Vice gives us a rare treat in tragic story. As my wife/co-watcher said, “At least this one was kind of a happy one.” So many of DSotR episodes leave you wondering “What the hell?!” This one gives you far more pleasant “What if…?”
As a kid in the Northeast, I was only marginally aware of Magnum T.A.’s rise in the world of professional wrestling and thought it a bit odd that he would take the name of a TV show (as opposed to a comic book character made into a TV show like “Hulk” Hogan.) But continuous commentary by the likes of former wrestlers Jimmy Garvin and Jake “the Snake” Roberts, promotor Jim Crockett Jr, and everyone’s favorite loud-mouthed uncle, Jim Cornette confirmed that those who were watching at the time knew that he had something special.
Terry Allen was suckered into the world of professional wrestling. A former Virginia state champ and an avid gym rat, he drew the attention of the infamous Buzz Sawyer while working as a bouncer. Sawyer offered to vouch for Allen and procure a wrestling license for him for the paltry sum of a mere $10,000 ($54,000 in 2023.) Once his family had been fleeced out of the money and Sawyer had been tracked down on the opposite coast, Allen had only a two-hour training session before getting booked in matches. It didn’t take long for his strapping physique and rugged good looks to take him to the National Wrestling Alliances bigger territories run in Florida and the Carolinas where he was featured alongside notables like The Road Warriors, Ric Flair, and his personal fairy godfather, Dusty Rhodes. When Dusty’s suggestion of completing his look with a motorcycle and leather jacket and Andre the Giant adding “Magnum” to the “T.A.” of Terry Allen, the picture finally came together.
While Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation was muscling out and buying up TV and live venue markets around the country, Jim Crockett Promotions was doing the same in a different way. Originally concerned with the NWA’s Carolinas/Mid-Atlantic territory, they began getting their fingers into various pies in Canada, Georgia, Tennessee, Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling, and even got national television on TBS. But they didn’t have their matinee idol mega star… yet.
Absent from Vice’s telling is the feud that made Magnum, the bloody NWA United States title chase against the supremely talented and easily boo-able Tully Blanchard. Instead, emphasis is on the feud that elevated him: the red-blooded American Magnum T.A. protecting the US title against the bull-necked two-hundred-and-seventy-pound mass of Soviet sinew, Nikita Koloff. Their “Best of Seven” series captivated nationwide audiences and is recounted by affable preacher man, Nikita “Actually Scott Simpson from Minnesota” Koloff himself.
Things were looking up for Jim Crockett Promotions and the NWA. Magnum was catching fire. His looks, his talent, and his believability made for an aspirational figure that cheering men, swooning women, and starstruck children rushing to buy T-shirts and arena tickets. It was a great basket to put eggs in… until it wasn’t.
A rainy night and a fast Porsche made for a bad time on a familiar road. Magnum hydroplaned into a utility pole, bisecting the pole, wrecking the car, and exploding his C5 vertebrae. A virtual Superman was quadriplegic.
With the help of interviewee and then-wife, Tamara Howell, his own determination, and a lot of luck, Magnum would regain function over his left side and even walk again for much of his life. The other wrestlers contributed to his living and hospital costs with Jim Crockett matching their funds. Commentator and magazine publisher, Bill Apter, recounts their time together as Magnum rehabilitated. With Apter’s coverage and frequent updates on NWA television, Magnum stayed fresh in the eyes and hearts of the fans. Even the inevitable retirement announcement drew an audience as he commended the wrestler who would go on to main event in his stead; ironically a now-heroic Nikita Koloff.
Terry Allen went on to attack a new career in network solutions with the same drive he had to succeed in the wrestling ring. He is still mobile with some assistance and attends conventions to meet with fans. He has even found new love in life as he remarried with Courtney Shattuck (once Courtney Blanchard and ex-wife of his old in-ring rival.)
Sometimes, there’s no villain. No greedy businessman. No abusive spouse or parent. No femme fatale with a pocketbook full of powder. Sometimes, it’s just fate. And if you can make peace with that, you have your happy ending.
Watch the Magnum T.A. Darkside of the Ring here.
Dark Side of the Ring: “Breaking the Cycle: The Graham Dynasty”
Before Vincent McMahon began creating the entertainment empire called WWE, professional wrestling was still a clandestine trade controlled and protected by regional promoters. In the 1970s, the place to be for any professional wrestler was Florida, the territory of Eddie Graham. Graham was a wrestler and convincing as “the toughest man in Florida.” More importantly, he was a visionary promoter who could elevate talent beyond their previous best efforts. Two of Championship Wrestling from Florida’s success stories, Kevin Sullivan and B Brian Blair, are featured in this episode’s commentary on Eddie’s decline, as do frequent guest Jim Cornette, and Dottie Curtis, the widow of late wrestler Don Curtis.
Eddie Gossett took the name “Graham” from “Doctor” Jerry Graham, a former paratrooper and prominent wrestler with whom he shared a resemblance and tag teamed with as his purported brother. Jerry would add other wrestlers to their “Graham” family name before descending into alcoholism, depression, and what Cornette describes as “a bizarre incident” in which he abducted his mother’s corpse from a hospital at gunpoint.
Though not actually a brother to Jerry, Eddie Graham would have his own struggles with alcohol and mental illness. Despite accelerating the careers of Hulk Hogan, Magnum T.A., and Dusty Rhodes, and making his weekly television block the place to be and be seen for prominent Floridians in business and politics, his mind and his portfolio suffered. Dottie Curtis and Brian Blair describe some of his business dealings as being with dangerous and unsavory people.
Eventually, once he had left in-ring action, Eddie’s star began to fade. He went unrecognized in restaurants. His businesses began to flounder. He became unfaithful in his marriage. His drinking escalated to the point that it was noticed by his granddaughter and series interviewee, Nicole Gossett. Eddie Graham shot himself twice and was taken off life support at the request of his family.
The yoke of Championship Wrestling from Florida fell on the shoulders of Eddie’s son, Mike Graham. Mike was a solid wrestler and, despite being the promoter’s son, was respected by other wrestlers for his work ethic and humility. Even with Mike’s hard work, the shambles the promotion was in couldn’t be saved. Mike went on to be a performer with Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling promotion and restarted his life in his 40s.
Mike’s daughter Nicole and son Stephen noticed his drinking getting worse. For Stephen, it was too much. He said his goodbyes and ended his life. Nicole pleaded with her despondent father not to let it get to him for her sake and the sake of her own daughter. Two years later, Mike could no longer stand it. Dark Side reveals to the audience that Eddie graham’s brother and father had both committed suicide as well.
Nicole Gossett shows off her tattoo with the family’s familiar phrase “Peace of Mind” followed by a semicolon. Four generations. Five men. It ends with her.
If you or someone you know is feeling trapped, lost, or at the very edge with no one to turn to, call 9-8-8 or visit 988lifeline.org because there is help and you do matter.
Watch “Breaking the Cycle: The Graham Dynasty” episode of Dark Side of the Ring here.
Dark Side of the Ring: “What Happened to Doink the Clown?”
Often, Dark Side will explore the effects of the professional wrestling world on a person. This episode very much works in the opposite direction.
Matthew Osbourne was a second-generation wrestler and gifted performer who worked under the names of “Matt Borne” and “Big Josh” but probably most well known for originating the character of “Doink the Clown.”
DSotR speculates that Matt Borne’s issues go all the way back to his childhood as he was left with his father, “Tough” Tony Borne with his mother reportedly said, “I don’t want the little bastard.” His father being a big name to live up to in Oregon may also have contributed to the chip on his shoulder.
His fellow wrestlers were divided on his personality. Wrestling’s most affable personalities Mick Foley and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan couldn’t be further apart. The Hardcore Legend describes Borne as a friend, colleague, and huge influence on his character work. Hacksaw says they never got along throughout their entire careers and describes him as a bully. Tom Pritchard praises his talent while saying that he could be abrasive and confrontational in theme with how he was raised.
But it was B Brian Blair who met Borne when he came to the Carolinas from Oregon that maybe has the best insight. An inebriated Borne accosted Blair at a bar and accuses him of talking to Borne’s girl. Not having a clue what he was talking about, Blair blows him off only to end up in a brawl where Borne attempts to bite his nose but Blair bites off part of Borne’s lip! Despite being beaten bloody and intoxicated, Borne comes back twice more to attack Blair and attempts to gouge out his eyes.
Years later, when working for Bill Watts’ Mid-South promotion, Borne would be partnered with Duggan and Ted DiBiase. When a fan punched Duggan as he was leaving the ring, Duggan dropped him to the floor with his own shot. Borne then kicked the fan, breaking his eye socket and drawing lawsuits.
Footage from various territory wrestling promotions, WCW and WWF gives us a timeline of Borne’s career but the testimonials and highlight packages seem to jump around a lot. It’s sort of appropriate and possibly necessary as Borne’s professional and personal lives were as chaotic as they could be. Borne’s second wife, Michelle James is introduced before his first, Maria Staley.
Staley met Borne after his first stint with WWF (including an appearance at the first Wrestlemania,) as he was Big Josh the lovable outdoorsman in WCW. Borne’s drinking and drug use accelerated his erratic behavior. When he began throwing her around while she had their newborn daughter in her arms, Staley knew it was time to leave. Borne insisted that she left him because he had been fired from WWF for a failed drug test, something Michelle James echoed.
Steve Keirn and Ray Apollo both used the Doink costume after Matt Borne was fired. Vince McMahon and WWF owned the rights to the character. Both were skilled performers and athletes but it was consensus that neither were as effective as Borne.
Michelle James met Matt Borne when he worked for a telemarketer. She described him as unsatisfied with a 9-to-5 and, in their relationship, controlling. He didn’t want her working or doing much socializing. In a confrontation with James’ ex, Borne had to be restrained by police using stun guns and pepper spray and he removed the sink from the wall in his jail cell. That jealous rage (enhanced by cocaine and steroids) was turned on James’ at a later date to the point that she had to be hospitalized. Still, she reflects on his attempt to be a doting father for their two children; a second chance that he couldn’t do with his two previous kids. His daughter, Tegan Osborne, remembers him fondly but, ultimately, drugs didn’t let him succeed.
Matt Borne began wrestling again but found the demand for Doink to be greater than that of himself. He once again donned the wig, costume, and face paint. He even took it to ECW where the “cartoon characters” of WWF and WCW were often mocked by their fans and even promoter Paul Heyman. He was threatened with legal action but countersued for his residuals for merchandise and previous appearances. “Doink” became “Borne Again” a half-painted psycho who would allude to his clownish past and put a green wig on his downed opponents.
After Michelle James had had enough, Borne ended up with Connie Cook. Cook had a wrestling past as “Nurse Pratchett” and described herself as being “as crazy as he was.” His death from an opioid overdose is blamed on Cook by daughter Tegan, which Cook disputes.
The idea of an evil clown isn’t new, Italian operas, Stephen King’s IT, and (of course) Batman nemesis, The Joker, all predate Doink. But the idea was doubted and even later ridiculed as not belonging in professional wrestling. But the character endures in no small part to the talent and tenacity of Matt Borne; a man who’s chaotic nature and lack of self-control couldn’t exist anywhere but professional wrestling.