Eye for an eye: Terry Funk seeks revenge on Jerry Lawler in Memphis (Part II of III)
I sat there stunned in my parents’ living room in Bartlett Germantown in 1981 after viewing the empty-arena footage between Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk in early May, an incident that left the former NWA World champ writhing on the canvas struggling to keep his eyeball in place. Terry may have been down, but certainly not out–which was evident in his desperate post-match plea for help.
In between requests for Lance to get help, he continues to insult Lawler: “Help me, Lance! God, help me! My eyeee! Where’s Lawler?! My eye! He’s chicken! He’s yellow! Yellow pig! Piiiiggg!” I knew I just had to be at the Mid-South Coliseum when the Funker came calling from revenge.
I believe the promotion aired the empty-arena footage on Saturday, May 9, to set up a Monday, May 11 bout between Lawler and Dory Funk, Jr., who was returning to get payback for his little brother’s latest royal ass kicking at the hands of the King. This scenario unfolded around the time of my birthday, which meant a trip to the matches with my Uncle Robert was forthcoming. We waited a week for Terry’s return on May 18, which occurred the following Monday night after Lawler’s victory against Dory Jr. on the 11th.
This time, both Funks would be after Lawler’s hide. Realizing that he’d be in the ring with the only brother combo in history to win the NWA World title, Lawler secured the services of another former NWA titlist: Jack Brisco, whom Terry had defeated for the belt. I don’t recall much of Lawler’s promo, except for a tidbit that even a recently-turned-10-year-old could understand. When thinking of a partner for the bout, Lawler said he was trying to picture someone who hated the Funks just as much as he did. The King explained to announcer Lance Russell that Terry cost Jack Brisco the World title and about $150,000 additional income a year. “Wouldn’t you hate somebody who cost you $150,000?” the King asked rhetorically. I envision my big head nodding in front of my parents’ set upon hearing those words. (Funny how Lawler didn’t disclose how Jack for years thought Dory Jr. faked an injury to avoid dropping the World strap to him as planned. Upon healing, Dory instead lost the title to Harley Race, who eventually dropped the belt to Jack in Houston.)
I can’t say for certain, but I’m willing to bet that Lawler used the standard line when bringing in an ex-foe to be his partner for a big tag match: “When you’re looking for a partner for a match like this, you try to think of the person who has given you the toughest bouts of your career. And nobody has given me any tougher matches than … (fill in the blank, which included over the years the following: Bill Dundee, Austin Idol, ‘Handsome’ Jimmy Valiant, Dutch Mantel, Joe LeDuc and Nick Bockwinkel).”
Lance, of course, heavily hyped the May 18 grudge match as the first time three NWA World champions would appear in a tag bout together. Terry also sent in an interview with his injured eye bandaged, vowing to overthrow the King once and for all. I was sold.
Two rings were set up for the evening’s two-ring, triple-chance battle royal, which resulted in the main event tag action spreading onto two canvases. Terry got color over his injured eye, which made for a creepy sight as the blood turned the bandages red. As Dory was locked up with Jack in one ring, Terry threw powder in Lawler’s eyes, blinding him–an eye for eye, I suppose. Terry then quickly small packaged Lawler for the win. I was despondent upon leaving the Coliseum, as I believed that a Lawler victory over two former NWA champions in the same match would have catapulted him in the ratings, putting him in line for a World title shot. I vividly recall asking my Uncle Robert, “Do you think this will hurt Lawler in the ratings?” Bless my heart.
Crowds for the Lawler/Funk feud were good, though not great for Memphis at the time, with crowds usually in the 5,000 to 6,500 range. The promotion would get hot later in ’81, with the emphasis on wild tag bouts involving Lawler and various partners (Dundee, Valiant, Steve Keirn, Tojo Yamamoto, etc.) against members of Jimmy Hart’s First Family, including a sell-out of 11,300-plus for Jerry Lawler and “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant vs. the Dream Machine and Bugsy McGraw. The blow-off to Lawler/Funk occurred on May 25, with Lawler winning the showdown. Funk wouldn’t show his face in Memphis again for over two years…this time at Lawler’s request.
Yep, you guessed it: seems Lawler needed just the right partner for a grudge six-man tag involving the King and freshly turned babyface Sweet Brown Sugar (Koko Ware) vs. Hart’s team of Bobby Eaton, Sabu (the late Coco Samoa…not the one of ECW fame) and Lawler’s cousin, the ever-bland Carl Fergie, on Sunday, Jan. 30, 1983. And apparently, this time it was Terry Funk who had given Lawler the toughest battles of the King’s career, as the Funker was summoned for emergency babyface tag-team duty. (Actually, the storyline was that promoter Eddie Marlin had secured Funk as Lawler’s partner after the King told him to find the toughest, meanest, goofiest wrestler he could find to be his partner. Upon hearing the news that it was Funk, Lance Russell bellows “Ohhhughhh.” Classic.)
The six-man bout for the 30th was set up by a brilliant brawl on Jan. 24, with Eaton and Sabu defeating Lawler and Sugar in one of the best brawls in wrestling at the time and widely regarded as a classic among tape traders in the ’80s. Afterward, the evil Family painted Lawler black, with Hart screaming, “You wanna be black, Lawler? You got it, baby!” (Lawler, always looking to promote racial harmony, formed an alliance with Koko after the former Family member refused to shine Hart’s shoes on the air.)
Funk made an appearance on the live Jan. 29 show to again remind fans of just how crazy he was. He uttered a line that I’ve never forgotten over the years: “When I was just a kid, I used to bite the legs off grasshoppers and eat them. And my dad used to say, ‘Terry, why do you do stuff like that?’ And I’d say, ‘Just for the hell of it, Dad.’”
Funk, Sugar and Lawler then proceeded to beat the hell out of the Masked Marauders, Jesse Barr and referee Jerry Calhoun on the TV show’s expiration-of-time match. Rookie manager Jimmy Cornette, who was managing Barr, made the mistake of telling Lawler before the show how big a fan he was of Funk’s. As a rib–and unbeknownst to Cornette–Lawler told Funk to go after Jim during the bout and rip his clothes off. Good thing Cornette was quick on his feet, as Terry fired a chair his way that could have taken his head off, with Lance screaming at Jimmy, “Get away from me! Don’t be standing around me!” Just tremendous.
Poor Jimmy then had to go out there with his slacks taped up for the show’s closing moments.
The King, Sugar and Funk defeated the hated trio the next day in a Texas Death match at the Coliseum, with Fergie unable to answer the bell after repeated Lawler piledrivers.
Next week: More than 20 years after their first NWA World title bout, Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk battle again for the World title…in the ’90s. And Eddie Gilbert and Funk play a rib on rookie referee Scott Bowden.