Friday, April 08, 2016

Remembering Blackjack Mulligan

by David Chappell
Mid-Atlantic Gateway

It was with great sadness that I learned of the recent passing of Blackjack Mulligan. Blackjack’s professional wrestling legacy spans the entire world, but his impact on wresting in the Carolinas and Virginia was enormous. As a professional wrestler, he was a hero of mine. That was true whether his wrestling persona was that of a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” roles he was equally and expertly adept at playing.

Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling was one of the top, if not THE top, territory in professional wrestling from the mid 1970s into the early 1980s. At that same time, Blackjack Mulligan was either the top or one of the very top stars for Jim Crockett Promotions. That these two things occurred simultaneously was no coincidence.

When Mulligan entered the Mid-Atlantic area in February of 1975, he came in as one of the scariest wrestlers I had ever seen! Billed as the “Pride of the Prairie,” Blackjack bullied his way over all comers. That is, until Wahoo McDaniel jumped in the fray! The “Cowboy vs. Indian” matches between Blackjack and Wahoo were memorable in the spring of 1975; with Wahoo getting the best of things with a win in an “Indian Strap Match” on May 30, 1975 in Richmond, Virginia which effectively ended Blackjack’s run in the Mid-Atlantic area.

After that Richmond match, there was nothing to suggest that Mulligan was going to be anything more than a “footnote” in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling history. But that all changed on October 4, 1975, when United States Heavyweight Champion Johnny Valentine suffered career ending injuries in the infamous Wilmington, North Carolina plane crash. Booker George Scott brought “Mully” in to essentially take Valentine’s place.

Blackjack took the territory by storm, and held the prestigious U.S. belt for lengthy stretches from 1976-1978, in the process having memorable programs with “good guys” Paul Jones, Rufus R. Jones, Burrhead Jones Dino Bravo, Bobo Brazil, Ricky Steamboat and “Mr. Wrestling” Tim Woods. Mulligan’s loquacious interview style, including references to family members like “Crazy Luke” Mulligan, along with his fast paced and vicious in-ring style, packed fans in the territory’s areas during his “bad guy” run.

By the time April of 1978 rolled around, the famous “hat and robe” angle brought about the cataclysmic split between Blackjack and Ric Flair, and ushered in Mulligan’s “good guy” persona. From that time until early 1982 he battled villains such as the masked Superstar, John Studd, Superstar #1 and #2, Enforcer Luciano, Bobby Duncum and the Iron Sheik.

A highlight of Mulligan’s fan favorite run occurred in August of 1979, when the big Texan made amends with Ric Flair, and they had a brief run as the NWA World Tag Team Champions. After leaving the area in April of 1981, Mully returned at the end of the year into early 1982 and teamed with his son, Blackjack Mulligan, Jr, battling old nemesis John Studd and a new foe, the nefarious Sergeant Slaughter.

After that short stint, fans in the Mid-Atlantic area didn’t see Blackjack again until August of 1984. At this juncture, Ric Flair enlisted the assistance of Mulligan to counter the wicked Tully Blanchard and the recently turned heel, Wahoo McDaniel. A famous vignette aired promoting this, with Ric finding Blackjack deep in the woods around a fire with his “family,” one member of which looked suspiciously like Dusty Rhodes! Blackjack accepted Flair’s plea for help, but his final Mid-Atlantic appearances only lasted into early September of 1984, as BJ accepted an offer to join the World Wrestling Federation, a decision Blackjack later said he regretted making. My hero was gone…seemingly for good.

Fast forward to the year 2000, and there was no longer any such thing as Jim Crockett Promotions’ Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. The Internet was still in its infancy, and my new buddy Dick Bourne and I wanted to do something to preserve the rich history of Mid-Atlantic Wrestling. We created the Mid-Atlantic Gateway website, and thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgia of reliving Mid-Atlantic Wrestling moments online. We never expected, nor sought, any dialog from our wrestling heroes themselves.

Very early in the Gateway’s life, we received an email from someone purporting to be Blackjack Mulligan! We were initially excited, but upon reflection didn’t think the great Blackjack Mulligan could possibly be interested in contacting our little insignificant website. In my infinite wisdom, I suggested to Dick not to answer the email, that it was just some cruel individual trying to pull a rib on us. So, the email from “BJM” was completely ignored.

In about nine months, the Gateway received another email from this “BJM’ character. This time, there were things written in the email that made us question our earlier decision to blow off the writer. We decided to answer the second email. It was perhaps the best thing the Gateway has ever done. The man writing the emails was THE MAN, Blackjack Mulligan! It began the start of a wonderful friendship that lasted until the terrible news of his death came earlier this week.

My memories of my friend, Blackjack Mulligan, are of course much different from those of my wrestling hero, Blackjack Mulligan. I remember how incredibly nervous I was when I interviewed him for the Gateway soon after we made contact. But after about four hours of non-stop chatter, I felt like I had known him all my life. I had to end that interview that night because my micro-cassette tape ran out. I was told we could finish it up the next night. As it turned out, the follow up conversations went on over the course of about two weeks!

What struck me from that initial contact and all those that followed, was Blackjack’s love of the Mid-Atlantic area and its wrestling fans. He also loved my wrestling hometown of Richmond, Virginia, which was particularly neat for me, and led to no shortage of talking points! But any wrestling related conversation with Mulligan always came back to him thanking the Gateway for keeping alive the memories of the Mid-Atlantic area. At first, he couldn’t understand why we did all this “work,” and had no ulterior profit motive. I told Blackjack that the Gateway was not “work,” but was a labor of love. Once Mulligan was sure we weren’t out to make a buck off the boys, he took in the Gateway like extended family.

One of the favorite joys we had together was my sharing my old 1970s audio clips with Blackjack. He loved hearing his old promos, long since forgotten, and the comments he made about them and his adversaries involved were priceless. Suffice it to say, Mulligan did not shy away from expressing his opinion!

Perhaps the most difficult experience I had with Blackjack was his insistence on wanting Dick and I to assist him in writing his autobiography. What an incredible honor it was for us to be asked to do such a thing. But because of obligations we had in our own work lives, we just didn’t think we had the time to do such a project justice. It was so hard to tell Blackjack “no,” but I think he understood. I sure hope that he did.

Blackjack was a very caring friend. He also took great interest in my chosen profession, as a prosecutor. He enjoyed hearing Courtroom “war” stories, as much as he enjoyed telling his own wrestling “war” stories. Often times when he would tell a particularly wild or outlandish wrestling war story he would laugh and say, “Now, you aren’t gonna indict me for that are you, Davey Chappell?!” My response was sometimes, ‘No, the statute of limitations has run!’ But most of the time I would say, ‘Naw, I’ll give you a pass on that one!’ Those words would come back to bite me one day.

In his later years, Blackjack would be a wealth of knowledge of current events, and would always provide a Bible verse of encouragement at the most opportune time. I remember one time when his knowledge of current events got me in trouble. About five or six years ago, Richmond got blanketed with about two feet of snow which made the national news…and of course Blackjack saw it! In the past whenever Richmond got its piddly little snows, I would parade my dog Zack out in the snow for a photo-opt, and would send Mulligan a photo or two of the wintry event. Well, I thought two feet of snow was a bit much for a photo-opt. That is, until I heard from Blackjack, who said, “I KNOW y’all got snow! Where’s the picture of you and the puppy?!” What did I do in response? Well, of course, Zack and I headed outside with the camera!

Losing a wrestling hero and a friend is a double-whammy of the worst kind. But Blackjack has left me with so many wonderful memories that it’s hard to be sad but for so long. Right now, I’m thinking of the time that I finally mustered enough nerve to broach the subject with Blackjack of ignoring that first email of his. I was sort of stuttering trying to explain my reason for doing that to him, and after I was finished there was a very uncomfortable dead silence. My heart was about to sink. And then I heard Blackjack cackling, just like he did on TV in 1977 when he thought he had pulled a fast one on Bobo Brazil to reclaim his prized U.S. Title, and he said, “Naw, I’ll give you a pass on that one Davey Chappell!”

Thank you for that, Blackjack Mulligan, and for so much more…your memory will live on in me forever. Rest in peace, my hero and friend.