Friday, July 10, 2015

The Lightning and the Thunder of the Nature Boys

by Bruce Mitchell, Senior Columnist for
Special for the Mid-Atlantic Gateway

I really enjoyed reading the recent piece Dick Bourne wrote for this website about the main event Battle of The Nature Boys on July 31,1985, the night Ric Flair and the late Buddy Landel set the all-time attendance record at the legendarily unique Dorton Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was the best match I ever saw in what I thought was one of the best places to watch Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling. 

The Dorton Arena, built in 1951, is on the list of National Historic Monuments, and with its suspended roller coaster roof and glass exterior walls, may be the most striking public building in the state. If you grew up in North Carolina and went as a kid to the annual State Fair, of which the Arena is the centerpiece, you imagined playing on its swooping curved roof.

Buddy Landel, a charmer who could tell a great story, always claimed this night broke the all-time attendance there set by Elvis Presley. That wasn’t quite true, even if it makes for a great Budro cherry on top of a good yarn. Presley, a big wrestling fan, appeared at Memorial Auditorium and the Ambassador Theater in Raleigh thirty years before, (and also at Thomasville High School, believe it or not) but never at Dorton, which, thanks to horrible acoustics engendered by those high windows, was a notoriously bad place to see, and particularly hear, concerts.

Presley appeared several times at another Jim Crockett Promotions mainstay, The Greensboro Coliseum, including for the concert movie Elvis, That’s The Way It Is. The King took the same iconic publicity photos in front of that Coliseum red brick wall that every great and near great Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling star did in the promotion’s heyday.

The concert that Dorton Arena remains infamous, though, is a Sixties appearance by the faux Beatles TV band, The Monkees. It isn’t so much The Monkees that are remembered from the concert, but that the little kids who came to see Davey Jones or Mickey Dolenz also got to see opening act The Jimi Hendrix Experience. If you’re of a certain age from the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle area, you either claim or know someone who claims to have seen Hendrix that night.

Dorton Arena, though, was an awesome place to watch Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling. Thanks to its unique design, there are no restricted sight lines and because it is a smaller building and seating rose at a higher angle, fans in any seat were close to the action. Also, because Dorton Arena isn't air conditioned, and its two ends are easily opened to accommodate farm shows, wrestlers often sat in the end zones to stay cooler and watch the show. Fans could walk over to the good guy side and hand down pen and paper for autographs, or head over to the other side to tell the villains what’s what.

I was really excited to see this show, because like everybody else, I wanted to see the main event. With all that Ric Flair has accomplished in his career, it somehow gets forgotten just how good he was at being the hometown, home-grown hero in Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling. Flair was always the coolest, baddest bad guy there was, a pop culture phenomenon before we knew what that was, and when the traitorous Paul Jones stabbed him in the back the same way he had Ricky Steamboat, the entire area was ready to forgive him the Nature Boy that ringside table-leg and push him all the way to his self-proclaimed destiny, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.

"Nature Boy" Buddy Landel
Now that Flair had made everything that came out of his mouth as good as (ten pounds of) gold, here came some unknown hillbilly-mouthed golden-haired pretend Nature Boy. His hair, his robes, his rap were all good, sure, but they weren’t as good as the Great One’s, and yet the guy had the audacity to claim he was the Real Nature Boy.

That’s right, he said it.

Had we all not seen Ric Flair earn his Nature Boy stripes, step by bloody step, paying the price of  a wrestling lifetime, even kicking all-time great Nature Boy Buddy Roger’s ass and sending him straight out of MACW? Who the hell did Buddy Landel think he was? And where did his Colonel Tom Parker, Colonel Sanders, Give Porter Waggoner His Suit Back crooked manager J.J. Dillon get off suggesting that Nature Boy Ric Flair, in the prime of his NWA Championship reign, step aside for this clown?

Dillon was so bent he even backed the big instigator Landel when he screwed up and miss-timed an interfering corkscrew elbow that cost Dillon’s stable mainstay Outlaw Ron Bass the Mid Atlantic Championship against Buzz Tyler at Battlecade in Greensboro. 

It was a grinning Ric Flair, sportsman that he is, who approached Dillon and offered to put up his NWA Championship (“worth $500,000”) and $25,000 on the side (Dillon’s eyes popped big at this) if he would put up his own $25,000, telling announcer David Crockett to count the money, because Dillon’s “integrity isn’t unquestioned.”

As Ric Flair said in a localized WRAL TV promo for this match, he was “too tall, too tan, too rich and too much man to ever back down from a punk like” Buddy Landel.  

So, with all that, I figured I’d better get to the Dorton Arena early. I did, and got a seat about halfway up in the middle, looking right down on the ring. I could look out those high windows and see the lines to those little old-fashioned ticket booths wrapped around the building. An hour into the show, those lines were still wrapped around the building, even though it seemed every seat inside was filled. It was definitely a record-breaking sell out.

It was the end of July, a normally ridiculously hot and humid North Carolina night, but luckily there were thunderstorms in the area and the rain cooled everything down. It even added a little extra to the semi-main event brawl for the US title between Tully Blanchard and Magnum TA, who fought all over the Dorton dirt floor, out into the rain and back into the arena.

I was starting to figure out that if you went to a card with Tully Blanchard on it, that like Ric Flair, you were going to get an all-action fight. It didn’t hurt that this one also featured the brand new, molten-hot Rock’n’Roll Express facing the Russians. This was one of the first wrestling shows since longtime Raleigh promoter Joe Murnick had passed away the previous month.

NWA World Champion "Nature Boy" Ric Flair
By the time the main event Nature Boy Battle was introduced, it was pitch black and raining hard outside. There was a real electricity in the crowd, since Buddy Landel being so full of it meant that new and old MACW fans could unite in their support of the real Nature Boy, instead of split their cheers between two sides, as would happen when Flair defended against Magnum TA or the American Dream Dusty Rhodes.

This match was a great back and forth battle, as a fired-up Nature Boy Buddy Landel, even at this young age, turned out to be one of the best opponents I ever saw Flair face. Landel had an energy and sense of timing to match Flair’s, the best wrestler in the world. Dillon, a master of when to look on pensively and when to find just that right moment to cheat behind referee Tommy Young’s back, helped amp up the tension even further.

Then it happened. Much like the amazing Ric Flair had done years before with the giant Blackjack Mulligan, he reached around Landel’s head and pulled him straight up into that slow vertical suplex, to where he was holding Landel’s body completely upside down.

Just at that pause where both wrestlers were completely balanced, several lightning strikes simultaneously lit up those Dorton Arena high windows, so much so that night turned into day.

Flair continued to hold Landel straight upside-down.




Flair began to bring his rival back to the mat. Just as Landel hit the canvas, the thunder sounded.

I don’t know if it was serendipity, or Joe Murnick in the heavens taking one last look, or the Lord illuminating greatness that made that perfectly dramatic moment happen.

I do know that last November, almost thirty years later, I got to share that memory with Nature Boy Buddy Landel himself at Tracy Myer’s Wrestlecade reunion show. Landel couldn’t have been funnier or more charming as we talked about the night he clearly saw as the best one of his career. What has happened since is a reminder that we need to share these memories and what they mean to us with the people who made them, while we still can.

Still, since it’s Nature Boy Buddy Landel, you can’t help but wonder at what might have been. Can’t you see Nature Boy Ric Flair that infamous Saturday morning in the ring at the TBS studios with George South, when J.J. Dillon brings Buddy Landel out in a stolen Flair Peacock Robe, leading the real Nature Boy into an ambush by Landel, Blanchard, Baby Doll and Ole and Arn Anderson?  Talk about Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!

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Edit 9/7/16: Thanks to Ric Flair and Conrad Thompson for mentioning our article about Flair and Landel by Bruce Mitchell on "The Ric Flair Show"

The glass-windowed walls of Dorton Arena reflect the sunset to the west of the NC State Fairgrounds.

Bruce Mitchell is the senior columnist and a podcast host for
Dorton Arena photographs by Dick Bourne, Mid-Atlantic Gateway

The Battle of the Nature Boys post Bruce mentions early in the is article can be found here: Flair vs. Landel: Sold Out in Raleigh