Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Legend of the Hat and the Robe (1978)

by Dick Bourne
Mid-Atlantic Gateway

It is one of the most famous and best loved angles in Mid-Atlantic Wrestling history.

Ric Flair and Blackjack Mulligan were comrades and best of friends. They had formed a terrorizing duo in the Mid-Atlantic area ever since Blackjack had re-entered the area as the man to step into the top heel spot following the 1975 Wilmington plane crash. That crash had robbed the Mid-Atlantic territory and its fans of some of their top stars, some permanently including U.S. Champ Johnny Valentine, others temporarily, like the young up-and-coming Mid-Atlantic Champion Ric Flair.

Throughout 1976, while Flair battled Wahoo McDaniel for the Mid-Atlantic title and Mulligan battled Paul Jones for the US Championship, they were always together during TV interviews. In 1977 while Flair battled Ricky Steamboat and Mulligan battled Dino Bravo, Rufus R. Jones, and Bobo Brazil, they traveled the 600 mile territory in a van they bought together, and partied hard in it along the way. The two were riding fast. Blackjack was accepting gifts like the hat he was given by his friends (and country music legends) Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. They dubbed him "The Pride of Texas." Flair was climbing in the ring every night and showing off a closet full of custom made robes, each worth 7,500 to 10,000 dollars.

Ric Flair wearing the famous peacock robe.
Blackjack was the top dog, but Flair was moving up quickly, and despite their friendship, was ready to take Mulligan's spot if the opportunity ever presented itself. It almost did in 1977 when Mulligan returned after a brief departure from the area, only to find that his best buddy had won the U.S. title from Bob Brazil, the man that had finally toppled the great Blackjack a few months earlier. Blackjack made it known he wanted his title back for a then-unprecedented 4th title reign, and Promoter Jim Crockett immediately signed the match. Before it could take place, though, Ricky Steamboat upset Flair for the title and the collision of best friends was barely avoided.

Jump ahead to April 1978. Ric Flair had just again won the United States heavyweight championship. Ironically, just as he had done with Brazil seven months earlier, Flair had defeated a man who had also taken the U.S. title from Mulligan in "Mr. Wrestling" Tim Woods. Mulligan had been through another round of brutal matches with Woods, part of a feud that stretched back to 1975. He was exhausted from those battles. And this time, Flair was ready to make his move.

As Bob Caudle interviewed Flair with his newly won championship and wearing his favorite peacock-feathered robe, Mulligan came out to congratulate his best friend, but instead of graciously accepting, Flair began to suggest that Mully's best days might be behind him, and he might need to head back to the Headlock ranch and consider retirement.

Blackjack could not believe what was happening, but maintained his composure until Flair became disrespectful, and as a stunned audience of millions of TV viewers watched, tugged on Blackjack's moustache and told him it was time to hang it up.

Mulligan had heard enough, and literally picked Flair up by his robe and gave him a huge punch with his mammoth right hand that sent Flair flying across the studio. Flair left the set quickly, and Mulligan angrily told Bob Caudle that he had about all he could take from the Nature Boy.


When they came back from commercial in the WRAL TV studios, Mulligan had entered the ring for his scheduled TV match. As Blackjack battled Tony Russo, Flair entered the studio wearing Blackjack's favorite cowboy hat, a gift from Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

"I'm wearing the hat that Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson gave Blackjack Mulligan. The "pride of Texas", huh?"

And with that, Flair began tearing the hat to shreds.

After Blackjack realized what was going on, he quickly executed a piledriver on Russo for the pin, and then came over and picked up the remains of his hat. Flair had left the TV studio. With an icy edge to his voice, he said the following:

"Let me tell you something, you gutless little wonder. I stood behind you so many times, we've been in so many places. And the bad were there, and they said 'Let's get Flair.' And somebody said, 'No. He's backed by the Jack. Let it be.' 
 Let me tell you something Nature Boy, it's over. You've gone too far. You've insulted me, you've embarrassed me, and I want you to take a look at me real good. Because if you think that I'm over the hill, I think I've got just enough, just enough left to muster one more great big push. Let me tell you something...Somewhere, sooner or later, you're going to pay for this. And that U.S. belt is going to be mine again.

Blackjack Mulligan wouldn't have to wait too long to get a little revenge back on Flair.

Later in the same broadcast, Flair came out for his scheduled TV match, cocky as ever, figuring Mulligan had tucked his tale and left, bragging about his $7500 peacock robe, letting the crowd know they could now see what a real man looked like.  The ring attendant took Flair's robe and title belt to the back as usual. As he wrestled Ted Oates in the ring, the crowd suddenly exploded again. Blackjack Mulligan was upping the ante.

Mulligan strolled out toward Bob Caudle and David Crockett's broadcast position, now wearing Flair's precious peacock robe, with a sly little grin on his face. The studio audience was going nuts, as they could clearly see where this was headed.

Mulligan began tearing the robe to shreds, as Flair helplessly watched from the ring. Ted Oates took delight in continually tying Flair up in the ring so he couldn't escape.

As Mulligan first ripped off the sleeves of the robe, he told Caudle and Crockett:

"There's only a couple of things in this whole world that we know Ric Flair loves. One is that golden mane of his, and the other is this peacock robe. You gutless little wonder. I've taught this guy everything I know, I've done everything for him, I've always backed him to the hilt, and now Nature Boy Ric Flair is going to have to be a man and beat somebody on his own. I'm going to keep some of these peacock feathers, and these are going to be in my new hat. And when you've got guts enough, Sonny Boy, sweet thing, you come and get 'em!"

After Mulligan finally left, with the remains of Flair's robe in a heap on the floor, Flair finally tossed Oates over the top rope for the disqualification to end the match. As the crowd cheered, Flair knelt down in the middle of what were the remains of his favorite robe. He screamed that Mulligan would soon be a dead man.

And thus began one of the wildest, biggest money making feuds in Jim Crockett Promotions' history. But it wouldn't happen right away. Flair may have pronounced Blackjack a dead man, but it wasn't going to be directly at his hand. Flair wanted no part of meeting Mulligan in a title match. He disappeared from television for awhile, sending in a tape standing on the set of Georgia Championship Wrestling with Freddy Miller, announcing that he was putting a bounty on the head of Blackjack Mulligan. $10,000 to the man who could eliminate Blackjack Mulligan from wrestling.

And for weeks, wrestlers like Baron von Raschke, Greg Valentine, the Masked Superstar and even a young, up-and-coming Crusher Jerry Blackwell would attempt to collect Flair's bounty, to no avail. Beaten and battered, Mulligan would survive every battle and continued to demand Flair have the guts to face him one-on-one for the U.S. title. But Flair still refused to sign for a title defense.

But Mulligan had one trick left, the ace up his sleeve, and he finally played it weeks later on television.

Blackjack brought out a crumpled up, paper Bi-Lo grocery bag, called Flair out, and began to return some of his belongings to him. Blackjack said he had been cleaning out the van they previously owned together. One after another, he pulled out items that embarrassed Flair, including various foreign objects Flair had used in matches, a picture that Flair had autographed to himself, a blonde wig, even an old toothbrush. But finally, he pulled out a pair of panty hose, and Flair was so angry and embarrassed that he agreed on the spot to a match with Mulligan.

Mulligan and Flair toured the entire territory several times over with this match, selling out buildings across the Mid-Atlantic area. Behind the scenes during this same time, Blackjack bought the Amarillo Texas territory with friend and business partner Dick Murdoch. And so Mulligan never won the U.S. title as he left the area later that fall to do business in Texas.

But the angle is remembered today for it's nearly flawless execution, and a text-book way to build a program and sustain it for months on end. While all parties took some role in coming up with the rich detail of the hat and robe angle, Blackjack gives all the credit to booker George Scott for conceiving of the whole thing, using Mulligan's turn to both establish him as a fresh new top babyface and finally propel Flair to the top heel spot as well.

It began with the tease in 1977, and paid off with the Hat and Robe in 1978, all elements that came together like weather fronts colliding to form the perfect storm. For my money, the Hat & Robe is the greatest wrestling angle of all time.

Copyright © 2004, 2015 Dick Bourne / Mid-Atlantic Gateway