A Funkin’ amazing feud: the Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk rivalry in Memphis
When I was speaking with Jerry Lawler on the day Jack Brisco died, he reflected on his past bouts with former World champions in the ’70s, reserving his highest praise for AWA kingpin Nick Bockwinkel, Dory Funk Jr. and Jack as the top three wrestlers he faced in the ring. However, he also spoke glowingly of Terry Funk, saying those bouts “were definitely some of my favorites.” The two enjoyed working together so much that the Lawler vs. Funk feud spanned four decades.
I was too young to recall the early battles for the NWA World title between champion Terry Funk and challenger Jerry “the King” Lawler in Memphis. From what I understand, the two had amazing chemistry from the start, with their first bout, a 60-minute draw on Aug. 22, 1976, considered a classic.
The buildup for the bout was excellent, as in the preceding weeks, the promotion supposedly “charted” the young challenger’s rise in the NWA “rankings,” with Lawler knocking off the top contenders before he earned a shot at the famed 10 pounds of gold.
On July 26, fifth-ranked Lawler defeated third-ranked Harley Race to retain the NWA Southern title. Hours later, en route to Nashville on I-40, Lawler’s manager, Sam Bass, died in an automobile accident with wrestlers Pepe Lopez and Frank Hester.
Promoter Jerry Jarrett initially assumed that it was Lawler who had been killed.
“We were all in tears when we approached the traffic that was backed up for miles,” Jarrett recalled in an interview with Tim Dills at kayfabememories.com. “During the drive to the site, we had all concluded that it was Lawler and whoever was with him. It was impossible to determine the kind of car that was burning. We asked how they knew it was wrestlers and the police told us that wrestling gear was down the road from the impact. About that time, Jerry Lawler was spotted walking toward the crash scene. We all cried for joy and then suddenly became somber wondering who was in the car. Lawler told us it had to be Sam Bass.”
Still, the show had to go on.
The following week, attendance jumped from under 6,000 to 9,131 to see No. 3 contender Lawler battle second-ranked Funk, Jr., a former NWA World champ and older brother of titlist Terry. A typical gimmick for the time period: Dory would enter a territory in the weeks preceding his brother, eventually putting over the local star to build them up as a serious threat to Terry. (A similar formula had been used with the Brisco brothers on occasion during Jack’s reign as well.) That was clearly the plan on Aug. 2, 1976, as Lawler defeated Dory to retain the Southern title and climb the NWA ratings to No. 2.
Lawler stumbled in front of over 10,000 fans the next week, dropping the Southern strap on Aug. 9 to No. 1 contender Jack Brisco, the man whom Terry had defeated for the World title. The King regained the throne on Aug. 16, defeating Brisco as a near-capacity crowd looked on. The finish saw Brisco go for his vaunted figure-four leglock. Lawler kicked him off, sending the former World champ shoulder-first into the ringpost. The King finished Brisco with a fistdrop off the middle rope, with Jack selling it beautifully. (This finish was shown several times in several Lawler music videos over the years.)
With higher “championship ticket prices” (this tactic was used by several promoters during the time to offset the percentage paid to the champ and the NWA office) in effect–a whopping $7 for ringside–10,430 were on hand Aug. 22 as the King and the Funker went to a 60-minute Broadway. The seeds were planted for a memorable rivalry that would last for decades.
Lawler was in line to receive a rematch for the World strap in October of ’76; however, once again the King had to first go through Terry’s “policeman,” big brother Dory Jr.–this time in a Texas Death Match. For years, the Funks claimed that they invented the Texas Death Match in Amarillo. I’m not sure about that, but the gimmick match came off to the fans as the ultimate test of manhood, typically used to blow off a feud: pinfalls don’t decide the winner; the match keeps going until a man can’t answer the referee’s count of 10, i.e., the last man standing wins. Lawler prevailed, setting up another showdown for the domed globe belt on Oct. 18.
Lawler seemingly won the title from Funk on the 18th, but the decision was overturned with Terry declared the winner by disqualification. That didn’t stop Lawler from retreating to the dressing room with the World strap for a photo shoot with MEMPHIS MAGAZINE. A shot of Lawler wearing the NWA World title ended up gracing the magazine’s cover that same year as part of a piece on Memphis wrestling. I asked Lawler about that incident recently, inquiring whether Funk gave the OK for the publicity stunt.
“No, he had no idea. We did some of kind of deal where I thought I’d won the match, so I took the belt to the dressing room. When I got to the back, I ran up to the photographer who was there to take pictures for the article, saying, ‘Hurry up, hurry up…take my picture! And I put the belt on real quick before Terry got back.”
In the weeks following the Oct. 18 bout, Lawler was billed as “NWA World title claimant,” which the King proclaimed on the Oct. 23 episode of Championship Wrestling on WHBQ. (This rare footage is courtesy of ’70s-TV.com, which has an incredible selection of Memphis wrestling footage from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s for sale. Click here to check out the selection of rare Memphis wrestling DVDs.) Incidentally, don’t ever refer to Jerry Lawler as a “queen”–not that there’s anything wrong with that.
My first real exposure to Funk came in 1981, when Lawler returned from nearly a year-long layoff after suffering a broken leg. I had become a huge wrestling fan around ’77 at age 6. By ’79, I was picking up every Apter newsstand magazine my meager allowance could afford, which was the only way for a young mark to himself back in the day. I quickly became familiar with the NWA and AWA World champions, always scanning the ratings for Lawler’s inclusion.
Apter mags like INSIDE WRESTLING, THE WRESTLER and PRO WRESTLING ILLUSTRATED extensively covered Terry’s dastardly attack on Dusty Rhodes on August 26, 1979, which cost the American Dream the NWA championship vs. Harley Race after only a five-day reign on top. While Dory looked like an insurance salesman in photos, Terry with his crazed, wild-eyed looks and sometimes braided hair, appeared insane to me.
By ’81, I was well aware of the fact that Dory and Terry were the only brothers in history to hold the NWA title, wrestling’s biggest prize. So when Jimmy Hart announced on Saturday, March 21, 1981, that Terry was his latest bounty hunter to come after Lawler’s hide, I knew the King was in for a wild one. It was easily Lawler’s best match of the year, with the crazed, bloodthirsty Funk looking to re-break Lawler’s leg with his infamous spinning toe-hold. Following a Texas Death Match on April 6, with Lawler and Plowboy Frazier beating Terry and his brother, Dory, before 8,147 fans, Terry challenged Jerry to an empty arena match at the Coliseum, which was some of the most bizarre footage ever recorded.
What transpired exceeded 9-year-old Scott Bowden’s expectations. In the craziest bouts I’d seen at that age, Lawler and Funk had a classic bloody brawl in front of a hot crowd. For years, Jim Cornette (who was at ringside that night taking photographs for the Apter mags) called this his favorite match, making it required viewing for any young, budding star in the business.
Funk not only sold his ass off–making Lawler appear like a true badass in the process–but he also screamed like a maniac throughout the match. I really thought Terry Funk was insane. Lawler won the no-disqualification bout via countout after hitting Funk’s left leg repeatedly with a steel chair, with announcer Lance Russell (obviously having a ball) comparing it to a lumberjack (Joe LeDuc perhaps) “swinging a big ax.” A tremendous professional wrestling brawl by anyone’s standards.
The following week, Lawler downed big bro Dory, who had returned to Memphis to avenge Terry. On April 6, Lawler and “Giant” Plowboy Frazier beat the Funk brothers in a Texas Death tag bout.
Terry Funk was fed up–and by God, he was going to do something about it. Claiming that Lawler had the fans, the referee, the promotion, the announcers–and even the Memphis Police–on his side, Terry (in a tremendous taped promo) challenged Lawler to a fight in an empty arena. The date of the fight wasn’t made clear, as Lawler quietly accepted on the air and walked off, refusing to elaborate, much to Lance’s chagrin.
When people ask about what I miss most about how wrestling used to be, I always mention the gritty presentation of the ’70s and ’80s product I grew up on, which always made the feuds and issues come off so personal and realistic to me. This entire angle epitomizes that. Funk and Lawler were just two guys who you’d swear hated each other. And they’d settle it in or out of the ring.
Longtime Memphis Wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett laughed when I asked him about the inspiration for the empty arena bout, which has become a cult classic.
“That was all Terry’s idea,” he says. “To give you an idea of how Terry’s mind works, he called me once saying, ‘Jarrett, I’ve got an idea that’s going to make us both a lot of money. You and I both know that wrestling promoters are stupid sons of bitches. Well, not you, Jarrett. But, anyway, the biggest night to run wrestling is Thanksgiving night. Let’s put a deposit down on every major arena in the United States–I pay half, you pay half–and we’ll sell the date back to the local promoters when it finally dawns on them that we’ve already got their building locked up on that date.’ I calmly explained to Terry, ‘There are probably 300 arenas that we’d have to cover. I think the promoters will simply switch to a different arena rather than pay us. And then we’re gonna be stuck with hundreds of empty arenas and flat broke.’ Terry says, ‘Trust me–they’ll pay us.’ I said, ‘We’ll, do you think they’ll pay us before or after they shoot us?’ The wrestling business was a lot different back then. But that’s how Terry’s mind works, so I wasn’t surprised when he called to say, ‘Let’s have a match in an empty Mid-South Coliseum.'”
About two weeks later, I was watching the live Saturday morning show as Lance announced that an incident had happened between Lawler and Funk. The promotion and TV station had debated whether or not they should even air the footage because it was so graphic. Needless to say, this got my attention. In Memphis, fans had seen just about everything up to that point. Was one of them maimed? Killed? What in the Sam Hill was going on? What followed was some of the strangest footage ever shot in wrestling.
The intro to the infamous empty-arena match is memorable, with Lance lighting a cigarette before proclaiming that there’s a chance “you will never see this.” Too good. And when Funk storms the area and calls Lance and Lawler every name in the book, the Memphis announcer is at the top of his game.
Then Lawler finally appears in full regal regalia for the empty-arena showdown, Funk shouts: “Look, Lance, it’s a clown! Look at that fool; look at that idiot! There’s nobody here, Lawler, you jackass! What, you got a gun under there? A knife? Huh, Lawler, you got a knife?” (Lawler years later told me he wished he hadn’t come out with the crown and cape–he almost cracked up when Funk started in on him.)
The brawl culminates with a seemingly career-threatening eye injury to Funk, who screams the immortal words, “Lance…my eye. My eyeeeee! Arrrgghhh-eeeeeeee! My eyyeeeee!” (The late Eddie Gilbert could do a spot-on impersonation of the incident.) The action itself is lame by their standards, but still, it’s damn fascinating to watch.
For more on the Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk feud in Memphis Wrestling, check back tomorrow.
Clippings courtesy of memphiswrestlinghistory.com.
File under Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk feud.