As I sit here writing this column it is Thanksgiving, one of the most festive times of the year. A time to give thanks for all that has gone on in your life and to share good times with your loved ones. This year as is sometimes the case in professional wrestling this Thanksgiving holiday we have seen another member of the wrestling fraternity pass on to the next life. Unlike other times in the past this gentleman did not die before the age of 40 or due to the sickness of drug use or anything else that was scandalous for that matter. This pioneer died of a more natural cause at a more natural age in which to pass on. There have yet to be any serious tributes from WWE or TNA at the time I write this column so I thought it would be best to celebrate the life and times of former NWA promoter Mike Lebell?you?re reading “Wrestling Rumblings.”
I am not going to go all Hunter Golden and sit here and act like I was a big fan of Mike Lebell’s promotional tactics back in his era. That would be lying for you see by the time his heyday was over I was but a twinkle in my parents eye. What I will say is that Mike Lebell was a mover and a shaker and his impact on the business is felt by everyone who would call themselves a wrestling fan to this day. I remember growing up before I got into the inner workings of the business, knew what a dirtsheet was, or the internet even existed for that matter my mother once told me one of her earliest and most enjoyable memories in wrestling was ?Rowdy? Roddy Piper getting his head shaved by Chavo Guerrero Sr. on the Spanish language station. At the time I didn?t really understand how that was possible and figured maybe she was mistaken, after all the Piper I saw on T.V seldom lost clean and if he did he wasn?t going to put himself in a situation to have his head shaved and if he did why would it be on the Spanish language station? Well as I grew to want to learn more about this business is turned out she was right as ?Rowdy? Roddy Piper feuded for 3 years with the entire Guerrero family (and it never got old for fans, think about that the next time people complain about Cena vs. Orton) and his most hated rival in that family was Chavo Guerrero Sr. and that rivalry culminated in a hair vs. hair match. She indeed did remember correctly what is the significance of this story? Well the promoter for the company was Mike Lebell. If I didn?t know anything else just the fact that Mike Lebell commanded enough respect for ?Rowdy? Roddy Piper to do a job where he had to have his head shaved that would be all I needed to know.
Mike Lebell ran what would be known as the World Wrestling Association and later on when it joined the NWA it would be known as NWA Hollywood. He ran the L.A territory obviously and during its peak he was every bit as successful and some would even argue more successful than the NY driven WWWF. I brought up Roddy Piper before well it was with Mike Lebell that Piper really grew to become a star of the magnitude he would eventually become long before he ever came into the Portland, Charlotte or WWF territories. Mike Lebell actually was the first to think to use ?Hot Rod? as a manager an idea that would go over well with Vince McMahon Jr. since if fans remember their history that was how Piper was introduced to the WWE audience. Of course Mike had other stars t hat were in a large part legendary because they had Mike Lebell calling the shots for them. What wrestling fan in some way shape or form does not know of the legendary ?Classy? Freddie Blassie? Well long before he was a manager or the elder statesmen of the WWE Blassie was ?The King of Men? and several times the world champion of the WWA which at the time was not part of the NWA but had a working agreement in which the WWA title was seen as the equal of the NWA world championship (it was actually a offshoot). Some would say that Blassie was one of the first real stars of television in his day as he would during his run with Lebell appear on a very young and green Regis Philbin’s television show and the hit Dick Van Dyke show which was something wrestlers just weren?t doing at the time. This was in a large part due to the popularity gained by working for Mike Lebell.
For some fans who are quick to dismiss and never heard of Lebell or the WWA title and would be quick to write it off as just another territory lost to the WWE juggernaut try this on. Some of the recipients of the WWA world title were as mentioned Fred Blassie, Dick Beyer, Dick the Bruiser, Bobo Brazil, Mike Dibiase, and pre WWWF Pedro Morales who because of his following in LA inspired Vince McMahon Sr. to bring him into the WWWF and groom him as a replacement for Bruno Sammartino. The WWA title was so important during its time that it is in a large part responsible for the boom of wrestling in Japan as Rikidozan would capitalize on the fame and acclaim of winning the predescor to that title the NAWA title from Fred Blassie and their matches would go on to be some of the most watched wrestling matches in that islands history to this day. As a matter of fact people were so into it at the time that several people actually had heart attacks due to the excitement of watching the Blassie/Rikidozan match. This is how big a promotion the WWA was at the time. While Mike Lebell was not actually running the promotion during this era he was still on hand and his influence was felt.
Fans are often quick to heap praise on others for things that they didn?t necessarily innovate but things that fans are too young enough or just lazy to find out who did. Mike Lebell was one of the first promoters to come up with the concept of the big time battle royal. Sure many promoters were running battle royals but they were just attractions in NWA Hollywood the battle royal would be sometimes the preeminent event of the year in much the same way that the Royal Rumble is today. Mike Lebell was the very first promoter to ever put an event on closed circuit TV which is the grandfather of what would now be known as pay per view. Mike Lebell was the first promoter to introduce American fans to lucha libre style wrestling with wrestlers who would go onto attain legendary status worldwide such as Mil Mascaras and Ray Mendoza.
Sure like most good things Mike Lebell didn?t last forever as a successful promoter times changed and in 1982 he would close up shop. However unlike the other promoters who would go by the wayside in later years he wasn?t a victim of the McMahon expansion. In actuality when Vince McMahon Jr. first started his takeover in 1983 the first market he would run his T.V on was LA and the person he had running those LA shows was none other than Mike Lebell. The relationship didn?t last long but just the very fact that Vince Jr. recognized that Lebell was a guy he had to have on his team says a lot about the genius of this great promoter.
He wasn?t the most popular promoter?actually he might have been one of the most hated as many of his main acts including his biggest act Freddie Blassie flat out couldn?t stand him. He had a reputation as one of the cheapest promoters in the business and there are others who would say his people skills needed work and that he didn?t love the business at all. I wasn?t around back then obviously and I obviously didn?t know the man but still looking at the body of work he left behind. The sell outs at the Olympic Auditorium and the many great programs some of which are angles that have been recycled and done over again for today’s generation. Truth be told WWE may not exist in the same manner it does today if it were not for some of the models that Mike Lebell demonstrated in his time promoting. Since Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, I am going to look back on some old video and relive, enjoy and give thanks to some of the greatness that came out of WWA/NWA Hollywood.
On that note I am going to wrap this week up and just wish everyone a happy and safe holiday. If you want to hit me up feel free to do so by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org and well next week I will try to do better, and until then I am out.