Circus Minimus: The Ill Fated Odyssey of the UWF

UWF
Photo / Botchmania

The year is 1990 and if we are examining the landscape of professional wrestling in North America, as Bob Dylan sang a quarter-century earlier, the times they are a-changing. The WWF as it was known then, buoyed by the fact that Hulkamania was sweeping the Nation had grown to be a force present from shore to shore and border to border. To make it to that point, Vince McMahon basically bought out the competition and prior to that disabled the regional territories that had flourished for years. As the old saying goes, very few make it to billionaire status by cozying up to those who stand in your path or might tend to impede your steamrolling progress. Would this be the case for the UWF?

As a result, we saw the demise of such promotions as Maple Leaf Wrestling, Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling, Central States Wrestling, All-Star Wrestling operating out of the Pacific Northwest, Georgia and Florida Championship Wrestling, Stampede Wrestling and the St. Louis Wrestling Club brilliantly run by Sam Muchnick.

Sidebar, if you ever want to watch the best the sport had to offer in a great studio setting, I highly recommend you check out Wrestling at the Chase emanating from the Gateway City. Also available on Youtube as the Best of St. Louis wrestling.

The modus vivendi of the day was going big, go National or lick your wounds and fold your tent for good. Very few had the backbone nor backing to go that route.

While many are called, few are chosen.  A New York-based impresario with no prior background in the wrestling business by the name of Herb Abrams pitched an idea to Sports Channel America. A new promotion named the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) which would be a blend of old-time wrestling spiced up with a side of Hollywood glitz. The game plan while lofty did not have anything close to the sought after results.

UWF
Photo / YouTube

Abrams did not hesitate to sign some of the most recognizable names in the sport who were free agents after being let go by the three major feds of the day, WWF, AWA as well as the NWA. He was able to strike deals with the likes of Paul Orndorff, Dr. Death Steve Williams, Ivan Koloff, Col. DeBeers, The Killer Bees, Bam Bam Bigelow, Cowboy Bob Orton, Billy Jack Haynes, Ken Patera, Jimmy Valiant, Dan Spivey and Captain Lou Albano.

The Fury Hour was the promotion s weekly broadcast. Or, perhaps more appropriate in this instance, WEAKLY broadcast. It made its debut on Sportschannel in October of 1990.

While relying heavily on name recognition, the UWF helped propel Mick Foley and Ludvig Borga on to stardom road. Foley appeared in his Cactus Jack persona and had some very entertaining matches against David Sammartino, the son of the immortal Bruno who was a color commentator on the UWF broadcasts. The Sammartino -Cactus Jack encounters were strong style, to say the least. Stiffer than an overly starched shirt collar half a size too small. Worthwhile checking out on Youtube. Ludvig Borga was billed as the Viking and of course, honed his skills on staging squash matches par excellence.

Squash matches were the order of the day on UWF shows. Easily booked and executed. That was but one of the Feds Achilles heels. When matches weren’t squashes and were meant to competitive, the result was invariably a double DQ or a no contest. There were very few issues resolved. They were just placed on the back burner.  In quoting my favorite aunt, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

It is not for anything that the Wrestling Observer voted the UWF as the worst promotion of the year in 1991. Abrams was named as the worst announcer in the game. His style came across as both insincere and disingenuous. It is believed Abrams sought revenge for what the Wrestling Observer had noted and christened an enhancement talent performer as ‘Little Davey Meltzer’.

Later on, in an audacious move, Craig de George of WWE prematch interview fame, as well as hyping cards slated for such wrestling meccas as Colona and New Paltz, took over from Abrams. He was joined on color commentary by Bruno Sammartino and later by John Tolos.

UWF
Photo / Wikipedia

In addition to its weekly shows, the UWF staged two PPV events over the course of its existence. Both were seen as monumental misfires. The first was held on June the 7th 1991 and was held in the town of Palmetta, Fla. The show, entitled Beach Brawl drew a crowd of 500 and had a buy rate of 0.1. The main event saw Dr. Death Steve Williams outshine Bam Bam Bigelow to become the Sportschannel Television champion.

Once bitten, twice shy. The next UWF PPV event would be held three-plus years later, on September 23rd, 1994. This gala coming to you live from Las Vegas and the MGM Grand Garden Arena. In the final match of the night, Dr. Death was challenged by Sid Vicious for the UWF championship. Keeping grand tradition alive, guess what, that match ended in a disqualification. Nine belts were defended on that night. Quantity yes, quality no.

Blackjack Brawl was more like Go Fish! Fisticuffs, Paid crowd of 600 and once again with a buy rate of .0.1. weak sauce as the old saying goes. The same can be said for the quality of the show which was universally deemed a train wreck in all senses. This tepid milkshake brought all the smarks to the yard.

The UWF had 12 different championships over the course of its existence the most curious and random being the UWF Israeli championship which was held by Jonathon Ben Gurion.

It was in the Summer of 1996 that tragedy put an end to the UWF. Founder Herb Abrams died in police custody of an apparent heart attack. The sordid story behind the story is will not be a focus on here as our focus is to simply address the promotion.

While the UWF has a history, it also has a legacy to boast. Herb Abrams cast himself as the evil boss figure in a feud he had with a performer who went by the name of Steve Ray. This laid the groundwork for the Mr. McMahon character prominent during the attitude era conflicts with Bret Hart and Steve Austin to name but two.

Photo / Twitter

Ray was part of a California surfer boy tag team known as Wet N Wild. His partner had the great monicker of Sonny Beach. The two came out to Dick Dale style guitar music and wore vivid neon colors that would make you want to add to your collection of hi-liters.

Abrams and Ray got into a real-life feud involving a delicate personal matter. Abrams decided to transform this into a storyline and offered Dr. Death a bounty to break Ray’s nose. Steve Williams really left a footprint on the UWF. Herb Abrams could have easily shot down the Jim Ross claim that Williams was HIS boy.

In the last analysis, the UWF was a failed experiment that lasted surprisingly long. While the programming was enjoyable, it was so for all the wrong reasons. Like your first attempt at pasta sauce or that third Big Mac, it was so bad it was good. Almost sad that so much talent was minimized or wasted. Baffling to think of what could have been.

Moral of the story, never expect to succeed in a venture you plunge into boldly with insufficient experience and knowledge. Leave the improvisation for comedy clubs and hence do yourself and those who toil for you a favor. My Aunt so spot on, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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