Old School Spotlight: “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert

Hot Stuff

In the long storied history of professional wrestling, many spandex clad gladiators have grabbed our attention and captured our imaginations. These colorful characters remain in the deepest recesses of our minds years after their glory days in the ring have passed. The most memorable grapplers from our years of wrestling fandom are often those that we encounter early on in our initial discovery of the mat game. This column will take a look at some of the most bizarre, flamboyant, charismatic, and downright terrifying pro wrestlers of all time.

Thomas Edward Gilbert Jr. was born into a wrestling family and was destined for stardom from the very start. His father, Tommy, was a big star in the mid-south area particularly in Tennessee and Kentucky. He began taking Eddie and his younger brother, Doug, to local wrestling matches as soon as they were old enough to walk. Eddie became fascinated with what took place in the ring, and perhaps even more so behind the curtain, from a very young age. By the time Eddie reached his teenage years, he had already decided that he wanted to become a successful wrestler and booker in the red hot Memphis territory. He idolized Jerry “The King” Lawler, the top star in Memphis, who he had watched since high school.

Eddie’s first work as a pro wrestler came as an undercard babyface enhancement talent in Memphis. Legend has it that Eddie even missed his own high school graduation in order to travel to Memphis and lose the opening match that night at the Mid-South Coliseum. Trained by his father, Eddie first wrestled as “Tommy Gilbert Jr.” as a tribute to his dad when he initially turned pro in 1979. The two even worked together as a tag team during the early part of Eddie’s career traveling the country and working in various territories. Eddie got his first taste of success in LeRoy McGuirk’s Tri-State Wrestling promotion based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. There he won the Tri-State Tag Team Championships with his father and later with another young upstart second generation star, Ricky Morton.

Eddie embarked on a solo career in 1982, going to work for Vince McMahon Sr. and the World Wrestling Federation. He worked on the undercard for the WWF but never received a sizeable push because New York was known in those days as the “Land of the Giants” and Eddie was only 5’ 9” and 180 lbs. and was considered too small to work on top. After a WWF TV Taping in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, Eddie was involved in a serious automobile accident that left him with a broken neck. Doctors had advised Eddie that he would never wrestle again. Miraculously Eddie returned to the ring only a few short months later in Memphis and not only was able to wrestle again but his career began to thrive. Soon after his return to Memphis, Eddie was again contacted by Vince McMahon Sr. with an idea for an angle that was expected to draw big money. Eddie was brought back to the WWF and billed as a protégé and close friend of then WWF Champion, Bob Backlund. Eddie was presented as a miracle man that had survived a broken neck to return to active wrestling thanks to the inspiration provided to him by Backlund. In a TV match, The Masked Superstar, who was being pushed as a top heel at the time, gave Eddie neckbreaker after neckbreaker and supposedly broke Gilbert’s neck again. The WWF had used a near fatal real life injury to set up a wrestling storyline and they received their share of criticism for doing so. Backlund came to Eddie’s defense. The sight of an enraged Backlund helping Gilbert into an ambulance was enough to draw big gates for a series of matches between he and The Masked Superstar. Gilbert was also part of another major WWF storyline, again in a supporting role, as he had lost a TV match to the villainous Iron Sheik who refused to release Eddie from the grip of his deadly “Camel Clutch” hold. This was during the 1980s Cold War and tensions between the U.S. and Iran were high. Gilbert was saved by Sergeant Slaughter, a former U.S. Marine who had been wrestling as an evil heel drill sergeant. This turned Slaughter babyface and again led to a series of high profile matches between The Sarge and The Iron Sheik.

All roads always seemed to lead Eddie Gilbert back to Memphis. In 1984 he returned to the CWA where Jerry Jarrett put him in a tag team with Tommy Rich known as “Fargo’s Fabulous Ones”. Memphis legend “Fabulous” Jackie Fargo had supposedly hand picked the duo and put them together as the next great tag team in wrestling. In reality, Jarrett was upset with Stan Lane and Steve Keirn who had abruptly left his territory for the AWA and he wanted to get revenge on the original “Fabulous Ones” by showing that another team could take their place as a top draw. The Memphis fans saw through the charade and the team of Gilbert and Rich never really got over and were broken up after only a few months. It was after the breakup that Eddie had the opportunity to work as a heel for the first time. This was the break he had needed. His tremendous heel persona and his memorable promos quickly made him the top heel in the territory. It was also during this run that one of Eddie’s booking ideas paid off and he then began to be viewed as an asset behind the camera as well. The angle centered around “Fargo’s Fabulous Ones” being awarded the “Tag Team of the Year Award” on Memphis TV by beloved announcer, Lance Russell. Eddie had insulated Rich and ended up being bloodied by his former partner. Gilbert then came out later in the show to deliver a sincere apology and regain Rich’s trust. Eddie then attacked him from behind and the two fought throughout the Memphis TV studio in puddles of their own blood. The ruse of a babyface turn was something Gilbert again used later in his career on more than one occasion to much success. It was also during this time that Eddie worked his first program with his boyhood idol, Jerry “The King” Lawler. Their feud culminated with a match at the Mid-South Coliseum in which Gilbert was defeated by “The King” and due to a pre-match stipulation, Gilbert’s manager, “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, had to leave the territory. Truth is, Hart had signed with the WWF and this was his storyline exit.

Gilbert’s newfound heel character landed him a job with Bill Watt’s Mid-South Wrestling in 1985. Watts wasn’t a fan of smaller guys and used Eddie as a mouthpiece and manager for a heel stable. Gilbert also worked behind the scenes helping younger wrestler develop their promo skills. It was around this time that Eddie met and became romantically involved with a blonde bombshell named Missy Hyatt. Missy would have her own memorable run in Mid-South Wrestling feuding with fellow valet Dark Journey. Gilbert and Hyatt later married and the duo drew interest from the WWF, then ran by Vince McMahon Jr. who had purchased the promotion from his father and had started a national expansion movement. During this time, Gilbert began to play up the arrogant, cocky, ladies man persona and adopted the nickname “Hot Stuff”. He dubbed his stable, “Hot Stuff International”, which included future stars like: Rick Steiner, Sting, and The Ultimate Warrior. Watts offered the job of head booker to Gilbert in an attempt to keep him from returning to the WWF. This convinced Gilbert to stay in Mid-South Wrestling, by then known as the UWF. Gilbert came up with a storyline that again saw him make a faux babyface turn only to double-cross Watts himself and side with the Russian trio of Ivan Koloff, Nikita Koloff, and Kortsia Korchenko. This memorable angle saw the Russians and Gilbert attack Watts and drape him with the Soviet flag, perceived as the ultimate insult for a proud American like Watts. Jim Ross’ notable call on commentary can still be heard ringing in fans ears today, “They put the flag on The Cowboy! They put the flag on The Cowboy!” Gilbert’s reputation as a booker took off after that angle and his subsequent idea that created the memorable Battle of New Orleans brawl in late 1987 which brought back memories of the Tupelo concession stand brawl from the Memphis territory years earlier. When Bill Watts sold the UWF to Jim Crockett Promotion in late 1987, Gilbert left because he felt the UWF stars would have to play second fiddle to the established stars in Crockett’s promotion.

In 1988 TV station owner, David Woods, bought a struggling wrestling territory in Alabama from “Bullet” Bob Armstrong called the Continental Wrestling Federation. Woods hired Eddie to be his booker. Gilbert brought his wife, Missy Hyatt, in as a TV announcer for the weekly programs. Personality conflicts between Missy and members of the roster started to surface causing Eddie to become somewhat alienated from the rest of the locker room. Still Gilbert and his assistant, Paul E. Dangerously, performed a minor miracle resurrecting the struggling territory behind red hot angles involving the breakup of The Nightmares tag team which saw Gilbert again pull off the fake babyface turn on Ken Wayne and another memorable angle where Gilbert attacked Pez Whatley’s 14 year old son on TV. Dangerously, who we now know as Paul Heyman, gives “Hot Stuff” much credit in teaching him how to book effective storylines. Just as the territory heated up, disagreement over money between Gilbert and Woods surfaced and Eddie packed up and headed for Jim Crockett Promotions since the dust had settled from the UWF purchase a little over a year earlier.

After arriving in Crockett’s NWA promotion in 1989, Gilbert was made booking assistant working alongside “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. He also worked as a babyface for the first time in 5 years bringing Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat back to the NWA as his mystery partner in a high profile match against “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Barry Windham. Rhodes later promised Gilbert that he would become the newest member of The Four Horsemen faction, which he considered the pinnacle of his career. However, Dusty never followed through on his promise and Gilbert again left the territory and headed back to Memphis. It was also around this time that he and Hyatt divorced. Another beautiful blonde, Madusa, caught his eye and the two married although the marriage was brief.

Back in familiar surroundings, Gilbert again concocted a storyline that drew big houses all over the Memphis territory. On an episode of the weekly Memphis TV show, Gilbert got into a heated argument with promoter Eddie Marlin, who ironically had been the tag team partner of Gilbert’s father years earlier. The argument spilled out into the parking lot. The TV cameras followed and caught Marlin “fire” Gilbert. Jerry Lawler had come out to get between the two and try to diffuse the situation. Gilbert, enraged at his dismissal, got into his car and sped out of the parking lot swerving to hit Lawler with his car on the way out. “The King” took the bump but Gilbert had struck him harder than planned and he hit the pavement injuring his leg and hip. Gilbert sped away not knowing if he had seriously injured his childhood hero. This angle was so well done that several fans called the Memphis police to report an attempted homicide. Gilbert drove around the corner and called the studio from a pay phone to check on Lawler. He was informed that police were on the scene waiting to arrest him if he returned. Lawler had to limp back out in front of the studio audience and proclaim he was okay in order to prove to the police that this was just “all part of the show”. Lawler and Gilbert went on to again have another profitable and memorable run together after this angle.

In 1991, Eddie was given a chance to be the head booker for an upstart group based out of Dallas called the Global Wrestling Federation. This promotion had a national TV deal with ESPN and ran shows in the old Dallas Sportatorium renamed The Global Dome. They hoped to capitalize on the popularity of the once red hot World Class Championship Wrestling that had recently merged with the Memphis based USWA. Eddie worked in Dallas for several months running some interesting angles and winning the Global TV Title defeating future star, Marcus “Buff” Bagwell. He also won the North American Title from the Dark Patriot, which was his younger brother Doug working under a black mask. Eddie soon became involved in a dispute with management and again left the territory taking the North American Championship belt with him.

In 1993, Eddie became involved with another upstart promotion, this time based out of Philadelphia known as Eastern Championship Wrestling. Owner, Tod Gordon, made Eddie the booker. Gilbert brought the wild brawling of southern wrestling to the fans of the northeast. This eventually morphed into the hardcore style that ECW became known for after they changed their name to Extreme Championship Wrestling. Eddie’s cards were very violent, often filled with gimmick matches, but always left the fans entertained. Eddie brought in his brother Doug and the duo won the ECW Tag Team Championship. His stint in ECW was short lived though as again a dispute arose with the promoter which led to Eddie leaving the company. Eddie’s old friend, Paul Heyman was then brought in as booker and picked up where Eddie left off eventually taking the company national. Soon after his run in ECW, Eddie sat down with Bob Barnett and filmed an in depth interview about his life and career entitled, “Looking for Mr. Gilbert”. This is credited as the first real shoot interview ever recorded, another example of Gilbert being ahead of his time creatively. Eddie and his brother Doug then toured Japan for the W*ING promotion under the movie monster characters of Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger. This was a popular phase in Japanese wrestling as Japanese fans loved anything related to American pop culture.

The Gilbert brothers returned again to Memphis in 1994 and took over as the top heels in the USWA feuding with Jerry “The King” Lawler and son, Brian Christopher. Gilbert’s work in 1994 was perhaps some of his best. He again fell out of favor with the promotion when they decided to push The Dream Machine, local wrestler Troy Graham, as the territory’s top heel. Gilbert left the USWA and ran for political office in Tennessee. He returned briefly to the USWA as a babyface so as not to damage his campaign chances. His campaign was unsuccessful and he again turned heel. Lawler was working more regularly for the WWF and decided to turn the booking duties over to someone else. He chose Randy Hales, who worked in the USWA offices. Eddie left the USWA feeling betrayed that he wasn’t chosen to succeed Lawler as booker. He surfaced in Puerto Rico working for Carlos Colon’s World Wrestling Council and booker “Dirty” Dutch Mantell, an old friend from his early Memphis days. Gilbert headlined for a few months in Puerto Rico as a top heel and eventually left on good terms to return stateside. Many promoters were reluctant to hire Gilbert. Even though his pure talent and creative vision had been proven, he was viewed as a bit of a loose cannon and unreliable by some. Still, Jim Cornette, who had started his own promotion, Smoky Mountain Wrestling, in east Tennessee gave “Hot Stuff” another chance. Eddie lasted in SMW for only one set of TV tapings before returning to WWC in Puerto Rico as head booker replacing Dutch Mantell who had taken a job with the WWF. Gilbert called upon his old friend Ken Wayne as his assistant booker. Eddie’s last big angle in Puerto Rico involved him, as a heel, signing a contract to face an unknown opponent that he considered a pushover. After further examination of the contract, it was revealed that Gilbert had signed on to wrestle a circus bear. Even though the bear was trained and posed no physical threat to Gilbert, the Puerto Rican fans turned out in droves in hopes of seeing the loudmouth heel get mauled by the huge animal. The next day after the match, Wayne found Gilbert in his apartment in Isla Verde dead of an apparent heart attack.

Everyone that ever worked with “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert has an opinion of him. He left an impression on everyone that crossed his path in the world of professional wrestling. Nobody can deny he loved professional wrestling or that he was an immensely talented performer and creative genius. He will be remembered as someone who helped change the business. In many ways, he was ahead of his time. It is often said that the brightest stars often burn out the fastest. “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert was one of those stars. Pro wrestling fans everywhere were lucky to have witnessed his star shine so brightly for the time that it did. “Hot Stuff” was one of a kind and will always be remembered as an all-time great.

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