02 June 2011

Terry Taylor: Mid-South's Wyatt Earp

[Editor's Note: Matt's first article for the site examines arguably Mid-South's biggest babyface in early 1984.]

Junkyard Dog, Jim Duggan, Jim Neidhart, Steve Williams, Mr. Wrestling II, Magnum TA. Add in a Lanny Poffo and George Weingeroff as featured enhancement talent, and that's your roster of Mid-South Babyfaces coming in to 1984. With the very arguable exception of Magnum, there's not much baby about those faces. For the most part, they fit the Wattsian mold, that same mold that Watts' "associate" (as Boyd Pierce would call him) Jim Ross would laud for the rest of his career: ex-football players, big, strong and bulky.

So then, who is the most featured babyface on Mid-South TV for the first few months of 1984?

Terry Taylor.

I know, it surprised me too. On paper, it simply shouldn't work. Oh, don't get me wrong. As 1984 begins, Ricky and Robert are about to come in and help further pop the territory but that's a tag team special attraction. Screaming girls and little kids. Taylor had to survive as a singles babyface in the midst of all of those "hosses," and both the fans, and our stalwart Mr. Watts were going to have to take him seriously, despite the fact he didn't fit the mold. That they were able to manage that with some real success is a unique combination of Watts' announcing, Bill Dundee's booking, and Taylor's ability to take advantage of the very contrast that put him at a disadvantage to begin with.

Pushing Terry Taylor was not necessarily Bill Watts' brainchild or initial preference. It's important to establish that from the get go. Taylor came along in part of the talent exchange with Memphis, and along with him came Superstar Bill Dundee's booking skills. Jerry Lawler and Dundee have differing opinions about how much influence the diminutive Superstar had upon the book in Memphis over the years. Lawler indicates that they let him try it now and again but it was a minor thing and didn't really work out. Dundee claims that he and Lawler rotated systemically over the years in an almost equal distribution. Going to Mid-South gave him a chance to stretch his creative wings somewhat in an area where he didn't have to live in Lawler's shadow. Watts' shadow might have been just as giant, but the two men offered different and oddly complementary points of view. Watts was wrestling comfort food, traditional, paternal, hearty substance. Dundee was style and flash, and in this specific case he made a point to let the Cowboy know that all of his babyfaces were simply too damn ugly.

So Taylor would get the nod, but it had to be in a way that Watts could buy into, that he could accept. Taylor, though a competent talent by this point of his career, having been schooled in the ring by quality heels in Memphis, Georgia, Knoxville, and Florida, did not have the flash or charisma of the Rock 'n Roll Express. Many of the usual Mid-South faces were mainly absent on Mid-South TV early in the year. Williams was off working in the USFL (much to Dave Meltzer's delight as he didn't think much of him as a talent in 1984). JYD and Duggan, for one reason or another, did not get much TV time early in 84. There was both the opportunity and the need to present a new babyface, but it had to be done correctly.

They previewed his arrival in December 1983 with an interview with Watts and a music video set to the Eagles' "New Kid in Town," this sort of thing being one of the traditional Memphis promotional techniques Dundee brought with him, and then they thrust him right into the mix. Nikolai Volkoff had been Mid-South North American Heavyweight Champion in the middle of 1983 and since then had been joined up by Krusher Darsow, American traitor and Russian sympathizer. The two of them were no longer involved with the title, but they were still the top heel act in the company, with Watts unleashing jingoistic vitriol upon them and the Soviet Union as a whole, each and every week.

Taylor debuted, making a bang immediately, interfering in the Russians business in his first week as a featured wrestler in-studio. The next week he went toe-to-toe with the much larger Volkoff in a challenge match, holding his own until Darsow came out and the two heels doubled-teamed Taylor. With that start, he would be booked directly against them as a defender of American values. What is interesting here is that he simply did not fit the traditional mold. He wasn't the heroic soldier like Sgt. Slaughter (who would very soon turn face in New York), or the flag-wielding superhero in Hulk Hogan. He wasn't a working class everyman like Dusty Rhodes. He wasn't an All-American golden boy like Kerry Von Erich and he certainly wasn't the tough, no nonsense cowboy Bill Watts. He wasn't a muscled up symbol of American power, but instead a symbol of the American spirit, one lone, good man doing the right thing despite overwhelming odds.

Of course, the right thing was heavily skewed by the Wattsian ideal. Hearing it from the Cowboy, young Terrance was fighting a true evil. Taylor's reward for challenging Volkoff so blatantly was to get hung over the top rope. For revenge, he enlists those other dynamic babyfaces, Ricky and Robert and they triple-team Darsow and paint a pink stripe on his back. It's presented as the ultimate strike for democracy and American goodness, when it seems, on paper, almost as heelish as the Midnight Express tarring and feathering Magnum TA. Presentation is key in Mid-South. Where the Cowboy leads, the fanbase follows.

Taylor presented as an underdog, yes, but one that would jump right into the fire whenever necessary in order to protect his country and defend his fellow man. It's a difficult thing, to get a fanbase so focused on a certain type to buy into a character so thoroughly. As with mostly everything else in Mid-South, it was Bill Watts that led the charge. As vehemently as he spoke out against the Russians every chance that he had, he praised the heroic attributes of Terry Taylor. Bill Watts was a paternal figure to his audience. He spoke as a stern, caring father might, a man who knew the world and knew what was right and just in it. He spoke of Terry Taylor in the same way he spoke of Erik and Joel Watts. He spoke of Terry Taylor as if he would be proud to call him "son."

The ultimate representation of this ideal, the one that takes it all over the top is well into the year, right before the end of the TV Title tournament. Mr. Wrestling II had, through jealousy and the self-doubt that comes with aging, had abandoned his partner and protege, Magnum TA in the midst of a loser-gets-whipped match with the Midnight Express. After succumbing to superior numbers, Magnum stood ready to take the full brunt, all ten lashes. Unable to stand to see so valiant a man suffer for the craven tendencies of his fallen mentor, Taylor runs out and stands in Wrestling II's place, offering, nay, demanding to take five of the lashes himself in the name of fairness and brotherhood. For a moment, in the midst of all of this, you would almost believe that a Cowboy could cry... almost but not quite. In the span of five minutes, overlapping flawlessly with a completely independent angle in the mighty Mid-south Manner, Taylor was pushed over the top, his natural "baby"face qualities overcome by his toughness, by his call to do what right no matter the cost to himself and with no promise of gain or fortune.

They stressed not just Taylor’s moral qualities but his toughness and tenacity. He recovered from the hanging to fight on and claim revenge. He bounced back from a cruel and underhanded assault with a foreign object by Butch Reed in the semi-finals of the TV Title Tournament. Then, in the finals against Krusher, two weeks later, Reed interfered before the match, pile-driving Taylor upon the concrete outside the ring. Terry recovered, returning with a neck brace a few minutes later and even dominating the first part of the match before succumbing to a second pile-driver by Darsow. He may have lost in the finals, but he was protected by the booking the whole way through.

I wasn’t part of the Mid-South target crowd, of course, but if I was, even if I was the grumpiest and orneriest portion of that crowd, I'd have a hard time not rooting for Taylor after all of this. He didn't get the molten reactions that the Rock 'n' Roll Express did, but I think what reaction he did get was more evenly dispersed and without nearly the backlash that one might expect. Through persistent booking, a hard-working, if traditional, style of technical babyface wrestling, and the Cowboy-fueled myth of the One Good Man, Watts, Dundee and Taylor won over a crowd that was conditioned to root for almost exactly the opposite, a testament for the power of good, smart pro wrestling if there ever was one.