Starrcade ’84: The Million Dollar Challenge
‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair, that “stylin’ and profilin’, kiss stealin’, Rolex wearin’, limousine ridin’, jet flyin’…wooo!..sonofagun”, propels himself off the ropes to add momentum to the knee drop he lays down on the fallen Dusty Rhodes, his challenger known as ‘The American Dream.’ Cradling Dusty’s right leg, the NWA world champion attempts the match’s first pinfall at around the three-minute mark. The third man in the ring dutifully falls to all fours and slaps the mat twice and Rhodes kicks out just an instant before the palm of the referee’s hand makes contact with the canvas for the third time.
The count is administered in excessively quick succession and a portion of the 18,000 fans inside the Greensboro Coliseum let the ref hear about it. Dusty almost didn’t have time to lift his shoulders off the mat. This would have botched the already anti-climactic finish still to come, one which risked the audience’s displeasure in the hope that the conflict it provoked between the cheated world title challenger and the well-intentioned but unfit referee would pay future dividends on the immediate gamble. It wouldn’t.
The official in question was no mere mortal. The confines of the squared circle were far from unfamiliar terrain to boxing’s former world heavyweight champion who was just shy of three years retired. The shirt he wore on November 22, 1984, was not the referee’s standard-issue black-and-white-striped jersey but a billowy white satin garment with the Everlast logo stitched onto the upper left front pocket and Smokin’ Joe Inc. spelled out in black cursive across the back. Joe Frazier’s inclusion as a special guest referee was an additional gimmick tacked on to the main event of Jim Crockett Promotions’ second annual Thanksgiving night closed-circuit extravaganza called Starrcade which had Ric Flair putting up the NWA heavyweight championship that he won from Harley Race the previous year against Dusty Rhodes in the main event. As added incentive, one million dollars would be awarded to the winner.
The promotional company founded in 1931 by the elder Jim Crockett had joined the National Wrestling Alliance in the early 50s and, in the years soon following the ascendance of Jim Crockett Jr. to the company’s top spot after the death of his father in 1973, began its expansion beyond the borders of its original territory in the Carolinas and Virginia. First encroaching upon once-exclusive real estate in Georgia, Tennessee, and West Virginia, Crockett Promotions ultimately established itself as a nationwide presence second only to Vince McMahon Sr.’s World Wrestling Federation. This was thanks to pockets as deep as its talent pool, as well as innovative concepts such as Starrcade, the Crockett brainchild begat in 1983 which might have beaten Vince Jr.’s WrestleMania to the punch by almost a year and a half, but would be eclipsed and ultimately strangled to death by its overachieving counterpart. Smokin’ Joe would play an ancillary role in the second installment of McMahon’s sports entertainment pay-per-view juggernaut, an episode which will factor into our story a little later.
Dusty Rhodes wraps a figure-four leglock on Ric Flair and Frazier circles the combatants, applying a pair of more suitable two-counts on the occasions that the champion’s shoulders momentarily touch the canvas before Flair is able to grasp the middle rope, necessitating a clean break. The ‘Nature Boy’ can sell for a fellow wrestler like few others and takes one of his patented bumps by flipping over the top turnbuckle when Dusty whips him into the far corner, tumbling to the concrete floor below. So intent is Frazier on restraining Rhodes that he not only neglects to initiate a count but almost becomes entwined in the suplex that brings Flair back into the ring.
Flair finds himself on the outside looking in once again as Dusty slips out of a sleeper hold by flinging Ric between the ropes. Only this time, Flair drags Rhodes down with him. Almost as if an unconcerned bystander, Joe Frazier looks on as Flair slams Dusty into the ring post. Lying on his stomach and partially obscured by the bottom of the ring apron, Rhodes drags a razor blade across his forehead as Flair jumps back in, squaring up with Smokin’ Joe in a pugilistic pose to serve as a diversionary tactic until Dusty can rise up with his right eye and ample chest streaked in gore.
Both Rhodes and Flair were prodigious bleeders, each man’s bleach blonde hair nicely accentuating the color produced by countless blade jobs throughout the decades. The telltale evidence of this traditional self-mutilation can be seen writ upon their foreheads, much more pronounced in photos of Rhodes who died in 2015, by way of an unsightly mass of crosshatched scar tissue. Frazier twice sends Ric Flair to a neutral corner so that he can check the severity of the cut, which is customary in boxing but not so for pro wrestling’s anything goes ethos, of course. Having consulted specially-appointed ringside judge and former wrestler Duke Keomuka, Frazier reluctantly allows the action to resume before intervening yet again as Flair stands atop the second turnbuckle whaling away at the wound above Dusty’s eye. Smokin’ Joe finally decrees that Dusty is unable to continue and motions for the timekeeper to sound the bell, raising Ric Flair’s arm in victory with Rhodes’ blood staining the back of his shirt.
A handful of supporters, including ‘The Raging Bull’ Manny Fernandez, who won a brass knuckles bout against Black Bart earlier that evening, descend upon the ring just in time to hold Dusty back from charging at Frazier while Ric Flair collects his million dollar check from Jim Crockett at ringside then beats a hasty retreat to the dressing room. During separate backstage interviews conducted by Tony Schiavone for the conclusion of the closed-circuit broadcast, a furious Dusty Rhodes has some choice words for Joe Frazier who, in response, defends his controversial decision. Schiavone has said that one of the things he remembers most vividly about Starrcade ’84 was watching Dusty Rhodes and Joe Frazier share a pumpkin pie backstage during the preliminary matches. That must certainly have been quite a sight.
As for the outcome, presumably the implication was that Dusty had hoped to book himself into a program with Frazier wherein Smokin’ Joe and ‘The American Dream’ would settle their differences inside the squared circle at a later date. If things had worked out as planned, there likely would have been a slowly simmering feud involving physical confrontations and verbal ballyhoo, perhaps even a match or two resulting in a run-in or some other type of inconclusive ending (cheats of this kind were so common during Rhodes’ tenure as NWA booker that they are still known in wrestling lexicon as a “Dusty finish”), very likely culminating in a blowoff at the following Thanksgiving’s Starrcade assuming they could get that much mileage out of the storyline.
This is all merely speculation, however, as Rhodes and Frazier went their separate ways out of Greensboro that Thanksgiving evening, leaving behind an empty pumpkin pie tin as well as unresolved loose ends to a plot which vanished, as it were, like smoke in the wind. But, why? It seems to be for reasons unknown, not only to hardcore fans but even to the most learned of insiders.
“Unfortunately, I don’t know too terribly much about the area you’re writing about,” admitted PEN award-winning Frazier biographer Mark Kram Jr., “except to say that Joe was always willing to show up for a payday.” Kram authored the recently-released Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier and is the son of the celebrated Sports Illustrated columnist who wrote the genre classic, Ghosts of Manila. “I think it was very hard for him to let go of his boxing career, as it is for many,” Kram told me, “and I think it would be fair to say he was somewhat adrift. Plus, money was tighter than it should have been.”
Although it may be a mere footnote in his life story, Frazier’s involvement with Starrcade is no great secret. What is nearly impossible to navigate, however, is the sparse trail of bread crumbs that leads to the origin of his participation in the closed-circuit spectacular which, it seems, was anything but arbitrary. In fact, Smokin’ Joe’s crossover from boxing to professional wrestling has a history that may be brief, but is all the more intriguing for its obscurity.
Seeking clarification, I first turned to Dave Meltzer whose reputation as a respected wrestling journalist dates to the early 1980s when he began publishing The Wrestling Observer Newsletter which my cousin Andy and I read faithfully as teenaged fanboys. In fact, we were both inspired by Meltzer to produce dirt sheets of our very own which my Aunt Andrea would photocopy at her office so that we could sell or trade them. Mine was called The Wrestling Enquirer and cost half a dollar. I guess you could say that it was my first paid writing gig, cumulatively earning me enough pocket change for the latest wrestling magazine or a couple packs of baseball cards. Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer is still in print on a subscription basis as well as having naturally evolved into an internet presence courtesy of a website (in collaboration with Bryan Alvarez and his Figure Four Weekly) as well as a corresponding podcast.
“The first mention I have of Frazier in Puerto Rico took place Christmas night of 1979 in San Juan,” Meltzer wrote in response to my email on the topic of Smokin’ Joe’s first dalliance with professional wrestling. This would have predated by almost two years Frazier’s ill-advised one-night-only boxing comeback (“A Sad Show for Smokeless Joe” reported William Nack for Sports Illustrated), a December 3, 1981 draw with Floyd Cummings whose resume also includes losses to Renaldo Snipes, Mitch ‘Blood’ Green, Tim Witherspoon, and Frank Bruno. “He refereed Carlos Colon beating Hercules Ayala. I think this was a big deal at the time due to Ayala having previously worked for the opposition on the island.”
Carlos Colon co-founded Capitol Sports Promotions with Victor Jovica and Gorilla Monsoon in 1973, its later merger with the National Wrestling Alliance luring household-name-type talent to the Caribbean and making possible Colon’s feud with Ric Flair which involved an unpublicized, hence unofficial, world title swap. It was Colon’s dozens of bloody scraps with Abdullah the Butcher and the tragic murder of Bruiser Brody that put Puerto Rico on the pro wrestling map.
Meltzer also shed some light on the pair of boxer vs. wrestler bouts that appear to have directly resulted in Smokin’ Joe working the Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes main event at Starrcade ’84. “The (first of) two matches I have with Frazier took place April 2 in St. Michael, Waterford, Barbados,” Dave informed me. “He wrestled Carlos Colon. Ric Flair defended his World Championship against Victor Jovica that night.” Frazier did the job for Colon, laying down for the three-count to put over the Caribbean fan favorite in his own territory.
“The next night Frazier wrestled Victor Jovica in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad at the National Stadium,” Meltzer added. “Flair wrestled Ray Apollon.” Dated April 12, 1984, an article for The Straits-Times, an English-language news service out of Singapore, provides the highlights of Frazier’s second mixed match. “Last week, Yugoslav wrestler ‘Uncle’ Victor Jovica had Joe pinned on the mat after 2 minutes, 34 seconds of the third round in Trinidad and Tobago. Joe had his best moments in the first two rounds, but his big punches could not keep Victor on the floor permanently. Boxing fans must surely find the result hard to swallow.”
Dave Meltzer concluded, “I believe this is the weekend that Dusty Rhodes and Jim Crockett made the deal with Joe Frazier to work Starrcade. I recall Larry Matysik telling me that.” Brought into the fold in 1972 by the legendary Sam Muchnick, who ran the successful St. Louis territory for over two decades, Matysik did color commentary (partnered originally with Joe Garagiola, whose brother Mickey shared ring announcing duties) for the televised matches taped at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, shown on Ch. 11 as Wrestling at the Chase, as chronicled in Larry’s great memoir of the same name.
Matysik became a close friend of Frank Goodish, the one-time sportswriter and football player much better known as the 6-foot-8, 280-pound monster of a man called Bruiser Brody who made multiple visits to the St. Louis territory on his fifteen-year barnstorming tour of the grunt and grapple circuit.
In his 2007 biography Brody: The Triumph and Tragedy of Wrestling’s Rebel, Matysik recounted the story of how reluctant Goodish was to wrestle Carlos Colon with Joe Frazier acting as referee in a match that was to end, as scripted, with Frazier clobbering the notoriously unruly Brody. “If they want to double-cross me, I’d be vulnerable,” Brody confessed to Larry. “Here is a legitimate heavyweight professional boxer with no glove on his hand who really knows how to hit and me just giving him my chin. If they want to get me, he could wallop me and I’d end up a vegetable.”
“Now, I know Frazier refereed Colon vs. Brody…but have never come across the results,” Dave Meltzer confirmed, which says a lot about the poor record-keeping of the World Wrestling Council, a practice which only scratches the surface of their shadowy dealings. “It’s possible it was during this same time (April 1984) as Brody worked a set of TV tapings in late March.”
When Brody twice referred to “they” in his remarks to Matysik, he was talking about Colon and the Puerto Rican bookers with whom the outspoken and temperamental Bruiser had fallen out of favor. “I know even then Frank didn’t trust Colon,” remembers Matysik. “But after, he told me everything was fine. It was a nice worked punch. He found Frazier to be a good guy.”
The headstrong Goodish had a proven track record of showing up promoters he did not see eye-to-eye with or who had stiffed him financially. Furthermore, he was famous for refusing to take bumps or sell spots for opponents, much less putting over fellow wrestlers for whom he had no respect or when he felt it would damage his character’s reputation as an invincible leviathan. Case in point, the bizarre 1987 steel cage match against the up-and-coming Lex Luger when Brody inexplicably stopped working altogether mid-match.
Brody had repeatedly imposed his will on Jose Gonzalez, physically bullying and verbally berating the Puerto Rican wrestler who competed as the masked Invader #1 and had lobbied for a push opposite Bruiser while both were employed by Vince McMahon Sr.’s WWWF (the predecessor to his son’s consolidated monopoly) only to be squashed by Brody in the process. Working for Puerto Rico’s World Wrestling Council as both grappler and booker, Gonzalez evidently didn’t need Joe Frazier to fight his battles for him.
Brody was supposed to have wrestled Gonzalez at Bayamon’s Loubriel Stadium on July 16, 1988 and was asked by his would-be adversary to follow him into the shower area to privately discuss that evening’s business. Gonzalez carried with him into the stall his grudge, a towel and, wrapped inside of it, a knife with which he opened “two 8-inch cuts on his (Brody’s) belly”, as described by Tony Atlas who rushed into the showers after hearing the scuffle to find Goodish lying on the floor trying in vain to keep his guts where they belonged. After bleeding out for an hour until an ambulance could make its way to the stadium, Frank Goodish was finally conveyed to a hospital where he died of his grievous wounds. Jose Gonzalez, whose motives seem pretty clear in light of their shared history, insisted that he had acted in self-defense and was acquitted of all charges in a dubious murder trial.
Smokin’ Joe as Clubber Lang?
After the final trumpet blasts sounding out Rocky Balboa’s theme song recede into the nosebleed seats, the ring announcer (portrayed by veteran actor Billy Sands, who had extensive runs on both The Phil Silvers Show and McHale’s Navy—138 episodes each, bulk of the series), introduces to the fight fans assembled inside the Philadelphia Spectrum (portrayed by the Olympic Auditorium) “one of the immortals of pugilism, a champion in and out of the ring, Philadelphia’s own Smokin’ Joe…the beloved Mr. Joe Frazier.”
Dressed in a baby blue leisure suit, Smokin’ Joe waves to the crowd, wishes Rocky luck before his one-in-a-million world title shot, shakes hands with Sands and Apollo Creed’s trainer Tony ‘Duke’ Evers (played by Tony Burton, who went 4-3-1 in a brief boxing career in the late 1950s, his last fight refereed by Jack Dempsey), then good naturedly chides Apollo, “You’ve been ducking me a long time.” Playing along, Apollo replies, “You’re next, you’re next,” as he winds up and throws some mock punches Frazier’s way. “They must be friends,” Rocky deadpans to Mickey.
Joe’s cameo in the first Rocky movie lasts all of 30 seconds but Sylvester Stallone had much more screen time in mind for Frazier in the third film, maybe to repay him for trespassing on Joe’s training techniques to increase the value of his own intellectual property. Regardless of how closely Stallone may or may not have modeled the narrative for Rocky on the life of Chuck Wepner, it was Joe Frazier who whaled away at sides of beef suspended from the ceiling of a slaughterhouse in which he had been employed early in his career and had run countless times up and down the steps of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park as part of his daily training regimen.
“Just to push the envelope to where fighting films had never gone before…I decided to use the legendary champion from Philadelphia, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, to play the brutal Clubber Lang,” Stallone revealed in a lengthy Instagram post in March 2017. He had also given consideration to Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Jim Brown, and Fred Williamson. “So, he (Frazier) cheerfully came to the gym very brightly dressed all in green. He wanted the part very badly and, believe me, I wanted him to get it too. I naively said, why don’t we get into the ring and move around a little and see how we look together. This was like going into a lion’s cage covered in steak sauce and asking, how do you think I will taste?”
Sly admits that this was “a very foolhardy, hazardous, and homicidal concept. Next thing I knew there was a thunderous left hook planted extremely deep in my body and an overhand right that resembled a falling piano landing just above my left eye. The world was now spinning in several directions at the same time. Anyway,” Stallone quips, “I felt bad for Joe and did not want him to hurt his hands anymore and decided to call it a day. In retrospect, it was a wonderful afternoon meeting the legendary Joe Frazier and getting six stitches but it was also a brilliant reminder that I needed someone like Mr. T in my life.”
“It was inspiring, because Clubber Lang is basically my life story,” Mr. T mentioned with regard to his role in Rocky III. “He wanted a shot, and people said he wouldn’t make it.” He has said on several occasions that the reason he wore the gold chains with which he had become synonymous was that they were intended to serve as a symbolic reminder of his indentured ancestors, a fact that would be exploited for cheap heat by ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper when the two crossed paths. As an interesting postscript, you might have noticed that T no longer flaunts his gaudy jewelry. This is because after volunteering his time, money, and services to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, people who had lost loved ones and/or all their worldly possessions in some cases, he felt it was disrespectful and packed them away for good. “Only gold I have is in my heart,” T professes these days.
Even in the far more openly politically incorrect climate of the 1980s, it was still an unsettling tactic for a heel to cut a promo like the one Piper used to address his comments toward Mr. T in the build-up for their boxing match at WrestleMania 2. “How come you’re wearing all those chains around your neck like that? Is it to get drug around, huh? Didn’t Martin Luther King just have a national holiday?” Piper asks rhetorically of a somewhat stunned-looking ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund. “I was in favor of it, I thought it was a good thing. How come he runs out, throws a bunch of chains around his neck?”
In his book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, David Shoemaker states his case for Roddy Piper being a “one-stop shop for racial insensitivity.” You have to wonder how closely the lines were blurred separating ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, the kilt-wearing wrestling character who could spew invective with the best of them, from Roderick George Toombs, the Canadian family man. Bad News Brown (real name Allen James Coage), who opposed Piper at WrestleMania 6 and was rightfully offended by Roddy appearing in half-blackface, drew no distinction between the two.
Shoemaker cites further instances, discussing how Roddy “said that Mr. T’s lips looked ‘like a catcher’s mitt’, called T’s fans ‘monkeys’, mock-fed bananas to a poster of Mr. T, and told him that he would ‘whip him like a slave.’” Piper would do exactly that after interfering in the boxing match between T and ‘Cowboy’ Bob Orton on the WWF’s March 1, 1986 episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event which was an appetizer for the main course at WrestleMania 2 on April 7.
“I had been living pretty hard before this incident,” confided Roddy in his autobiography In the Pit with Piper. “I hadn’t slept in three days. There was quite a bit of drinking going on because I was so tired of being on the road, away from my family, that I was getting to the point where nothing mattered anymore.” He elaborated that “I was as obnoxious, rude, and egotistical as a person could get. I cared for no one and I thought no one cared for me.”
Legendary trainer of champions Lou Duva explained the root from which Piper’s animosity grew in his memoir A Fighting Life: My Seventy Years in Boxing. “They had come up with a storyline of a grudge between Mr. T and ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, of which there was some truth. Piper didn’t like Mr. T because he was an actor and was dipping into the wrestling world too much,” recalled Duva. “They wanted to settle it with a big match at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island in New York. Joe Frazier was going to train Mr. T and I was training Piper.” Given a choice, Nassau Coliseum was a venue Frazier would probably rather not have revisited. It was at the Coliseum in Uniondale where he had received his second drubbing at the heavy hands of George Foreman in 1976.
“Who are you training with? My guy’s got an Olympic champion,” Roddy continued in his WrestleMania promo, referring to Duva who had actually signed five of the nine gold medalists from the 1984 dream team: Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, and Tyrell Biggs. “We treated the training as if it were a real boxing camp, and took Piper to Reno to train with Tyrell Biggs,” Duva wrote in his book. “But Piper didn’t want to train, he’d always come up with all kinds of excuses. His back hurt. He had a headache.”
Coincidentally, Joe Frazier would encounter problems which were not totally dissimilar to Duva’s while trying to get Mr. T ring-ready for WrestleMania. Duva did amend his statement by recognizing that “even though he liked to whine, he (Piper) was still a great guy to be around.” I failed to come across any after-the-fact testimonies from Frazier regarding the man who took his job playing Clubber Lang one way or the other. It didn’t help that his memoir Smokin’ Joe makes no mention of his wrestling gigs.
“Remember, you’re training with the guy that couldn’t make it. You’re training with the guy, Joe Frazier, that sat in the corner, you know, and then Ali punched him and punched him and punched him,” Piper rambles while pulling faces and speaking in disparaging impersonations of both Smokin’ Joe and Mr. T in much the same way Muhammad Ali ridiculed Frazier in the prelude to the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’
Although Jerry Lawler and Andy Kaufman had by all rights been its unwitting co-creators and the actual term wouldn’t be officially coined by Vince McMahon Jr. for a few years still to come, “sports entertainment” took on a life of its own with the rise of Hulk-a-Mania and the forging of the rock and wrestling connection linking the WWF to MTV or, as Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan hilariously referred to it, “Music To Vomit by.” The seed had been spread when Captain Lou Albano was chosen to play Cyndi Lauper’s killjoy of a father in her music video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, helping her debut album She’s So Unusual become such a runaway success that an awards ceremony at Madison Square Garden was orchestrated, during which Roddy Piper smashed a framed gold album over Albano’s head, body slammed Lauper’s manager/boyfriend David Wolff, and kicked Cyndi out of the way.
This set up the main event of the second WWF show aired on MTV called The War to Settle the Score that had Piper challenge Hulk Hogan for his heavyweight title, only to be disqualified due to outside interference from Bob Orton and Paul Orndorff. Cyndi Lauper climbed onto the ring apron but was rescued from the clutches of Piper and Orndorff by Mr. T, leading to the tag team match that would headline WrestleMania pairing off Hogan and Mr. T against Piper and Orndorff. Not to be outdone by his Mid-Atlantic rival Jim Crockett Jr., who had Smokin’ Joe Frazier officiate the main event at Starrcade ’84, Vince McMahon secured the services of Muhammad Ali as special guest referee for WrestleMania’s show closer.
Recalling his first direct contact with Mr. T in a 2013 shoot interview, Piper says that when he made a late entrance into the press conference promoting WrestleMania at Rockefeller Center, “Mr. T flexed his muscle and he said, ‘Feel this.’ I’d never talked to the guy before. So, I squeezed his head and said, ‘It’s pretty soft.’” Lawrence Tureaud and Roddy Piper, incidentally, did bury the hatchet following the 2014 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony during which Mr. T was inducted, finding a common bond in their paternal pride.
“Roddy Piper had a background as an amateur boxer in Canada,” recalled Lou Duva. This is completely accurate as Piper, when he was obviously still known as Roderick Toombs, left home at age 13, settling in a Winnipeg youth hostel which doubled as a YMCA. It was there that he learned to both wrestle and box, competing in the local Golden Gloves. Lou was incorrect, though, when he surmised that “boxing Mr. T, who didn’t know how to wrestle, wasn’t that much of a stretch for Piper.” The fact of the matter is that young Lawrence Tureaud was a three-time (possibly undefeated) wrestling champion at Chicago’s Dunbar Vocational High School where he also excelled in football and martial arts, earning black belts in Kempo Karate and Jiu-Jitsu.
WWF writers devised a publicity stunt that brought Roddy to South Philly and through the door of Joe Frazier’s Gym looking to confront Mr. T, only for Frazier to inform him that T only trained there “once in a while.” To keep up appearances, Mr. T had filmed a promo on the set of The A-Team in which he claimed to have been “punching out everybody, punching out my bodyguards, sparring partners. I’m boxing and jabbing and hooking and punching. I offered one guy a diamond ring if he could stay in the ring with me for nine rounds.”
Although Piper is wearing black track pants rather than his kilt as he erroneously recalls in his memoirs, there is what Frazier insists on calling “a skirt” wrapped around the lower half of a heavy bag that Mr. T was supposed to have practiced on. Roddy testily corrects Frazier on the proper cultural terminology for the garment which only prompts Joe to take a mocking peek beneath it before telling Piper, “We’re gonna take that dress off you and we’re gonna dress you up right.”
Frazier obliges Piper’s request to hit him in the midsection with a medicine ball three times in quick succession. “Joe’s last blast surely not only hurt like a motherfucker but it also left me gasping for air,” Roddy documented in his book. As the cameras continue to roll, Piper staggers away while screaming at Frazier, “You get in the ring with me, you’ll think you’re back in Manila.” As Roddy would retrospectively and respectfully concede in his autobiography, the reality of the situation was a little different. “Now I know Joe’s real name,” Piper demurred. “Mr. Frazier.”
Not only was Mr. Frazier working Mr. T’s corner when the night of WrestleMania 2 finally arrived, but the A-Team star was also accompanied to the ring in Nassau Coliseum on April 7, 1986 by a miniature doppelganger named Raymond Kessler. A “midget wrestler” best known under the identity of ‘The Haiti Kid’, Kessler shaved his hair into a mohawk for his ‘Little Mr. T’ gimmick.
The celebrity judges for the match made for an odd lot. I can only assume that making small talk was no problem for Darryl ‘Chocolate Thunder’ Dawkins and Cab Calloway, but they must have struggled to scrounge up some source of polite conversation to make with G. Gordon Liddy, the main henchman of Nixon’s Watergate plumbers. Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful”, reprising his stirring performance prior to the “No Mas” rematch between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard when he had whispered into the ear of his pugilistic namesake, “Kick his ass.”
It appears as though Mr. T was closer than he might have known to legitimately getting his own ass kicked. As a guest on ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin’s podcast in 2015, Roddy Piper owned up to the fact that trading heavily-padded haymakers with Mr. T at WrestleMania 2 was “horrible.” They had worked out a bit of business where T was to connect with a left hook in the third round that would have knocked Piper out of the ring. As if wearing thumbless gloves which made hooking the ropes to precipitate Piper’s choreographed tumble onto the floor impossible wasn’t bad enough, Mr. T missed the punch so badly that Roddy couldn’t have sold it without both of them looking ridiculous.
“We’re taught, if I’ve got a problem with somebody, work it out in the locker room,” he told Austin. “This is business. That was beat into me. And, you know what? I came over and slammed him or something just to get out of it.” Succumbing to personal weakness and professional frustration, Piper struck Mr. T with his stool, a move which was not scripted into the program. “It was one of my most shameful moments,” Roddy admitted.
Piper was disqualified and chaos ensued, the disorderly scene resembling a battle royal as each participant’s cornermen spilled into the squared circle to get in on the action. “Joe Frazier jumps into the ring and picks me up and all hell broke loose,” wrote Lou Duva, certainly no stranger to a melee or two in his time. “Then we start going crazy and arguing with each other. That was a wild situation.”
Another up-close and personal eyewitness to some of the wild situations that Joe Frazier got himself into was ringside photographer and wrestling writer Bill Apter. So synonymous was he with publications like Inside Wrestling, The Wrestler, and Pro Wrestling Illustrated in the halcyon 1980s that they were referred to by industry insiders and marks like myself and my cousin Andy as “Apter Mags.”
“Truth is I knew him in the boxing genre more so than wrestling,” Bill informed me in response to an inquiry about his association with Joe Frazier. “I only talked wrestling with him before and after the Dusty/Flair match. Other than that, he knew I was a regularly seen boxing photographer as he saw me at most of the big fights.”
For whatever reason, although I was well-acquainted with Apter’s stories and photos in the wrestling publications put out by Stanley Weston, his work in the boxing world had eluded me. “We did KO, World Boxing, International Boxing, and then The Ring,” Apter said. “I worked with Randy Gordon, Farhood, Nigel Collins, Eric Raskin, and Joe Santiquello on the boxing end. I only did pics on boxing beginning in 1970. No writing, but I have many audio interviews I did with Ali, Foreman, Angelo Dundee, and many more.” Two of his more memorable interviews with Muhammad Ali were done prior to his mixed match with Antonio Inoki and his first fight against Joe Frazier.
Apter was fortunate enough to have secured credentials for the New York press conferences for the second and third Ali/Frazier fights and got to accompany Randy Gordon to Joe’s gym to collaborate on a feature story to promote the first sequel. “From the onset Joe was a gentleman. He dodged no questions and he was happy to let me take photos of the interview and his training session,” Apter wrote in a November 2011 column commemorating the sad occasion of Frazier’s death. “After losing the second fight to Ali at Madison Square Garden (I photographed the match from a press position near the top of MSG with a long lens), I was one of a very few choice photographers allowed into Joe’s small dressing room a few minutes after the fight. Even in defeat he was so very cordial to the handful of shutterbugs as we clicked away.”
In a journalistic career that has provided many thrills, and continues to do so five decades later, one of Apter’s biggest was getting to rub shoulders with another beloved boxing legend with the same first name. “I got to meet Joe Louis a few times in the last years of his life when he was a greeter at a Vegas hotel,” Apter told me. “He was old but still had his senses about him and he had a great sense of humor.”
Louis and Frazier, two wildly-above-average Joes who went from heavyweight boxing champion of the world to grunting and grappling and refereeing in the wrestling ring for the sake of financial solvency.
To paraphrase Joe Louis, life is a crazy fucking business.
Bill Apter. The Apter Mag: Remembering Smokin’ Joe Frazier (1Wrestling, November 8, 2011, accessed at http://www.1wrestling.com/2011/11/08/the-apter-mag-remembering-smokin-joe-frazier)
Lou Duva. A Fighting Life: My Seven Decades in Boxing (Sports Publishing, 2016)
Frazier on the Mat (The Straits-Times, April 12, 1984)
Matthew Jussim. Joe Frazier Bruised and Bloodied Sylvester Stallone During Rocky III (Men’s Journal, accessed at https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/joe-frazier-bruised-and-bloodied-sylvester-stallone-during-rocky-iii)
Larry Matysik. Wrestling at the Chase: The Inside Story of Sam Muchnick and the Legends of Professional Wrestling (ECW Press, 2005)
Larry Matysik and Barbara Goodish. Brody: The Triumph and Tragedy of Wrestling’s Rebel (ECW Press, 2007)
Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes: Starrcade 1984 (accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXVAYtXtEtg)
Roddy Piper with Robert Picarello. In the Pit with Piper (Berkley Trade, 2002)
Roddy Piper Visits Joe Frazier’s Gym (accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOaM5d80oNk)
Rowdy Roddy Piper Shoots on Mr. T (accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWqhadVOm0s)
David Shoemaker. The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling (Gotham Books, 2013)
The Steve Austin Show Podcast with Roddy Piper (SAS Classic, April 30, 2020)
What Happened When with Tony Schiavone Podcast. Starrcade ’84: The Million Dollar Challenge (November 27, 2019)