Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pro Wrestling Primer: Remembering "Dr. Death"

'Dr. Death' Steve Williams
Passes Away

December 30, 2009 01:33 PM EST has reported that 'Dr. Death' Steve Williams has passed away at the age of 49 after a lengthy bout with throat cancer.

Williams, a football and wrestling star at the University of Oklahoma, began wrestling for Bill Watts' Mid-South Wrestling in 1979. Williams remained with Watts until the renamed promotion then known as the Universal Wrestling Federation was purchased by Jim Crockett Promotions in 1987.

Once in Crockett's organization, Williams and Mike Rotunda won the NWA World Tag Team Championship. Williams also held the WCW Tag Championship with Terry Gordy and also challenged then-WCW World Champion Ron Simmons for the title prior to leaving the organization in 1992.

A big star in Japan, tagging with Terry Gordy overseas for the better part of a decade, Williams saw the biggest stage in America by wrestling for the then-WWF in 1998, but quickly left after being embarrassed by Bart Gunn in the 'Brawl for it All', WWF's tournament style tough-man competition.

From 1999 to 2004, Williams appeared a few times for World Championship Wrestling in the failed 'Oklahoma' angle that proved to be a very unpopular spoof of WWE announcer Jim Ross. He tried his hand in MMA, went back to Japan and wrestled for a few independent promotions.

Williams officially retired from the ring in 2009, last wrestling in Japan in October, 2009. With the onset of his throat cancer in 2004, he found remission and became a born-again Christian. 2009, however, saw reports of the return of the cancer.

Williams was known for both his toughness inside the ring and outside. He was an inspiration for all and will sorely be missed.

Not being from the South, I didn’t get to see much of the wrestler known as “Dr. Death” in his heyday. But when I first started reading wrestling magazines sometime between 1984 and 1986, Steve Williams sounded like one of the baddest motherfuckers in the Mid South territory. There was a magazine called Wrestling Superstars that used to run a couple pages’ worth of what was essentially a series of 30-second promos on paper. One such “promo” was from Steve Williams, talking about a trip to the hospital with his tag team partner Ted DiBiase after that evening’s match had gotten out of control. If I remember correctly, Williams apparently received over a hundred stitches around his eye, but didn’t seem to mind. It was standard fare for this tough brawler. The WWF certainly didn’t have Hulk Hogan talking about getting goddamned stitches in his eye. “Dr. Death” was the real deal, one of many wrestlers back then who looked like—and probably were—barroom brawlers. 100% legitimate ass-kickers who could dish out horrendous beatings and leave you scarred for life.

Some of the best wrestlers around came from the state of Oklahoma—including Danny Hodge, Bill Watts, Wahoo McDaniel, Jack and Jerry Brisco, and Randy Couture. As a four-time All-American for Oklahoma University, Steve Williams was no different. He earned the nickname “Dr. Death” while competing in a middle school wrestling tournament, in which he broke his nose but continued on wearing an old-time hockey facemask, drenched in his own blood. Wrestling promoter Bill Watts was always on the lookout for legitimate athletes, and recruiting Steve Williams was a no-brainer. Due to his background, he was instantly positioned as one of the top heels in Watts’ Mid South Wrestling promotion, and the legend began.

While double-teaming Ricky Morton in a tag team match against the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, Williams and partner the late Hercules Hernandez found themselves swarmed by insane wrestling fans at ringside. After losing the match, Williams and Hernandez were then chased from the arena. During the fracas, Williams had to throw a kid through a window so he could unlock the door to the locker room, get his stuff, and take off. After beating Hacksaw Jim Duggan in Shreveport, Louisiana, Williams drove two hours to Alexandria and discovered the next morning that the fans had dismantled most of his new $24,000 van.To most Southern wrestling fans, Dr. Death was a hated heel. But events taking place outside of the squared circle would turn Williams babyface for the first time.

After wrestling in Beaumont, Texas one night, Williams and fellow tough guy wrestler Rick Steiner were hauling ass back to Alexandria. They saw a fire ahead of them on the road, which was the result of a truck colliding head-on with a car from the Fort Polk military base. It’s been said that getting to Alexandria on time played a bigger role than heroics, but regardless, Williams and Steiner got out of their car and went about trying to rescue any possible survivors. When the newspaper in Lafayette, Louisiana wrote them up for what they did, Bill Watts reportedly got angry at them because they were both heels. But thanks to the positive publicity, Williams was now a bona fide good guy.

But by the time Steve Williams had taken his rightful place in the territory by winning the UWF world championship from the late Big Bubba Rogers, the onetime Mid South (renamed the Universal Wrestling Federation) was already in a state of decline thanks to the local oil business bottoming out and wrecking the region’s economy. Eventually, Bill Watts sold the UWF to Jim Crockett Promotions and the era of Mid South was over. As the UWF champion, Williams expected to be put into a series of matches against NWA champion (and Crockett’s top dog) Ric Flair to unify the belts. Instead, they only had one match in which Williams won by disqualification. Williams once speculated in a shoot interview that the reason why the series never happened was because Ric Flair didn’t want to work with an overly stiff shoot wrestler like himself. It’s entirely possible, but the powers-that-be at Crockett Promotions weren’t exactly eager to position very many UWF wrestlers as being equal or superior to the talent they already had.

During 1988, Dr. Death became involved in Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin’s rivalry with Kevin Sullivan’s Varsity Club faction, culminating in a Tower of Doom triple cage match at the Great American Bash that same year. In the Tower, Williams teamed up with Garvin, the Road Warriors, and Ron Garvin to defeat Kevin Sullivan, Mike Rotunda, Al Perez, the Russian Assassin, and Ivan Koloff. Later in 1988, Williams turned heel and joined the Varsity Club. At Starrcade ’88, Steve Williams and Kevin Sullivan defeated the Fantastics for the NWA United States Tag Team Championship. He also teamed up with Mike Rotunda to win the NWA World Tag Team Championship from the Road Warriors. But the team were stripped of the titles in May of 1989, and the Varsity Club disbanded.

While wrestling for All Japan Pro Wrestling, Williams won the Triple Crown Championship on two occasions. He also formed a tag team with the late Terry Gordy named the Miracle Violence Connection. They brought the team to WCW in 1992 and beat the Steiner Brothers for the WCW tag team belts. A week later, they unified the WCW tag titles with the NWA tag team championship after beating Barry Windham and Dustin Rhodes in a tournament at the Great American Bash. The Miracle Violence Connection feuded with the Steiner Brothers over the WCW tag titles, which was hyped in Japan as a rivalry between the best American tag teams from the two main Japanese promotions. While Williams and Gordy tore up the rings for All Japan, the Steiners were doing the same for AJPW’s main competitor, New Japan Pro Wrestling. NJPW attempted to sign the Miracle Violence Connection several times, but neither Williams nor Gordy made the jump, out of loyalty to All Japan owner Giant Baba. But New Japan had a working agreement with WCW, and the politics eventually caused Steve Williams and Terry Gordy to leave the promotion by the end of the year. Williams’ last high-profile WCW match took place at Starrcade ’92 when he substituted for an injured Rick Rude to challenge Ron Simmons for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. He lost by disqualification and made his exit shortly thereafter. Despite the Connection’s short stay in WCW, they were voted Tag Team of the Year by both Pro Wrestling Illustrated and the Wrestling Observer.

During the rest of the 1990s, Steve Williams opted to wrestle more in Japan, becoming a main eventer for All Japan. The Miracle Violence Connection dominated the tag team ranks throughout 1993, winning All Japan’s Unified World Tag Team Championship five times. But their run was cut short when Gordy nearly died of a drug overdose while traveling to Japan later that year. As a singles competitor, Steve Williams defeated two of All Japan’s top stars, Stan Hansen and Jumbo Tsuruta. In Japan at the time, this was comparable to beating Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair at their respective peaks in the United States. Williams also engaged in some all-out wars with the next generation of All Japan stars like Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, and the late Mitsuharu Misawa. Outside of the ring, Williams and Kawada reportedly hated each other, so they’d bring their hatred into their matches by kicking the shit out of each other on a regular basis. In a famous bout against Kobashi, Dr. Death dropped Kenta on his head no less than three times during the 42-minute match.

In between tours with All Japan, Williams would also wrestle for various independent promotions in the US. In particular, he wrestled for Herb Abrams’ UWF, engaging in a series of matches with Paul Orndorff. On Abrams’ orders, Williams broke Steve Ray’s nose on purpose during the semifinal of the UWF Sportschannel America Television Title Tournament. He also wrestled Bam Bam Bigelow for the UWF Championship one night in Florida, in which Williams’ daughter was in attendance. She ended up running out of the arena when the match got particularly bloody.

For over a decade, Dr. Death reportedly suffered no pinfall losses on his record on US soil. That came to an end during one of his appearances for ECW. Originally, he’d come into ECW in 1996 as a guest referee for one match, but reformed the Miracle Violence Connection later that night for a match against the Eliminators. After dominating most of the match, the Connection were defeated when Terry Gordy fell victim to Perry Saturn’s elbow drop from a scaffold hanging above the ring. Dr. Death’s turn came in February 1997 when he lost an impromptu match against Raven for the ECW World Championship.

After several attempts by Jim Ross to bring him into the World Wrestling Federation, Williams and the WWF finally worked out an acceptable deal in 1998. Although Steve Williams was well-known in the NWA and WCW throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s, but was relatively unheard-of by modern WWF fans in the Attitude Era. It was decided that his introduction to the new generation of fans would take place at the much-ballyhooed Brawl for All competition. The WWF’s roster had grown at the time, and many of their “tough guy” wrestlers were left with little to do what with the limited television time. The Brawl for All was a shootfighting tournament done to utilize some of these wrestlers, as well as capitalize on the recent interest in Toughman Contests around the country. It was expected that Williams would win the tournament due to his background, and be pushed as a genuine tough guy in the world of “sports-entertainment.” A feud with WWF Champion “Stone Cold” Steve Austin loomed in the horizon.

He came out strong at first, beating Pierre Carl Ouelett in the opening round. The quarterfinal saw Williams take on Bart Gunn in what many thought would be a cake walk for the man known worldwide as Dr. Death. Instead, Williams tore his hamstring after a leg sweep and “walked into” a Gunn left hand that knocked him out. As a result, his tough-guy mystique was lessened and his push was effectively over. Following the Brawl for All debacle, Williams was managed by announcer Jim Ross during Ross’ brief “disgruntled employee” angle. During his time with Ross, Williams would attack wrestlers with devastating suplexes.

But Williams’ WWF career never recuperated after Brawl for All, and management began trying to make him quit. After healing from the torn hamstring, Williams was to be sent to the Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling promotion in Japan, ostensibly to get him back into ring shape. But when Williams mentioned that he’d prefer to stay in the US and work for the WWF as contracted, he received a fax the next day claiming that he’d breached his contract. According to Williams, the WWF did this to hurt his business with All Japan if he agreed to wrestle for less-prestigious FMW; or to get out of their contract with a limited payment if he disagreed. Williams claimed that he’d lost a million dollars when the WWF did that. But suing them wasn’t economically feasible for him since he’d lost $100,000 fighting a paternity suit during the same time.

Unceremoniously drummed out of the WWF, Steve Williams appeared briefly for WCW in 1999, taking part in the Oklahoma angle making fun of Jim Ross. He engaged in a feud with Vampiro that resulted in a cage match against Misfits bassist Jerry Only on a 1999 episode of WCW Monday Nitro. There was also a brief angle in which Williams interfered in several cruiserweight matches, dealing stiff beatings to some of the luchadores.

Dr. Death went back to All Japan in 2002, and also wrestled a couple matches against Lance Storm for WWE in 2003. He was involved with the independent Major League Wrestling promotion in late 2003, and also won the NWA Mid-Atlantic title in one of the first pro wrestling events in China. In 2004, he attempted to enter the world of mixed martial arts, but was beaten in 22 seconds by Alexey Ignashov at a K1 event in Japan. Williams ended his MMA career after that, and was diagnosed with throat cancer later in 2004.

Williams underwent a series of surgeries that removed his voice box, but was declared cancer-free in 2005. He appeared at a WWE Smackdown house show in March 2006 in Alexandria, Louisiana. After that, he was signed to help train up-and-coming WWE wrestlers in their Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental territory. During that time, he made a few appearances on OVW TV as the brief tag team partner of fellow Oklahoma wrestler Jake Hager (now WWE Raw’s Jack Swagger). On August 30, Williams appeared at a WWE Raw house show, in which he addressed the crowd and announced how happy he was to be “four years cancer-free.” In 2007, he appeared at a taping of Harley Race’s World League Wrestling in Missouri, signing autographs and giving a speech about his battle with cancer and his born-again Christian faith. He later made appearances for the independent Sooner World Class Wrestling based out of Oklahoma, and also worked as a baggage handler for Southwest Airlines in Colorado. While making appearances on the independent circuit, Williams would wear a scarf to cover the hole in his throat. Eventually Wrestler’s Rescue, the charity group started by former WWE Diva Dawn Marie, would raise $20,000 for Williams to buy a voice box that would help him speak more clearly.

After the in-ring death of Japanese wrestling star and longtime friend Mitsuharu Misawa in June 2009, Steve Williams decided to retire from wrestling after nearly thirty years in the ring. His final match on American soil took place on August 15 for Asylum Championship Wrestling in Colorado Springs. Steve Williams defeated Franco D’Angelo for the ACW Heavyweight Championship, and then vacated the title after the match. Supposedly his final match took place in Japan on October 25.

At the time of his death, Steve Williams was living with his 86-year-old mother and 15-year-old son, who plays high school football as a wide receiver. He was 49 years old.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The UWF ruled! Michael PS Hayes & the Fabulous Free Birds.....RIP "Dr.Death"