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Elegy for a Tough Dad

“Bullet” Bob Armstrong: 1939-2020

Ringer illustration

Bob Armstrong, who died last week at age 80, spent most of his adult life under the spotlight. But for Armstrong—born Joseph James in Marietta, Georgia—that spotlight shone brightest in the southeastern United States. In places such as Columbus, Georgia, and Dothan, Alabama, the U.S. Marine-turned-firefighter-turned–pro wrestler held his own against anyone, including then-NWA champion and college wrestling great Jack Brisco in 1974 and brash, young Hulk Hogan five years later. When Ric Flair needed to win a regional NWA title in 1982 to justify a rematch with world champion Harley Race, he traveled to Alabama to pursue Armstrong’s NWA Southeastern title … and came up empty-handed, on the receiving end of a time-limit draw. Flair might’ve ruled the Greensboro Coliseum and the TBS Superstation, but along the Gulf Coast, Armstrong still reigned supreme.

Armstrong looked to all the world like the kindly gym teacher next door; someone who restores vintage muscle cars between sets of dumbbell curls. He was a steady presence in metal-framed glasses; short-sleeve, button-down shirts; and trucker caps. Yet this unassuming tough guy left behind a body of work that encompassed nearly five decades of in-ring performances and saw him wrestling alongside all four of his sons. Those sons emerged from their father’s long shadow as a regional superstar and extended their father’s legacy well into the modern era: Brad, who died in 2012, as a well-built workrate superstar who endured numerous costumes, repackagings, and gimmick switches in pursuit of WCW success; Scott and Steve were tag-team mainstays of that company’s roster; and Brian, who achieved his success as the WWE’s catchphrase-spouting “Road Dogg,” took his dad’s prodigious mic skills north of the Mason-Dixon line, and helped clear a path for Bob into the WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2011.

The origin story that Armstrong shared in that 2011 induction speech was something out of a Frank Capra script: a small-town boy with stars in his eyes sat atop his father’s broad shoulders while watching the popular heel Gorgeous George mince and caper about the ring, thinking that this arrogant but undeniably entertaining wrestler “must be what an angel looks like … dressed all in gold with that platinum hair.” From there, the young Armstrong’s creation myth resembles those of so many other small-town heroes: he served his country in the Marines, which in turn afforded him the opportunity to learn how to wrestle and box, and then he returned to Marietta to work as a fireman and “pump iron” in the gym. Charles Gaines, the author of Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding, attributes the origin of the term “pump iron” to another local lifter in the Alabama area. But one can easily imagine the loquacious Armstrong—who told wrestling biographer Greg Oliver that he learned most of his popular “old Southern” homespun sayings while growing up on the family farm—either coining or popularizing it.

Armstrong then leaned into wrestling the way so many other local tough guys did during the age of kayfabe, an age when would-be grapplers lacked today’s access to a host of easy-to-find wrestling schools: he followed a friend, firefighting coworker Darrell Cochran, into the business. After a few years of success as one of the better-built babyfaces in the business—certainly in a region known for paunchy veteran stars fond of “getting color” while remaining capable of working 60-minute time-limit draws—he committed to the sport full time in 1966.

Armstrong turned 27 in 1966, and there is a lengthy period (two decades, or an eternity in wrestling terms), between then and when I remember him doing his classic “dad wrestler” offense of kicks, punches, and body slams on TBS’ World Championship Wrestling alongside son Brad, who at the time was about as jacked as anyone on the company’s roster outside of Lex Luger and Billy Jack Haynes. During those 20 years, he cycled through iterations of his character, from athletic firefighter to “Georgia Jawjacker” who specialized in “jacking (i.e., breaking) jaws,” and cultivated the earnest, passionate delivery that would enable him to speak for his sons as they began their careers.

Armstrong preferred to alter his in-ring style, usually the classic babyface repertoire of hip tosses and second-rope moves, to meet the needs of opponents. Some opponents, like the 400-pound hardcore superstar Abdullah the Butcher, needed to be carried for 15 minutes, as was the case when Armstrong wrestled him in Macon, Georgia back in the 1970s. (A bit of wrestling lore, likely spurious, attributes the genesis of the so-called “Armstrong curse” that Brad claimed kept him from the main-event stardom to Bob Armstrong stealing a shrunken head from Abdullah’s locker room gear). Other competitors, such as former NWA world champion Lou Thesz and then-reigning world champion Jack Brisco, required that Armstrong help them provide the fans with 50 to 60 minutes of fast-paced, technical action.

B. Brian Blair, veteran pro wrestler and president of wrestling’s Cauliflower Alley Club, can attest to Armstrong’s versatility. While appearing together on a card in Macon, Georgia, their opponents were unable to compete and the two wrestlers, both good guys, were booked against each other. “It was 1983, so I was 29 and he would’ve been 43,” Blair told me. “Bob was always in great shape, as were his kids, and the two of us were able to have a solid babyface match that really got the crowd involved. He hated laziness and insisted on giving the fans their money’s worth, even in a match put together at the last minute.”

Bob Armstrong’s stellar work ethic was nearly his undoing. In an interview with Jake “the Snake” Roberts, Armstrong and Roberts recalled the specifics of his horrific weightlifting injury. Armstrong, Roberts explained, was doing “skull crushers”—a tricep extension exercise—on a bench at a gym in early 1983. The bench wasn’t bolted down properly and came apart, causing the barbell, loaded with 185 pounds of weight, to smash into Armstrong’s face, breaking several bones and tearing off part of his nose, which, according to Roberts, bounced into a dusty corner of the room. The disfigurement and resulting plastic surgery reshaped Armstrong’s distinctive physiognomy. The veteran star many of us watched on television in the late 1980s, with a small nose and raised-up or slightly sunken cheekbones, didn’t resemble the young babyface grappler with the wider face and longer, almost Roman nose of the 1960s and 1970s.

The incident also gave Armstrong a compelling reason to don a mask, becoming the “Bullet” and setting him up for perhaps the most sustained main-event run of his career in the Alabama- and Tennessee-based Continental Championship Wrestling during the late 1980s. During that run, he feuded against the promotion’s top heel, 6-foot-9 Ron “the Tennessee Stud” Fuller, who also owned the company. Bullet and Fuller worked a compelling multiyear feud that was captured in its entirety on an Armstrong-centric YouTube channel; it includes a story line deep enough that it featured star turns from other performers including Brad and longtime masked man Jody Hamilton, better known as the Assassin, who also worked in the latter stages of his career as the fireball-tossing Flame.

Jim Cornette, when discussing Armstrong’s use of the mask, noted that it likely extended his main-event career by many years. Even though the purpose of the mask wasn’t to obscure Armstrong’s identity so that angry fans couldn’t hunt him down—the stated rationale of many domestic masked wrestlers—it gave him an alternative identity he could adopt if circumstances forced him out of a given promotion due to the loss of a match with a “loser leaves town” or some similar stipulation. Cornette himself got some good work out of Armstrong, utilizing his sons Scott and Steve as a tag team and Bob as the straight-shooting commissioner. Bob cut some of his most effective promos while in Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion, and his authoritative-meets-aw-shucks sincerity only increased in gravitas as he grew older. According to Cornette, the two of them drew 3,000 fans to the Civic Coliseum in Knoxville in 1993 for a main-event singles match intended to resolve the long-simmering feud between the Armstrongs and Cornette’s Heavenly Bodies tag team.

Armstrong never stopped appearing in venues throughout the South. He remained a compelling presence well into old age. He didn’t possess the steroid-swollen size of so many 1980s superstars, but he looked like a tough, fit old fellow with well-defined Popeye arms and a narrow waist well into his late 60s—he tucked his tank tops into his khaki pants, of course. And he put that body to use from 2005 to 2006 by assisting son Brian of “Road Dogg” fame, who was working under his real name as B.G. James in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.

While in TNA, Armstrong assisted James and tag-team partner Kip James (longtime WWE tag-team partner Billy Gunn) in a feud against Konnan’s Latin American Xchange stable. He interfered to save the James Gang and suffered beatdowns of his own, but the highlight of the feud for me was Armstrong working a five-minute, vintage arm wrestling match against Konnan. Inexplicably, Konnan didn’t interfere before losing, as anyone familiar with the genre popularized by the likes of Jesse “the Body” Ventura and “Superstar” Billy Graham knows the heel is supposed to do, so Armstrong went over clean.

By the time Armstrong began to tease permanent retirement in the late 2000s, his sons had also slowed down their own schedules. Scott and Steve Armstrong did the bulk of their tag-team work in WCW from 1994 to 2001, primarily losing most of their competitive matches on the company’s Saturday Night program, before enjoying a bit of a push as the company declined in popularity in the late 1990s. Brad had seemed like a future star denied his shot for so long that he eventually made the “Armstrong curse” a core part of the basic character that reappeared between transitions to increasingly strange gimmicks: a “Candyman” who handed out candy to fans before becoming the masked “Badstreet” member of the Freebirds stable; a Spider-Man knockoff called the “Arachnaman”; and eventually “Buzzkill,” a Road Dogg knockoff he portrayed during the WCW’s declining years under Vince Russo. Brian, who inherited the bulk of Bob’s microphone abilities and parlayed that talent into a stint as Jeff Jarrett’s obnoxious “Roadie” before gaining notoriety during a feud with the Honky Tonk Man and “Rockabilly” (future tag partner Billy Gunn), experienced his own heyday during the WWE’s Attitude Era as a member of the New Age Outlaws tag team and the D-Generation X stable from 1996 to 2001.

Steve, who had also enjoyed a stint in WCW tagging with Tracy Smothers as the “Southern Boys” prior to tagging with Scott, tapered off his bookings when WCW folded in 2001 and drifted into semi-retirement. Scott transitioned into a role as a WWE referee in 2006, and is still in that position. Brad—who Bob Armstrong assured Jake Roberts was “the most athletic of us all”—began working part time as a producer and trainer for WWE in 2006 before dying of a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 51. Brian dealt with substance misuse while logging seven years in TNA from 2002 to 2008 and three more as a performer in the WWE from 2011 to 2014 before finally settling into a backstage role as a producer and trainer for the company. Three of Bob Armstrong’s kids, Southern regional wrestlers by birth and training, all wound up working for the first truly worldwide wrestling company.

Bob seemed pleased as punch, to use a cornball turn of phrase he might appreciate, to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame of a billion-dollar company that employed his kids but never had much to do with him. He understood the WWE’s significance, as well as the significance of being inducted in his home state of Georgia. But the speech he gave was pure Southern sincerity, tearful candor indicating that his character was likely indistinguishable from his true self. Armstrong had come full circle, which was quite easy given that he never left the South. “I’m Southern-born and Southern-bred, and when I die, I’ll be Southern-dead,” he was fond of declaring during impassioned promos, and we all know that the Bullet was a man who kept his word.