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  1. #1
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    Prime Time Warp - SMW

    While it doesn’t have the sex appeal of the death of some of the other promotions that we’ve seen, there is a certain poignancy in promotion some call ‘the last territory’ closing its doors. Smoky Mountain Wrestling is no more.

    In a way it is something of a miracle that they managed to make it into the twenty-first century. For almost every day of the first few years of its existence this was a promotion that looked as though its days on this earth were limited. It had the misfortune to be established during a time in which wrestling was cooling off, and the worst excesses of both the WWF and WCW in that period from 1990-1992 was hurting everything further down the ladder in American wrestling. Put simply, the fact that they were ever able to get off the ground in the first place was quite something.

    The real crunch period came in 1995, when after several years of critical acclaim but little to show for it in material success, the promotion could have folded. Details are murky on how the company was able to keep the doors open at that point – whether or not Rick Rubin was convinced to continue backing the promotion or if Jim Cornette kept things alive by emulating some of the shadier practices of his sometime-rival, Paul Heyman – but all we know at the moment is that rather than fold, the decision was taken to roll the dice. The Monday Night War and the debut of Nitro seemed to put wrestling more readily onto people’s lips and hinted at the end of the wrestling recession. The next year was a long, hard struggle, but within eighteen months they reaped the benefit as Smoky Mountain Wrestling became a profitable concern, one well positioned to take advantage of the new wrestling boom.

    The importance of that went far beyond simply one promotion making a small group of wrestlers and entrepreneurs some money, although having places to work is no bad thing in this business. The key significance is that – with WCW moving away from its roots under Eric Bischoff and in the feud with the New World Order – Smoky Mountain represented the last of an older way of thinking. It was an alternative to the ‘big two’, but one that provided a very different alternative to that offered by ECW in the North East. While both valued strong workers and were always on the lookout for talented people they could expose to their audience, the fans in Tennessee and Kentucky had a far more rabid, emotional connection with the product than the poseurs in the ECW arena, who watched with their arms crossed, and a defiant attitude of ‘go on then, entertain me’. This was wrestling as a story over and above as an athletic display or a connection of high spots. Most significant of all, this was one of the few places in the US were a Southern wrestler could work and be something other than a joke. When people with strong Southern accents were being marginalised even in WCW, and were reduced to stock figures on the WWF, they could main event in Smoky Mountain Wrestling.

    There is no doubt that they benefit from their relationship with the WWF, even if talent who did make the step up did not always get the best deal. Chris Candido was turned into the unimpressive Skip, Dirty White Boy became T.L. Hopper, and Tracy Smothers became Freddy Joe Floyd. These things did not help their careers and the damage was felt when they inevitably all returned to their old stomping grounds. But the overall effect was definitely in Smoky Mountain’s favour. Not only did hot stars like Steve Austin and Undertaker turn up for occasional spot shows when they were in the Tennessee area, but some of Smoky Mountain’s hottest angles in 1997 and 1998 featured people like Adam Copeland, Christian Cage, Sean Morley and Kurt Angle who were all already under WWF contract. These were not people who were ‘picked up’ by the WWF after their SMW tenure, but were explicitly sent there for seasoning and to learn their craft before being exposed to the international audience. By the same token, I’d expect to see their stars of recent years, such as The Prototype, Nick Dinsmore, and Leviathan all making their way to the WWF main roster eventually. Quite how the WWF will compensate for the loss of SMW and all they’ve done to create their stars over the past decade is something of a mystery: my guess is that some lucky promotion will be receiving a phone call with an offer for a lot of money if they’re willing to affiliate and become something of a feeder.

    This does beg the major question of ‘what next?’ There’s very little upside in SMW closing down for most of the talent, especially as it comes less than twelve months after the collapse of both ECW and WCW. The end of the wrestling boom taking down promotion after promotion has left fewer and fewer places for people to go and work, and no matter how many hours of programming the WWF decide to put out they are still only going to need a finite number of workers.

    But the obvious question relates to the promotion’s mad hatter, the founder, booker and occasional top heel Jim Cornette. His role as a manager was always appreciated in the WWF and he played a major part in WWF storylines from 1993-1997 alongside his day-to-day management of SMW, and there is no doubt that plenty of people out there consider him one of the sharpest minds in wrestling.

    And yet the WWF has largely moved away from the kind of programming in which you can imagine Jim Cornette thriving. It is much harder to see him fitting in with the current WWE style, both onscreen and in terms of its management, now than if Smoky Mountain Wrestling had folded back in 1994 or 1995.

    The one area in which there has always been interest in using Cornette has been as an onscreen talent, either as a manager or a commentator, and I think that is the only realistic area in which we are likely to see the former head of SMW appear. The days in which he might have come in as a creative force or even as a road agent seem to be in the past, as the WWF is now firmly in the grip of ‘writers’ and the onscreen style as championed by men like Kevin Dunn. Cornette may well need the money that the WWF can offer having just seen his promotion fold, but in doing so he may have to take a role which is not too far removed from that which Paul Heyman had after ECW’s collapse, and is very much like the one he was glad to give up in 1998.

    Needless to say, though, is that we’ll see Cornette again. He is not the person we should feel most sympathy for in this case, because someone with that reputation both in front of and behind the camera will always find work somewhere. Instead, we should take a minute to think of those people who were given the ball by Smoky Mountain Wrestling to show what kind of talent they could be. And then we should lament the fact that it looks unlikely that there’ll ever be a place for that kind of talent again. Not only has SMW folded, but the winds of change have been blowing for some time now, and while SMW may have outlasted ECW that is simply a matter of better accounting. The wrestling culture war was still won in Philadelphia; so tonight I’ll be thinking not just about the end of an individual promotion, but about everything else that is passing from us as the sun sets over Knoxville.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  2. #2
    The Brain
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    So what I'm getting here is if SMW scraped together a few extra years, they would have become OVW and not made much difference in the big picture? I applaud you for your accuracy, because I think that's probably exactly what would have happened, though it may not be the most eye grabbing alternate history. SMW is a bit of a blind spot for me, though I intend to watch through a fair chunk if I ever get the time. Feels like there are definitely some cool things which have fallen out of the wrestling historical narrative. In fact, SMW has fallen out of history entirely for a lot of people, which seems like a shame.

    Really enjoyed this Pete, love the attention to detail you put into these. Was Kevin Dunn really a talking point in 2001 already? Haven't heard much about him recently but I recall a few years back he was constantly on everyone's lips. Amazing how long his tenure has been, watching through the mid 80s with Heenan I was seeing his name in the credits, and unless I'm much mistaken he brought a noticeable production upgrade with him at the time. Ah, history.

  3. #3
    Always enjoy these alternative views. I've heard about SMW before but never really seen any footage or much reference to it on WWE TV. How important was SMW in the grand scheme of things? It had to have some form of prominence considering Jim Cornette was involved and he was a big name in wrestling.

    You've been on fire lately.

  4. #4
    The Brain
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    I can jump in here, and Pete can correct me on anything I mess up.

    SMW was a regional territory in the 90s, run by Cornette. They didn't do too badly overall and even had wrestlers crossing over to both WCW and WWF at different points during it's existence. I'd say it was the #3 promotion in the US for a while, until it was passed up by ECW as we got later into the 90s. As far as importance go I'd say they were roughly on the level of a major indie promotion of today. Lots of guys who went on to do bigger things had a role, such as Chris Jericho, Kane, Al Snow, Chris Candido, and Lance Storm, just to name a few. I'd say they're worth checking out if you're still curious!

  5. #5
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    Mizfan – Sort of? I think I was going for SMW wouldn’t have become OVW, but what you’ve have had instead is a relationship a bit like that in the 1990s which would have probably gone some way to stopping OVW existing in the first place which meant that when they eventually folded the WWE would have been left without somewhere to send talent and would have needed to create something. That’s the downside. The upside is that more people would have seen this product, that the territory would have had more independence, and people that weren’t especially fancied by the WWE would have got a far better shake out of it than they did. Those Southern guys in the 1990s are one example of a group that could have done with somewhere else to go and work, but on top of that think of all those people from OVW that were doing great stuff down there and get called up and saddled with a shit gimmick. How different would the career of a Nick Disnmore or a Doug Basham have been if they were exposed to a wider audience with booking like their OVW stuff before they got sunk? Would they even have been sunk in the first place?

    But yeah, I try to be realistic in this and the long and short of it is SMW would have gone down in the post-2002 slump even if they had survived that long. I believe Kevin Dunn was a name that the smarkiest smarks knew by that point in time, yes, even if he wasn’t quite as widely known as he is now. I do have the feeling that if Cornette had a profile around 2000 more comparable with that of Heyman that the name Kevin Dunn could well have been on a few more lips, so I felt justified in using it here.


    Don Franc – Thanks for the kind words, glad you like it. There’s a limited amount of Smoky Mountain on the WWE network that seems to be proving quite popular with people who had not seen it before. To be honest it’s a pretty small time affair, so the idea of it limping on into the Attitude Era and catching light is a little bit far-fetched, but not completely implausible. In the grand scheme of things I’d say that they’re main importance was as a feeder system to the WWF. Bull Buchanan, D’Lo Brown, Chris Candido, Kane, Adam Bomb, The Hardy Boys, Bob Holly, to name a few, all came through SMW before getting to the WWF – and that’s without mentioning the guys who went to WCW. It also gave a few paychecks to older talents that had fallen off the national radar who were probably able to share their knowledge with the newer generation. I’d say that’s really their legacy.


    And yes, mizfan sums it up pretty well here.

    Thanks to everyone who has read and replied so far.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  6. #6
    LOP's part time glass ceiling DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    Wanted to wait on a few more comments before commenting myself. Thing is, although I have a little knowledge, it's often not enough knowledge to separate fact from fiction in columns like this and need to read the comments to know what's what! Hopefully that implies the column is well written otherwise the fiction would stick out like a sore thumb!

  7. #7
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    Thanks for the kind words, Billington. I can't think of a better testament for what I'm going for with these.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

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