Everybody knows that WWE is in a crowded and deeply boring creative trough at the moment, but not enough people know that the “Hidden Gems” section of WWE Network, updated every Thursday morning, serves as a weekly reminder of just how good and how fun WWE wrestling can be. The section works as an enthusiastic, uncharacteristic love letter to longtime fans, with each weekly drop delivering unseen or rarely seen footage, much of which was either not known to exist or long presumed lost. That WWE has begun to embrace more heavily produced programming with a similar bent—the recent documentary celebrating of the “holy grail” Bret Hart vs. Tom Magee match, for instance—has made the experience even more rewarding.
All this, every Hidden Gem, has been good. It’s an unexpected gift, still, that WWE is putting all these unaired pilots and previously unaired arena shows and TV footage not seen in the decades since it originally aired where everyone can see it. Better still is the fact that WWE seems to appreciate this stuff’s worth, and is enjoying putting it out there. No other major streaming service is doing anything like this. No other service could.
And so it was that last Thursday, with no fanfare—this one didn’t leak out to WWE Network News as it does most Wednesdays—WWE unceremoniously delivered what had been holy grail of sorts for decades. This time, it was raw footage of the first annual Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup tournament from 1986. This show, which had been explicitly marketed as the ultimate in loaded cards, was one of the first true destination shows in pro wrestling history, co-promoted by Jim Crockett Promotions and the Universal Wrestling Federation at the Louisiana Superdome on April 19, 1986 across separate afternoon and evening sessions. That it was a star-studded tag team tournament with names from the two top non-WWE promotions already made it a unique attraction; factor in some prominent outside names and a famous building in a great American city, and it’s easy to see how this wound up being a legendary show. The confusing part, as usual, is how it got lost in the first place.
The show was not completely unseen before this week, to be fair, but its legacy is enhanced by the compromised ways in which it had been seen. The footage had previously been available in an edited, two-hour version of the event, which featured highlights of every single match and was released on VHS for the home video market; that video was not available for sale or even rental at video stores, but it was out there. In true wrestling form, though, it wasn’t easy to find. Direct response ads aired on Crockett programming offering fans a chance to get a copy via a toll-free phone number; the price was $44.95 shipped, or $105.48 with inflation, which probably didn’t help sales. Another thing that probably didn’t help is that the ad did not air for long at all, maybe over the course of several weeks. But the first real sign that anything was amiss arrived several months later.
The “Readers Pages” section of Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter show at least one subscriber, named Dick Bourne, who was willing to pay significant money to get ahold of that official VHS release. “I don’t recall knowing about the Crockett Cup video until later, so I don’t think they ran ads on WTBS,” Bourne, who is now a respected JCP historian, told Deadspin. WTBS, Ted Turner’s “Superstation,” was the home of Crockett’s national cable programming; Bourne didn’t get Crockett’s syndicated shows in Alabama. If the VHS tape was not being promoted to the national audience, that cut out a significant portion of any potential customer base. For once, the scarcity of a vaunted wrestling show doesn’t have to do with bad archiving or old-fashioned attrition. This was just bad business.
It was so bad, in fact, that the VHS tape became famous as the rarest commercially available pro wrestling home video release in the history of American wrestling. I’ve been looking for two decades, albeit not as much in recent years, and can recall seeing just four or five copies in the wild. Two or three cropped up on eBay and went for hundreds of dollars; one belonged to someone I traded tapes with, and another ripped a DVD conversion that appears to be the one currently viewable on DailyMotion. Making it even more complicated and bizarre is that there appears to have been a second version of the tape, issued without cover art for some reason, which appears to be the source for an alternate version floating around without commentary. All of which means that Crockett Cup ’86 is probably the two rarest commercially released pro wrestling VHS tapes.
Figuring out the “how” or “why” to any of this has been an uphill battle: The box art and FBI warning say that the video was released by “Presidential Square Distributing,” which also put out two different VHS releases of Crockett’s Starrcade ’85 supercard from the prior Thanksgiving. No information about Presidential Square Distributing exists on the internet outside of a couple vanilla references to these shows; the newspaper archives at Newspapers.com and Genealogy Bank also come up blank. The toll-free number in the TV ad shows up in 1989 as the national number for “catalog showroom” retailer Service Merchandise, but it appears to have changed hands a few times before then based on other hits from the early 1980s. The mailing address in the same commercial is a P.O. box in Irving, Texas, which suggests a possible UWF connection, as the company had just moved its operations to Dallas. And... that’s about all there is to be gleaned, there.
The best guess as to why the tape disappeared from the market is that Crockett’s deal with Turner Home Entertainment for subsequent titles cut off whatever deal had been made for the Crockett Cup. But that’s still just a guess, if at least one informed by the fact that, from the beginning of that deal on, Crockett releases are much easier to find, thanks in large part to Turner getting them into rental stores.
The version of the show that has surfaced on WWE Network is a little over four hours long, but is still short the first five matches of the tournament: Bobby Jaggers and Mike Miller vs. Mark Youngblood and Wahoo McDaniel, Nelson Royal and Sam Houston vs. The Batten Twins, Baron Von Raschke and The Barbarian vs. Jimmy Valiant and Manny Fernandez, Bill Dundee and Buddy Landel vs. Steve Williams and Terry Taylor, and the brother team of Chavo and Hector Guerrero vs. The Sheepherders. Highlights of all five are on the home video, suggesting that a master tape was subsequently damaged or misplaced. (WWE’s tweet about the release says that the show appears in its entirety, although it clearly does not; ring announcer Bruce Prichard even specifies each match’s number in the running order during introductions.) Matches four and five look the most promising on paper and are dearly missed, but thankfully, the rest of the show is complete, including the one legendary “holy grail” match that stole the show live in New Orleans.
The Sheepherders (Luke Miller and Butch Williams) and The Fantastics (Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers) had been feuding in the UWF, and ended up paired off in the quarterfinals of the tournament after each had advanced through the first two rounds. The match broke down into a bloody brawl that the referee threw out, degenerating into a delightful bit of pro wrestling violence. Based on seeing it live in New Orleans, Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer gave the bout his (then-)peak five-star rating, while Observer contributor Jeff Bowdren rated it one of the 100 best matches of the decade in the newsletter’s 1989 yearbook. “[This was] as good a match as I’ve seen live since I was in Japan,” Meltzer wrote. “This was interesting, because it started out with no heat and ended with more heat than anything on the show.” After Rogers got busted open, “there were so many twists and turns from here that I can’t keep it straight,” he added, and “the crowd was in a frenzy those last five minutes.” Bowdren, meanwhile, stated in 1989 that the match was “the best example, with all the turns in the story and post-match brawl, of [UWF promoter] Bill Watts[-]style wrestling.”
That praise has often confused fans who know The Sheepherders as the Bushwhackers, the persona that Miller and Williams took on in WWE. In that guise they were a strange, cuddly, offbeat comedy act, but that’s not who the Sheepherders were. They were wild brawlers known for their bloodbaths, and their Crockett Cup match with The Fantastics was entirely on-brand. Fans who were not in attendance that night had never been able to fully judge the match, although the incomplete home video version showed that the post-match brawl was every bit as intense and engaging as the main event was purported to be. The whole thing, as released Thursday, may not be quite what some fans expected—it’s mostly a pretty conventional tag team match until it breaks down into the big brawl, albeit a very a strong one—but it is, at worst, an excellent piece of ’80s wrestling. It may not quite live up to all of the hype, but we’re lucky to be able to see it all the same.
However, the not-quite-full four-hour extravaganza does, overall, hold up pretty damn well as a supercard. The first annual Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup, even with those first five matches missing, is yet another delightfully geeky bit of lost art, and fits perfectly within the most delightfully geeky series that WWE does. The company does not promote the Hidden Gems much at all, and the releases often seem to exist entirely separate from the rest of the WWE Network content, but that fits in a way. These releases are for the hardest of the hardcore—the only ones who knew enough to wonder what they were missing. WWE may be floundering in the present, but given that the promotion owns so much of its genre’s recorded history, it seems safe to say that WWE owns wrestling’s past. It should be commended for letting it breathe out here in the world instead of keeping it locked away in the vaults.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.