James Beard may be one of the more recognized referee names in the sport of professional wrestling. He has worked for promotions such as World Class, USWA, Global Wrestling Federation, WWE, and with Super World Sports in Japan for seven years. To this day, he is still associated with the Cauliflower Alley Club and the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. He is still known to referee matches almost every weekend.
Though wrestling has been a big part of his life, it wasn’t his first choice regarding his career path. In the early 80s, Beard was singing and playing keyboards in a band called Straight Shot. They were being booked by Charlie Pride’s production company. Working in nightclubs allowed him to meet an impressive array of people.
“While playing with the band around Dallas, I started to get to know some of the wrestlers. They would come in and listen to music or I would run into them at different places,” said James Beard. “I had gotten to know some of the boys and we would start talking about wrestling. They knew I was pretty intelligent about the business and they knew that I wasn’t just an average fan.”
The wrestlers that he was running into were some of World Class Championship Wrestling’s finest superstars. James was rubbing elbows with Kevin and Kerry Von Erich, Bruiser Brody, Bill Irwin, and Gary Young. Over a period of time, he was becoming pretty good friends with many of the wrestlers.
“Brody was one of the guys that I talked to a lot and he was pushing me into it. I was one of those guys that got dragged into wrestling,” said Beard. “I wasn’t really trained, I was talked into it.”
James gave in to the persuasion of his wrestling friends, and in 1985, he started working part-time as a referee in the sport of professional wrestling. At that particular time in his life, he thought he was a little too old to think about being a wrestler, even though he grew up being athletic.
“I thought that I would enjoy being on the creative side of things. I always liked dissecting things and I always tried to figure things out,” said Beard. “I thought being a referee might lead to working behind the scenes in wrestling.”
He started out by officiating smaller events and some local independent shows around the Dallas and Ft. Worth areas. One of his very first matches to officiate was a contest between Bruiser Brody and Abdullah the Butcher. When these two wrestlers stepped into the ring together, they had a reputation for a brutal and chaotic wrestling style that usually ended up outside of the ring for most of the match.
“That was my introduction to the whole thing. Everything was easy after that,” said Beard. “You didn’t have to be too smart to do a match with those two guys. You just had to chase them around and hoped that you didn’t get hurt.”
From the smaller spot shows that were held at high school football fields and gymnasiums, James eventually started working at the bigger venues where World Class Championship Wrestling was putting on their events for television. Every Monday, the promotion was in Ft. Worth at the Will Rogers Coliseum, and every Friday night, the matches were held at the Sportatorium in Dallas.
“I remember the first time I walked into the ring at the Sportatorium. I had been watching wrestling there since I was a kid,” said Beard. “It was an incredible feeling. I was standing there thinking, here is a place that my parents took me to when I was 7 years old, and the guys back then were bigger than life.”
World Class Championship Wrestling was a hotbed for talent in the early 80s. Some will say that December 28th, 1982, was the date that marked a change in the sport throughout Texas. On this night, Kerry Von Erich was wrestling Ric Flair for his NWA World Heavyweight Title at Reunion Arena in downtown Dallas.
It was a no disqualification match inside a steel cage with special stipulations. Freebird Michael Hayes was appointed to be a special referee alongside referee David Manning. Freebird Terry Gordy was unofficially assigned by Michael Hayes to guard the door of the cage so no one could enter or leave. In the end, Hayes would interfere, Flair would keep his belt, and Gordy would close the door of the cage on Kerry’s head. All hell would break loose. The war had begun!
“The Freebird and Von Erich feud put World Class Championship Wrestling on the map. It made things beyond special there,” said Beard. “They hit on the angle with the Freebirds at the right time and it became an incredible experience for the fans.”
Not only were the fans engaged in the Freebird – Von Erich feud, but they also watched some epic feuds between Chris Adams and Jimmy Garvin, Iceman King Parsons and Buddy Roberts, Scott Casey and John Tatum, The Fantastics against The Midnight Express, and later when Kevin and Kerry feuded with Gino Hernandez and Chris Adams. The territory was on fire and it was bringing the heat. The fans loved it! Attendance was up and near sellout capacity occurred at almost every event.
“World Class was one the most unique promotions in the history of the business because of how popular the Von Erich boys were. They connected with fans,” said Beard. “So many things were done right and they had so many guys in the right place.”
Other wrestlers in the sport that were coming through the promotion at the time were names such as The Missing Link, the Great Kabuki, the Irwin Brothers, the One Man Gang, Kamala, Rick Rude, Bruiser Brody, Johnny Mantell, Brian Adias, Jack Victory, the Grappler, and Lance Von Erich. Each wrestler had their own personality and all of them were very talented in what they did when they were inside the wrestling ring.
By the time that Beard had started working for World Class Championship Wrestling in 1985, the promotion started to lose a bit of its luster. This was due to a series of misfortunes that happened during and around this time period. One of the first tragedies came when David Von Erich died while on a wrestling tour over in Japan on February 10, 1984.
David was only 25. He and his brothers Kerry, Kevin, and Mike, were good-looking, popular, and athletic. All four brothers were wrestling in the World Class promotion which was owned by their Father, legendary wrestler, and former AWA World Champion Fritz Von Erich. Many believed that David had the possibility of one day being the NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
“David was the businessman and he was the guy that would have carried the company. He had a good head on his shoulders and he probably would have kept things going,” said Beard. “He would have made different business decisions and there is no telling what impact he would have made if he would have lived.”
On August 22, 1985, Mike Von Erich had surgery to repair his shoulder which was injured during a wrestling tour in Israel. Four days after being released from the hospital, he developed a fever of 107 degrees and was later diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome. As a result, he suffered some brain damage and a great deal of weight loss. On April 12, 1987, Mike left a suicide note for his family, and four days later, his body was found near Lake Lewisville in Lake Dallas. He overdosed on alcohol and sleeping pills. He was only 23 years old.
“He was more interested in music actually. After he came back from having toxic shock syndrome, he really wasn’t the same after that,” said Beard. “He was a good guy, but he really didn’t have the passion for the business that his brothers had.”
On February 4, 1986, after becoming concerned about Gino Hernandez’s well-being, the World Class office contacted the police who did a welfare check on him. Gino was found dead in his apartment. At first, Hernandez’s death has ruled a homicide, but after the autopsy results were released, his death was ruled a cocaine overdose. He was only 28.
“Gino was one of those guys that people loved to hate. What you saw in the ring was who he was,” said Beard. “He lived life big and that was what took him down.”
On July 16, 1988, while wrestling in Puerto Rico, Frank Goodish (Bruiser Brody) was fatally stabbed by fellow wrestler Jose Gonzalez in the shower in the locker room. Gonzalez claimed he was acting in self-defense. In 1989, he was acquitted when a jury accepted his claim. Brody was 42 years old.
“Frank was a super guy and one of my favorite people. It was tragic and so unnecessary,” said Beard. “It was a huge loss to the business. He was one of those guys that didn’t back down from anyone.”
The youngest Von Erich, Chris, started wrestling in 1990. When it came to the sport, he might have had the biggest heart for the sport, but not the biggest body. Chris suffered from asthma and it kept him from excelling in wrestling. A little over a year after turning professional, Chris took his own life on September 12, 1991.
“He really had the passion for the business, but he didn’t have the size or the stamina because of his asthma,” said Beard. “Then he did what he did and that was it.”
On June 4, 1986, Kerry Von Erich was in a near-fatal motorcycle accident which eventually led to the amputation of his right foot. His drug problems were well documented and Kerry had charges against him in which he thought might result in some jail time. On February 18, 1993, Kerry committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He was 33 years old.
“He was depressed about some things, but Kerry was the type that could always make you feel that he was okay about things,” said Beard. “He felt as if he had disappointed a lot of people and it had him down. Kerry had a lot of faith too, and he thought he could just leave this world and be with his brothers.”
On October 7, 2001, Chris Adams was fatally shot in the chest by his friend Brent “Booray” Parnell while the two men were both drunk and fighting with each other. Parnell claimed it was self-defense and he was acquitted of all charges. Adams was 46.
“He really didn’t know what to do after the business and he really wasn’t relevant anymore. He was trying to find his place and make a living,” said Beard. “I saw him a few times right near the end and he was different. He was always upbeat and positive, but when I saw him he was really despondent.”
World Class Championship Wrestling was one of the hottest territories in the 80s. Its peak years were between 1982 and 1985. The National Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Champion made frequent visits to wrestle the promotion’s top stars. National wrestling magazines covered the Von Erichs and several of the top talents on a regular basis. For a period of time, fans were loyal, and they packed the venues whenever there was a wrestling show.
Over time though, things changed. Month after month, audience attendance started to drop, and the mystic and magic that was once so prominent were no longer in existence. No matter how hard the promotion tried to recapture the days of the past, it wasn’t working. It was over.
“I have often compared it to Camelot. Everything just rose up in a perfect situation at the right time and because of human failure, mistakes, and unfortunate things that happened, it just faded off into obscurity,” said Beard. “For that short period of time, it was probably the shining star of the wrestling business. It was amazing to be around all of that.”
By 1990, World Class Championship Wrestling was no longer in business, though wrestling matches were still being held at the Sportatorium. Promotions such as USWA, Global Wrestling Federation, NWA, Continental, and New Generation, tried to make a go at running shows out of the famous Dallas venue. The last wrestling television show produced out of the Sportatorium was in 1996. That was also the last year that James worked there too. The Sportatorium was officially closed in 1998 and demolished in 2003.
“It was pretty sad actually. I still to this day think about going to the Sportatorium every Friday night,” said Beard. “It’s just not an empty lot to me. There’s an empty spot in everyone’s heart that worked there. It feels like a part of us has been taken away.”
Read more about the World Class Championship Wrestling promotion on Wikipedia.
Get more information about James Beard’s book “The Third Man.”