Koko B. Ware is most well known for his “Birdman” gimmick in the WWF, but long before that he had a notable career in Memphis (among other territories). It was there when he first crossed paths with Steve Keirn (known as Skinner in the WWF on a national basis).
Fight: Koko B. Ware vs Steve Keirn
Location: Nashville Fairgrounds in Nashville, TN
Source: RF Video, Kentucky Fried Rasslin
Koko and Keirn were tag team partners at first, and had been friends after all the road trips they had taken together in Tennessee. After they split, Steve Kerin struck gold with the Fabulous Ones gimmick with partner Stan Lane. The Fabulous Ones were a huge hit in Memphis, having so much success that for years every territory tried to copy it, with the most famous being the Rock n Roll Express (which the WWF tried to copy with the Rockers).
Koko Ware, meanwhile, had formed a tag team with Bobby Eaton as part of Jimmy Hart’s First Family and was now calling himself Sweet Brown Sugar. While Koko was not yet the success Keirn was with the Fabulous Ones gimmick, he still had a significant position, as Hart was one of the top heel managers in the country and he was an important part of his First Family stable.
The booking teased tension between Bobby Eaton and Koko Ware (who were the tag team champions), when Eaton won a singles title (from Jacques Rougeau) and bragged about it, while Ware failed to win his singles match against Terry Taylor. Hart slapped Koko, who took it without fighting back. Later they lost their tag team titles when Koko accidentally kicked Eaton, leading to their eventual split.
The two were booked in a Loser Leaves Town match, which Eaton won. Koko had to leave, but the idea was to bring him back under a mask as Stagger Lee. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this was a carbon copy of an angle that had worked so well in Mid-South Wrestling under Bill Watts. Watts had Junkyard Dog lose in similar fashion, only to return under a mask as Stagger Lee.
The heat between Steve Keirn and Koko B. Ware was mostly unbeknownst to Koko. The problem stemmed from Keirn believing Koko had stolen parts of his gimmick. The Fabulous Ones would come to the ring with a boombox and shake all the fans’ hands, which helped them stand out and get over. Problem was, Jerry Lawler (who ran the Memphis territory and was also its top star for years) had told Koko to do the same thing as part of the Stagger Lee gimmick. Keirn apparently didn’t know Lawler had instructed Koko to do so, and was none too happy with what he felt was gimmick infringement.
Koko, as Stagger Lee, was also bringing a ghetto blaster to the ring and blasting the song “Stagger Lee,” which was a hit in the 1950s.
After a show at the Fairgrounds (the same venue the very early TNA PPVs were taped at when they ran weekly Wednesday night PPVs), Koko went backstage where Keirn was hanging out with Stan Lane (Keirn’s partner), Ricky Morton, and Bill Dundee. Everyone in the room knew about Keirn’s heat with Koko, except Koko himself.
Keirn said he wanted to talk to Koko, so they went to the shower area. Keirn asked him who gave him permission to shake the fans’ hands and dance, as until then, only the Fabulous Ones were allowed to do that. Koko said Lawler told him to do that, and assured Keirn he’d never steal his idea on his own.
Keirn said, “Ok,” and then turned around. As he went to walk away, he turned back around and suckerpunched Koko, sending him down. Koko was stunned, as he believed they were friends. Koko also had a reputation as a tough guy, despite his short stature, and some believe Keirn suckerpunched him to get the unfair advantage.
Koko got up and went after him, and one version had him getting a few shots before pulled off, while another version had him almost knocking Keirn out. Either way, Koko cut a promo on Kerin saying he was given every opportunity to get over, while he himself was finally getting his first big break and wasn’t about to lose it over this. He was going to go after him again, but Eddie Marlin told him it was enough. Koko told Marlin that if he had started the fight instead of Keirn, he’d have gotten fired (which is likely true, as Keirn was one of their golden boys at the time).
Koko once claimed he never spoke to Keirn again, which is hard to believe since Koko remained in Memphis for awhile (forming a tag team with Norvell Austin called the PYT Express) and they were also in the WWF together when Keirn was Skinner. Koko eventually made it to the WWF during their huge late 80s run, and while he was never a headliner due to his height, he was protected and at times got a decent push, especially when the WWF’s album “Piledriver” came out and he was given lead vocal duties on the title track. He remained with the company for several years, including a tag team with Owen Hart called High Energy.
Keirn made it to the WWF as well, given the midcard Skinner gimmick that really didn’t go anywhere despite the vignettes produced for him. But Keirn became far more influential as a behind the scenes employee, both as a road agent and trainer at NXT. Keirn remains employed by WWE to this day.
We’ve not seen anything regarding Keirn’s side of the story. It’s easy to believe he’d have heat with Koko over the gimmick similarities, but surely Keirn had to have been smart enough to know Koko was simply doing what he was told by the boss (Lawler). Even after Koko explained this to him, Keirn still decked him, which is perplexing. Perhaps he had talked with Lane, Morton, and others so much about doing it that he felt he had to or else come across as a coward, but that’s just speculation.