Hampton Roads' Wrestling Hero

When wrestling fans think of Magnum T.A., it's easy to remember what might have been.

Would Hampton Roads have ever gotten its own hometown world champion? How many titles would the man born Terry Allen in Chesapeake have brought home? Would he have stayed in the National Wrestling Alliance or headed to the World Wrestling Federation, now World Wrestling Entertainment? Would he have spent the next few years, or even decades, entertaining audiences across the nation and around the world, one day finding his way into the WWE Hall of Fame?

Why did it have to rain so hard that Charlotte night in October 1986? Why couldn't that telephone pole have been a just few feet to one side?

And why him? How could a 27-year-old, beloved by those in the ring and the dressing room, with a career, a life ahead of him, just... have it all stolen away? Why couldn't it have been... someone else in that car accident?

"Like so many stories in wrestling, you didn't know if it was true," said fan Jane Cheslock of Richmond, expressing the feeling of the, "This is where I was when JFK was assassinated," moment for wrestling fans. "I cried. I was in shock. I loved Magnum. Who didn't love him? I hoped he'd live, but I knew he'd never wrestle again. It was heartbreaking; he belonged in the ring, and he'd worked too long and too hard not to be there."

We see wrestlers fly off the top rope, slam each other down, bash each other with chairs, and then, amazingly enough, shrug it off long enough to get up, beat down an opponent, and soak in our cheers or boos long enough to disappear into the dressing room. To the fans, they look invincible, even superhuman. When they get hurt or injured, we expect them to be back in a few weeks or months, good as new.

But that's not what happened. Magnum didn't hop out of his hospital bed, do a run-in in the next week's world title match, and belly-to-belly suplex three guys out of the ring. No one knew if he'd ever bound anywhere again.

"I woke up the next morning, and the next thing I knew, it was on the news," said longtime manager Jim Cornette, who passed Allen on the road just before the accident. "It could have been anybody, because we were all on the road. We were all in shock. A lot of people thought that he would wrestle again, and then it dawned on us that he never would."

Local papers put Allen's news on the front page. Tens of thousands of get-well cards poured through the hospital. A new phone line and 24-hour security had to be installed to deal with anxious fans trying to find out about their fallen hero.

Days before, fans might have been planning a celebration for Allen beating Ric Flair for the world title; now everyone hoped to just see him stand one more time.

Nerve damage never allowed Magnum to use much of his right side, and had his neck not been as large and strong as it was, he might have been paralyzed - or worse. But after five months of physical therapy, he walked out of the hospital on crutches with his arm in a sling.

Wrestling fans are a tight bunch; their game isn't the most popular form of entertainment in the world, and some just see it as a regular show that anyone could do. But for those that truly care, there are certain moments that really make them glad to be fans.

Not because they saw a great match, or because someone did a good move. But because wrestling carries its own group of feel-good, Disney-type moments. Once in a while, fans get to cheer because something very special happens.

On May 6, 1984, tens of thousands rose to their feet as Texas Stadium became an uproar when Kerry Von Erich defeated Ric Flair for the NWA title, less than three months after Von Erich lost his brother David. When Mick "Mankind" Foley won the WWE title on Dec. 29, 1998, after 15 years in the business, millions watched a dream come true. As Bret Hart and Chris Benoit embraced after their match on Oct. 4, 1999, in the same arena in which Hart's brother Own died during a wrestling pay-per-view just over four months before, fans could see and feel the brotherhood that wrestlers share.

In April 1987, another such moment occurred.

The Crockett Cup tag team tournament was held being in Baltimore, a popular NWA staple. As the event would down, Magnum's longtime friend and tag team partner Dusty Rhodes and Magnum's former enemy Nikita Koloff (who'd switched to being a fan favorite when Allen was injured) made it to the finals. And then, just before the last match, Allen walked out of the dressing room and made his way to the ring as thousands of surprised fans leaped to their feet and deafened the atmosphere with cheers.

"That was incredibly emotional," Allen recalled in late 2006. "Standing in the midst of all those fans screaming, I'll never be able to put that into words. It was memorable and special, but sad in a few ways. I knew so many people had high hopes that I'd be coming back, but I'd never be at 100 percent to get in the ring again."

Allen continued to do color commentary and other out-ring work for the NWA until 1991.

"I would have loved to wrestle him," says Hampton resident Damien Wayne, who competes in several small independent promotions across the state. "I was a major T.A. fan. He would have been the next big thing if not for the accident. I'd like to see where he'd go if he were still around. He was one of the few who had 'it.' He had the look, the connection with the fans, the intensity in the ring, everything."

Allen, who still lives in Charlotte, stepped away from the ring, and looked for a new career.

"I dabbled in a lot of little things, but I couldn't really find anything to hang my hat on," he said. That is, until 1995, when he went into cellular phone communication. He works for a company that builds cell phone towers. He also had three children after the accident.

So Terry Allen, the one person who had every right in the world to feel sorry for himself, never let the loss of a dream get him down. He taught all those who knew him, wrestling fans and others, how to get back up after losing it all. Yes, fans could wonder what might have been - but they can also see what was, and will be.

That's why, for the past three years, the local sports entertainment organization Pro Wrestling Mid-Atlantic (PWMA) has held a Magnum T.A. Tribute tournament show at Chesapeake's Khedive Temple. Every April, local fans get together to meet someone who inspired them for reasons far more important than a pinfall or a title.

Last Saturday, the most recent anniversary show came about, and while Magnum might have been the top attraction, he wasn't the only one.

As has been the custom, the show paid tribute not only to Magnum, but to those that played a large role in his career as well (last year, Koloff, Tony Atlas, and others attended). For the latest event, the organization thanked someone else who helped start - and invigorate - some of the biggest careers in wrestling history.

Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Foley and some of the other biggest names in wrestling history have mentioned him as an influence. He's won the NWA title three times, as well as a host of other titles.

"He was an everyman's fan," said fan Joey Mondichak. "He wasn't big or fancy; he just went in the ring and got it done. Every time he was in the ring, he always put on a good show. He had a lot of drive and determination. He was a good talker and a good entertainer. He was easy to root for."

The event may have belonged to Magnum - but the night belonged to the honoree: Rhodes.

"Basically, we're just carrying on a tradition of bringing in a legend, someone who played a part in Magnum's career," said PWMA owner Keith Krockett.

Rhodes wasn't the only one who did so there that night; for years, whenever he or Magnum hit NWA rings, their blond bombshell backup Nickla "Baby Doll" Roberts was there to help out.

"People remember (wrestling) in the mid-80s because you were sitting on the floor with your grandparents or parents and yelling at the TV," said Roberts. "It was magical, like the Rock 'N Roll Express and Tully Blanchard and the Russians and Ric Flair. Every week, it was a good storyline."

As the night got rolling, a former tag team partner (and occasional opponent) of Rhodes headed into the ring, ready for action.

"It the 20 years, 30 years of my wrestling life, I've faced a lot of things," bellowed former world champ Manny "Raging Bull" Fernandez. "Tonight, we're here to honor Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream. I know we've had our differences, like everyone else in the world does, but tonight, let's everyone stand up and show our appreciation the man!" A standing ovation later, he tore through his opponent, and the Magnum tournament began, as local wrestlers rolled through three rounds of competition toward the final match.

Just before the championship, the night's true main eventers hit the ring.

"There's a lot of people you walk into in life, a lot of experience," said Allen, off crutches and looking much more physically fit than the year before. "But there's one special man who's always been there for me. We don't talk every day, we don't see each other every other week, but when we do, it's special."

A large screen dropped next to the ring, and visitors watched a clip of other wrestlers, including Flair himself, paying tribute to Rhodes. They saw him win the NWA title, and get inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Rhodes took the mike, and, in a voice wholly unlike his high-pitched Texas-accented promo articulation, discussed the past and present.

"There's a lot of kids back there trying to make it to the top," he said. "People like Magnum, myself, and Baby Doll, we've been there, we've seen it, we've smelt it. We know what our industry brings. It's a great industry, and it's brought us some amazing times."

Baby Doll brought him a certificate signed by the wrestlers, and the crowd kept cheering. Then Rhodes showed the effect that Magnum's accident aftermath had on him and others.

"When you get down and you want to look up to somebody, you can look at Magnum T.A., because of the inspiration that he brings to me," he said. "When you're told you have a million-and-one chance to move, let alone walk back into the ring again, and you get up and be successful, that's real inspiration. When you get down, and life's doing you bad, you can remember this story right here."

Both wrestlers headed back to the dressing room to thunderous applause. Then Wayne and Joey Silvia hit the mat, the ropes, and each other for the title.

In was a high-impact, back and forth match, filled with moves unusual for an independent event - a piledriver on the ring apron, a flip off the apron onto the floor, a powerbomb off the top rope. Perhaps the two felt the night was important enough to take a few special risks here and there.

In the end, Silvia came out on top, denying Wayne his second-consecutive tourney win. Magnum and Rhodes came out to congratulate him.

"That was big," said the Jacksonville, N.C. resident. "It was good to have those guys out there. It's one of those moments that you remember. If I don't do anything else, I had Dusty Rhodes and Magnum T.A. tell me that I did good."

As the show ended, fans' multiple autograph demands sent Magnum the same message.

"Wrestling fans are loyal as the day is long and their memories are like elephants," he said. "People come up to me and reminisce with me about things I don't even remember. We used to do interviews talking straight to the camera, and it was like you had a direct connection to the person sitting on their couch watching you. They felt like they had a personal connection with you; whichever battle you were in, they were in there with you, and you won, they won. If they feel like they have a tie with you, once they're a fan of you, they never forget you."