Anatomy of an angle: Austin Idol, Tommy Rich and Paul Heyman shave the head of Jerry Lawler
It was the last great Memphis angle.
Nearly three years after Vince McMahon had begun streamrolling every wrestling territory in the United States, Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett’s Memphis promotion seemed to have their battle-scarred heads held a little higher above water than the other remaining promotions. Although the early ’80s norm of 7,000-plus crowds and the occasional sellout at the Mid-South Coliseum appeared to be gone, the promotion was surviving just fine in 1986. Lawler, the promotion’s co-owner and top drawing card, was one of the few top regional stars who didn’t jump to McMahon’s ever-expanding circus tent, maintaining the promotion’s credibility with the local fans.
Memphis had a strong year in 1986 with the Bill Dundee/Buddy Landell feud vs. Jerry Lawler and Dutch Mantell, including a rabid sellout crowd at the Coliseum on March 3, 1986, and the legendary Texas Death Match between the teams that went 26 falls and 75 minutes. The catalyst for the angle was Dundee and Landell attacking young ref Jeff Jarrett and father Jerry Jarrett, who immediately “reinstated” the loser-left-town Lawler. The footage of Jerry attempting to save his son from a beating at the hands of Bill and Buddy was powerful television.
The previous week, the elder Double J had announced that he had a bad eye that had left him partially blind, so he was forced to retire for good. Dundee and Landell really laid into Jeff (who was officiating their squash match), which brought his dad into the ring. They beat down Jerry, and Bill then went for his “good” eye before Dutch made the save. Jerry Jarrett then came out and broke down crying, saying there’s only man who can restore order in Memphis wrestling.
After arranging for a telephone to be brought into the studio, they called Lawler who agreed to come back and team with Dutch vs. Dundee and Landell. Attendance, which was averaging about 2,000 to 3,000 with Lawler gone (after dropping the loser-leaves town bout), spiked to a SOR crowd of 11,365 on Monday. I believe they drew over 10,000 fans the following Monday as well. The program culminated with Lawler triumphing over Dundee in another classic loser-leaves-town bout in Memphis before about 8,000 fans over the summer. Toward year’s end, the promotion had dipped back down to the 4,500 range at the Coliseum, despite Lawler vs. Kabuki (a gimmick tailor-made for the territory) headlining most cards. The Bill and Buddy Show was clearly a tough act to follow.
However, heading into the New Year, business was picking up. Former NWA-champ/TBS-babyface idol Tommy Rich slowly turned heel after being overlooked for an AWA World title shot against Nick Bockwinkel, who had once again been awarded the title without pinning anyone, this time when Stan Hansen refused to drop the strap to the aging star. (Nick had previously been awarded the title as the “number-one contender” after Verne Gagne retired with the belt in an incredibly egotistical move in 1981.) Rich had returned ostensibly to help Lawler in his feud with pudgy-eternal, masked wrestlers Fire & Flame (Don Bass and Roger Smith). However, in a subtle interview, Rich questioned why Lawler always receives the World title shots in the area–after all, Wildfire was a former NWA World champ, so why not him? Rich didn’t get hot or badmouth Lawler–he simply sounded a little ticked off.
Lawler calmly agreed to wrestle Rich for the title shot to settle the issue. Slowly, the match turned into a bloody no-contest. The two longtime Tennessee rivals followed it up the next week with another fight, with Lawler triumphing, spiking attendance as 1986 came to an end. But they were just getting warmed up.
On January 4, 1987, Lawler was set to wrestle Bockwinkel for the AWA strap. Prior to the bout, though, Idol entered the ring and asked Lawler to step aside or their friendship was over. The Las Vegas native had worked the card earlier as a babyface and had been the King’s longtime partner, so this came out of left field. When the challenger refused and turned his back, Idol spun Lawler around and decked him, splitting the King’s forehead wide open, as 15-year-old Scott Bowden charged the ringside area and began snapping away on his father’s Pentax camera. (What is it about future Memphis managers and cameras?) A bloody challenger in a World title bout–and the bell hadn’t even rung yet…gotta love Memphis.
Lawler went on to work a 60-minute Broadway with Bock, in a bout filled with high drama and quite possibly a record number of ref bumps (until the Russo era in TNA). Not quite on the level of the incredible Bockwinkel/Henning hour-long draw nearly two months earlier, but psychology-wise, it was another classic between the perennial AWA kingpin and the King of Memphis, who showed great heart in gutting out a stalemate.
The next week, Idol’s shift to the dark side was complete, as he and Rich double-teamed Lawler, each grabbing a leg and ramming the King’s crown jewels against a ringpost. Idol followed it up with one of the most classic heel moments of all time: With Lawler lying against the post, still selling the nutcracker, the Heartthrob smugly looked down at him, cradled the King’s head in his hands and promptly bitch-slapped the hell out him. Unbeliveable. Lawler sold the injury for about a month, returning to the Coliseum on February 16, 1987, drawing a hot crowd of 9,000. (Lawler couldn’t have timed his legit vasectomy any better.)
The promotion followed that up with a string of several great houses upon Lawler’s return, with the King taking on partners like Bockwinkel and Bam Bam Bigelow as partners to batter the blonde bastards in a variety of blood-soaked gimmick matches. When Rich was “injured” (so Wildfire could take his scientific skills to Japan), greenhorn Sid Eudy (Vicious) filled in one week under the guise of Lord Humongous in his first-ever bout in Memphis. Sid’s ability–or lack thereof–added another dimension of brutality to the feud.
The Idol, Rich vs. Lawler feud peaked on April 27, 1987, with the now-infamous hair match, which drew more than 8,500 fans. Along with his manager Paul Heyman (then known as “Paul E. Dangerly”…and later “Paul E. Dangerously” in WCW..and eventual ECW genius), Idol and Rich cheated Lawler of his hair and the AWA Southern title in a steel-cage match. (The cage most likely prevented a lynching of the terrible trio.)
While Lawler getting his hair cut was certainly enough to create a melee, to make matters worse, in the pre-match hype, an irate Idol had promised to refund every audience member’s price of admission should he lose as well as have his own precious bleached-blonde locks snipped. Idol had made the bet after being outfoxed in a chain match the previous week, resulting in a “record” 39-second loss of the Southern title. For years, peaking in the ’70s, the promotion’s biggest draw was a hair vs. hair match, and was considered Lawler’s specialty as he was undefeated in such showdowns.
Since the very idea of Lawler losing a hair match at that time was about as unfathomable as Rich regaining the NWA World title, Memphis fans eagerly plucked down their blue-collar cash thinking the Women’s Pet had made a wager he’d soon regret.
That confidence was shattered seconds after Heyman kneeled on the floor of the Mid-South Coliseum to yell the prearranged signal to Rich, who had been secreted under the ring around 3 p.m. that day. Wearing an undersized Coca-Cola Clothes (more like a Jack and Coke, knowing Tommy) sweatshirt, Rich moved like wildfire from the floor and into the ring, just in time to save the Idol from a King-sized, match-ending piledriver. (Rich had only a bucket of chicken and a case of beer with him while waiting to ambush Lawler. Exactly six years earlier, on Monday, April 27, 1981, Rich had reached the pinnacle of the profession, defeating Harley Race for the NWA championship in Augusta, Ga. You fall fast in this business.)
The heels again posted Lawler against a ringpost. After the momentarily stunned ref Jerry Calhoun came to his senses just in time to count out the King, Heyman wrapped a thick chain around Lawler’s neck as his personal hairstylist Ted Cortese cut the hair of the city’s number-one son. One of the reasons Lawler agreed to the haircut was because the Bruce Willis thinning, spiky hairstyle was the rage. So he had Ted trim it very short instead of a complete head-shaving, which hurt the program a bit. Although it might have looked OK on the “Moonlighting” star, the style didn’t exactly suit Lawler with his rather bulbous head. (I wonder if Heyman, in hindsight, wishes he had snatched the clippers away and left Lawler looking like a cueball. Skipping around the ring and grinning like a Cheshire cat while holding locks of Lawler’s hair, Heyman had more heat in one night than I did my entire Memphis managerial run.)
Irate fans scaled the cage to save Lawler, but Memphis cops pulled them down–it was amazing to experience such scorching heat in person…a sharp contrast to the cartoon horseshit Vince McMahon was feeding WWF fans. Twenty minutes later, with fans still surrounding the ringside area, more cops were called in to surround the heels from hell as they exited the ring–but the crowd still rushed them to no avail.
Somehow, Idol made it out the building alive, but not before delivering one of the best promos of his career (which is saying a hell of a lot, as he was one of the best promo guys of the ’80s): “I grew up in Las Vegas rolling the dice and spinning the roulette wheel, jack. I’ve been a gambler since the day I was born, and I’ll be a gambler to the day I die!” I can only imagine how angry the fans would have been if the match didn’t take place. Before the bout, Idol held up the promotion for more money, vowing he wouldn’t wrestle if his demands weren’t met. Jarrett caved but he never forgave Idol for it and to this day doesn’t enjoy speaking of the Heartthrob.
The next week, even with Lawler out selling the injury, 9,000 fans showed up at the Coliseum for Bill Dundee’s return against Idol and Rich–that’s how much heat the heels had. The feud culminated on June 15, 1987, with a scaffold match, with Lawler and Bill Dundee beating the heels and “breaking” Rich’s wrist and Dangerly’s leg post-match. Dangerly was finishing up soon and refused to climb the scaffold out of a fear of heights. (Wise man; he probably saw how Jim Cornette suffered a severe knee injury after taking a wicked bump from a 20-ft scaffold during Starrcade ’86.) A pissed off Lawler broke Paul E.’s jaw on his last night in the territory with an “errant” right hand in Louisville as a lovely parting gift. Lawler has since admitted he potatoed Paul E. on purpose, much like he broke the jaw of Jimmy Hart in Evansville, Indiana, years earlier for the infamous racehorse analogy.
Idol, Rich and Paul E. found out the hard way that you don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit in the wind. And you don’t cut the hair of Jerry Lawler on his home court.