The Ronnie Garvin Dilemma

Thanks to Scott’s awesome Observer recaps, there has been a lot of talk on the Blog of Doom about the bewildering decision by the NWA to put the title on Ronnie Garvin in 1987. I thought a historical perspective might shed some light on the state of Jim Crockett Promotions at the time, why this was such an atrocious idea, and what the WWE should learn from it.

I grew up in Crockett territory and watched their shows religiously during this era. I should make this clear from the start: This column is not a Ron Garvin bashing session. I like Ronnie Garvin. I think he was an excellent wrestler and remains vastly underrated. Garvin gets negative marks because of the disastrous NWA Title reign. However, that is not entirely Garvin’s fault. He was given a run against Ric Flair, a chance to hold a world title and headline the company’s biggest show of the year. Despite the rumors floating that everyone else turned it down, I have my doubts. Regardless, it was a terrible idea and the brain trust at JCP had only themselves to blame.

Let’s go back to what got us here: Ron Garvin was a good midcard wrestler in the NWA. The fans liked him, but never viewed him as anything more than a solid midcarder. He had average looks and below average microphone skills. If you look back at NWA Title history, every other champion prior to Garvin was at least a top star in their territory. Even brief title holders like Tommy Rich and Kerry Von Erich were firmly entrenched on top in their respective areas when they won the NWA Title. Garvin was not even close.

The NWA Title meant a lot back then. It was the pinnacle achievement for a wrestler in JCP fans’ eyes. When Ric Flair won the title at Starrcade ’83, it was a huge deal for the fans. They felt that only the very top stars deserved a run with the belt and Flair had worked long and hard to prove he deserved it. Ronnie Garvin was never viewed that way because he had never been booked that way before.

Let’s look back at the previous two years  of Garvin’s career before he headlined Starrcade ’87 as the NWA Champ. Garvin, dressed in drag as Miss Atlanta Lively, teamed with Jimmy Valiant in a street fight against the Midnight Express at Starrcade ’85.

From there, perhaps as a reward, Garvin was granted some title matches against Ric Flair in early 1986. Almost all of them either went the time limit or Flair won by pinfall. The houses also dropped as the feud went on. A steel cage main event match at Atlanta’s Omni between Flair and Garvin drew only 5,300 fans on March 29. Garvin also lost to Arn Anderson several times during that time.

During the spring of 1986, Garvin entered into a feud with National Heavyweight Champion Tully Blanchard. They had a very good match on JCP’s World Wide Wrestling syndicated show that took up the majority of the program. Garvin almost won the title and Blanchard, with manager J.J. Dillon’s help, injured one of Garvin’s famed “Hands of Stone” during the battle. This led to a series of taped fist matches between Garvin and Blanchard during monthlong Great American Bash series.

It was a hot feud, that Garvin lost. Blanchard escaped the Bashes with his National Title reign intact. So Blanchard maintained his status as one of the NWA’s top heels, while Garvin fell further behind in the pecking order of top faces.

Meanwhile, several NWA Title matches with Ric Flair were heavily hyped for the Bash cards of July 1986. Opponents like Road Warrior Hawk, Ricky Morton and of course Dusty Rhodes were pushed to the forefront on TV. Flair’s lone defense against Garvin was relegated to the 6,000 seat arena in Johnson City, Tennessee. Flair won, again.

After the Bash shows, Garvin appeared to be placed in a feud with Nikita Koloff that started in terrific fashion. Koloff was attacking Sam Houston after beating him when Garvin came in to break up the assault. Koloff tried to sneak attack and hit him with the Russian Sickle, but Garvin turned just in time to land the knockout punch on Nikita. The crowd went nuts. Nikita Koloff was the most hated wrestler in the territory, by far. He was seemingly indestructible and had just defeated the ultra-popular Magnum T.A. for the U.S. Title. This was one of the few times Koloff had ever been laid out.

What seemed to be the start of a great feud went…nowhere. The next week, Garvin defeated Black Bart for the meaningless Mid-Atlantic Title. The feud with Nikita Koloff was never followed up on. Making matters worse, Wahoo McDaniel defeated Tully Blanchard for the National Title that Garvin had chased for months. Wahoo was then placed into a one-match feud with Nikita to unify the U.S. and National Titles. Garvin was passed over and shifted further down the card.

Nikita beat Wahoo to unify the belts in front of only 3,000 fans at the Omni on September 29. On the same show, Garvin teamed with Dick Murdoch in a time limit draw vs. the Midnight Express in the U.S. Tag Title Tournament. JCP should have placed Garvin against Koloff and seen if it could have drawn fans.

Shortly thereafter, Magnum T.A.’s career-ending car wreck upended JCP and any longterm plans. However, Garvin was not moved up the card to help fill the void. If anything, he was shoved further down it. Garvin lost to Big Bubba Rogers at Starrcade ’86, then formed a team with Barry Windham, and later his “brother” Jimmy Garvin to feud with Jim Cornette and the Midnight Express. His less-than-star-like looks led Cornette to dub Ron Garvin “the Barney Rubble of professional wrestling”. That is certainly not the way you build up a top star.

Then Ric Flair started making the moves on Jimmy Garvin’s wife Precious. Flair beat Garvin to win a date with her, but Ronnie Garvin in drag returned, ridiculously disguised as Precious, and was put  into the feud with Flair.

This led to Ronnie Garvin’s relentless pursuit of Flair and a sudden push to the top. Garvin went straight from beating up Jim Cornette to being the obvious choice for next champion. But the fans weren’t buying it. In fact, they were dreading it.

Over this same two-year period, they had seen Dusty Rhodes, Nikita Koloff, Magnum T.A., the Road Warriors, Ricky Morton, Barry Windham, and countless others chase Flair, with only Dusty being briefly successful. Every single one of those wrestlers was more over with the fans than Ron Garvin, and were considered stronger contenders.

Meanwhile, Garvin was losing to Flair, Blanchard, Arn Anderson, and Big Bubba in singles matches, and to the Midnight Express, Ivan Koloff and Dick Murdoch, and others in tag team matches. He did not have one significant singles victory in the previous two years. Now he was beating the man fans considered the best in the business. I know it’s a foreign concept today, at least in WWE, but wins and losses mattered back then.

The ins and outs of what was going on behind the scenes in JCP at that time have been debated, aired, and written about numerous times, but I think only a few know the whole story and with Dusty Rhodes gone, we’ll likely never find out the whole truth about why Ron Garvin was put in this role.

There were other options for JCP at the time, but they had also worn out countless other avenues. Flair won a five-star feud over Barry Windham earlier in 1987. He faced Nikita Koloff at Starrcade the year before and fans had their fill of Flair vs. Rhodes. Lex Luger was a Flair teammate in the Horsemen and probably was not quite ready for the push against the champ. A unification match vs. UWF Champ Steve Williams would have made sense on paper, but Flair has let it known he felt the UWF Title was far beneath the NWA and likely squashed any thoughts of that feud. A Flair face turn and feud with his fellow Horsemen might have worked, but was probably not even considered at that point.

So, they had Ron Garvin and that’s what they went with. It failed miserably because Garvin was never pushed as a top guy previously. It failed because there was no long-term planning on behalf of JCP to push Garvin to the top. It failed because JCP did not listen to the fans who were telling them, with both their voices and their wallets, that they did not want Garvin on top. Sound familiar?