Remembering The Honky Tonk Man’s WWF Babyface Run

Brian Damage

For many wrestling fans, Honky Tonk Man wasn’t just the longest reigning Intercontinental Champion in WWE history but also one of the biggest heels of the 1980s. But there was an attempt, at one point, to turn him babyface. It is that which is the focus of today’s piece.

Now, if you read the title of this piece, you may be asking yourself: “Babyface? When was the Honk Tonk Man ever a babyface in the WWF?” Longtime WWE fans, of course, remember The Honky Tonk Man as one of the top heels during the mid to late 1980’s. A heel run that included the longest Intercontinental title reign in WWE history. All that is true, but before he became a huge heel in the promotion, there was an attempt by Vince McMahon and company to make Honky a huge babyface.

Before we delve into that, let us remember that the Honky Tonk Man was just coming off a very successful run in Stu Hart’s Calgary Stampede Wrestling as ‘Honky Tonk Wayne.’ A run, which saw Honky win that promotion’s tag team titles and their main championship the North American title. Honky Tonk Wayne did big business for Hart’s Stampede wrestling, so it only made sense that Vince McMahon wanted to bring him to the World Wrestling Federation.

In the fall of 1986, Honky Tonk Wayne was repackaged as The Honky Tonk Man, a wrestling Elvis Presley impersonator. In McMahon’s eyes at the time, he saw Honky being as big as ‘The Boogie Woogie Man’ Jimmy Valiant. The Boogie Woogie Man was a huge babyface star in several territories including his main opposition at the time down in the Carolinas. This was going to be Vince’s version of that gimmick and it would be just as big, if not bigger than Valiant ever could be.

The Honky Tonk Man first appeared on WWF television after a tag team match that pitted the Junkyard Dog and George ‘The Animal’ Steele against a couple of jobbers. After their victory, the very popular JYD got on the microphone and introduced his friend The Honky Tonk Man. HTM came out to the ring, with Vince McMahon doing play by play talking the Honky Tonk Man up and being over the top excited to see him finally debut. The reaction from the fans though was lukewarm at best.

Probably not expecting such a poor reaction to his future star, McMahon did what he had to do to get his rock n roll protege “over.” Honky would appear on the heel ‘Magnificent’ Muraco’s talk show and told the fans about himself. He was from Memphis, Tennessee and he loved to sing and dance and he loved all the fans nationwide. He then went on to tell Muraco that he was here to stay in the WWF and was brought in by his very good friend, Hulk Hogan.

As we know, during the 1980’s, Hulk Hogan could do no wrong. Vince attempted to have Honky Tonk Man be a friend to the Hulkster and generate interest in his own character. Now that the seed was planted in everyone’s head that Honky was a good friend of Hulk Hogan, surely his WWF career would take off? Alas, there was still mostly silence during his entrances and perhaps a smattering of boos to boot.

During a squash match against perennial jobber Terry Gibbs, Gorilla Monsoon excitedly introduced Honky Tonk to the more or less indignant fans. That is when McMahon told the television audience that the one and only Hulk Hogan had a special message about HTM. A second screen popped up during Honky’s match and low and behold it was the Hulkster cutting a promo endorsing Honky Tonk. In the promo Hogan said:

“Oh Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! Shake Rattle and Roll all over the WWF! You know, this Honky Tonk Man…he’s got it all together dude. This cat trains says his prayers and eats his vitamins too. And I think he’s gonna rock this entire WWF.”

Certainly a more than ringing endorsement of HTM that surely would get the fans dancing and singing in the aisles along with Honky but it just never materialized. WWF fans either never got what Honky was suppose to be or they simply just didn’t care. The Honky Tonk Man was a bust. Or was he?

In the following weeks, McMahon did something that was ingenious and had Honky acknowledge that the fans weren’t cheering him and not singing and dancing with him. He still believed that fans liked him and wanted to prove it to his main detractor which was Jesse the Body Ventura. He asked all the fans to send their cards and letters to the WWF offices and show them that he was beloved. This went on for a few weeks with Honky cutting promos every week that he believed in the fans and that they wouldn’t let him down.

Finally, after a few weeks, Jesse Ventura read the results and said the majority of fans didn’t like The Honky Tonk Man. Honky freaked out and immediately turned heel by cutting a dastardly promo on the WWF fans. The rest, as they say, became WWF history.

4 thoughts on “Remembering The Honky Tonk Man’s WWF Babyface Run

  1. In his first appearance on tv he pulled down the strap like his cousin Lawler and I remember McMahon on commentary saying “What’s that?”……

    Like

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