One Tuesday afternoon in 1979, Jerry Lawler was on the road, traveling to Kentucky for that night’s matches at Louisville Gardens, a regular weekly stop on the loop of the Memphis wrestling territory. Knowing the King was away from his castle, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, the star of International Championship Wrestling (ICW), an outlaw group running opposition to Jerry Jarrett’s promotion, seized the moment.
For months, Savage had been issuing shoot challenges to Lawler on ICW TV, which aired locally in Memphis on independent UHF channel 24 an hour before the 11 a.m. Jarrett wrestling show on channel 5 WMC-TV, the local NBC affiliate. Savage and another ICW grappler, Bob Roop, who had an impressive amateur wrestling background and was known to stretch a guy or two, had even paid for newspaper ads offering $1,000 for Memphis stars Lawler and Bill Dundee to show up to fight them on ICW cards at the Memphis Cooke Convention Center and on shows at local armories and high-school gyms throughout Tennessee and Kentucky. Some ads took jabs at Lawler’s physique, with Savage offering to put up big bucks if the King would agree to sacrifice a prized doughnut to the Macho Man should he lose.
On this particular Tuesday, Savage stood in front of Lawler’s house as a camerman recorded the Macho Man pounding on his door and making threats to come out and fight like a man. When Lawler “failed to answer the door,” Macho Man said it was proof that the King was a Queen, a coward, a chicken. Lawler watched in disbelief as the Jarrett crew gathered around a TV prior to the start of their own show with the Macho Man mouthing off on his lawn as the footage aired on ICW.
“I said something like, ‘Hey, that’s my house!’ I thought the guy was nuts, to be honest,” Lawler says. “After this maniac literally showed up at my doorstep, I wanted to blast him on the air, but Jerry Jarrett and I realized that doing so would give them the credibility they so desperately craved. So, I kept my mouth shut, figuring that eventually he and his little group would just go away.”
Despite threats from Savage vowing to track him down, Lawler never encountered the ICW champion on the road; however, Dundee wasn’t so lucky. The two exchanged words inside a diner when Dundee left for his car to grab a gun–many on the Jarrett crew had taken to carrying a piece in anticipation of this very situation. Savage allegedly wrestled the gun away from Dundee and reportedly pistol-whipped him, breaking his jaw in the process. After missing in action for months, Dundee later claimed on Memphis TV that he was jumped outside a gym, though some recall him blaming the injury on a horse that bucked him off. Either way, the number-two star in Jarrett’s company was embarrassingly knocked off his high horse by the Macho Man.
The intuition of Lawler and Jarrett proved correct: Poffo’s promotion eventually went under in 1983. Savage’s shoot promos had given him a dangerous reputation within the business and not many promoters were willing to risk hiring him. Savage, who by this time was becoming one of the best workers and most colorful personalities in the business, was essentially blacklisted. Jarrett, however, saw dollar signs in a Lawler vs. Savage feud. After all, the Macho Man had been promoting the match for years.
When Lawler confirmed with Jarrett that he was willing to place business ahead of personal animosity, the Memphis promoter called Savage, who got emotional over the phone when told that the men he’d been running down for years on TV wanted to work with him.
“It had gotten so personal between us that we knew it would draw,” Lawler says. “That was always our philosophy–’personal issues draw money.’ There were still plenty of bad feelings, as we felt they were running opposition and trying to cut into our business, while these ICW guys were just trying to survive and eat. The hatred between two us had so much credibility in the fans’ eyes that we didn’t even really advertise the first match all that much. Randy and I went to Lexington and nearly sold out the building, which was unheard of at Rupp Arena. We did it like a shoot, where we had an ICW referee and one of our own referees, I think Paul Morton, to keep it fair. After everything that had gone done, I guess you could say I was a little concerned if we could work together, but we never had any problems. I heard from so many guys later who worked with him that he was always so paranoid about his matches and wanted to work out everything in advance. Randy was never that way with me. He was intense yet laid-back, very easy to work with–I think we had some good matches.”
As a young fan, I was quickly fascinated with Savage, who delivered some of the most unique, craziest promos I’d ever seen. With a shrieking, throaty delivery that almost sounded like he was speaking with a mouthful of barbed wire, Savage’s uncontrollable rage was evident in his quivering voice. His celebratory promos featured scantily clad women, snakes and confetti—a true wrestling champion in every sense of the word. Savage kept that edgy persona with Jarrett, even going so far as to badmouth Lawler’s deceased father on live Memphis TV.
After months in the territory, Savage, despite being a heel, was starting to develop a following as he was so damn entertaining on the mic, and his matches were often the best on the card. By the summer of ’84, all my friends and I imitated his classic catchphrases: “Dig it!”, “Oh, yeeaaahhh…”, “Freak out!” and “Doing the thing!” A huge babyface run was just an elbowsmash away. It came when Lawler was being triple-teamed by heels Rick Rude, King Kong Bundy and Jimmy Hart. Savage rushed to ring and saved his former rival leading to some heated tag matches, with the foursome sparking houses around the area in 1984.
“Randy was sort of like ‘Handsome’ Jimmy [Valiant] in that sense,” Lawler says. “He was so off the wall and entertaining, even as a heel, that gradually the people started to like him. In those days, you listened to what the fans wanted and gave it to them. And just like that, Randy was hot again, teaming with me.”
With Vince McMahon and Jim Crockett continuing to cherry pick the nation’s top stars from the territories in 1985, it was only natural that the WWF would come calling for the Macho Man, just as Savage had turned heel again, reigniting a hot feud with Lawler over the Southern title. The feud drew even better in Memphis this time around, with Savage attempting to take Lawler’s eye out on TV and eventually put him out of action for a couple weeks until the King could make his triumphant return. No one was safe from the Macho Man’s wrath this time around, even well-known Japanese photographer Jimmy Suzuki.
With the King on the sidelines, Savage pinned former AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel at the Mid-South Coliseum with the piledriver, Lawler’s finisher. For years, Lawler had struggled to beat Bockwinkel in World title matches, and Savage had made it look easy, prompting the Macho Man to declare himself “the Southern heavyweight champion of the world.”
After reaching a deal with Vince at Jarrett’s insistence that he go to New York and take the money,Savage insisted on doing jobs his final two weeks out of loyalty, rather than jump ship with the belt. A loser-leaves-town showdown with Lawler drew over 9,000 fans in June 1985 and is considered the King’s best match of that year. In his Saturday morning promo building up the match, Lawler claimed that he had too much invested in the city to actually leave, so instead, he’d simply retire if he lost. The stakes were high–and the match delivered. Turns out–things didn’t turn out so bad for Savage, even in losing.
“People think the wrestling war started with WWE and WCW in the late ’90s, but the mid-’80s were just as competitive, if not worse, ” Lawler says. “Just when somebody would get hot in our territory, Vince would grab them. I’ll say this for Randy–he did the traditional thing. He did jobs around the horn on the way out and dropped the belt back to me. When we started working with WWE in the early ’90s, he was happy to come back and we started all over again. I always enjoyed working with him. Intensity-wise, he was one of the best, and the people believed in him.”