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Dark Side of the Ring Season 2 Episode 8: Cocaine & Cowboy Boots: The Herb Abrams Story Review

In 1990, John Arezzi was a pro wrestling fan and historian that organized “meet and greet” conventions where wrestling fans could seek autographs and promoters could scout talent for their shows.  One man in attendance was both.  In a business known for outrageous and flamboyant personalities, Herb Abrams stood out.

Having made his fortune with a chain of plus-size clothing boutiques in New York, Herb wanted to head out west in his signature cowboy boots to LA to start his Universal Wrestling Federation promotion.  Some of his claims were dubious, like the incarcerated Blackjack Mulligan booking the shows and Bruiser Brody wrestling despite having been murdered in 1988. Others were completely legitimate.  He had an experienced sports TV producer in longtime friend Lenny Duge and the confirmed involvement of legendary champion, Bruno Sammartino.

Abrams managed to secure well known talents such as Captain Lou Albano, “Mr Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, and Bam Bam Bigelow. The hardcore legend, Mick Foley, saw action in the UWF in his early Cactus Jack persona.  They tried to create their own stars in “Wild Thing” Steve Ray and Sunny Beach (aka Rick Allen,) and Marty Yesberg who became UWF’s signature manager, “Colonel Red.” Like ECW became in the following years, it was a place where audiences could see talents on their way up, their way down, or their way out.

Herb had big plans and even met with Vince McMahon to propose a détente that gave the west coast to the UWF and ceded the rest of the US to McMahon. By the episodes account, it did not go well. Any chance of speaking with McMahon was probably killed outright the minute Abrams hired Andre the Giant, by then a fragile behemoth, to get in the UWF ring.  After one appearance, WWF hired Andre back to work sporadically.

Once shows started, it quickly became apparent that Herb Abrams had no idea what he was doing.  Matches were changed last minute.  Strange and meaningless stipulations were added.  Herb insisted on being the announcer and eventually began an on-air feud with The Colonel.  The prevailing train of thought regarding the UWF was, “It’s Herb’s show.  Anything goes.”

For Herb Abrams, “anything” usually amounted to cocaine and prostitutes. Marty Yesberg recalls being courted by Abrams in a hotel suite with cocaine and two Los Angeles ladies of the night only to find it so off-putting that Abrams availed himself of everything while Yesberg signed with UWF and sat in the corner. Others told stories of having to go find Abrams in order to have production meetings only to find women being cut $2000 checks apiece.

“It’s the stress I’m under,” was Herb’s explanation. UWF was trying to rapidly expand.  They were pumping out merchandise that included T-shirts and, of all things, various flavors of oatmeal cookies. Already featured on cable television, including SportsChannel, they had managed to break into Pay-Per-View. Lenny Duge begged Abrams to attend drug rehab as soon as their first PPV, Beach Brawl was over in 1991. It ended up being a massive failure, barely selling a few hundred tickets in a 4000 seat arena in Palmetto, Florida, an hour’s drive from any major city but close enough to the night life and club scene for Herb. The show did an abysmal 0.1 PPV buyrate and was universally panned by wrestling critics.

Herb Abrams began to play a shell game with money, showing one account flush with millions but writing checks out of another that was overdrawn. Lenny Duge and Rick Allen warned people not to take his checks but TV crews, working girls, and (allegedly) drug dealers ended up being owed. Most people would be uncomfortable that predicament.  Herb Abrams was less concerned with angry pimps and drug dealers than he was with the listening devices hidden in his hotel rooms and spies following him everywhere. Paranoia induced by habitual cocaine use had set in and anyone conferencing with Abrams had a good chance of standing by while he checked all the furniture and doors … often while naked except for cowboy boots. Bounced checks and small audiences lead to UWF ceasing to run shows but continuing to run up bills.

An attempt to bounce back from the failure of Beach Brawl was made in 1994, a year after UWF’s last show.  The MGM Grand took a gamble on Herb … and lost. UWF’s Blackjack Brawl managed to get 500 people into the arena and left 16,500 seats empty. Herb’s on-air performance was described as a sad but laughable disaster and the booking of the matches not much better.

Utterly defeated, Abrams is said to have “aged ten years in two years.” It may have been a blessing in disguise. He left LA to go back to NY. He gets straight and concentrates on his clothing business again. He promises good things coming to his friends in and out of professional wrestling. It didn’t last.

True to professional wrestling, there’s no clear story from his friends and former business partners as to what happened. The known details are that, on July 23, 1996, police were called to Abrams’ office at 6 a.m. and found him smashing up his furniture with a baseball bat with cocaine in his system and two terrified prostitutes running to safety. Stories ranged from him having a heart attack from running into a door, dying in the back of a police car, and even faking his own death (or possibly haunting an independent promoter who used the UWF name.)

Anyone who read Mick Foley’s autobiography, Have a Nice Day, will remember the affection he had for the wild and endearing Abrams and he seems to still feel the same way, judging by his appearance in this episode and imaging sharing milk and UWF cookies with an imprisoned Herb. B Brian Blair has some humor but no coldness when he says that Abrams died doing what he loved: “cocaine and hookers.” Lenny Duge is still moved by his best friend’s death 24 years later and “Wild Thing” Steve Ray remembers Abrams as someone who believed in him and made him believe in himself. Rick Allen feels that his friend’s headstone says it best: “We deal. We cope. And we go on.”

Different people remember things and people in different ways those who knew Herb Abrams remember him best as someone who tried to do an extraordinary thing and, although he failed, would have loved the notoriety of being featured in this episode.

Dark Side of the Ring Season 2 Episode 8: Cocaine & Cowboy Boots: The Herb Abrams Story is currently on demand and airing on Viceland’s website.



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