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Jerry Lawler discusses his greatest Memphis matches–or lack thereof

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Check out Mark James' new book, available at www.memphiswrestlinghistory.com

People frequently ask me what I believe to be the best bouts ever held in the Memphis territory. I can usually rattle off 10 bouts, but sometimes it’s difficult because Memphis ran every Monday night at the Mid-South Coliseum during my childhood. So that’s a lot of bouts over my years a fan, which began in the summer of 1977 and lasted through through the period when I became a referee in 1991. Even then, I remained a fan and always will be at heart. Certainly, some of my favorites growing up were Jerry Lawler’s bouts with the likes of Bill Dundee, Dutch Mantell, Terry Funk and Nick Bockwinkel. (Or as fellow longtime Memphis wrestling fan Dave Millican and I always joke, “Once a mark, always a mark.”)

With the exceptions of a couple of cards co-promoted with Jim Crockett in 1985, Memphis didn’t build to a few larger shows a year like the World Class Star Wars events, the Bill Watts shows at the Superdome or Crockett’s Starrcade cards; instead  Lawler and Jerry Jarrett focused on promoting each Monday night as if it were the biggest card of the year. Doing so, made every card seem special–you had to be there that week.

I was recently catching up with Lawler on the phone, discussing his pulling out of his would-be deli partnership with Joe Cooper and his legal situation with Corey Maclin, when I asked him what he considers to be the best matches of his career. His answers may surprise you.

Lawler: “Oh, gosh, Scott, I don’t know. I’ve always considered this business as just something fun to do that I could make a living at. I’ve never, ever thought, ‘Oh, this has been my greatest series of matches.’ People sometimes lose sight of the fact that this business is a work–they take their own performances way too seriously. Really, one match may stink a little less than the other because you’re in there with a great worker but I’ve never really cared about what my greatest matches were. I was a big star because I was in the right place at the right time, and Jerry Jarrett liked my work. Later, when Jerry approached me and I got into a position of ownership, I kept myself on top because I was protecting my investment. We could build the business around me, and I’d never leave the territory. It wasn’t that I was necessarily better or greater than anyone else, but because it was the smartest thing for us to do from a business standpoint. Plus, I’ve always been able to come up with, on the spur of the moment, good ideas for this business. The difference is, I could always see the stuff involving me unfold in my mind and the ideas would usually turn out exactly like that in the end. But when I would tell someone else what I wanted them to do, it never really quite translated as well as I could see it in my mind. To be perfectly honest, I remember more about what happened outside the ring than what I did in it.”

Bowden: “So you recall more so the people you worked with and less about the matches or angles per se?”

Lawler: “The only stuff I remember are the people—the real characters in the business I got to work with. Terry Funk and all his crazy interviews and the fun we had working together. Nick Bockwinkel is another guy I was a big fan of. Now I don’t remember anything that Nick and I did in matches; I just remember him being one of the best guys on interviews and a perfect fit to play the role of the World champion. Certainly, Nick was one of the smoothest guys I’ve ever been in the ring with, but I don’t really remember the matches. I’ve done so much of it—I’ve done thousands of promos and matches—so I can’t remember most of them. Likewise, I’m constantly amazed when people approach me with a line they heard me say years ago on RAW. I’m flattered, but I have no idea what they’re talking about most of the time.”

Bowden: “Y’know, I can think of plenty of great matches you had, and I can tell you exactly when they took place, but that’s probably because I was 10 or 11 at the time, so those moments stayed with me over the years because they were part of my childhood memories. I’m sure you have memories as a wrestling fan yourself growing up.”

Two of Jerry Lawler's childhood idols, the Blue Infernos, are forever burned into his memory. The King's own bouts? Not so much.

Lawler: “That’s exactly right. I can remember stuff that I was a fan of growing up, but I can’t remember the things I’ve done in my own career because that was just the way I made my living. Man, I can recall things from 1967 when my dad and I would go to the matches. Right now, I can remember being at the matches with my dad at the Auditorium when a Mexican kid named Young Anaya flew through the ropes onto his opponent without touching the middle or bottom ropes–I can see it like it was yesterday. It blew me away. Two of my favorite wrestlers, The Blue Infernos–who were Frank Martinez and Gypsy Joe–I can recall the stuff  they did clear as day. But at the time, during my career, we were always on the road and constantly trying to think of new ideas for the very next week; we didn’t spend a lot time thinking about what we’d just done or dwelling on it. I mean, that was our job–that’s all it was to us.”

Bowden: “Speaking of your ideas, no matter whether your feud was Jimmy Hart or Bill Dundee or Dutch Mantell, the issue was always very personal and that’s what appeared to draw money in Memphis.”

Lawler: “Yeah, that’s something that’s really lost on the business today. Too much is centered on the championship or a certain kind of gimmick match. Sure, you can make those things into a personal issue, but it’s a lot easier to do when you’ve got an issue that the people can really relate to rather than a belt. Jerry Jarrett and I used to have a sign that hung in our office: Personal Issues Draw Money.”

So while I’m sure the following bouts were just another day at the office for the King, the Memphis wrestling moments I’ve posted below–some of my favorites from 1982–recently surfaced on YouTube. The Lawler/Mantell series from spring 1982 featured some of the best bouts at the Coliseum that year (in my opinion), and the feud was unique for the time because neither man turned heel, with fans in the territory split over whom to cheer for until the two men settled their personal differences in the squared circle.

Speaking of which, for a far more detailed examination of the year 1982 and what it meant to Memphis wrestling, be sure to check out the new book from Mark James, Memphis Wrestling History Presents: 1982, A Legendary Year From the Golden Era, which includes reprints of every Monday night souvenir program from 1982 along with comments from the men who made Memphis the most entertaining territory in the country in 1982, everyone from Mantell to Jarrett to Dundee to Austin Idol. Click here for ordering information: Memphis Wrestling History.

  1. Daniel
    August 24th, 2010 at 10:04 | #1

    As always, great post.

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