Barry Windham and the Disappearing Cowboy Wrestler

Wrestling has always leaned on archetypes, but the country-strong badass that Barry Windham embodied in the 1980s and 90s has mostly vanished. It's a shame.

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Sep 6 2016, 1:00pm

Image via Worldofonlinewrestling.com

There was something out of the ordinary about Barry Windham in his prime. He had a strange skinny-fat thing going on, and there was something almost too smooth about his skin; it was like an exceptionally angry porcelain baby had somehow made it to the ring. At 6'6", Windham was also a relative giant in the NWA, the promotion where he achieved his peak of fame and one that skewed shorter than the WWF's obsessive quest for bodybuilders and goliaths.

Windham got his first taste of real fame in the WWF, winning two tag-team championships with his brother-in-law Mike Rotunda, who later became the famed Irwin R. Schyster, wrestling taxman and manifestation of Vince McMahon's Republican id; for McMahon, there was nothing more heelish than an IRS agent with a grudge. But it was down South, in Jim Crockett Promotions, where he really made his name and cemented his legacy would stand for years after his final bout.

Windham burst onto the scene in 1986 as a classic babyface, with bleached blonde hair and wrestling boots made up to look like a cowboy's. He dwarfed most of his competition, standing half a head taller or more, but he didn't wrestle like a big man. For one thing, he could go; he was so popular that he ended up feuding with Ric Flair over the title almost immediately, and the two had it out repeatedly in 60-minute draws.

Windham's stamina in the ring was bizarre. Of course, other guys went the distance in those long exhibitions with Flair, but you'd be pressed to find one who kept up the entire hour like Windham did. He'd bleed—everyone bled in those days—and sweat with Flair, over and over, working some of the best stuff in the late golden age of Flair's career.

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Windham was also shockingly agile for someone his size. He wasn't cruiserweight nimble, but it was impossible not to wonder, watching him dart under or over someone with barely an ounce of effort, how a guy that tall, approaching 300 pounds, could do it. He loved big suplexes, especially late in matches, which stood as a sort of unspoken testament to how he sometimes seemed to get stronger the more effort he exerted. Windham's finishing move was a flying lariat, an aerial clothesline that relied on jumping rather than the sort of raw, stiff power of Stan Hansen's lariat. It's nothing special by today's flipping, diving gymnastic standards, but there's an understated beauty to it. Some of it goes back to Windham's physical features. Much of it has to do with the character he created.

Of course the finishing move was a lariat. Windham was a cowboy, after all. Not in the way his father, Blackjack Mulligan, or most other cowboy wrestlers had been—he kept the big fists and the ability to take a beating, but that was about it. No hat, no colloquialisms. But he was still a cowboy; he was the first NWA Western States Heritage champion, a short-lived belt whose name alone raised multiple questions and implications: Just what do we mean by the "heritage of the American West," and who does the deciding? Are we talking about the wide-eyed optimism of cowboy movies and American ingenuity, or the imperialist venture that slaughtered natives and took half a nation from Mexico? The belt is just another pro-wrestling trinket, long defunct, but the celebration of heritage is right there in the name and the holder, the beefy blonde guy who, we were constantly reminded, was from Sweetwater, Texas, and whose dad was one of the masters of the cowboy wrestling gimmick.

That the legend of the cowboy lived on in pro wrestling, long after the rest of popular culture decided either to complicate or abandon it, is telling. The cowboy movies and shows that dominated the American airwaves had largely disappeared by the late 1970s, but the mythos didn't fade from working-class pro wrestling until much, much later. Wrestling fans were into cowboys long after it had ceased to be fashionable. As a corollary, politicians found fertile ground with the cowboy motif while everyone insisted it was a dead letter; Ronald Reagan, son of suburban Illinois, wearing a cowboy hat and affecting a slight drawl wasn't an accident, not any more than George W. Bush's pretending to be a just-folks ranch hand was. All of it—in pro wrestling, in politics, on TV—drove liberal tastemakers crazy. That was, at least partially, the point.

Barry Windham was, in the ways that matter most, the last of his kind. He was subdued, with the laconic cowboy thing set at a subconscious level, but it was there. He was wildly popular for it, not despite it. There were other cowboy wrestlers that came after, but they were mostly old guys working the same gimmick they had for ages.

Windham went heel, joining the Four Horsemen after a well-worked angle in which he betrayed his best friend Lex Luger; that was the run that got Windham into the WWE Hall of Fame. He later flipped back, becoming a face NWA world champion briefly during the odd title years when Flair absconded to the WWF with the actual world title. That was about the peak of it, though, and it's odd in retrospect that Windham never truly broke out. He was successful, but not in the way that his talent and the dazzling work of his early years indicated. To hear other wrestlers talk about him, Windham was a party guy, like so many others. He stayed up all night, and if there are no specifics on what, exactly, that entailed, we also all know by now: wine, women, drugs, or some combination of the three.

The extent to which Windham got less than he deserved was most glaring in the last, midcard days of his career. He left WCW for the WWF once more, getting briefly saddled with a bizarre, terrible gimmick as The Stalker, a wrestling survivalist; that lasted all of one pay-per-view. After that, he became more overtly a cowboy in the old caricature style. He joined up with a young Bradshaw as the New Blackjacks, wearing cowboy hats and growing out a handlebar mustache in tribute to his father. It was odd and false, perhaps a recognition that the last gasp of the cowboy gimmick in wrestling had no real room left for reinvention.

Windham closed his mainstream wrestling career in a godawful WCW run as part of the West Texas Rednecks, reduced alongside his brother and Curt Hennig into caricatures of Southern cultural signaling. They weren't cowboys in the sense that they liked lassos, chaps, and beating people up; they were "cowboys" in the sense that they really hated rap and wanted to tell everyone about it. You already know that by "rap" they mostly meant "black people," and the resulting pandering-by-caricature insulted everyone involved—the Rednecks, the Southerners Vince Russo was mocking, and the hip-hop fans and minorities they were targeting. It leaned hard on the worst of stereotypes without even the decency to wring a good match or story out of them.

If Windham faded hard before retiring completely, he's also still here. You can see him in his nephews, Bo Dallas and Bray Wyatt, the latter of whom looks shockingly like his uncle. The style he perfected is there, too, particularly in Chris Hero, another big, blonde guy who moves a little too well for his size and can wrestle his ass off even though he's a little doughy and people keep saying he won't ever reach the heights destined for him.

That legacy aside, though, Windham nowadays qualifies as an underappreciated star, lost in the glare of Hogan, Flair, Warrior, Sting, and a dozen or more contemporaries. But Barry Windham was awesome, the last of the cowboys, a 60-minute man in a 15-minute-match world. He's worth remembering, especially as the era and the style he helped define fade further from memory.

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