Jim Barnett was considered by many as a very successful promoter and pioneer in the business of professional wrestling. He ran many profitable shows in various territories including Georgia, Florida, Chicago and overseas in Australia. Barnett would quickly become one if not the most powerful promoters in the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). Today we take a look at his career.
Jim Barnett never wrestled and didn’t have a background in the industry. He was a promoter who held a business degree and used his knowledge of business to elevate pro wrestling to new heights. He is credited as the first promoter to televise wrestling matches inside of a television studio. Before that, most matches were taped in a gymnasium or arena and broadcast later. Even though Barnett didn’t have a pro wrestling background, he was loved by most wrestlers who worked for him because he paid his talent well. He always believed in the philosophy that if a wrestler can put asses in the seats, he should be rewarded for it.
Barnett later in his career became a consultant for both the WWF and WCW. In fact, many believe it was Barnett’s expertise in the WWF’s early years of expansion…that helped launch Wrestlemania. He also helped scout talent for WCW back in its final days of existence and was a very close and trusted confidant of Ted Turner.
Jim Barnett was not only a powerful figure in pro wrestling, but in politics as well. He donated thousands of dollars to the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter who also happened to be a wrestling fan. Once elected President of the United States, President Carter nominated Jim Barnett to the National Council
on the Arts.
Barnett was openly gay and despite working in a business filled with grizzled and uber macho wrestlers was accepted for what he was. As stated before, he kept his workers happy by paying them handsomely. Barnett seemingly had it all, but allegedly there was also a dark side to the promoter. It has been long rumored, but never confirmed as fact that Barnett convinced the NWA to make ‘Wildfire’ Tommy Rich world champion after Barnett and Rich had a “quick fling.” Again, it was never confirmed as fact and the popular belief is Rich became world champion simply because he was the hottest wrestler in the Georgia territory.
That wasn’t the only rumored scandal that Barnett was a part of in his lifetime. In the book, “The Thin Thirty” written by Shannon Ragland….Jim Barnett and his longtime lover Lonnie Winter hosted parties at their Kentucky home for several members of the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University football teams. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but digging further, Barnett and Winter allegedly paid these football players to attend their lavish parties. That in itself would be a direct violation of NCAA rules…but it allegedly went even further than that.
According to the book, Barnett didn’t pay the athletes to just attend a party with free booze and food….they were expected or at the very least encouraged to have sex with Barnett, Winter and other guests. Many of his parties included very powerful, high profile members of society. One of which was a Hollywood icon in actor Rock Hudson. Hudson who was gay himself, was extremely closeted.
It is believed that at one of these infamous Barnett parties….Rock Hudson “discovered” a young player from Eastern Kentucky University by the name of Lee Yeary. Hudson would convince the good looking young man to go to Hollywood and become an actor. Lee Yeary would later be known as Lee Majors aka ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ on television. It is not known if Yeary was ever paid by Barnett, Winter or even Rock Hudson.
Jim Barnett remained an influential figure in pro wrestling for close to 6 decades until WCW was sold to the WWE in 2001. At the age of 80, Barnett fell and broke his arm. The injury required surgery and Barnett developed pneumonia and died. His body was later cremated. Despite the rumors, accusations and alleged scandals, Jim Barnett still has a legacy of being one of the most powerful and influential wrestling promoters in the history of pro wrestling.