The young boy casually flipped through the channels of the television, passing over commercials and sitcom re-runs, when he stopped on channel 38, a local station airing out of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, two hours away.
A heavy-set man with a flat nose and unruly blond hair was pummeling a hapless opponent, while his partner – a scruffy man in a filthy white shirt and blue jeans held up by suspenders – stood on the ring apron. Cheering them on was a southern dandy, fresh off the plantation, decked out in a ridiculous ruffled white suit and a bolo tie.
The boy slowly set down the remote control, his eyes transfixed on the screen.
“I remember seeing Dick Slater’s facial expressions, punches, and swinging neckbreaker, and thinking it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” he recalls, now 20 years older – a full grown man, at an imposing 6’2” tall and weighing in at 240 pounds.
Matt Riviera’s love affair with pro wrestling began that night when he happened upon an episode of WCW Worldwide and saw Slater, Buckhouse Buck, and Col. Robert Parker in action.
On September 19 in Sherman, Texas, Riviera – now an accomplished pro wrestler in his own right – has the biggest match of his career to date: a shot at the NWA heavyweight title held by Rob Conway.
It’s the same championship that was proudly held by Ric Flair, the “kiss-stealin’, wheelin’ n’ dealin’ son of a gun” that inspired Riviera to become a wrestler himself.
“WCW was running the Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, and Flair was in the main event against Lex Luger,” he remembers. “Each time he took a press slam in the match – and he took seven in that match – the 8,000 fans would light up the arena with camera flashes. When he has his trunks pulled down, I remember seeing the glossy look in the eye of my fried’s girlfriend as she stared at The Nature Boy’s backside. At that moment, I decided I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be Ric Flair – a hard-working in-ring performer with style and charisma, the guy all the girls in the audience wanted.”
Riviera worked to emulate Flair and others. He spent hour after hour studying Arn Anderson’s spinebuster, working to execute the move as crisply and masterfully as “The Enforcer.” He studied tapes of Dick Murdoch, Buzz Swayer, Ted DiBiase, Butch Reed, Nelson Royal, and other masters of their craft.
And on September 19, he has an opportunity to win oldest championship in wrestling, a title with a legacy that extends back to the dawn of the 20th century.
The NWA organization has had a rocky road sine WCW withdrew in the early 1990s, but it is enjoying a resurgence, both in the U.S. and in Japan, where Conway and Satoshi Kojima defended the championship on New Japan Pro Wrestling events. Challengers are lining up, and the NWA title is once again becoming one of the most coveted championships in the game.
Especially to Riviera.
“This match means the world to me,” Riviera said. “I eat, sleep, and breathe this business, and it is a huge honor to be in a match for the NWA World’s heavyweight title.”
To prepare for this bout – and potentially for the rigors of wearing the NWA title – Riviera has stepped away from his promoting duties with Traditional Championship Wrestling, the Arkansas-based promotion he helped architect and build. He has changed his diet and dropped body fat. He is in the gym five days a week, and regularly running drills in the ring, in addition to his independent bookings. He has added a new emphasis on MMA training and submission grappling, and working to ensure that is stamina is ready to meet the challenge of going toe-to-toe with Conway, a cardiovascular wonder who lives up to his moniker of “Iron Man.”
“If I win the title, I am dedicating the win to Dick Murdoch, a man who should have been the NWA champion,” Riviera said.
And Riviera is coming into the match with an ace up his sleeve. The legendary manager of The Four Horsemen, J.J. Dillon, will be standing in Riviera’s corner. With Riviera’s focus and Dillon’s guidance, it is entirely possible that a new NWA champion might be crowned on September 19.