A royal pain in the ass: Recalling Jerry Lawler’s classic nemesis, AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel, as the King gears up for Sunday’s WWE title match
Jerry Lawler became a wrestling star in 1974, with the brash cocky upstart eventually unseating the legendary Jackie Fargo for the unofficial throne of Memphis rasslin’ royalty after a series of bouts that averaged near-capacity crowds of 10,000 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum, including several sellouts. Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett recalls that the program basically wrote itself, as Fargo had helped Jerry break into the business–a classic case of the teacher–the aging superstar–fending off his pupil, the young buck trying to knock him off the top of the mountain.
“Jackie was a disc jockey in his spare time, and Jerry was one of his interns, or as Fargo jokingly called him, ‘my lackey,’” recalls Jarrett. “Jerry gave Jackie some wonderful sketches he’d done of the matches, and [announcer] Lance Russell eventually started showing them on the air when giving the results of the previous week’s matches at the [Ellis] Auditorium. So when Jerry became a big star and threatened his top spot, there really was some resentment there, though Jackie did everything he could to get Lawler 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.
“The key to the transition was Jackie,” he says. “Jackie was so good at selling [a loss] that he was over even more than he was before…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.”
With Lawler now firmly entrenched as the area’s number-one drawing card, Jarrett began booking a long program, the Quest for the Title, which was designed to get Lawler over in the fans’ eyes as a serious contender for the NWA World championship, held by Jack Brisco. The roots of the program can be traced to Jarrett’s teenage years, when he was worked a part-time job at wrestling matches at the Hippodrome Arena in Nashville.
“I was a 14- or 15-year-old kid sitting in front of the arena tearing tickets as folks walked in,” Jarrett says. “Lou Thesz was the World heavyweight champion at the time. Most of the wrestlers would pull up behind the building and go in the side door and duck into the side dressing room. But Lou pulled up in a taxi in front of the building. He would walk up those steps to the Hippodrome, and literally, goosebumps would jump on my arms and the hair on the back of neck would stand on end. You knew he was the champion–even if you’d never seen wrestling–just from the way he carried himself. Lou Thesz was an inspiration to me. I was so impressed with Lou that I had this reverence for the World title and still do. It signifies that you have achieved the very top in this profession. So Jerry Lawler was very talented, and I knew that he deserved to be the champion, so I developed the Quest for the Title for him.”
Jarrett called some of his closest friends in the wrestling business, including the late Eddie Graham, who had a tremendous influence on the young promoter, to get dates on some of the biggest stars in the business. Jarrett billed them as the top 10 contenders whom Lawler had to defeat to get a shot at the 10 pounds of gold.
One by one over a period of months, Lawler knocked them off…whether the stars agreed to lose convincingly or not. When the Sheik (Ed Farhat) and Dick the Bruiser refused to do a job for Lawler after arriving at the Coliseum, Jarrett simply filmed a false finish and then turned the cameras off when the bout later ended inconclusively via a disqualification or count-out. Lawler and his manager Sam Bass would then come out the following Saturday morning, airing only the footage of the false finish but claiming victory nonetheless.
“He [Bass] would say, ‘Jerry Lawler beat the stew out of the Sheik and beat him 1, 2, 3.’ Because their credibility was important, Lance and Dave would try to dispute it saying, ‘Oh, c’mon, Jerry.’ So Lawler would scream, ‘Play the tape if you don’t believe me!’ And then we’d show the false finish with Lawler appearing to beat him for a three count. Lawler would then proceed to talk about next week’s challenge, as Lance just shook his head. So, in that sense, Lawler effectively beat everyone in the nation as part of the Quest for the Title–if not by pinfall, then with a little creativity.”
The program culminated on Sept. 16, 1974, with more than 10,125 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum on hand for the title showdown. Lawler appeared to defeat Brisco for the belt but the decision was overturned when the referee discovered that the King had used a chain to knock out the champion. (That’s really just nitpicking, isn’t it?) Backstage, two grown men watched with tears in their eyes.
“Eddie Graham and I stood at the back of the Mid-South Coliseum…we were both very emotional,” says Jarrett. “Brisco was Eddie’s man, he loved him, he groomed him and he nurtured him to become the World champion. Lawler was my man. That night, it almost felt like our sons were out there really fighting for the World title. That was such a fun time of my life.”
Of course, in a sense, the Quest for the Title was really just beginning, as the promotion continued to return to the storyline for the next several years as Lawler always fell heartbreakingly short of bringing the World championship home to Memphis.
“I campaigned unsuccessfully for years to get the NWA title for Jerry,” Jarrett says. “But some people on the NWA board felt that he wasn’t tough enough. I was always saying, ‘Tough?’ What do you mean ‘tough’? This is show business.” (Most longtime fans are divided over Lawler’s credentials to be a successful NWA World champion back in the day.)
Frustrated with the NWA board, Jarrett began working with Verne Gagne, who owned the successful American Wrestling Association territory, and booking AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel instead of NWA kingpin Harley Race. With his regal demeanor and arrogance, Beverly Hills’ Bockwinkel played the role of the rich playboy champion to perfection, some would argue much more effectively than eventual NWA World champion Ric Flair. You practically needed a dictionary on hand when watching a Bockwinkel promo. And, man, could he work.
“Well, not only was he a great wrestler, but Nick was also an articulate, decent man,” Jarrett says. “I really cared for Nick, and I counted myself lucky that I knew Nick Bockwinkel. And the politics of it…let’s just say that the NWA was beginning to slide a bit by that point. Also, I was not successful at getting Lawler a run with the NWA title, and I figured I’d have much better luck convincing Verne Gagne–one man–as opposed to an entire board, so that played a big part in it. Verne also had some really stellar talent besides Nick that would help us draw money.”
Russell describes the nights of World title matches at the Mid-South Coliseum as “magic.”
“The atmosphere was charged by the fans,” Lance says. “You couldn’t help but feed off the fans. The fans were so excited, ‘Tonight’s the night. This is the one we’ve been waiting for. Jerry’s had the champion on the ropes before and this could be the night he takes it!’ The enthusiasm was just unbelievable.”
I recall being at ringside for a Lawler/Bockwinkel match in 1979 when an old man sitting next to my uncle and me was practically in tears as he told us after a few too many beers that he’d “give up an entire month’s pay to see Jerry take that belt.” The man looked like his dog had died when the King and the champ wrestled to a one-hour Broadway. The guy appeared to be in his ’60s, so perhaps he was doubting that he’d ever live long enough to see Memphis’ number-one son win the big one. Yes, it mattered that much to local fans.
Nick was a second-generation star, the son of wrestler Warren Bockwinkel, a fairly well-known grappler in his own right, who achieved notoriety for some bouts with NWA champion/legend Lou Thesz in the ’50s.
In fact, Nick was approached at one point by NWA president Fritz Von Erich about taking over for Race as the touring Alliance World champion; however, the AWA titlist was so accustomed to the Gagne’s comparatively light travel schedule–three days off during the week, including a six-week hiatus in the summer–that he turned down the offer, mostly because the money was the virtually the same.
Nick’s schedule as the AWA titleholder was so wide open that Jarrett could pretty much get a date on Bock on short notice–another attractive aspect of recognizing Gagne’s title as the World championship. Houston promoter Paul Boesch also began recognizing Nick as his World champion after NWA champ Race no-showed two events, with Bockwinkel eventually buying into the Texas office as a partner.
While Nick shined when it came to mat wrestling, he was an outstanding heel performer, with his classy, pretentious interviews and sneering mannerisms. Then there was the little white towel he carried to the ring and hung in his corner prior to starting the match–just in case sweat built up on his brow. (Years later, Bockwinkel-fan Curt Hennig added the towel to his Mr. Perfect gimmick.) Often dressed smartly in a suit during his promos, Nick also occasionally wore a loud, red half-unzipped jumpsuit (showcasing a small gold pendant tangled in his chest hair), which was emblazoned with “NICK” across the left chest of the jacket and “CALIFORNIA” on the back. Classic.
Pairing Nick with manager Bobby “the Brain” Heenan was a stroke of genius. Nick didn’t require a mouthpiece to speak for him during promos, but Heenan added another dimension to his character. As Nick says: “He was such an outstanding manager. And I’d put him about an eighth of a step behind Ray Stevens (a brilliant performer in his day). Bobby could replace me in any match, and the building would be just as wild. But I couldn’t do what Bobby did.”
Instead of Race, Flair and the NWA, Memphis fans were soon educated to accept Bockwinkel as the World champion. With his oversized belt and even larger vocabulary, Nick was a tailor-made heel for Memphis rasslin’. And unlike his NWA kingpin counterparts, Nick was way more versatile and rarely had the same match twice. (Perhaps it was the constant travel grind, but Race and Flair each stubbornly settled into their title-match routines to the point of being ridiculous–I mean how many times did each man take that bodyslam bump off the top rope?)
Lawler describes his classic old foe: “He was a class act. Nick had this certain air about him. He carried himself like a real professional. When you saw the guy, you knew he was the real deal. He was excellent on interviews. I’d put him in the top five of the guys that I’ve ever wrestled.”
Many fans of old-school wrestling marvel at the way Race and Flair could sell their opponents’ offense and make them look like a million bucks. They had nothing on Nick, who, much like Ricky Steamboat, sold in a much more realistic fashion, like a heavyweight boxer on the ropes prior to being knocked out. (A skill which came in handy during the champ’s matches with Hulk Hogan, who was made to look invincible because of Nick.) But seemingly no one could knock out the AWA kingpin, not even Lawler on his home court, despite several wonderful bouts — in my opinion, the best of the King’s career.
When Memphis did their own version of the Dusty finish and claimed that Lawler had pinned Bock in a title match (the champ’s feet were clearly on the middle rope), the “former” champ berated announcer Russell at ringside immediately after the supposed title loss. (If you think The Rock’s reaction on Monday’s RAW was something, listen to 10,000 Memphis fans erupt when Lawler seemingly wins the belt.) In this clip, a very large man at ringside overhears Nick say “cretinuous humanoids” and looks bewildered, as if to say: “I don’t know what he just called me, but I don’t like it.” This impromptu, off-the-cuff promo from Nick is one of my favorite wrestling interviews. And it was all done with Bockwinkel barely raising his voice above his normal civil tone. Yes, Flair’s insane, irate interviews were entertaining, but Bockwinkel carried himself more like a World champion.
The story went something like this: After AWA president Stanley Blackburn reviewed the match, he decided to “hold the title up” (only recognized in Memphis), with the referee, the late Paul Morton (father of Ricky Morton), carrying the turkey-platter-sized belt to the ring for the January 1983 rematch. In the uncomfortable role as challenger to his own title, Nick was accompanied to the ring by Jimmy Hart, who had been burnt head to toe by a series of Lawler fireballs weeks earlier. Bandaged like the Invisible Man, Hart was seated next to Bill Dundee, who was assigned by Lawler to keep an eye on the diabolical manager. But Hart had the last–and loudest–laugh…with an assist from Andy Kaufman.
Lawler’s quest for the World title continued on New Year’s Day 1984, a Sunday afternoon show. The day before, Nick made his lone appearance in the WMC-TV Studio in Memphis to engage in a verbal duel with Lawler.
In a classic bout the next afternoon–which I also attended–the champion once again barely escaped Memphis with his title intact when referee Jerry Calhoun disqualified Bockwinkel when the official was inadvertently struck when the fists began flying as tempers flared.
In the aftermath, a bruised, battered Bockwinkel challenged Lawler to y’know, actually, wrestle him instead of trying to fight him, dangling an immediate rematch…if the King agreed to a special stipulation.
Unfortunately, for the King, his choice of special referee for the rematch, Austin Idol, had been injured earlier in the evening by Joe LeDuc, leaving the officiating the questionable eyes of Calhoun and Morton. To make matters worse, Bockwinkel repeatedly smashed Lawler’s famous right hand as soon as the bout began, so the King was forced to pay $500 for each far-less-effective left hook. Even with AWA president Blackburn at ringside, the bout was mired in controversy.
The following week, a despondent King reported that the “AWA championship committee” (I imagine them to be like those business monkeys in the commercials) had declared that since Bockwinkel had been tossed over the top rope, Lawler was disqualified. The King had come up short once again despite a valiant effort that would have made “Handsome” Jimmy proud.
Lawler never got his title win over Bockwinkel, although the King eventually defeated Curt Hennig for the AWA title in May 1988–about four years too late, when the championship had lost its prestige and luster, thanks to Vince McMahon’s ever-expanding WWF circus tent. Because most fans at that point were convinced that only the WWF and NWA titles meant something, Lawler’s AWA title win was slightly anti-climatic, despite the 8,000-plus fans in attendance at the Coliseum that night.
By that point, Vince had invaded Lawler’s backyard, promoting shows that were gaining increasing popularity despite the lack of the homegrown King working for the WWF. On a few occasions, Lawler and Jarrett countered by hosting free outdoor shows at local parks on the same night as Vince’s cards. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, most area fans viewed the local Memphis promotion–and Lawler–as second rate. With the Memphis promotion the last one standing of the traditional territories by 1992, Vince had no choice but to reach a truce with Lawler and Jarrett to help keep his last feeder system afloat. When Lawler finally reached a deal to appear on WWE TV in 1993, The Wrestling Observer‘s Dave Meltzer began with a classic lead along the lines of something like, “Hell has officially frozen over.”
Now Vince has a chance to make it right. He has a chance to turn back the hands of time and crown the King with the highest honor in the business. He has the opportunity to make Jerry Lawler the heavyweight champion of the number-one wrestling organization in the world. With the unfortunate death of Jerry’s mother, Hazel, earlier this week–combined with this being the aging Hall of Famer’s likely final shot at the title–the stage is set for one of those great moments in wrestling history. I know it makes all the sense in the world to keep the title on Miz as he heads into WrestleMania for a likely showdown with John Cena. But for so many other reasons, it seems only fitting for the King to reign as WWE champion…finally.
When I called Lawler to jokingly wish him well for his WWE Hall of Fame induction years back, despite knowing that he was not the sentimental type, he responded, “Oh, please–that’s like calling somebody to congratulate them for winning the fuckin’ belt.” The wrestling fan in me hopes I can make that phone call Sunday night.