Johnny Weaver's Title Chase
The Biggest and Most Prestigious Singles Program of His Career
by Mike Cline - http://midatlanticgateway.com
Dory Funk Jr. - NNA World Champion
An article appeared in the sports section of the February 1, 1971 issue of the CHARLOTTE OBSERVER. It read, "A world championship match and a unique team bout share the spotlight on the wrestling card tonight at PARK CENTER. Dory Funk Jr. places his title on the line against Johnny Weaver. It's a two-of-three falls bout with a one hour time limit."
And with this match, in Johnny's own words, "the biggest and most prestigious singles program of my career began."
A capacity PARK CENTER crowd witnessed the match, which went to a sixty minute draw, with each man gaining one fall during the contest. Since Johnny the challenger did not defeat the champion in two falls, Dory Funk Jr. left Charlotte still the NWA WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION.
But the seed was planted for an incredible program between FUNK and WEAVER which would stretch out over a full year, with some very interesting plot twists along the way.
The NWA WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP was the "Mount Everest" of the professional wrestling business. The AWA and the WWWF each had their own WORLD CHAMPION, and was their key title as well. But the NWA represented more territories and more geographical area than the other wrestling organizations. Hundreds of wrestlers would have loved to be the world champ, but few would achieve it.
But it should be noted that the NWA World title elevated the careers of many wrestlers who never actually wore the belt. The champ would often come into a territory for a few days, wrestling several of the area's top men, and leave. But if the local made a good showing against the champion, be it a draw or being close to winning before a disqualification occurred, fans would remember how well their guy did against the WORLD CHAMPION. Thus, the challenger's reputation had risen.
Johnny Weaver didn't need the champ to "put him on the map". By 1971, Johnny had been on top of JIM CROCKETT PROMOTIONS for nearly ten years, but primarily as a tag team wrestler, most notably with George Becker. "Big" Jim Crockett had put George and Johnny together back in mid-1962, a few months after Johnny first arrived in JCP country. He worked with other partners his first few years with Crockett; Cowboy Bob Ellis, Haystack Calhoun, Nick Kozak, etc., but it was his pairing with Becker that he is best remembered.
But, in 1971, Becker was approaching retirement, so Johnny would have to make some changes anyway. According to Johnny, Becker was booking Charlotte, and it was George who had the idea to do the Charlotte program with Johnny and Dory Jr. (along with the cooperation of NWA President Sam Muchnick). "And while Dory Jr. wore the belt, Dory Funk Sr. had a lot to say about Jr.'s bookings as well," Johnny said.
The Charlotte FUNK / WEAVER program went dormant for five full months (possibly because of Funk's incredible schedule) until it was time for the annual Fourth of July wrestling spectacular, which was usually held at the CHARLOTTE COLISEUM, instead of the smaller PARK CENTER venue.
The CHARLOTTE OBSERVER of July 5, 1971 carried the sports section headline: MAT CARD PITS WEAVER AGAINST FUNK. "The featured wrestling event, which sends WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION Dory Funk Jr. against Johnny Weaver, is one of six clashes on the program at the Charlotte Coliseum Monday night. Funk and Weaver have met before (February 1) in a previous encounter here, going to a one hour draw."
The day after the match, the newspaper reported that, for the second straight time, challenger Weaver wrestled the champ to a one hour draw, with each man capturing one fall apiece. Two matches with the world title at stake and two Broadways. The challenger hadn't defeated the champion, BUT the champion hadn't beaten the challenger.
It appeared (from a Texas perspective) that Weaver was a SERIOUS threat to the Funk dynasty. In film sent to WBTV's CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING program, Dory Funk SR. declared, "That's it for Weaver! No more matches with my son! Jr. will NOT defend the world title against Johnny Weaver again, not in Charlotte, not anywhere!
Not to be denied, Johnny had a plan. He went down to Florida, donned a mask and secured a non-title match with Dory Jr. on TV's CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING FROM FLORIDA.
"The going down to Florida was my idea. I went there under a mask and called myself "MR. WRESTLING", because he (Tim Woods) was coming into Florida and used the sleeper like I did. The TV announcers were Gordon Solie and Don Curtis. I beat Jr. in the match, unmasked on the air, brought the film back to Charlotte and showed it on Charlotte TV." ---Johnny Weaver, September 27, 2007
So after three matches, Johnny was now ahead 1-0-2 to Funk's record of 0 wins, 1 loss, 2 ties.
The NATIONAL WRESTLING ALLIANCE ordered Dory Funk Jr. to meet Johnny Weaver in another title match in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 6, 1971. With the first two title matches ending in one hour draws, the match was ordered to have a ninety minute time limit and a No Disqualification clause.
At this point, it REALLY got interesting...
The senior Funk was back on WBTV's wrestling show the next Saturday proclaiming that he would make sure that Weaver did not make it to the September 6th match. He was placing a BOUNTY on Johnny, offering big money to the wrestler that put Weaver out of the wrestling business.
The first "bounty hunter" to take the Funk family up on their offer was ex-Olympian BOB ROOP. Roop challenged Johnny to a BOUNTY MATCH, which headlined the PARK CENTER card on August 16, 1971. Roop failed to collect the bounty. Johnny won the match.
The following Monday (August 23), the CHARLOTTE OBSERVER carried the story: "Terry Funk will meet Johnny Weaver tonight at PARK CENTER*, hoping to eliminate Weaver from contention for a match against his older brother Dory Jr., the WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION. Weaver has a title match scheduled in Charlotte on September 6." (The tag team match this night would see GEORGE BECKER teaming with ARGENTINA APOLLO to face THE MISSOURI MAULER and BRUTE BERNARD. APOLLO would become WEAVER's tag partner in the fall of 1971 following the retirement of BECKER.)
Not yet having reached his prime, Terry Funk failed in his mission, as Roop had. "Johnny Weaver rallied after losing the opening fall and defeated Terry Funk in the main event at Park Center last night." - - Charlotte Observer, August 24, 1971
With the big match only two weeks away, the elder Funk pulled out all stops in his final chance to sideline Johnny. "The Great Malenko will earn a $4000 bounty from Dory Funk Sr. if he can eliminate Johnny Weaver from competition headlining the weekly wrestling card at Park Center tonight." ---Charlotte Observer, August 30, 1971
Everyone in the Carolinas remembered Malenko, as he had terrorized the Crockett territory back in the mid-1960s, usually teaming with The Missouri Mauler.
But Johnny would not be denied his crack at the title and defeated the mad Russian, as he had Roop and Terry Funk.
Following the Malenko match, JIM CROCKETT PROMOTIONS sent Johnny and a camera crew (headed up by Jackie Crockett) out "on location" to shoot some footage to use on the WBTV CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING show which would air Saturday, September 4th.
"We were just starting our local filming. We went to the Charlotte YMCA with the camera, and they filmed me playing handball with the race car driver BOBBY ISAAC and jogging up and down Independence Boulevard. People blew their car horns and waved and yelled 'JOHNNY WEAVER' as they passed us. I told Jackie to make sure he had film in that camera because I didn't want to have to run on Independence all day. It was summer and it was hot!" ---Johnny Weaver, September 24, 2007
So September 6th finally came---Labor Day---the "unofficial" end of summer, and not only the match of the year, but also the end of George Becker's career as a JCP wrestler in Charlotte. The tag team feature of the card featured Becker teaming with Sandy Scott to face the duo of Gene Anderson and Art Nelson in what was billed as Becker's retirement match. The only "Argentina Bola" match I ever witnessed was scheduled with Argentina Apollo meeting wild man Brute Bernard. They would be strapped together by a three-foot "bola" strap. Ladies Barbara Nichols and Tammy Jones would square off, as would Cowboy Lang and The Mighty Atom in a midgets contest. (Art Nelson would later become WEAVER's tag partner after Argentina Apollo left the territory.)
I loved wrestling cards at the original Charlotte Coliseum, nicknamed "The Big Dome." Driving on Independence Boulevard, from a distance the roof of the building looked like a spaceship, particularly the one in the great sci-fi movie THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.
The parking lot was packed. The building was packed. Forget getting a hot dog and soft drink...the lines were way too long. So I headed to my ringside seat for what I expected to be a great night of wrestling. The program that had begun seven months earlier had come down to this night.
Match after match...Bob Griffin pinned "Big" Jim Grabmire. One of the recently unmasked Marvels took the toll of Jim Dillon (yep, the same J.J. Dillon with whom Johnny would have his final program over fifteen years later). Miss Nichols topped Miss Jones (a frequent opponent of Penny Banner). Cowboy Lang disposed of The Mighty Atom, who was not mighty enough that evening. Apollo beat the Brute in the Argentinean Bola match (perhaps home-field advantage). And Johnny's long-time partner, George Becker, wrapped up an incredible career winning the third and deciding fall, getting a final win in the employ of Crockett Promotions.
The main event title match was everything a fan could wish for. Two tremendous athletes and representatives of their business worked each other like there was no tomorrow. When Johnny was introduced, I feared the roof would blow off the building. Luckily, it didn't. World Champion Funk received a respectful ovation (sort of like supporting the U.S. President regardless of who it is, even though you voted for his opponent.)
I kept hoping in the recesses of my mind that maybe the NWA would let a Crockett wrestler carry the belt. By the end of the decade, it would happen, but not in 1971. Things weren't yet in place for that.
Johnny took the first fall, but Funk came back winning falls two and three (both clean finishes). It was a scientific match, with the champion breaking a few rules in times of frustration.
Once again, Dory Funk Jr. left Charlotte with his championship, and I left Charlotte knowing I would never see George Becker and Johnny Weaver as tag team partners again. And I also thought that I had witnessed the final meeting of Johnny challenging Funk for the world title.
I was wrong.
After September 6th, Johnny took a leave from wrestling in Charlotte.
"I worked Mondays in Greenville, S.C. or Fayetteville, N.C. for several months." -- Johnny Weaver, September 24, 2007
Weaver would return to Charlotte on November 22, 1971, where he teamed with Jack Brisco to go against Dory Funk Sr. and Terry Funk in the semi-final match of the night. Champ Dory Jr. wrestled Jerry Brisco in the main event with "The Brown Bomber" Joe Louis as special referee. - - Dick Bourne, September 24, 1971.
"The tag match working with Jack Brisco came about because Dory Sr. had put a bounty on Jack, just as he did with me." --Johnny Weaver, September 24, 1971.
"I went to Amarillo on October of 1971, once that thing happened with the bounty and all that. The Infernos were out there with J.C. Dykes having a feud with the Funks. My idea was I put the mask back on and then old man Funk added to this. When I got there, I knew I was going to wrestle the old man. J.C. Dykes got this masked wrestler to come and take care of old man Funk, collecting a bounty that Dykes had put on him. The masked man ended up being me. So I show up in Amarillo. J.C. picked me up at the airport and we went down there that night and I put the mask on. And this gets to be a funny story, too, how I used this all back in the Carolinas. I go out in the ring and I got J.C. Dykes as a manager, right? Here comes old man Funk and he's got Buck Robley as his manager. So when it comes down to the finish, Robley and Dykes get into it and they roll out of the ring down on the floor where the camera can't see either one of them, right? And I got the old man in the sleeper and the people are going crazy because they think he's going to get beat. Well, here comes Terry from the back, clobbers me and they beat the heck out of me and the old man covered me and Terry counted 1-2-3, put the old man's hand up and they had to take the mask off, right? So then I brought that footage back here and showed it, but they didn't see Dykes and Robley. They just saw me with the sleeper on the old man and they know we had that feud going from the bounties in Charlotte, and all that. And so I showed the tape here. And we had a big tag team just before Thanksgiving in Charlotte which always was a good show and Jr. didn't want to wrestle me again, so it was Terry and the old man that wrestled me and Brisco. It all tied together." - - Johnny Weaver MID-ATLANTIC GATEWAY Interview, November 4, 2007
The program continued, when, on Valentine's Day night, February 14, 1972, Dory Funk Jr. returned to Charlotte to face Johnny again. He refused to put the title on the line, but instead, chose a specialty of his family, a TEXAS DEATH MATCH. On the same card that saw Rip Hawk defeat Jack Brisco for the Eastern Heavyweight Championship, Johnny Weaver defeated the world champion in the TEXAS DEATH MATCH. I remember it well. Johnny was out on the ring apron. Funk tried a shoulder block, but Weaver moved and the champ hit the ring post with his shoulder and fell to the Charlotte Coliseum floor. Johnny got back into the ring. Jr. couldn't get up off the floor and was counted out by the referee to end the fall. He remained on the floor, couldn't answer the next bell, and Weaver's hand was raised. A great match!
By virtue of his loss in February, Dory Jr. returned to the "Queen City" on April 10, 1972, to face Weaver one more time, and this time, the world title would be up for grabs. In a complete reversal of the Valentine's Day card, Jack Brisco would regain the Eastern Heavyweight Championship from Rip Hawk. Rip's manager, 'Playboy' Gary Hart was locked and suspended in a steel cage. 7852 rabid fans saw Funk win the first and third falls to retain his World's Heavyweight Championship over Johnny Weaver. Jerry Brisco defeated Rip's partner, Swede Hanson, that night, and soon, Hawk / Hanson / Hart would have a major program with the Brisco brothers, a program that would also include Eddie Graham.
After fourteen months, the Funk / Weaver program would come to an end in Charlotte, and it was an incredible one that stretched from the Carolinas as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas. Great booking from start-to-finish.
Johnny, always looking ahead and doing what was best for the business, would use his feud with the Funks to propel others into title matches with Dory Funk Jr. In July of 1972, both The Missouri Mauler and Jerry Brisco earned title shots with the champ by defeating Johnny.
During his long career, Johnny would have title matches with a number of World Heavyweight Champions. One would be in Lexington, N.C. when he challenged Lou Thesz on June 27, 1964. In March 1968, Weaver worked Gene Kiniski in Greensboro, N.C. Asheville. N.C. was the site of a title match with Harley Race in July, 1973. And a number of championship matches with Jack Brisco took place, mostly in South Carolina towns.
The Master of the "sleeper hold" and the "Johnny Weaver roll" held many championships during his career. The World's Heavyweight Championship was not one of them, but only a few would carry that title. But, judging from the incredible outpouring of love, support and memories following his February, 2008 passing, Johnny Weaver shall long be a champion in the hearts and minds of thousands of people who knew him and knew of him.