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Solie's Tuesday Morning Report: EXTRA!

Friday Morning Edition

Stylin and Profilin'
The Legend of Rick Flair: Part 19

Ervin Griffin, Jr. and Mat Benaka

A Conversation with Les Thatcher: Part 2

Conducted by Jeremy Hartley for Up Close Wrestling
Transcribed by Earl Oliver

Volume 3, Issue 342 - August 1, 1998
Thunder has been pre-empted this week by the Goodwill Games

A Conversation with Les Thatcher

Conducted by Jeremy Hartley for TWC Online
Transcribed by Earl Oliver Editor's Note: This is the first segment of a multi-part, approximately 5 hour interview conducted by Jeremy earlier this year with this former wrestler, TV producer, and all around legendary figure in the wrestling business. This segment is divided into three parts and will be followed in the months to come by the remaining four segments as fast as I can get it transcribed.

In this part, Les goes on to describe his association with Smoky Mountain Wrestling then talks about some of the wonderful personalities associated with those early Knoxville days.

Part 2

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 is a longtime friend of Solie's and a regular contributer to the newsletter. His "EYE on Wrestling" columns can be found in the "Articles" section of the web site. His previous interviews with Bob Blackburn, Lou Thesz, Bob Ryder and Buddy Landel are currently to be found in the "Interviews" section.

Stylin' And Profilin': The Legend Of Ric Flair

By Ervin Griffin, Jr. and Matt Benaka

Part 19: War Of Attrition

After his surprise appearance and pin of Ric Flair, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat was riding high with his return to the NWA (where he really made his name with most wrestling fans)!!! In the weeks following that pin, Flair confronted Steamboat on, at least, two occasions before their big showdown in Chicago, IL at Chi-Town Rumble!!! The first was a week after the match, Flair taunted Steamboat after he finished winning a match!!! This led to a four-way brawl with Steamboat and Eddie Gilbert on one side and Flair and Barry Windham on the other!!! It also resulted in an injured nose for Gilbert!!! The next blowup was in Clevland, Ohio at a Clash special on TBS!!! Flair insulted Steamboat's family life. Steamboat responded with a slap to the face and an assault on Flair that caused all of the ladies that came out with him to scatter!!! In addition to giving Flair a deserved beating, Steamboat also ripped up his suit from coat to pants!!! He literally beat the pants off of Ric Flair that time!!!

Finally, the match date of February 20 finally came!!! Both Steamboat and Flair were ready to go to war in their first one on one bout in five years (I might be wrong but the last time these two faced off one on one was sometime in 1984 in the Meadowlands in New Jersey)!!! Neither man did not disappoint as Flair and Steamboat put on a great match!! While not as memorable as their two big later encounters, it was nonetheless a classic!!! At one point, NWA ref Tommy Young was knocked down!!! Both Flair and Steamboat gained pinfall attempts on each other while the ref was down!!! Finally, then-NWA official Teddy Long came in to take over for Young. By this time, Flair had Steamboat in position for another figure four (he applied the hold earlier in the bout) but Steamboat countered with a small package roll up for the three count!!! Long raised the hand of Steamboat and Young confirmed Steamboat's victory by also raising his hand!!! Flair couldn't believe it!!! This, however, was only the beginning as both men wrestled at several house shows for the NWA strap with either Steamboat winning or Flair winning by countout or DQ (in which Steamboat still retained the strap)!!!

Then came April 2, 1989 when Steamboat and Flair signed for a two out of three falls bout for the NWA title on a Clash Of The Champions special nicknamed "Ragin' Cajun"!!! The was a classic bout that saw both men use all of their skills and guile to win!!! Flair won the first fall with a cleanly executed roll up!!! Steamboat took the second fall with a surprise move called the double-arm chicken wing for a rare submission on Flair!!! In the third deciding fall, Steamboat and Flair battled down to the wire (almost to the time limit as the first two falls ate up the first 40+ minutes of the bout)!!! Steamboat went for the submission with the D.A.C.W. again but his leg (which had been worked over by Flair) gave in on him and both men's shoulders were down!!! Steamboat was given the victory but, in reality, either the match should've been called no contest or Flair should've gotten the victory because on top of having Steamboat's shoulders down, Flair's foot was underneath the bottom rope during the pin!!! While I can't take anything away from Steamboat's win (he really did earn it), Flair was cheated a bit and that left a cloud of doubt on Steamboat.

Steamboat, of course, knew that. So, he granted Flair one more opportunity to face him on May 7 in Nashville at "WrestleWar '89". This bout, by the way, was vote PRO WRESTLING ILLUSTRATED Match Of The Year that year and upon seeing the bout, you could see why!!! Steamboat and Flair wrestled another classic that saw Flair use a small package again for the win after 30+ minutes of action!!! Sadly, as much as I remember the classic bout, I also remember what happened afterwards when Terry Funk came into the ring to challenge Flair for the NWA belt. Here was Flair's response:

FLAIR: Look, pal!!! If you want me to look you in the eye and tell you that I got a problem wrestling a guy who's been out in Hollywood for the last three years (Actually, Funk had been wrestling as recent as the night before this match in Florida!!)!!! The bottom line is pal, I am looking at the top 10 and you're not in the top 10!!!

After that, Funk looked as if he was going to blow off the whole thing and just leave. He shook the hand of Flair but as he did so, he leveled Flair with a left hand!!! He then began a savage attack on Flair, piledriving him into a wooden table as well as bashing him in the back of the neck with a steel chair!!! Afterwards, Funk had this to say:

FUNK (yelling): He says that I am not good enough, I am not a contender!!! LOOK AT HIM!!! LOOK AT THE HORES-TOOTH, BANANA NOSE JERK!!!

While surviving one war of attrition, Flair had now found himself in another war!!!

NEXT: Terry Funk

If you have a question, comments, criticism, or just want to talk pro wrestling, e-mail me at or

Ervin Griffin Jr. is Solie's resident historian and also contributes to the Ringside Insider on a regular basis. Many of his previous articles are available in the Articles section of the website. Check out Ervin's Pro-Wrestling Fan Fiction web site.

I'll be back with the Monday Night Wars Edition. Until then...

At least that's the way I see it...

Earl Oliver
Editor, Solie's Wrestling Newsletter

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