During the territory era of professional wrestling, many stars and the feuds that they worked were tailored toward that specific region of the country. For example, the late great Roddy Piper was a despised villain in Los Angeles during a rivalry with Chavo Guerrero Sr. before he became a hometown hero for Don Owen’s Portland promotion where he battled Buddy Rose. These alterations that were made to work for a specific audience in a certain territory are ultimately what led to the many polished performers during the wrestling boom of the 80s, they were able to hone their craft in front of different crowds to find the best version of their character to eventual make their way to the national level.
However, as great as watching Dusty send Flair shuffling around the ring on TBS or Piper take verbal jabs at opponents on MTV was, there are certain feuds from the territory system that don’t always get the spotlight that they deserve. Obviously, those matches were from a different era and a different context, but were still very influential toward some of the elements of the industry that were enhanced to what is seen today. For example, before Samoa Joe and Nakamura thrilled audiences with brutal exchanges on the WWE network, Johnny Valentine and Wahoo McDaniel traded stiff chops in the Mid-Atlantic promotion. Before Rusev defeated John Cena to win the US title, Bruno Sammartino dropped the WWWF belt to Ivan Koloff, which had the fans in attendance at Madison Square Garden in tears as they told the Italian strongman that he was still their hero.
In many ways, it’s extremely disappointing that many fans of the current product aren’t aware or won’t experience that type of emotional investment in the sport because of how the industry is viewed today. Despite what some jaded fans think, it’s doubtful that the WWE intentionally keeps footage in the vault at Titan Tower to “hide” the legacy of some of the stars that weren’t mainstays in the promotion. Quite frankly, the WWE markets to a main stream audience and as awesome as a 3-disc set of Ray Stevens bouts would be for the diehard fans, it’s not a draw for the WWE demographic. But, the WWE network, which is attempting to target fans from every demographic, provides a platform for distribution of some of the classic footage that might otherwise might not be featured. Basically, any of the rare footage in the WWE vault has a renewed value since it provides content to network.
Earlier this week, the “Hidden Gems” collection was released on the WWE network and it featured some extremely obscure material, including a young Gorilla Monsoon wrestling in Canada and Verne Gagne’s “Gange metrics” workout series. Among the contests in the collection was “The Last Battle of Atlanta,” a match between “Wild Fire” Tommy Rich and “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer in Georgia Championship Wrestling in 1983. The cage that had a roof added was the culmination of a nearly two year feud between the two, and many consider it the predecessor to the cell match that debuted in the WWE almost 15 years later. The gory series of matches that led up to this finale became a common subject for many wrestling magazines to document and the crimson of the battles decorated the covers of various editions. Up until the network release, the Rich/Sawyer showdown was considered the “holy grail” of wrestling film because there was no video footage known to exist. At the time the match took place, video tape was expensive and as a part of cost cutting measures, weekly episodes of the program were often taped over once they were shown on TV to make room for the show the following week. Some fans might not know, but Georgia Championship Wrestling was actually the first pro wrestling TV show to be distributed nationally when it aired on TBS during its heyday.
“Wild Fire” Tommy Rich was a traditional baby face during the feud with Buzz Sawyer and their dynamic worked well, as it projected an intensity that garnered an emotional investment from the crowd. It’s ironic that in retrospect, both Rich and Sawyer are underrated because their problems outside the ring prevented them from getting an extended run on the national stage in the WWF or the NWA. So, after years of tape traders searching and even with the access of the internet, this legendary cage match was thought to have been taped over decades ago, but somehow it was found in the WWE vault. Similar to the other matches in the series, “The Last Battle of Atlanta” was a bloody battle that projected an intensity of actual danger inside the steel cage. Tommy Rich’s bleach blonde hair was stained red, and Buzz Sawyer was a bloody mess at the conclusion of the contest.
The 12 minutes of mayhem was a violent spectacle that can now be viewed by the general public, which was unthinkable just last week when photos were thought to be the only documentation of the influential match. Due to a stipulation, Ole Anderson gets Paul Ellering in the cage post-match, which provides an entertaining segment, but make no mistake, the official Rich/Sawyer match is wrestling gold.
If you have access to the WWE network, I completely recommend this match and it’s a prime example of how violence can be used to tell a story in the squared circle that generated a tremendous crowd reaction. Sadly, Buzz Sawyer’s problems outside of wrestling kept him from achieving national success and he died at the age of 32 from a drug overdose in 1992. Tommy Rich went on to continue his run as a mostly regional star before he had a stint in WCW in the early 90s. Rich surfaced again in ECW in 1997 and worked for almost three years as a member of the FBI. I met Tommy Rich in 2009 and at the time, he didn’t look well, but thankfully, it’s been said that he has improved his health in recent years.
“The Last Battle of Atlanta” is a rare legendary match that featured two underrated stars so you should definitely check out the classic battle.
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Until next week
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