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Hart to Hart: the return of the King

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Part II of II

Really, it couldn’t have been booked any better. In the prime of his career in 1979 as the CWA “World” heavyweight champion, Lawler was injured at the hands of Jerry Calhoun, a Memphis wrestling referee, in a “friendly” touch-football game. As Lawler explained from his hospital bed to a channel 5 news reporter: “I was playing football with some old friends — Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, y’know, the boys — and I broke my leg. That’s the way it goes. That’s the breaks.” A tough break indeed for Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett, who had warned his number-one drawing card and top heel against playing in the roughhouse contests on Sunday afternoons in the fall. Years later, Jarrett told me that he had big plans for Lawler in 1980, including a program in which the King would try to unify wrestling’s World titles, much like the program in 1988.

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But showing the same resiliency that would come in handy when Vince McMahon would invade his territory years later, Jarrett made the best of it. He removed the muzzle from Lawler’s manager, Jimmy Hart, and put all the heat on the former singer, turning the King babyface in the process. The heat simmered until December 29, 1980, when Lawler returned in front of an SRO crowd at the Mid-South Coliseum to get his revenge.

Lawler defeated the Dream Machine in typical Memphis babyface fashion: Calhoun was bumped, allowing Lawler to pull a chain from his boot and knock Graham to dreamland. As per the pre-match stipulations, Lawler got five minutes with Hart, who got color (blood) about 10 seconds into it. His throne reclaimed, Lawler left Hart for dead. Nine-year-old Scott Bowden and the other 11,500 or so marks in attendance that night at the Mid-South Coliseum rejoiced. Little did I realize at the time that this was not the end of the storyline but only the beginning. There was blood to be shed, titles to be won and lost, and bones to be broken.

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Which takes us to Evansville, Indiana, shortly after Lawler’s return. The King’s right hand, usually one of the best pulled punches in the business, was errant, breaking Hart’s jaw. Lawler claimed it was a mistake, while Hart seemed to think it was payback for the “They shoot horses, don’t they?” comment that the manager made in the weeks following the leg injury.

I’m sure at the time Lawler blew off the incident, as some of the boys would do following a potato (a stiff blow) like that: “Hey, it’s good for the business.” All the scar tissue collected on foreheads from razor blades? “Good for the business.” You get the idea. Besides, as Lawler and Jarrett used to always say, “Personal issues draw money.” While they were still friendly off-camera, Lawler supposedly didn’t like it that Hart had made himself a star while he was on the sideline.

The trio (Lawler, the Dream and Hart) completed the loop—cities such as Louisville, Kentucky; Evansville, Indiana; and Nashville—doing the same match and post-bout mopping up of Hart, with only a snowstorm preventing a clean sweep of sellouts. In a move reminiscent of the famous Quest for the NWA Title program years earlier, Jarrett brought in some of the top names in the business to face Lawler, pairing them with Hart. But first, there was business to finish with Ellering, who, while not a huge name, was Hart’s royal replacement several months earlier. Lawler pinned Ellering in the middle of the ring following a fist-drop, his finisher at the time. (Hey, a closed fist from the middle turnbuckle wasn’t a moonsault, but back then, we believed in it.)

Austin Idol was next, with Hart’s gold record for “Keep on Dancin’” at stake. After pinning Idol, Lawler tossed the gold record into the Mississippi River. Lawler had informed the TV audience of his plans to dispose of the record at the bridge, and hundreds of fans showed up, preventing the cameraman from getting a good shot. The following Saturday, Lawler explained why he littered the river instead of cashing in the record: “Turns out that the gold record itself has no monetary value. It was worthless — just like Hart.” hartsantaWhile never faring well in the ring, Hart was not to be pushed around verbally. Hart frequently called local hapless TV jobbers Robert Reed and Ken Raper “graduates of the Jerry Lawler School of Wrestling,” which resulted in people on the streets constantly approaching the King about enrollment. (There was no such school.) In particular, Hart formed a wonderful chemistry with Russell, who could often be seen nearly cracking up during some of the funnier promos. Years before heel catchphrases became cool, Hart’s “This is the greatest day of my life!” was a weekly source of agitation for Russell and the fans. Hart went on to record a song about a girl who is perfect … except for one thing: She has “Lance Russell’s Nose.” The song was later released on his “Outrageous Conduct” album as “Barbara Streisand’s Nose.” The video for the local hit “We Hate School” not only further endeared Hart to parents and educators in the area but also unveiled the hiddent talents of First Family members Koko Ware on guitar and the Iranian Assassin (Ali Hassan) on the drums.

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To deepen the apparent rivalty between the two, Lawler cut a song, “World’s Greatest Wrestler” in response to “We Hate School,” with a local radio station conducting a well-publicized poll to determine the better tune. Says Lawler in the buildup: “Hart’s last album with the Gentrys wasn’t released — it escaped.” Hart on Lawler’s singing ability: “Lawler couldn’t carry a tune if it were covered in Krazy Glue.” The result: Another victory for Lawler, clearly more of a testament to his popularity rather than his singing talents. (Let’s just say Lawler’s previous record, “Bad News,” was aptly titled.)

The storyline continued, with Hart bringing in Crusher Blackwell, Joe LeDuc, Jack Brisco, the Funks, Hulk Hogan, the Super D (Scott Irwin) and Baron Von Raschke — all to no avail. The big names came and went, but Hart’s stable of regulars, “The First Family of Professonal Rasslin’,” picked up the slack most weeks. At different times, the stable included The Turk and El Toro, Killer Karl Krupp, Kevin Sullivan, Wayne Ferris, “Handsome” Jimmy, Dutch Mantel, Bobby Eaton, Buddy Landell, Dennis Condrey, Norvell Austin, Stan Lane and The Bruise Brothers (Porkchop Cash and the unmasked Troy Graham).

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Unlike managers in the Northeast at the time, who were traditionally used primarily only in pre-match buildups as mouthpieces for their charges, Hart interfered constantly in matches, with a cane his weapon of choice.  The heat was so strong on Hart that the promotion often successfully passed off even the lamest of gimmicks as major league, such as the Russian Invader. The same week that ABC aired “The Day After,” a controversial made-for-TV movie about the aftermath of global nuclear war, Lawler faced the Russian Invader, managed by Hart, who I suppose was reading the works of Lenin at the time. Wearing red tights and blue trunks, with white boots, Lawler did his part to end the Cold War, stomping out the masked red menace around the territory. But the war with Hart raged on.

In Lawler’s personal favorite Hart moment, the manager had a pull-apart brawl with comedian Andy Kaufman in which neither man landed a punch. Of course, it was all a “ruse” designed to trap Lawler, culiminating with the comedian turning on the King during a tag bout. Hart and Kaufman also worked together to cost Lawler the AWA World title in a classic finish in January 1983. Hart had been “burned” by repeated fireballs thrown by Lawler weeks earlier in a cage match. The following week, Lawler apparently won the AWA World title from Nick Bockwinkel, but the belt was “held up.” In a rematch match for the “vacant” AWA championship, Hart, wrapped in bandages like the Invisible Man, accompanied Bockwinkel to ringside. Bill Dundee sat in Lawler’s corner. While ref Paul Morton attempted to block the masked Hart’s attempt to interfere, Lawler went for the pin. With no ref to make the count, Lawler got up but was distracted by the presence of Hart—wearing no bandages—on the other side of the ring. Bockwinkel took advantage and rolled up Lawler for the winning pin to reclaim the turkey-platter-sized belt. The bandages were removed from the mystery man to reveal Kaufman, who had sworn revenge for the injuries sustained from two Lawler piledrivers in April 1982. And the Hart-Lawler feud heated up yet again.

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Although they teased a loser-leaves-town stipulation in August 1981 (The Last Tango in Memphis), which ended in neither man leaving town for any significant period of time, Hart and Lawler again played up the challenge in 1985. This time, it was for keeps, as Vince McMahon wanted Hart for his ever-expanding WWF kingdom.

In what turned out to be his final appearance for years in the Union Avenue studio, Hart, along with Eddie Gilbert, tossed jobber David Haskins out the door and into the January snow. Later in the show, Hart promoted an upcoming tag match in which a bag of flour would be attached to a pole as a potential weapon. Hart ended the interview by emptying a bag of flour over Lance Russell’s head, drawing “a suspension.”

This scenario led to a Southern title match with Gilbert defending against Lawler. If Gilbert lost, Hart would be gone. If Lawler lost, he’d leave his hometown. In an interview taped from home, the manager promised a surprise, which turned out to be Tommy H, a Hart lookalike and longtime fan, managing Gilbert at the Coliseum. (In hindsight, the finish was given away, as Hart appeared to be packing during the interview.) Another snowstorm prevented the expected near sellout, but those brave enough to make it to the Coliseum erupted with joy as Lawler pinned Gilbert in a good match. Lance Russell made a passionate call of the result: “Jimmy Hart is gone!” The next morning, The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis newspaper, not only listed the results but also added: “If you need to talk to Jimmy Hart, you’d better find him fast.”

Years later, 1996 to be exact, I’m sitting ringside managing Tex Slazenger with my feet comfortably propped up on the ring apron, a move I stole from Hart. Dave Brown tells Lance Russell: “Look at Bowden here, sitting here kicked back. Where did this guy learn to manage wrestlers anyway? What makes him qualified?”

That’s easy, “Dave Brown, The Weather Clown” (as Hart of often referred to Brown, who was also the most popular weather forecaster in the area): growing up watching Hart. Never has a manager been so entertaining yet infuriating, in my opinion. I’m aware of how amazing Jim Cornette was in Mid-South and WCW, and yes, Bobby Heenan had great timing for years in the WWF. But for five years in Memphis, nobody did it better than Jimmy Hart.

(clippings courtesy of memphiswrestlinghistory.com)

  1. March 26th, 2009 at 07:38 | #1

    Agreed. Hart”s run in Memphis was amazing.

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