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Simply fabulous: WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Lawler shares his memories of Memphis wrestling legend Jackie Fargo

June 24th, 2013 2 comments

“I was meaner than a damn rattlesnake and tougher than a $2 steak, pally.”
—The late Jackie Fargo

When Jerry Lawler was a skinny teenager attending the Memphis wrestling matches every week with his father at the Ellis Auditorium in 1967, there was one star who stood head and broad shoulders above the rest: the Fabulous Jackie Fargo.

Put up your dukes, pally.

Put up your dukes, pally.

In an interview with me this morning hours after Fargo’s death, Lawler recalled the memories of the flamboyant Memphis wrestling icon who not only helped him break into the business but also passed the torch and anointed him the new King of the territory.

“Jackie’s personality enabled him to have an incredible connection with the people,” Lawler says. “Nobody in Memphis at that time had the charisma of Jackie Fargo. He was so good on interviews that you hung on every word he said. He was always off the cuff—he never knew what he was going to say until that microphone was in his hand. As a result, there was a sincerity in his promos that people could identify with to the point that they truly believed in him.”

A testament to his connection with the fans was how Jackie helped his legit little brother Sonny Fargo—who weighed about 165 pounds—get over as an unstoppable maniac dubbed “Roughhouse Fargo—the Nut.” The story goes that Jackie would check his brother out of the insane asylum in Bolivar, Tenn., whenever he was desperate for a partner. As part of the gimmick, Roughhouse would make the hot tag and end up cleaning house—decking the heels, the referee, the manager, and even Jackie. The crowd ate it up. Fans of Jim Crockett Promotions’ Mid-Atlantic Wrestling were obviously confused when they saw footage of Sonny from Memphis, as he was a mild-mannered referee in the Carolinas.

Despite his knack for comedy and showmanship, bleached-blonde hair, and colorful sequined ring attire and high hats—not to mention his trademark cocky strut—Fargo had an aura of believability in everything he did in the ring.

“When I first started wrestling, I’d ride to the towns with Tojo Yamamoto, who’d always stress the importance of facial expressions in telling a story to the crowd,” Lawler says. “So much in fact we’d be driving down the road, and Tojo would suddenly grab me and yank my arm or throat or whatever, and I’d wince in pain. This delighted Tojo, who’d say, ‘Yes! That’s it!’

“Well, Jackie had the most charisma and the best facial expressions in the business. The people felt it when he when he was in pain or suffered a loss, and they shared in his joy when he won a big match. I learned so much about psychology from Jackie.”

Jackie Fargo clobbers the would-be King at the Coliseum.

Jackie Fargo clobbers the would-be King at the Coliseum.

Shortly after Lawler’s father passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 1969, Jerry, a talented young artist, began sending sketches of the matches from the Ellis Auditorium to Channel 13, then the home of the Memphis wrestling show.

“I’d always done caricatures of the matches when I attended the cards with my dad, but it wasn’t until after he died that for some reason I decided to send the drawings to Lance [Russell] at Channel 13 in hopes he’d show them on the air,” he says.

At that point, promoter Nick Gulas was still running the territory and was not in favor of picking up the added expense of sending camera crews to the arenas and showing video highlights from the big bouts at the arenas on free TV, believing it would hurt ticket sales.

When Jerry Jarrett took over Memphis in 1977, he began showing clips regularly, giving fans a taste of the mayhem they were missing at the arenas, which helped boost attendance. But during the Gulas era, the young Lawler’s sketches were the next best thing, as Russell and Brown would show the colorful comic-book-style drawings when going over the Monday night results on the following Saturday morning.

The brilliant illustrations were such a hit that Russell eventually introduced Jerry, wearing his Sunday church suit, on the air during the live channel 13 broadcast, never dreaming that the soft-spoken teenager behind the sketches would go on to be the King of Memphis.

Fargo was so impressed with the kid’s artistic talents that he hired Lawler to paint a series of murals and caricatures throughout his Memphis nightclub—called the Southern Frontier—which the wrestling legend co-owned with Eddie Bond, a popular rockabilly singer. At the time, Lawler had dreams of being a disc jockey, so Bond, the program director at KWEM Radio, helped the kid secure the on-air graveyard shift. Fargo and Bond also set Lawler up in a small studio on Madison Avenue to produce signs as well as paint lettering on business trucks. The King still has one of the original business cards of the Fargo Bond Sign Company.

A winning combo: Free admission after the rasslin' matches and a $2 T-bone.

A winning combo: Free admission after the rasslin’ matches and a $2 T-bone.

“I was just a kid out of high school, and it was the biggest thrill of my life to see the three names at the top of that card: Jackie Fargo, Eddie Bond and me—Jerry Lawler. I mean, gosh—my name was right next to Jackie’s! So I was working at the sign company during the day and then I’d help out at the nightclub that evening; I remember constantly running back and forth to the grocery store. Their house specialty was a 16-oz T-bone steak for $2. [I cannot confirm if the house special was the inspiration for Fargo’s aforementioned catchphrase.] Then I’d do my radio shift. I loved every minute it, mostly because I was actually hanging around with Jackie Fargo.”

Drawing card: Jackie Fargo, as depicted by a young Jerry Lawler.

Drawing card: Jackie Fargo, as depicted by a young artist by the name of Jerry Lawler.

When Lawler began interviewing Memphis wrestlers on the air as part of his radio show, he became impressed with the grapplers’ flashy clothes, wads of cash and big cars—and their female fans. He soon began thinking of a way to ask Jackie to help him break into the business, which was no easy task at the time. Then fate stepped in. A young would-be wrestler named Jerry Vickers, a part-time ambulance driver who had worked a few outlaw shows in front of sparse crowds in West Memphis, stopped by looking for Jackie, trying to catch a break in the big leagues of Memphis wrestling.

Vickers and Lawler instead struck up a conversation, and the aspiring DJ expressed his desire to break into the biz. So with virtually no training, Lawler bought some gear off Vickers and began his career in earnest, teaming with the other young hopeful to learn the ring ropes. Lawler promptly knocked himself out taking a bump in one of his first bouts for promoter Aubrey Griffith. When Lawler started plugging the West Memphis promotion on the radio—which technically was the opposition to the established Memphis promotion, despite the small crowds—Fargo intervened and got Lawler a spot on the Gulas crew.

When Jerry Jarrett began booking Memphis with great success, he saw a natural arrogance and potential talent in the young grappler and began building Lawler up as the new star of the territory and a top a contender for Jack Brisco’s NWA World title in 1974.

By that point, Fargo had burned out on being a full-time wrestler on the road and was more interested in running his nightclub and other business interests, so he was ready to pass the torch to Lawler.

The host with the most: Jackie eventually preferred serving his nightclub guests than dishing out punishment.

The host with the most: Jackie eventually preferred serving his nightclub guests than dishing out punishment.

Recalls Memphis promoter Jarrett during one of our talks in 2009: “Lawler became a big star and threatened Fargo’s top spot, so there was a bit of tension there, though Jackie did everything he could to get Jerry over.”

Announcer Dave Brown says that it was Jackie’s willingness to create a new star that made the program so successful–including the largest overflow crowd ever at the Coliseum, with 11,783 fans on hand on June 24, 1974, for a card headlined by Fargo vs. Lawler. (Only fitting that Fargo strutted into the afterlife 39 years to the day of his biggest match with Lawler.)

“The key to the transition was Jackie,” Brown says. “Jackie was so good at selling [a loss] that he was over even more when he got beat…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.”

Fargo’s blessing as his successor has always meant the world to Lawler.

“Without Jackie, there would be no Jerry Lawler,” the King says. “But while he was more than happy to step aside, there was a sense of realism in the eyes of the fans because you had me—the young lion—trying to take over as the leader of the pride. Incidentally, that’s how the King gimmick took off. Just on a whim one Saturday morning on TV, I said, ‘Fargo, you’ve been the King of Memphis for a long time, but you’re looking at the kid who’s gonna knock you off the throne.’ Well, I ended up beating him that Monday night for the Southern title, and the following Saturday, a lot of the fans were shouting, ‘There’s the new King!’

“To be honest, I’d forgotten I’d even made that ‘King’ reference. It was one of those wonderful accidents—sort of like the ‘Austin 3:16’ deal years later in WWE.”

Fargo was practically retired by 1979, but could be called on to spark the houses at the Mid-South Coliseum, typically when his protégé, the King, needed a fighter—not a wrestler—as a partner.

In fact, the first card I attended at the Coliseum in January 1979 featured heel Austin Idol bringing in Mil Mascaras—one of the biggest stars in the country from his exposure via the Apter mags—to be his partner against Lawler and Fargo in a stretcher match. Although Mascaras had a rep for being an uncooperative egomaniac, he sold big time for Fargo and did the stretcher job when the aging legend repeatedly stomped the masked man’s ribs after Mil crashed into the canvas after missing a flying bodypress from the top rope.

Years later, when I told Jim Cornette of this night at the Coliseum in 1979, he reminded me that Memphis had a rep for billing established masked wrestlers with no-name guys under the hood, so he figured it was probably Pepe Lopez—not Aaron Rodriguez—under the trademark Mil mask. (Never mind that Lopez had been killed years earlier in the car crash that took the life of Lawler’s manager Sam Bass.)

Jarrett, however, confirmed for me that it was indeed the renowned Mascaras selling like crazy for Lawler and Fargo. He explained that in the late ’70s he had become close friends with Mexican promoter Salvador Lutteroth, who had helped launch the career of Lucha Libre’s first breakout superstar, El Santo, and transformed the masked star into a national pop-culture phenomenon. When Mil arrived at the Coliseum that night, Jarrett says he sat with Rodriguez for a couple of hours, joyfully swapping stories about Lutteroth, who had once hosted the Memphis promoter at his house in Mexico. Mil was clearly enjoying himself when he asked, “So, Jerry, what do you want me to do tonight?” Jarrett replied, “Well, Mil, I know what I want you to do…but I don’t know if you’ll go for it. But he did.” And that’s how Mil Mascaras did a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo in Memphis. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes from the general admission seats at the Coliseum, I doubt that’d I’d believed it either.

8-year-old Scott Bowden watched from the cheap seats as Fargo unmasked the myth of Mil Mascaras.

8-year-old Scott Bowden watched from the cheap seats as Fargo unmasked the myth of Mil Mascaras.

The promotion wisely used Fargo sparingly in the late ’70s and early ’80s—building up his return as the legend returning to kick ass, which never failed to pop the houses.

In fall 1982, following a hot summer for Jarrett Promotions, attendance had declined. Frustrated with business being down despite a stacked roster of solid talent, Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett mentioned to Dutch Mantell that he wished could clone Jackie Fargo and bring him back. Dutch replied, “Well…why don’t you?” And so began the thought process behind a gimmick that would help set the territory on fire for the next two years.

Weeks later, Jimmy Hart announced to the Memphis Wrestling TV audience that he had paired together two guys going nowhere in the business, Troy Graham (the former Dream Machine) and Rick McGraw. He bleached their hair, put them in tuxedos and high hats, and dubbed them his “New York Dolls”–a name the former Gentry came up with in tribute to the infamous band of the same name. Shortly after their transformation, the Dolls won the WWA World tag titles from Spike Huber and Steve Regal. None of this pleased Fargo, who filed a grievance claiming infringement on the dapper-duo gimmick made famous by he and “brother” Donnie as the Fabulous Fargos. (The Dolls’ cheap tuxedo jackets and sequins were enough of an insult, but apparently it was the high hats that really irked the Fabulous One.) Fargo’s unpolished yet gritty delivery is something that’s sorely missing in today’s promos.

A week later, Fargo revealed his Fabulous Ones with this MTV-style video, featuring incredible strobe-light technology far ahead of its time. Fargo’s endorsement alone helped transform mid-carders Stan Lane and Steve Keirn into overnight sensations. Jackie still had that kind of magical credibility with the fans. When Lane and Keirn later took the gimmick nationwide, they never got over to the same level as they did in Memphis because they didn’t have Fargo’s cred behind them.

Lawler, who recently recovered from a heart attack, received word three weeks ago that Jackie, 82, was having severe heart problems. In typical fashion, Fargo refused to sell the doctor’s diagnosis when speaking on the phone with Lawler, brushing it off with his usual bravado in his raspy tough-guy voice: “Oh, hell, I ain’t ever been sick a day in my life.” As sharp as ever, Fargo also told Lawler: “You’re in the will, pally. But don’t root against me.”

Days later, a neighbor found Fargo lying on the floor in his house. Jackie was rushed to the hospital, where he eventually lapsed into a coma. The former powerhouse of personality was placed on life support until family intervened, saying Jackie wouldn’t want it that way. Down to 130 pounds, Fargo died early Monday morning. On Wednesday, he would have been 83.

“I’m just sick about it,” Lawler says. “Jackie and I remained very close through the years, and I often turned to him for advice. He always called me ‘Son,’ and I always called him ‘Pop.’ I miss him already. There will never be another like him.”

Often imitated. Never duplicated. Pally.

Down but not out: Jerry Lawler makes the comeback of a lifetime

September 14th, 2012 6 comments

On a Monday night at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis in 1978, Joe LeDuc pressed Jerry Lawler over his head and tossed the Southern heavyweight champion from the ring like a ragdoll onto the ringside announcers’ table. My hometown hero took a wicked bump, crashing off the table and crumpling in a heap onto the floor.

I was sure the King was done for.

Indeed, Lawler was really hurt on this night in ’78 . This was no angle— this wasn’t part of the show.

Although he was treated for a leg injury at a Memphis hospital that night, Lawler was back in the ring two weeks later seeking revenge against the maniacal Canadian lumberjack.

I was only 7 years old, and I thought Lawler was Superman.

Over the years, no matter the odds, Lawler always battled back when a dastardly heel like Terry Funk or Nick Bockwinkel had the King on the ropes. Bleeding and reeling, Lawler always rallied in the end, pulling down the strap on his singlet to make his comeback—think Popeye and his spinach—as the rowdy crowds at Monday Night Rasslin’ went berserk.

Wake-up call: Disguised as a mild-mannered announcer recovering from heart surgery, the King enjoys a salad and a Diet Coke...and a huge steak covered in mushrooms.

Thirty-four years later, on the September 10 episode of WWE’s “Monday Night RAW,” Lawler, who had been experiencing chest pains of late, collapsed to the floor near the announcers’ table, where he was doing commentary.

My hero had fallen once again, this time as a result of a massive heart attack. And once again, this was no angle–“…not part of the entertainment,” as his visibly shaken announce partner Michael Cole told the millions watching Monday night.

I again feared my childhood hero was done for. But on the ropes and reeling, Lawler again rallied, pulling down the proverbial strap to make the comeback and overcome his most dangerous adversary yet.

Three days later, with rumors of death and possible brain damage circulating on the Internet, Lawler began showing amazing signs of recovery, joking and laughing with friends and quickly regaining his appetite. Even Lawler’s doctor was reportedly amazed at the shape he was in following surgery.

I shouldn’t have doubted his resolve–the King has made his living triumphing against the odds in heart-stopping action and suspense.

I’m 41 years old, and I still think he’s Superman.

Who was that masked man? In December 1980, Jerry Lawler returns from nightmare yearlong layoff to defeat the (American) Dream Machine

September 11th, 2012 4 comments

(I’m back from summer vacation; as always, Parts Unknown was lovely this time of year. This column is dedicated to the King…Jerry Lawler…my childhood hero and, later, my friend. Let’s go, King….)

A bad break ultimately led up to one of the most defining moments of my youth.

When CWA World champion Jerry Lawler broke his leg in a not-so-friendly “touch” football game at the hands of referee Jerry “the Crippler” Calhoun in January 1980, Memphis wrestling territory owner Jerry Jarrett decided to put all the heat on the King’s manager, Jimmy Hart, the former Gentrys singer.

Horseplay: Lawler’s football hobby sidelined him for nearly 11 months but resulted in a dream feud for the Memphis territory. (clipping courtesy of 

With less than a year of experience as Lawler’s manager under his jumpsuit, Hart rarely had interview time in 1979, as the King was in his prime as one of the greatest heel promos in the business at that point.

Prior to the injury, most of the dastardly duo’s interviews saw Lawler boast and brag, with Hart relegated to nodding, smiling, carrying the King’s CWA World belt and occasionally chiming in to reassure Lance Russell and the viewing audience, “That’s right, baby!” But with Lawler now on the shelf for an undetermined amount of time in 1980, Jarrett removed Hart’s muzzle, and the young manager was off to the races while his champion stud was put out to pasture for nearly the remainder of the year.

As Jarrett recalls, “We were in Lexington, Kentucky, shortly after we got the news of Lawler’s injury. I was furious with Lawler because the entire territory was centered around him. So I turned to Jimmy. Hart nervously asked me, ‘What do I say about Lawler?’ I was thinking about being in the home state of the Kentucky Derby, so off the top of my head, I gave Hart this line, ‘What if you have a horse–a thoroughbred, a champion–and he breaks his leg? You shoot him!’

“Lawler was watching and took great personal offense to the disrespect shown by Hart, who he broke into the business. Lawler was so mad that Jimmy thinks he purposely broke his jaw in Evansville after he came back from the injury. Jimmy Hart went from being a side man to the center of attention who we built everything around. And while Paul Ellering did a great job as Hart’s new King, Jimmy was the one who kept the Memphis box office going until Lawler could return. It was a natural. I believe the term they use today is a ‘work-shoot.’ We tried to work with what was in front of us—and the reality was that Jerry had felt like Jimmy had let him down by making the racehorse analogy. Lawler really took offense to that and Hart knew it, so he was gun shy around Lawler, and it came across as real to the fans. So…everything had tension and a touch of realism to it.”

With a ready-made angle in his lap, Jarrett initially planned for “King” Paul Ellering, the future manager of the Road Warriors, to oppose the baby face-by-default Lawler upon his return to reclaim his crown down the road.

This interview with Lawler from summer 1980 is about as real as you can get, as he was legitimately hot about Hart becoming a big star in his absence and did not like Ellering parading around with his crown—especially without his blessing. (Jarrett explained this in great detail during our memorable Memphis wrestling roundtable discussion.)

Just one problem: Lawler’s leg was healing in time for a September 1980 return but the impatient King, with the help of Calhoun, sawed off his cast way before the doctor’s orders and couldn’t resist getting in the ring early for “unofficial” bouts with Hart and “Killer” Karl Krupp. He ended up reinjuring the leg, delaying his “official” return until December.

With Ellering now gone, Jarrett was more than willing to welcome back his Tennessee protégé Tommy Rich, the hottest babyface in the country on WTBS, Ted Turner’s SuperStation. The theory goes that Rich was looking to turn heel in an effort to prove to the NWA that he could work any style as a touring World champion. He actually did a damn good job, but local fans didn’t want to boo the homegrown heartthrob, so he wasn’t a great draw as a heel in Mempho. Lawler just happened to be providing commentary during Rich’s televised return against longtime babyface Bill “Superstar” Dundee, which led to an angle to set up an eventual bout between the King and Wildfire. )

Rumor has it that NWA president Jim Barnett, who would eventually arrange a short NWA title reign for Rich months later, advised him not to bow before the King, citing the publicity surrounding Lawler’s return to the ring after such a long layoff. Less than four months after turning heel and attacking a crippled Lawler, Rich abruptly turned babyface just weeks before Lawler’s comeback and began taking sporadic bookings back in Georgia, eventually leaving Memphis and working full time in the Peach State in March 1981, a month before his NWA title win over Harley Race.

So…who would face the King? “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant would have been a natural choice, as he’d been the catalyst for Rich’s babyface turn when he attacked Wildfire’s mother, Peggy. Valiant had been a heel crony of Lawler’s at the time of the injury but was quickly switched babyface to give the fans a new hero in the interim, as the Boy From New York City was always a hot draw as a hero in the short term. In anticipation of Lawler’s return, Valiant was turned heel in November 1980 to set up an eventual showdown for the Southern title upon the King’s return in December. (After defeating Ellering earlier in the year, Valiant had also taken to parading around in Lawler’s crown—mercy indeed, daddy.)

But the fans had already seen Lawler vs. Valiant dozens of times in every type of wild stip possible. The promotion needed new blood who had a big name to go with it.

Then fate stepped in. Troy Graham, who had worked in Knoxville as jive-talking Troy T. Tyler, showed up backstage at the Mid-South Coliseum looking for work. When Jarrett asked if he could “talk,” Graham exploded into his spiel—a charismatic mix of Dusty Rhodes, Superstar Graham and a TV evangelist—absolute gold in the wrestling business. Hart was so impressed, he immediately told Lawler, “We gotta use this guy—he sounds just like Dusty.” Not only that, but Graham could also move great for a big man and was an excellent bump taker. And, um, he came much cheaper than Dusty, a hot box-office draw from coast to coast.

Memphis had taken gimmick-infringement liberties in the past, booking several national masked stars with someone else under the hood. For example, when I mentioned to Jim Cornette that the first card I attended at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1979 featured a heel Mil Mascaras doing a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo, he speculated that it must have been Pepe Lopez under the hood. For the record, Lopez died in the same car crash that killed Sam Bass in 1976, and Jarrett confirmed for me that it was indeed Aaron Rodriguez under the mask nearly three years later.

But in this case, the promotion would be billing the most charismatic star in the country as Hart’s masked bounty hunter. Stanback Headache Powder commercials featuring Dusty had been airing in the Memphis area—often during Jarrett’s show—for months in fall 1980,, so local fans knew the blue-eyed tower of power was a big star.

Although Dusty had worked a few shows in Memphis in ’77 at the behest of Florida promoter Eddie Graham to help Jarrett in his promotional war with Nick Gulas, the American Dream had not appeared in the area since to inconclusive battles with Lawler in 1977.

Jarrett put Troy under a hood and let him do his best impression of Big Dust, playing off Rhodes’ moniker of the American Dream—the masked “Dream Machine” was born. In pre-match interviews, it was strongly implied that Dusty was Jimmy Hart’s gun for hire, with the Dream Machine claiming that he was a big star, with fans nationwide, so he was donning the mask to hide his identity as he didn’t want to break the hearts of his fan base for the punishment he was about to unleash on Lawler. Graham even managed to drop in a reference to Dusty’s sponsor, Stanback Powders, during one promo. A week before Lawler’s return, the promotion attempted to get the Machine over as an unstoppable force, beating up several jobbers, before Lawler made the save to a frenzied crowd reaction.

The stage was set for the return of the King…in public, if you will….

I had to be there.

As 9-year-old Scotty Bowden waited in line for tickets on that fateful Monday night (while it was a given the show would sell out, Memphis was notoriously known as not being an advance town), an older black gentleman behind my uncle Robert and me told his friend he was sure it was Dusty under the hood. Suddenly, it all started making sense to my young mind. Then I bought the 50-cent program, which confirmed my newfound suspicions with a poem written by the Dream Machine himself. (Never mind that the illustration of the mysterious man seemed to be the product of Lawler’s artistic handiwork.)

Dream weaver: If you can’t afford Dusty to do a job for the King, why not bring in the next best thing to talk the people into the building?

When the lights dimmed in the sold-out Coliseum and the King ascended magically through the stage in a cloud of smoke (inspired by a KISS concert Lawler had attended in the same venue months earlier), the fans, including me, sitting way up in the cheap seats, rejoiced. Today’s younger fans hear a lot of hyperbole about the kayfabe era, but I can assure you the atmosphere in that building was electrifying. I fell in love with the business that night. I often wonder if today’s young fans have that same emotional connection to their heroes. The buzz in that flying-saucer-shaped arena prior to the main event threatened to knock the arena into orbit.

Lawler defeated the Dream in typical fashion: Calhoun was bumped, allowing the King to pull a chain from his boot and knock Graham to dreamland—a standard babyface move in Memphis. Afterward, Lawler got five minutes with Hart, quickly pummeling his former friend into a bloody pulp. Revenge is a dish best served cold. And it can be very cold in Memphis in December.

Lawler and the Dream drew huge houses around the horn into January 1980 with the same finish, though a predicted sellout at Rupp Arena was hampered because of a snowstorm. For most of 1981, the Dream was Lawler’s biggest rival, including this loser-leaves-town bout that proved to an angle to turn longtime jobber/midcarder babyface Koko Ware into headlining heel Sweet Brown Sugar.

More than 14 years later after the monumental showdown between the King and the Dream in 1980, I found myself in the ring during a main event tag match with Lawler and Jeff Jarrett vs. Eddie Gilbert and the unmasked Graham.

On this night, I’d turn against my hometown hero and help the Dream get the win.(I’d never forgiven Lawler for cheating to get that win back in 1980; plus, like Calhoun, I was sick of being pushed around by the Monarch of the Memphis mat.)

When recalling Graham, I can’t help but think of the protagonist in the movie “The Wrestler”: Randy the  Ram and his unwavering, though misguided, commitment to the business. Fourteen years after seeing Lawler vs. the Dream battle in front of a sold-out Mid-South Coliseum against in 1980, I became Graham’s manager in Memphis.

The big crowds were long gone, a victim of McMahon’s ’80s expansion into traditional territories nationwide. Even though we were often working in front of under 1,500 fans, Graham put his battered, broken-down tattooed body on the line working a very stiff, physical style and getting color (bleeding) in nearly every match. Following a tag-team brawl with Lawler and his son Brian at the Mid-South Coliseum, Graham was preparing to shoot a promo (interview) to promote next week’s rematch, when I walked past his dressing room. I stopped when I heard a repeated, sickening smack against flesh—it sounded like someone was getting his ass kicked. I peered into the dressing room to find a bleeding Graham punching his eye, trying to close it. He saw me in the mirror and asked, “How do I look?” Wincing, I replied, “Dream, you look… terrible.”

Excitedly, he said, “Great, let’s do this!” And off we went to shoot the interview. It did not matter to Graham that in 1994 Memphis was drawing the same number of hardcores each week, no matter what we did. Graham died of a heart attack in 2002. Apparently, he’d spent some time living on the streets.

Last night on RAW, we nearly lost the other half of that great main event in Memphis on Dec. 19, 1980. Jerry Lawler suffered a heart attack at the announce table Monday night, shortly after working a bout with Randy Orton, CM Punk and Dolph Ziggler—a testament that the King could still be creditably in the mix with the best workers in the biggest promotion in the world.

C’mon, King. Pull the strap. Make the comeback. Just once more.