Anatomy of an angle: Mercy, daddy! Handsome Jimmy Valiant cuts record, turns heel
On Sept. 19, 1977, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant came rollin’ into Mempho, TWA. Initially, he was introduced as the new heel superstar to take the place of Jerry Lawler, who had recently “retired” to pursue music and art opportunities. (Lawler’s supposed plans to pursue music should have tipped off fans that this was an angle to switch the King babyface.) Valiant won a tournament to win Lawler’s vacated Southern title and feuded with the King upon his return a few weeks later.
Lawler and Valiant traded the Southern crown several times before large crowds across the territory well into the New Year, in every gimmick match possible, culminating with a bout that could only end with a five-count (shades of King Kong Bundy’s future gimmick). That Lawler victory drew 8,125 fans to the Mid-South Coliseum. Valiant was the perfect opponent to turn Lawler babyface as he was the antithesis of the hometown King…and worst of all, he came New York City.
By that point, the feud had gone as far it could go–for the time being. Promoter Jerry Jarrett had noticed that the fans had often responded with cheers to Valiant’s promos, despite his arrogance and dirty deeds. Valiant was indeed ahead of his time. Although Jesse Ventura gets a lot of recognition for being among the first to spice up his promos with pop-culture references, Valiant was the first one I ever noticed to do so, often referring to his buddies Burt Reynolds and Sally Field (who were red hot coming off “The Smokey and the Bandit” film) and girlfriends Farrah Fawcett and Cheryl Tiegs. In the same vein as Dusty Rhodes’ obvious babyface potential while working as a heel in Florida, Valiant was primed to be cheered because of his rap with the people.
Shortly after defeating Terry Sawyer with a sunset flip at the WMC-TV Studios on Saturday, April 1, 1978 (the same day that Jimmy Hart made his Memphis TV studio debut as buddy of the King), Lawler conducts a post-match interview with Lance Russell to announce his upcoming promotional appearances around the Mid-South area. Usually, such a spot would be reserved for later in the broadcast; however, the story goes that Lawler wants to say a few words really quickly because he has to leave the studio immediately to make one of those scheduled meet-and-greet gigs in Arkansas before the matches in Jonesboro that night. This, of course, left the dressing-room door open for heel “Handsome” Jimmy to turn babyface after Bill Dundee is attacked later that day by heels Sonny King and Joe LeDuc. (During the beatdown, Russell exclaims, “Lawler’s already gone! We need some help out here!”) As a last resort, heel Valiant struts out acting like he’s going to participate in the beating, pausing to flex and preen for the camera, before slugging King and LeDuc. Back in the kayfabe days (and before Vince Russo had killed such a swerve), most fans weren’t savvy enough to see this coming a mile away.
Valiant remainded a babyface for approximately the next six months (a lifetime in Memphis wrestling), eventually mentoring and teaming with Lawler’s cousin, rookie Wayne Ferris (the future Honky Tonk Man). I’m not sure how much he improved in the ring, but Ferris quickly picked up Valiant’s beauty secrets, with his dark hair becoming platinum blonde seemingly overnight. On the same show his infamous “Son of a Gypsy” video aired on Nov. 11, 1978, Valiant gradually turns heel over the 90 minutes, along with Ferris, setting up the bleached-blonde bastards for a program with Lawler and Dundee. Before things get ugly (with Valiant telling Dundee to play with the short people, referencing Randy Newman’s popular “Short People”), Handsome compares Lawler’s “hillbilly” music to that of the legendary Ernest Tubb.
The storyline is that “Handsome” Jimmy’s ego is out of control, demanding to be cut in on the main event with the King and Superstar, who politely rebuff him before Lawler finally snaps and offers his opinion on Valiant’s sexual preferences. (That’s certainly the first time 7-year-old Scott Bowden had heard that word on TV.)
Valiant was pretty damn popular, so the heel turn really came out of nowhere and was somewhat inexplicable as the revolutionary music video only got him that much more over with the fans. (I can tell you that all my friends and I were singing “Son of a Gypsy” in the weeks that followed–we all loved that video–and local station FM 100 was bombarded with calls to play it.) Some have speculated that perhaps Valiant was getting a little too popular in the eyes of Lawler and Dundee (who were tight with Jarrett and helped him book the territory), so he was turned heel. (Michael Hayes claims that Lawler put the kibosh on the Freebirds’ babyface turn when he saw the fans go crazy and rise to their feet when they came out to their Skynard anthem.) But in all likelihood, Valiant was turned heel to spark attendance, which had begun to drop to between 3,500 and 4,500 at the Coliseum in the weeks prior. But despite being well-executed by everyone involved, Valiant’s switch back to the dark side didn’t work (attendance at the Coliseum continued to fall), and the program between the two teams was quickly dropped. Perhaps it was because the fans didn’t want to hate “Handsome” Jimmy, that charismatic son of a gypsy.
Longtime TV announcer Dave Brown recalls the other side of the “Boy From New York City,” who sometimes claimed in promos that he was returning to the South in part to see “Grandma Valiant” and her enjoy her fried chicken, biscuits and gravy.
“I have a thousand memories of ‘Handsome’ Jimmy, and they’re all good,” he says. “I was always amazed to watch him in the back because Jimmy was so quiet and mild-mannered. But when he came through that dressing-room door, he just exploded: ‘Wooo, baby, Handsome Jimbo from Mempho!’ He used to call Lance ‘Lancer’ and, at the time, Jackson Browne was hot, so he called me ‘Jack-son.'”
In fact, Jarrett could always rely on Valiant to spark the houses when the King was unable to appear. For example, nearly the entire year of 1980, when Lawler was on the shelf with a broken leg, a heel “Handsome” Jimmy was quickly called into emergency babyface duty.
“Jimmy wasn’t here on a consistent basis,” Brown continues, “so when he came to town, it was an event, much like when they brought in Roughhouse Fargo and Jackie Fargo. Music videos pretty much started on our show–even before they hit MTV. And we did with a video with ‘Handsome’ Jimmy that saw him coming out of a white limo–that was one of the greatest TV moments of the era.”
At the height of his popularity in the early ’80s, my mother approached Valiant at the Memphis airport, asking for an autograph for her son. Never removing his shades, he replied, “Your son, eh? Sure it is, momma. Sure it is.”