Wednesday, March 5, 2008

In praise of Ron Garvin

By Rick Morris

With the in-ring portion of Ric Flair’s career nearing an end, the wave of nostalgia that has surrounded him over these past few years is cresting. By all accounts, the Ric Flair character we have come to know and love over the years saw its greatest era in the 1980s, from the initial NWA World Title run beginning in 1981 to the end of his fifth title reign at the hands of Sting at the Great American Bash in 1990 (a moment that signified the beginning of the end of his time in NWA/WCW, especially as it related to his deteriorating relationship with Turner wrestling head honcho Jim Herd). And over that span, the chapter that seems to get the least respect was his loss of the title to Ron Garvin and subsequent rematch at Starrcade ’87.

Now, I admit that I’m not the most objective of people on the subject, since Ronnie Garvin was my favorite wrestler when I was growing up, but I find the manner in which he’s been dumped on because of the trajectory of the World Title storyline very unfair. I wasn’t alone in my regard for Garvin and the popularly-held notion that he was seen even at the time as completely undeserving is revisionism at its worst.

Where I grew up in Parma, Ohio (a blue-collar rasslin’ town), there were probably a lot of pockets of town where Garvin was even more over than Hulk Hogan. That was certainly the case at my school. For as much as everyone (including me) credits Vince McMahon with being the first to “take his company national,” in 1984, this only applied to physically appearing in towns coast-to-coast. For a few years prior to that, Georgia Championship Wrestling had been a mainstay on national cable station WTBS out of Atlanta and indeed, McMahon’s “All-American Wrestling” program itself replaced Joe Blanchard’s San Antonio promotion on USA cable network in 1983. Plus, World Class Championship Wrestling was being televised to places far outside of its actual territory, so purely in terms of TV and contrary to popular opinion, McMahon did not have a monopoly on nationally-known stars in the 1980s. Garvin had been on the scene on WTBS since 1984, when he engaged in an exciting feud for the Georgia TV Title with Jake “The Snake” Roberts. He was a tough, hardened grappler renowned for not backing up one inch. His “Man With the Hands of Stone” moniker and “Garvin Stomp” maneuver (stomping the entire periphery of an opponent’s body as he lay on the mat) really stood out from the crowd.

The feud he developed with Flair over the next few years was an absolute classic, even if history does not regard it as such. For as much as the conventional wisdom regards Dusty Rhodes’ “American Dream” character as the perfect blue-collar counterpoint to the effete playboy persona of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Garvin was actually superior in the role of no-hold-barred gut-fighter standing up to the imperious champ. He didn’t have nearly the charisma of Rhodes, but that’s a different matter entirely from being THE man who everyone wanted to see slaughter Ric Flair – and Garvin was that man. Essentially, he was a precursor to one-half of the “Stone Cold” character Steve Austin would develop many years later: “Stone Cold” was equal parts anti-establishment, foul-mouthed hooligan and insanely-determined wrestling/brawling machine. Garvin didn’t have the former half of the equation, but he certainly had the latter part in spades.

’ style of booking always portrayed Flair as a cowardly and vulnerable heel. Toward that end, Flair and Garvin worked a series of matches on-and-off in the mid-80s that saw the bout end in a time-limit draw, Garvin demand and be granted five more minutes and Garvin pin the champ only to find out that the belt was not on the line in “overtime.” This kept whetting the appetite of the fanbase for Garvin to get his hands on Flair “next time.”

In the summer of 1987, the Flair-Garvin feud reignited in a way that built to the title change. His “brother” Jimmy (his real-life stepson) had come into the territory the previous year along with his valet (real-life wife) Precious and after doing a stint as a flashy pretty-boy heel, he turned face when he saved Ronnie from an attack by the Midnight Express. Subsequently, Precious caught the attention of Ric Flair, who began propositioning her repeatedly and a match was arranged with Flair putting up the NWA Title in return for a shot at “the dream date” with the femme fatale. When Flair cheated his way to victory, he and manager J.J. Dillon arranged an opulent and decadent scene in a hotel suite, only to have the approaching mysteriously-covered “woman” in the dim light be “Miss Atlanta Lively” – a “female” alter-ego that Garvin had previously trotted out from time to time and that he utilized on this occasion to knock out the champ with one punch. The battle between Flair and Ronnie Garvin was back on and hotter than ever.

The build progressed to a cage match from Joe Louis Arena in Detroit that was televised live during the World Championship Wrestling program on September 26, 1987. The show, traditionally taped at the old Techwood Drive studios on Peachtree Street, never used to contain live cut-ins to arena matches, so the setting in an of itself should have been a giveaway that the feud was building to a title change. When Garvin hit a sunset flip off the top rope and pinned Flair, the roar was deafening. The people got the moment they wanted, and I count myself as one of those people. It was one of the great mark-out moments of my youth.

Unfortunately, Rhodes and the Crockett Promotions front office intended Garvin to be a lame-duck champion who would give the title back to Flair on Thanksgiving night at Starrcade ’87 in Chicago and Garvin’s title reign took on an immediate taint. Rhodes had a hard time trying to convince heel wrestlers to get in the ring with Garvin since the outcome of every title defense would be such a foregone conclusion, so the promotion ended up “exempting” Garvin from the rule to defend the title at least once every 30 days! The new champion ended up looking like he was being protected by the company and it was all downhill from there. By the time Starrcade rolled around, the crowds were less inclined to cheer Garvin than Flair, who ended up predictably dispatching “Hands of Stone.”

It’s true that Ron Garvin – partially because he was not immensely skilled on the mic – was always going to be better suited to be a hot challenger than the man who finally caught the brass ring. But the booking did him no favors and the stink of what was perceived to be a failed title reign dragged him down and led to him leaving the promotion the next summer after fizzling out greatly and a desperation heel turn right before he departed. Had Garvin been given a basic short title reign like Rhodes got back in the summer of ’86, I don’t think he’d be viewed in the same light today. Instead, he got put in the position of having to carry one-half of a main event on a pay-per-view that the WWF was able to crush by flexing their financial muscles. For whatever reason, history does not properly appreciate what Ron Garvin meant to the NWA in the 1980s. Along with Dusty Rhodes, he was a perfect down-to-earth counterpoint to the high-flying Four Horsemen. He had red-hot matches with Ric Flair all around the territory and was perceived as legitimate championship material all the way up until his actual title reign. The videos before will back up what I am telling you – Ron Garvin was just awesome back in the day.

Here's Garvin winning the title in the cage from Flair. What a moment.

A great match against one of the best heels of the day, Tully Blanchard.

A great brawl against Arn Anderson.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Yes! Hands of Stone rules. My favorite wrestler. So bogus that people even refer to him as Rugged, or with a finishing move of the Garvin Stomp. His finishing move was a punch in the face, he was awesome.