Archive

Archive for February, 2009

The man who would be King of Memphis

February 18th, 2009 8 comments

I was nearing the end of my first Memphis managerial run in February 1995 when I received the call. Eddie Gilbert, the man who orchestrated my turn from mild-mannered referee to dastardly heel, was dead of a heart attack at the age of 33. In what would become a morbid tradition for the next 13 years, Kevin Lawler broke the bad news to me. (To this day, whenever Kevin and I call each other, the one receiving the call answers, “Oh, no. Who died?” Sad, really.) Even though Eddie was in bad shape the last time I saw him, nearly falling asleep as we spoke backstage at the Mid-South Coliseum just two months earlier, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

The All-American Boy: Although he looked like the boy next door, Gilbert longed to be the King of Memphis.

The All-American Boy: Although he looked like the boy next door, Gilbert longed to be the King of Memphis.

 

I’d watched over the years as Eddie developed from an 18-year-old nervous babyface rookie into one of the best heels—and minds—in the business. Like Eddie, I grew up idolizing Jerry Lawler, dreaming of the day we’d conduct heel interviews together side by side. Eddie enabled me to live that dream.

This is how I first met Eddie Gilbert in 1989…and how I was forced to say goodbye less than six years later.


Despite the fact that nearly the same crew was working two nights later in Memphis at the Mid-South Coliseum in July 1989, a friend and I made the drive to Jackson, Tennessee, for an NWA/WCW card, headlined by an injured Terry Funk vs. Sting, and an old Memphis gimmick that Eddie had seen many times as a young man—the two-ring, triple-chance battle royal. I was an 18-year-old mark, fresh out of high school, and I fully believed that my destiny was to be a booker. Like Eddie, I played fantasy booker as a youngster, developing long-running story lines involving my make-believe wrestling friends. Now Eddie was living a dream of his own, as one of the bookers for the revamped, Ted Turner-owned WCW.


This WCW card in Jackson was to be a homecoming for Eddie, the nearby-Lexington, Tenn.-native. Gilbert’s Memphis influence was already creeping into WCW, with the addition of longtime Jarrett-announcer Lance Russell. The strong push of Funk as a deranged heel, including his crazed attack on NWA World champion Ric Flair months earlier at Wrestle War ’89 riled up memories of the Funker’s feud of years ago with the King of Memphis. I don’t mean to slight Eddie, but I’m sure he also was behind the ill-fated blonde-babyface tag-team of Johnny Ace (Laurinaitis) and Shane Douglas, who were originally billed as “The New Generation,” a moniker used in Memphis years earlier by Bart Batten and Johnny Wilhoit. (The latter team was doomed in Memphis after a music video aired on TV of them frolicking around Jerry Jarrett’s estate like two young lovers to the tune of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.”) Somehow, Ace and Douglas were later renamed with an even worse moniker: The Dynamic Dudes.


Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 10.34.58 AM

A Heel Mentor: A young Scott Bowden listens attentively as “Hot Stuff” gives Lance Russell an earful.

Although JCP/NWA/WCW had been a hot promotion from ’85 to ’87, the company fell on hard times, as booker Dusty Rhodes might say, a result of stale booking, frustrating screw-job finishes (e.g., the “hometown” Road Warriors being disqualified at Starrcade ’87 in Chicago vs. Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson) and low morale when it become apparent to all the boys that owner Jim Crockett was in over his head. Crockett’s ill-fated “balloon-payment” contracts were the final nails in the coffin.


But 1989 offered promise, with Turner buying the promotion to keep rasslin’ on the SuperStation, and the arrivals of new stars like Ricky Steamboat, who was immediately programmed into a feud with Flair. The two old rivals from Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling produced some of the greatest matches in the history of the business, although it didn’t exactly translate into box-office success, mostly because of Steamboat’s outdated family-man routine.


As it turned out, Steamboat’s arrival signaled the beginning of the end for Gilbert as a major player—at least as a wrestler—in the company. Although he had developed a successful heel persona over the years, Gilbert arrived in WCW in the latter part of 1988 as a babyface. Gilbert appeared to be in the best shape of his life, as he had supposedly loaded up on steroids to pack muscle onto his small frame. The promotion was in a transition phase, so Gilbert, the new kid in town, was able to position himself into a program with Horsemen Flair and Barry Windham. Undoubtedly, Gilbert was ecstatic. Steamboat was brought in as Mr. X, Eddie’s secret weapon against the Horsemen. Almost immediately after Steamboat’s debut, the last TV taping at the legendary WTBS Studio, Gilbert was dropped from the angle, supposedly at the request of Flair.

One knock on Flair is that he can be two-faced—as bad as Hulk Hogan when it comes to working the boys. Apparently, Flair didn’t care for Gilbert, quietly voicing behind his back that fans didn’t buy him as a headliner, especially against the Horsemen. Gilbert later felt betrayed by Flair, whom he claimed even promised him a spot in the Horsemen when the heel “Hot Stuff” would finally emerge. Knowing Gilbert and Flair, the truth is probably somewhere in between.


Years before, I would have agreed with Flair. I’ve read some accounts of Gilbert’s life in which the writer claims that he was a natural for the business. To me, that short-changes Eddie, because he wasn’t. He worked at it. Sure, his father was a great worker, but even Tommy Gilbert looked more like your average Joe–or perhaps, in his prime, movie-star Burt Reynolds–than a wrestler.


Eddie’s interview skills were spotty for years, with a promo he conducted as part of the New Fabulous One (a gimmick even worse than the one Laurinaitis and Douglas were saddled with) coming to mind. He and Rich stormed the WMC-TV studio to get revenge on Koko Ware and Norvell Austin, the PYT Express, who had bloodied Fargo’s replacement Fabs in a brawl the previous week. In a fit of rage, Rich ripped off his shirt a la Hogan (sans muscles) and went into his usual incomprehensible tirade…while Eddie carefully unbuttoned his shirt before sputtering: “I don’t care where it is. A mall. Downtown. At a service station. We’re after you.” Oooh…downtown, eh? Brother, look out! Even his first heel interview was lame by his eventual standards, despite the spot-on Lawler facial imitation, as Eddie resorted to insulting Michael Jackson (then still a hot performer) to get heat. (Jackson fans were probably already in an uproar over the PYTs’ gimmick infringement.)


Eddie was a dedicated performer who worked at the art of the wrestling interview. Hot Stuff picked up steam when he unceremoniously dumped Rich as his partner–despite the duo winning the prestigious (cough) WFIA Tag-Team of the Year Award. (In the eyes of Memphis fans, this was like attacking your teammate after winning the Super Bowl.) This was the beginning of Eddie as a crazed heel in the mold of another idol, Terry Funk.

With his nickname lifted from the Donna Summers song of the same name, Hot Stuff really hit his stride as a heel in January 1985, when he orchestrated a memorable “This Is Your Life” skit mocking the career of Lawler. Eddie was living his dream of headlining vs. Jerry Lawler with the Southern heavyweight title in the balance.



By July 1989, although working toward the bottom of the cards, Gilbert’s place on the booking committee was solid. Still, as creative as he could be, Gilbert had a tendency to book every promotion he worked for Memphis-style, hence his stable, “The First Family,” the name of Jimmy Hart’s old legion of heels.


In the weeks leading up to that Mid-South Coliseum card in 1989, Gilbert even tried to arrange for his hero Jerry Lawler, who was still clinging onto his Memphis throne despite the WWF and WCW expanding into his backyard, to work the main event against Funk. I believe there was also talk that Memphis would become a part of WCW, serving as a training ground of sorts in exchange for the occasional top-name appearance to help keep the promotion alive, much like the WWF would do with Memphis years later. (The term “developmental territory” hadn’t been coined yet.) That would have been a dream scenario for Gilbert, but the timing just wasn’t right, as Lawler and Jarrett were still doing OK business, surviving after the other territories crumbled at the hands of McMahon.


Besides, they probably knew that Memphis fans would eventually catch on that many of the local stars weren’t in the same league as the NWA guys. Jarrett and Lawler had learned that in the mid-’80s, co-hosting some Great American Bash-type cards in the area with Jim Crockett. Featuring stars like Flair, Magnum T.A., Tully Blanchard and Dusty Rhodes, the Crockett/Jarrett shows drew well, but I believe houses suffered in the weeks just prior and after those “super cards,” which had inflated ticket prices. Memphis also hosted an ill-advised Pro Wrestling USA (the mismanaged collective opposition to McMahon’s expansion) card at the Mid-South Coliseum, with the local talent (Dutch Mantel, the Dirty White Boys, the Nightmares, Lanny Poffo, Phil Hickerson and Spoiler, etc.) working as jobbers for the established AWA and NWA stars. Eddie even did a couple of jobs that night, just after he had been elevated as a main-event heel in Memphis.

Although everything wasn’t quite working out like he envisioned, Gilbert was in good spirits this night in Lexington in ’89. As he signed autographs backstage afterward, I nudged my way next to him and dropped some inside terms I’d learned from The Wrestling Observer to let him know I was “smart.” (Looking back now, I realize how dumb I must’ve sounded.) I think it was something like: “Man, Eddie, you and the booking committee are really turning things around. I’m glad you guys fired Bob Orton for not doing that job on TV. I mean, if he’s not gonna do what y’all say, then, well…y’know.” Gilbert kept signing programs and the like, looking at me only briefly before saying, “Thank you very much. It’s a slow process.” Needless to say, I was thrilled. I just knew that Eddie and I would have a great discussion about the business if only these stupid marks weren’t around.


Solution: My friend and I waited in my beat-up Camaro (dear God, the humiliation) until Eddie and his then wife, Missy Hyatt, left the building. We followed them for a few miles, and I was quite certain that he wouldn’t be speeding up to lose us if he knew it was me, the smart fan. Finally, he pulled over to a convenience store to pick up a 12-pack of beer. He leered at me cautiously before saying, “Oh, shit, I didn’t recognize you. What’s up, guys?” We stood in the parking lot for 10 minutes, with him and Missy tolerating our questions. I mentioned that my girlfriend at the time, Julie, and I had tickets to the matches in Memphis, and he invited me to a pre-match pizza party with the wrestlers, which was sponsored by the local TV station that aired one of the NWA/WCW syndicated TV shows.


The next night, Julie, who looked a lot like Jessica Simpson, and I had our pics taken with Eddie, the Road Warriors and Steve Williams. Funny: Doc and the Warriors were cordial enough…for about 10 minutes. Then they abruptly left, stacking 10 Domino’s Pizzas and taking them back to the dressing room, leaving us marks to fend for ourselves with the remaining four pies. Eddie hung around talking to me…but paying special attention to Julie. Afterward, Julie confessed that she thought that maybe Eddie had grabbed her ass not once but twice while we posed for pictures. Being naïve, I assured her that she must have been mistaken. I mean, yeah, right. Hot Stuff? The man who goes to bed with Missy every night? No way. Years later, after I got to know Eddie, who had a reputation as being a notorious flirt/ladies man within the biz, I thought back to that night. And I couldn’t help but laugh. I’d bet anything that he fondled my girlfriend that night.


It’s strange. The only time I get emotional about Eddie is when I look at old pictures from his first couple of years in the business. He looks like such a good kid—so happy just to be in the business. I wasn’t a fan of Eddie, initially billed as Tommy Gilbert Jr., in those early days; that is, until his infamous Tupleo, Mississippi, concession stand brawl in 1981. Two years earlier, Lawler and Bill Dundee engaged in an incredible brawl in the Tupelo Sports Arena with Blonde Bombers Wayne Ferris and Larry Latham that spilled over into the concessions area, with blood and mustard flying everywhere. The sequel, starring Gilbert and Ricky Morton vs. Mr. Onita and Masa Fuchi (with the evil Tojo Yamamoto in their corner) was just as wonderfully insane, The Godfather Pt. II of concession-stand brawls. I was quoted in Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson’s The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels as saying Gilbert and Morton “went into that bout pretty boys—they left as men who were fighting for America against the evil Japanese who had invaded their backyard.” After kicking the Japanese contingent’s asses, Gilbert and Morton were no longer second-generation daddies’ boys in my book.

Duke boys: As a team, Tommy and Eddie were quick to put up their fists and fight Memphis heels like the father/son duo of Buddy and Ken Wayne.

Duke boys: As a team, Tommy and Eddie were quick to put up their fists and fight Memphis heels like the father/son duo of Buddy and Ken Wayne.

I regret that Eddie and I didn’t have more time to work together. Two weeks after my heel turn, on May 27, 1994, Eddie and I conducted only our second promo together, building up his match with Lawler on Memorial Day at the Coliseum. As a stipulation of the bout, I would be forced into the ring with Jerry Lawler for five minutes should he defeat Hot Stuff. The previous Saturday, during a TV main event between Lawler and Gilbert, I had thrown powder into the King’s eyes right after his introduction, enabling “my new best friend” to steal the win in about six seconds. The King was hot on my trail. During our promo, Lance played it up as if I were at death’s door, insinuating I wouldn’t survive the encounter if Jerry Lawler got his hands on me, which I shrugged off with a line I had lifted from Apter-mag heel columnist Dan Shocket, “The only reason Lawler’s not over the hill is because he never climbed it in the first place.” I didn’t realize then how sensitive Lawler was about his age—I’m sure he winced backstage at that one. But the worst was yet to come.

Prior to the interview, Eddie had confided in me backstage that he was livid his bout with Lawler wasn’t the main event. As part of their working relationship with the WWF, Bam Bam Bigelow was heading back in to team with the Dream Machine to work with Jerry and Brian in the last match. Eddie felt he should be in the tag main event with Bigelow—not wrestling a singles bout with Lawler, especially since Lawler wasn’t putting the Unified World title up. Gilbert desperately wanted that strap back so he could “get his heat back.” It sounded so petty, so off-base, that I initially thought he had to be ribbing me.

Two months earlier, on March 25, Lawler had tricked Eddie into giving up the title at a Friday night spot show in Senatobia, Mississippi, claiming that he only wanted to pop the crowd that night and that he’d drop the belt back in short order. The next day at TV, he stripped Eddie of his booking duties, handing the reins to Randy Hales. It was clear that Lawler had wanted the belt back before he dismissed Eddie as booker, knowing Gilbert’s history for suddenly leaving territories in a huff with their championships. Hot Stuff often lived up to his name, as he had a sketchy pattern of burning bridges. The booking switch didn’t reflect that Randy was more creative than Eddie—far from it. I think Lawler simply didn’t trust the increasingly paranoid Gilbert, who seemed to be legitimately jealous of Brian Christopher Lawler’s mega-push as the next big thing in the USWA. This was also around the time that Jeff Jarrett, who was finally receiving national acclaim as Double J in the WWF, had returned to the area for a few shots.

Hair apparent: As part of his quest to be like Lawler, Gilbert frequently used two of the King''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''s favorite maneuvers...hair-pulling and punching.

Hair apparent: As part of his quest to be like Lawler, Gilbert frequently used two of the  favorite maneuvers of the King…hair-pulling and punching.

Perhaps the most agonizing part for Gilbert in May 1994: Lawler was showing no signs of slowing down, or abdicating the Memphis Rasslin’ throne any time soon. And to make matters worse, Lawler’s kingdom had expanded to the WWF, where he was firmly entrenched not only as a heel color commentator alongside Vince McMahon but also a wrestler fresh off a high-profile feud with Bret Hart and still receiving nice PPV paydays.

It was likely that unless Gilbert cleaned himself up and got his head on straight, WWF and WCW were not going to take a chance on him as a booker at that time. (I have to think, though, that had Gilbert lived, Vince might’ve turned to him when the Former Fed was looking for an edge in 1996/early 1997.) Gilbert was also facing a rapidly receding hairline and body that was beginning to break down after about 15 years of bumps, not to mention the car accident in which he nearly broke his neck in 1983. Unless he got back on massive amounts of steroids or radically changed his gimmick, he would never have the right look for WCW or WWF as a top wrestler.


So as I stood by Gilbert’s side on May 27, he was a powder keg waiting to explode—and on live TV, no less. In a classic example of art imitating life, he questioned why Jerry Lawler wasn’t putting the title up and that he was sick of Brian Christopher being “Lawler’s handpicked successor.” He also bemoaned the backstage politics and that he wouldn’t be around much longer, comparing himself to Emmit Smith, the Dallas Cowboys’ franchise player who sat out the first two games of the 1993 NFL season until he got a new contract. I was thinking to myself, “Oh, shit. This is a shoot. Lawler’s gonna kill us when we get backstage.” I just knew any minute that Gilbert was going to reveal that Brian was Jerry’s son, which was already one of the worst-kept secrets in town, but he didn’t. Gilbert was dressed to wrestle in the show later, but instead he made a beeline for the exit, leaving me to explain things to Lawler. With a concerned look on his face, Lawler asked me, “You think that was a shoot?” Gulp. I muttered, “I…I think so.” Then Lawler asked me if I thought Eddie would show up Monday night for the match. To that one, I had no answer. Gilbert probably didn’t even know—it all depended on how he felt 48 hours later.


Hours before the show Monday, Lawler called me to ask if I’d heard from Gilbert. After I explained that I hadn’t, Lawler asked if I could round up the crutches, leg brace and wheelchair he’d seen me use in an outlaw-show performance on one of Brian’s videotapes. Lawler was hatching a contingency plan in case Gilbert didn’t make it. In the event of the no-show, the Dream Machine would wheel me down to ringside, and I’d claim that Eddie and I were seriously injured in a car accident when a drunkard ran my car off the road. Alas, Gilbert did arrive at the building shortly before the 8 o’clock bell time, so instead Eddie wheeled me down wearing a neckbrace and delivered the spiel as Lance held the microphone. Eddie turned things over to me, and as I noted the irony of being stuck in a wheelchair along with all the war veterans on Memorial Day, Hot Stuff sneaked up behind the preoccupied Lawler and attacked him to start the match. The scenario was illogical since Lawler had pulled nearly the exact same attack months earlier on Bret at SummerSlam ’93.


During the bout, Gilbert kept feeding Lawler to me, unselfishly putting even more heat on his young, cocky manager. At different points, I ran over Lawler in the wheelchair, gouged his eyes and choked him. And the ref, Lawler’s other son, Kevin Christian Lawler, never saw a damned thing. After the patented Lawler ref bump out of a headlock, I made my move out of the wheelchair. I stood on the ring apron, and tossed my thick, heavy leg brace to Eddie, who clotheslined Lawler with it, seemingly knocking him out for the pin.


Little did we all know that was to be Eddie’s last match ever in Memphis. Eddie walked out on the promotion later that week.


He bounced around after that, working briefly for Jim Cornette’s Knoxville-based Smoky Mountain Wrestling before landing in just about the only territory left that would trust him with the book: Puerto Rico. On February 17, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Eddie booked himself into a classic Southern rasslin’ angle in which he was“forced to wrestle” a live bear.


The next day, Gilbert was found dead in his apartment in Isla Verde by his booking assistant, wrestler Ken Wayne. Eddie had broken into the business around the same time as Ken in Memphis, working a memorable father-son feud with their respective fathers, Tommy and Buddy. Their road together in the business ended in tragedy with Eddie dead at 33, apparently of a drug overdose.

Thomas Edward Gilbert Aug. 14, 1961 – Feb. 18, 1995

Eddie’s funeral was held February 24 near his hometown. On that crisp winter morning, Kevin Lawler and I declined to make the ride from Memphis to Lexington with Jerry and Brian in a borrowed limo to the service. I thought it was inappropriate, and Kevin was offended because Jerry wanted him to drive.

As Elvis Presley gospel tunes played in the background, I made my way to his open casket, which was decorated with Tennessee Volunteers Big Orange merchandise. I smiled a bit because any indication of Eddie’s love for Elvis and the Vols would disappear when he was a heel in Memphis; however, the moment he turned babyface, he was cutting promos wearing T-shirts with either Elvis or the Vols logo, and wrestling in orange tights.He was a Tennessee boy through and through. It was difficult seeing this energetic, charismatic young man with a passion for the wrestling business lying so still. A small, sick part of me hoped he would pop up out of the casket and attack Lawler in the ultimate swerve. After all, he had once asked me, “Where do you go after running somebody over with a car?” (As part of a memorable angle in 1990, Eddie mowed over Lawler with his vehicle in the WMC-TV parking lot. Despite the fact that Lawler was wearing kneepads and elbow pads underneath his street clothes, he took a wicked bump. For a moment, Gilbert thought he’d killed the King.)


The eulogy was delivered by a man who sounded like he knew nothing about Eddie, struggling to make analogies to ‘rasslin’ in the ring and rasslin’ with life’s tragedies. Later, walking past the gravesite, I paid my respects to his father, Tommy, and his Eddie’s brother, Doug, as his mother, Peggy, cried over the death of her oldest son. Eddie was buried with his wrestling boots.


To me, Gilbert’s is one of the saddest stories in the business. Yes, he made choices that led to his undoing; however, the business—the one he loved—shaped those choices. I guess I just miss him.

Jerry “the King” Lawler wrestles to stop violence (best headline ever)

February 18th, 2009 No comments

Stopping violence...one fireball at a time.

From the local CBS news affiliate in Memphis, Tenn.: Professional wrestler and Memphis native Jerry “The King” Lawler is taking on a new opponent, but not in the ring. Lawler is teaming up with a local group to fight crime and give kids an alternative to violence.

A whole lineup of old school Memphis wrestlers, including Lawler and Psycho Sid Vicious will be duking it out inside the ring next Saturday. Proceeds from the event will go to the organization FFUN as a joint effort to reach out to urban youth in Memphis.

He is known as Jerry “the King” Lawler inside the ring and he is bringing it to the White Station High School auditorium for a night of Memphis classic wrestling.

“Myself, Psycho Sid Vicious are going to be involved, Outlaw Don Bass, Superstar Bill Dundee, Bryant (sic) Christopher, Dangerous Doug Gilbert, said Lawler.

But this time it is for a bigger cause than just entertainment. Lawler has teamed up with Stevie Moore of the group “Stop the Violence” to raise funds and set up youth wrestling camps. “It is all about inner-city youth and giving them the opportunity to vent their anger or whatever it is in other directions rather than picking up weapons and things like that,” said Lawler.

This coming from the man who regularly hits opponents with steel chairs and chains. But then I believe it was Gandhi who said, “I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. But I do believe piledriving your fellow man can deter future violence. Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. And may the aim of your fireball be true.”

I love where Lawler promises to bring along Vicious, Bass and Gilbert to help the cause. Yes, just the men you want to stomp out violence: the Psycho, the Outlaw and Dangerous Doug.

File under Jerry “the King” Lawler.

Cagey veterans: Triple H, Edge capture WWE’s major titles in Elimination Chamber double-header at NO WAY OUT

February 17th, 2009 No comments

World Wrestling Entertainment continued its string of excellent Elimination Chamber matches on pay per view, with a strong double-header inside the steel at Sunday’s NO WAY OUT. When WWE debuted the Elimination Chamber less than seven years ago, I thought it was one of the most innovative, brutal matches the company had devised in years. The inaugural Chamber bout, held at the 2002 SURVIVOR SERIES was a classic, with a bloody, exhausted Shawn Michaels capping off his return to action with a show-stopping, dramatic win of the World title, pinning Triple H to take the Big Gold. And I still recall that spot when Rob Van Dam appeared to nearly crush the larynx of the Game with a dangerous five-star splash from atop of one of the Chamber pods in the early going.

Sweet Chamber Music: After delivering his finisher, HBK pins Triple H to win the World title in the first-ever Chamber bout.

Sweet Chamber Music: After delivering his finisher, HBK pins Triple H to win the World title in the first-ever Chamber bout.

Since that time, though, the Chamber has become an annual event as part of the regular PPV rotation. The match concept is no longer special, relegated to a marketing gimmick. In my opinion, the Chamber should be considered the mother of all gimmick matches, reserved for settling the harshest of controversies. While they may be overexposing the concept, especially with two such bouts on the same show, the Chamber will remain a WWE fixture as long as it remains a surefire PPV draw. I’ll be interested to see if the buy rate is consistent this year, since most of the buildup on RAW in the weeks leading up to NO WAY OUT centered on Shane McMahon vs. Randy Orton, while the Chamber title bouts were considered an afterthought.

Chamber of Commerce: Bulletproof glass sold separately.

Chamber of Commerce: Bulletproof glass sold separately.

On Sunday, Triple H won the WWE heavyweight championship over the Undertaker in a memorable showdown between the final two contestants in the SMACKDOWN! Chamber bout. The exchange of near falls, including a wonderfully timed false finish that saw Trips get his black boot on the ropes as a last-gasp save following a Tombstone piledriver, and later, an Undertaker kick-out after a pedigree, played the audience like a piano. The crowd’s loud, dueling chants of “Triple H” and “Undertaker” gave the encounter a special feeling, which you would expect with it coming down to the two most dominant performers in the company in the last decade.

Around this time last year, in the months leading into WRESTLEMANIA 24, I wrote that a main event of HHH defending the belt vs. the streak of the Undertaker would do big business, as unlike most big matches nowadays, the finish would be difficult for fans to guess. (In fact, things were so predictable in 2008, the WWE title match finish in the Triple Threat was changed to Orton successfully defending the title over John Cena and HHH just to swerve the marks.) At this point, fans don’t believe ‘Taker’s WRESTLEMANIA streak is in jeopardy, no matter the opponent…with the possible exception of Triple H. Pulling the trigger on the match now would make sense, while ‘Taker is still viewed as a force and Triple H is still on top of his game. It would likely be a great match as well, as long as ‘Taker is healthy.
Gamemanship: Triple H outdueled the Dead Man to win the WWE championship.

Gamemanship: Triple H outdueled the Dead Man to win the WWE championship.

But it ain’t happening this year.

On the Feb. 16 RAW, JBL came to the ring claiming he was going to end the Undertaker’s streak at WRESTLEMANIA. (Who does JBL think he is, anyway…Shane McMahon?) It’s getting to be funny how WWE has JBL deliver these promos with conviction about regaining the WWE title or winning the World title or ending the ‘Taker’s streak, when even the densest marks realize he’s through as a major player. Yeah, yeah, that’s heat, baby.) This, of course, brought out Shawn Michaels, who challenged JBL to a match with the winner challenging the Undertaker’s streak. (Gee…wonder how the ‘Taker feels about all this? It’s his streak, after all. Seems like he’d be in line for a shot at Trips’ belt after Sunday. But there I go talking logic again.) Anyway, so the WRESTLEMANIA main event looks to be HHH vs. Randy Orton for the WWE title (following the Legend Killer’s attack on Shane and Steph on Monday’s RAW), with ‘Taker vs.HBK on the undercard. Even though Trips vs. Orton has been done to death, the new family issue involving the McMahons (more on that later this week) gives their bout a spark, and at least, a fresh concept. And HBK vs. ‘Taker has the potential to steal the whole dang show.

I thought ‘Taker looked great physically Sunday. The Phenom worked as hard as I’ve ever seen him, perhaps in part because the early sequence between Big Show and Kozlov bombed big time and fans were beginning to turn on the bout despite the hot opening sequence between Jeff Hardy and defending champion Edge.

The champ exited early, with Hardy small packaging Edge during a spear attempt, a surprising move that popped the live crowd. It was an interesting booking approach, guaranteeing a title switch and generating a buzz amongst the live crowd—which was promptly cooled the moment Kozlov entered the ring. (Even worse, he was wearing what appeared to be tighty-whities).

Despite coming out on the losing end in a few high-profile bouts, WWE still insists on billing Kozlov as “undefeated in one-one-competition”—which they undoubtedly will continue to do despite the big lug being pinned Sunday in the Chamber. (It wasn’t “one-on-one,” you see. I understand that Vince shouts this kind of stuff into the announcers’ headsets, but it kills their credibility making such claims.) Anyway, Hardy sold Kozlov’s offense like crazy, and believe me, I felt his pain. Usually, WWE painstakingly books gimmick matches like this (and the Royal Rumble) to ensure the bouts flow well and that there’s always a nice mix of guys who can work and/or personalities who are over…hiding the shortcomings of the dead weight. Not the case here, as Big Show was the next man in, leaving Hardy between the two big brutes. Now, I like the Paul Wight, despite his limitations in the ring, but the whole “rivalry” spot between Kozlov and the Show, with each man performing devastating moves on Hardy without making a pin attempt, made both appear like dopes. Why not just finish off Hardy? (The Show, in particular, looked foolish, as he was later booked to interrupt several spots that would have surely eliminated one of the opponents. ) The crowd died during this five-minute stretch, which seemed a hell of a lot longer. (Although I did laugh when Ross made the comment about Show “unwilling to leave his feet.”) The camera caught ‘Taker appearing a little disgusted looking on, and he took to pounding the glass surrounding his pod, perhaps to wake up the crowd, which began a “Undertaker” chant as if on command.

Koz and defect: Behold the undefeated loser.

Koz and defect: Behold the undefeated loser.

Trips was in next, and boy, I was never so happy to see him—and likely never will again. (Did Ross really call HHH “Neanderthal-like” during his introduction? Had to laugh at that one, along with Ross’ comments professing twisted admiration for the Chamber itself, marveling over the “10-Ton, Big Bully of Steel” and “The Devil’s Vacation Home in Hell” throughout the match.) Kozlov was pretty tired at this point and managed to screw up the Game’s “Harley Race” high-knee spot, bumping too soon. The crowd was so disinterested in Kozlov at this point, that they didn’t even pop when ‘Taker finally came in and eliminated him after a Last Ride. (Kozlov appeared to block ‘Taker from extending him farther up to complete the move, but it still looked OK.) ‘Taker also appeared to work pretty stiff with Kozlov before taking him out. But again, it wasn’t all bad news for Kozlov—after all, he’s STILL undefeated in singles competition.

Y’know, Kozlov has some of the most amazing facial expressions I’ve ever seen on a monster heel, but he’s simply not a polished big man on the level of say, Batista, who at the very least works hard. Kozlov would have been a brilliant monster for Jerry Lawler to feud with in Memphis in the early ’80s, as the King would have used his master psychology to get him over as a force. (Not surprising that it was former Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett who was instrumental in Kozlov getting his big break. ) No matter how much Ross claims Kozlov is “a master of several forms of combat,” I just ain’t buying it.

The crowd woke up when it was down to the final four, though I felt it was pretty clear it was coming down to Trips and ‘Taker at this point. Hardy, Trips and ‘Taker all three had their working shoes on, bumping all over the place for each other. Hardy connected beautifully with a Whisper in the Wind on HHH, who sold it like a million dollars. (Quite frankly, it’s one of the few times that the Whisper, while always visually impressive, truly looked like a devastating maneuver.) They did a nice job of emphasizing that it took three men to eliminate the Show, with each of the remaining three competitors hitting him with a signature move. (If only Show had been protected this well in losses early in his WWF career.)

Hardy’s elimination was a given, since he’s headed to ‘MANIA to face his brother, Matt, in a grudge match. While I don’t share the negative feelings that some have with a Hardy vs. Hardy program, I do wish they’d have built the feud up slowly, gradually escalating the violence between the two. The whole thing is rushed—but that’s what happens when for attempting swerve Internet marks who knew about Christian returning to WWE storylines as the man who ran Jeff off the road, which was reportedly the original plan. The only one who should be complaining now is Christian, who has been relegated to a feud with ECW champ Jack Swagger, who isn’t over as a personality at all.

Given the star power involved in the SMACKDOWN! Chamber, I was curious as to why this match didn’t close the show…but I’d have my answer eventually in the form of a last-minute substitution in the RAW Chamber.

Finish saw Trips escape the Last Ride and hit ‘Taker with a second pedigree to get the win. The crowd was so into the bout at this point that no one booed the finish, unlike the first pin attempt following the pedigree, which did illicit rather loud boos from the Seattle crowd who thought ‘Taker was done at that point.

The ‘Taker’s emotional, heartbroken gaze directed at the new champion in the aftermath will be wasted, as the company is heading in a different direction for WRESTLEMANIA.

Can’t believe they followed this hot opener with the no-holds-barred match between Shane McMahon and Randy Orton. With Shane’s Superman push being choke-slammed down our throats, I figured this match would need brilliant booking and the perfect placement on the card to succeed. In hindsight, WWE probably wishes they’d gone with Swagger vs. Finlay after the Chamber (which put the crowd to sleep faster than Verne Gagne would have ever dreamt possible)…the crowd would have popped for anything after that.

Believe it or not, the bout actually opened with Shane boxing Orton’s ears. The former WWE and World champion was on the ropes early, with Orton bumping outside the ring selling the avenging son’s onslaught as the maniacal Stephanie McMahon watched on a backstage monitor. With Orton on his knees, Shane took his sweet little time setting up gimmicks that would come into play latter, a trashcan and a chair. So much time passed that even Lawler had to question Shane’s strategy, commenting O’Mac had better pick up the pace and stay on top on his foe. The Seattle crowd, who was hot as can be for the opener, was dead most of the way for this. Orton regained the upper hand in the ring, before Shane whacked him with a kendo stick out of nowhere. They spilled back onto the floor, where Shane clocked Orton with a ringside monitor—a stiff shot that resulted in the Legend Killer bleeding the hard way. (If it had occurred with a different opponent, Orton could have benefited from future video replays of his bloody wound a la Steve Austin at WRESTLEMANIA 13. After HHH vs. Orton has run its course, everyone will be better off if WWE refrains from showing footage of the owner’s son whipping the top star’s ass.)

Shane placed a prone, bloody Orton on the announcers’ table, but Legacy members Ted DiBiase and Cody Rhodes made the save. Of course, Shane kicked their butts, too, with McMahon this time catching Rhodes with the VanTerminator, mere days after making DiBiase eat it. Once again, Shane barely connected, though the execution didn’t look nearly as devastating as one from the master, Rob Van Dam:

As I stated last week in my Feb. 13 column over at comics101.com, I believe the fans are over the novelty of seeing Shane’s daredevil antics. A few “Holy Shit” chants resulted from the move, but not like what you’d expect, and nowhere near the reaction Shane got when he did the same move to his father at WRESTLEMANIA years back.

Shane then missed the Randy Savage elbow from the top turnbuckle, crushing the table instead of Orton. (Dig it!) Wicked, wicked bump. Orton then checked on his fallen comrades. In an embarrassing display of emotion, the leader of Legacy ordered the Million-Dollar Son to remove Rhodes from the proverbial battlefield…y’know, in case Shane got back up and whipped ‘em all. Shameful, really.

Orton poured it on, hitting but Shane kept kicking out, when lesser men (y’know, those not named McMahon) would have been pinned. Funniest moment of the night: A perplexed Michael Cole, when struggling to explain how the owner’s son could survive such an attack by the promotion’s top heel, questioned, “How’s he doing it?” Lawler, apparently with a straight face, blurted out “That McMahon heart!” Ha, ha, ha! That’s the best one-liner Lawler’s had in years.

Really, if the bout was going to continue at this point, then Orton should have been lifting up Shane’s shoulders at the count of two to inflict more punishment. With his nasty cut, Orton looked the worse for wear, which I don’t think was the story should have told. In my opinion, Shane should have been allowed some offense before Orton took over, toying with him like a snake does his prey. They came close to delivering just that in the end but fell short. Orton hit the RKO when Shane went a punt and got the pin. Instead of a beat-down after, Lawler claimed Orton was too injured to follow up on a post-match attack? What tha…? This really made no sense later, when Lawler announced to the PPV-viewing audience that Shane had been taken to a local medical facility, with his adoring sister by his side, after falling in and out of consciousness. Again, though, that’s not the story they told in the ring.

All that said, Shane’s timing is pretty good for a guy who doesn’t work on a regular basis, and yes, his bumps are often amazing. But the crowd is wise to his routine, and it just doesn’t look right for your top heel star to be selling like mad for this guy. Further, Shane has no business using finishers of the top guys (e.g., Edge’s spear).

Blocked Punt: This is what Shane gets for attempted gimmick infringement.

Blocked Punt: This is what Shane gets for attempted gimmick infringement.

The ECW title bout was a throwaway—Swagger (whose face looks like it was chiseled by legendary comic-book artist Jack Kirby) and Finlay missed a few spots and the young champion looked lost at times. They mistimed the finish with Hornswoggle taking a weak-looking bump off a Swagger rollup of Finlay, with the champ retaining. No Christian = no interest.

Initially, I wasn’t interested in the Shawn Michaels/JBL feud—seemed like a strained attempt by WWE Creative to be relevant and current with a storyline involving the global financial crisis. But as is usually the case, Michaels has been the difference-maker; slowly, his spot-on facial expressions and body language captured the emotion of a broken man ruled by his “maniacal boss.” (As Lawler described JBL. I wonder if, in an ironic twist, Vince fed that line to the King. Hmmm.) Some nice storytelling early, with the announcers playing up the fact that JBL was attempting to bait HBK into a disqualification. I have to admit—I bought into this swerve as I thought the presence of Rebecca (Mrs. HBK…a showstopper in her own right) would trigger Michaels’ temper, resulting in a DQ. I must say, that as good as HBK is with his pained expressions, Rebecca was equally as good here watching her husband in action. Lawler and Cole were great here, covering all the bases in the storyline, including the ramifications for HBK’s family should he lose as well as Michaels’ history of back problems. As JBL worked over the back of his foe, the King quietly uttered that Layfield was out to expose Michaels as “a broken…down…old man.” JBL taunted Rebecca, perhaps questioning how many hours a day she spends in a tanning bed. Michaels missed an elbow from the top and narrowly avoid being counted out on the floor. Again, it’s subtle, but the look of relief on Rebecca’s vibrant-orange face was perfect. Even better: Mrs. Michaels (Hickenbottom) actually shed tears or mascara-running joy when HBK came back and hit Sweet Chin Music for the win. (I think I shed a few tears of joy myself…now Michaels can move on to have a bout with someone—likely the Undertaker—who can keep up with him at WRESTLEMANIA.) Anyway, decent bout, given Layfield was involved. Cole had a nice line about HBK’s children at home jumping for joy, which didn’t come off as bad as it might read.

Before the last match started, Lawler plugged Saliva’s “Hunt You Down,” the official song of NO WAY OUT. The 59-year-old Lawler sounds always sounds a little silly plugging a band like this. Jericho was interviewed backstage before the Chamber. Nice, subtle swerve with Jericho saying after he won the title, he’d coax Flair out of retirement with the offer of a shot at a 17th World championship reign.Of course, he backtracked immediately and said he wouldn’t do that for “that charity-case Flair,” but it did get me thinking that perhaps they was the direction they were headed and Jericho might regain the belt. Of course, all bets were off the moment Edge attacked Kofi Kingston from behind, seizing his spot in the match. Yeah, I know they explained why an authority figure from RAW wasn’t on hand (Steph at the “nearby medical facility” with Shane), but she really needed to be there to “authorize” his entry, saying something like, “Careful what you wish for” and urging the other RAW guys to whip this SMACKDOWN! outsider’s ass for screwing up their brand’s match. (The next night on RAW, it was explained that Vickie Guerrero was the second in command with Steph gone, so she approved her Edge’s entry. That would have been far more effective had they explained that during the PPV broadcast, but perhaps there were time concerns.) Ah, well—like anyone gives a shit about logic nowadays. Edge slithering his way into championships has been done to death, but the brilliant execution of his latest ploy saved it. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Cena got a huge reaction coming out first. Oh, yeah, then Mike Knox came out. Knox is another guy who would have been a big star in a different era. He’s got a unique, intense look and air about him, but his ring attire is the absolute shits. Unlike Kozlov, Knox moves pretty well for a man his size and his work is pretty solid. (Knox did a good job keeping up with Mysterio on Monday’s RAW as well.) But he needs something—perhaps even a manager to serve as his mouthpiece. (I know a great one from Germantown, baby!) It was probably worth a spot in the Chamber to give him more of a superstar rub. Still, Knox is not quite over, and I’m surprised a guy like C.M. Punk didn’t get the nod over Knox or Kane.

Again, nice pacing to start, with Jericho and Mysterio getting the call. A shame these two have yet to be worked into a feud together on RAW. (Instead, Rey gets booked with Kane.) Later in the bout, Jericho slingshot Rey into the cage, but the masked man gripped chain links with both hands and scaled up the Chamber a la Spider-Man and nailed the former Y2J with an amazing hurricanrana.

The two again combined for a nice spot later, with Jericho catching Kane with the codebreaker, and Rey coming off the top of a Chamber pod to with flying bodypress to eliminate ‘Taker’s bro.

Rey sold like crazy for Knox, including a spot in which his foot got caught in the cage. Knox proceeded to bounce Rey off the Chamber, earning an “oooohh” from the crowd.

Another shame in today’s RAW/SMACKDOWN! environment: an Edge/Jericho alliance would be money, but the timing is not right. The two heels combined with Rey on a “Holy Shit”-inducing sunset-flip-from-the-top-rope/belly-to-back suplex spot, with Mysterio getting the worst of it.

Cena was up next, knocking on the pod door and waving at Edge in a nice moment before the buzzer sounded. (Edge had a similar bug-eyed moment earlier when Rey forcibly entered his pod when the buzzer signaled his entry into the bout–funny stuff.) Cena cleaned house before falling victim to a codebreaker, 619 and spear in succession to be eliminated in another surprise. Although I liked Edge’s early elimination from the SMACKDOWN! bout, getting rid of Cena so early pretty much guaranteed that Edge was going to steal another title. (Again, we did have that strap tease from Jericho regarding Flair, so that helped.) But once Jericho was gone, you knew it was Edge all the way. Still, Edge and Rey deserve credit for keeping the interest alive. All sorts of cool near pinfalls by Rey, with Edge barely kicking out each time—they had the crowd believing maybe, just maybe….

As Rey went for a dive on the catwalk outside the ring, Edge alertly used Mysterio’s momentum against him, sending him headfirst into one of the “bulletproof-glass pods.” Rey sold it beautifully, slowly getting to his feet, staggering like a boxer on the ropes before Edge speared him nearly out of his boots to take the World title.

Edge of His Teeth: The Rated-R Superstar outlasted Rey Mysterio to win the World title at NO WAY OUT.

Edge of His Teeth: The Rated-R Superstar outlasted Rey Mysterio to win the World title at NO WAY OUT.

Visually, a great close to the show, with Edge taunting the crowd and kissing the Big Gold Belt, with the giant WRESTLEMANIA star in hanging in the background.

Overall Rating: Thumbs Up