Jim Johnson was, at one time, one of the most powerful wrestling promoters in the south. During the territorial era of the sport, Jim was a major player in Western Tennessee Championship Wrestling and Mid-Tennessee Wrestling. He was gracious enough to sit down and talk to me about his early years in the business, and the infamous 1982 Jack Steele incident, where Johnson and several others allowed a wrestler to be beaten to death by angry fans.
Q: How did you get into wrestling?
A: Well, I was cleaning office buildings in Memphis…about 1970. One of the places I did belonged to Western Tennessee Championship Wrestling, the big promotion at the time.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by “promotion”? For the listeners who don’t know much about wrestling?
A: A promotion is a company. Like WWF. Back then, there wasn’t one or two big promotions like there are today; there were a bunch of little ones, and they were regional. You know…self-contained.
Q: You caught the eye of WTCW promoter Jerry Barnett. Correct?
A: Yeah…Jerry was a big ‘ol fat bastard. Loved the guy. He’d be in his office late every night and we’d talk while I was taking his trash out. One day in 1971, he asked me, “Jim…you ever think about wrestling?” [Laughs] I said “Hell no. What’d I wanna do that for? Get my ass kicked every night? Shit.” That’s when he explained the business to me.
Q: That it was fake?
A: Pretty much.
Q: What happened from there?
A: Well, Jerry put me in a match against one of their lower card guys. September 15, 1971. We were at the Memphis Coliseum taping for TV, and I didn’t do very well. Jerry liked the promo I cut, though. He said I was a big loud mouth son of a bitch and he wanted me to be a manager. I didn’t know how to manage. Basically, I’d come out to the ring with my guy, talk trash, help him cheat when the ref wasn’t looking. That kind of thing.
Q: So you were a heel?
A: Yeah. Bad guy.
Q: You did well.
A: I did. I got good at the business. I’d help Jerry come up with ideas and things like that.
Q: When did you go to Nashville?
A: 1976. The promotion there, Mid-Tennessee Wrestling, wasn’t doing too well, so he thought he’d send me and I’d help turn it around.
Q: Did you?
A: I did. By 1978 we were big. We’d do shows in Chattanooga, Louisville, even Knoxville. Sometimes I’d drive back to Nashville from a show at two in the morning with thousands of dollars in the glovebox.
Q: Did you carry a gun?
A: Of course I did. Like I said, I’d be on the road late at night all by myself with thousands of dollars. I also needed it just in case people got too crazy.
Q: At the shows?
A: Yeah. You gotta realize, wrestling was a big deal in the south back then. No one knew it was fake, they thought what they were seeing was real, and tempers flared. Me being the heel manager to heel wrestlers, sometimes I’d have to show my gun to keep fans from mobbing us when we were trying to leave the arena.
Q: When did you become the promotor?
A: 1979. The guy Jerry had me working under, Big Bill Fisk, had a heart attack and I took over. Jerry wanted to buy the promotion out, but I wouldn’t let him. [Laughs]. I liked what I had going.
Q: When did you meet Jack Steele.
A: I met him in 1980. Jerry gave me a call and said he had this new guy who was gonna be big, but that he was a babyface [Good guy] in Memphis and he’d do better as a heel. Asked if I’d take him. I said yes. That was Jerry’s way of paying me back for not selling out.
Q: Can you tell us a little about Jack?
A: He came into my office his first day in town. Big dumb bastard with blond hair. I honestly think he was kind of retarded.
Q: He was difficult to work with?
A: Very. Very difficult. Couldn’t follow direction. Didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Rough.
Q: He liked hurting people, right?
A: Yeah, he did. Sadistic. In wrestling, you have to put your trust, and your faith, in the other guy. It’s like a highly choreographed danced. You’re flying around, throwing punches, kicking…and it’s all faked, but you have to know how to do it, and you have to care enough about the other guy not to actually hurt him. I can’t tell you how many times guys would have heat [Animosity] between each other, and take it out in the ring. You don’t pull a punch and let it land real, what are we supposed to do? All you have to say is “It was an accident, boss,” and I don’t know any better. Jack…he’d hurt people. You can slap and hit someone and make it not hurt, just like they did in vaudville. Jack wouldn’t do that. He’d hit you for real. He’d really choke you. When he’d pick you up to do a body slam, he’d squeeze your balls just because. There was something wrong with him. After a while, no one wanted to wrestle him.
Q: Why didn’t you fire him?
A: We had a contract. We signed it on July17, 1980, and it was up on July 17, 1982. I didn’t have the money to deal with lawsuits or anything like that, so I usually let guys ride. I did the same with him. I took him aside and chewed his ass a little, but that didn’t do anything.
Q: He was also successful, though.
A: Well…yeah, he was. I don’t know what it was about him, but he got more heat from the crowd than any other guy I’d ever seen. I was still playing the heel manager, so naturally he was under me. Standing by the ring while he wrestled, I got…you know…a vibe from the crowd. They hated him.
Q: What happened with Bob Stevens?
A: [Sighs] Bob was our top face. He and Jack had a feud during most of 1981. In November they had a match in Louisville. I was at ringside, and I distracted the ref so Jack could hit him in the groin. Well, he really hit him in the groin…so hard, Bob never wrestled again.
Q: Were you mad?
A: Was I mad? Hell, yes, I was! I suspended the big dumb fuck and almost didn’t bring him back in, but I needed money.
Q: He was still doing…still hurting people?
Q: And you had enough of it.
A: I did. I called Jerry and let him have it. He calmed me down and we talked. I told him I wanted the bastard to get a dose of his own medicine, and would he help me. He said yeah, what did I have in mind? I told him, and he agreed.
Q: You went to Memphis?
A: Yeah, me and Jack. The champ in Memphis at the time was Davey Gaston. Young, good-looking kid. Everyone loved him. Me and Jerry set them up in a series of matches during June and July. A feud angle. Hyped it. The last match was July 15. The crowd was all fired up from Jack, and me talking trash. At the end of the match, I had Jack give the kid a low-blow when the ref wasn’t looking. He won. And to add insult to injury, it was a title match.
Q: I bet the crowd wasn’t happy.
A: No, they weren’t. I went backstage with Jack to get ready to go. While I was in the locker room, Jerry had a few of his guys go out into the crowd and start working it, you know? “That son of a bitch took the title! He’s a cheater!” I left the building about fifteen minutes later and got in my, went around to the side door, and parked. About fifteen people were waiting for Jack to come out.
Q: What was your plan?
A: I was gonna let the crowd play a little. Then I was going to walk up with my gun, wave it around, and, when they were gone, I was gonna scrape Jack off the ground and take him home. On the way, I was going to tell him exactly what happened and why. Then on the 17th, I was going to decline to renew his contract.
Q: Only it didn’t happen that way.
A: No. Jack took a shower, so he was a little bit in coming out. When he finally did, the crowd grabbed him, dragged him out, and started in. I remember he was on the ground trying to cover his face, and everyone was kicking him, hitting him, screaming. I waited five minutes, then I got out, ran over, “Hey, get out of here, you rednecks or I’m gonna shoot you!” The people scattered and…
Q: Jack was dead.
A: Yeah. Southerners took their wrestling very seriously at the time. Someone brought a knife. Or a couple people brought knives. He was stabbed something like sixty times. His nose was broken, his head was caved in. Someone tied a noose around his neck, so they think they were going to lynch him before I came up.
Q: What did that do to you? As a promoter?
A: It ended me. There was a big investigation. I went to jail, Jerry went to jail, his buddies went to jail…even though they weren’t a part of the mob, you know? They just whipped them up and told them where Jack was gonna exit from.
Q: How long were you in jail?
A: Three years. I got out in August 1985 and got a job working for Jim Crockett in the Carolinas. I couldn’t be on TV because of who I was, but I worked in creative. I stayed when it became WCW but left in 1989. Since then, I’ve been out of the business.
Q: Do you regret it?
A: What I did to Jack?
Q: Well, that and being away from wrestling.
A: Well, yeah. I didn’t mean for him to get killed. I just wanted him to get roughed up a little. As for being away from wrestling…yeah, I miss it sometimes, but with the way the business is now, you know, like a big corporation…I don’t think I’m missing much.
Thanks again to Jim Johnson.