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On this day in history: Jim Neidhart raids my Memphis wrestling birthday with Jerry Lawler in 1984

April 30th, 2012 3 comments

A mayhem-filled, brawling birthday...the first of many to follow in my life.

The year was 1984. My favorite band, Van Halen,was in the middle of their biggest tour yet and appeared destined to rule the rest of the decade. (Following their show at the Mid-South Coliseum on January 25, I had split a pair of my prized parachute pants trying to emulate one of Diamond Dave’s kicks in the mirror.)

As I was closing my 7th-grade year at Shadowlawn Middle, I was sure that classmate Amy Babb, with her buck-toothed, metal-wrapped grin, was the future Mrs. Bowden. (When Amy and I wound up in the same 8th grade class together in the fall, I was sure it was our density. Or something like that.)

Earlier that year, I had just received my first published byline as a “journalist” in an issue of Inside Wrestling with a rundown of the January 1, 1984, Memphis card, which saw my local sports hero (my “home team”), Jerry Lawler, once again come up heartbreakingly short in yet another bid to dethrone AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel, in what I consider to be one of the King’s best matches ever.

Unlike most of my classmates, I had also started shaving in early 1984, though in hindsight, I realize growing a mustache might’ve been more impressive with the chicks who’d already rounded second and were headed for third base in the back seat of area Camaros and Mustangs.

All in all, it was good time to be a babyfaced, just-turned 13-year-old in Memphis on April 30, 1984–my birthday–especially with the date falling on a Monday night. My uncle, Robert Campbell, displaying the patience of a saint, took to the matches at the Coliseum on this date 28 years ago, a rare treat.

Months after the wrestling world was still reeling from Hulk Hogan overthrowing the evil Iranian Iron Sheik for WWF supremacy and, more important, Vince McMahon Jr.’s declaration of war on the traditional territories of the NWA and AWA, the Memphis promotion was experiencing lower-than-usual crowds, with the exception of the aforementioned New Year’s card, which drew nearly 8,000 fans on a Sunday afternoon, usually reserved for college football bowl games. (In Memphis, the World championship was far important than the pigskin national title, and the Rose Bowl had nothing on the Mid-South Coliseum.)

The Fabulous Ones, Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, the most popular act to hit Memphis since Lawler, had left the territory following a Feb. 6, 1984, bout with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express. Instead of waiting for the Fabs to flop in the AWA, where Verne Gagne would have no idea how to book the trendsetting heartthrobs in a territory known more for legit no-frills, legit ex-athletes, Jerry Jarrett created a new set of Fabulous Ones, Tennessee’s own Tommy Rich (about 25 pounds heavier than his 1981 prime and now with scars rivaling that of Abdullah the Butcher) and perennial Memphis mid-carder/WWF jobber Eddie Gilbert.

Even worse, Jarrett instructed poor Fargo to bury Stan and Steve as city-slicker deserters who had the gall to venture out to Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles over Union City and Jackson, Tenn., and Jonesboro, Ark. The replacement “Fab Scabs,” Tommy and Eddie, wore the same lighting-bolt emblazoned ring attire and tuxedo jackets as the originals, coming off like cheap copies. In an effort to take the heat off Rich and Gilbert, Hart introduced his own set of New Fabs first, the former Bruise Brothers–Troy Graham and Porkchop Cash–shortly after Keirn and Lane left. (Classic footage.) But by the time Stan and Steve returned in June 1984, the Fabs gimmick had been diluted and things were never quite the same. (I still say that after the failed experiment, Jarrett should have turned Rich and Gilbert both heel to feud with the returning Stan and Steve–huge box office.)

But, on this night in April 1984, the New Fabs were still a work in progress, and the Memphis promotion, attempting to capitalize on the popularity of the Road Warriors on the ever-expanding WTBS stage via “cable TV,” introduced the apparent third member of the team, “Road Warrior Humongous,” based on the Lord Humongous character in ‘The Road Warrior” movie, the sequel to “Mad Max.” Lawler, a pop-culture geek who loved sci-fi and horror films, conceived the gimmick, which would go on to spawn several imitations, most notably with Jeff Van Kamp in Mid-South and Southeastern/Continental–where he was so popular he even received an NWA title bout vs. Ric Flair in Alabama.

For the role in Memphis, Lawler coaxed ex-wrestler and former Memphis State University football player (and my future high-school coach) Mike Stark out of retirement with the hockey-masked gimmick of the ruthless post-apocalyptic gasoline raider. As he occasionally did to get over a new monster heel, Lawler did a rare clean job to Humongous in the middle of the ring on April 23, 1984, without getting in a shred of offense–desperate times call for desperate measure, i.e., if we can’t afford to bring in a big-name star, we’ll create our own.

World-premiere MTV video: Animal and Hawk’s Humongous brother debuts in Memphis:

Following the loss of his Southern crown, Lawler vowed the following Saturday morning as he revealed a hockey mask of his own from his bag of tricks to wear into the rematch on the 30th. I was so excited that I phoned in a birthday present to my uncle, the only member of my family willing to brave the increasingly dangerous environment at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

Featured bouts on the April 30, 1984, lineup:

  • Lawler vs. Road Warrior Humongous in a rematch for the AWA Southern title
  • Austin Idol vs. Randy “Macho Man” Savage for the International title
  • The New Fabs vs. Jimmy Hart’s Fabs for the Southern tag titles
  • Harley Davidson (the future Hillbilly Jim) and Dirty Rhodes (Roger Smith) vs. PYTs Koko Ware and Norvell Austin
  • Former Oakland Raider Jim Neidhart vs. Ric McCord

Unfortunately, on this night, Jarrett decided to plant the seeds for Neidhart to raid the stable of Hart’s First Family, resulting in the future Hart Foundation member interfering in all the bouts on behalf of the heels for automatic disqualifications. (I believe this was to lead to a brief Jimmy Hart babyface turn, but the angle was forgotten weeks later.) Still, the night was memorable as a classic Memphis melee broke out after the Fabs vs. Fabs showdown, with all the stars brawling to the back. During the main event, Lawler’s hockey hood prevented Humongous’s right hands from making an impact before the King was eventually unmasked and brutalized with the Road Warrior’s clubbing right hands.

Went to a wrestling match on my 13th birthday, and a hockey game broke out.

Still, Lawler, like Popeye with his spinach, made a strap-pulled-down-fueled comeback, removing the fiber-glass facial guard from his adversary and pounding away on his “deformed” exposed skull (a latex movie-monster mask was underneath). As the behemoth was reeling, Neidhart entered the ring, but was cut off by Idol, brandishing a baseball bat. As the Heartthrob chased the Anvil to the back, Ox Baker stormed (well, waddled to) the ring and ganged up on Lawler with Hart. After Baker applied his deadly heart punch to Lawler (who sold it beautifully), promoter Eddie Marlin grabbed the heel’s arm as went for  a second heart punch and was decked for his efforts. As Humongous held Marlin, Baker again prepared the punch that had apparently killed Ted DiBiase’s father years ago. This prompted an irate Lance Russell to abandon his announcer duties to make the help make the save as Idol returned to the ring with the bat. What they lacked in clean finishes on my birthday, they more than made up for with wild-and-wooly brawling.

This would be my greatest birthday ever, until April 30, 1988, my junior/senior prom. As my date and I fumbled around in the cramped back seat of my cramped Honda Accord hatchback (and you thought Hell in a Cell was the unforgiving devil’s playground), I excitedly got her strapped unhooked and pulled…but the anticipation lead to a take-it-home early, botched ending. Still, I popped for the finish. And that bastard Neidhart was nowhere to be found to crash the party. I fared much better in subsequent rematches.

Memphis wrestling history lessons

April 27th, 2012 1 comment

A fabulous read, paly

Twenty-five years ago today, Memphis wresting’s beloved monarch of the mat, Jerry “the King” Lawler, had his head shaved at the diabolical hands of Austin Idol, Tommy Rich and Paul Heyman in what I consider to be the last truly great angle in the territory.

I was sitting near ringside that Monday, and I recall thinking the heels were going to incite a riot as Paul E. playfully skipped around the ring with Lawler’s royal locks. For more on my memories of that mayhem-filled Monday night in Memphis rasslin’ history, click here.

Longtime readers of this site may remember guest columnist Steve Crawford’s well-written take on the proceedings of April 27, 1987, in Memphis. Steve has a new book, Legends of Memphis Wrestling, available on Amazon.com.

I highly recommend this painstakingly researched (Steve even quotes yours truly a few times) look at the wild-and-woolly staple of Memphis culture. A fun read that’s also very informative, as I learned stuff about territory legends like Jackie Fargo and Sam Bass that I’d never read or heard anywhere else.

Also available on Amazon is Mark James’ latest, Bill Dundee’s Life Story, which is a must-read for any Memphis fan in the ’70s and ’80s, as the Superstar candidly reveals the inner-workings of one of the most innovative promotions in the country. Typical of the Superstar, he pulls no punches in giving his thoughts on a wide variety of subjects, including what helped lead to the downfall of Memphis wrestling in the late ’80s. It’s almost like taking a road trip with the man himself.

Finally, my buddy Rick Crane over at 70s-Tv.com, has even more new DVSs featuring classic Memphis wrestling pulled straight from master tapes–some of the highest-quality footage you’ll ever find of the era. (There’s nothing like seeing Joe LeDuc cut open his arm with an ax in pristine quality.) Rick also has a two-hour DVD of the entire Lawler/Idol/Rich feud, and much more.

YouTube Finds: Loose Cannon fires up Memphis wrestling as Brian Pillman’s makes his lone USWA appearance

April 19th, 2012 1 comment

Cover-boy cautionary tale: Not the first...and damn sure not the last.

The beauty of appearing on a live TV wrestling show like Memphis was that it was largely unscripted, except for a format sheet distributed to the boys backstage minutes before we went on the air at the WMC-TV studio on Union Avenue.

In the ’80s, with polished territory guys like Bill Dundee, Austin Idol and Dutch Mantell, this lent itself to wonderful, off-the-cuff moments that only added to the realism of the illusion that is (or was) professional wrestling.

Shortly after planting my size 12 Doc Marten low-cut shoe on Jerry Lawler’s skull in May 1994, I began devising in my head the diabolical heel promo I’d cut on the King the following Saturday. However, when I arrived at the WMC-TV studios the following Saturday, Lawler and Eddie Gilbert instructed me to play an apologetic babyface until Lance gave me the mandate from promoter Eddie Marlin that I was suspended.

I was then supposed to protest, and Gilbert would come out and argue with Lance as I was pushed to the background. I was told that the plan was for me to be a heel for a week or two before Gilbert and the heels double-crossed me, and I’d return later as a babyface ref.

Bummer, man.


Realizing that this might be my only chance to cut the heel promo of my dreams, one that I had practiced in front of a mirror several times as a kid growing up in Memphis, I decided to play a heel from the start of my interview with Lance. Figuring it’s live TV, what can they do? Instead of apologizing, I began a diatribe about how Lawler had shoved me around for too long, and that during the match, I merely stomped him “like the cockroach” that he is. (I was told later that Lawler was watching on the monitor backstage during my promo and said, “What in the hell is he doing?!”)

After the show went to a break, I nervously walked behind the curtain to find Lawler, who waved me over, shaking his head. Instead of pulling down the proverbial strap, he actually complimented me but not without issuing a stern warning: “That was good. But next time, say what we tell you to do.”

Over the next several months, I had the freedom to sound off with any insult that happened to pop into my thick head, often with obscure old-school references and personal insults like “Brian Christopher is the only guy I know who has to go to a VD clinic to meet women” and “The only reason they had to make a new Southern title belt was because the old one wouldn’t fit around Lawler’s waist anymore.”

Around the same time, Brian Pillman was reinventing himself with a bizarre character that made many in wrestling wonder if he was truly losing touch with reality, eventually leading to the moniker “The Loose Cannon.”

Personally, I’d been a huge Pillman fan since 1991, after his memorable WTBS bout with Ric Flair (with the late Nancy Benoit at his side), who liked the kid so much he did his best to make him a star. Unfortunately, Pillman was later sidetracked by politics and contract disputes with Bill Watts, which delayed his top-tier stardom, despite incredible bouts with Jushin Liger.

He and Steve Austin (a Memphis wrestling alum), both afterthoughts in the Hulk Hogan era of WCW, were thrown together as a team yet still managed to catch fire against the odds with the classic “Hollywood Blondes” gimmick that dated back to the ’70s. The duo had stunning matches with the likes of Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas–not to mention the memorable “Flair for the Old” segment–before they were eventually broken up, with Austin getting a heel singles push and Pillman relegated back to mid-card babyface status.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps inspired by the crazed Terry Funk promos he’d studied incessantly, Pillman slowly began showing signs he was “losing it” during live Monday Nitro segments. From the moment Pillman uttered to Kevin Sullivan the words “I respect you, booker man,” it was fascinating to watch his slow descent into apparent madness.

Today, it would be easy to see through such a gimmick, but that was before the boys themselves had been kayfabed several times by management, which eventually led to such strife and distrust within WCW’s dressing room that it helped kill the company.


Although I’d never put myself remotely in Pillman’s category, Lawler used to often joke backstage that I was “The Loose Cannon of the USWA.” He meant it as an insult; I took it as a compliment.

Unfortunately, just as Pillman had parlayed the gimmick into making himself the most sought-after free agent in the business (thanks to Eric Bischoff foolishly releasing him from his contract to sell the controversy), and putting himself in the position to make “Lex Luger money,” as he termed it , he was involved in a horrible Hummer accident that nearly killed him. Still, he managed to con Vince McMahon into believing he’d be back at full strength after surgery, but his shattered ankle told a different story. Desperate to make a strike in the Monday Night War, McMahon signed Pillman anyway, if anything, to stick it to Bischoff and steal one of the few major stars he’d managed to help develop on his own.

Pillman, however, was never the same in the ring but remained brilliant in an avant-garde sort of way on the mic as part of the ’97-era Hart Foundation. Like other former WCW stars signed to the WWF, including Mankind, Pillman was sent to Memphis, which was serving as a farm league of sorts at the time for the Former Fed, including a memorable run by Flex Kavana, the future Rock. I regret that by the time Pillman showed up in Memphis, I had finally left the promotion after one too many $40 payoffs while struggling to maintain a career as a writer.

The Memphis segment isn’t as memorable as you might think. Instead of storming the set unannounced, which would have fit “The Loose Cannon” perfectly on the last remaining live territory wrestling show in the country, he gets permission from Lance Russell first–a sure sign Randy Hales was still running things behind the scenes–which made zero sense. Given the fact that it’s early Saturday morning, Brian also probably wasn’t at his sharpest. Nevertheless, it’s priceless to see Pillman interact with Lance, the perfect straight man for his antics. Watching this, though, I can’t help but wish Pillman had been around during the glory years of the Memphis promotion in the early ’80s, when the Loose Cannon could have really unleashed his fury.

Less than six months after his appearance in Memphis, Pillman was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in a Minnesota motel room on Oct. 5, 1997, after he failed to show for a scheduled bout with Mankind. The similarities of his death to Gilbert’s really shook me up, leaving me to wonder how many more would follow.

Sadly, it’s a trend that’s continued.