MOONEYHAM COLUMN: ‘Renaissance Man’ Les Thatcher named first 2013 Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Hall of Heroes inductee
Wrestler, announcer, trainer, booker, promoter, producer, photographer, magazine writer, consultant.
There’s not many things in the wrestling business that Les Thatcher hasn’t done.
As the saying goes, they’ve saved the best for last. And in the case of Les Thatcher, that old showbiz axiom certainly rings true.
For his many contributions to the profession, Thatcher has been selected as the first inductee into the 2013 Hall of Heroes. He will be honored during Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest Weekend on Aug. 1-4 in Charlotte.
“It’s quite an honor, “says Thatcher, “because I’ve seen a list of the guys who preceded me.”
Thatcher, though, is more than deserving to take his place among the storied Mid-Atlantic territory’s greats.
“The Carolinas, Mid-Atlantic, Crockett Promotions was a big part of my entire career. Out of the 20 years that I wrestled, almost nine of them were in the Carolinas,” says Thatcher.
Few performers have worn more hats in the wrestling business.
Whether it was announcing alongside Gordon Solie and Bob Caudle, or trading holds with Ric Flair and Harley Race, Thatcher always was a perfect fit.
Thatcher, who at age 72 remains the eternal teenager, made his pro debut on July 4, 1960, against Cowboy Ronnie Hill in Blue Hill, Maine, after training at promoter Tony Santos’ wrestling school in Boston.
Born Leslie Alan Malady in Cincinnati, Ohio, Thatcher caught the wrestling bug early. At the tender age of 8, watching the action on a friend’s 10-inch, black-and-white TV screen, Thatcher was hooked. “It just reached out and grabbed me,” he says.
Thatcher was a multi-sport athlete in high school and even added drag racing to his repertoire, but it was the larger-than-life characters from the colorful world of wrestling that he looked up to.
“Buddy Rogers was my childhood idol. If there’s one regret I have in all my years in the business, I guess it would be that I never had the opportunity to wrestle Buddy.”
It was in the Carolinas and Virginia, working under the Jim Crockett promotional banner, that Thatcher saw perhaps his greatest success.
“Jim Crockett Sr. gave me my first shot at television as a play-by-play man, and Jimmy Jr. cut me loose with the magazine. We developed some things that had never been done in wrestling magazines before. There are so many good memories here.”
One of Thatcher’s favorite matches from his Mid-Atlantic days was teaming with perennial tag champs George Becker and Johnny Weaver in a six-man bout against The Masked Infernos (Frankie Cain and Jimmy “Rocky” Smith) and manager J.C. Dykes at the Charlotte Coliseum on Christmas night 1967.
“That was the first big coliseum show that I was a part of the main event. It was a big thrill. We set a record that night for a Christmas show.”
A hotly contested Coliseum bout several months earlier had set up the showdown. That night Thatcher was called to duty as a referee when one of the officials was injured early in the contest.
“Angelo Martinelli was the ref that evening, and he went down at the end of the first fall. The other two referees had left the building,” recalls Thatcher.
“Hey you, you’re going to fill in,” the clean-cut, blond babyface was told.
Becker and Weaver would win the next two falls, with sub ref Thatcher making the count, and pandemonium would soon break out.
The post-match altercation culminated with Dykes igniting Thatcher’s face with a fireball.
“One of the Infernos pinned my arms at the end of the match, and they burned me,” says Thatcher.
Becker and Weaver cleared the ring while Thatcher, in street clothes, grimaced in pain on the mat. Weaver wrapped his towel around the youngster’s face and helped him back to the dressing room.
The stage was set, and for the next several weeks, Thatcher masterfully sold the injury, whetting the fans’ appetite for the big blowoff to come.
“We went from there and built to the big Christmas show,” says Thatcher, who handled his own facial “burn” makeup.
To give it an even bigger build, both Thatcher and Dykes wrote point/counterpoint columns in the weekly wrestling program leading up to the match.
“That’s where the ‘Wrestler’s Eye View’ column got started,” says Thatcher. “(Longtime photographer) Gene Gordon talked to Mr. Crockett, and he said it was OK if I wanted to do sort of a dueling thing with Dykes in the program. So between Gene and I, we came up with ‘Wrestler’s Eye View,’” a trademark that Thatcher still uses today.
Thatcher remembers being more than a little nervous and uneasy as he approached the building that night.
“I wanted to go out and look, but I was afraid to because if we didn’t have a good house, there was only one guy in that six-man match who hadn’t been in such a big main event before, and that was me. If it wasn’t going to draw, then I knew who the scapegoat. was going to be.”
Thatcher’s fears were quickly put to rest, however, when longtime Charlotte ring announcer George Harbin walked into the dressing room and told the youngster, “We’ve got a hell of a house!”
“That took a lot of pressure off of me,” says Thatcher.
The four-month program came to a close with Thatcher, Becker and Weaver defeating their opponents, but not before turning the fiery red-headed manager’s face into a crimson mask and taking the hood off one of the masked men.
“It really was one of the highlights of my career,” says Thatcher.
Another reason Thatcher has a special affinity for the Carolinas is because he met his future wife, Alice, in Charlotte in 1967. She wound up marrying another wrestler, the late Buddy Diamond, and didn’t reconnect with Thatcher until 2001. A year later the two tied the knot.
“I chased her for 35 years but finally caught her,” jokes Thatcher.
Mastering his craft
Thatcher’s technical expertise on the mat earned him praise and accolades not only among his colleagues, but also among promoters who would often use Thatcher to elevate other talent.
As smooth as the perennial world junior heavyweight championship contender was in singles competition, he also was a tag-team specialist, with his various Mid-Atlantic partners including the likes of Rudy Kay, Jim “J.J.” Dillon, Abe Jacobs, Amazing Zuma, Scott Casey, Nelson Royal and Danny Miller. With Roger Kirby and Dennis Hall, Thatcher formed a popular “Wrestling Cousins” faction in various Southern territories from 1996-69.
Thatcher was voted NWA Rookie of the Year in 1966 after beating out such competition as Terry Funk and Bobby Shane.
“They made all the money and I got the trophy,” he jokes.
Thatcher, a Southern junior heavyweight champion, also boasted a number of regional and NWA world tag-team titles in various territories. He held the Mid-America version of the NWA world tag title with Hall and the NWA U.S. tag title with Hall, Kirby and Bearcat Brown, the NWA Southern tag title with Brown, the NWA Tennessee tag title with Hall, Whitey Caldwell and twice with Royal.
Thatcher formed a top team with Eastern States champion Danny Miller, younger brother of Dr. Big Bill Miller, in the Mid-Atlantic area in 1971.
“Les was a top performer, and I was honored to have him as a tag-team partner,” says Miller. “He thought about the promotion and not himself. There were a lot of other popular tag teams while we were there in the Mid-Atlantic area. I think Les and myself proved we were pretty good as a team.”
Miller recalls one match in Norfolk, Va., when fans jumped into the ring and carried the victors out on their shoulders.
“The TV cameras were also there inside the ring that night. We often wondered why the booking agent at that time didn’t want to pursue us as a team a little stronger than they did. They had a good opportunity, but they didn’t take advantage of it.”
“Les was very talented, and we had a great time together,” adds Miller. “He was like a brother to me.”
As a TV announcer and color commentator, the personable Thatcher got to share the mic with a “who’s who” of wrestling broadcasters that included such stalwarts as Gordon Solie, Bob Caudle, Lance Russell, Ed Capral, Charlie Platt and Jim Ross, while working for such territorial companies as Georgia Championship Wrestling, Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, Southeastern Championship Wrestling and Smoky Mountain Wrestling.
Thatcher’s smooth style and intelligent discourse on the mic, similar to today’s version of Jim Ross, earned him praise from a legion of fans who considered him believable and trustworthy.
A true Renaissance man of wrestling, Thatcher also wrote for a number of wrestling publications, and helped publish and produce the first-ever color WWWF magazine in 1978.
Thatcher, who hung up the tights in 1980, had a hand in the gym and bodybuilding business between 1987 and 1994. He was involved in the designing, building and managing of two Cincinnati area gyms during that time.
Thatcher also tried his hand at professional bodybuilding. He competed in 14 contests over a seven-year stretch, winning first place in five contests, second on three outings, and third three times, only placing out of the money in three shows.
Thatcher launched Heartland Wrestling Association, a Cincinnati-based promotion and training school that served as a developmental territory for both WWE and WCW, after retiring from the ring. He helped develop a number of future talents including Nigel McGuinness, Dean Ambrose, Matt Stryker, Jamie Noble, B.J. Whitmer, Charlie Haas, Shannon Moore and Shark Boy.
Thatcher also helped produce the Brian Pillman Memorial Shows during the late 1990s and early 2000s, raising money for Pillman’s family and featuring talent from WCW, WWF and ECW, as well as local and indy performers.
In 1994, Thatcher opened his training school, Les Thatcher’s Main Event Pro Wrestling Camp.
He sold his business in 2003 and began doing a series of weekend training camps with Harley Race and Ricky Steamboat under the Elite Pro Wrestling Training banner.
Earlier this year Thatcher and David Jackson launched a new outfit called Wrestling Cares Association. The promotion is holding several events, with a percentage of the promotion’s live gate being donated to different charitable organizations in the area.
“We’re going to open a school in L.A. under the Elite Pro Wrestling Training Banner,” he adds.
Thatcher already has been honored by the Cauliflower Alley Club with the group’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and was the inaugural inductee into Smoky Mountain Wrestling’s Hall of Fame.
He says he is looking forward to this year’s Fanfest event in Charlotte.
“Of all the Fanfests I’ve attended, this one will be the best. There’s no doubt about it.”
Today Thatcher’s extensive knowledge of the wrestling business lives on through his many students that carry on his mantra of “master your craft.” He continues to conduct well-attended seminars throughout the country.
But he’ll never forget his days in the Mid-Atlantic area.
“I’ve had fun. It’s been a heck of a ride.”