By Chuck Carroll
After nearly three decades in the ring, Buff Bagwell is retiring. “Buff Daddy” was a staple on World Championship Wrestling throughout the 1990s, including the most popular period in pro wrestling history. On a roster filled with legends that included the likes of Hulk Hogan, Sting, Diamond Dallas Page, Goldberg, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall, Bagwell was among the most recognizable faces. To this day, he is still one of the most talked-about figures from the Monday Night Wars era.
An 11-year stint in WCW that began in 1990 included five tag team championships, a broken neck, a surge in popularity as a member of the nWo, and well-publicized backstage feuds with others in the locker room. But after more than a decade with the company, he will most be remembered for one match.
With new executives in charge of their TV home, an order was handed down that professional wrestling was to be removed from the lineup. The edict came despite the fact that WCW Monday Nitro was still drawing millions of viewers each week and was among the most-watched programs on the network. Chalk it up to the stigma of pro wrestling.
In 2001, WCW was sold to rival Vince McMahon, who opted to slash the vast majority of the over-inflated roster. Scores of wrestlers were cut or simply had their existing contracts paid out. Many would never be heard from again. But Bagwell was not among them. He was among the group plucked by McMahon to carry the WCW banner under the auspices of the then World Wrestling Federation.
It was July 2001. Bagwell’s first televised match with WWF was for the revamped WCW title against Booker T. It turned out to be the last time Bagwell was seen on Monday Night RAW. One week later he would be released.
But was it that one match that lead to Bagwell’s release? Or was it a fight with a fellow wrestler in the weeks leading up to it? Or was his termination the result of his mother calling WWF executives? Nearly 17 years later, Bagwell believes it was just that one match that did him in. And he remains adamant that the deck was stacked against him.
I had a chance to catch up with Bagwell on The Turnbuckle Weekly shortly after he announced his impending retirement. As his final match approaches in May, he reflected on the highs and lows of his life in the squared circle. Bagwell declined to discuss his recent lawsuit against WWE.
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A lot of wrestlers will work well into their 60s, but you’re hanging up the boots when you’ll be 48 years old. What’s with the decision to retire now?
I had a shoulder replacement and a hip replacement within a 20-month period two years ago. The shoulder replacement isn’t doing well. I’m probably going to have to get it redone. And even the hip replacement is acting up. Bu I don’t want to do that to the fans and let them see something that depresses them, like that guy shouldn’t be in the ring. And I’m by no means there, but it’s not far away.
So what are your plans for after the final match?
I’ll still definitely be completely involved. I’ll do appearances and, if I can, I’ll do some referee spot or something. It’s not like I’m crippled. I just can’t do anything near what I used to do.
A lot of people say the real nail in the coffin for WCW came when Vince Russo took over. Would you say that that is an accurate assessment, or what would you say was the true downfall of that company?
My true answer would be, I don’t know. But if I was in Las Vegas and had to bet, my gambling mind would say that you’re right. Because Vince told us a lie his very first time meeting 90 WCW superstars. He met all of us one on one, and he lied to every one of us. I love Vince. I love him to death but, at the same time, I tell the truth, and this is the truth. I don’t want Vince to get mad if he hears this, I’m just being honest. This is the truth, and he knows it. His said he was not going to go on TV. He felt Eric [Bischoff] was on TV too much, being where his position was, and taking too many segments up. And Vince’s big thing was that you’re never going to see him in the ring. … But the next thing you know, he’s got a baseball bat with sleeveless shirt on with his skinny arms hanging out of it, beating guys up with bats, and he’s the World Heavyweight Champion. That’s not good for the business. Then they brought Eric back. But back to your question of it being the start, I do think it was the start of the fall. And the rumor was Eric was going to buy the company. We showed up and WWF trucks were there, and that was over.
Did you guys not get a heads up that WWE was taking over?
I don’t know. I couldn’t believe the talent that I’m around, which is your Kevin Nashes, your Scott Halls, your Goldbergs, your Lugers, your Stings. When you’re around those talents, surely something’s going leak and get to you. But we all pulled up, and we all saw the WWF trucks together, and we all looked at each other and went, that’s not good. We were seeing people crying and taking pictures with Ric and the belt. We knew it was bad, but we just didn’t know how bad. Then Shane [McMahon] calls a meeting in five minutes. In five minutes of us trying to find out what was going on, Shane had a meeting, and he comes walking in with the entire company inside this room. It was about 45 seconds long tops.
He said, “Hey, my name’s Shane McMahon. I own the company. My dad bought the company today, so we now own the WCW. We’re going to keep some wrestlers. We’re going to get rid of some wrestlers. We’re going to keep some referees. We’re going to get rid of some referees. We’re going to keep some office talent, and we’re going to fire some office talents. Good luck. See you later.”
That was it. And, of course, the papers come out for the show that night, and me and Lex [Luger] were the world tag team champions, and we weren’t on it. I thought that can’t be good and started heading home. Then my dad calls me. He goes, “Where you at?” I go, “I’m heading home.” And he said, “They just did a big thing in the ring in Cleveland with Vince via satellite with his son and Vince named five people. I’m not saying this because I’m your dad, but he named you, one out of five. I mean, Sting, Luger, Goldberg, Hogan and Bagwell.”
I was in the five, which was huge. And of all things, I got a good pop. I mean, the second biggest one. I didn’t know it until I watched it back. All my top talent buddies, Luger and Sting, said, “Bro, you’re fine. If he mentions your name on TV, you’re in.”
Of course, I didn’t get cocky about that, by no means. I felt better, but they put us through school, and that’s where me and Shane Helms got in a fight. And the story goes downhill from there. But long story short, I think that Vince was done with WCW way before we knew, and he made us go out and do the match in Tacoma, Washington when he could have waited a week for Atlanta. I mean, if you own the company and you call it “the invasion” and the other owner lives in Atlanta, you can do it 5,000 miles away or you can wait seven days and do it in their backyard.
But instead, we do it where WCW’s never been, and me and Booker get booed out of the building. We knew what was going on, but you didn’t go to Vince and say you’re not doing this, of course. You’re a main event on Monday Night Raw. I mean, you just don’t ask those questions. [Steve] Austin’s the one who gave us our finish. I don’t think it was as bad as people say it was, but it was just an average match or even below average. You don’t fire a Buff Bagwell for a below-average match. I mean, after 11 years of world tag team championships and doing everything right and being in shape. You give him a warning. You give him a smack on the hand. You don’t fire him. You know? I really believe, with all my heart, there was a decision made around the Tacoma airtime, and they just made us go out and put it on us like, “Well, didn’t work, they got booed.” Well, if you’d have waited a week and put us at the Georgia Dome, it would have worked.
There’s been so many different stories that come out about why they actually made the decision to go ahead and release you. I mean, we’ve heard everything from that match being a stinker to the fight with Shane to a wacky story about your mom calling Jim Ross. Where does the truth lie?
It couldn’t have been the match, because I’ve wrestled Booker a thousand times and never missed a step until that night. That’s out. If my mom called or not, once again I know she didn’t, but let’s say she did, it’s not worth getting fired over. I think Buff Bagwell deserves, “Tell your mother not to ring our phone no more.” Give him a warning.
I basically ended up getting released for … I don’t know. I raised my hand to find out why I was getting fired. They called it released. I said, “Well, what do I do with a release?” And they said it means they could bring me back in three months. I knew that was (garbage), but I still told myself, “I’m going to shake hands, smile and get out of the room before you start crying.”
I waited three months and almost four months just to show I wasn’t bothering them. I called up Jim Ross, and he goes … I swear to God, he went, “What do you want, Marc?” I went from Buff Bagwell to, “What do you want, Marc?” I said, “Jim, let me totally clear the air here. You guys asked me to call you back in three months. I waited three months and three weeks, almost four months, and did what y’all told me to do.” I was scared I’d get heat for that, but I said “I did what you asked me to do.”
Then he said, “We have no openings. We’ll call you if we do.” Click.
Have you had a chance to work things out with J.R.?
No, and there’s way unless he says, “I lied, I don’t like you, and I was passing the truth along.” And I will thank him for telling the truth, and then he’s off the hook. But for him to defend himself and say he likes me after having dogged me out and viciously calling me a mama’s boy and that I can’t wrestle… I don’t think it’s fixable. I just don’t.
The big thing for wrestlers is to be in the WWE Hall of Fame. Is that something you think should happen for you? Is that even a realistic possibility politically speaking?
I 100 percent couldn’t care less, and I don’t mean that ugly. Let me give you a great answer why. Teddy Long is in the WWE Hall of Fame, and The Total Package, Lex Luger, that is in a wheelchair, that everybody in the world knows, is not. Take those two, and it diminishes the WWE Hall of Fame tremendously. I mean, don’t get me wrong. If I got in it, I’d be very proud and say I made it and here’s my ring. But at the same time, if I didn’t get called by them, I won’t lose an ounce of sleep over not getting in the WWE Hall of Fame.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.