“What in the Sam Hill?!”: Scott Bowden salutes Lance Russell
For years, I’ve referred to Lance Russell as the best pro-wrestling announcer in history. Not only was he a true professional, but Lance also loved the magic of those Saturday mornings and Monday nights.While Russell often appeared to be having the time of his life calling the action at ringside, Lance approached his job with the utmost seriousness, which was a necessity in the “wild and wooly” (one of Lance’s many sayings) world of Memphis rasslin’. In my heart, he’s the announcer equivalent of legendary champion Lou Thesz.
During the first conversation I had with Lance as a young mark at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1984, while getting his autograph on a 50-cent program, I asked him about Nick Bockwinkel’s AWA World title loss in Japan. Lance’s response: “Well, Jumbo Tsuruta can be had. Lawler actually measures up really well with him.” I remember feeling that this was real inside information—fans like me in Memphis believed in everything Lance said. In that sense, I can’t believe he didn’t do more commercials for area businesses.
I realize there are some who don’t recognize how wonderful, not to mention how innovative, the Memphis promotion was because of all the wild gimmick matches. Then there were the brawling, downright-dirty babyfaces like Jackie Fargo, Jerry Lawler, Austin Idol and Dutch Mantel. And we are talking about the only territory in the States to use Mil Mascaras as a heel—and at the height of the masked egotist’s popularity in the late 1970s.
When Lawler later ascended to the babyface throne of his Memphis kingdom, the King and Lance displayed almost a father-son relationship.
That makes sense because Lance was instrumental in the young Lawler getting his big break into the biz. You can tell in this clip how proud Lance is of Jerry. Later, when another clip is shown of Lawler introducing Dr. Frank, listen for the perplexed Lance to say, “What in the Sam Hill?!”–another Russell catchphrase.
Some of my other favorite Lance moments:
“We got a helluva fight going on down here.” As Lawler and partner Bill Dundee battle Wayne Ferris (Lawler’s legit cousin and the future Honky Tonk Man) and Larry Latham (Moondog Spot) in Tupelo, Miss., for the AWA Southern tag-team titles in what would turn out to be one of the most memorable angles in the history of the promotion, Lance pleads with the cameraman to follow him down the stairs to catch the action because “…We’ve got a helluva fight going on down here.” Later, with blood and condiments flying everywhere, Lance exclaims, “Ooohh! We have got mustard all over us! Hope it did not get in the camera!”
“You haven’t met Ric?” Ric Flair makes his first and only appearance in the WMC-TV studios on Union Avenue in August 1982, and Lance is perfect as the “small-time” announcer. After Flair brags about his tailor-made suit, Lance says, “Uh, well, I also have to say that that is a stunning watch Ric is wearing.” Classic. Flair is scheduled to face jobber Rick McCord, but Lawler intervenes, saying to the Nature Boy, “You won’t impress anybody by beating Rick McCord.” Lance questions Lawler for interrupting the proceedings, and Lawler humbly says, “Gosh, I just wanted to shake hands with the World champion.” Incredulously, Lance asks, “Oh…you haven’t met Ric?” Lawler follows it up: “Of course, I’ve met Ric. Now, Lance, I think it is safe to say that Rick McCord has never won a match on this television program.” Lance lowers his head and quietly says, “Well…Jerry…I don’t remember it if he did.” Too good. Eventually, after Lawler goads Flair into an impromptu match and a resulting count-out loss for the champ, the Nature Boy accuses Lance of “being in on” the plan to embarrass him. Lance’s facial expression in response is priceless.
“Hey, Terry, c’mon, now!” The intro to the infamous empty-arena match is some of the most classic footage of all time. Lance opens with, “Terry Funk has issued the challenge—a showdown in an empty Mid-South Coliseum. And if Lawler doesn’t accept…well…then…you will never see this.” Lance lights a cigarette, “thinking” that the match will never come off. And when Funk storms the area and calls Lance every name in the book, the Memphis announcer is at the top of his game, especially when Lawler shows up and the brawl culminates with a seemingly career-threatening eye injury to Funk. “Lance…my eye. My eye!”
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that Tojo Yamamoto could kill me.” Tojo and his team of Akio Sato and Tarzan Goto had just attacked Jeff Jarrett and Eddie Marlin in an insane TV angle in 1986 when Lance flipped. Arming himself with a hammer, he challenged Tojo to come back out so he could deliver a message from Jerry Jarrett: “I might get only one lick in, but I’ll hit you right between the eyes with this!” Compare this to Canada’s Stampede Wrestling announcer Ed Whalen, who would have freaked, cut to a commercial and then had the angle edited from the show in post-production. Lance gave this classic angle its sense of danger.
“Yellooww again, everybody!” I think I’ll always remember Lance’s intro every Saturday morning: “Hellooww (which sounded more like “Yellooww”) again, everybody, Lance Russell and Dave Brown, right along ringside with another BIG day of Championship Wrestling.” I used to get chills hearing those words, in anticipation or that Saturday morning’s televised action or the upcoming card on Monday night at the Coliseum. Now more than ever, I miss those days. Especially when I hear Lawler or Jim Ross gush about a current-day WWE angle while the crowd sits there silently.
“A lot of these guys have hemorrhoids!” Lance could also be one of the boys, evident this clip, where he and Lawler team to play a prank on the ringside doctor assigned by the athletic commission in Evansville, Indiana.
The usually cool Lance, cracks up again, this time at the hands of Al Costello, who breaks into song when Russell mentions a free concert by Jimmy Hart and the Gentrys at an upcoming Evansville show. (I guess Lawler was not joking all those years when he said the music career of Hart was in the toilet when he found him. But the part about Hart parking cars and playing for drinks at the Ramada Inn had to be a rib.)
Unfortunately for Lance, the Dream Machine (Troy Graham) did not have much of a sense of humor, which Lance learned the hard way. After introducing a music video featuring the Dream set to the song “Alley Oop,” Lance cracks up…and Graham simply cracks.
“That young man has got a lot to learn!” Lance expertly guided me through my first heel promo on Channel 5 rasslin’, one of the biggest thrills of my life. After chastising me for kicking Lawler in the back of the head and aligning myself with the hated Eddie Gilbert, Lance informed me that “People judge you by the folks you hang out with, Scott Bowden!” To which I replied, “OK, dad, OK, dad!” Afterward, Lance approached me to tell me how he had enjoyed that exchange. No, Lance, the pleasure was all mine. In another promo, this one in 1995, Lance berates me for interfering in matches and starting fights with referee Frank Morrell, Tommy Rich comes to my defense, saying “Scott Bowden never interferes in matches to begin with.” A disgusted Lance responds, “You must think we are fools!”
As I mentioned earlier, for years Lance was known to Memphis fans as “Banana Nose,” Lawler’s term of “endearment” for the longtime announcer. A friend of mine, Scott Arthur, was a nurse at Baptist East Hospital in Memphis several years ago when Lance had open-heart surgery. He relays the following story: “I recovered Russell immediately after surgery. As is custom after routine bypass surgery, Russell was unresponsive (under the effects of anesthesia) and on the ventilator immediately post-op. Lance did not awaken from anesthesia for several hours, and I was beginning to get concerned. Generally, we get concerned when patients are still unresponsive five to six hours after surgery. The risk for a stroke is high with bypass surgery, and so we have to watch their neuro status (level of consciousness) closely. Anyway, Russell’s family came to visit, and I explained the situation to them. One of them said to me, ‘Oh, he’s fine. Watch this.’ She (and I have no earthly idea who she was) walked over to Russell, leaned down in his ear and yelled, ‘Hey, Banana Nose!’ With that, Russell started to awaken and batted his eyes.”
When Lou Thesz passed away in 2002, Lance was quoted in The Wrestling Observer as saying it was hard to take because he thought Lou could never die. In a sense, I’ve always felt that way about Lance, and Memphis wrestling in general. May you both live forever.
(83-year-old Lance Russell lives with his wife, Audrey, in Florida. For more on Lance and his career, check out www.lancerussell.com.)