Former wrestling superstar Hillbilly Jim has been to the top of the mountain in professional wrestling, having been inducted in 2018 into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame. He has tugged, pushed and traded punches with some of the greatest athletes in the world and held his own.
It seemed an unlikely ascent for Scottsville-born Jim Morris, who attended a Glasgow grade school and became a basketball star at Bowling Green High School and a state champion powerlifter. He started his wrestling career after being discovered by Franklin’s Bruce Swayze.
Initially performing under various names before hooking up with Vince McMahon’s WWF, Morris fine-tuned his skills in regional and local wrestling circuits around the country. However, it was McMahon who hung the Hillbilly Jim character on him.
When McMahon asked where he would be from, Morris didn’t hesitate and replied, “Mud Lick, Kentucky.”
McMahon said, “Oh, I like that,” Morris recalled about the Monroe County community.
Morris’ wrestling garb featured bib overalls that complimented his bushy hair and scraggly beard. Standing 6 feet, 7 inches tall and weighing 320 pounds, it was an easy sell to be a “mountain man” from Mud Lick in Monroe County.
A few weeks ago, Morris lost a good friend in the business.
Gene Okerlund was not a combatant in the ring, but he was one of the faces of pro wrestling.
Okerlund, known as “Mean Gene” Okerlund, seemed to be an even more unlikely WWF star.
Okerlund had been a radio guy in Minneapolis and was anything but mean. In 1970, he was a last-minute fill-in at a TV station that had gone on strike. The station had to get its popular wrestling match on the air, and Okerlund was called into action. He was so impressive that before long he had become a part of the Vince McMahon WWF wrestling machine.
Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who later became governor of Minnesota, takes credit for hanging the “Mean Gene” on the man who looked like anything but a wrestler.
Okerlund, always dressing to the nines in a black tux, found his way into millions of homes thanks to McMahon’s slick promotions that included a bevy of non-wrestling celebrities the likes of which professional sports had never seen.
Muhammad Ali, Liberace, Cyndi Lauper, Bob Uecker, Willie Nelson, Robin Leach, Jon Voight and Billy Martin were only a few McMahon enticed to aid in sending his made-for-TV events into mainstream America. In fact, the WWE (it switched several years ago from WWF because of a successful lawsuit from the World Wildlife Federation in England), has been cable television’s most watched programming for decades.
And right there in the middle of it all was “Mean Gene.” His presence could rival in popularity the likes of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Jimmy Hart, Randy Savage, Ric Flair and Hillbilly Jim.
With microphone in hand, he could be seen conducting interviews with McMahon about one of the combatants in an upcoming match, in God knows where. Believe it or not, “Mean Gene” and the interview gave a sensibility to it all.
Taping promos involving “Mean Gene” were held weekly for four hours at a time. There were three live shows with 60 wrestlers; two TV shows running simultaneously; two weekly cartoon shows; and a Canadian TV show that ran every two weeks. Okerlund was directly involved in a total of six hours of weekly promos, not counting the live shows.
McMahon had his reason for giving a non-wrestler so much visual airtime. He knew fans and TV audiences loved “Mean Gene.” Rarely smiling, always playing the consummate straight man in a wacky world of coco-puffs, he was in the middle of it all.
Often with complete chaos all around, “Mean Gene” managed to give the scene some civility with facial expressions, and a rolling of the eyes that projected a genuine interest in what his 60-second interviews revealed. “Mean Gene” brought out the best and the worst in the gladiators, usually elevating their words to fever pitch. When Okerlund was finished, fans couldn’t wait for the next match.
“When ‘Mean Gene’ was there, the fans knew it was big,” Hillbilly Jim said. “He was a real pro and McMahon knew how to take advantage of someone who seemed a bit out of place in it all.”
Okerlund and Morris became good friends. Close to being Okerlund’s equal when it came to talking, the two were matched up to do commentary for a few years on USA cable television.
“It was a show called All-America Wrestling,” said Hillbilly Jim, who would be in complete character as opposed to Okerlund’s sophisticated Madison Avenue look. “Oh we talked about wrestling, but I told a few jokes, talked about critters and animals and about granny’s cooking.”
Morris was a natural fit with Okerlund. Because he always seemed to be in a live action-mode, over the years he had done such a good job of being Hillbilly Jim that he was asked a lot of questions by Okerlund ... well, “What’s it like to be a hillbilly?”
“What’s the most hillbilly thing you’ve done lately?” he was asked.
“I went to a buddy’s farm and watched him work,” Hillbilly Jim replied. “He was doing some mowing. I sat on his porch with a Bud and watched him mow. I could have watched him do that forever.”
Another question was, “What’s the official policy on moonshine since you are from Kentucky?”
“It’s mandatory,” Hillbilly Jim answered. “Being from Kentucky I tasted it one time. Some buddies of mine tried to make their own. It tasted like rubbing alcohol. I said, ‘I ain’t drinking that. ... I’ll be blind by morning.’ ”
In 2010, Morris got a call from the WWE asking him if he would like to be a part of a hangout reunion in a reality show with some of his old wrestling buddies.
“It had been about 20 years since my last official match, except for some WrestleMania appearances,” he said.
He listened to what plans the WWE had in store for the reunion show and liked it, especially since it was going to be a $50,000 payday.
“It was going to be called Legends House,” he said. “There would be eight of us and we’d all be put together for about 21 days to video 12 episodes that would air on the WWE channel where it would be one of the anchor shows.”
Joining Morris would be Jimmy Hart, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Tony Atlas, Pat Patterson, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Howard Finkle and Okerlund.
The reunion would be located in Rancho Mirage, Calif., a suburb of Palm Springs, and it was reported $2 million was spent on production that included staying at the home with a pool, tennis court and appropriate furnishings.
“No expenses were spared,” Morris said. “The house was on the historic register and once belonged to Harpo Marx. We didn’t want for anything.”
The guys were mic’d day and night, and as beautiful as it was, they didn’t have access to a phone, computer, TV or newspaper. Since the production began in late February, the group missed out on most of the NCAA basketball tournament.
The show aired in 2013.
Over the last several years, Hillbilly Jim has lost several good friends, some with health issues related to alcohol and drug abuse, and some with just plain old worn-out bodies. Pro wrestling is a very tough sport. But over the past few weeks it has really hit close to home.
In spite of being a daily fitness participant who closely watches his diet, he underwent a six-bypass heart surgery in late December.
“The doc said I really shouldn’t be doing this on you, except for one reason ... heredity,” Morris said.
A few days later, he got word that his good friend Okerlund had died from complications from a fall. He was 76.
Okerlund was well-known by lots of people. The night he died, the airwaves on talk radio from coast to coast were filled with both men and women expounding on what “Mean Gene” had meant to them.
No, he never won a match or lost one either. He never cracked anyone over the head with a chair or raked a paper cup across the eyes of an opponent, yet he was a giant in the wrestling business. And yes, it is a business.
Get up, get out and get going!
– Gary West’s column runs monthly in the Daily News. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.