September 2, 2007
Reno Riggins: Getting the job done
By KENAI ANDREWS - For SLAM! Wrestling
Fans who watched the old WWF programs, like Superstars and Wrestling Challenge, will remember the jobbers used to put the talent over. Using a simple but effective six-minute formula, those matches became revered by the fans, not only for the memories of kayfabe but for the "other guys" who took their lumps week in and week out.
There were many guys who gained a cult following alongside the talent with their antics. Steve Lombardi and Barry Horowitz come to mind. Paul Roma and Jimmy Powers were good babyfaces, even parlaying their significant female following into a brief run as a tag team called the "The Young Stallions" with a title shot against the Hart Foundation on Saturday Night's Main Event their crowning glory.
And then there was Mulkeymania in the NWA, rivaling Hulkamania at its peak.
Some went on to bigger and better things. Others didn't, fading away when the bright lights of Monday Night RAW and the Attitude Era flipped everything 180 degrees.
Long-time wrestling fans remember Reno Riggins. As one of the principle jobbers in the golden age of the WWF and the early years of RAW, he wrestled many of the company's biggest stars every week -- initially as a face and later as a heel -- from early 1988 to about 1995.
His role within the company was a simple one. "Basically I was there to do jobs, so of course there was a difference in persona like when I'm walking through the airport with, let's say, Rick Rude. Everybody is going to recognize him and nobody is going to recognize me until I get to the building," he told SLAM! Wrestling with a laugh.
So, didn't looking up at the lights every week get mundane after a while?
"Even though I wasn't one of those guys that they gave a push to, it was always good," Riggins said. "I was making good money, and I was getting to travel the world for free. I was single at the time, and was getting the experience of a lifetime, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I always knew that for every position in the company, there were a thousand guys waiting to take your spot. I always kept that perspective so it was like, 'If they want do something with me fine. If not, well I'm still living the dream.'"
Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1967 as Neal Hargrove, Riggins gravitated towards athletics and watching Georgia Championship Wrestling on the Superstation WTBS. Football beckoned early on in McGavock Public high school with Riggins excelling as an all-state linebacker alongside childhood friend and colleague Jeff Jarrett who attended rival private school, Goodpasture. He considered the NFL, but began to explore other options. "As you get older you begin to realize, 'Well I'm five-foot nothing, barely 200 pounds. What are my other options?' So I actually approached Jeff about wrestling for his father's company," he said frankly. "Back then, it was really tough to get into the wrestling business. You needed to have a good contact to even get trained."
Riggins' tale of the tape would later grow to 5-foot-10 and 230 pounds at his peak.
Jarrett gave Riggins the brush-off, so he continued to look around, finally striking gold when he met trainer Tojo Yamamoto (who trained Jerry Jarrett, Jeff's father) waiting at the exit of one of Jarrett's local wrestling shows in early 1986. He talked Yamamoto into training him after a chat in that chance meeting, although he would not realize then the depth of what he was in store for.
"He liked to run people off, and sure enough he ran my friend and I all over the National Fairgrounds Sports Arena," Riggins said, wincing at the thought. "We learned only a few things that day like how to enter and exit the ring. Actually that's the first thing I ever learned, that there is a proper way to get in and out of the ring. So many guys watch wrestling and think they know everything, and then they can't even get in or out of the ring." Fellow classmates included Sid Vicious and University of Tennessee football defensive end standout Craig Brown.
The brutal training sessions separated the men from the boys quickly. His friend bailed after the first session but Riggins preserved, training with Yamamoto for two years.
His reward afterwards was toiling in the Indies for little less than peanuts. Driving 10 hours to Pensacola, Florida, eight wrestlers to a van and motel room, for a free TV taping at a World Organizational Wrestling lineup, featuring future stars Bob Holly and Yokozuna, and established veterans Jerry Stubbs, Don Fargo, and Bert Prentice.
"For studio wrestling, it wasn't all that bad, though it looked like it was shot in an old gas station or garage," Riggins muses.
Riggins' break came when he heard the WWF tour was pulling into Nashville, so he crashed the show. In a moment of life imitating art, he fooled security into thinking he was a delivery courier. After stumbling around backstage, his moment-of-truth conversation with WWF Vice-President Terry Garvin went something like:
Riggins was understandably euphoric and nervous "as a man on death row" and went to Bristol with a buddy where a no-nonsense Chief Jay Strongbow told him he was wrestling Hercules Hernandez for five minutes, entrance to exit.
"Ray Hernandez was a super nice guy who was being managed by Bobby 'The Brain' Heenan, and they were getting ready for a big pay-per-view with Billy Jack Haynes I think," recalled Riggins. "So he said, 'Look here kid, by the time the intros are done and I get rid of the chain we'll be out of there in no time.'"
The Nashville native was impressed by the persona Ray Hernandez had swiftly morphed into at bell time. Gone was the pleasant man tutoring him in the back moments before on how easy everything would be. "I remember them playing his music and him walking up to the ring just jacked up to the gills," he said vividly. "Heenan is coming down with him, and I've never seen this many people in one place in my life. I'm thinking, 'This has been a mistake.'"
Was Hernandez really "The Mighty Hercules"? Consider Reno's account.
"Seconds into the match, he picked me up and slammed me with one arm. I'm lying on the mat looking up at him in amazement. After that I thought he said 'Move' but he actually said 'Don't move.' So he hits the ropes for the big elbow and I move out of the way thinking 'Here is my big comeback.' Yeah right. He cuts that off in a hurry. Then he puts me in his backbreaker finish. The whole thing took about a minute and a half; I didn't even break a sweat."
Riggins passed the Bristol test and reported to Winston-Salem where he wrestled "Outlaw" Ron Bass and the rest, as they say, is history.
It begs the question, which wrestlers were great to work with in the ring?
Riggins lists "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig, "Outlaw" Ron Bass and The Honky Tonk Man, as some of the guys who were super easy to work with. "Those were night offs, because you knew when you looked at the board and saw their names, your night was going to be an easy one."
On the other end, guys like Nailz (Kevin Wacholz) were not so easy. "Nailz had no business being in the wrestling business, but he was somebody's buddy who got him in. I've had street fights that were easier."
And when did they realize the fans were noticing their work in the ring?
One on occasion en route to a show with colleague Horowitz and a friend, they made a wrong turn, ending up in the wrong side of Harlem, New York. Finding a gas station and store bustling with activity -- at least 100 parked cars deep at 3 a.m. -- Riggins remembers them being the only white faces in the parking lot.
"I thought for a moment, 'Oh my, we're going to die, and we're going to die here in Harlem.' We walk up to the counter and say 'We're lost.' The guys behind the counter said 'No kidding.' But one of them recognized us and even remembered our names. After that, he took out his camera and we spent 45 minutes taking pictures with them and everybody in the parking lot.
"That was an indication that the fans were paying attention, not to just the stars like Lex Luger but also to us."
Riggins left the WWF around late 1995 after getting engaged and took to the family life for a year before getting the itch for the local squared circle. Aside from a Jim Cornette inquiry for a squash match with The Hardy Boyz in 1998 which he turned down, he doesn't hear much from WWE officially these days. He respects the WWE's ability to continue to "entertain millions" but frowns upon the current state of company's product.
Southern All-Star Championship Wrestling, a promotion in the Nashville area is Riggins' current baby. His goal is to help bring wrestling back to the old school "territories" flavor, modeling his promotion on the old Georgia Championship Wrestling style.
When not in the ring, he owns and manages an apartment complex and about 25 other properties in the Nashville area. This includes an Autobody and Paint store, and a real estate investment firm, which buys old houses and renovates them.
Riggins was also recently featured in the Nashville Business Journal highlighting his transition "from the ring to rehabbing properties."
He does bump into some of the WWE talent every now and then though and spoke to Shawn Michaels about a month ago. Despite reports of HBK being disoriented outside of the ring, he was fine and looked to be in tremendous physical shape according to Riggins.
Of course over the years there have been a few memorable moments.
Wrestling a five-star match with Mr. Perfect that wowed everyone backstage. "Curt was getting primed to take on Hogan or the champion for a pay-per-view match (which had a big payoff) but something happened and he was bumped from the spot, and he was upset about it. I look up on the board and who am I wrestling? Curt Hennig. We had wrestled before and had good chemistry so I say, 'Curt, what do you want do tonight?' He said 'I want to give them a performance of a lifetime to make them regret bumping me out of my spot.' And we did. We were in that groove, that zone. It was a 10-12 minute match and I felt in that moment I could be an Intercontinental champion or a world champion."
Too many great moments backstage and on the road. Long-lasting relationships with production crew and the road crew. Riggins traveled often with Horowitz on the road and still keeps in contact with him today.
Riggins was also good friends with the late Owen Hart and was a victim of several of Owen's legendary practical jokes. One time, Hart had Riggins paranoid about losing his passport as they were minutes from entering customs clearance in Singapore.
Of course, Owen helped him "find" it.
Looking back at his career, Riggins sums up his time at the WWF from a positive perspective.
"To walk into the dressing room and see Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Jake the Snake, Rick Rude and Andre the Giant sitting in the corner playing cards, it was pretty amazing. The A-list of talent that they had like the Don Muracos and guys like that, when they walked into a room, they were all bigger than life itself. When we went out with them after the matches, you were living the rock-star lifestyle.
"I was guilty by association."
Kenai Andrews has written over 40 published articles ranging from technology to A&E celebrity interviews. This is his first for SLAM! Wrestling. Email him at email@example.com.