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

June 24th, 2013 No 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.

Zeb’s not dead, baby. Memphis wrestling legend Dutch Mantell reemerges as one of the best promo guys in WWE

March 9th, 2013 No comments

Every once in awhile, one of the unsung greats in the business gets a well-deserved break in the twilight of his career. In less than a month after his debut on WWE Monday Night RAW, Memphis wrestling’s Dutch Mantell, using the name “Zeb Colter,” is part of the one of the most controversial gimmicks in recent WWE history; most important, the underrated yet talented Jack Swagger finally has the missing piece to the puzzle to take him the next level: a seasoned mouthpiece.

Below is an interview I conducted with “Dirty” Dutch Mantell two years ago. For over 90 minutes, we discussed many of the memorable angles, promos and matches of the Dutchman’s (uh, Zeb’s) Memphis and Nashville days that helped shaped him into one the most brilliant minds and talkers in the biz today.

Incidentally, I’ve received countless emails about the site and its lack of new content. (Aw, shucks, mom and dad.) Truth is, I’ve been both bored by the current product and burnt out on rehashing the past (especially when WWE.com steals from my site–Joey Styles and Murphy, I’m looking at you). Professional freelance opportunities (i.e., paying gigs) have also distracted me with outside interference. But the reemergence of Dutch on WWE TV–and the mention of Downtown Bruno by the Rock on RAW–seem to have reinvigorated me…for now. After all, I’m still a mark at heart.

The Dutch Mantell interview

Arguably the greatest athlete ever to come out of Oil Trough, Texas,  Dutch thrilled fans for years as the lone wolf of Memphis wrestling—an anti-hero more concerned with winning titles and kicking butts than kissing babies. Prof. Mantell has guided “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Kane and other students of the University of Dutch through the school of hard knocks on the road to success.

Those who have picked up his new book, The World According to Dutch, have discovered what his graduates already know: the Dirty Dutchman is one of the shrewdest, sharpest minds in wrestling today. He’s also a damn good storyteller and interview. We had a great time discussing the glory days of Memphis. Part One is posted tonight; look for Part Two on Wednesday night, and Part Three on Friday afternoon. As always, KFR subscribers will be notified as soon as each part is posted.

I first met Dutch in 1989, my freshman year in college. He was booking Memphis, and had built an angle involving longtime area mid-carder King Cobra and Jerry Lawler, who had recently turned heel for the first time in years. As the main event of the Christmas Chaos card at the Mid-South Coliseum, Cobra shocked Lawler and the approximately 3,000 fans in attendance by pinning the World Unified champion to win the title. As the crowd popped for the upset, Dutch walked out from the dressing-room area to observe his handiwork. My friend and I, two marks who thought we were smarter to the business than we really were, motioned Mantell to come over, and he obliged. I told him, “You booked a good angle!” Dutch kayfabed me, acting like he had no idea what the hell I was talking about. (In hindsight, I’m surprised he didn’t grab “shoo-baby,” his bullwhip.) A few years ago, I was surprised when Dutch told me that he remembered our initial “conversation,” practically verbatim.

Scott Bowden: Well, Dutch, it’s been over 20 years since I first tried to impress you with my knowledge of the business.

Dutch Mantell: Yeah, I remember you calling me over and saying, ‘Great angle!’ or something like that. I was like, ‘What tha…? Who is this guy?’

Bowden: Yeah, I get that a lot. Man, I wish you had forgotten about that. OK, so that was in 1989, and my first memories of you in the territory were in 1980. However, I believe you first wrestled in the Memphis area as the partner of Lawler and, later, David Shultz, around 1976. What were your initial impressions of the territory?

Dutch Mantell: I didn’t like it all. Not one bit. I got there in the middle of a bad winter—seemed like it snowed every Wednesday. In those days, Tennessee was looked down upon in the wrestling business. You go to Florida and they say, ‘Oh, don’t go to Tennessee…they don’t really do wrestling there.’ I was thinking, ‘Well, it looks like the same stuff to me.’ They’d say that Tennessee had all these gimmick matches and such. But heck, to me, the Florida stuff and Tennessee stuff looked the same.

Bowden: How long had you been working under the name Dutch Mantell at that point?

Mantell: A couple of years probably.

Bowden: Buddy Fuller gave you that name from a star in the past, correct?

Mantell: Yeah. I had no idea who in the heck ‘Dutch Mantell’ was. I had gone to Knoxville, and Buddy had bought into the territory and taken over from a local promoter who was subcontracting the talent from Nick Gulas. Fuller was going to cut Gulas out completely and start his own promotion there, which he did. So I went there, and Buddy didn’t like the name Wayne Keown, and I didn’t either. So he said, ‘I tell ya what I’m going to call you, boy. I’ll call you Dutch Mantell. I said, ‘OK. I don’t care what you call me—just pay me.’ Then he told me the story about the real Dutch Mantell, who was from the Netherlands and was a wrestler who ended up in Amarillo. He helped Dory Funk Sr. foster the Texas Boys and Girls Ranch and was really a highly respected member of that community. When he died, according to a story told to me by Dory Jr. and Terry, the town had a big funeral for the guy. So, anyway, I got the name Dutch Mantell. Later, when I went to Puerto Rico, I turned it into “Dirty” Dutch. Then I got me a cowboy hat, a pancho and a bullwhip, and I invented the character “Dirty” Dutch Mantell from Oil Trough, Texas.

Bowden: And where did Oil Trough come from?

Mantell: Heck, I made it up! [laughs]  I was driving through Arkansas with Ron Bass one time and saw an Oil Trough, Arkansas, so I said, ’Heck, I’ll be from Oil Trough, Texas.’ And people would say, ‘Where is Oil Trough, Texas?’ And I’d say, ‘You know where San Angelo is?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah.’ Then I’d say, ‘It’s nowhere near that!’ And  I’d walk off. Or I’d say the town made me sign an agreement when I left that said I’d never reveal where it was to avoid an Elvis-like situation in Memphis with fans and tourists wandering aimlessly taking photographs and looking for me. See…Oil Trough only had a population of three…me, Sagebrush and my cousin Crutch…and we didn’t want all that urban sprawl.

Bowden: You mentioned Nick Gulas, who was at least partially to blame for Tennessee’s reputation at the time. He was notorious for being a cheap payoff guy. Was Nick as bad as people say?

Mantell: Yeah, but heck, he was a promoter. In those days, Tennessee was known either  as the bone yard or the starting place. Pretty much, if a guy couldn’t get booked anywhere else, Nick would take him.  When a young guy starts out with Nick, he’s not making much money, so he says, ‘Heck, I’m never going back to that place.’

Bowden: I think you just described the feelings of a young Jack Brisco.

Lawler loses the Southern title…but gains a bride.

Mantell: And the reputation never left, even when Jerry Jarrett took over. Thing is, when Jarrett was doing well, he paid well.  But when business was down, he didn’t go into his pockets, and I don’t blame him. It’s a business you’re supposed to make money in. Here’s a story about Nick. He used a lot of Mexicans, for obvious reasons. A Mexican came to him one time and said, ‘Mr. Nick, I only make $70 last  week.’ Nick said, ‘Well, damn, boy, it ain’t what you make, it’s what you save!’ That’s Nick Gulas. Tennessee was always known for not paying well, but when I worked for Jerry Jarrett, I made good money, I really did.

Bowden: What were you initial impressions of Jarrett’s rising, cocky star Jerry Lawler in the late ’70s?

Mantell: I didn’t really get to know Lawler until our run in ’81 and ’82.

Bowden: That program you had with Lawler in spring 1982 produced some of the best matches of Lawler’s career, in my opinion.

Mantell: Yeah, the key was the build and how it came about. I had been a heel, he’d been a heel…and now we were both babyfaces.  I  was the first guy, I think, to ever pin Lawler clean when he was a babyface.

Bowden: And on his wedding day, no less! That was the rolling reverse cradle in the match at the Cooke Convention Center; that footage aired in Memphis set to ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All.” Later that night, Lawler married Paula Carruth. It made it seem more real that Lawler lost on the day he got married. Well, that is, if you can get past the fact that Lawler was even wrestling on his wedding day to begin with!

Mantell: I did it another time with a sunset flip off the top rope. The people in Memphis at that point we’re so conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to seeing some wild, crazy stuff to beat Lawler. So a simple finish like that was so old that it was new again, I guess. It helped the whole program, and the people believed it.

Bowden: I was around 11 years old at that time, and I was surprised to see so many fans in Memphis cheering you over Lawler, who was my hero at the time. In Memphis, feuds were strictly black and white: heels vs. babyfaces.

Mantell: And that’s the way it should be everywhere, even today. But every once in a while, you can hit that magic with two babyfaces in a rivalry, and that’s what happened.

Bowden: The cheers were about 50/50 for a match between you two that I saw at the Coliseum in ’82. Stunning.

Mantell: I was stunned too!  When I walked out there, it was really something. The people were buzzing. We gave ‘em time to buy into it too. We gave ‘em 25, 30 minutes. And they bought it. Nobody gave us our finish. Lawler and me just sat down and did it. Now it’s all agents and bookers—hell, they don’t even have bookers…creative….writers…whatever they  got. But that was Lawler and me telling a story—we told it in the ring. And we both worked our asses off. I’ll say this for Lawler: He’s damn good.

Bowden: I’m not just saying this, Dutch. I’d rate that series of matches you had with Lawler at the Coliseum in ’82 with any bouts in the country at that time. You two had amazing chemistry. How did that compare to the matches you had with Randy Savage in Nashville in 1978?

Mantell: I actually perfected that formula for getting into the psyche of Tennessee in my matches with Savage. Again, the fans were used to guys hitting each other with chairs and 2’ x 4’s, so Savage and I went out there and wrestled…with a lot of action and a lot of emotion. And we told a story. The deal with Savage started….see, business was horrible in Nashville…and we were both heels. I remember I looked at Savage in the dressing room one night and said, ‘We’re wasting our time, buddy. Heck, we ought to be wrestling each other.’ They had nobody else, in my mind, who could do anything. There weren’t many fans to begin with and those who were there had no emotion. There was nothing to sink your teeth into. So Savage and I got into it, and he’s got that wild crazy interview, and I’m kinda low key as a babyface—it worked perfect.

Bowden: And the fans responded?

Mantell: We went, in probably a four-week period, from doing  about 200 people in Nashville—the building wasn’t that big— to doing about 1200 to 1400 people. It was a big, big turnaround.

Bowden: Did you know right away that Savage was special?

Mantell: Heck yeah! I’ve got the whole story in my book. When I first him, he was still developing the Macho Man character. But every time you saw Randy—I don’t care it was 6 o’clock in the morning—he was Macho Man. You saw him at midnight—he’s still Macho Man. He was always in full-blown, wide-open Macho Man mode. I think, really, Randy Poffo morphed into Randy Savage, who then morphed into Macho Man. So he had three distinct personalities. I have a great chapter in the book on Savage…some great stories. Some of my best matches were with him, Lawler and a kid named Ted Oates out of Georgia.

Bowden: Was it that feud with Savage in Nashville that set up the scenario for the fans there to rally behind you when you returned in 1982 feuding with Lawler?

Mantell: In Memphis, you say it was 50/50 that night you saw us; I say it was probably 60/40 Lawler most of time…which was still a tremendous reaction for that time. We got to Louisville and Evansville, it was about 50/50. But when we got to Nashville, buddy, it was like 80/20 for me. Lawler told me after the match in Nashville, ‘Damn, Dutch.  I went to my car afterward…and I’m used to signing autographs and kissing babies…[laughs]…and they had ripped the antennae off my car!’ Lawler’s funny as hell anyway, but when he told me that, we were both really laughing. See…Lawler didn’t like Nashville and the people there knew that he kinda looked down on ‘em because he’s a Memphis boy. He used to knock Nashville really hard when he was a heel, and the people there never forgot it. So when he came to Nashville against me, they turned on him like a dog even though he was a babyface. He said, ‘Dang it, Dutch, they’re throwing stuff at me!’ [Laughs]

Bowden: Do you think it bothered Lawler to see that reaction, especially the split cheers in Memphis?

Unified champion: Dutch Mantell with the Memphis territory’s AWA Southern and NWA Mid-America belts.

Mantell: Truthfully, I think it did bother him a bit. But he told me years later that it was the most believable angle he was ever involved in.

Bowden: As the top guy in Nashville in ’79, you also had a big match with Harley Race for the NWA World title. What did you think of Harley?

Mantell: Harley was solid. Nothing spectacular or flashy, but he was very solid. He didn’t do a lot of stuff, but what he did, he did well. I remember that match—it was at the Civic Auditorium downtown. We took it out of the Fairgrounds. It didn’t sell out…the Auditorium seated about 10,000 people, but we drew about 5,000 or 6,000 people, which for Nashville was great. Nashville was never really known as a great wrestling town…nothing like Memphis…or even Louisville. I’d rate Nashville somewhere along the lines of Evansville. Back then,  if I heard what the house was in Memphis, I could predict the next week. Say Memphis did $25,000…which in those days, with those $3 seats up top, was a lot of people in there. So say we did $25,000 in Memphis, then Louisville would do about half that the following week…and then if you halved that, you’d have what Evansville and Nashville would do. So there were many weeks in Memphis in the early ’80s, the territory would make about 100 grand; it averaged about 70 grand. So if you imagine that Jerry Jarrett was just making 15% of that, he was making about 15 grand a week.

Bowden: That makes sense: the 90-minute TV aired live on channel 5, followed by the hour-long edited version that aired around the loop the following week. Naturally, what clicked in Memphis would click in the other towns.

Mantell: Right. And because that TV aired live in Memphis on Saturday and the matches were on Monday night, you’d get instant feedback on what was working and what wasn’t. If it didn’t go, you didn’t waste two or three weeks on something, you’d just cut it off and move on to something else. But if there was some interest, those people would come Monday night, and we’d say, ‘OK, we got something here.’

In Memphis, even the good guys wore black hats.

Bowden: Were you involved in the booking process with Lawler and Jarrett at that point in ’82?

Mantell: I booked Memphis a couple of times, and, you know, Lawler and Jarrett used to throw it back and forth. We’d book it on the way back from Memphis, while it was still fresh in your mind…we’d book next Saturday in the car.

Bowden: Good way to pass the time.

Mantell
: We’d take about two hours, and we’d book that whole 90-minute show. Eventually, I helped book it a lot of times on the way back to Nashville.

Bowden: Did you enjoy that process, Dutch, the creative end with Lawler and Jarrett?

Mantell
: I enjoy booking when you have a set crew…a limited crew. So, say you had 16 guys–that’s always better for me. I think it’s better to book with a limited number of characters than to have, like, W.W.E., they got, like, 70. Because I ain’t gonna use all those guys. You just can’t do it. If you’ve got a football game, you can’t play everybody. You gotta put your best players, which means a lot of players got to sit on the bench, but, if they’re sittin’ on the bench in a wrestling show, then they’re dead to ya. They’re just dead. Because they’re not like substitutes. You put them in the game, but nobody knows ‘em. So, if you sit ‘em on the bench, they’re dead. It’s one of those things in booking…it’s a whole different mindset.

Bowden: It often seems like the booker gets all the blame if things aren’t going well, despite the strength of his crew or lack thereof.

Mantell: That’s right. Let’s say Jerry Jarrett’s booking Memphis, and they are selling out with Mantell and Lawler, so it’s “Man, that Mantell and Lawler are selling out in Memphis.” But let’s say we’ve got the same matches, and we’re not drawing. It’s, “Man, that Jerry Jarrett’s bombing up there.” The only time the booker gets all the fame is if it’s not doing well, but he rarely gets all the credit when he does do well.

Bowden: As good as Lawler and Jarrett were, they traded off the booking duties every six months, right?

Mantell: Yep, they’d trade back and forth. And, to me, I thought that was great. That prevented them from burning out, because for six months, you can sit back, and all of a sudden, you can watch it and study it without all that pressure on you. Then you can step in, and, boom, you hit your best ideas right away. And your best ideas can carry you for six months.

Bowden: Lawler told me the basic philosophy at that time in Memphis was “personal issues draw money.” But what were the differences, as subtle as they might have been, between Jarrett and Lawler when each had the book?

Mantell: Well, Jerry liked to, he did more gimmick stuff.

Bowden: You’re talking about Lawler?

Mantell: Yeh. I mean, Lawler. He did more gimmick stuff and Jarrett did more believable stuff, more subtle stuff. It was a different, it was what they call, I guess, a paradigm shift. They wouldn’t really be that different. Their philosophy was the same. It’s just that the execution was different. But, still, you know, the end result was, now, you gotta draw money. Now Lawler booked for a while, and then, you know, just like anything else, if you get a steady diet of something for so long, everything’s gonna get old. And so, when Jarrett would step back in, he would come in with a completely different mindset and change everything around and people were ready for that.

Fresh out of the nut house in Bolivar, (Sonny) Rough House Fargo joins Lawler in his fight against Hart, Idol and Mantell

Bowden: People talk about how business suffered in 1980 in Memphis, with Lawler out with a broken leg. But if you go back and look at the attendance figures, they had some huge houses. Jarrett turned Valiant babyface and he took the muzzle off Jimmy Hart. Who knew that he could talk when he was standing next to Lawler all that time as his manager? And he ran with it. I thought 1980 was one of Jarrett’s probably most creative years, as far as doing the best with what he had and developing new talent.

Mantell: Well, that’s when I got there.

Bowden: With Austin Idol as the finalists of the CWA World tag titles tournament. Supposedly you guys won a tournament at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Uh…that didn’t happen, did it? [laughs]

Mantell: Oh, hell no! [laughs] They asked me where I wanted to say we’d won the thing, and I think I’d seen some NBA team playing basketball on TV, and I said, “Tell ‘em the Spectrum.” Back then you couldn’t check stuff like that on the Internet, and the people bought it.

Bowden: Meanwhile, Memphis has this ready-made feud when Lawler healed, with him going after Hart.

Mantell: Things started getting good when Lawler started coming back and limping around. They knew he was going to come back. So, he came back, I think, a month to six weeks before he actually started wrestling. And they drew some big houses.

Bowden: Just his appearing at ringside, I think the attendance one week was 4000. The following week he sent in a tape saying he was going to be at ringside to keep an eye on Hart–attendance jumped to 7500. Seventy-five hundred people in the building–just by his mere presence at ringside. And Lawler really didn’t like Hart’s “they shoot horses” comment, which made it all really believable.

Mantel
l: No, he didn’t–he did not like that. [laughs] He told me that. He was sitting home and watching it and, you know, Jimmy Hart just disrespected him on TV. I don’t know if Jerry’s feelings were hurt or was mad that they didn’t consult him, or I don’t know what the problem was there. But, he didn’t like it at all. And when he came back, well, he’s always been a great talker. Hart was a great talker. Now, Hart would really run down Lawler on his interviews. Oh, it was funny, and I would laugh at that in the back. Lawler would kind of get hot, but he wouldn’t say anything about it, and then he might stiff Hart and then Jimmy’s feelings were hurt. But they did great. I liken it to the Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote.

Bowden
: Yes! [laughs]

Mantell: That’s exactly what it was. Because that ol’ Wile E. Coyote could never quite get that Road Runner, and boy, you couldn’t kill Jimmy Hart. You put him in a wheelchair. You put him in a body cast. You burn him up. You whip him with a strap. But you couldn’t kill him. He kept coming back.

Bowden: And the people loved to hate him.

Mantell: I think, deep down, the people did love Jimmy Hart there. ‘Cause you couldn’t stop him. He was like a used-car salesman. Sleezy little bastard. He and Lawler drew a lot of money.

Bowden: Now, in February ’81, you and Idol were on top against Lawler who had recently come back from a broken leg. And, right away, you’re in a sweet spot there with Idol against Lawler and Fargo. What are your thoughts on Austin Idol, not only as a performer but also outside the ring? Was he a prima donna, as some suggest?

Mantell
: Yeah, he was pretty bad at times. But I don’t disagree with him feeling that way. I do disagree with how he handled it. I think he should have been more diplomatic; if he had been, I think he may have gone further to tell you the truth. But, he may not have wanted to go further. I didn’t know his agenda, know what I mean? But, yeh, he didn’t want to do this, and he didn’t want to do that, and blah, blah, blah. But I always got along with him pretty good. I liked Austin, you know. But, he was Lawler’s buddy. Jerry Jarrett very seldom booked him…or didn’t like booking him too much. Because Idol, sometimes you might book him, and he might show up and then again, he might not.

Bowden: And he can only use that “four flat tires” excuse like he did in Georgia so many times.

Mantell: What?

Bowden: Oh, nothing.

Mantell
: Now, see, in those days, when you advertise something big–because Idol was a big name–and he didn’t show up, well, that pissed off your fan base; then they felt like they got ripped off, and then you couldn’t trust him. But, a worse side effect then was that the fans didn’t trust the promotion. And that would hurt you–big time hurt you. OK, if you’re going to take money from somebody, you’ve got to produce. You’ve got to give them something. You just can’t say, “Oh, this guy’s going to be here. Oops. Well, he’s not here.”

Bowden
: In your book, you mentioned a no-show at the Coliseum–11,380 fans waiting for “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant to show up to face Kimala, who had steamrolled everyone at that point. I believe Jimmy was really sick; he passed out at the Charlotte airport prior to his flight.

Mantell: And the only one they could put in there was me. ‘Cause that wasn’t time for them to go with Kimala vs. Lawler.  You couldn’t go there. And they put me in there. So, I expected Jerry Jarrett, since Kimala had beaten everybody else as they built him up for Lawler, he’d beat me too. Jarrett said, “No, he’s not going to beat ya, and you’re not going to beat him. We’ll throw this thing out.” And I didn’t understand, but his philosophy was this: “People are pissed off to begin with cause Jimmy’s not here. We’re gonna stick you in that ring, and if he beats you, now they’re going to be doubly pissed off.” And he was right.  Jarrett says, “We’re just kinda gonna leave ‘em happy a little bit, so I want  you to use that bullwhip on Kimala.” And I did, and the people came out of their seats. And they were happy, and it didn’t hurt Kimala a bit. So, I learned right then that you’ve got to think, first of all, you’ve got to think of your paying customers; you’ve got to think of your fans, because they’re first and foremost. Without those fans coming through the door and paying that money, paying the building rent, paying the taxes, paying the guys, paying everything. And then buying your merchandise and your concessions in the building. So, you’ve got to keep them happy. And you’ve got to keep the fans in the game. You can’t, you know, there’s some notion to put the fans on the other side of the fence and don’t even acknowledge them. Well, you can do that ‘til you go out of business. Jerry Jarrett was a big influence in my booking later on and so was Tom Renesto and even Dusty, Ole…and Bill Watts. I watched all those guys, ’cause they all had a basic philosophy and they adhered to it.

Bowden: In your book, you tell the story of how “Stone Cold” Steve Austin got his name from you. When the Austin character began to evolve into this kind of “stone cold” outlaw only interested in titles and making paydays–to hell with making friends–I instantly thought of you and your Lone Wolf character in Memphis. Did you see a lot of yourself in Stone Cold?

Mantell: Well, I saw how he talked, and he’s just the type of guy that’s not gonna have a lot of close friends anyway. Hell, he would speak his mind in the dressing room, things like that. And I probably gave him, not necessarily the template for Stone Cold, because I think it was basically him anyway, but I think I fostered that belief that he could open up his options with that kind of character.

Bowden: Can you elaborate on that?

Mantell: Well, say you’re a straight-up babyface. And we’ve got 20 guys in the territory, taking it back 20 to 20 years ago. With 20, then we probably have 10 good guys and 10 bad guys–funny how it always seemed to break down that way, ain’t it? [laughs] So if you’re a good guy, you only had 10 guys you could work with.  But, if you were a ‘tweener, then you got 19 other guys to work with. If you were the only one there who was a ‘tweener, you were in a unique position to make money. Again, I may have put that idea in Austin’s head, but he took it and ran with it, like a lot of my University of Dutch alumni. That character, in many ways, was Austin. He told the story recently on Fox News about how I gave him the name

Bowden: But he didn’t mention your name, did he?

Mantell: Hell no. He’s probably afraid I’m gonna get over!

Bowden: Or expect a royalty check. I heard Jim Cornette once say that “The best wrestling personalities are the guys who basically are their true selves on camera…but with the volume turned way up.”

Mantell=: Well, he should know. He’s one of ‘em.

Bowden: Yes. He sure seems like an extension of that.

Mantell: The only exception to that rule, I think, would be Handsome Jimmy. Because Handsome Jimmy in the dressing room, he doesn’t say anything, man. He was always whispering the whole time.  But, then, he gets out there, and he’s so high energy. And I’m guessing that may be his real persona, but he just goes out on camera and turns it on and way up. But I do think if you keep a guy’s character to more or less who he is, you’re probably better off in the long run. Look at Savage.’Cause that has to be more than his character, because he wouldn’t be able to keep it up 24 hours a day like he does. I think that has to be kind of the way he really is.

Bowden: Dave Brown told me that Valiant was remarkable in that it he would be a normal, soft-spoken guy and then he’d walk through the curtain and “explode.”

Mantell: Yeh, he would!

Bowden: And he really was the one guy whom Jarrett could count on to carry the territory on the babyface side when Lawler was hurt.

MantellL: He was a guy that got your attention.

Bowden: Do you find that that’s there a dearth of entertaining, distinguishable characters in the business today?

Mantell: Absolutely. Back in the day, we had characters, man.  Now, not so much. You don’t have Abdullah the Butchers.  You don’t have the Brodys, and you don’t have the Stan Hansens, and you don’t have the Lawlers or the Flair in his prime. You know, the Hacksaw Duggans, the LeDucs, even the Kimalas. What you’ve got now is, more or less, a clone factory. So many of the guys look exactly the same. They mostly wear short trunks and the boots and they’ve got good bodies, they’re about 5’10” or whatever they are. I don’t care if they’re black, white or Asian or Puerto Rican–they somehow manage to still all look the same…almost like sophomores in college. You don’t have many of those big, wild son of a bitches coming through that screen at you. Used to be, it was a comic book come to life.

Bowden: Funny you should say that because when I was a kid, my two favorite things were wrestling and comic books. And to me, they were so closely connected. Look at the Memphis heels in ’81 battling Lawler: You, LeDuc, Austin Idol, Ron Bass, Crusher Blackwell, Valiant, Dream Machine, Kevin Sullivan, Killer Karl Krupp, Tojo and the Funks. It was almost like a villains gallery from Marvel Comics or DC. With the weasel Jimmy Hart–the Joker–in their corner.

Mantell: Absolutely. You’ve got Hart and his men against Lawler, guys like Handsome Jimmy and LeDuc. I always loved how LeDuc was always like, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” Then Valiant: “Woo, Mercy, daddy!” The Dream Machine: “Bawlin,’ squalin,’ climbing the wallin, hometown jubilee!” To a kid, man, that’s entertaining. But you’ve gotta get those kids paying attention to it.  If they’re excited, they’ll make their parents bring them and they’ll buy your stuff.  And that what Vince is so good at doing–reeling them in from the cradle to the grave.

Bowden: You were with Watts and still occassionaly making shots with Jarrett when McMahon started expanding his circus tent nationwide and picking off local talent. What did you think about it at the time?

Mantell: That he was putting together an all-star team. He picked up Hogan from Minneapolis, and off he went.

Bowden: Taking Junkyard Dog obviously hurt Watts, and he never seemed to get over it, always trying to create a new African-American star.

Mantell: And Jim Duggan, Butch Reed, Jake Roberts. Eventually, he got Dusty. So, when you’re watching in different parts of the country, say in Louisiana, fans say, “Oh, there’s JYD.”  Then “Look–Jim Duggan!” Well, now McMahon has a built-in local connection, especially in Mid-South. He took the top-tier guys from virtually every promotion. And then the promotion would try to fill it with second-tier guys, and the people picked up on it.

The Last Sellout

Bowden: Oh, yeah, the fans could smell it a mile away. You know, George Wells is not exactly a substitute for Junkyard Dog. I think one reason why Jarrett was able to fend McMahonn off longer than others is because Lawler didn’t go in ’84, ’85, or ’86. Vince would promote in Memphis and draw half of what Jarrett was doing. It wasn’t until the late ’80s, maybe 1990 that McMahon started drawing here. Then he reached his deal with the Jarretts and eventually secured the services of Lawler as a talent. In fact, in 1986, Jarrett booked what would be the infamous last sellout of the Mid-South Coliseum: you and Lawler against Dundee and Landell.

MantellL: Yep.

Bowden: That TV was one of the best of shows of the era, in my opinion. That’s what a wrestling show should be: riveting drama, with a heated, personal issue involving parties whom the people believe in. And that show sold tickets, in this case, all 11,365-plus of ‘em.

Mantell: Yeah, Landell and Dundee beat up Jeff Jarrett and then they tried to take out Jerry Jarrett’s eye–his only good eye. And I came out of the shower, with the shampoo in my hair, to make the save and I said, ‘Let’s call Lawler.”

Bowden: That’s one of those little details I miss–the guy running out of the shower to make the save. Anyway, yeah, it had to be a strong scenario like that because Lawler had dropped a loser-leaves-town bout–they couldn’t just bring him back.

Mantell: Yeah, finally, Eddie Marlin said something like, ‘I don’t give a damn–let’s call him.’

Bowden: Right, because that was Eddie’s grandchild and son-in-law who had just been beaten up by those thugs.

Mantell: So he said, ‘I’m breaking the stipulation–by God, let ‘em sue me!’ A old man got mad. ‘I’ll deal with the lawsuit later. Right now, you’re gettin’ your ass kicked!’

Bowden: And that was right after Jarrett had done a tearful promo because he was unable to defend his own son. Man, that reasonated with the fans. After the sellout, you came back with more huge crowds in the 9,000 range, including a legendary bout that tape traders everywhere covet a complete copy: the hour-long-plus Texas Death Match that went 26 falls. Amazing.

Mantell: That one’s a hidden gem. Toward the end, I made it obvious that I was letting them pin me. In the post-match interview, Lance asked me what that was about, and I chalked it up to strategy, ‘Well, I let ‘em pin me at that point, so I could get the 30-second rest period between falls. Remember, falls don’t count. It was a matter of survival.’ Made sense.

BOWDEN: Jarrett had some big crowds after that feud–Lawler vs. Idol and Rich, and the AWA title win over Hennig–but your deal with Lawler, Dundee and Landell was the last sellout at the Mid-South Coliseum.

MantellL: The last one…end of an era. We sold out the Coliseum several times in the early ’80s…sold out Louisville…you couldn’t sell out Lexington ’cause it seated about 20,000 but we filled up one side of it with 10,000 people…had people turned away in Nashville. At one time, the wrestlers were the most over celebrities of any kind in Memphis–and we didn’t even know it. We didn’t even know how over we were because we were always on the road.

Bowden: That’s true. I can’t help but think of the merchandising money you guys could have made. When I was a kid, I wanted more than T-shirts and pictures, but that’s all you had. Hell, I used to convert my “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” action figures into Memphis wrestlers. I asked my mom once if Jerry Lawler would ever have an action figure and she said, ‘Like that’ll ever happen.’ Man, was she wrong.

Mantell: Yeah, that’s Vince did. He knew there was a market out there. Lawler was good at that, too, with his shirts and records, but most of us didn’t see it.

Bowden: Speaking of celebrities, another guy who packed ‘em in, but never quite sold out the Coliseum was Andy Kaufman. You’ve got a great chapter in your book about Kaufman and his feud with Foxie. It was only recently that Lawler told me those initial bouts with females from the audience were shoots [unscripted].

Mantell: Oh, yeah, the people hated him. Andy was the ultimate heel. I think the angle between him and Lawler was one of the greatest of all time. And I found out later that Kaufman had such a respect for the wrestling business. You got celebrities now who are involved who couldn’t care less about it. Kaufman didn’t even cash his checks.

Bowden: That’s right. And Lawler told me that was one of the perplexing things in the beginning: ‘What do you pay a guy who stars on the top-rated comedy on TV?’ Jerry also told me that Kaufman always called him ‘Mr. Lawler’ as well.

Mantell: A lot of respect for this business. That’s what won him over to me. He was kind of aloof, quiet in the dressing room. I realize now that he was probably in awe of us. He was really watching us and how we interacted…he was fascinated by us just as much as we were by him…probably more so. Great guy. He loved doing it. In comedy clubs, he’s performing in front of 100 people or so…and here he’s in front of 10,000.

Bowden: And they all want to kill him because of his performance! I think he felt that wrestling was theatre as its finest.

Mantell: He was great at it. I had a lot of respect for Andy.

Bowden: The beauty of it is that had Andy done an angle in New York with Vince McMahon Sr. like he wanted, it wouldn’t have gotten over nearly as strong as it did in the South: Looking down on us rednecks beacause ’I'm from Hollywood.’

MantellL: Probably not.

Bowden: Dutch, I could talk Memphis wrestling all day, but tell me about your new wrestling school–the University of Dutch.

A B.A. in hard knocks–no B.S.: Prof. Mantell will take you to school.

Mantell: Well, I’ve heard so many guys ask me how to get in the business. They tell me this or that wrestling school ripped them off. These guys are giving ‘em good money for a down payment and then they close up or take off. Or they get into a class and it’s just a bunch of guys standing in the ring with no instruction. I hate that. If you’re gonna take somebody’s money, then teach them something. I’ve got two classes: one for beginners and the other for guys who’ve been in this for a while . The second format is more of a seminar for guys who have been wrestling on the independent scene two, five, even 10 years. Well, that window is rapidly shutting because this is a young man’s business. I take these guys who have been working a while, evaluate them and tell them what they need to do to up their game. Try this gimmick, try this character–look different. Stand out. Find out what’s in your personality that makes you unique. I cover presence, timing, psychology, character, gimmicks–you name it. These are important things they’re not gonna learn on the independent circuit.

Bowden: Sounds like skills and aspects of their craft they might hone in past in the territories, but they don’t exist today.

Mantell: That’s exactly right. And you didn’t just learn in the ring back then. Y’know, I’d take Austin, Kane or Undertaker on the road with me and that’s where the schooling really started–in the car. That’s where mine started. Guys today don’t get that. They have nowhere to go to get that. So I give them that opportunity. There are some good schools out there: Harley Race runs one, Booker T, Lance Storm. Mine will be open this May. And if you’re gonna learn, you might as well learn from one of the best.

Bowden: Dutch, I hope you enjoyed this as much I did.

Mantell: Oh, I did. Y’know, a lot of times when people interview me, they’re not familiar with the Memphis territory, which I find astounding. I had a story recently on my blog about how Bubba Ray Dudley told me recently that he finally saw some Memphis stuff and he was blown away. I think a lot of people are just now discovering Memphis through YouTube.

Bowden: Hard to believe that a guy from ECW had never seen Memphis.

Mantell: Hey, that’s where it all started. I respect all the hard work of those guys, but ECW was Memphis all over again. And ECW didn’t draw anywhere near as well as Memphis did. Heck, collectively, Memphis would put nearly 40,000 fans in the building a month, whereas Madison Square Garden did 20,ooo people a month. It’s like Jim Cornette says, ‘Heck, if you missed Memphis, you missed the heart of this business.’”

Bowden: Amen.

For more information on the University of Dutch–now open for enrollment–check out The World According to Dutch, where you’ll also find ordering instructions for Dutch’s must-read book of the same.

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

September 14th, 2012 5 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.