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A Tribute to Eddie Gilbert
(courtesy the March 4, 1995 edition of The Wrestling Tribune)
Thomas Edward "Eddie" Gilbert Jr's lifelong obsession was to be a top pro wrestler. His father Tommy, a big name in Tennessee and Kentucky during his day, began taking Eddie and his younger brother Doug to see the local wrestling matches as soon as they were old enough to walk. It didn't take Eddie long to become fascinated by what went on in the ring, but even more so by what went on behind the scenes. Eddie saw how wrestling worked at a young age and by the time he was in his teens his ambition was to be the booker and top star in the Memphis territory. He idolized Jerry Lawler, who became his role model since Lawler himself was booking and acting as the top star in Memphis even back when Eddie was just in high school. Legend has it that Eddie's desire to be a wrestler was so great that he missed his own high school graduation so he could make it to Memphis to get beaten in the first match on the undercard at the Memphis (Mid-South) Coliseum.
Eddie Gilbert's first work as a pro wrestler came in Memphis as a typical clean-cut babyface when his father, who had trained him, got him a job there. He was basically a jobber, a role which was occupied by most young wrestlers just entering the business back then. His only claim to fame seemed to be that he had a famous wrestling father and indeed he and Tommy worked as a team throughout much of the early part of Eddie's career. They traveled across the United States for awhile, working throughout the Midwest and eventually they ended up in LeRoy McGuirk's Tri-State Wrestling promotion in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although it was a small promotion, this is where Eddie received his first sizable push as his father's partner. The father-son team won the Tri-State tag team title on several occasions. In addition, Eddie also held that title with Ricky Morton, who had been brought over from Tennessee with the Gilberts. Back in Memphis, where Tommy's name meant something and he and his son were always welcome, they returned to feud with the Japanese team of Atsushi "Mr." Onita and Masa "Mr." Fuchi (no relation to the WWF's Mr. Fuji). In 1981, this feud resulted in one of the greatest wrestling brawls of all-time, commonly called "The Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl." For ten solid minutes, Eddie and Tommy (webmastre's note: it was actually Eddie & Ricky Morton) battled Fuchi and Onita in the concession area of an arena in Tupelo, Mississippi, pounding each other brutally with pots, pans, garbage cans and anything else within reach. By the time it was over, all four men were covered with soup, catsup, mustard, trash and blood. Breaking away from his father in 1982, Eddie was hired by Vince McMahon Sr. in the WWF. He worked on undercards but never received a push because even back then the WWF was the land of the giants and at 5 foot 9 inches and 180 pounds, he was just too small to be used on top. It was after a WWF TV taping in Hamburg, Pennsylvania that Eddie was involved in a huge automobile accident which left him with a broken neck. Doctors told him he would never be able to wrestle again. But like Ric Flair, who had returned to the ring after a broken back suffered in an airplane crash years before, he was somehow able to not only return but to thrive as a pro wrestler. He went back into the ring in Memphis only a few months after the accident. Soon, he was contacted again by McMahon Sr., who had an angle planned for him that he thought would draw big money. McMahon Sr. brought Eddie back to the WWF as the close friend and protégé of then-WWF champion Bob Backlund. He was pushed as a miracle man who had somehow managed to survive a broken neck to return to active wrestling. But even in the midst of his biggest push yet, Eddie played the role of the bridesmaid since his push was simply meant to be used to set up a more important angle. In a TV bout, Masked Superstar, who was getting a major heel push at the time, gave Eddie neckbreaker after neckbreaker and supposedly broke his neck a second time. The WWF received lots of negative heat from inside the wrestling business for using a near-fatal real-life injury to set up a wrestling angle. Still, the sight of an enraged Backlund helping Eddie into an ambulance was enough to draw large numbers of fans to WWF arenas for a series of Backlund vs. Superstar title matches.
After being used mostly as a lower card wrestler throughout his career, Gilbert finally got pushed into a top spot in 1984. He was personally gratified because the push came in Memphis, the territory he had dreamed of being on top in since he was a child. The Fabulous Ones, Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, had left Memphis for the AWA after becoming an overwhelming success together as a top draw. Promoter Jerry Jarrett, feeling betrayed by Keirn and Lane's departure, decided to take revenge on them by teaming Gilbert with Tommy Rich in a Fabulous Ones clone team. They were called "Fargo's Fabulous Ones" because Memphis legend Jackie Fargo supposedly had put them together. Unfortunately, the fans in Memphis saw through Jarrett's attempt to remake the original Fabulous Ones and Gilbert and Rich never got over as a team. It was at this point that the team was broken up with Eddie going heel. This stint helped him turn a corner in his career and suddenly he went from lower card babyface to star heel. His tremendous heel persona and interviews surprised everyone and his push got stronger and stronger until he found himself at the center of several major angles. The best of the bunch was one of Eddie's first booking ideas. He and Rich, already broken up, were awarded the "Tag Team of the Year" award on Memphis TV. Eddie insulted Rich and ended up getting beaten severely by him, juicing a gusher. The Eddie pulled a fake face turn on Rich, a booking tactic he would use several times in later years. After making a sincere speech and gaining Rich's confidence, Eddie attacked him from behind and battered him until both guys were fighting on the floor of the studio in puddles of their own blood. Eddie also worked his first feud with his boyhood idol Lawler at the time. The feud culminated in a match where Gilbert lost to Lawler at the Memphis Coliseum and, as a stipulation, his manager Jimmy Hart had to leave Memphis. Actually, Hart had signed with the WWF just a couple of weeks earlier and was leaving anyway.
Eddie's newfound heel persona led him to a job with Bill Watts' Mid-South promotion in 1985-86. Again his small size was a problem but Watts got around that by making Gilbert a manager and mouthpiece for the local monster heels rather than a wrestler. His main role behind he scenes was teaching interview skills to young guys like Sting and Ultimate Warrior (who worked as a Gilbert-managed team called the Blade Runners), and also Rick Steiner and the long-since forgotten Kortsia Korchenko. It was around this time that Eddie and Missy Hyatt became involved and eventually married. In 1986, Vince McMahon Jr. contacted Gilbert and Hyatt about coming to the WWF. The plan was for Hyatt to do a female version of Piper's Pit and for Eddie to wrestle and manage. In order to get out of his contract with Watts, Eddie actually tried to get himself fired by intentionally changing his match finishes without Watts' consent. But somehow, everything he did to sabotage himself only made him look brighter to those running the promotion and his job was never in jeopardy. Just as he prepared to quit the promotion, Watts offered him the one thing he had wanted his entire life: a job as a head booker. This convinced Gilbert to stay on with Watts and he booked a great fake face turn on Watts himself, who by this time was regarded as somewhat of a legend in Oklahoma. Gilbert and the Russians he managed (Ivan Koloff, Nikita Koloff and Korchenko) laid Watts out and draped a Soviet flag over him, supposedly the ultimate insult to a proud American. The angle came off great and Eddie's reputation as a booker began taking off. However, in 1987 when Watts sold his promotion (by then known as the UWF) to Jim Crockett, Gilbert walked out because he thought Crockett's NWA was taking advantage of the UWF by forcing all of the UWF's top guys to lose matches to the NWA's top guys. This was the first instance of Gilbert walking out on a promotion, but the exact same thing would happen at every promotion he would ever work at the remainder of his career.
In 1988, TV station owner David Woods bought a dying promotion in Alabama from Bob Armstrong named the Continental Wrestling Association. Woods hired Gilbert to be his booker. Of course, Eddie's wife Missy Hyatt was brought in as well and she became a TV announcer on the weekly Continental broadcasts. Only problem was, she was a terrible announcer and she was hated by all the wrestlers because of her bossy attitude. She continuously threatened to "tell Eddie" on everyone whenever they did something she didn't like and this cause Eddie to become alienated from the rest of the crew. Despite these problems, when it came to booking, Gilbert performed nothing less than a minor miracle when he revived the territory by using young, unproven guys and also breathing life into wrestlers that had long been given up on long ago. He managed to work fabulous angles with them. He broke up the Nightmares, Ken Wayne and Danny Davis, who had been working as a team for years. After Davis turned heel, he pulled the now-familiar fake face turn on Wayne and got a huge response. Gilbert and his manager Paul E. Dangerously nearly caused a riot in Birmingham, Alabama by attacking Pez Whatley's 14 year-old son in a TV angle. But just as things began getting exciting, petty disagreements over money between Gilbert and Woods started to surface. Again, rather than work through it, Gilbert packed up and left. One thing that came out of Eddie's time in Alabama is that Dangerously, who now does some fantastic booking in ECW, learned a great deal about running a promotion from watching Eddie in action.
In the NWA in 1989, Gilbert was made a booking assistant to Dusty Rhodes. He worked as a face for the first time since early 1984. His crowning moment was the angle where he brought Rick Steamboat back to the NWA as his "mystery partner" during a match against Ric Flair and Barry Windham. He also held the U.S. tag team title with Rick Steiner. Gilbert was told at one point that he would be made a member of the Four Horsemen, which he considered the pinnacle of his career. However, head booker Rhodes never made good on the promise and this, along with other disagreements over the direction of the company, made Gilbert walk out yet again. He floated around to Memphis, back to WCW, and to Memphis again, always leaving the minute things didn't go the way he wanted them to. He had a brief marriage to Madusa which ended in a nasty divorce. By this time, he had made himself a reputation as being unreliable and impossible to work with. in truth that reputation was well-earned. But the other part of his reputation was that he was a great interview and an even greater booker, which was every bit as well-earned. Still, no matter his personal talent, Gilbert seemed to become more and more unreasonable and unpredictable as time went on. Through it all, he somehow was able to continue pulling off some all-time classic angles.
In 1990 in Memphis, Eddie got an idea in his head to run Jerry Lawler over with a car as an angle. Lawler agreed to take the bump and the two men calculated exactly how to pull off such a stunt without anyone getting hurt. Soon after, on the live Memphis TV show, Gilbert and promoter Eddie Marlin had a disagreement which spilled out into the parking lot of the TV studio. Lawler came out and intervened. Marlin fired Gilbert, who got into his car and left, but as he was driving from the parking lot he swerved and hit Lawler with the car. Lawler dove up and bounced his rear end off the windshield in an effort to protect himself. The plan was then for him to roll off the hood and onto the pavement beside the car as Gilbert drove slowly away. However, Gilbert miscalculated and struck Lawler much harder than he wanted to. Lawler slammed against the pavement and Gilbert drove away thinking he had seriously injured his boyhood idol. The scene was so realistic, several viewers in Memphis called the police to report an attempted homicide. Gilbert stopped around the corner at a pay phone to call the studio and find out if Lawler was okay. He was informed that there were police at the studio waiting to arrest him if he returned. Lawler, who legitimately hurt his hip in the incident, limped back out into the studio and proclaimed that he was okay (eventhough he wasn't) in order to "prove" to the police that the incident was all just "part of the show."
In 1991, Gilbert was given a shot at becoming head booker for Grey Pierson's Global Wrestling Federation in Dallas. He worked there for several months, running some interesting angles and winning the Global TV title defeating Handsome Stranger (now Marcus "Buff" Bagwell in WCW). Things fell apart in the familiar after he won the Global North American title from Dark Patriot (ironically being played by his own brother Doug in a black mask). A dispute developed between Pierson and Gilbert that ended with Gilbert leaving town without even bothering to return the North American belt to the promotion. In 1993, he became involved in Tod Gordon's Eastern (now Extreme) Championship Wrestling in Philadelphia. Again placed in charge of booking, Gilbert staked out the hardcore style which is now the bread and butter of ECW. He tried to establish the promotion as the ultimate hardcore wrestling group by getting a former pornographic actress named Angel to remove her blouse at one show. His cards became very violent and gimmick match-oriented but always remained very entertaining. As always, he got his brother Doug a job at the promotion. But the ECW booking position didn't last long either. Eddie's swan song came after the usual dispute with the owner of the promotion. He did a shoot interview during his final ECW card which ended with him selling "Eddie Gilbert" t-shirts, duffel bags and other merchandise to the fans unbeknownst to Gordon. Gilbert and ECW parted company, each feeling they had been burned by the other. Even in Japan, where behind the scenes backstabbing is less prevalent, Eddie pulled yet another shoot interview in the old W*ING promotion in 1993 while working under a mask as a monster/wrestler named Michael Myers (as in Michael Myers from the horror movie "Halloween"). Doug, who Eddie helped get hired by W*ING, was also working the match under a mask as Freddy Krueger (from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films) on the opposing team. For reasons that are still not clear, Doug laid down and allowed Eddie to pin him in just ten seconds. Then both men pulled their masks off, got on the house microphone and explained to the baffled crowd that they were not monsters but normal men, and that W*ING was just trying to trick people into believing they were movie villains.
For Gilbert, his career always seemed to take him back to Memphis where he started. Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett always seemed to give him another chance despite his history. He spent most of 1994 helping to book himself in a Gilbert vs. Brian Christopher feud and then in a Gilbert vs. Lawler feud with his brother Doug again being used as part of the mix. Both feuds were fantastic. Gilbert adopted a paranoia gimmick where his goal in life was supposedly to eliminate Lawler and become the new King of Memphis. Some would say that gimmick was a little too close to the truth for comfort since Gilbert's real-life goal had always been to become the top man in Memphis. No matter how hard he tried, he could never attain that position. However, just about everything Gilbert did in the USWA in 1994 was excellent. Despite the quality of his work, by now it wasn't a matter of "if" he would blow up and leave, but "when." The bottom fell out when the decision was made to push dream Machine, local wrestler Troy Graham, into the top heel spot ahead of Gilbert. Ironically, the decision was probably made because Lawler was afraid that if he continued to use Gilbert on top, it would only be a matter of time before he left and that would leave the promotion in a bad position. of course, Dream Machine's push caused Gilbert to walk out. While he was on hiatus, he announced that he was retiring from wrestling to run for a local political office in Tennessee. Even so, he came back to Memphis looking for a wrestling job and, of course, Lawler gave it to him. This time Gilbert demanded to be used as a face because being a heel on TV would hurt his political campaign. After being crushed in the election, he again turned heel. However, it wouldn't be long before trouble surfaced. Lawler, working more and more in the WWF, decided to turn the USWA's booking duties over to someone else. When Lawler picked office worker Randy Hales, Gilbert quit since he thought he should have been given the booking job. His final act ever in Memphis was doing another of his shoot interviews on the live USWA TV show. He then went to work for Dutch Mantell in Puerto Rico as the top heel. Mantell, enjoying a run of great success as WWC's booker, used Gilbert in gimmick matches against local babyfaces. The highlight came when Eddie lost a main event match to Jesus "Hurricane" Castillo in Bayamon in front of a near $150,000 house. But after that, he informed Mantell that he was leaving and he was gone again. At least this time there were no hard feelings with the promotion as there had been almost everywhere else. Gilbert appeared in the NWA World title tournament in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in November and then dropped from sight.
His reputation as an untrustworthy backstabber having grown to tremendous proportions, Gilbert was unable to find work for several weeks. Even the forgiving Lawler would not take him back in the USWA after he called looking for a job. Independent promoters looked upon him with a jaundiced eye. Finally, he somehow convinced Jim Cornette to go against his better judgment and allow him to enter Smoky Mountain Wrestling as the top heel, feuding with the Rock 'n' Roll Express. Gilbert promised Cornette that he wouldn't leave Smoky Mountain because he had to prove to himself and to those in the wrestling business that he was reliable and that all the trouble in the past was due to circumstances, not to his own erratic behavior. Despite the promises, he immediately turned around and set a new personal record for high-tailing it out of a promotion. He worked a single TV taping before leaving for Puerto Rico to take a job there as the head booker of WWC, replacing Dutch Mantell who had jumped to the WWF. Eddie left a message on Cornette's answering machine promising that he would make a scheduled major Smoky Mountain house show in Knoxville eventhough he was done with the promotion, but he no-showed anyway. In Puerto Rico, Eddie settled in as booker and took an apartment in Isla Verde. He called in his friend Ken Wayne, who he had known since grade school, as his booking assistant. In a strange and trivial occurrence, Gilbert's last match was actually against a trained circus bear the night before he died. The angle was one of Gilbert's stranger ones. Somehow, he worked it so that one of the local babyfaces (Gilbert was the top heel) had him sign a contract that he thought was for a match against a pushover opponent. In fact, when Gilbert read the contact more carefully, he saw that it was for a match against a bear. The idea is that fans would come out in droves to see a heel getting mauled by a huge animal. Since the bear was trained, ironically Gilbert was never in danger. It made no difference in the end, however. The next day, Wayne found him dead in his apartment in Isla Verde and the strange and tragic saga of Eddie Gilbert had come to an end.
Nobody can say for certain what it was that drove Eddie Gilbert. He loved pro wrestling with a passion that cannot be doubted. It was his life, the only life he had ever wanted since he was a boy. He needed to be a wrestler in order to be happy. but somehow, the one thing he needed more than anything else was also the one thing he could never allow himself to have. To Eddie, there was always someone trying to take advantage of him, someone trying to trick him, and he had to run away before that someone made him out to be a fool. The pattern played itself out over and over again, getting stranger every time. Tragically, Gilbert never found his place in this business, or in life for that matter. He will be remembered as an enormously talented man with a love for wrestling which was unmatched, who nonetheless spent his life battling his own personal demons even more than his wrestling opponents. Perhaps now he can finally win that battle.