25 years ago this week, the top story in pro wrestling was, in many ways, also the biggest pro wrestling story in the history of the business’s insider press.
“Cowboy” Bill Watts, a veteran pro wrestler turned matchmaker and promoter, had been running Turner Broadcasting’s World Championship Wrestling since late Spring 1992. Watts had previously been hailed as a near-untouchable wrestling genius, but the response to his WCW run had been mixed at best among fans, media, and wrestlers alike. The wrestlers hated new the rules he instituted, like being unable to leave an arena before the end of a show and the elimination of performance bonuses. The fans and reporters hated the decrease in production values, which was a product of the cost-cutting Watts had been told to do, as well as new in-ring rules banning moves off the top rope. The overall feel of the shows was bland, stripped down, and bleak.
Some of these struggles were a consequence of Watts having been away from wrestling for five years before he was hired. The rust showed, but Watts seemed to begin figuring things out at the end of 1992 and beginning of 1993. He signed new wrestlers like Chris Benoit, 2 Cold Scorpio, and Rob Van Dam who were the antithesis of the big football player types Watts had a history of pushing, and he also inked a deal for hardcore favorite Smoky Mountain Wrestling to become a developmental territory. It seemed like everything was starting to click, but then Watts left the company on February 10, 1993 in something of “You’re fired/I quit” scenario. His abrupt departure kicked up a firestorm in the wrestling media.
The story goes back to 1991, when Watts did a long interview with Wade Keller for his Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter’s Summer Annual. Watts’ thoughts on the wrestling business have long been cited by both Keller and Wrestling Observer Newsletter Editor Dave Meltzer as getting him the WCW job. At the end of the interview, though, the theme shifted to Watts’ social and political views. A rant began with “If you want a business and you put money in, why shouldn’t you be able to discriminate? It’s your business,” and it did not improve from there, as Watts made numerous offensive comments about homosexuals and the black community:
- “That’s why I went into business, so that I could discriminate.”
- “I can’t tell a fag to get the fuck out. I should have the right to not associate with a fag if I don’t want to. I mean, why should I have to hire a fuckin’ fag, if I don’t like fags? Fags discriminate against us, don’t they? Sure they do.” (The audio of the interview is available to Torch website subscribers, and Keller, now openly gay but then a 20-year-old college student, nervously says “I don’t know” after Watts barks out the “Don’t they?” line.)
- “Who’s killed more blacks than anyone? The fuckin’ blacks. But they want to blame that bullshit Roots that came on the air. That Roots was so bullshit. All you have to do if you want slaves is to hand beads to the chiefs and they gave you slaves. What is the best thing that has ever happened to the black race? That they were brought to this country. No matter how they got here. You know why? Because they intermarried and got educated. They’re the ones running the black race.”
- “Lester Maddox was right. If I don’t want to sell fried chicken to blacks I shouldn’t have to. It’s my restaurant. Hell, at least I respect him for his stand.”
Mark Madden, a Torch columnist who worked at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by day, was taken aback when he saw Watts hobnobbing with Hank Aaron, then a TBS executive, on one of WCW’s live TV specials. So he called Aaron, who had just spoken out against Cincinatti Reds owner Marge Schott’s racism two weeks earlier. “Our first conversation yielded that, indeed, he didn’t know who Watts was, let alone what he was like,” Madden wrote in the February 15, 1993 issue of the Torch. “And he sure didn’t know about Watts’s [sic] ill-fated ‘Torch Talk’ interview. You know, the one we all thought got Watts his job but, as is now apparent, no top executives at TBS came within seven miles of reading in the first place.”
Then he faxed Aaron the interview. “Aaron was horrified. He declined comment, but said that if Bill Watts did work for TBS—he really didn’t know who Bill even was—that he guaranteed something would be done about it. And he said he’d talk to me the next day. That was Tuesday. Wednesday Bill Watts was gone.” According to Madden’s account of their conversation that day, Aaron believed that Watts had resigned after being confronted, possibly by current Atlanta Braves chairman Terry McGuirk. “This is too big a company and it stands for too much to have something like this stand in the way,” said Aaron, who added that as far as he knew, nobody at TBS had ever seen Watts’ comments before Madden called him.
“It was horrible,” Aaron added. “They were horrible statements. It was just despicable, really. It was just terrible regardless of whether you work for a company, or work for yourself…if this is the way you think. I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense at all.” He also told Madden that Watts’ comments were “one and the same” as what Schott had been saying. Then, when asked about the image of him shaking hands with Watts, Aaron laughed.“I don’t mind shaking hands with him once again,” he told Madden. “It might bother him to shake hands with me, I don’t know.” Bill Shaw, a more WCW-adjacent TBS executive, refused comment to the Torch.
Watts stayed mum until writing a letter to Aaron on April 11, which was published alongside an interview with the disgraced ex-wrestler in the Wrestling Flyer newsletter, published by longtime Philadelphia sports anchor John Clark, two weeks later. Among other things, Watts cited his Native American heritage and his hiring of black wrestlers at a greater clip than his peers—“My track record in the wrestling business has been the most pro-black of any promoter/owner in the history of this business!” he protested. But Watts also talked about about Madden and the Torch interview. “Madden’s editorials in this newsletter are in my opinion often very personal, beyond the bounds of journalistic integrity, and probably on occasions the libel and slander status,” wrote Watts.
“I was unaware of his call to you or his accusations, and I had already resigned for my own reasons from World Championship Wrestling prior to Bill Shaw’s revelation of this accusation,” Watts continued, “so it had nothing to do with my departure from TBS. (I’m sure had I not already resigned, I was a ‘corporate liability.’)” Watts alleged that his comments taken out of context—the audio shows that they were not—and also claimed that the interview “was in the possession of TBS executives prior to my hiring in WCW; and I had already responded to that very allegation prior to being hired.”
As for what he actually said, Watts renewed his objection to anti-discrimination laws governing businesses, albeit in less inflammatory terms, arguing that the free market should determine if a discriminatory businessman succeeds or fails. There’s a strange parenthetical where Watts adds, seemingly out of nowhere, that “To me[,] the Japanese are truly the biggest racists invading the U.S. We as a nation condone that!” Then Watts addressed his comments about Roots:
As to my statement about “Roots”: In that era, slavery was very common. To me “Roots”’ presentation was skewed to make the U.S. feel guilty as a country. I do not believe we are “guilty” as it was accepted world wide. Our country was divided over the issue. Our country addressed the issue as no other country and fought an internal civil war! We should be acclaimed for that!
I feel the series should also have shown that not all slaves were trapped or taken by force. In many instances their own chiefs sold them into slavery for trinkets or trade goods. Slavery in Africa continued long after the U.S. discontinued it.
“Roots” did help to bring together and present black history to solidify black pride—an important process.
The letter does not address his comments about intermarriage or homosexuals, though, past saying that “I also enjoy jokes about blond[e]s, women, homosexuals, and many other forms of humor—but that doesn’t reflect in my business or personal history.” Watts also made sure to mention that he specifically requested that he ride with Aaron to the event at which they appeared together because he wanted meet him. “Thanks for reading this—at least you have my side of the story,” begins the final paragraph of the letter. “Isn’t corporate America insidious and hypocritical?! The corporate term ‘friend’ is a little ambiguous isn’t it? Is ever a person’s true integrity and ability smeared and discredited by just such accusations and innuendo?”
Fans who wrote to the newsletters about Watts were split on what happened, with many feeling that Madden made himself part of the story. The Shenanumake Post, a parody newsletter written by Atlanta area fans and indie wrestling announcers Jon “Craig Johnson” Horton, Steve Prazak, and Scott Hudson (later of WCW), took similar shots at Madden, as well. Watts, in his interview with Clark, echoed similar sentiments. “Oh, well, it’s something that if you were trying to sit and figure out what some scumbag would do, then you could figure out that that’s something a scumbag would do,” he said when asked how he felt about Madden’s role in the story. “He thinks he’s a power broker. I think, to tell you the truth, that Hank Aaron got way out on a limb on that whole situation and that that was a manipulation by TBS and for baseball.” Clark then asked if Watts believed that Madden did what he did out of spite, presumably over the perceived decline of WCW. “What does he not do out of vindictiveness?” Watts replied. “I think he’s a little bit intoxicated about himself I think he thinks he’s a lot more important than he is.”
“To me Mark Madden, in my personal opinion, if he was in the men’s bathroom he’d be singing ‘Stranger in Paradise.’ I mean, he’s not what I call a real man. He’s one of these people that hide behind this power of the press to slander and to viciously attack people. I have no personal respect for him at all. I don’t even know the guy. I’ve read enough of his articles to see that he just writes whatever he thinks will get the reaction he wants, without any, any consideration of how truthful it is.” Watts also continued to insist that the Torch interview was seen by TBS brass, and was even mentioned in his job interview by Bill Shaw.
From the perspective of 2018, though, Madden’s actions do not read in the way that Watts and many fans took it at all. He had a legitimate impetus for reaching out to Aaron thanks to his comments about Schott, especially since he was under the impression that the interview had been read by TBS brass. And that’s not even considering that WCW had already been sued at least once, by Robert “Ranger Ross” Ross, for racial discrimination. However, Watts’s answer to Clark’s questions about Madden did contain one eerily prescient comment about TBS executives.
“If you think TBS is not racist, you’re naïve, in my opinion,” he said. “Do you think racial comments aren’t made by TBS executives behind closed doors? The difference is that Marge Schott got brought to the front.” Kind of makes you wonder about the two dozen former employees who sued a little over a year ago, doesn’t it?
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday atBetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.