A recent online visit to Cornette’s Collectibles left me reminiscing about the early days of Hulk Hogan and the second card I ever attended at the Mid-South Coliseum. Briefly listed for sale (quickly snapped up by some jabroni before I could snag it) amongst Cornette’s treasure trove of wrestling gold was a mint-condition “Hulk Hogan rookie” program from Jerry Jarrett’s July 23, 1979, card. On the cover: a young Terry “the Hulk” Boulder (Bollea). I have a tattered copy of the same program, minus the lineup insert, in my parents’ attic in Memphis somewhere in my collection of Jarrett programs and Apter mags.
The Hulk was introduced to Memphis fans via a video reportedly shot at Jarrett’s house. (See clip below.) With the lights dimmed and the 24-inch pythons oiled, Bollea engaged in a version of the posing routine that would become a staple of his WWF act years later as announcer Michael St. John provided the voice-over. (St. John was also the memorable voice behind the infamous Kimala and Apocalypse [Mike Boyette] videos shot in the jungles of Jarrett’s sprawling estate.)
Although Bollea’s story is certainly possible, as Ferrigno did make the local TV rounds to promote a personal appearance at Liberty Land amusement park in 1979, like anything else that Hogan claims, I’d take it with a grain of Fuji’s salt. The problem with the story is that Boulder was immediately booked as the Hulk when he made his first Mid-South Coliseum appearance on May 14, 1979, as Lawler’s mystery wrestler to challenge the Stomper for the Southern title. (Keep in mind that Hogan also claims that Elvis Presley used to watch him wrestle in Memphis. While Presley was a fan and did occasionally attend the matches, it’s impossible that he ever saw the Hulk, as Elvis died in August 1977… almost two years before Terry Boulder debuted. Maybe Hulk meant Elvis was there in spirit.)
By the Hulk’s second week in the territory, he was headlining with Lawler vs. the Stomper and his manager, Gorgeous George Jr. in a cage match main event. As a Marvel Comics fanboy, I loved the Hulk and his finisher, the Super Southern Squeeze (bearhug), despite the fact that the Hulk came up short in his AWA Southern title bouts with Stomper and, later, Ron Bass. Jarrett also suggested that Boulder use the legdrop, given his limited ability at that time. (Yep, smart marks, Jarrett is partly to blame for what would become an agonizing string of predictable finishes to nearly all Hulk matches in the mid-1980s.)
Jimmy Hart, who was soon to enter the business as Lawler’s manager later that year, likes to tell the story today that the King told him at the time that “Hulk will never draw a dime in this business.” Lawler denies it, saying he knew all along the kid would be a star. Sounds like Jarrett, though, was the one who was really convinced that Hulk would be a player in the industry down the road as he recommended the future WWF champ to Vince McMahon Sr., who took a chance on the Florida native and added the Hogan surname to his gimmick because he wanted an Irish heel. (Hogan says he balked at Sr.’s suggestion to dye his hair red.) With the legendary “Classy” Freddie Blassie as his manager in 1980, Hogan headlined against Vince Sr.’s champ Bob Backlund in several cities, including his best match up to that point at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
Hogan, fresh off his first WWF run, returned to Memphis for one night on Feb. 9, 1981, as one of Hart’s hired henchmen to rebreak Lawler’s leg. At that point, Hogan wasn’t doing many jobs, period, so a compromise was reached: Hart interfered with his cane for the disqualification after the King appeared to have the bout won. (In the clips, Cornette can seen at ringside snapping photos for a story that would appear in Pro Wrestling Illustrated.) The next morning, the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper reported only that Lawler beaten the Hulk before 9,000 fans. Even before Hogan took the wrestling world, there was controversy over the Memphis finish, with Hulk challenging Lawler on an episode of Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling From Florida. Hulk lost the rematch in St. Petersburg, Fla., via countout.
After Vince McMahon Jr.’s aggressive expansion efforts into the traditional territories in 1984 with Hogan as his champion, Lawler and Jarrett frequently aired clips of that ‘81 bout, often editing the finish to make it appear that the King had pinned Hogan. Lawler also implied that he had pinned Hulk in 1979; however, the two never worked a singles match…only tag bouts as partners.
But back to 1979.The Memphis promotion was red hot in the summer of ‘79, with the hot heel tandem of Wayne Farris (Honky Tonk Man) and Larry Latham—billed as the Blonde Bombers—keeping a firm grip on the AWA Southern tag titles, thanks to frequent assistance from the helmet of manager Sgt. Danny Davis.
In the weeks leading up to this July 23 card, the Bombers had won the titles from Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee in Tupelo, Miss., which resulted in the infamous., concession-stand fight—one of the greatest brawls in wrestling history. Booker Jarrett kept the heat on the heels by having the dastardly duo temporarily blind legend Jackie Fargo with some sort of mystery substance. (Although the Freebirds were in the area at the time, Michael Hayes denies it was the dreaded Freebird Cream). Jackie, of course, had been called out of partial retirement for emergency duty by the King and the Superstar weeks before. Although his eyesight “hadn’t fully returned,” Fargo was out for revenge, so he called in a legendary reinforcement of his own: his brother (Sonny) Roughhouse Fargo. According to Jackie, Roughhouse was in the nuthouse in Bolivar, locked away because of his violent, crazed nature. A typical Roughhouse spot during the match: hitting everything in sight, including the heels, the ref and brother Jackie. (Mid-Atlantic Wrestling fans may find it hard to imagine Sonny Fargo playing such a role, as he was a mild-mannered referee in their area for years.)
To top it off, Lawler and Dundee were matched up with two other promising rookies, Terry Gordy and Michael Hayes, the Freebirds. Gordy and Hayes were given a huge introduction weeks prior on Memphis TV, which included a rare clean victory over Lawler and Dundee in their first match in the territory—nearly unthinkable. I think Gordy was only 17 at the time, but he was already capable in the ring. (His partner, on the other hand, despite declaring himself to be “the hot child in the city, running wild and looking pretty” in his pre-match promo, wasn’t nearly as polished or confident…which was evident when Hayes literally shit his trunks during the bout.) Although the Boulder Bros. were billed as the main event, the King and the Superstar vs. the ““Birds was the last bout—the one the fans had come to see.
I recall the finish like this: Referee Jerry Calhoun is bumped as a four-way brawl breaks out. Dundee rolls up Hayes for a pin, and babyface wrestler Steve Regal (not the WWE wrestler Lord Steven Regal of today) runs from the back to count the fall. (Insert joke about Dusty booking the finish here.)
Also on the card, the Fabulous Moolah made a rare appearance in Memphis successfully defending the women’s title, doing her usual spot of attempting to slap the ref after his traditional pre-match inspection for a foreign object. (The thought of old-man referee Paul Morton getting fresh with Moolah is comical.)
Tommy Gilbert and his young son Eddie were involved in a pretty hot feud with Buddy and rookie Ken Wayne, which included a bloody beat-down of Eddie at the TV studio while Tommy was helpless as he was handcuffed to a ringpost…very intense. On this night, as the ref was taping Tommy’s hands, Buddy grabbed a handful of “medicated” powder. As the official turned to ring the bell, Buddy quickly blinded the elder Gilbert, and then knocked him out with a taped-fist punch, ending the bout in seconds…a hot finish to incite the crowd.
Not too long ago after my memories of this night originally ran in a column in 2007, Mark Ehrmann, another fan who was there that night, wrote to me, saying:
Love your “Kentucky Fried Rasslin’ column and your work in Memphis. Your column brought back so many great memories. I was at that Mid-South Coliseum show in 1979 as part of the WFIA convention. As an 18-yr.-old Southern wrestling fan from Philadelphia, PA, I was in heaven that weekend. TV taping Saturday morning in Memphis, Jackson Coliseum show Saturday night, Lawler softball game on Sunday, and the Mid-South Coliseum show Monday night. I got to meet Lawler, Dundee, the Gilberts, Fabulous Moolah, Wayne Ferris, and the legendary Danny Hodge, who drove our group to the Jackson show. I became a lifelong fan of Eddie Gilbert, Ricky Morton, Kenny Wayne, the Freebirds, etc. that weekend. Then years later finding out that such greats as Jim Cornette and the late Brian Hildebrand were also in attendance as fans/photographers. Your column was right on about the excitement in the building upon the Freebirds entrance. It was indeed “Fabulous”! I’ve attached a few photos I took that night. Not professional photos by any means, just some shots taken by a fan of Southern rasslin. I hope you like them. Keep up the great work. Your recollections of Memphis wrestling, in your humorous and unique style, are greatly appreciated!
I’m not surprised that Cornette was in attendance, but I had no idea the late Brian Hildebrand was there, although that certainly makes sense with the WFIA in town. That means three future heel managers in Memphis were in attendance that night. I would meet Brian years later through Eddie Gilbert, a brief encounter I wrote about here.
Since you were 18 at the time, that means you were probably around the same age as Freebird Terry Gordy. Amazing how good he already was back then, as he carried the team. Love that elevation on that Dundee backdrop, of which you snapped a nice pic.
Seems like Memphis and a lot of the territories really catered to the fan group whenever they came to town. Of course, the local territory also got rub, with the visting WFIA awarding their annual honors to all the local stars. I believe in 1979, Lawler and Dundee were awarded Tag Team of the Year, while Eddie Gilbert took Rookie of the Year honors. (I recall afterward that for months Eddie was billed as “WFIA Rookie of the Year Eddie Gilbert.” I’m wondering if the promotion requested that Dundee–not Lawler–be awarded the honor of singles Wrestler of the Year, as Lawler would soon turn heel on Dundee, citing the fact that he was overlooked for an AWA World title match with Nick Bockwinkel. I’m fairly certain Lawler also mentioned the WFIA slight in one of his first promos when returning back to the dark side. Funny: Lawler’s famed crown-shaped goatee was fully grown back in by the time he turned heel on Dundee a month later. In your picture, it appears that the stubble outline of the goatee is starting to come in. Dundee shoulda seen it coming!