Growing up a major wrestling fan in the 1980s, I tried to watch as many of the territories I could (for those that may not know, as opposed to today, there were many wrestling leagues throughout the U.S. and Canada before the WWE bought most of them out). As a kid in junior high when I started watching, I was usually cheering for the fan favorites, aka the “Faces,” such as Hulk Hogan, Sting, and The Rock N Roll Express among many. However, there were a few of the bad guys, called “Heels,” that I always cheered for, like managers Jim Cornette and Bobby Heenan, and wrestlers like Nick Bockwinkel, The Midnight Express, Curt Hennig, and Bill Dundee (when they were Heels-they were also Faces too in their career) There was an wrestler who I enjoyed watching as a heel and thought he was so underrated, and that was “The Nature Boy” Buddy Landel.
Newer fans may not know that many wrestlers used the same nicknames when they were in the different territories, unlike today where a wrestler would leave, the league has copyright property to the name (there are times when the wrestler owns their name, but that is becoming rare). This is why when fans think of “The Nature Boy” gimmick, they think of Ric Flair. Flair actually took the gimmick from Buddy Rogers, who was the first WWWF Champion in 1963 (losing to Bruno Sammartino) and the NWA Title in 1961. Other “Nature Boy” wrestlers were Flair, Paul Lee, and Landel.
Landel started wrestling in 1979 in Bill Watt’s Mid South territory, where he started out as a jobber and caught my eye when he joined Jim Crockett’s NWA in 1985. I remember my first issue I ever bought of the wrestling magazine Pro Wrestling Illustrated covering the Great American Bash of 1985 (before Supercards on PPV, this was Crockett’s big summer card). At the time, Landel was teaming with Cowboy Ron Bass as part of J.J. Dillon’s stable. The storyline started that Dillon was paying more attention to Landel than Bass, which created Bass to turn good and face Landel at the Bash, which was declared a draw. Although some people thought of Landel as a fake Ric Flair, I loved watching his matches and interviews at the time, along with his “corkscrew elbow,” which set up his other finisher, the Figure Four, which Flair and Rogers also used. Wikipedia writes that a match in 1985 between Flair and Landel broke a North Carolina record held by Elvis Presley, so Landel wasn’t just a wanna-be star.
Landel won the NWA National Heavyweight Title at Starrcade 1985 in a decent match against Terry Taylor, when Dillon grabbed Taylor’s foot when Taylor was trying to do his finish, a superplex off the ropes. I remember the NWA showing the match on free TV after the card weeks later, and even then I was rooting for Landel over Taylor, which went against most of my young views that the Heels were bad.
Landel left the NWA when he refused to show up for a TV Taping on time and was fired that day. Landel said on a podcast later that he was tired of the management and other wrestlers playing politics, although he admits that he was having drug problems on top. He claims on that podcast that plan was that NWA Champion Flair was to drop the belt to Landel, and he was to either drop the belt to Magnum T.A. or Tully Blanchard. He also states that Blanchard’s manager at the time, Baby Doll, was to manage him, while Tully was to be paired up with Dillon. Nonetheless, Landel was fired from what was his shot at the big time.
Landel then went to the Memphis area in 1986, and then back to WCW (for a small time), before going to Smoky Mountain Wrestling, and the WWF before getting injured, and released. Landel’s time in Jerry Lawler’s Memphis area was very exciting, where he had some of his best work, especially teaming with Bill Dundee. One of my favorite spots at this time was when Landel and Dundee decided that they would announce the matches themselves, instead of Dave Brown and Lance Russell, and brought out their own table that had a sign titled “The Bill and Buddy Show.” I remember watching this 1986 Memphis run with Landel and Dundee fighting Lawler and Dutch Mantel. This territory was so different from the WWF, AWA, World Class, and NWA that I was used to, and was actually annoyed when my TV Station would pre-empt the show during some weeks where I live in Ohio.
Landel was a major reason, along with The Rock N Roll Express and Jim Cornette, that I was a huge fan of the Smoky Mountain Wrestling territory in the 1990’s, run by Cornette. Just like the Memphis TV Show, I was not able to see Smoky Mountain every week, but with the Internet, I have gotten see every Smoky Mountain show in order. Landel came in Smoky Mountain in 1992, and then again in 94-95 before the league closed. Landel was the Smoky Mountain Champion as a Heel, and right before they closed, Landel was a Face, going against Cornette’s Militia group. I asked Cornette via his podcast, “Corny’s Drive Through” Podcast on MLW Radio (March 14, 2017) if there was plans for Landel to win back the title if the league didn’t close. Cornette said that was the plan. A memorable Smoky Mountain moment was an interview Landel gave admitting to his past mistakes with drugs and being unreliable to the bookers. His run in Smoky Mountain, especially his second run, included a great match with WWF Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels. His WWF run included matches against Bret Hart, a young Matt Hardy, and HHH.
One interesting time in his career that I forgot about, but then rediscovered, was his time in USA Championship Wrestling in Knoxville, Tennessee (1988), run by Ron Fuller. Landel was usually paired with Hector Guerrero. This TV Show was interesting because the wrestlers sat at the announcer’s desk for their interviews. Several of the Smoky Mountain Wrestling stars were here at the time, such as The Armstrong Family, The Mongolian Stomper, and Ron Wright. The wrestling was decent, ( I believe it ended up being a part of Continental Wrestling) but Landel’s character was that he had an injured arm and wore a black arm band, that he “loaded” it with some foreign object. Although the fans bought into the gimmick, yelling at the referee every time Buddy would turn his back to the ref, I think it diminished the fact that Landel really was a great in ring worker that did not need to use a cheap prop gimmick to get over.
Buddy Landel was one of the most underrated wrestlers of the 1980s-1990s. He was still wrestling Indy Shows after he was released from the WWF. He had a short stint in the AWA in 1987 as well. Some of the big names he wrestled during his career were: Magnum T.A., Sting, King Kong Bundy, Tommy Rich, Jerry Lawler, Tully Blanchard, Bobby Eaton, Ron Bass, Kamala, Jim Duggan, The Rock N Roll Express, and more.
I asked Hall of Fame Announcer Jim Ross, via his website, his opinion of Landel and if he was underrated. He replied, “ Buddy was a naturally talented wrestler whose own demons hurt him but Buddy was a good hand without question.”
I also asked Slam Sports Wrestling’s Producer and Author Greg Oliver (who helped give me my break in writing about wrestling) his views on Landel. Oliver writes via email:
Buddy Landel was criminally underrated as a performer. He had all the skills to make it to the top — look, microphone skills, in-ring magic (the story he told me for The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels about wrestling The Invisible Man is proof he could do anything). What he didn’t have was discipline or his head screwed on straight. To his credit, he always owned up to his shortcomings later in life, never bemoaning what could have been.
Buddy Landel died in 2015, at the age of 53, due to complications of a car accident. Even though he was one of the few “Nature Boys,” his work and interview skills were not of a cheap knock off. Wrestling fans, go back and discover this talent. He was not only one of my favorite wrestlers growing up, but even now, going back and watching his matches still entertains me.
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A special thanks to Greg Oliver for helping contribute to this page.
You can find Greg Oliver, and the rest of the great Slam Sports Wrestling writers, at http://slam.canoe.com/Slam/Wrestling/home.html
Here is another one of Landel’s best promos.