Like, totally awesome: An in-depth look at Memphis and Mid-South Wrestling TV in 1983
The year 1983 dropkicked off with a bang in Jerry Jarrett’s territory. A continued smorgasbord of memorable Memphis mayhem was sure to follow in the New Year after the table had been set in 1982 with the emergence of the Fabulous Ones; debuts of fresh young talent like Terry Taylor and Jacques Rougeau; the continued hilarious, motor-mouth promos of manager Jimmy Hart, the leader of The First Family; the introduction of Kimala, the Ugandan Giant; Andy Kaufman’s reign as Intergender champion; the tag-team excellence of Koko Ware and Bobby Eaton; and Jerry Lawler’s classic clashes with natural-born nemesis Nick Bockwinkel, the AWA World champion, whom the King had seemingly dethroned in front of 10,000-plus fans at the Mid-South Coliseum on Dec. 27, 1982.
In many ways, Memphis started off 1983 so hot, packed with a variety of talent, that it seemed almost too good to last. In fact, with the pending invasion of the Vince McMahon marketing machine, two of the most innovative promotions in the country–Jarrett’s Memphis territory and Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling were struggling to maintain consistent success at the box office by October 1983. After assessing each other’s product, including Watts visiting the Coliseum, and Lawler and Jarrett traveling to Shreveport for a TV taping (marking the first time the King and Jim Ross teamed on commentary), the two promotions traded talent. (Jim Cornette, who was shipped to Mid-South to begin his solo managerial career along with Eaton and veteran Dennis Condrey has since referred to it as the only time Jarrett came out on the short end of the stick in a deal.) But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Last week, I received the latest DVD set from Rick Crane over at 70s-TV.com: the near-complete season of MEMPHIS WRESTLING: 1983, which consists of shows various sources, including some the 90-minute Memphis broadcasts, with most content from the 60-minute versions looped around other towns in the territory. The set comes on 25 discs, with a bonus disc to set up 1983: the 1982 Christmas episode.
With this wonderful collection in hand, I contacted Micah Watts, Bill’s son, who’s one of the last remaining holdouts in his refusal to sell his father’s storied tape library to Vince McMahon. (Micah’s site, Universal Wrestling Archives , is one of the most thorough ’80s wrestling collections around, as apparently Bill was one of the few promoters at that time who didn’t tape over his shows and kept them in pristine condition.) Rick and Micah agreed that a week-by-week review, culminating with the trade that would greatly transform how Mid-South Wrestling was presented (in part thanks to new booker Bill Dundee, who learned the craft under Jarrett) would be fascinating reading. (Special thanks to Micah for passing along the Mid-South footage, which I received yesterday.)
I’m starting with Memphis the ’82 Christmas show. Then on Saturday, I’ll have a rundown of the 1-1-83 Memphis shows, along a report of the first Mid-South show of 1983: the 1/6/1983 episode. Should be a fun look back at two of the most pivotal points in the histories of both promotions as they reshuffled their troops as Vince Jr. geared up for his nationwide takeover of the wrestling business.
The 1982 Memphis Wrestling Christmas Special
Airing on December 25, 1982, the signature opening to Memphis Championship Wrestling begins with Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (Theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”) playing as the statue of Greeks grappling (aka the “Hellenistic Greek Wrestlers Bonded Marble Statue“) spins, giving way to Lance Russell, without his faithful sidekick Dave Brown. In a slight departure from his usual greeting, Lance notes he’s “NOT right alongside ringside;” Christmas 1982 fell on Saturday morning, making a live show at the WMC-TV Studio impractical. Lance reassures the violence-starved audience, however, that this won’t be your typical Bing Crosby special, with the boys sitting around singing carols, though he admits “that’s not a bad idea” (um, have you heard Jerry Lawler sing?!); rather, despite, the delightful setting, complete with a huge frosted tree in the background, the holiday episode will be packed with “some great action tape,” along with live appearances by Lawler, Bill Dundee, Terry Taylor, the Fabulous Ones and Dutch Mantell–the nucleus of the strong babyface side of the crew. Like any good Southern business, the on-camera face of the company, promoter Eddie Marlin (Jerry Jarrett’s right-hand man and father-in-law) kicks things off by wishing his ticket-buying fans all the best and a Merry Christmas, earning praise from Russell: “By golly, Eddie, that’s an awfully nice greeting!” (Lance seems genuinely touched by Marlin’s poigiant words.) Lance reflects on the past year, praising Marlin for assembling the greatest bunch of talent he’s ever seen in the territory. (Jarrett preferred to concentrate company’s creative direction and business affairs, rarely appearing on camera at that time, so Marlin was seen as the talent negotiator in the eyes of the fans.) Russell, who usually kept the hype in check unless he was genuinely excited about a match or card to maintain his credibility, most likely meant that with all his heart, as 1982 was indeed one of most entertaining, lucrative years in the territory’s history. As they go to a break, the camera reveals a spectacular living room with an amazing wooded view, which means that they might have been taping from Jarrett’s house.
The King is the first guest, introduced by a video of clips of some his greatest bouts, mostly his triumphs since his return from a broken leg nearly two years to the day, set to Elvis Presley’s version of “My Way.” As Lawler might say, this touching tribute “could bring a tear to a glass eye.” A classic rogues gallery–Joe LeDuc, Austin Idol, Paul Ellering, Jimmy Valiant and Crusher Blackwell, etc.–goes down one by one at the right hand of Memphis’ number-one son as Elvis sings, “I’ve loved. I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve had my fill; my share of losing. And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing. To think, I did all that. And may I say, oh no, oh no, not me. in a shy way…I did it my way.” Apparently, Lawler’s way was a series of kicks and punches, followed by his surefire finisher of a fistdrop from the middle rope.
Lawler then appears on set, wearing a ski-lodge sweater, joining Lance and Marlin on the couch, humbly thanking for the fans for a strong year as Lance commends the King on his accomplishments. Lawler mentions his apparent defeat of NWA World champion Ric Flair on Memphis TV and how he was unable to get a rematch for the 10 pounds of gold after dropping the Southern title to Nick Bockwinkel, who went on to regain his AWA World title from Otto Wanz the following week. However, Lawler defeated Bockwinkel in the middle of the ring to regain the Southern crown on Nov. 8, setting up an AWA World title bout scheduled two nights after the Christmas show on Dec. 27. Lawler also discusses how he’s not only had to deal with Jimmy Hart throughout the year but also rookie manager Jim Cornette, a former photographer. Lance cracks, “When I first heard that Cornette wanted to be a manager, I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ A picture taker in wrestling!’”
With the Bockwinkel bout coming up–the King’s first real crack at a World title since his return from relinquishing the CWA title, Lance mentions how Lawler has beaten Terry Funk, Dory Funk and Jack Brisco. In a funny exchange, Lance reiterates Lawler’s distinguished record against former World champs, saying, “Jerry, I hope I’m not boring you with all this.” Lawler, in his best Jack Benny impression, deadpans, “Not, not yet. Go on!” (The comedic timing between those two, with Lance as the straight man, is priceless.) Lawler also mentions that young star Terry Taylor, the Southern champion, might be a nice guy but he’s carrying the King’s belt. (Too bad that bout never took place, with Taylor perhaps turning heel, displaying the arrogance that eventually made a strong heel briefly in the UWF before JCP bought out Bill Watts and buried Terry and most of the former Mid-South crew.) When the cocky-yet-likable Lawler feigns insult over learning he’s not the only special guest on today’s show, the segment closes with the King literally twisting Lance’s arm to show some classic ’70s footage of his career set to “Nobody Does It Better.” The show goes to a break as Willie Nelson sings “Jingle Bells.”
After a break, the show returns to a Bill Dundee video montage with the whimsical tune “The Way We Were” playing. That’s back-to-back videos with the two biggest single wrestlers in the territory featuring the musical stylings of Carly Simon and Barbara Streisand. Somehow, though, it actually works, since the Superstar spent much of the year injured so he wasn’t his old self. And there is something a little sad, especially in hindsight, with the closing clip of the video–a January 1981 shot of Dundee and an in-shape Tommy Rich (months away from his his first NWA World title win) celebrating a Louisville victory over Mantell and Idol–when you consider how Wildfire’s career as a major player burnt out just a few years later. (“If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me could we?”) The video highlight has to be the cool finish to a bout with Tony Charles, with a series of nice reversals that ends with the Englishman pinned by the crafty little Aussie.
Lance asks Bill about his “high spots” (dang it–kayfabe, Banana Nose!), with Dundee referring to the CWA World tag-title win with Rich to open the year. (Perhaps Bill was still punchy from his rough year, as that victory was in 1981.) Bill also discusses his low moments, including a legit separated shoulder that required them shooting an injury angle at the hands of Hart’s First Family. (That angle was well done, as Dundee is ganged up on, with Sweet Brown Sugar (heel Koko Ware) repeatedly diving onto the shoulder with a vengeance.) “Like any professional athlete suffering an injury” Dundee explains, he hit the gym for a comeback, when he was manhandled by some goons in the parking lot after a workout and was sidelined again. (In reality, it was just one goon, Randy Savage.) Hell, with all this misfortune, no wonder Dundee turned heel months later.
Lance marvels at Dundee’s resilisciency: “A lot of guys would have said, ‘Holy mackerel, the heck with this, but you kept coming back!” Another video plays, shot while Dundee was on the shelf earlier that year, on horseback with his arm in a sling (as the animal gallops briskly down a hill, the one-armed Superstar’s expression at one point appears to say, “Hold shit!), and later apparently daydreaming about a return while walking in the woods–yet another piece of footage most likely on Jarrett’s property, as Willie Nelson’s “All of Me” plays. Dundee humbly thanks the fans for their support and promises a better 1983–which would include turning his back on them and sticking a dagger into their broken hearts as he cheats his way to a win over Taylor for the Southern title on March 23, 1983.
Willie Nelson’s residual payday continues as “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” plays over Dutch Mantell footage. Appearing on set wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt and a huge cowboy hat, the Dirty Dutchman looks like he just stumbled out of a local honky tonk just hours earlier–and knowing Dutch, that might have been the case.
Lance and Dutch are great here discussing Mantell’s “rollercoaster year,” as Russell mentions each big title win, with Dutch raising his arms every time. And then each title loss is mentioned, with Oil Trough, Texan hanging his head in mock shame as if each defeat still carried a “Shoo-Baby” (his bullwhip)-like sting. When asked about the highlight of his year, Mantell points at Lawler, and says it was winning the Southern title from the King. In fact, Dutch and Jerry did have an incredible series in spring 1982, with Dutch receiving plenty of cheers as he pinned Lawler clean twice…a rarity. (Dutch discussed that unique feud with me in-depth in our interview last year.)
Dutch says that it was tough beating Lawler because he had everything going against him, including the fans. Lawler playfully tugs at Lance’s jacket, interrupting, saying, “That’s not true–you had plenty of fans…I heard them.” (Years later, Dutch recalled how much fan support he did in fact have, especially in Nashville, where fans threw rocks at Lawler’s car and broke his antennae–and this was at the height of the King’s popularity!) Fun to see the banter between these two, as Lawler also mentions that Dutch beat him on afternoon show–the same day of his wedding later that night, so clearly his mind was elsewhere. (And if you remember Mrs. Paula Lawler, can you blame the guy? Sounds feasible.) Dutch jokingly accuses Lawler of ruining the festive atmosphere, calling him Ebenezer Scrooge. (Speaking of which, Jimmy Hart is nowhere to be found, as Lawler had given fans an early present by burning the manager’s face repeatedly and breaking his arm in a cage match a week earlier. But, as 1983 opened, it would Hart who had the last–and loudest–laugh.) As Lawler puts his hands over his eyes, Lance airs footage of the afternoon win–set to the riveting music of…ABBA?! (“The Winner Takes It All.) Again, while an unusual choice, the slow music was by design, as Jarrett instructed cameraman Randy West to shoot extreme close-ups of the action a la World Class–which Memphis never did–to illustrate both the agony and defeat of a classic struggle. As they return to the set, Lawler offers Dutch his congratulations, giving him the boys’ soft worked handshake on TV (oops), with Dutch claiming that he really does like the King…just as much as he likes going to the dentist. Funny stuff and playful ribbing here.
Willie Nelson’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” takes us to the next break; coming back, we see video of Taylor’s highlights, with John Denver’s “Some Days A Diamond” playing–this could almost pass for a “Hee-Haw” Christmas special at times. The montage include footage of some amazing tag matches between Eaton and Sugar vs. Taylor and Jacques Rougeau–a feud that was all-too brief. Taylor comes in slacks, a sports coat and glasses, looking more like a substitute math teacher or a graduate assistant than the Southern champion. But when asked how it feels to be champ, Taylor suddenly transforms into an Muhammad Ali, jokingly claiming to be “the greatest of all time”–not too shabby. Mantell breaks out his own impression of John Wayne, warning that “the ride gets tougher, pilgrim.” Dundee plants the seeds for his heel turn with a great line directed at Taylor, who’s still mugging for the camera: “I hope that you when you wrestle me for that belt in 1983, your best impression is as a wrestler because my bad luck is behind me.” Taylor responds with a Roddy Piper impression, “Me, me, you wanna fight me?!” Taylor shows more personality here than he did all year.
The Fabs are next, with their introductory video that changed that set the tone for the MTV-style presentation that would become a staple of the promotion–and broaden its demographic greatly to teenage girls.
Steve Keirn and Stan Lane are clearly dressed for the occasion as they make their way to the couch wearing their sequined tuxedo jackets, high hats, white gloves–looking sharp, looking for love (cue ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”). Keirn credits mentor Jackie Fargo for their success, saying the original Fabulous One had the most charisma of anyone ever in the business–and he might be right about that, paly. Keirn really puts over Fargo as their inspiration for providing their magical spark, saying they feel the spirit of the Fabulous Fargos every time they strut to the ring. Lane, ever the ladies’ man, with a sly grin and a slight wink, encourages their female fans to “hang their stockings up tight because the Fabulous Ones might be coming down their chimney tonight,” as Lance guffaws. Awesome.
Lance wraps up the show, as the boys mix and mingle, decorating the tree, acting as if there all having the time of their lives, despite the lack of booze and women. Russell warmly thanks for the fans again: ”We are looking forward to 1983 with zest–because of you.”
An entertaining show that reminds of the campy fun WWF would begin to emulate in 1984. The chemistry among the boys at the time was really special, and it’s evident in this production–classic Memphis TV.
(For more on the year 1982 in Memphis Wrestling history, check out Mark James’ book on the subject, which can be ordered below.)