Pro wrestling lost another great one this week. Former territorial star, “Nature Boy” Buddy Landel passed away Monday at the age of 53. The passing of Landel comes less than a week after the passing of the “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
News broke Monday afternoon of Landel’s passing to a wrestling world that was just starting to get over the passing of Dusty and ladies’ star Cora Combs. Landel was reportedly in a bad auto accident over the weekend. According to reports, Landel checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders. Landel came home, told his wife he wasn’t feeling well, went to sleep, and never woke up.
I got into tape trading in about the mid-1980s which allowed me to follow my favorite territory Memphis Wrestling and see recent shows from other territories. I will never forget the first time the “Billy and Buddy Show” episode of Memphis wrestling arrived on my tape collection. The show featured Bill Dundee and Landel as hosts, taking over the same the n.W.o. would take over Nitro on commentary over a decade later. The show would later develop something of a cult following many years later and is currently available on YouTube.
Buddy the personality was great but Buddy the worker was something special. I often asked wrestlers during interviews about the best that never made it. If I was answering the question I would put Buddy right at the top of the list. Buddy was a hell of a worker when he was motivated. I remember watching a match in which Buddy sold about 30 of Jerry Lawler’s punches. It was just one of those moments that always stuck out to me as “great work”. The irony is the match is now infamous among wrestlers who have seen it for Buddy’s work. I say ironic because I had no idea how many others picked up on it and appreciated it for the brilliance it was.
Of course it is impossible to talk about Buddy without bringing up the famous story about Buddy’s booked NWA title win. One of the most widely told stories in pro wrestling circles goes back to that Landel promo I watched him cut on Ric Flair in 1985. The urban legend says that Landel was booked to beat Ric Flair for the NWA title in that feud but no-showed the night of the match. It’s a real fun story but the truth is that the story is highly embellished and has taken on a life of its own.
Buddy has talked about the feud with Flair and events in many interviews over the years. It was a huge break for Buddy and things were looking up for the Nature Boy.
“It’s really fascinating, you know Flair, at the time…I was over in Louisianna and Dory Funk was booking, and the territory was really down in Charlotte. Flair flew over to do some shows, to work with Kerry Von Erich over in Dallas when Watts was loaning Butch Reed and myself out. Butch Reed had just switched babyface and I was wrestling him, and I was on the same card in Dallas. By this time I’d already been the Nature Boy for about a year and a half, with Flair’s blessing, and Flair said, “Would you consider coming over to Charlotte?” I said, “Well, I don’t know man, Watts usually sends me where he thinks it will be best for me..” He says, “Well, how much are you making now? If you come over I’ll make sure it’s doubled.” But see, at that time money didn’t really matter to me, what I really wanted to do was go to Florida and meet Eddie Graham, I wanted to learn from the guy who taught BIll Watts…
Well, within about a week’s period of time, not even that, within a very few short days, I’ll never forget it – I was in the dressing room with Baby Doll, Tully Blanchard and Gino Hernandez, somebody walked in and said, “Eddie Graham just blew his brains out…” and that was the deciding factor. I was not going to go to Charlotte, I was going to pass up working with Flair to go to Florida to work for Eddie Graham…so that kind of made my mind up for me. I went to Charlotte. Really the thing of it is, our program consisted of JJ Dillon and myself walking out and saying, “Flair’s bogus – I’m the real Nature Boy…” With Flair, at first not even acknowledging me, and I was beatin’ guy after guy after guy…Flair and I never had a program, we never worked a program, we never shot the first angle, that’s what was so unique about it. That’s what was so great about it. Flair and I never shot the first angle and yet it sold out.”
What is interesting about that is it backs up what Ric Flair was just talking about on a recent podcast. Flair had David Crockett on his podcast and was telling stories about how he would recruit talent for JCP when he was touring as NWA world champion in 1984 and 1985. Interesting to note that according to Buddy, it was Flair that gave him his first break. It is also true and legendary that Flair and Landel sold out Raleigh, NC having what was called a “test match” before Buddy even started cutting promos for the feud. Buddy was that good and was over the second he landed in Charlotte.
As for the infamous title change story, here is what went down according to Buddy. One thing that has been confirmed is that Buddy got fired for missing television.
“I fell asleep at a hotel and took a bunch of good cocaine that whole night and did a bunch of valiums,” Landel recalls. “Black Bart (Rick Harris) was with me and told me that we had to go TV. I had just bought a brand new Lincoln and threw him the car keys and told him that I would catch a cab and be there later.
They started (the tapings) at 9 o’clock that morning, and by 11 o’clock I had hung up on Dusty (Rhodes) and (Jim) Crockett and told them to not call me again,” says Landel. “I was National champion at the time. When I got there, Dusty told me to give him the belt, and that I didn’t work there anymore. I said OK.”
Buddy has told that story many times and there is no reason to doubt it. What is doubtful is Buddy’s claim that he was supposed to win the NWA title. The timing just didn’t make any sense at all. Flair had just come off Starrcade and he and Dusty were doing good business in rematches. All reports seem to indicate that Magnum TA was being groomed for the title and was next in line to get it at Starrcade 1986. Buddy got fired in December 1985 where, according to some (including Buddy at times) he was supposed to win the NWA title. The timing just doesn’t make sense. Buddy was back in the company in 1986 with Dundee as his partner/manager but never received a big push and was just a bit player with feuds against Sam Houston. Although to be fair Landel was cutting promos on Flair and in about September Flair started dropping Buddy’s name in promos as well. Yet for some reason the feud never got back off the ground with Buddy continuing to work with Houston and doing tags with Dundee against Dutch Mantell and Bobby Jaggers.
Buddy would pop back up on and off for the next decade. Landel and Flair would finally have their WCW match on television but it was nothing more than a glorified squash match in favor of Flair. Buddy did some independents, including a booking against Buddy Rogers right here in Philadelphia in a “Battle of the Nature Boys”. Rogers unfortunately passed away before the match took place. Buddy went to Smokey Mountain Wrestling in 1994 where some will argue that he had the best in-ring run of his career. The highlight was Buddy drawing a record house at the Knoxville Coliseum against Shawn Michaels on the Super Bowl of Wrestling. Buddy told Mike Mooneyham how important that night was to him and his wife.
“My wife snuck in, and I looked out, and her face was just beaming with pride. I’ll never forget that. I looked in her eyes and could tell that she loved me, she believed in me, and everything had come full circle. We shared that together in that brief second of looking into each other’s eyes.”
Buddy wound up in the WWE after SMW folded but like his last run in WCW, was used primarily as a preliminary wrestler. According to Buddy, it was his willingness to put over Ahmed Johnson that got him the job.
Buddy was his own worst enemy. On a recent edition of the Art of Wrestling, Landel talked extensively about his struggles with addiction. Unfortunately those traits were passed on to his children as Buddy told Colt. Buddy was trying to make up for his mistakes as a father as a grandfather and seemed to take a lot of pride when talking about that transition with Colt. The irony here is that it appeared that Buddy was in a great place in his life and enjoying being a grandfather, making the timing of his passing that much more tragic.
I’ll remember Buddy for being a great worker, a fun guy (met him briefly a few times and I don’t know if I have met many people in my life with as much charisma as he had), and a great one who never came close to reaching his potential. R.I.P. Buddy Landel and my deepest condolences go out to his family.