THE PLANE CRASH
The month of October 1975 was a month like no other in the history of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. The landscape of Jim Crockett Promotions forever changed when a twin engine Cessna 310 plane crashed just short of its destination…the runway of the New Hanover County Airport in Wilmington, North Carolina during the early evening hours of October 4, 1975.
On that ill-fated plane were the promotion’s top two singles wrestlers---the United States Heavyweight Champion Johnny Valentine and the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair. With them on the plane was Valentine’s chief rival at the time, “Mr. Wrestling” Tim Woods, former Miami Dolphin football player Bob Bruggers and promoter/television announcer David Crockett.
The injuries sustained by Valentine and Bruggers were career ending. Ric Flair was put out of action for the remainder of 1975. Miraculously, Woods came back and wrestled the following Saturday night in Greensboro, North Carolina on a mega card. Crockett suffered only mild injuries. The pilot of the plane would later die from injuries he sustained in the crash.
The October 4th card in Legion Stadium in Wilmington was to feature matches between Valentine and Woods, and Flair versus Wahoo McDaniel. Bruggers was to team with Danny Miller against the Spoilers # 1 and # 2. Despite the calamity in the skies hours earlier, a make-shift card nevertheless was held in Wilmington before a large crowd.
Valentine’s final match was the night before in Charleston, South Carolina, when he wrestled Woods. Bruggers’ last match was Thursday October 2nd in Waynesville, North Carolina when he teamed with Tony Atlas against Art Nelson and Mike “The Judge” Dubois. Flair’s last match for the year 1975 was on Friday October 3rd in Lynchburg, Virginia, when he escaped with his Mid-Atlantic Title on a double disqualification with Paul Jones.
Immediately after the plane crash there were changes in the promotion’s talent roster. NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion Jack Brisco appeared in the area for a calendar week, starting on October 5th putting his World Title up against Wahoo McDaniel in Asheville, North Carolina and wrapping up his stay with a successful defense against top challenger Dory Funk, Jr. in Greensboro, North Carolina. In the middle of his stay, Brisco successfully defended his title against Paul Jones in Charlotte, Wahoo in Raleigh, and Paul Jones again in Norfolk, Virginia.
Another newcomer that arrived right after the plane crash in Wilmington, was a young muscular grappler from Arizona named Steve Strong. This tanned muscleman made his Mid-Atlantic debut on October 6th at Charlotte’s Park Center, teaming up with veteran Art Nelson against the popular duo of Swede Hanson and Johnny Weaver. Strong would become a major player with the promotion for the remainder of 1975.
A week after Strong burst on the scene, he was joined by the premiere muscleman in professional wrestling, “Superstar” Billy Graham. For the remainder of the month of October, and for a good bit during the rest of 1975, Graham took dates that were designated for the injured Ric Flair. Graham’s first appearance in the area after the plane crash, was in Greenville, South Carolina on October 13th subbing for Flair against Wahoo McDaniel. During the remainder of October, Graham battled Wahoo in a number of memorable bouts. When Graham wasn’t wrestling Wahoo in singles competition, he was teaming with his buddy Steve Strong in a formidable rulebreaking tag team that by any definition was dominating.
The month of October 1975 also saw the reappearance in the area of a star that would be a mainstay in the Mid-Atlantic area for the rest of the decade of the 1970s, and into the early 1980s---Blackjack Mulligan. Seeking to find a performer that could somehow keep the promotion on track in the aftermath of the Wilmington plane crash, booker George Scott turned to the big man from Eagle Pass, Texas. And the big Texan would not disappoint. Appearing on both the Mid-Atlantic and Wide World Wrestling shows on October 15th and October 29th, Mulligan was set up to become the area’s top heel as the calendar turned towards November. On the October 29th Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling show, Mulligan participated in his first angle upon his return, joining with Steve Strong to injure Ken Patera in a TV weightlifting contest. The prior week on Mid-Atlantic TV, Superstar Billy Graham and Strong were set to engage Patera in the weightlifting showdown, but the television time ran short and the contest was put off to the following week.
TITLES & TAG TEAMS
Understandably, in the aftermath of Wilmington, the title situation in the territory was in shambles. With Johnny Valentine unable to wrestle and defend his United States Heavyweight Championship, the U.S. Title was scheduled to be put up for grabs in a one night tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina on November 9, 1975. Many of the greatest stars in the sport were set to be participating in this mega event.
While Ric Flair was also unable to defend his Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship in the month of October, his Title was not vacated. With Flair’s injuries not being as severe as Valentine’s, the promotion hoped Flair could return in the not too distant future, and prevent another championship from having to be vacated and thrown up for grabs. As it would turn out, the promotion would be rewarded for its patience in the recovery of Ric Flair. Mid-Atlantic TV Titleholder Paul Jones was basically inactive for the month of October, as far as defending the TV Title.
Ironically, one of the positive things about the dark month of October 1975 was the strength of the tag team division. Of course, one of the reasons being that none of the wrestlers going down in the plane crash were tag team specialists. Gene and Ole Anderson had a busy month fending off the strong challenge of the youthful duo of Tiger Conway and Steve Keirn. These four battled in a number of specialty matches during October, including Lumberjack matches and Texas Tornado matches. While the battles between the Andersons and Keirn and Conway dominated the month of October, the month also saw impressive outings by a number of other teams, including the Spoiler # 1 and # 2, Professor Boris Malenko and the Missouri Mauler, in addition to the aforementioned duo of Steve Strong and Superstar Billy Graham. The “good guy” tandem of Paul Jones and Wahoo McDaniel was also re-energized, and had a number of strong matches against the “bad guy” tag teams mentioned above.
November of 1975 would see the continuation of the plane crash aftermath, with the one night United States Heavyweight Championship tournament looming on November 9, 1975 in the Greensboro Coliseum. That one night in and of itself, would make next month yet another historic month in the history of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling.
SUPERSTAR BILLY GRAHAM---The muscle bound and charismatic Graham was a very different character than what the Mid-Atlantic area had seen previously. His bouts with Wahoo were truly a stark contrast in styles.
STEVE STRONG---Graham’s running mate from Arizona was the perfect compliment to the “Superstar.” Young and brash with lots of muscles, Strong lived up to his name.
BLACKJACK MULLIGAN---Despite appearing only on TV during the month of October, the big Texan was back! November would be the month where Mulligan’s presence would fully be felt.
JOHNNY VALENTINE---The Wilmington plane crash would tragically end the U.S. Champion’s illustrious in-ring career.
BOB BRUGGERS---While wrestling primarily preliminary matches at the time of the plane crash, Bruggers was nevertheless a talent who had his career cut far too short by that tragic October 4th evening in Wilmington.
RIC FLAIR---The plane crash appeared to have claimed the career of Ric Flair as well, but the “Nature Boy” had other ideas!