Originally written in late 2009; This article is the second part of a two-part series. To read Part I, click here.
(Sometimes) Good Guys Don’t Wear White
Feels so good tonight!
Who cares about tomorrow?
So baby, you’d better believe…
I’m back — back in the New York Groove
from “New York Groove”
by Russ Ballard (1975)
Within a very short space of time, Jimmy Hart’s New York Dolls stomped, gouged and slammed their way to the top of the Memphis-CWA territory. In their first match as a team, The Dolls wrested the titles away from tag champions The Young Lions (Steve Regal & Spike Huber) and proceeded to dish out punishment to every team of babyfaces and jobbers who dared stand in the opposing corner of the ring.
Fans of TV’s Championship Wrestling, regulars at the Mid-South Coliseum and the entire Memphis wrestling scene couldn’t help but notice of the rapid and impressive ascendancy of Hart’s sensational super-team. But there was one very important individual whose attention was absolutely and completely focused on every promo and every match as he contemplated how to reconcile the brash and arrogant swagger of The Dolls with his own legacy of pride, grit and determination.
By 1982—with The Dolls now quickly yet firmly established as the team to beat in the Memphis territory—Jackie Fargo was recognized as a hero and a legend to wrestling fans throughout the southern United States and beyond.
From the late 1950’s well into the 1970’s, Fargo was a mainstay in the National Wrestling Alliance promotions, capturing a staggering amount of championship gold. He was perhaps best known for his work with Don Fargo, wrestling as a highly decorated tag team under the moniker “The Fabulous Fargos.” Although Jackie retired from wrestling in 1980, he still entertained fans with taped, “shoot style” promos from time to time, sharing updates about his new life outside of the ring while providing a bit of commentary on in-ring matters now and again.
One Saturday afternoon in October 1982, several weeks into The Dolls’ reign as tag champs, Lance Russell announced to viewers of Championship Wrestling that The “Fabulous” Jackie Fargo had videotaped an “interesting segment” for wrestling fans. After a commercial break and brief introduction, the tape rolled and fans were greeted by a cheerful, smiling Jackie Fargo speaking from the comfort of his living room. He was bright and happy at first, speaking of the joys of retirement as still photos of golf outings and the like were interspersed throughout his opening remarks.
Then something changed.
In brief moments that followed, the lighthearted video greeting card degenerated into a howling mad tirade. Now, I certainly don’t mean any disrespect to Mr. Fargo, but this particular promo went from zero to insane at breakneck speed. He ranted and raved about the blatant disrespect that his personal legacy had suffered as a direct result of some of the recent events in the Memphis territory. And the subjects of his ire were none other than The New York Dolls.
Throughout the grinding eight minute promo, Fargo tried his utmost to remain coherent while executing a compelling display of raw emotion. He occasionally fell well short of the mark and the results were hard to watch but difficult to ignore. Included in his comments were a few accidental non sequiturs, an unintentional boner or two and gratuitous use of the word “stink”—at least eight times by my count—as an adjective, a noun and a verb.
I looked up on my TV and…you know what I seen? The worst imitation that I have ever seen in my entire life. Let me tell you somethin’, Hart pally: You don’t know what a Fabulous Fargo is. You have no earthly idea. You bring two geeks…two guys that you picked up off the street and you wanna make’em Fabulous Dolls from New York? You can forget that, Hart! Let me tell you something, pal: You’re a joke and they’re a joke. What, did you buy them a two dollar bottle o’ dye, a twenty-five dollar tuxedo? Lemme tell you something, Hart, you punk…and your two little guys from New York…(cue old “back in the day” photos of Jackie all beaten and bloodied)…I sweated many a gallon of sweat and blood to be a professional wrestler and I’m damn proud of it. And there’s only one Fabulous Fargo from New York, pally, and that was me and Donnie. The pictures you see with the tuxedos…the tuxedos, the high hats…the original Fabulous Fargos and a punk like you, Hart…(cue photos of Jackie rubbing elbows with the likes of Muhammad Ali)…You gonna come along and steal something that I put my pride and my glory in? Something that brought me fortune and fame, Hart? Well, you stink, boy. You stink!
Now, I’m gonna give you some good advice: I promised Eddie Marlin I wouldn’t cuss and raise too much Cain on his TV, but I can’t help it. You stink, Hart. Your two synthetics…New York Dolls…what a joke. Lemme tell you something, pal…If there’s gonna be any Fabulous Ones around…if there’s gonna be any high hats around and tuxedos around, it’s gonna be first class and it’s gonna be who I pick!, not who you pick, Hart, you stink. You stink! You got no…you got nothin’ about you pal! Twenty-five dollar tuxedo…what a joke! My socks cost more than that, pally. When I walked around with a top hat on…with the gloves, the sequins. They cost somethin’, boy. They didn’t cost twenty-five cents. You’re disgusting. You’re disgusting to me. To think what I’ve put into the wrestling business and you wanna come along with this. Well let me tell you somethin’, pally: I went out and got me a couple of guys…
…You cannot…you cannot go around imititatin’ me, pally. I will not give you permission to do that. You have no right and you have the audacity of you…You little stinky stink, you stink! I got pride. I’m sayin’ this to you now: I am out of retirement. I wanna fight…I wanna feel…I wanna touch…I wanna beat…I wanna crawl, scratch, dig! That’s what I’ve known for and that’s what I’ll die for. I got two of the greatest men that I’ve ever seen. They’re the one’s that’s gonna wear the tuxedos. They’re the ones that’s gonna wear the top hats. And yeah, they’ll be doin’ the Fago strut, too, pal. And I’ll be proud of ‘em…I think I’ve got the team that wants to be The Fabulous Ones again and I’m lookin’ forward to it…(fade to black)
A few seconds later, another video rolled and the world got its first look at The Fabulous Ones, Stan Lane and Steve Keirn. The segment probably seems odd by today’s standards. The production budget was low and the editing was choppy, but compared to Fargo’s promo, this was high art. As Billy Squier’s “Everybody Wants You” played and a strobe light flashed, Lane and Keirn struck a vast array of beefcake poses in front of a dark curtain as their facial expressions ranged from serious to menacing to…awkwardly confusing.
In the end—strange as it may sound—it all clicked together nicely. Fargo set the stage for an electrifying rivalry and Lane and Keirn gave the wrestling world an intriguing glimpse of what was to come. Decked out in black hats, bowties and gold-sequined tuxedo tails and sporting flowing fur coats and canes as fashion accessories, The Fabs made it clear that they were not only polished and professional but that they were ready to get down to business. Most importantly, they were the antithesis of The New York Dolls.
Both Stan Lane and Steve Keirn were already familiar faces in the Memphis-CWA territory. Lane himself had served some time as a member of Hart’s First Family, quitting in dramatic fashion in early 1982. Upon leaving the Family, he partnered with some of the biggest names in the region, including a brief stint with Jerry Lawler to face the menace of the “twin” giants, Kimala I and Kimala II.
A decorated singles competitor throughout the southern territories, Steve Keirn had already enjoyed slots all over the CWA cards. He held the AWA Southern Heavyweight Title in 1981 and was again the top contender for the belt later the same year, losing in that instance to a then-masked incarnation of The Dream Machine. Months before he was called to action by Fargo, Keirn had been embroiled in a hard hitting rivalry with the First Family team of Sweet Brown Sugar (aka Koko Ware) and “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton.
Keirn’s part in the feud ended when he suffered a broken arm at the hands of Sugar and Eaton, leaving his tag team partner Terry Taylor to fight on while Keirn faded from the public eye to recover. The turn of events was more than a boon to Taylor’s career as he later captured the Southern Heavyweight Title for himself and continued the battle with Sugar and Eaton, receiving some help from a new partner, “Flying” Jaques Rougeau.
Already accepted by fans as top-notch talent, both Lane and Keirn were already a hit with as both solo grapplers and as former members of other teams. Now in a new package and with a new call to arms, the team was ready to grind their axes with Hart’s First Family and they had the full support of the Memphis fans.
Small Man, Big Mouth
Make no mistake about the pageantry and the promos; The Fabs were on the scene to do battle with The Dolls. The Dolls were their raison d’être and they were perfect foils to boot. Faced with a challenge to their titles and their supremacy, hart took his Dolls back in front of the cameras to stoke the flames of heel heat once more.
A blistering smack-talker, himself, The Dream Machine jumped into the verbal fray and spat out a few barbs of his own and a fast-talking rant. Talking fast and with an affect and accent that seemed to suggest he has spent sometime in the Louisiana backwater country, Dream laid it down on the aging icon and his acolytes:
That’s right, Jackie Fargo, I’d have been ashamed, man, to get up on that film and show my skunk head…you better take two dollars…and buy you some bleach, boy! You understand what I’m sayin’? You gonna make one of the biggest mistakes that you’ve ever made in your fat, stinkin’ life, you understand what I’m talkin’ about? Because I’ll tell you why Fargo…I’ll tell you exactly why…You should have stayed on that golf course because the wrestling business is no place for you now and it’s no place for you, Stan Lane and it’s no place for you, Steve Keirn because we’re goin’ to show you a lesson, you understand what I’m talkin’ about? I see a lot of dirty deeds done dirt cheap and I know, Fargo, that you’ve done a lot of ‘em.
The bleach-blond genie was out of the bottle and the New York Dolls vs. Fabulous Ones rivalry delivered the goods in virtually every respect. At fairgrounds and coliseums throughout the region, the teams collided head-on in a series of matches, including a number of highly-touted main event slots.
(Yes, there was a time not long ago in which tag team contests received top billing on the cards, wrestling fans.)
The back-and-forth promo sparring continued, with Hart and his boys pledging to stay on top as Fargo cut canned promos (wearing a pair of unbelievable crazy-looking tinted glasses) threatening to stomp Hart’s brains out.
Before long The Fabs took a giant leap towards making good on Fargo’s vow to knock The Dolls out of the spotlight when they captured the AWA Southern Tag Team Championship belts. To their credit, The Dolls held on to the WWA tag belts a while longer before losing them in a rematch with The Young Lions. The Dolls vs. Fabs feud didn’t end quickly but it was clear before long that The Fabs were the ones with the upward mobility and momentum and The Dolls were ultimately tasked with having to prove their continued relevance, particularly in a territory that was virtually bursting at the seams with talented tag teams.
The Dolls did their best to bring the pain, meeting The Fabs week in and week out for blistering bouts on television and at regional venues. One of the most memorable matches of the feud saw The Fabs meet The Dolls—each team sporting title gold around their respective waists—on an episode of Championship Wrestling. The two-out-of-three falls, “to the expiration of time” match was a barnburner of mat-heavy grappling, peppered with a generous amount of crowd-pleasing strutting and profiling courtesy of Lane and Keirn.
The match had its fair share of blood and brutality as Keirn was busted open the “hard way” in the first fall following a series of closed-fist blows by the Dream Machine. The second fall, like the first fall, ended in a no-contest melee that spilled over on to the concrete floor of the studio and in the end, little was resolved and the feud rolled on.
When Jerry Lawler banished Jimmy Hart from the Memphis territory some months later, The First Family found themselves in a grand state of disarray. In their first televised match after Hart was exiled from the promotion, The Dolls appeared with Bobby Eaton in their corner as a presumptive manager of sorts. Their opponents for the day were none other than The Fabs and, with the entire First Family on edge, the match seemed ill fated from the opening bell. Indeed, Eaton and The Dolls tired quickly of the Fabs’ antics and the contest ended quickly in a disqualification when Eaton intervened on the Dolls’ behalf. As the worm turned, The Dolls’ popularity began to wane. But The Fabulous Ones were the new hot commodity and their star was very much on the rise.
To this day, it is commonly held for “old school” enthusiasts that The Fabulous Ones ultimately set a new industry standard for the “pretty boy” styled babyface tag team. The Fabs were big on fan interaction, warmly greeting their admirers and giving maximum effort in the areas of in-ring performance and showmanship. They capitalized on the marketing styles popularized by MTV, offering slick theatrics with a radio-friendly soundtrack. The road ahead was a long and winding path of fights and feuds as The Fabs slugged it out in heated and bloody rivalries with the biggest and “baddest” names of the day, such as The Moondogs, The Zambuie Express, The Sheepherders and The Road Warriors.
Like most in the business, The Fabs had their own ups and downs over the years including a terrible stretch in which Fargo “replaced” them with Tommy Rich & Eddie Gilbert (aka “The New Fabulous Ones”) after Lane and Keirn left the territory. Both wrestlers found some success with other teams or through other in-ring personae but time and again, Lane and Keirn came back to the formula in which they found so much success. In the end, they remain one of the most popular and decorated teams in pro wrestling history.
And where did it all begin? With The New York Dolls.
Out of Step
For the respective halves of The New York Dolls, life beyond the team offered a combination of opportunity and struggle. Rick McGraw left Memphis/CWA in the early 1980s for the purported greener pastures of the World Wrestling Federation. Although he gained some degree of notoriety through his work with WWF, he had a hard time establishing himself as a major talent despite his abilities as an in-ring performer.
The Dream Machine remained in the Memphis territory for some time, staying on as a member of The First Family. When Hart returned, Dream teamed with Porkchop Cash as a member of Hart’s team The Bruise Brothers. Hart’s promo on the “death” of the Bruise Brothers is still hailed as one of the most hilarious moments in the history of Championship Wrestling. (Hart even ripped a page out of the Fabs’ playbook when he cut a promo featuring Dream and Cash cavorting to the Gap Band’s classic song “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.” Believe me; This footage will make you smile on a blue day.)
The sad postscript to this tale is that these two men who served as a catalyst for a new style and era of tag team wrestling met premature and unfortunate ends in the real world. McGraw passed away just a few years after leaving Memphis, tragically falling victim to his own excesses at the young age of 30. In his book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Bret Hart bestowed a dubious distinction on McGraw, noting that his passing as a result of an out-of-control drug addiction ushered in the beginning of a virtual epidemic of drug-related deaths in the wrestling world during the decades that followed.
As for The Dream Machine, Troy Graham died of a heart attack in 2002. He was only 47 years old.
“Many men die too late and some die too soon. Few manage to depart at just the right time.”