In 1990, Herb Abrams held a press conference to announce the formation of the Universal Wrestling Federation, aka the UWF. In an effort to compete with its rivals, the UWF brought in top names such as Paul Orndorff, Steve “Dr. Death” Williams, Captain Lou Albano along with up and coming stars at the time like Cactus Jack and Sunny Beach to name a few. However, after only a few years, the promotion faded off and never did quite reach the level of the WWF and WCW.
In his new book Tortured Ambition: The Story of Herb Abrams and the UWF, author Jonathan Plombon documents the wild world that was the UWF and the person behind the scenes, Herb Abrams. Recently, Jonathan was kind enough to answer several questions for me about the book and the UWF in general.
Before we dive into the book, the UWF, and Herb Abrams, can you tell everyone a little bit about yourself and your background?
I graduated from college in 2006, armed with an almost useless English degree. It took a couple years for me to try freelance writing, which basically amounted to me pitching article ideas to magazines and never hearing back. I wrote for a few small publications, but landed a big break when I wrote an article about openly gay professional wrestlers for “Instinct Magazine.” It didn’t lead to anything, but it was a huge deal for me at the time. Although they weren’t wrestling-related, some of my short stories ended up in literary journals like the “Berkeley Fiction Review,” “Bombay Gin,” and “Bourbon Penn.” It’s where I had my most success.
My first exposure to the UWF was when I borrowed a tape from a friend of mine that had Beach Brawl on it. Not long after that, I saw old reruns of UWF Fury Hour on ESPN Classic. I was hooked on the UWF after that. How did you first come across the UWF?
I’m old enough to remember when it first aired on SportsChannel America. At the time, I would watch anything related to pro wrestling. There was, of course, the WWF, but my curiosity led me to other promotions. I adored WCW. I loved the Global Wrestling Federation. And after flipping through enough channels, I found Herb Abrams’ UWF, which I tried to follow, but it always seemed to come on at a different time and day. I was nine and had an overprotective mother who wouldn’t let me out of her sight. It gave me a lot of free time to watch pro wrestling. Magazines like “Pro Wrestling Illustrated” often featured articles about the UWF, so I might have first heard about it in one of those Bill Apter mags.
I’ve been following your project for several years now and I’m very excited that the book is finally available! What was the main thing that prompted you to write a book about the UWF and the man behind it, Herb Abrams?
Thanks! I think I wanted to know why. I read a lot of the same Abrams stories. There were the stories about prostitutes. There were the stories about cocaine. Knowing that these things happened is great, but I was intrigued as to why these incidents happened. I also thought that Abrams was made out to be a buffoon online. He did plenty of bizarre things, but there was a person underneath it all. I wanted to turn that “buffoon” back into a person. I wanted to put it all in context. I think I managed it to some degree.
How did you come up with the title “Tortured Ambition”?
I’m not sure. I give a lot of my stories bizarre titles and I knew that I couldn’t use a title that was too weird. I think that it was one of the first titles that I came up with. It just sounded like a real book title. Plus, I think it just sums up the narrative in a couple words.
You interviewed dozens and dozens of people associated with the UWF for the book. Was there anyone in particular that you wanted to interview for the book but just weren’t able to for whatever reason?
There were many people that I either couldn’t locate or who didn’t respond to my request. Bob Backlund comes to mind. I tried him twice. Col. Red was another. Some of the people on the Facebook page attempted to contact him, but he never responded. There are a few others that will remain nameless, simply because I want to avoid the drama that could come from bringing them up, but I deeply wanted to talk to them. I really wanted to speak to someone who worked for the regional television sports network, Prime Ticket, which aired the UWF after SportsChannel America. I got ahold of two individuals who worked at Prime Ticket, but they declined to be interviewed (although both were nice about it). Adam Michaels, who was Davey Meltzer, was another one. His name was just too common and it made it impossible to locate him. The two big ones that I wish I would have gotten were his first and second wives, Debbie Quinn and Murry Lee. Lee wants nothing to do with Abrams or the UWF or anything associated with either of them. I couldn’t locate Quinn. There were times when I thought that I had a lead on Quinn, but it would always lead to a dead-end.
On your Facebook page, you’ve shown off some of the discoveries you’ve made such as old UWF master tapes. In the research you’ve done for the book, what is the craziest thing either UWF or Herb Abrams related that you’ve found?
I’ve posted a few documents that were unearthed from a friend of Abrams’. Those were the most intriguing. There were letters written by Zoogz Rift to the courts on behalf on Abrams. There were letters written by his lawyer that implied a potential lawsuit against the WWF. One letter documented an idea by Abrams to run a pay-per-view in the Pacific Rim with a wrestler based on Ultraman as its top star.
The story of the UWF can’t be told without talking about Herb Abrams. Can you fill me in a little bit on Herb Abrams and what he did before he got involved with the UWF?
He primarily worked in the clothing industry, which his parents also did. He owned a clothing store in Redondo Beach (I believe he owned a few stores during his life, but I can’t confirm that). He once claimed that he owned his first store at 16, but I don’t know how truthful that is. He also sold gold during a time when the price of gold skyrocketed. He was a buyer and a seller for clothing stores. He worked for Lane Bryant. He was very successful at all of the jobs he had. He could have led a good life if he had continued on this path. But he wanted to be famous and he couldn’t do that working in the clothing industry.
Any interesting Herb Abrams stories you’d like to share to give those who aren’t too familiar with him an idea of what he was like?
That’s difficult to do. Abrams had so many sides that it would take forever to paint a complete portrait of the man. The best example that I can think of is the Blackjack Brawl. Abrams came in wearing the yellow suit, which made him impossible to miss. He did the voiceover for the introduction, which led to him introducing himself. He came into the ring to interview almost every winner after each match. He made the night about himself. Some may see this as an example of his ego running wild, but it was more of a final, desperate attempt to attain the fame he always desired. From a distance, Abrams was being goofy with his bizarre behavior. On closer inspection, it’s a sad farewell to a man who needed to be larger than life because he felt like he was so much smaller than everyone else.
While researching the book, were there any facts or anecdotes that you came across that made you say “hey, that’s really interesting”?
Abrams hated perfume and lipstick. If there was a woman who was wearing perfume, he’d demand that she go to the bathroom immediately to wash it off. Same goes with lipstick. If a prostitute visited him, he would require that she shower first so there wouldn’t be a trace of perfume on her.
Was there anything that didn’t get included in the final copy of the book that you wish maybe did?
I put pretty much everything in the book. There were some stories that I didn’t include because I couldn’t get the source to go on the record.
I’d like to talk some about the UWF itself as well just so readers can get an idea of what the promotion was like. I think the best place to start would be the “Beach Brawl” pay-per-view from 1991, which is probably the most well known UWF event. Can you talk a little bit about that show and why they decided to do a pay-per-view?
Beach Brawl was the only UWF pay-per-view event. The show culminated with the crowning of Steve Williams as the SportsChannel America Television Champion. It was held at the Manatee Civic Center in Palmetto, Florida. The buyrate was a .1, which was the lowest buyrate for a wrestling pay-per-view up to that point. The show only drew 550 fans. I was unable to find out much about Abrams’ thoughts on the pay-per-view. I assume that he was for it. For SportsChannel America, it was sort of a way to see if they could get their feet wet with pay-per-view. They were thinking about putting some of the Olympics on pay-per-view in ’92 and wanted to try one with the UWF to see how it would go.
The UWF TV show “Fury Hour” took place from some very interesting venues like the Reseda Country Club and the Penta Hotel. The episodes of the show that always stick out in my mind though are the ones they taped in front of Nickelodeon Studios in Florida, I think from 1991. What’s the story behind that? Was the UWF working with Nickelodeon Studios at the time?
Rick Bassman, who had a brief stint in the UWF as “Rick Golden,” was working for Disney in Florida. Bassman had previously gotten a deal with Rob Russen’s IWA (which was the promotion that SportsChannel aired before the UWF). When Abrams heard about this, he contacted Bassman to see if he could get a similar deal. When Disney passed on the UWF, Bassman reached out to Universal Studios and made a deal with them. The whole shoot was a mess. Abrams didn’t want the UWF show to be part of the general admission to the theme park. He wanted the visitors to pay a separate fee to watch the matches. Because of which, attendance was low.
The other major card that the UWF ran which turned out to be their final show was the Blackjack Brawl from 1994. Talk to me a little bit about that event. What was the idea behind the Blackjack Brawl? Why the MGM Grand?
SportsChannel America Program Director Brian Ricco came up with the idea of putting on an event that would be broadcasted on the regional SportsChannel channels. Ricco was hoping to build Abrams up again to the point where they could do a bigger event (possibly another pay-per-view). I think that they chose the MGM Grand because it was new, impressive and it was made to appeal to families.
For anyone watching the UWF for the first time, what are some matches/moments that you would recommend?
The UWF wasn’t about the matches. It was mostly about surprises and spectacles. Because of which, there aren’t a lot of “good” UWF bouts. Almost anything with Cactus Jack, especially those brawls with “Chief” Jay Strongbow in California come to mind. One of my favorites is a tag-team match which pitted David Sammartino and Jay Strongbow against Jack Armstrong and Cactus Jack. No matter what Cactus Jack did to enrage the fans, the crowd always cheered him. And the crowd booed everyone in the match. Not just Cactus’ opponents, but his tag-team partner, as well. Bigelow versus Williams from the Beach Brawl is good, and Orndorff versus Bob Orton Jr. from the South Carolina event is also one to seek out. But as I said before, the UWF was all about spectacle and surprises. It was about shows that had little consistency and a lot of chaos. For example, the War Memorial show from Florida is one that every UWF fan should seek out. The matches aren’t anything special, but the show is infamous for the bout between Mad Man Pondo and the Super Ninja. It’s memorable for all the wrong reasons (check it out on YouTube). That was also Lou Albano’s last show, and he pretty much did whatever he wanted, including dropping in and out of commentary without rhyme or reason, while making fun of the entire event.
As I mentioned, I saw old Fury Hour episodes on ESPN Classic years ago and also there was some UWF stuff via pay-per-view around that time from Todd Okerlund and Joe Ciupik’s company. One thing I’ve always been curious about is who actually owns the UWF tape library?
Al Burke. In December of 1994, Abrams left the West Coast and moved back to New York to care for his sick mother (she eventually made a recovery). On January 2nd, 1995, Abrams wrote a letter to Burke giving him full control of the UWF in his absence. Abrams obviously didn’t know that he would pass away a year later and probably thought that the absence, and Burkes control of the UWF, would be temporary. Todd Okerlund helped Burke license the footage out to various places, which is why Gene Okerlund hosted those Best of Beach Brawl and Best of the Blackjack Brawl pay-per-views.
Did you see the “Dark Side of the Ring” episode on Herb Abrams and the UWF? If so, what were your thoughts on it?
It was a good overview of the promotion and of Herb Abrams’ life. They fit as much as they could into the hour. The family of Abrams didn’t care much for it. They thought it focused too much on the sensationalism that usually accompanies Abrams’ story, which consists of the cocaine and the prostitutes.
Were you consulted at all on the episode?
They got hold of me when they were first thinking about making an episode about Abrams. I wasn’t interviewed too extensively. I mainly told them how I was approaching the story of Abrams and then gave them some names to talk to. That was pretty much the extent of it. I was very protective of the information that I had gathered over the years and didn’t want to give up much. Looking back, that was a bad decision on my part. I was thanked in the end credits of the episode, which did wonders for my confidence (even if they spelled my first name incorrectly).
What do you feel the legacy of the UWF and Herb Abrams is in professional wrestling?
I think that the legacy will always be the cocaine, prostitutes, and not paying the talent. But there’s more to the story than just that. And Abrams actually did pay the talent the majority of the time, sometimes too well, but the occasions that he didn’t have been so well documented that it’ll always be a big part of his memory. I think it’s more interesting why Abrams indulged in his vices, but wrestling fans will always remember the vices first and the reasons second.
There’s one fun question we like to ask at the end of every interview we do. Let’s say you’ve got a table at Wrestle Inn. What meal are you eating? What are you drinking with it? And what two wrestlers are you bringing with you?
I might be stretching the definition of “wrestler” with this, but I’d choose, and there’s no major surprise here, with Herb Abrams. My other choice would be Jim Cornette, because I would love to hear the conversations that he and Abrams would have. No idea what I would eat and drink. If Cornette was there, we’d probably dine at Dairy Queen, which I have no objection to. I’d maybe order the chicken-strip basket. Does Dairy Queen have Pepsi or Coke products? Depending on the answer, I’d have either a Mountain Dew or Mello Yellow.