Jimmy Hart & The First Family: Three Decades of Dominance

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Pro wrestling has had stables for decades, going back to the early days of the industry in the 1930s, but for the most part, these tended to be “brother” units – some real, some not so real – while others become extended families, such as The Fabulous Kangaroos, who saw ten men carry on the mantle of the tag team from 1957 through to the early 1990s. But while some look at the creation of The Four Horsemen (Ric Flair, Ole Anderson, Arn Anderson & Tully Blanchard) in Mid Atlantic in 1985 as the faction that kicked off the rise of stables in pro wrestling, another stable, Paul Ellering‘s original Legion of Doom (The Road Warriors, Jake “The Snake” Roberts & The Spoiler) was founded in Georgia Championship Wrestling a year earlier in 1984. One of the first major stables was Bobby “The Brain” Heenan‘s Family in Verne Gagne‘s American Wrestling Association (AWA), which began in the early 1970s. In the WWWF, The Grand Wizard (Ernie Roth) would lead multiple men to championship gold throughout the 1970s, but like Heenan, his units were usually smaller “client lists”, usually only two to three wrestlers at a given time. But in 1978, it was legendary manager Jimmy Hart whose First Family terrorized the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) in Memphis and whose roster assembled the largest faction that pro wrestling had ever seen, not to mention studded with future Hall of Famers. It became a stable that would cross over into multiple promotions, from CWA to WWF to WCW, making Hart one of the most dominant pro wrestling managers of the late 1970s to the mid-1990s.

Jimmy Hart wasn’t always a pro wrestling man. In the 1960s, he actually fought his first fifteen minutes of fame in the rock and roll business. In May of 1963, Jimmy Hart – alongside six other high school mates from Treadwell High School in Memphis – formed The Gentrys, a pop-rock outfit that found regional success by 1965. That year the band exploded nationally when their single “Keep on Dancing” hit #4 on the Billboard charts. The group found little follow-up success, however, and disbanded in 1967. Jimmy Hart would reform a new version of The Gentrys in 1969, and recorded with famous producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records (Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley), releasing new singles, but by the early 1970s, the band failed to recapture the brief glory of the mid-60s.

In 1978, Jimmy Hart was called up by another former high school friend in Jerry Lawler, who had since become the biggest wrestling star in Memphis. “The King” also co-owned CWA with Jerry Jarrett, and Lawler brought Jimmy Hart into CWA to sing back-up on a Lawler song, and subsequently became Lawler’s manager. Inevitably, Hart turned on Lawler, becoming the top heel manager in CWA and soon formed Jimmy Hart’s First Family, a group that would feature many of the top future stars of the 1980s and 1990s. Between 1978 and 1984, Hart would field a stable that featured the likes of Rick Rude, Austin Idol, Kamala, The Iron Sheik, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, King Kong Bundy, Ox Baker, The Midnight Express’ Dennis Condrey, Norvell Austin & Bobby Eaton, Kevin Sullivan, Tommy Rich, Koko B. Ware, and Eddie Gilbert.

In 1982, Hart’s First Family saw international mainstream attention, as Hart had brought in comedian Andy Kaufman for his legendary feud against Jerry Lawler. In 1984, he signed “Macho Man” Randy Savage into the First Family, following Savage’s prior years working for rival Memphis promotion International Championship Wrestling (ICW), run by Randy’s father Angelo Poffo. During his time in CWA, Hart guided three men to runs as the AWA International Heavyweight Champion (CWA’s top singles title) – Tommy Rich twice, Eddie Gilbert once, and Austin Idol four times – and guided three men to reigns as the NWA Mid-America Heavyweight title – Randy Savage three times, Tommy Rich once, and Bobby Eaton an astounding ten times. He found great success in competition for the AWA Southern Heavyweight Championship (another top CWA singles title), with Tommy Rich five times, Austin Idol three times, and solo runs for King Kong Bundy and Rick Rude.

His unit also won the AWA Southern Tag Team Championships three times – twice by The Bruise Brothers (Porkchop Cash & “Dream Machine” Troy Graham) and once by Bundy & Rude, and they also won the CWA World Tag Team titles when The Midnight Express (Condrey & Austin) won them in November of 1983. Jimmy Hart was truly the manager of champions, amassing 35 championship runs in only six years.

In 1985, one of Hart’s longtime rivals from CWA, Harley Davidson, was now a rising star in Vince McMahon’s WWF, where he had been repackaged as the babyface Hillbilly Jim. On Jim’s recommendation, Hart made the jump to the WWF that year, where he immediately became one of the company’s top managers, in a loaded company that featured Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, “Classie” Freddie Blassie, Captain Lou Albano, and Mr. Fuji. He started off managing Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and a former CWA Family member King Kong Bundy. He would pair Brutus Beefcake with Valentine to form The Dream Team (until selling them off to Johnny Valiant), and in September, traded Bundy to Heenan for Adrian Adonis and the Missing Link.

Through the rest of the 1980s, he would continue to keep a top tier stable, adding The Hart Foundation (Bret “Hitman” Hart with former Family member Jim Neidhart), The Funks (Terry & “Hoss” Dory Jr.), The Honky Tonk Man, The Natural Disasters (Earthquake & Typhoon), The Nasty Boys (Knobbs & Sags), The Glamour Girls (Leilani Kai & Judy Martin), Dino Bravo, Money Inc. (“The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase & Irwin R. Shyster) and The Mountie (Jacques Rougeau). He continued to guide his clients to championships, including WWF World Tag Team title reigns for The Hart Foundation, Money Inc., and The Nasty Boys, as well as WWF Intercontinental title reigns for The Mountie and Honky Tonk Man (who held his title for 454-days). By the end of his WWF run, however, he finally turned face, managing Hulk Hogan to his WWF World Championship victory over Yokozuna at WrestleMania IX in 1993, marking the only time he guided a wrestler to WWF’s top prize. It was soon after this victory that Hart, alongside Hogan, departed WWF.

Jimmy Hart would remain Hogan’s manager in WCW, guiding him to his first WCW World Heavyweight Championship over Ric Flair at WCW Bash at the Beach in 1994, but a year later at Halloween Havoc, he turned on Hogan and allied with The Giant, helping the newcomer win the WCW World title. He would return to managing heels, taking over the managerial side of former Family member Kevin Sullivan’s new stable, Dungeon of Doom, that featured Sullivan, The Shark (former WWF client Earthquake), Lex Luger, Hugh Morrus, Meng (Haku), The Barbarian, Kamala (another former CWA Family member), and Vader, all intent on one purpose – to destroy Hulkamania in WCW.

In 1995, Hart briefly managed Ric Flair, helping Flair win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship over former Family member Randy Savage at WCW Starrcade. In 1997, he decided to reform the First Family, drawing in several former Dungeon of Doom members like Luger, Barbarian, Hugh Morrus, The Giant, and former WWF client Brian Knobbs of the Nasty Boys. But injuries to the roster of clients kept derailing the stables impact in WCW and in 1999, the group disbanded. It effectively ended Jimmy Hart’s career as a manager, as his position with WCW became reduced (he worked as a booker for WCW Saturday Night) and WCW eventually folded and was purchased by WWE.

In 2005, he would resurface in Total Nonstop Action (TNA) to help The Naturals (Chase Stevens & Andy Douglas) and returned again in 2010 to briefly manage The Nasty Boys. In 2011, he returned to WWE, but in an ambassador role. For three decades, Jimmy Hart led an empire in professional wrestling, guiding multiple World Champions as well as padding his trophy room with titles from multiple companies, from Memphis to New York to Atlanta. His charisma and confidence from his days as a 60’s popstar helped him break waves into the wacky world of professional wrestling, where he was one of the industry’s top managers from the 1970s through the 1990s. And while Heenan beat him by a couple of years in the AWA, Jimmy Hart’s influence on the massive stables that would follow, such as the New World Order (nWo), D-Generation X, Bullet Club, and more, began in Memphis in 1978.
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