On this episode of “Going Ringside” we talk to two wrestlers from different generations: Kevin Sullivan and Bobby Fish. Sullivan was a top star and booker from the 1970′s through the 1990′s while Fish is a top star right now performing in various promotions from NXT to AEW to Ring of Honor. (Read more about Bobby Fish)
The Story of Kevin Sullivan
When you think of wrestlers who have had some scary gimmicks in decades past, Kevin Sullivan is likely near the top of that list. Undertaker did it, Bray Wyatt did it but the cult leader-type gimmick was really perfected by Kevin Sullivan through the 1980′s. But before that happened Sullivan wrestled for years starting in 1970. Much of his wrestling happened in Florida where he feuded the the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Barry Windham and Andre The Giant. “It was great. I was 252 pounds at the time. I had been a power lifter and a body builder,” said Sullivan who would have been more than a foot shorter than Andre. “He was a very nice guy to me.”
Kevin Sullivan starts a cult
It was around 1982 when Sullivan adopted the gimmick “Prince of Darkness”. This was when Sullivan was wrestling in Florida, prior to his national ascent. Sullivan said this corresponded with the start of MTV and an influx of horror movies. He utilized the popularity of that genre to develop a memorable and very scary persona and stable.
“Billy Idol, ‘White Wedding’. ‘Thriller’ with Michael Jackson. The horror genre came full circle,” said Sullivan. “Then they were showing old movies of all the horror movies back in the day. So I would sit there and watch them and I would write stuff down and incorporate my own stuff.”
Sullivan also wrestled a lot in Southeast Asia and visited caves and temples to help develop the gimmick further.
Eventually Sullivan migrated to the north with Georgia Championship Wrestling and Mid-Atlantic. They put on the World Championship Wrestling program each Saturday on WTBS based in Atlanta. That was the primary national wrestling show opposite the WWF. It was where the likes of Ric Flair and Arn Anderson wrestled each week for a national audience. That exposure helped propel Sullivan from a regional talent to a national one.
During his time with World Championship Wrestling Sullivan started a new stable. In late 1987 Sullivan started scouting two younger up and coming wrestlers: Rick Steiner and Mike Rotunda (real life father of Bray Wyatt).
On #goingringside episode 27 #mikerotunda talks about his time tagging with #ricksteiner on #varsityclub #wcw #nwa #kevinsullivan #braywyatt #windhamrotunda #irs #syracuse #universityofmichigan #wrestling #foryou♬ original sound - Going Ringside
That stable was feared and held championships for the company. And Sullivan was able to keep his malevolent leader gimmick strong. He said colleges had a lot of negative stories in the late 1980′s and he thought a malevolent force with two top college athletes subtly played up on that societal issue. One for instance was Southern Methodist University getting in trouble in 1987 for paying athletes.
“There was a lot of stuff going on back in the day and when you saw that, you was two clean cut collegiate athletes and then you see this crazed individual in a black robe on,” said Sullivan. “It was a subliminal message.”
Dungeon of Doom
By 1994 World Championship Wrestling had been purchased by billionaire Ted Turner and officially branded WCW. While it still was somewhat of a secondary promotion to the World Wrestling Federation, that changed when they hired Hulk Hogan. Hogan was by far still the biggest name in the entire industry and to bring him in was a major boon to the company. Hogan had become famous in the 1980′s feuding with the like of Andre The Giant, King Kong Bundy and Earthquake.
So WCW, to keep Hogan in feuds he was used to developed a stable of “monsters”. Large athletes (many over 400 pounds) to feud with Hogan. And Sullivan was their leader -- or “Taskmaster” might be more appropriate. That was the moniker he adopted when he was in the Dungeon. The faction brought in some of Hogan’s old foes in Kamala, Shark (formerly Earthquake) and the One Man Gang.
While many in and out of the industry criticized Hogan for hogging too much of the limelight in wrestling, Sullivan doesn’t view it that way. “I used to say to my kids when you say your prayers tonight make sure you thank Hulk Hogan for the way you live,” said Sullivan. He said Hogan was the reason WCW got the ratings and advertisers it did, because of Hogan. That meant a lot of dollars coming into the company on the back of his star power.
Chris Benoit love triangle
Perhaps the biggest scandal in the history of pro wrestling involved the tragic murder-suicide involving wrestler Christ Benoit in 2007. “Going Ringside” did a lengthy episode on that tragedy. Benoit killed his wife Nancy and their young son Daniel before taking his own life.
Around ten years before that Nancy Benoit had been married to Sullivan. On the weekly Monday Nitro show Sullivan had been feuding with Benoit. In his personal life he had separated from Nancy (they first married in 1985). Based on that real life situation between Sullivan and his former wife he decided to make a wrestling angle out of it. The angle involved Nancy having an affair with Chris and the two would mock Sullivan on TV each week with their on camera “affair”. For years many in the wrestling world said Sullivan “booked” his own divorce.
Sullivan disputed that contention on the podcast. “We were separated for six months. I was living in the Florida Keys at the time, we knew we were going our separate ways. I booked it into an angle,” said Sullivan. “I was not in the house for six months and we were living our own lives.”
Sullivan said he was saddened after hearing the tragic news of the murder-suicide in 2007 and doesn’t think we’ll ever know what truly happened in the Atlanta home.
Sullivan has since re-married and lives in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle. He also hosts the “Taskmaster Talks with Kevin Sullivan” available wherever you get your podcasts.