'Nature Boy' Buddy Landel battled his demons, but found redemption

Buddy Landel circa 1985 with National heavyweight title and manager J.J. Dillon.

“If ever there was such a talented rascal who would always be unconventional, it was Buddy Landel.” — Cowboy Bill Watts

Buddy Landel, who passed away last week at the age of 53, never had a problem admitting to anyone that he — far too often — had been his own worst enemy.

In a lengthy 2011 piece titled “The Redemption of Buddy Landel,” he readily acknowledged a litany of mistakes and missteps that not only derailed his promising wrestling career, but also wreaked havoc on his personal life.

“The bottom line is that I was just selfish and it was all about me,” he lamented.

“Nature Boy” Buddy Landel was one of the hottest young stars in the business during a brief period in the mid-1980s.

“I was 23, cocky and had a hundred grand in the bank. I didn't see that I had any problems,” he said.

After all, Landel was making money hand over fist and headlining shows with the likes of NWA world champion Ric Flair, whom he emulated, and was rocketing to the top of his profession.

“He had everything you could have to be a superstar,” recalled one promoter.

But Landel had one thing that would ultimately spell his downfall, and that was an addictive personality. Undependable and unreliable, prompting many bookers to label him “No Show Budro,” his star extinguished just as it was ready to shine, and his career flamed out in a long-running battle with drug addiction.

“I always wanted to be great in everything I did. Whether it was to be great in sports or whether it was to be a great drug-taker,” said Landel.

A group of WWE performers once lost money betting on the wrestler in a macabre dead pool.

“A few of them walked up to me and said, 'Man, I just lost a lot of money on you.' I asked them how was that. They said, 'You were on deck,'” Landel recalled.

On the eve of what Landel claimed was to be the beginning of a coveted world title run with a high-profile match against Flair, Landel went on a cocaine bender. He arrived late the next day at a TV taping that had been designed to set up an angle leading to the title change.

Missing what could have been the opportunity of a lifetime, Landel was fired on the spot by booker Dusty Rhodes.

When he dried up and returned several years later, the wrestling landscape had changed and he was dropped down on the card.

“I got busted by the IRS. I was making four or five thousand dollars a week, and (Jim) Crockett paid my IRS tab. He then dropped my check down to $300.”

“I was just too young to handle it,” Landel admitted. “It was too much too soon.”

The rest of Landel's career and life was marked by a series of ups and downs.

Greensboro-based wrestling journalist Bruce Mitchell summed him up thusly: “An enormous character, an enormous talent, and an enormous mess.”

In recent years Landel had made it his mission to try and right wrongs and restore his legacy.

“Our choices affect so many lives,” he said, happy to offer advice and counsel to colleagues in the business, while even encouraging others at one point as a practicing minister.

But there always seemed to be a black cloud hovering in the distance, including one that unfortunately would befall him for the final time.

Landel was involved in a serious automobile accident last weekend in Johnson City, Tenn. Instead of going to the hospital by way of ambulance, he is said to have gotten there on his own. Against doctor's orders, he reportedly discharged himself from the hospital and returned to his home in Chilhowie, Va. Less than 24 hours later, he was dead.

Talk to anyone who knew him, and they'll tell you that was typical Buddy. He could never stay down for long.

Former Mid-South Wrestling promoter Bill Watts saw that fighting spirit in Landel early on.

“He'd give you his all in the ring,” said Watts. “First and foremost, he never had a bad match. And second, he made the match come first.”

Those qualities carried a lot of weight in Watts' book. Known as a taskmaster who was quick to fine his crew when rules were violated, Watts saw great potential in Landel, although sometimes “he could really push my buttons,” said the promoter.

“I thought the world of Buddy. But Buddy was always his own worst enemy. I used to fine the heck out of him, and then I'd generally bonus him back because he worked so hard.”

“Buddy was a free spirit,” recalled J.J. Dillon (Jim Morrsion), who managed Landel during his Mid-Atlantic heyday in 1985. “Watts ran a really, really tight ship. Buddy would screw up and get fined heavily, and Bill basically applauded the fact that after Buddy screwed up, he'd turn around and work twice as hard to redeem himself.”

Dropping out of high school his junior year following football season, Landel made his pro debut at the age of 17 in 1979. In the process he left behind a slew of potential college scholarships to pursue a career he had fallen in love with.

While he regretted that he didn't finish school and get an education, he never regretted moving into a career field that made him, for a time, both rich and famous.

Six years into the business, Landel would find his niche working the talent-rich Mid-Atlantic area for Crockett Promotions.

With flowing blond hair and glittering robes, “Nature Boy” Buddy Landel found himself headlining cards throughout the circuit, challenging “Nature Boy” Ric Flair for the world heavyweight title.

The pressure, he would later admit, was too much to handle.

“They had put the whole weight of the world on my shoulders,” he said. “I was breaking Elvis' attendance record, selling out with the world champion every night, doing 60-minute Broadways. It was very tough and the pressure was unbelievable. I just stayed self-medicated.”

Despite his out-of-the-ring issues, Landel was a great performer inside the squared circle, and when he was on, few were better.

“The Nature Boy vs. the Nature Boy was a natural,” said Dillon, who managed Landel at the time. “I got to be around Buddy a lot and got to know him. He really was a good guy, but sometimes made some bad decisions and sadly at times could be his own worst enemy.

“But Buddy had a passion for this business and had a lot of talent. When he applied himself and wanted to, there weren't a whole lot of guys better than him.”

Dillon, who guided Landel to the National heavyweight title in 1985, said Landel's potential was unlimited.

“There were a few things that happened, had Buddy made other decisions, God only knows what a great career he could have had. But we'll never know.”

Even in recent years, Landel would admit that he still had to walk a fine line, that those demons the old Buddy Landel fought were never more than a step or two behind. This time around, though, with a new grandson and another he was helping raise, he discovered a new purpose. Accountability had taken on a greater meaning.

“I feel like I've had another opportunity at life. Except this time to actually participate instead of watch it go by,” he said.

Those who knew Buddy Landel best didn't see the cocky, unpredictable, unreliable heel that drew heat everywhere he went. What they saw was a caring, compassionate soul who deeply loved his family, with faith at the center of his universe. They saw someone who never failed to give credit to his wife of 34 years for not only staying the course, but also for holding him accountable when he strayed.

“Whatever I've got or whatever I'm worth is because of my wife,” he'd say.

“To this day my wife will watch me when I get up to go the bathroom at a truck stop or anywhere else. But that's a good thing. You can make it a good thing because you have to be in agreement with each other.

“The Bible asks in Amos 3:3 how can two walk together if they're not in agreement. I agree with my wife that she has to watch my back. I don't trust me. I might have to live the rest of my life like that, but that's OK.”

“I've watched my friends die, divorce, rehab, alimony, child support and lose everything they have,” he said. “I myself have been spared those things. Maybe one day they will have an award for not hanging around too long and doing the right thing.”

While Landel faced a tremendous amount of adversity in his life, some of it admittedly self-inflicted, he never stopped trying to do the right thing. He and wife had secured custody of a grandson some years ago while their then teenage daughter battled a drug problem of her own.

Landel says it turned his life around. “All it took for me was opening my heart and loving this little boy and raising him. The next thing I know, two or three years had gone by, and I was drug free. I could think. I could sleep. My grandson is what saved my life and, of course, the prayers of my family.”

Buddy lost his daughter several months ago, and friends say her passing gutted him. While his daughter spent time in a coma, he devoted himself to taking care of her.

Dillon, among other contemporaries, will remember Buddy as a friend who could brighten up the locker room with his big smile and gift of gab. Longtime fans will hearken back to the days when Buddy Landel and Ric Flair waged bloody battles over the 10 pounds of gold and the Nature Boy name in front of packed houses.

Buddy, who finally found solace and personal redemption, never forgot either.

“I just thank God that He allowed me to live through that era.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.