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The Forgotten Champion – A Profile of Tommy “Wildfire” Rich

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

By Damien Filer

Updated August 28, 2022


When I was a kid, growing up in North Florida, we only got one channel on our TV – the superstation, WTBS from Atlanta, Georgia. Gordon Solie anchored broadcasts of Georgia Championship Wrestling and, when I started watching in the late 1970s, featured some of the greatest names in all of wrestling history from Ric Flair to Dusty Rhodes, from Harley Race to the Funks and Brisco brothers. But one of the brightest stars from that era has faded as the history books have been written – Tommy “Wildfire” Rich.


The fact is that between 1973-84 only eight men wore the prestigious NWA world title belt known as the “ten pounds of gold.” But one of the eight, Tommy Rich, is seldom mentioned when the championship is discussed. Well, Tommy Rich has done enough for wrestling – or rasslin’ as Rich would call it – to be remembered as a champion.


Granted, Rich only held the title for a few short days back in 1981 but he electrified wrestling fans in his heyday, and his accomplishment — taking the title, if only briefly, from Harley Race — should be recognized. Even Harley Race has defended Rich as a legitimate champion. And, not surprisingly, Rich was named the most popular wrestler of 1981 in addition to being one of the youngest men ever to hold the title.


It’s telling that The Pictorial History of Wrestling, published in 1984, called him not only “one of the most skilled” and “dedicated” but also “one the most polite and considerate wrestlers ever to grace the ring.” Terry Funk called him Georgia Championship Wrestling’s “big star.” And in the early 1980s, there truly were few who shined brighter than “Wildfire.”


Tommy Rich was the southern man’s example of someone the girls wanted to be with and the guys wanted to be. He represented youth in an idealistic but also a realistic way. Rich had a temper and he wasn’t the smoothest talker but he clearly wore a white hat. He was someone a little boy could look up to. He was as good an example of a babyface as you are going to find. Here was a bleach blonde and handsome hero to provide an alternative to the bluster and ego of Ric Flair.


Tommy Rich started his storied wrestling career in his native Tennessee almost fifty years ago. Apparently, he proved his work ethic as a teenager on promoter Jerry Jarrett’s farm to earn his first shot wrestling. It only took him two years before he was headlining cards at the Mid-South coliseum where, in 1976, more than 8,000 fans packed in to watch him take Jerry Lawler’s NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship.


In addition to his meteoric rise in Georgia Championship Wrestling (that included capturing the world title one fateful night in Augusta, Georgia) Rich has held a myriad of other titles, worked in everything from regional to extreme promotions and been part of legendary tag teams and storylines, including a heel turn when he once, infamously, was quoted saying, “The fans can go to hell!” That sent shockwaves felt by young boys in living rooms across the country, not to mention quite a few of their sisters, mothers and grandmothers.


One of Rich’s best known and longest lasting feuds was with “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer. It finally concluded with the “Last Battle of Atlanta” in 1983 — a “last man standing” cage match. Rich and Sawyer eventually joined forces to take on the Road Warriors. Later, Rich lost a “loser leaves wrestling” match to Ted Dibiase and returned as the masked Mr. R.


Back in 2008, when asked why he didn’t use his star power to make the jump to the WWE (then WWF) back in the 80s, Rich said he considered it but in the end he just preferred the “old school” and felt more comfortable with the independent promotions. After Hulk Hogan came on the scene Rich never really saw the limelight again in quite the same way.


Tommy Rich used to enter the ring to Reo Speedwagon’s “Roll with the Changes” and that’s just what he’s done throughout his career. These days, the “Wildfire” is still burning bright. Rich still has a love and passion for old school rasslin’ that is needed now more than ever. And he still has his quick wit and sense of humor too.


In March of 2016, when Bill Apter asked Rich what he was up to these days, Rich responded, “about 240!” putting his hands to his midsection. Now, in his mid-sixties, Rich doesn’t look like a babyface anymore. In addition to the weight he wears the scars on his face of almost half a century in the squared circle…and perhaps some regret that after capturing the world title for five fateful days so early in his career he was never able to reach those heights again. But he and his fans will always remember that he did win the title, fair and square.


I’ve read the books about the other fateful eight who held the “ten pounds of gold” but where is the book about Tommy Rich? With all that has been written about wrestling to this point, the time has come to acknowledge the forgotten champion, Tommy Rich, and his place in history.







Prior version originally published at ProWrestling.com in 2017.

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