Hey old timers, remember pro wrestling’s territory days? Back when wrestling was fun? Here’s a nice reminder.
By Jason Hink
Browsing the Internets recently I stumbled upon a DVD collection presented by Barry Owen (son of Don Owen, longtime promoter/owner of Pacific Northwest Wrestling) and released by Jadat Sports, simply titled Portland Wrestling Series Vol. 1. Nostalgia immediately flooded my pea-brain with memories of Billy Jack Haynes facing off against Rip Oliver in a feud that I swear lasted my entire early childhood. Portland Wrestling, the name of the weekly TV program (in those days originating from local Portland station KOIN), must have been syndicated to my little southern Oregon town where I watched these 1980s matches with my parents and listened to my mom fawn over “that sexaaay Billy Jack.” In fact, when the PNW visited my local fairgrounds, my mom got a photo with Billy Jack, which I just recently saw for the first time in decades.
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So what the heck, I said―let’s give this DVD a shot. Let’s see how much of this I remember before the WWF made pro wrestling a mainstream national phenomenon, eventually killing the old territory system. The video quality here is subpar, with compression that looks like these were ripped from YouTube, which may very well be the case considering how negligent TV producers were about archiving product back in the pre-digital era (there’s even a station ID bug for Spokane’s KAYU-TV during the first match). But none of that matters; I’m thrilled this footage exists at all!
The DVD is broken up into 10 chapters, each corresponding to a match or an interview (there are six matches and four interviews/promos. I’ve italicized the chapter titles in the review below). The disc will ‘play all’ without stopping at the end of each segment, which is nice if you want to watch the whole 2 hours and 20 minutes in one sitting. So let’s see what’s on this disc, shall we?
Portland Wrestling Series Vol. 1 kicks off with a Cuban Assassin Interview at ringside. The Assassin starts out speaking in his native tongue before switching to English, where he says he has no friends in America, nor does he want friends in America. People, he’s not just a man from Cuba― he’s the Cuban Assassin! Of course he doesn’t want any American friends!
But these are fightin’ words to one American-born grappler, and in the Tom Prichard Interview, the Houston native responds to the Assassin in what can only be described as the gold standard in pro wrestling poetry:
“Brother, I was born in the U.S.A., and I LOVE the U.S.A., and YOU CAN LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT! And I’m gonna make sure of one thing: Saturday night, Cuban Assassin, it’s gonna be Cuba against the United States of America, right here in PORTLAND, OREGON! America has NEVER in its history lost a war, and you and Fidel Castro, and EVERYBODY ELSE FROM CUBA is gonna find out what American fightin’ power is like, HERE next SATURDAY NIGHT, ONCE AND FOR ALL!”
After I pause the disc for 10 minutes to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” with the Portland Sports Arena crowd, I settle in for Tom Prichard vs. Cuban Assassin, a best-of-three falls match from 1985 (as far as I can tell) and the culmination of all that sh*t talk. The Assassin takes the first match and Prichard wins the second, so in true pro wrestling fashion it goes to the wire with the rubber match. I won’t spoil it for you, but at one point when Prichard has the Assassin on the run, announcer Don Coss summarizes what must be going through the Assassin’s head when he exclaims, “How do I get to Havana from here!?!” A fun match with good action, and a fun start to the DVD. As an aside, announcer Coss casually notes during the match, “If you haven’t heard, last weekend the Indians, Billy Two Eagles and Don Running Bear, became the Pacific Northwest Tag Team champions!” So hey, congrats to those guys…
What follows are four straight matches, beginning with Kendo Nagasaki vs. Mando Guerrero, also from 1985. Nagasaki, a “martial arts master” from Japan and Guerrero, billed from Los Angeles (in real life born in Mexico City, Mexico), engage in a slow start before things pick up. Nagasaki is a sight to behold with wild, jet-black hair swirling around his balding dome like a taller Jesse Ventura, with scary face paint reminiscent of a clown in a horror movie. In other words, a perfect heel! After a Nagasaki beatdown, the crowd pops for Guerrero when he makes his comeback, nailing the steely Japanese with a maneuver off the middle turnbuckle. Will it be enough? Will slooooooow-counting referee Sandy Barr ever reach a three-count?
After those two bouts, we move ahead a couple years for a 1988 match, Avalanche vs. Mike Miller. The 440-pound Avalanche resembles his namesake, and PNW mainstay “Mean” Mark Miller could be Adrian Adonis’ cousin during Adonis’ early 80s, leather-clad, biker-themed years. And at a measly 260 pounds he’s in for a battle―Avalanche isn’t to be taken lightly, “he’s gotta be taken very heavily!” exclaims announcer Don Coss. The black-mulleted Miller brings charisma to the ring, poking fun at his mountainous opponent, much to the delight of the Portland Sports Arena faithful. In 1988, with the WWF riding its golden era with Vince McMahon’s preference for “monster” heels (i.e. Andre the Giant, King King Bundy), the idea of a 440-pound bad guy in the Portland territory must have made sense. Miller’s able to knock the Avalanche down a couple times, but the big guy has an ace up his sleeve (actually, it’s in his tights). Avalanche (real name Paul Neu) is likely best known for his 1990s stints in World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), where he was billed as P.N. News.
Up next, it’s back to 1985 for Bobby Jaggers vs. Ed Wiskowski. We’re greeted with some VCR tracking at the beginning (the actual “tracking” graphic appears on-screen) as the VHS tape does its best to magnetically reproduce local TV from almost 40 years ago. It appears to be a short match when Wiskowski lands a piledriver on Jaggers for the 3-count, but we soon learn it’s actually the second fall in a best-of-three falls match (the first fall is lost to time, I’m guessing). Generally good work by both wrestlers along with some silly overselling by Wiskowski, which just adds to the fun for me. Some good moves and a couple dangerous bumps for the era. Referee Sandy Barr (a legendary former wrestler himself in the territory) gets more involvement than he bargained for before this match’s conclusion.
The final two matches on Portland Wrestling Series Vol. 1 are truly the main events―and the first one is Roddy Piper vs. Buddy Rose. Classic wrestling from 1985, this one features two bona fide superstars of the sport with the Rowdy one facing off against the Playboy, who makes his way to the ring alongside his sexy “bunnies.” Slaps across the face, bloodletting, beatings―this one has it all, with a crowd that’s absolutely electric! And for good reason: this match was part of a 60th anniversary event for the PNW that featured guest stars who hadn’t been seen in Portland for quite some time. Also, the bout was less than two months after the WWF’s first WrestleMania, which featured Piper as the promotion’s top heel in the main event teaming with “Cowboy” Bob Orton against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T.
Lesser known is the fact that Buddy Rose also wrestled in the first WrestleMania…and in fact, the Playboy holds the honor of wrestling in the first-ever WrestleMania match where he donned a mask as The Executioner in a loss to Tito Santana. How exciting it must have been to see both legends return to the territory that helped jump-start their careers just weeks after the world saw them at WrestleMania!
While Rose would gradually move down the card in the years following his early 80s NWA heyday, he and Piper resumed their longstanding PNW feud for this show, and they put on a good one. My favorite moment may be when Rose beats on Piper with an empty water pitcher outside the ring. Later on, a great move featuring both wrestlers crashing off the top rope ends the match, which got an audible pop out of me!
Just one match to go, but first we get the lead-up as Rip Oliver Attacks Billy Jack Haynes. Rip “The Crippler” Oliver, sporting a bandaged rib cage, forgets to bring to the ring a trophy he previously stole from Haynes. Bobby Jaggers brings the trophy to the ring and, with Oliver, proceeds to attack both Haynes and referee Barry Owen. The trophy is destroyed, leaving a bloodied Billy Jack on the canvas. Good guys eventually storm the ring from the dressing room to stop the carnage, but the damage is done, leading to the Rip Oliver Promo, where the Crippler says he has nothing to apologize for, “and I don’t care if you like it, or if Don Owen likes it, I don’t care! I’m out for my belt!”
Rip Oliver truly scared me as a little kid, and the nostalgia kicked in listening to his promo: he looks, talks and presents himself as a legitimate tough guy, with no cartooney pretensions. Which is probably why my most vivid memories from these years are of Billy Jack’s feud against Oliver and his “Clan.” And that brings us to1984’s Billy Jack Haynes vs. Rip Oliver match, with Haynes wearing the PNW belt and Rip looking to get it back by any means necessary.
Haynes is just as believable―a street brawler any kid would want on their side with a physique that melted the ladies and pissed off their husbands (it’s no wonder my dad joked with my sister and I, calling himself ‘Daddy Jack’). And this best-of-3 falls match is indeed a brawl. When Haynes gets the upper hand in the first fall, it looks like he’s going to put Rip away after a flurry of offense, but the Crippler doesn’t lay down, and he plays dirty, which results in his winning the first fall.
Billy Jack, nursing an eye injury sustained in the first bout, must now win two in a row (isn’t that how it always goes?). Things don’t look good when Rip throws Billy outside the ring and doesn’t allow him back in, eventually nailing him with a chair before referee Sandy Barr dresses Oliver down (legendary former wrestler Barr gets a nice pop from the crowd here). A pained Billy Jack finally rolls back into the ring and musters enough strength to steal the second fall, leading to the rubber match.
Coming out of the commercial break we hear the last part of an off-camera interview with Bobby Jaggers: “You tell Kendo Nagasake, maybe I can’t use my stick as good as his, but mine sure as hell will hurt ya!” And with that, a bloodied Billy Jack and Rip Oliver lock up for the final round, and it’s an utter street brawl. Haynes throws Rip outside the ring, following him out to continue the carnage on the concrete (and with no barrier between the wrestlers and fans!). The conclusion may surprise you or piss you off, but there’s no denying it’s classic PNW rasslin’.
The audience is sold. I’m sold. And I’m happy I picked up this little DVD collection of Portland Wrestling Series Vol. 1. Lots of childhood memories rekindled and I think Portland Wrestling holds up favorably to its WWF and NWA contemporaries. My only regret is never getting to visit the Portland Sports Arena to see this magic happen in person…and sadly, we’ll never see entertainment like this again.