As the 1980s drew to a close, Ted Turner’s Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling found itself laden with a roster of aging tough guys, many from the South and Southwest, who had enjoyed their greatest fame during the territorial era. “Dirty” Dick Slater, who died last week at age 67, was one such rugged misfit—a bruiser who had appeared to be in his late 40s since his early 20s, with his paunchy midsection spilling over his too-tight trunks, W.C. Fields nose square in the midst of his hard-drinker’s face, and hundred-yard stare striking fear into the hearts of the mulleted enhancement talents that then–head booker Ric Flair and his assistants threw at him. And for most of 1989, an annus mirabilis for a company soon to descend into incoherence as it tried to satisfy both wrestling diehards and young fans of the WWE’s more cartoonish brand, Slater was right in the thick of things, battling Sting and Flair alongside manager Gary Hart and fellow “J-Tex Corporation” stablemates Buzz Sawyer, the Great Muta, and Terry Funk.
Growing up in eastern North Carolina, WCW was always my brand of choice. If pressed, my 7-year-old self would have cited up-and-comers such as Muta, Sting, or the Steiner brothers as my reason for watching, but veteran workers like Slater were instrumental in putting those rising stars over or setting them straight. “It’s not like I picked Dick Slater out of thin air [for the J-Tex Corporation],” wrote Gary Hart in his autobiography. “We had a long history together [in Florida and the Carolinas], and Dick was in excellent condition at that time and did a great job substituting in main events for Terry Funk.”
Substituting for Terry Funk made perfect sense, especially in Slater’s case. Like a lot of regional workers from that era, Slater modeled his performing persona—a combination of bloody brawling and surprisingly adept technical wrestling—on Funk’s. “Or I dunno, maybe he modeled some of what he did on me,” Slater grumbled years later in a shoot interview. “We both liked it rough.”
The rough-and-tumble Slater, who grew up in Tampa with Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea and played college football at the University of Tampa with future professional wrestling great Paul Orndorff and future professional football star John Matuszak (whom Slater allegedly throttled in a bar fight), was drawn into pro wrestling during the early 1970s for the same reason lots of other old-school palookas were. To put it bluntly, he “needed some money” and “knew a couple guys,” in this case wrestler and trainer Hiro Matsuda and Mike Graham, son of Florida promoter Eddie Graham.
The first decade and a half of Slater’s career played out, for me and perhaps for other 1980s-vintage wrestling fans, in grainy VHS footage and the pages of back issues of Bill Apter magazines. In Florida, Slater won tag-team gold with Dusty Rhodes, whose star was in its ascendance, and tag-team specialist Johnny Weaver. Gary Hart brought Slater into the Georgia territory and paired him with second-generation star Bob Orton Jr. “They were fabulous together and became a legendary tag team, teaming in other territories and winning multiple titles together,” Hart wrote.
Hart ensured that Slater and Orton were booked on the first Starrcade supercard in 1983, at which they were paired up against Wahoo McDaniel and Mark Youngblood in one of the event’s best matches. Both Slater and Orton carried the match, with Orton hitting a signature superplex and the pair performing a bunch of other high-impact moves rarely seen at the time. “It was bloody and violent back then, and you could get away with a lot of stuff on TV,” Slater said in the shoot interview. “Guys like me and Roddy Piper would just be bleeding hardway on TV. Back on the old Turner station, nobody cared, and we could get violent, within five- and six-minute time limits. It was a pretty hard, brutal job back then.”
Slater moved on to Bill Watts’s Mid-South promotion, where he aroused tremendous controversy—never a bad thing in the wrestling world—by employing Lynda Newton, an African American exotic dancer he had become acquainted with, as “Dark Journey.” Inflaming the fans by depicting Newton as the object of Slater’s affections—by all accounts, they were an item, albeit in an abusive on-again, off-again relationship—was par for the course in Watts’s Mid-South promotion, which had enjoyed great success with black heroes like Junkyard Dog and black villains like Ernie Ladd.
Also par for the course in Mid-South was swift and brutal locker-room justice, of the sort that Tracy Smothers claimed Slater dispensed when he coldcocked a young Sting and then dunked his head in the toilet while Slater’s similarly paunchy tough-guy pal “Captain Redneck” Dick Murdoch underhooked Sting’s partner, the Ultimate Warrior, and held him against the wall. “‘I just took care of one of those big Road Warrior–looking fuckers, the big blond one,’” Smothers reported that Slater said when he left the bathroom with face paint all over his hands. The fight was allegedly over Sting’s dalliances with Dark Journey.
Slater briefly chased a WWE paycheck, appearing as Confederate flag–draped “The Rebel” Dick Slater—“This good old boy loves his pickup truck, even named his truck,” commentator Vince McMahon exclaimed while trying to put him over in a match against Jake Roberts—but he didn’t last long there. “Everybody was tired,” Slater said. “Piper and Orton were so tired. We flew everywhere and we were always just trying to get back to the hotel. Nobody had any enthusiasm or was doing anything for themselves. You just did the same thing every day and went back to the hotel.” He found easier paydays in All Japan after that, tagging with “Wildfire” Tommy Rich and “Dangerous” Dan Spivey against federation mainstays such as Jumbo Tsuruta and Rusher Kimura.
The years when I became familiar with Slater were his declining ones. He had some nice moments near the top of the card during the excellent J-Tex angle, but said that the promotion’s attempt to emulate the WWE’s grueling travel and television-taping schedule left the veteran talent exhausted and hurt, particularly Funk and Muta (Muta landed on his knees when he hit his moonsault, and the toll of doing that three to four times a week was apparently excruciating). But Slater and Funk went a bit too far when they put a plastic bag over Flair’s head on national television during the Clash of Champions, a move that prompted Slater’s 1989 departure from a suddenly violence-conscious Turner Broadcasting outfit that wanted to attract a younger demographic. “That angle was way over the top for TBS, and their phone lines lit up moments after we did it,” wrote Gary Hart. “People were incensed that Terry and I tried to suffocate someone on TV, and it was so controversial that when the Clash re-aired two hours later, they did not run the ‘bag angle.’”
But Slater wasn’t gone from the WCW for long. I enjoyed his “Hardliners” gimmick when he returned to the WCW in 1991, which saw him and longtime friend Dick Murdoch wearing black work shirts and newsboy caps and trouncing hapless jobbers. The tag team, redolent of the Bruiser-Crusher tandem from the glory days of the AWA, possibly could have succeeded over the long term had it gotten over with the fans, but Murdoch, well into the twilight of his career, wasn’t the day-in, day-out performer he had been during the previous decade. Slater then got another solid year of work and a brief tag title run with similarly long-in-the-tooth hardman Greg Valentine, before becoming involved with Robert Fuller’s “Stud Stable.”
Given the WCW’s national, post-nWo explosion, it’s hard to explain how distinctly “Southern” many parts of its presentation were right up to Hulk Hogan’s arrival in 1994, but the story lines involving Fuller’s “Colonel Robert Parker” and his “Stud Stable” of vicious rednecks speak volumes. Fuller managed wrestlers such as Slater, Terry Funk, and Fuller’s real-life cousin “Bunkhouse Buck.” In fact, Fuller was managing Slater right up to the end of his career in 1996, when Slater teamed with longtime tag-team specialist Mike Enos and had severals matches against Booker T and Stevie Ray—another of those odd connections between the sport’s slow-fading past and its surprising future with which the annals of wrestling are littered.
Slater retired from wrestling because he hurt his back, though at age 45 he surely didn’t have many prime years left. As with other grizzled, worn-out veterans, his retirement from the scene seemed to be leading inevitably and quickly to the void, with Slater overwhelmed by issues with painkillers and a violent stabbing assault of his ex-girlfriend that led to attempted murder charges and ultimately a sentence of house arrest and probation. Such grim stories are all too common in wrestling history, but unlike some of his troubled contemporaries, Slater would manage to endure for another decade and a half. Then again he had already survived being accidentally shot by Wahoo McDaniel in the early 1980s. It was the oldest of old-school stories: Slater happened to be spectating while McDaniel pistol-whipped a man who had drawn a knife on Tommy Rich, only to become a victim of old-school frontier justice gone wrong.
The passing of old-school figures like Slater leave behind a worn-out generation of their own successors—wrestlers who once constituted our collective youth movement of WWE and WCW champions, a youth movement now grown old and with most of its stars already in semi-retirement. Shawn Michaels, Triple H, the Undertaker, and Chris Jericho all have deep ties to Slater’s era, but the genuine article has passed into history. What, I wonder, will young fans of the social media age make of this disappearance from view? Who will they think of as the “hard men” of their own youths? And what did Slater think of the world he was leaving?
For this, at least, we have an answer. “It’s a shame that somebody couldn’t just start this territorial wrestling thing all over again,” Slater said in 2017. “If you’re selling out Charlotte, Richmond, and Norfolk, why go all over the place? The wrestlers used to move around, but the cities would stay the same. When I wrestled the Steiners and the Harlem Heat for WCW, I was getting stale every night I went out there on national TV. Same thing over and over. And Vince McMahon told the whole country we’re entertainers. In Japan, I did that bloody stuff with Terry Funk, death matches and all that. If we did that here, they’d see some real violence, make it real again. How many years did we blood, sweat, and shit to make the people think this wasn’t entertainment? It only takes one person to ruin something, and we’ll take that ruin to the grave.”
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.