"Hitman: My Real Life In The Cartoon World of Wrestling", Bret Hart's autobiography released in October 2007 (in Canada) and the following year in the United States, is arguably one of the most well-written and honest biographies written by a former professional wrestler, telling great stories from both inside and outside the ring, giving detailed accounts of major (and even minor) events, and letting the fans get to know that he like everyone else isn't perfect, and has a checkered personal life that is not to be admired. No doubt, you're questioning why I am opening with a quick recommendation for a book that surely has no connection to today's subject. No, this isn't me being unfocused and looking for something else to talk about. When I first read "Hitman", I think either in 2010 or 2011. The date doesn't matter, honestly, but it was then, while binge reading the book over a 2-day span (resulting in a massive headache from eye-strain), I first read of the name "Tom McGhee."
It's May 8th, 2019 as I type this, and already you're probably thinking to yourself "Hey, insert expletive of choice here, his name is MAGEE. Learn to spell, idiot." My immediate response to that is "read the book, that's how Bret Hart spells the name." You see, "Tom Magee" (or "McGhee") might as well be Tom Stone or Omar Atlas. He's a name that most fans, or at least most casual fans, probably don't know much of, if anything at all, so the spelling of his name probably isn't of the utmost importance. The spelling of the name Magee or McGhee means nothing as Bret Hart casually brings the subject up on page 195 to conclude a story after working a show for his father's "Stampede" promotion in the Fall of 1986.
"As I left the dressing room that night I turned to Owen and said, "See ya next week in Rochester." I couldn't help but notice the handsome, muscle-headed rookie, Tom McGhee. He couldn't walk across the ring without tripping."
And with that, Bret has opened the door on the subject, painting an unflattering picture of a man with limited in-ring training having no business being in a wrestling ring.
Tom Magee was born on July 1st, 1958 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. It's safe to say there's not much that is known of Magee's personal life, as he stays away from social media and has never, to my knowledge, opened for interviews about his career inside the "squared-circle." What we do know is that before entering the world of professional wrestling, Tom Magee made a name for himself in the world of professional power-lifting. Standing at 6'5" and weighing in the 275-pound territory, he was the 1981 and 1982 Canadian National Powerlifting Champion, 1982 IPF (International Powerlifting Federation (World Powerlifting Champion at the +125kg super-heavyweight class and finished in the top 5 of three official "World's Strongest Man" contests, finishing a career-best 2nd place in 1982 behind Bill Kazmaier. When you think of bodybuilders and competitive strongmen, you imagine the physiques of a Kazmaier, with enormous muscles and limited mobility. Magee, unlike the standard "strongest men in the world", not only was an exceptional power-lifer, but gifted athletically, with experience in martial arts (specifically a black belt in karate), boxing, and gymnastics. (If you're interested in his power-lifting, there's a half-hour documentary that covers his training for the 1982 IPF competition that gives a look into his training and some of the incredible feats of strength he's able to successfully perform).
Like many before and after his time, Magee was recruited to become a professional wrestler. Originally trained by Bret's legendary father, Stu, Magee was put in the ring almost as soon as his training began, and even worked a high-profile match with Riki Choshu for All Japan Pro Wrestling in the early weeks of 1986. Fast forward to October 7th, 1986. The WWF was in the War Memorial Auditorium in Rochester, NY for their standard cycle of taping for TV (Wrestling Challenge) that featured 4-weeks-worth of squash matches, promos, and a handful of "dark matches". For those unfamiliar with the term, a dark match is a match that is meant for the live audience and not taped for television. Most of the time, TV tapings featured tryouts and their top stars in headlining matches to attract fans to these marathon tapings that at times exceeded 3 hours. On this night, one of those tryout matches (a match featuring unsigned talent looking to impress) featured Tom Magee. Bret Hart was handpicked to be his opponent.
At the time of the taping, Bret was part of the Hart Foundation, along with real-life brother-in-law Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart and managed by "The Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart, a heel (bad guy) tag team that were featured regularly, but were yet to get that big push as THE top team in the division. Depending on the plans and interest around talent, it wasn't a surprise to see guys doing tryouts doing the job (losing) for the established talent in the WWF, especially if they were featured well on television. The word came down that Bret was to make Magee look good AND let him go over in the ring, because (in Bret's words) Vince McMahon considered him the right man for the job (pun intended). According to Bret's retelling of the story in "Hitman", the match was never to be shown on in any form of WWF programming (this included international TV, which often featured matches never known to exist to those in the United States).
"I found McGhee with Owen, and told him that if he trusted me, I'd get him over. "Give me your three absolute best moves. If you have a good match, Vince will have big plans for you." I designed a match that was really simple, inserting his big moves at just the right times"
"Minutes later I walked out with Jimmy Hart to a chorus of boos. Then McGhee came out looking like a handsome, well-muscled statue with curly golden locks. The crowd cheered as he jumped straight up to the ring and skipped right over the top rope. Once the bell sounded, he did everything exactly as I'd told him. As good as he looked, he was horrible, pathetically phony. I struggled to maneuver him into place without the fans realizing his shortcomings, putting on an absolute clinic for anyone who ever wanted to make a big green guy look great.
When I came back through the curtain, Vince (McMahon) and Pat (Patterson) has swarmed all over McGhee. Afterwards, it was Tom who told me that Vince nearly wet his pants while watching the TV monitor, as he exclaimed loud enough for all to hear, "That's my new Champion!"
I, like others before and after me, hit the Google machine as soon as I could to find out more information on this "Tom McGhee", and there wasn't much to go by. There were the usual columns that covered his background as much as I was able to do, and retelling Bret's story from their night working together in Rochester, but the mystery continued. How good was Bret Hart on this day that made Tom Magee look like a million bucks? Knowing Bret's reputation and high opinion of his own work, maybe he's taking a little too much credit. Maybe Magee isn't as bad as Bret let on, perhaps jealous over the prospects of Magee getting ahead of him in the World Wrestling Federation. After all, Magee had the physique that McMahon loved that was also prominent in his Heavyweight Champion, while a guy like Bret, while not anywhere close to being out-of-shape, wasn't as lean and muscular, and didn't have the height to be a "larger than life" superhero. He was a solid hand in the ring, and that's literally the only reason he was likely chosen to showcase Magee for his future employer.
Where Google failed in written articles, it also sent me to a list of videos, and wouldn't you know it, Tom Magee was in a few of them (although several were clip heavy videos that might've been thrown on their because of his "hunk" look, based on the content featured on the channel hosting these videos, and were hardly viewable for the purpose of enjoying, or even analyzing, professional wrestling. There was one video that was viewable, a complete match that gave me everything I needed to know about Tom Magee, what kind of wrestler he was, and what he could perform inside the squared circle. Taped on April 21st, 1988, All Japan Pro Wrestling hosted Tom Magee in a match against aging former sumo, Hiroshi Wajima. The match was barely 2-minutes long, but it was long enough to come to this conclusion: It was awful.
Thinking it over, "Awful" is too generous. It might be one of the worst matches I've ever seen despite a meager 150-seconds of "action." While Magee had a Superstar physique and could perform cartwheels and standing back-flips with minimal effort, it looked as if he had no idea how to do anything else. Again, in less time it takes to fry an egg, Magee showcased an amazing ability to do everything as poorly as possible. Forgetting a complete lack of in-ring psychology, Magee moved around awkwardly, threw punches and kicks with little believability or impact behind them, and worst of all, his ever-present facial expression of a guy who looked like he was clowning around instead of trying to put forth a serious effort. We're now 19-months removed from the night Vince McMahon allegedly found his next big thing, and here he couldn't do the basics convincingly. It didn't matter if he was in the ring with a sub-par opponent, it was obvious he couldn't grasp the art of professional wrestling. The worst insult I can think of to someone in the business is they look like they are playing professional wrestler, that's how phony everything looked. Maybe Bret was right about everything.
For years, this was the only time I saw Magee in the ring, thoroughly unimpressed and accepting Bret's word as gossip. What happened? As much as I love and respect Bret's work, there had to be something else. Magee was a bad wrestler, but even the worst wrestlers could show SOMETHING despite being the luggage in a carry-job. After Magee's tryout in Rochester, he was signed by the World Wrestling Federation, but didn't make any known appearances for the company for the rest of 1986. Magee finally went on the road, working C-Show live events, starting on January 12th, 1987. For those unfamiliar, the WWF usually would run "A" and "B" shows, splitting the crew to balance things out, but the "A" show would have the top program, usually the Hogan match, whether he was the WWF Champion or not. "A" shows typically went to the biggest markets on a frequent basis, but "B" lineups would get the nod on occasion. "C" shows were reserved for smaller markets and relied heavily on "lower-tier" talent. These shows were far from the radar, so it made sense to introduce new talent that had to work things out on them, to prevent exposing them to the big markets before they were ready. Magee's opponent that night, in front of 3,700 people inside the London Gardens in Ontario, Canada, was Terry Gibbs. He sure as hell wasn't Bret Hart.
Since the "C" Tour didn't run as often, Magee's in-ring appearances were spread out, mostly wrestling Gibbs in preliminary bouts, including one taped for International television on March 16th, 1987 from the London Gardens, and the second match I would watch of Magee. Since this took place a year earlier than my first impression, surely, he'd be much worse. Magee entered the ring doing a forward somersault from the top rope to pop the crowd and showcases his flashy athleticism. Gibbs sold for his strength, and Magee was able to do a decent chain-wrestling sequence straight out of day 1 of camp, transitioning from a side headlock into a hammer-lock. He made up for his inexperience with flash and flips, years ahead of it's time. Unfortunately, the flaws crept up quickly. He lacked believability doing moves like hip throws, and his strikes were beyond awful. On the nights he didn't work with Gibbs, he was paired up with names like Iron Mike Sharpe, "The Red Demon" (a masked Jose Luis Rivera), Frenchy Martin, and Barry O. While most of these names were good punching bags, how much could they do in prelims to get Magee to improve? His faults weren't a lack of effort but lacking convincing physicality. Barry O can bump all night for you, but when you can't throw a punch or kick, how can all the bumping in the world make you a better worker? Even Gibbs, who I consider a below-average worker, bumped well for Magee, but Magee couldn't hold things up on his end.
As Magee continued to try and figure it out, he was brought in for TV tapings on March 11th in Columbus, OH, and May 12th in Anaheim, CA. For the former, he worked a dark match with Barry O, likely a showcase to see how Magee was improving with 2-months of work on the road under his belt. Whatever the judgment with management was ended with a verdict of working exclusively with Gibbs until his second appearance at TV, working a dark match with his first opponent with credibility since his tryout, an aging, unmotivated, and increasingly more out-of-ring-shape Don Muraco. Magee's appearances started to extend beyond the Northeast, still relegated to the "C" tours, still working with Gibbs, and occasionally with Jimmy Jack Funk and Tiger Chung Lee. On June 29th, 1987, a green but impressive looking bodybuilder with long hair pinned Steve Lombardi in front of 850 people in Uniontown, PA. That man was a substitute for Tom Magee, freshly signed from World Class Championship Wrestling. His name was Jim Hellwig, working as "The Dingo Warrior", and he was going to be the next big star for the WWF. Suddenly, as soon as it started, Magee's career with the WWF was over, having never made it to TV. In Magee's defense, Hellwig wasn't a good worker. He had an even better physique thanks to steroid abuse, but he didn't have Magee's athleticism and was considered a clumsy oaf. Unlike Magee's work looking bad because it lacked effort, Hellwig's work looked bad because he potato'ed (hit legit) people on a regular basis. Somehow, in a world where you didn't want to hurt your opponent, being wild and dangerous in the ring was better for your career than hitting so softly it couldn't put indentations on a pillow.
Though Magee's time with the WWF appeared up in the Summer of 1987, it wouldn't be the last we'd see of him for the company. Magee worked a short tour of Canada in January of 1988, going over Mike Sharpe in preliminary filler. On December 6th, 1988, Magee was brought in for the TV taping in Daytona Beach, FL. For reasons I wish I knew, Magee was put in a match taped for the international market with Arn Anderson. Without a shadow of doubt, Arn is probably the best opponent Magee has had since his match in Rochester with Bret Hart, and if ANYONE could get something out of him, it was Arn Anderson. It wasn't a masterpiece. Even if it were, the bloom was off the rose for Magee in the eyes of Vince McMahon. For over three decades, we've come to accept once McMahon sours on a talent, it's nigh impossible to return to the levels he once had you pegged. Arn Anderson did his best and got a good match out of Magee. The striking was still poor, but someone wisely plotted out to keep his striking to a minimal. He flashed his athleticism. He pulled off AN AMAZING cartwheel into a somersault and dropkick sequence. He looked good doing the basics. It was too late, though. Magee could've replicated the results of his match with Bret Hart, and it wouldn't make any difference to his future. If he were to catch on with the WWF for a second try and success, it was going to be under new circumstances.
Sidebar: In April 2019, the WWE Network uploaded a "lost" dark match of Magee, working with Ted Dibiase that is from the tapings on December 7th, 1988. Like the match with Anderson, Dibiase gets as much as he can out of Magee, and his limitations were masked as well as you could imagine. Unlike the match with Anderson, it's one of the few times Magee lost a match in a WWF ring.
The day after WrestleMania V, on April 4th in Glens Falls, NY, Tom Magee was brought in for another taping cycle, this time managed by Jimmy Hart, working heel, and going by the name "Mega Man Magee." As much as Magee's flaws held him back from attaining success, turning him heel would do two things: 1.) Heels were the guys that in most cases, especially in this era, called the matches and dictated the pace in the ring. Magee was not only a poor worker but was only trained to wrestle as a babyface with flashy spots to try and hide his weaknesses, putting him in a position to fail again, and 2.) Heels aren't expected to use flashy spots, fearing it would pop a crowd and kill their heat and/or drawing ability, so you're basically killing off what made him special just for the sake of doing it.
In Magee's only televised match as a heel, working with Tim Horner at the Boston Garden on May 13th, 1989 and featured on the local NESN broadcast station, Magee looked like someone trying to do everything at once. He would work heel but start doing babyface stuff to showcase his athleticism. He would do heel moves like choke Horner across the ropes but smile and saunter around like a good guy. His was at this point had improved, at least understanding to cut down on what he did the worst (striking). For whatever reason, "Mega Man Magee" didn't get the greenlight and beyond a handful of appearances, Magee's second run was over quicker than the first, and his WWF career was officially over. It seems only fitting that in Magee's antepenultimate appearance for the company, a dark match taped in LaCrosse, WI on May 16th, 1989, Magee once again shared the ring with the man he opposed that began his legend, the Hitman, Bret Hart.
Magee quietly left the wrestling industry in 1990, his last known matches taking place on a tour of New Zealand promoted by Don Muraco in the Spring of that year (the WWF helped by loaning talent, but at this point, Magee was not a WWF employee). Magee landed a few acting roles, mostly small parts in films like "Dragonfight", "Alligator II: The Mutation", "Street Knight", and "Stone Cold", as well as forgettable appearances on TV's hit shows "Designing Women" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Magee's last acting credit came in 1993, three years after his final (known) wrestling match. It's at that point Magee faded into obscurity. Though the internet and its online community was in it's infancy, not many people knew who Tom Magee was, and at a glance of his name probably wouldn't stop to care, other than that he was a minor footnote in PWI yearly almanacs, coming in 4th place of the 1986 Rookie of the Year candidate behind Lex Luger, Bam Bam Bigelow, and Sting, all arguably becoming house hold names, some more than others.
Fast forward a few years, Dave Meltzer, arguably the most well-known journalist to cover professional wrestling, covered the arrival of Ken Shamrock in the WWF, and his potential as a prospect for the company. Though Shamrock had in-ring experience from years prior, he gained popularity for his appearances in shoot fighting, notably the early days of the UFC. The topic of Ken Shamrock and his potential came with the following tale of another former prospect, published in the May 19th, 1997 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter...
"A decade ago, there was a strongman, gymnast, acrobatic, actor, bodybuilder who was trained in Calgary by the name of Tom Magee. He was 6-5, looks of a model, physique of an Ultimate Warrior, one of the strongest men alive, and could do cartwheels and backflips in the ring. In those days where size and physique ruled, here was a guy who was nearly as big as Hulk Hogan and ten times the athlete. He had world champion written all over him. That was, until he was put in the ring. One night in Rochester, NY at a WWF television taping, he had a dark match with a solid prelim wrestler who was experienced at getting good matches out of total stiffs. Magee was so impressive in that match that it became almost preordained, after the guy's very first WWF match, that he was the next Hulk Hogan, the heir to the throne. Of course, Tom Magee never made it in pro wrestling. He had no charisma, and he couldn't translate his athletic gifts into making a match. He never had another match one-tenth as good as the match he had in Rochester. About five years later, the wrestling world had changed once again. The guy put on the throne was the solid prelim wrestler. Bret Hart. The moral of the story is you can only take first impressions for what they are. First impressions.".
Yes, more than a decade before "Hitman" was published, those who subscribed to Dave Meltzer's "Wrestling Observer Newsletter" were either introduced to the legend of Tom Magee, or perhaps refreshed on the subject (I don't have copies from that era, so I have no knowledge if Magee was ever a subject brought to the attention to his readers in the late 80's). Before streaming services like YouTube and the WWE Network, if you wanted professional wrestling for visual consumption, you either had to tape it live, purchase an official home video release or dabble in the realm of tape trading to get your fix. Regardless of personal preferences, there has always been two matches that topped the list of must-see, labeled "holy grail" matches that no one ever dreamed of seeing. The first on that list: Tommy Rich vs. Buzz Sawyer. Billed as "The Last Battle of Atlanta" and held at the Omni in Atlanta on October 23rd, 1983, the two had a bloody feud-ending match inside a steel cage that surrounded the entire round, including a roof, the first (known) of its kind. The second, of course, is Bret's infamous carry-job with Magee.
Other than his online legacy of the never-was prodigy for Vince McMahon, Tom Magee's retirement kept him out of the spotlight for nearly a quarter-century. Unfortunately, that changed in May of 2018. Tom Magee, approaching his 60th birthday, was brutally assaulted by six men outside his home in Mar Vista, CA over an alleged parking spot dispute, as Magee was surveying the neighborhood for suspicious behavior. Magee suffered a broken jaw, fractured orbital bone, and a concussion, among the injuries, and a graphic photo of his injuries was released to the media to give you an idea of how gruesome his injuries are (if you want to see the picture yourself, just google his name. It'll come up immediately).
In September of 2016, the WWE Network launched their "Hidden Gems" section, including the unearthing of Rich vs. Sawyer from the archives (according to legend, the tape was found in a generically-labeled pile of masters obtained years ago). About a year later, the WWE produced a DVD set entitled "Unreleased: Never Before Seen Matches" covering the years 1986-1995. In one wrap-around segment, co-host Sean Mooney finds a box labeled "T. Magee" and casually tosses it aside, insisting there isn't anything to it. Most took this as a hint that the tape was indeed lost, as some have speculated. Others believe the WWE refuses to show it for unknown reasons. Professional wrestler Colt Cabana has gone on record and stated that during his time with WWE, wrestlers were allowed access to any matches the WWE had in their vault. He would request Bret vs. Magee every chance he could, along with other matches. Every time he put a request in, it was filled except for one match: Bret vs. Magee. The only known copies of the tape to exist were in possession of Bret Hart and Dave Meltzer, the latter who's gone on record and stated the tape is in a shed with thousands of other tapes, and due to age and storage condition, has probably deteriorated to the point it wouldn't be viewable. As time went by, WWE continued to release "never before seen" content, including the entire spectacle that was the Slam Challenge on the U.S.S. Intrepid on July 4th, 1993, the pilot of the AWA's ill-conceived "Team Challenge Series", and even the Dark Match from WrestleMania IX. Suddenly, in the days leading up to WrestleMania 35, a roar came over the online community. A picture on Twitter was posted of a bunch of VHS tapes. One of those tapes had the label "09/19/89 Bret v Tom McGhee."
It turns out the person behind the posts, Mary-Kate Anthony (twitter handle @marykayfabe if you want to give her a follow), years ago assisted in the task of converting Bret Hart's VHS collection to DVD. Naturally, most cried foul. The label not only listed the wrong date of both of their matches, but misspelled Magee's name (ignoring it's the same spelling Bret used in his book). She didn't have a VCR to view the tape immediately, so others claimed it was a poor attempt at attention catching. After obtaining a VCR, photos of the footage were posted, and yet still there were doubts, accusing her of some masterful photoshop. Finally, to erase all doubt, a brief video was uploaded. It was Magee sending Bret Hart into the turnbuckle for his signature ches-first bump into the turnbuckle. He's wearing a black singlet with a slight hint of color, and he was managed by Jimmy Hart. There was no doubt after that: It was THE match, and the world went crazy.
It was such a big deal that it was featured in the following issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. People flooded the poor women with messages about the video, some likely begging for a copy. Dave Meltzer reported the WWE contacted her immediately for the tape, as their claims continued to be, they no longer had the master in their library. Starrcast, a meet-and-greet extravaganza not unlike Access scheduled for the end of May 2019 to coincide with AEW's "Double or Nothing", booked Bret Hart and Tom Magee for a panel to discus their infamous match with the paying audience, and at one point, promised to screen the match for those in attendance. Rumors have circulated that the footage will be added to "Hidden Gems" sooner than later.
As wonderful as it'll be to finally get to see a match of such legendary status, does it really matter at this point? For years, we've obsessed over the subject, over a man who never appeared for our viewing television pleasure. We read a detailed account of one match, imagining the dirt-worst worker being carried to glorious heights by one of the best wrestlers of all-time. The mystique of missing footage left people not only wanting to see it but created their own reality of what took place. For a man who never had success in professional wrestling, Tom Magee's status among the fans has reached greater heights than so many that came before and after him. We wanted to know all we could about him, for there was so little to find in the first place. We found out he was an athletically gifted man with super-human strength. We found out he was (allegedly) handpicked for success by Vince McMahon, a young stud with a great physique and greater athleticism that couldn't bring it all together to achieve the level of success pegged for him as a rookie. We found out he had a short-lived run finding work in TV and theatrical films. Years after disappearing from the public, the name was kept alive because of wrestling fans and their weird obsession with history, especially one of the greatest "what if" questions the industry has ever known. Regardless of the matches quality, whether it's made viewable to the general audience or not, you can't help but think how much one match has done to create a legacy. It may not be Hulk Hogan slamming Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III, or Steve Austin refusing to submit to the Sharpshooter at WrestleMania 13, or Mick Foley's feel-good moment almost tainted by the opposition's petty attempts to sabotage it. Sometimes it's as simple as a modest location, under standard protocol, in front of a cold audience, with no intention of ever being seen again, and yet the name "Tom Magee" has survived the test of time. He did become a legend, but for a completely different reason than what was expected of him that night in Rochester, NY.