Sunday, September 17, 2017

Grapplin' Greats: Les Thatcher's Burning Issues

As you know if you have followed the Mid-Atlantic Gateway over the years, Les Thatcher is one of our favorites, both as a broadcaster and a wrestler. The following article was written by Mike Cline at the "Mid-Atlantic Grapplin' Greats" website, one of our favorite blogs here at the Mid-Atlantic Gateway. The article was originally published there as a four-part series. It is re-published here with Mike's kind permission and all in one post. It documents one of the most memorable angles from 1967 for Jim Crockett Promotions, and one of Thatcher's biggest matches ever in the area.


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LES THATCHER'S BURNING ISSUES
By Mike Cline
Mid-Atlantic Grapplin' Greats


PART ONE - 
WHAT THE PUBLIC SAW

GEORGE BECKER and JOHNNY WEAVER were the top 'babyface' team in JIM CROCKETT PROMOTIONS for most of the 1960s.

J.C. DYKES and THE INFERNOS, on the flipside, were one of the top 'heel' teams during the late1960s.

"It was one of the highlights
of my entire career."
And, somehow, not by sheer happenings or fate, a twenty-seven year-old wrestler, who had recently been named the ROOKIE OF THE YEAR while working in the NWA Florida territory, found himself in the middle of a top JCP wrestling program that stretched over a nearly four month time frame.

This young man was LES THATCHER.

The year was 1967. It was the annual LABOR DAY WRESTLING card in CHARLOTTE, N.C., one of but a handful of shows held each year at the original CHARLOTTE COLISEUM on Independence Boulevard.

The main event that night featured BECKER and WEAVER going against THE INFERNOS, managed by J.C. DYKES. These two teams had a violent history, so the fans expected this match to be something special.

Folks who remember this bitter rivalry will recall that a central issue with THE INFERNOS was the 'loaded boot' that one of them wore. Time after time, the boot would come into play in their matches with the end result often being their opponents being kicked into oblivion, giving the masked men many victories.

GEORGE BECKER and JOHNNY WEAVER

THE INFERNOS with J.C. DYKES

BECKER and WEAVER had vowed to remedy this problem, themselves being previous victims of the boot. And, indeed, they did take action. On the night of July 1, 1967, in WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (and maybe in other towns as well), GEORGE and JOHNNY were successful in removing the boot from the foot of THE INFERNO who wore it. Each subsequent time the heroes had faced DYKES and his men, BECKER had worn the boot himself as an equalizer.

The Charlotte Coliseum, Charlotte NC

The CHARLOTTE match started out as the fans had expected, which each team taking it to the other. Near the end of the first fall, referee ANGELO MARTINELLI was knocked down and shaken up, but able to make the count on the 'good guys', giving THE INFERNOS a one fall advantage.

ANGELO called for assistance. He couldn't continue. JCP employee GEORGE HARBEN went to the ring and rendered assistance to the injured MARTINELLI. After calling to the back for a replacement official, HARBEN learned that the other referees who had worked the card had already left the building.

LES THATCHER had already wrestled his match earlier and had already showered and changed to his street clothes. Seeing LES standing near the back of the arena, HARBEN signaled for THATCHER to come to the ring. After a brief discussion, LES removed his suit jacket and took over as the official for the remainder of the match.

Les Thatcher raises the hands of
George Becker and Johnny Weaver
Naturally, DYKES and THE INFERNOS protested, "He's a friend of BECKER and WEAVER. There's no way we will get a fair shake." The rantings and ravings fell on unsympathetic ears. THATCHER signaled for the bell, and the second fall began.

GEORGE and JOHNNY took fall number two, squaring the match.

The deciding fall immediately became hot and heavy. The end came quickly when one of the hooded heavies gave LES a shove. THATCHER got in the masked man's face, reminding him he was an official and was not to be touched. At this point, WEAVER 'schoolboyed' THE INFERNO, LES counted to three, and the match was over.

LES raised BECKER and WEAVER's hands in victory. GEORGE and JOHNNY left the ring, with LES closely behind them. But THATCHER was stopped by the sore losers who were claiming LES stole the match from them. A bit of a rhubard started, then suddenly THE INFERNOS grabbed the substitute referee, and J.C. DYKES incinerated THATCHER's face with a fireball.

LES hit the mat, rolling around, screaming in anguish. GEORGE and JOHNNY ran back into the ring, DYKES and THE INFERNOS ran out of the ring (their damage had been done). WEAVER wrapped a towel around THATCHER's face, and he and BECKER got LES back to the dressing room.

Weaver and Becker check on Les Thatcher after J.C. Dykes burned Les with a fireball.

Only time would tell how badly LES was injured and how long he would be out of action.


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PART TWO - 
WHAT THE PUBLIC DIDN'T SEE

LES THATCHER related to me that those participating in the CHARLOTTE COLISEUM main event of September 4, 1967 met at the CROCKETT office on Morehead Street that same morning.

Those present included LES, GEORGE BECKER (also the booker at the time), JOHNNY WEAVER, J.C. DYKES, both of THE INFERNOS (FRANKIE CAIN and ROCKY SMITH), GEORGE HARBEN, and 'BIG' JIM CROCKETT himself.


'BIG' JIM instructed HARBEN to make sure that by the time the main event started that evening, that all referees working the show (except ANGELO MARTINELLI, who was assigned the main event) were to be out of the building. This way no one would spot any other refs hanging around, thus spoiling credibility to HARBEN's ringside plea for LES to come to the ring to officiate the remainder of the match.

CROCKETT told LES to wear his very best suit and to be visible at the back of the COLISEUM arena, so word would reach LES to come to the ring when HARBEN called for him. "If your clothes get damaged or ruined during the match, I'll pay to replace them", CROCKETT would say.



Near the end of the first fall, referee MARTINELLI would be knocked down, injured, but able to count to three in favor of THE INFERNOS.

HARBEN would go to ANGELO's aid. Determining that the official could not continue, MARTINELLI would be helped to the dressing room. With no other ref available, HARBEN (without the use of a microphone) would call out for LES to come to the ring. The fans would actually become involved in the proceedings by relaying the message back to THATCHER, who then went to the ring and received instructions from HARBEN.



THATCHER would referee the second and third falls of the match, amidst the protests of DYKES and his two men. GEORGE and JOHNNY would even the match, winning the second fall. WEAVER would 'schoolboy' one of THE INFERNOS for the third fall victory. LES would raise GEORGE and JOHNNY's hands, who would then leave the ring and start for the dressing room.

RUDY KAY
LES was to drop back a bit, so before he could leave the ring, he would be accosted by the sore losers. A little scuffle would ensue climaxing with DYKES igniting THATCHER's face with a fireball. LES would hit the mat, screaming in pain, and BECKER and WEAVER would jump back into the ring. GEORGE was to run off the 'heels' (their dastardly deed fulfilled), and WEAVER (who had conveniently worn a towel around his neck for the match) would wrap it around the burnt younster's face and help him back to the dressing room.

Once inside the dressing room, LES wouldn't even take the time to change his clothes. He would cover his head and slip out the back of the COLISEUM, where RUDY KAY would be waiting in his automobile. LES would slouch down on the floorboard of the back seat, and RUDY was to quickly drive LES home to the THATCHER apartment.

One more detail to cover---the hired ambulance drivers who would be at the COLISEUM in case they would really be needed during the evening. WEAVER was assigned the task of telling the ambulance guys that THATCHER had a 'phobia' with ambulances, and that GEORGE and JOHNNY would take LES to the hospital themselves, thus relieving the medics of participating. The medical personnel could not be involved, in order to 'protect the business'.

"That's how meticulous the program was laid out...every detail was taken care of," LES said.


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PART THREE -
SELLING THE PROGRAM

Safely back in his apartment, LES THATCHER kept a low profile for several days.

He did his own facial make-up to show the effects of the 'burning'. LES shaved off his left eyebrow, then used a coarse Turkish towel to rub up the skin around his eye to give it an irritated look. He applied what is known as 'New Skin' to the area to give his injured area a wrinkled effect, then painted the area with merbromin (household name: mercurochrome) and tinted Vicks Vapor Rub which gave an oozing appearance.

Then it was on to his bookings. For the time being, most would be in the general CHARLOTTE TV area as this was the target area for the 'burn' program. LES didn't wrestle for a couple of weeks, but instead appeared in all of his scheduled cities going into the ring, showing his burned face and explaining how the injury had occurred. (Before each appearance, 'BIG' JIM CROCKETT personally instructed LES to what degree he was to reduce the size of the 'burn', giving the illusion that the injury was heeling.)

After a week or two, every wrestling fan in the area was aware of the heated battle that had been touched off.

LES then appeared on the WBTV-CHARLOTTE CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING program hosted by BIG BILL WARD. During his interview with WARD (the interviews were always conducted in front of the ring apron), THE INFERNOS and DYKES were in the ring awaiting their match. At some point, while he was being questioned, LES was assaulted by one of the masked men (LES believes FRANKIE CAIN), who ripped at his injured face, causing THATCHER extreme pain and discomfort, thus (and pardon the pun) adding fuel to the fire. GEORGE BECKER and JOHNNY WEAVER came rushing to LES' aid, preventing even more damage.

During their tenure with JCP, J.C. DYKES often wrote a column in the weekly CHARLOTTE wrestling program which was handed out (or sold--- I can't recall which) entitled LIKES AND DISLIKES BY J.C. DYKES. During the time frame after LES was burned, a number of the DYKES articles were directed at young THATCHER for concocting such a ridiculous "lie" that J.C. had hit him with a fireball.


Later in the mid-70s, LES wrote an editorial in each issue of MID-ATLANTIC WRESTLING MAGAZINE entitled WRESTLER'S EYE VIEW. LES still uses that trademark to this day. But even before his editorials of the 1970s, LES originated that banner during this INFERNOS program. In a later-to-come 60 MINUTES POINT / COUNTERPOINT style, LES was given a rebuttal column in the programs giving his side of the 'burning" incident. (One will appear in tomorrow's wrap-up entry of this story.)

LES chases one of THE INFERNOS
during a CHARLOTTE PARK CENTER encounter.
NEXT...the final chapter...LES THATCHER GETS SATISFACTION.


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PART FOUR - LES GETS SATISFACTION

There was no wrestling in CHARLOTTE, N.C. on December 18th, 1967 as JIM CROCKETT PROMOTIONS was on its CHRISTMAS break.

Therefore, the WBTV-CHARLOTTE CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING TV program which aired on Saturday, December 16th included the announcement of the annual WRESTLING card which would be held at the CHARLOTTE COLISEUM on CHRISTMAS night. This holiday card was always one of the top shows of the year and brought attention to the CHARLOTTE NEWS EMPTY STOCKING FUND, a charity to provide for the needy during the holidays. (The CHARLOTTE NEWS was, at the time, the evening newspaper of the Queen City, the CHARLOTTE OBSERVER was and still is the morning paper.)

Headlining the big holiday card was the match many had been hoping for...and none more than young LES THATCHER. The match would feature LES teaming with GEORGE BECKER and JOHNNY WEAVER opposing THE INFERNOS and, in the ring as a participant, manager J.C. DYKES in SIX MAN action.



LES went home to Ohio for a few days during his holiday break. Returning back to CHARLOTTE the day of the match, he was picked up at the airport by his good friend and wrestling 'cousin', ROGER KIRBY.

Roger Kirby
During the drive to his apartment, LES confided to KIRBY that he was nervous about the upcoming match, now just hours away. Nervous not because of his participation in the match, but rather because he feared if the crowd wasn't a good one, he would be blamed for the lower-than-expected attendance. THATCHER had worked main events while in Florida, but never in a building as large as the CHARLOTTE COLISEUM. And not on a wrestling card of this magnitude.

As it turned out, he need not have worried. Before the show started, while in the dressing room, JCP employee GEORGE HARBEN came in and said, "They're really pouring in."

At the end of the evening, the card had drawn the largest CHRISTMAS house for WRESTLING in CHARLOTTE to that time.

THE INFERNOS and DYKES await BECKER, WEAVER and THATCHER's ring entrance.

Finally, a chance for LES to even the score with the men who had injured him so badly. And here he was...teaming with the company's top twosome against a 'heel' team that drew big money wherever they worked.

Things went well for the 'good guys' that CHRISTMAS night. After splitting the first two falls, BECKER, WEAVER and THATCHER had DYKES a bloody mess when his men decided it was way too hot, even for INFERNOS. They grabbed their bludgeoned leader and headed for their dressing room, but before their getaway, one of the hooded 'heels' lost a most precious possession...his mask. Although his identity was concealed, this was the only instance I am aware that one of THE INFERNOS was unmasked while in the MID-ATLANTIC territory.


Referee SAM 'LUCKY' ROBERTS raises the hands of BECKER, WEAVER and THATCHER after DYKES and THE INFERNOS deserted the ring. Look closely at THATCHER's right hand and you'll see a just-removed INFERNO mask, quite a holiday stocking stuffer.

CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, December 26th


The LIKE AND DISLIKES column which appeared in the CHARLOTTE PARK CENTER wrestling program
the week after the CHRISTMAS night match...

....and LES THATCHER's response in the same program.






A four-month program came to a close CHRISTMAS night of 1967. This 'feud' was a great example of how to create, build and sell a program to the fans that was both believable as well as entertaining (something sorely lacking in today's product).

And as LES has said, "It was one of the highlights of my entire career."


- Mike Cline
Mid-Atlantic Grapplin' Greats


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Credits at the end of Mike Cline's Original article: My thanks to my very good friends DICK BOURNE of the MID-ATLANTIC GATEWAY and CARROLL HALL for their research assistance and to a true gentleman, LES THATCHER, for sharing his personal reflections on this wonderful look back to some great days of the wrestling business.  ●  Illustrations from wrestling programs courtesy of DICK BOURNE.   ● Photographs of LES THATCHER from his personal collection and used with his permission.

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Gateway Notes: Our special thanks to Mike Cline for allowing us to publish this story in its entirety here on the Mid-Atlantic Gateway. It's one of our favorites. Les Thatcher is one of our favorites, too.


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