand prints emblazoned black and blue on my chest, right? But he was fun to work with. I remember back when I had virtually stopped wrestling at he time. And they said, "Hey, somebody got hurt, we're short handed, can you please work tonight in some little spot show outside of Knoxville?" I says, "Sure." and as it happened it was with Ronny. He was being featured, but I had been featured in the area and was doing the TV so I wasn't just going up there to do a squash job either. So Ronny was the kind of worker who would say, "Well. I'll put Les over." and I said, "No I'll put you over..." So we got out there and got rolling, and you couldn't work with Ronny and have a bad...well, I gues you could if you just laid down and didn't so anything...

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs)

Les Thatcher: ...but working with Ronny was like a day off in terms of going out there and having a good match, and so we just got the people rockin' and it got rolling you know, but my ring wind wasn't what it had been when I had been wrestling steady and I said, "Well, I'm ready to go home..I'm tired..." and he had this sense of humer that wasn't necessarily a funny one - and he said, "Lets go through..." meaning, "lets got to the time limit." I said, "...not tonight, baby!" I would virtually pull him down on top of me and he'd pull me up! (laughs)

Jeremy Hartley: (bursts out laughing)

Les Thatcher: So, I mean, that's just the kind of guy he was...and I came out of the ring and I'm going (heavy panting, gasping for air) and Bob Orton, Jr. was standing there and said, "Man! You guys had a hell of a match!" I said, "Just imagine what it could have been if I hadn't run out of gas about ten minutes before the end..." But you know, I wouldn't even let me pin myself for crying out loud! He was having fun so we were gonna keep going!

Jeremy Hartley: (laughs) Bob Orton, Jr is another name that comes to mind for me. I've seen him portayed as a very technical wrestler, he seen him portrayed as a brawler, I've seen him portrayed as a great interview, I've seen him portrayed as not a great interview. In his prime, what kind of worker was he?

Les Thatcher: All of the above. Well, you know the guy was a great amateur...

Jeremy Hartley: His father was involved in wrestling..?

Les Thatcher: Yeah, well in fact, Junior was involved with Mike Graham, Eddie's son, in tournaments back when they were like nine years old. When I was in Atlanta - we were talking about Ricky Gibson - Junior was just getting his big start then. I saw him about a year and a half ago and we were talking, and his 14 year old he tells me is a hell of an amateur and they had entered a tournament where Bobby had gotten into the Masters division. But he said that his 14 year old gives him quite a tussle on the mat. But Bob was a very good technical wrestler, he was a heel, but he was a wrestling heel, same as Nick Bockwinkle - more of a brawling heel then Nick but still, he would go out there and wrestle you and when it looked like he couldn't get too you that way would be when he's open up. He was a good brawler, and not always in the ring. Bobby had a string of wins and draws in several bars around the country (laughs). But Bobby was a very good talent, and of course, fans your age would have seen the tale end of when he was the bodyguard for Roddy Piper back when the WWF first started their big, worldwide push.

Copyright 1998 - Jump City Productions