Dating back to 1944, Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW) played a major role in the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), becoming the first NWA territory to have national television clearance and playing a key role in the war between the NWA and the WWF’s Vince McMahon. GCW was known for its array of stars and its two-hour television program hosted by legendary announcer Gordon Solie. Eventually, GCW would merge with Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP), ironically airing on the same station GCW’s flagship show had run.
Professional wrestling in the Peach State dates back to the early 20th century, but the promotion best thought of as Georgia Championship Wrestling began right before the end of World War Two. Wrestler Paul Jones (not to be confused with wrestler/manager “Number One” Paul Jones) purchased the territory in January 1944. He joined the NWA in 1949 (Hornbaker 294) and in 1958, Jones and co-owner Donald McIntyre sold a majority interest to wrestler Ray Gunkel. According to Ole Anderson, the promotion was owned by Roy Gunkel, Paul Jones, and Lester Welch, operating under the name ABC Booking (218). Eventually, the company became Mid-South Booking, then Georgia Championship Wrestling.
The 1970’s was a troublesome time for the promotion. After GCW lost its traditional television spot, Ted Turner (who was friends with Ray Gunkel’s wife Ann) offered the same timeslot on his fledgling TV station, WTCG (which eventually became SuperStation WTBS). Just as things were settling down, a promotional war broke out after Ray Gunkel died (he’d died in the locker room following a match with Ox Baker). Ann Gunkel formed All-South Wrestling, promoting the territory and with the help of Ted Turner, continued airing the promotion on WTCG. Wrestling promoter Jim Barnett bought into Welch and Jones’ shared of ABC Booking (Anderson 250), then went to war. According to Shaun Assael’s Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, Barnett was able to obtain exclusive deals with arenas, reducing the places Gunkel could run shows (42). Eventually Gunkel sold her interest in the promotion, but Gunkel’s alleged ties with organized crime reportedly ensured she received fair compensation (Assael 42-43). GCW proved to be worth the trouble. According to Tim Hornbaker, “’In the mid-to-late 1970s, Sam Muchnick believed that Atlanta was the “leading wrestling city,’” as it was “’drawing capacity and near capacity crowds at the City Auditorium or the Omni every Friday’” (“Atlanta Booking Office”).
No discussion of GCW would be complete without mentioning announcer Gordon Solie. Dubbed “The Walter Cronkite of Professional Wrestling” (Cronkite was a beloved newscaster at the time and nicknamed “The Most Trusted Man in America”) for his demeanor and the respect he treated the sport with, Solie was so committed to calling the matches right that he reportedly had wrestlers place him in holds in order to better understand what they were supposed to feel like. Solie had worked in Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling from Florida territory and was brought to GCW. Solie’s commentary took on a new dimension when he was paired with wrestler Roddy Piper, with Piper serving as color commentator. Piper (who was a heel wrestler at the time) initially was somewhat balanced in his commentary. Polite, he favored the heels slightly, but over time, he clearly became biased in favor of heels, eventually leading to confrontations and even matches between Piper and the area’s babyfaces. Eventually, Piper’s respect for Solie overrode his heelish tendencies and he saved Solie from an attack by “The Magnificent” Muraco, becoming a babyface in the process.
GCW covered a large area and included a number of titles including their version of the NWA World Tag Team Championship, the NWA National Heavyweight Championship, the NWA National Tag Team Championship, and the NWA National Television Championship. Like any NWA promotion, the NWA World Heavyweight Champion made appearances in the territory, defending the belt at house shows. On one such occasion, history was made when GCW star Tommy “Wildfire” Rich pinned NWA champion Harley Race to become the second-youngest champion. Although Rich held the belt a mere four days, it was an example of GCW’s importance in the NWA.
GCW was known for its remarkable roster of wrestlers, innovative booking, and national access on SuperStation TBS. Stars such as The Fabulous Freebirds, Ole and Gene Anderson, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, Ivan Koloff, the Masked Superstar, Austin Idol, Jake Roberts, Bob Armstrong, Buzz Sawyer, and Tommy Rich were just a few of the area’s top heels and faces. Every territory has its fans and the things they best remember about it. In the case of Georgia Championship Wrestling, fan and writer John Molinaro sums up what made GCW so memorable:
Georgia Championship Wrestling was the holy grail of wrestling TV programs. The first nationally broadcasted wrestling program in the U.S., it revolutionized how wrestling was presented on television and laid the groundwork for shows like Nitro, RAW and Smackdown! to follow: the two-hour format, episodic formatting, well-timed commercial breaks, cliff-hanger endings, ring entrances accompanied by rock music, strong main events, major angles that lead to the big payoff matches down the road. A small TV studio. A handful of fans. Three cameras. One ring. One microphone. That brown backdrop with the TBS call letters and the NWA symbol on it that stood behind the interview podium. Gordon Solie. It may sound like just another wrestling show, but to many of us, Georgia Championship Wrestling was more. Much more. (“End of an era on TBS Solie, Georgia and ‘Black Saturday’”).
It’s easy to see why GCW holds so many memories for its fans.
Undoubtedly the biggest act to come out of GCW was the team of the Road Warriors. The promotion became known as the birthplace of the Road Warriors after booker Ole Anderson watched the film The Road Warrior and threw the green, but fearsome-looking team of Michael Hegstrand and Joseph Laurinaitis together as Hawk and Animal, the Road Warriors. The combination of Anderson booking the Road Warriors in squash matches and their national exposure made overnight stars of Hawk and Animal.
With a good array of talent and a two-hour show airing nationally on SuperStation TBS, GCW’s future seemed bright but internal problems brought about the company’s demise. The promotion was owned by several individuals including booker/wrestler Ole Anderson and wrestlers Jack and Jerry Brisco. In an interview with WWE.com, Jerry Brisco recalls, “We had a very dysfunctional company. Two members of the organization were making all the money. The company was making real good money at events we’d started running in Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of Pennsylvania, but we weren’t getting any good dividend checks” (“Black Saturday: The Unbelievable Story of the Original Invasion”). The disgruntled Briscos rallied enough of the promotion’s other owners to sell a controlling interest in GCW to Vince McMahon of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Next, McMahon negotiated a deal with Ted Turner, taking over the promotion’s highly prized timeslot. July 14, 1984 would go down in infamy as “Black Saturday,” the day the WWF took over World Championship Wrestling (Georgia Championship Wrestling had been rechristened World Championship Wrestling in 1981).
Although Ole Anderson rallied wrestlers and began airing a show entitled “Championship Wrestling from Georgia,” the promotion was eventually absorbed into Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) which had bought the two-hour World Championship Wrestling slot from Vince McMahon and turned it into its flagship show. If the WWF had not bought out GCW, it’s arguable it might have become a national promotion. Regardless of the outcome, GCW brings back fond memories to those who grew up watching it.
PHOTO: Gordon Solie & the Fabulous Freebirds
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