Aug. 10, 2009

Tommy 'Wildfire' Rich still burns for the ring

By Scott Wright

CENTRE — It was almost like I was a kid again, sitting in the floor with my little brother in front of my parents' massive console TV, watching wrestling on Ted Turner's Superstation. Only this time, 30 years later, our hero was moving in slow motion.

At 53, he no longer flies around the turnbuckles with the same speed and agility that earned him his nickname. But the legendary Tommy “Wildfire” Rich proved last month he can still move fans into seats around the squared circle.

Rich, the former NWA World Champion who spent most of the 1980s slugging his way through Saturday and Sunday mornings on WTBS, had local promoters scrambling for extra chairs an hour before the first bell rang July 30 at Funtime Skating Rink.

He wasn't paired against Abdullah the Butcher this time, so Rich battled his way through a gauntlet of local talent, entertaining a crowd of nearly 300 fans with flying elbows and high knee lifts. Rich drew the biggest cheer of the evening when he interrupted a quarrel between two local wrestlers and an overly vocal “manager” before the first match even started.

“It's great to be in Centre, Alabama,” echoed Rich's raspy voice over the PA system after he'd cleared the ring and taken control of the microphone. For the first of many times that night, the crowd went wild.

New Wave Wrestling Alliance promoters admitted they were pleasantly surprised by the size of the audience.

“We had to open up at 4:30 this afternoon,” spokesman Jonathan Lawrence said as he held the door for a crowd of over a dozen that arrived at 6:45 p.m., only to find almost every seat in the house already occupied.

A pair of live bands entertained the crowd until the first bell rang at 7:30 p.m. Off to one side of the ring, Rich signed autographs and posed for pictures with kids of all ages. Dozens more milled about, patiently awaiting their turn.

“That man is the only reason I'm here tonight,” said one middle-aged woman as she hustled through the door and pointed before headed for Rich's table. “I used to watch him on TV.”

A rich man

Tommy “Wildfire” Rich, a Nashville, Tenn., native, has called the Atlanta area home for most of the 33 years he's spent in the ring. Rich began wrestling in Tennessee the mid-1970s, then graduated to a traveling circuit in the 1980s that included Alabama and, predominantly, Georgia.

“We traveled six nights a week back then,” Rich told The Post in an exclusive interview between matches during the Centre event. We were in Augusta, Georgia on Monday nights, then Macon on Tuesday and Columbus on Wednesday. We'd be in either Rome or Athens on Thursday, then Atlanta on Friday night.”

During that time, Rich won dozens of title belts while facing off against some of the biggest names in the business, including “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer, Ole Anderson and long-time NWA World Champion “Handsome” Harley Race.

“I beat Harley Race in 1981 and became world champion,” Rich said. “He was one of the greatest champions there ever was and I'm not just saying that because I beat him.”

As hectic as his weekday schedule was during the heyday of the '80s, the weekend gave Rich little time outside of his shin-high leather boots.

“On Saturday mornings we would tape the TV show at Channel 17, then we'd jump right in the car to head to Columbus or somewhere,” he said. “We'd still be wearing our tights and we'd have to grab a hamburger or something on the way to the match that night. Then they figured out they could tape two shows on Sundays. They got their money's worth.”

Rich, who refers to himself as a “weekend warrior” these days, said he's seen wrestling change a lot through the years.

“I'm from the old school, but it's just a soap opera anymore,” he said. “Take a guy like Ox Baker. Nowadays, WWE would take him and put him in an outfit and try to make him into a character. But the guys back then were characters in themselves – guys like Baker, the Andersons and Black Jack Mulligan. They were characters in everyday life.”

Rich watched the 2008 movie “The Wrestler,” starring Mickey Rourke, and said he “enjoyed it, somewhat.” He said the film, which tells the story of a once-famous wrestler struggling though his middle years after seeing fame come and go, was a fairly accurate portrayal of a professional wrestler's life.

“Pretty much that's the way it is, going from being the big deal back to the smaller places,” Rich said, referring to the smaller venues Rourke's character was relegated to after his career slide. “But if you think about it, it is places like that – places like this – where wrestling started.”

Rich has seen good days and bad days through the years. But he's still married to the same woman 30 years later and has a loving family (including a 6-year-old grandson) that enjoys traveling with him to the matches.

“I still enjoy wrestling and a lot of folks remember me, so that's good,” he said. “I've had a good life so far.”