Great Memphis Wrestling minds think alike
The highlight of the recent NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest for me was discussing the glory days of Memphis wrestling with Jim Cornette, Jerry Jarrett, Lance Russell and Dave Brown.
To help kick off the event following the Ric Flair/Harley Race session, Cornette brought the house down Thursday night with his hilarious yet revealing Q&A, during which I addressed three points he had made earlier in the evening:
Personal issues draw money: I recalled when I first became a wrestling fan: the summer of 1977. Although Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee had first wrestled each other at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1975 (with Dundee going over), the fireworks between the King and the Superstar really kicked off, appropriately enough, on July 4, 1977, with a little over 5,000 fans in attendance. The Lawler/Dundee matchup headlined nearly each week to close out the month, with attendance climbing to 8,044 on July 11 (cage match) and a sellout 11,300 fans on Aug. 1 (King’s hair vs. Southern title and Cadillac). The feud pressed on to September, continuing to capture the imagination of local fans as the stakes were raised each week: a hair vs. hair bout on Sept. 5 drew 10,129, with Dundee getting his head shaved bald (making the supposed Aussie look “like a cue ball,” according to the King). Jarrett came back the next week with quite possibly the most outrageous stipulation in wrestling history: Lawler’s hair vs. the hair of Bill’s wife, Beverly. About 9,000 fans looked at the Coliseum on as Lawler once again triumphed and a local barber shaved Bev’s head clean.
During our Saturday morning Memphis Roundtable discussion, Lance revealed that the haircut almost didn’t happen.
“We had this older gentleman there who was the barber, and he was in the ring ready to cut Bev’s hair. Up until this point, I think the barber enjoyed the spotlight and thought it was gonna be one of the biggest highlights of his life. But Dundee lost, so here’s this young lady, Beverly Dundee, and the barber just can’t bring himself to take those scissors and start cutting her hair before he shaves it all off. So we had to announce that the barber didn’t think he could go through with it.” Instead of the fans sympathizing with the babyface and his wife, Lance says, “They got so hot, so mad, that they were ready to storm the ring and cut the barber’s hair and do who-knows-what to the Dundees. Finally, Bill told the barber, ‘Please save our lives—get the hair off!’
Jarrett says the feud clicked with Memphis fans because the animosity between his two top stars was quite real.
“George Barnes [Dundee’s tag partner] had gone back to Australia, and Jerry recognized that Dundee was gunning for the top spot,” says Jarrett, who months earlier in 1977 had broken away from his partner Nick Gulas to take control of the Memphis end of the territory. “So Jerry being protective of his spot, he didn’t care much for Dundee personally. Now they were both professional enough not to have a shoot, but, brother, they beat the stew out of each other to the point it was believable to the people. And really, it was real: They didn’t like each other, so they wanted to see if they could make the other one quit. It became the most classic feud that we’ve ever had in Memphis.” When asked how he managed to persuade Beverly to part with her hair, Jarrett simply smiled and said, “Money!”
Cornette says he that “Jarrett always told the fans the truth, at least to the point that he could. Lawler and Dundee are jealous of each other. Dundee was a workaholic and a good booker who would do whatever it took to become a star. And Dundee was a tremendous worker, that is, when he wanted to work. But Dundee also knew he could never be as big as star as Lawler, who had ‘it’ without even trying. So there was always jealousy. When they would be babyface tag-team partners, they’d go to the convenience store and fast-food places after the matches and be knocking each other to the fans. So, again, Jerry Jarrett would say, ‘Tell the truth as much as you can: Lawler and Dundee have never liked each other, so go ahead and say that.’ That way, when you break off into the work, it’s seamless. Nobody can tell where the work begins and where it ends. To the fans, it was real.”
The Lawler/Dundee program epitomizes Cornette’s booking philosophy, which he detailed during his Thursday night session: “Sincerity is the key. The art of booking is that you find someone who the people are naturally predisposed to have a negative opinion of…but who’s a good performer. Then you find a good performer who the people are naturally predisposed to have a positive feeling about, and you put those two on trajectories by getting over people until finally the fans say, ‘Holy shit—they’re gonna fight each other!’ You wanna see what’s gonna happen. So you buy a ticket to see them face off, that match ends, and then you want to see what happens next.” Lawler and Dundee achieved that not only for nearly nine straight weeks on top at the Mid-South Coliseum in the summer of 1977, with the crowds peaking at the end, but also off and on again successfully through the 1980s.
Humor and seriousness don’t have to be mutually exclusive: For years, the Memphis Saturday morning show was one of the funniest in the country, yet the personal feuds and title matches provided a balance to all the comedy and mayhem. WWE thinks they’re pushing the envelope with their so-called “humor”—WWE “Creative” actually thinks they’re breaking new ground by injecting funny situations into wrestling. But nobody was funnier and edgier than Lawler as a heel in the ’70s, yet the fans still hated his guts, likewise with Jimmy Hart in the early ’80s. And then you had Lance Russell as the straight man between Lawler and Hart during their feud, which Cornette compares to “Howard Cosell standing between Ali and Frazier.” Looking back, Dave Brown, Lance’s longtime sidekick, marvels over Jimmy’s energy, saying that Hart “had all his blood removed back around 1980 and had it replaced with Red Bull.”
Lawler and Hart were clever and original when devising ways to belittle each other and tarnish the other’s reputation. And while it was entertaining, you believed that that the issue between the two was personal.
According to Jarrett, the Lawler/Hart program definitely had its share of realism, much like the Lawler/Dundee feud. Heading into 1980, the territory had been built around CWA World champ Lawler and his efforts to unify all the World titles. Jarrett explains that he wanted to merge his CWA title with the big belt from Verne Gagne’s organization and felt it was more likely that he could convince one man as opposed to the NWA board, which had always denied Lawler a run with the 10 pounds of gold, claiming that he was not tough enough. In fact, two Lawler vs. Nick Bockwinkel CWA/AWA unification bouts had already ended inconclusively as 1979 drew to a close. (Of course, Jarrett evenutally booked a similar deal when Lawler won the AWA World title from Curt Hennig in May 1988 and later unified the belt with the World Class championship. This, despite the fact that Jarrett’s attempt to buy the AWA around 1987 fell through when Verne demanded that he hire son Greg as part of the $4 million offer.)
Although Jarrett had warned Lawler against playing in his violent Sunday morning “touch” football games, his champ didn’t take heed and ended up breaking his leg, supposedly when referee Jerry Calhoun tackled him. With his back against the wall, Jarrett decided to take the muzzle off Hart, who was rarely allowed to speak during Lawler’s promos in ‘79, and rebuild the promotion around the manager and a stable of heels in 1980.
“We were in a hotel in Louisville discussing TV for the following Saturday,” Jarrett recalls. “Hart asked, ‘What do I say about Lawler?’ I was thinking about being in the home state of the Kentucky Derby, so off the top of my head, I gave Hart this line, ‘What if you have a horse—a thoroughbred, a champion—and he breaks his leg? You shoot him!’ Lawler was watching and took great personal offense to the disrespect shown by Hart, who he broke into the business. Lawler was so mad that Jimmy thinks he purposely broke his jaw in Evansville after he came back from the injury. Jimmy Hart went from being a side man to the center of attention who we built everything around. And while Paul Ellering did a great job as Hart’s new King, Jimmy was the one who kept the Memphis box office going until Lawler could return. It was a natural. I believe the term they use today is a ‘work-shoot.’ We tried to work with what was in front of us—and the reality was that Jerry had felt like Jimmy had let him down by making the racehorse analogy. Lawler really took offense to that and Hart knew it, so he was gun shy around Lawler, and it came across as real to the fans. So almost everything we did had tension and a touch of realism to it.”
Realism, tension, personal issues…and humor. That’s what made Memphis so magical.
The allure of the unknown sells tickets: Cornette pointed out how wonderful it was as a fan during the days before cable TV to follow a wrestler in the magazines for months or years before that star eventually appeared in your area. I explained to Cornette that I felt exactly that same way when Mil Mascaras came to Memphis for the Jan. 29, 1979, card at the Mid-South Coliseum. I had seen Mascaras all over the Apter magazine covers, so I assumed he must be one of the greatest wrestlers in the world. Plus, with his mask and colorful outfits, Mil appeared as if he had flying body-pressed his way out of a Marvel comic book, my other passion at the time.
Of course, leave it to Memphis to bring in one of the perceived biggest babyfaces in the country as a heel partner of Austin Idol to face Lawler and Jackie Fargo in a stretcher match.
A 7-year-old mark in 1979, I begged my Uncle Robert to take me to this match not only to finally see my hero Lawler in person but also to see him face off against the “legendary” (in his own masked mind, anyway) Mexican star. When I mentioned that Mascaras did the job and put over Fargo big that night, cementing the Fabulous One’s reputation in mind as the world’s toughest sonuvabitch, Cornette cracked, “I got news for you—that wasn’t Mil Mascaras. If he wouldn’t put Cactus Jack over on Clash of Champions, there’s no way he’s riding a stretcher in Memphis. That was Pepe Lopez under a Mil Mascaras hood!”
OK, Lopez had been dead for three years, so obviously Jim was joking about that last part; however, given the fact that Jarrett occasionally billed a famous masked wrestler but delivered somebody else under the mask, maybe he had a point. For example, Mr. Wrestling (Dickie Steinborn), the Spoiler (Frank Morrell) and the Masked Superstar (Jerry Oates) all worked in Memphis in place of Tim Woods, Don Jardine and Bill Eadie. And because of Mascaras’s rep for being uncooperative and egotistical, Cornette isn’t the first person who’s questioned if I remembered the match correctly.
So…Saturday morning I was finally able to ask Jarrett about this mysterious booking once and for all: “Was that the real Mil Mascaras under the hood when he did a stretcher job for Lawler and Fargo?” (The masked man on the night in question in 1979 even allowed Fargo to run down the aisle, turn over the stretcher and put the boots to him to further sell his rib injury.) Jarrett confirmed that it was indeed Aaron Rodriguez under the hood as Mascaras.
Jerry explained that in the late ‘70s he had become close 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 Mil for a couple of hours, swapping stories about Lutteroth, who had once hosted the Memphis promoter at his house. Mil was clearly enjoying himself when he asked, “So, Jerry, what do you want me to do tonight?” Jerry told me he replied, “Well, Mil, I know what I want you to do….” And that’s how Mil Mascaras did a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo in Memphis.