Saturday, August 29, 2015

Main Event Memory: A Local Boy Gets His Shot

"Headlining the schedule will be a tag team match pitting Burlington's Don Kernodle and Ric Flair against Greg Valentine and Roddy Piper."

A quick glance at the newspaper ad above and one might not think anything unusual about Don Kernodle teaming with Ric Flair in the early 1980s. Flair was the Mid-Atlantic territory's beloved top star at that time, on his way to be coming NWA world champion for the first time later that year.

However, Don Kernodle was still wrestling the circuit as a mid-card babyface, having been in that role for over seven years, and struggling to break out to the next level. That break would indeed come in early 1982 when Sgt. Slaughter selected him and Jim Nelson to become his Marine privates. Pvts. Nelson and Kernodle became one of the top tag teams in the territory with Sgt. Slaughter as their mentor, winning the Mid-Atlantic tag team championships. Kernodle later became the partner of Sarge himself, and the two had one of the biggest box-office feuds of the early 1980s with Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood.

But in March of 1981, Kernodle was still toiling away as a mid-carder, one of the top workers in the ring, but never getting the chance to get over at the next level. But on this one night in March in his hometown of Burlington, NC, Don got an opportunity to shine.

Jim Crockett Promotions ran semi-regular spot shows at Cummings High School in Burlington.  Kernodle had grown up in Burlington and was a four-year standout high school wrestler before going on to success as a wrestler for Elon College in the same town. He lettered in wrestling all four years at Elon, and also dabbled in Judo and arm wrestling where he was a 2-time national champion. So he was a well known local name in the area, plus he had been seen on Mid-Atlantic Wrestling television shows for years.

In March of 1981, Ric Flair was in the middle of a tag team feud with his two arch-rivals that had dubbed themselves "the dream team" - - Roddy Piper and Greg Valentine. Flair's regular partner during this run was Ricky Steamboat. So the normal main event for Burlington could have easily been Flair and Steamboat vs. Piper and Valentine, which was headlining major venues all over the territory.  But on this Thursday in March of 1981, booker Ole Anderson had the idea to take advantage of Don Kernodle's local name in the Burlington area and team him with Flair for one special night at the local high school spot show.

Needless to say, that angle worked well, drawing not only the hardcore fans, but also many in the community who knew the Kernodle family and turned out to support Don in what was surely the biggest match of his career by this point. Kernodle and Flair tore the house down and scored a big victory over the "dream team" of Piper and Valentine.

Less than a year later, in early 1982, Kernodle would finally get the push he longed for (and well deserved) when he turned heel and became part of Sgt. Slaughter's marine unit.

* * * * * * * *
Newspaper clippings from the collection of Mark Eastridge.
Check out all the Main Event Memories on the Gateway.