It was a Memphis wrestling fan’s dream come true. For more than 10 years of my childhood, I spent 90 minutes nearly every Saturday morning in front of my parents’ TV in Germantown Bartlett watching announcers Lance Russell and Dave Brown, right along ringside, calling the action of another “BIG DAY of Championship Wrestling.”
Saturday morning memories: Russell, Jarrett, Bowden and Brown pose with the AWA Southern title belt following the Memphis Wrestling Roundtable discussion in Charlotte.
I started watching the show religiously in 1977, the same year the Memphis wresting program moved to WMC-TV channel 5 from WHBQ channel 13 in 1977, following promoter Jerry Jarrett’s split from “partner” Nick Gulas. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I’d wind up as a performer on the show (though that was my lifelong ambition when I was growing up), standing alongside Lance and Dave in 1994–1996 as I insulted the rednecks in the audience a la my hero Jerry Lawler in the late ’70s.
Likewise, I couldn’t have I imagined the opportunity I had on Aug. 8 as moderator of the Memphis Wrestling Roundtable discussion as part of the NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest weekend. For 90 minutes on that Saturday morning, I was joined by Lance, Dave and Jerry to discuss their memories of arguably the most entertaining wrestling promotion in the country in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
When discussing what made Memphis wrestling so special, the three veterans of the business agreed it was not only the talent but also the attitude of everyone involved.
“It sounds so corny, but’s that made our show different—the passion,” Lance says. “I’m not knocking the other shows, but there was a difference—and I think that’s because of the way we all felt about the business. We loved it, and we enjoyed coming to work.”
“It wasn’t something we had to do—we worked for the station and came in on our day off because we were having fun doing it,” says Dave, who was recruited by Jarrett along with program-director Russell to WMC from WHBQ, where he also did the newscast weather as well as the Saturday morning wrestling gig. “I had seen other wrestling shows, and I don’t think I would have done it for very long in another area because it just didn’t have the same indefinable spark that Memphis had. A lot of that had to do with three things. First, the history: Wrestling had always been a successful show in the Memphis market going back to the 1950s. It was one of the first live television broadcasts on my television station, which was the first station in Tennessee. Second, the demographics of the market were such that wrestling was a great fit. We didn’t have a pro football team, we didn’t have a pro basketball team—some argue we still don’t. At the time, the University of Memphis Tigers weren’t that popular. So wrestling was the professional sport in the Memphis market. Another thing that made it so great was when Jerry Jarrett took it over, the meticulous way in which the show was laid out was impressive. Jerry had stuff in his mind for weeks—he knew where it was going and how he wanted to get there.”
Jarrett cites his announcers’ credibility as a major factor in the show’s success.
“I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by unbelievable talent,” says Jarrett, who today owns a successful construction business. “When my son Jeff and I started TNA, I tried to explain to him that the most important talents you can have on a TV wrestling show are your announcers. The announcers are, literally, the show. My star, Jerry Lawler, would have six or seven minutes of airtime—eight minutes at the most each week. So I credit these two gentlemen with the passion they had and the broadcast ability they had for making me look like a pretty smart promoter.”
After I mentioned the fact that Lawler being a Memphian made him the perfect “home team” for the city, we discussed how the young, brash upstart overthrew Jackie Fargo (who was honored the night before during the Hall of Heroes banquet) for the Memphis rasslin’ throne.
Jarrett says the program basically wrote itself, as Fargo had helped Jerry break into the business–a classic case of the teacher/the aging superstar, fending off his pupil/the young buck trying to knock him off.
“In addition to being a wrestler, Jackie was also a disc jockey, and Jerry was one of his interns, or as Fargo jokingly called him, ‘my lackey,’” recalls Jarrett. “Jerry gave Jackie some wonderful sketches he’d done of the wrestling matches, and Lance eventually started showing them on the air when giving the results of the previous week’s card at the [Ellis] Auditorium. So when Jerry became a big star and threatened his top spot, there really was some tension there, though Jackie did everything he could to get Lawler over.”
Dave says that it was Jackie’s willingness to create a new star that made the program so successful, drawing several sell-out crowds.
Last man standing...and standing room only: Lawler defeats Fargo before a reported crowd of 11,700 at the Mid-South Coliseum.
“The key to the transition was Jackie putting his hair up in a match. Hair vs. hair was the big match in those days. It was a humiliating thing for a superstar to lose his hair. Jackie lost and had his head shaved. We recorded a promo, and Jackie was so good at selling that haircut that he was over even more than he was before…and Jerry was now a star. Jackie had a willingness to make the program work; he could have said, ‘I’m the star, and I don’t want to do it.’ But he was on board.”
After the program with Fargo ran its course, Jarrett began booking a long program, the Quest for the Title, which was designed to get Lawler over in the fans’ eyes as a serious contender for the NWA World championship, held by Jack Brisco. The roots of the program can be traced to Jarrett’s teenage years, when he was worked a part-time job at wrestling matches at the Hippodrome Arena in Nashville.
“I was a 14 or 15 year old kid sitting in front of the arena tearing tickets as folks walked in. Lou Thesz was the World heavyweight champion. Most of the wrestlers would pull up behind the building and go in the side door and duck into the side dressing room. But Lou pulled up in a taxi in front of the building. I was tearing tickets at the matches. He would walk up those steps to the Hippodrome, and literally, goosebumps would jump on my arms and the hair on the back of neck would stand on end. You knew he was the champion—even if you’d never seen wrestling—just from the way he carried himself. Lou Thesz was an inspiration to me. I was so impressed with Lou that I had this reverence for the World title and still do. It signifies that you have achieved the very top in this profession. So Jerry Lawler was very talented, and I knew that he deserved to be the champion, so I developed the Quest for the Title for him.”
Jarrett called some of his closest friends in the wrestling business, including the late Eddie Graham, who had a tremendous influence on the young promoter, to get dates on some of the biggest stars in the business. Jarrett billed them as the top 10 contenders that Lawler had to defeat to get a shot at the 10 pounds of gold.
One by one over a period of months, Lawler knocked them off…whether the stars agreed to lose or not. When the Sheik (Ed Farhat) and Dick the Bruiser refused to do a job for Lawler after arriving at the Coliseum, Jarrett simply filmed a false finish and then turned the cameras off when the bout later ended inconclusively via a disqualification or count-out. Lawler and his manager Sam Bass would then come out the following Saturday morning, airing only the footage of the false finish but claiming victory nonetheless.
“He [Bass] would say, ‘Jerry Lawler beat the stew out of the Sheik and beat him 1, 2, 3.’ Because their credibility was important, Lance and Dave would try to dispute it saying, ‘Oh, c’mon, Jerry.’ So Lawler would scream, ‘Play the tape if you don’t believe me!’ And then we’d show the false finish with Lawler appearing to beat him for a three count. Lawler would then proceed to talk about next week’s challenge, as Lance just shook his head. So, in that sense, Lawler effectively beat everyone in the nation as part of the Quest for the Title—if not by pinfall, then with a little creativity.”
The program culminated on Sept. 16, 1974, with more than 10,125 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum on hand for the title showdown. Lawler appeared to defeat Brisco for the belt but the decision was overturned when the referee discovered that the King had used a chain to knock out the champion. Backstage, two men watched with tears in their eyes.
“Eddie Graham and I stood at the back of the Mid-South Coliseum…we were both very emotional,” says Jarrett. “Brisco was Eddie’s man, he loved him, he groomed him and he nurtured him to become the World champion. Lawler was my man. That night, it almost felt like our sons were out there really fighting for the World title. That was such a fun time of my life.”
Of course, in a sense, the Quest for the Title was really just beginning, as the promotion continued to return to the storyline for the next several years as Lawler always fell heartbreakingly short of bringing the World championship home to Memphis.
“I campaigned unsuccessfully for years to get the NWA title for Jerry,” Jarrett says. “But some people on the NWA board felt that he wasn’t tough enough. I was always saying, ‘Tough?’ What do you mean ‘tough’? This is show business.”
The man who would be King: Jarrett never got the NWA title for Lawler, except for this photo shoot with Memphis Magazine.
Frustrated with the NWA board, Jarrett began working with Verne Gagne, who owned the successful American Wrestling Association territory, and booking AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel instead of NWA kingpin Harley Race. With his regal demeanor and arrogance, Beverly Hills’ Bockwinkel played the role of the rich playboy champion to perfection, some would argue much more effectively than NWA World champion Ric Flair. Because he was so well-spoken and intelligent, most fans practically needed a dictionary on hand when watching a Bockwinkel promo. And, man, could he work.
“Well, not only was he a great wrestler, but Nick was also an articulate, decent man,” Jarrett says. “I really cared for Nick, and I counted myself lucky that I knew Nick Bockwinkel. And the politics of it…let’s just say that the NWA was beginning to slide a bit. Also, I was not successful at getting Lawler a run with the NWA title, and I figured I’d have much better luck talking to Verne Gagne—one man—as opposed to an entire board, so that played a big part in it. Verne also had some really stellar talent besides Nick that would help us draw money.”
Russell describes the nights of World title matches at the Mid-South Coliseum as “magic.”
“The atmosphere was charged by the fans,” Lance says. “You couldn’t help but feed off the fans. The fans were so excited, ‘Tonight’s the night. This is the one we’ve been waiting for. Jerry’s had the champion on the ropes before and this could be the night he takes it!’ The enthusiasm was just unbelievable.”
One wrestler who Jarrett broke into the business did go on to win the NWA World title—Hendersonville, Tennessee’s Tommy “Wildfire” Rich. Jarrett’s wife, the former Deborah Marlin (Eddie Marlin’s daughter), used to play with Tommy Richardson (later shorted to “Rich”) as kids.
Jarrett says, “When Tommy got out of high school, he wanted to be a wrestler, so Deborah asked, ‘Please, can you help him?’ So I had him come to the farm early one morning, and I when came out in my pajamas, I told him, ‘Tommy, this is gonna get you in shape before I can train you.’ I had a water pipe that I had running from the house to the horse barn. I told him to cut the water pipe here and take it up all the way to the barn. I gave him a pick and a shovel. I look out there three hours later, and he’s still out there yanking on that water pipe. Tommy went through every possible thing I could do to discourage him—but he wouldn’t give up. So we started training him, and he was a good-looking kid who turned out to be a decent wrestler. Tommy had his little run in Memphis, and then promoter Jim Barnett in Atlanta wanted him. He went there right when the SuperStation took off, and he became a national star.”
Between runs at the World championship, Lawler feuded with some of most colorful, craziest characters in the business, such as “Canadian Lumberjack” Joe LeDuc and “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant.
LeDuc was one of the great big-man workers of the era who cut wonderfully insane promos—none crazier than a 1977 promo when he made a blood oath (actually misspeaking, saying, “blood oak”) to get revenge on Lawler.
Recalls Lance: “At the time, we trying to make the show a little less violent and a little more family-oriented and not feature a lot of blood. Well, LeDuc comes out one Saturday morning with a double-edged ax. Well, he takes that axe and cuts across his arm, and here comes the red stuff pouring down his arm. He cut his arm open right there on live TV! Fans for years wondered, ‘Was it real?’ Hey, let me tell you, it was real, alright. I nearly had a heart attack—and I think Jerry Jarrett did have one later when he saw it. I tried to tell him after, ‘Joe, you can’t do that on television.’”
Both Brown and Jarrett remember a different side of LeDuc outside of the ring.
A star is born: Jimmy Valiant becomes a headliner, prompting Lawler to end his retirement early.
“Joe LeDuc was such a nice man, and for years after he stopped wrestling in Memphis, I’d get a little note from him wherever he was traveling or wishing me Merry Christmas,” Dave says. “I always thought that was special for a man who was traveling like that to remember the folks he worked with.”
“Joe was a very good wrestler who was a real tough guy,” says the longtime Memphis promoter. “But what I remember most of all about him was that he was a prince of a fellow. When you go through the hundreds of people who you cross paths with professionally, only a few are really special, and Joe LeDuc was one of them.”
Valiant debuted on Sept. 19, 1977, to win a tournament for the Southern title vacated by Lawler following the King’s “retirement” match against Bill Dundee the previous week. Of course, the retirement was an angle designed to turn Lawler babyface and create a new heel star—“Handsome” Jimmy—in his absence. Lawler supposedly was moving on from the sport to concentrate on artwork and his (ahem) music career. The King’s return was cemented when Valiant and the Samoans attacked him before a pre-match concert at the Coliseum, with the new Southern king busting a guitar over Lawler’s head (and perhaps inspiring a young Jeff Jarrett in the process).
“I have a thousand memories of “Handsome” Jimmy, and they’re all good,” Brown says. “I was always amazed to watch him in the back because Jimmy was so quiet and mild-mannered. But when he came through that dressing-room door, he just exploded, ‘Wooo, baby, Handsome Jimbo from Mempho!’ He used to call Lance ‘Lancer’ and, at the at time, Jackson Brown was hot, so he called me ‘Jack-son.’”
Valiant was one of the first in the biz to reference pop culture in his promos. If you believe his promos, “Handsome” Jimmy was the only wrestler in history to date both Sally Field and Linda Ronstadt.
Valiant was too entertaining to keep as a heel for long, with his popularity often rivaling Lawler’s in the area. In fact, Jarrett could always rely on Valiant to spark the houses when the King was unable to appear; for example, nearly the entire year of 1980, when Lawler was on the shelf with a broken leg.
“Jimmy wasn’t here on a consistent basis,” Brown continues, “so when he came to town, it was an event, much like when they brought in Roughhouse Fargo and Jackie Fargo. Music videos pretty much started on our show—even before they hit MTV. And we did with a video with “Handsome”Jimmy that saw him coming out of a white limo—that was one the greatest record moments of the era.”
The video for Valiant’s song, “Son of A Gypsy,” was produced by Jimmy Hart, who also went on to become a star in 1980, with Lawler sidelined.
For more on Hart and the Memphis Wrestling Roundtable, check out comics.101.com next week.