Marked Men: Behind the curtain of Memphis wrestling was the real show
While professional wrestling is usually regarded as a man’s soap opera (or, ahem, sports entertainment), the best stories unfold backstage. And, no, I’m not talking about those poorly scripted “spontaneous” moments that the Raw and Smackdown! cameramen just happen to catch each week.
During my run in Memphis, old-timer Buddy Wayne, an ex-wrestler turned promoter, would often pull me aside and say, “You’ve got your degree . Why do you stick with this shit? You don’t make any money. And if you’re in this business for any other reason than to make money, then you’re a fool.”
Years later, I read Mick Foley’s documentation of his talk with Memphis referee Frank Morrell, which took place years before he joined the WWF for the good of Mankind. From Foley’s best-selling autobiography Have a Nice Day : “Frank was a veteran wrestler turned referee, who seemingly made it his goal to torment every college graduate about his decision to wrestle. ‘You’ve got a college education. Why don’t you use it instead of being in this godforsaken business.’ My time in Memphis was as miserable as it was valuable.” (I must admit I also marked out when Foley told Randy Hales to fuck off in his book. Seems Cactus didn’t appreciate Hales’s insistence that he not stray from the traditional heel formula in Memphis.)
When I read Foley’s account of his Memphis tour of duty, I couldn’t empathize more. Granted, even mid-card guys like Morrell used to make a damn good living working places like Memphis and Georgia. But the real reason the boys put up with the travel and injuries is because it’s a highly addictive, fascinating business. Must be why Morrell continued to ref for peanuts in 1996 and why Wayne kept promoting shows that would draw only about 250 people in Rooster Poot, Ark.
Not to be outdone by a visionary like McMahon, promoter Wayne had his own unique way of making money with his shows. He would take two agonizingly long 30-minute intermissions for a five-match card. “If the people are sitting there with nothing to do, then they’ll go get something to eat at the concession stand,” he reasoned.
Although I probably lost money on some shots I made around the territory (e.g., the 15-hour round trip to Louisville), I stayed on because I loved it. Like Foley, it was my dream to be in the business. Not only for the thrill of performing, but also for the antics backstage. Believe me, if it weren’t for the fun behind the scenes, most of the boys wouldn’t be in the business. In that sense, that made us the biggest marks of all.
The absolute best was hanging out backstage at the WMC-TV studio during the live Memphis wrestling show, especially if Lawler was in town. It was an odd scene: wrestlers changing into spandex and rubbing copious amounts of baby oil over their bodies in the station’s break-room area as WMC employees–indifferent after so many years of TV tapings–scurried around these unusual characters without blinking an eye. Once we were on the air, the running critiques and putdowns by Lawler were better than anything he does on RAW nowadays. It was also interesting to watch how Lawler and other veterans “helped” the rookies.
Sure, most of the boys in Memphis at that time were doing the first promos of their lives—and on live TV—but occasionally a young guy would cut a decent interview, more of a testament to Lance Russell, who could pull one or two comments out of the most tightlipped newcomer. Lawler would be watching the promo on the monitor in the back, saying “Good. Good. OK. End it now before you screw up. Good.” And then the guy would emerge behind the curtain wearing a satisfied grin, and Lawler would greet him with something like this: “What the fuck was that? Geez.” Like a paddled schoolboy, the rookie would sulk to the back, all confidence shattered. After the poor chump was out of earshot, the boys would erupt with laughter. And why not? Lawler was the Big King on Campus.
I was no exception to this bullying early in my career. That is, until I noticed the pattern. The first time I called their bluff, they left me alone. And, looking back, maybe that was the point of the heckling: Figure out for yourself when you know the business and get to the point that you don’t give a shit what others think. The key to making money in the business is individuality, and you can’t have that if you’re second-guessing yourself.
Yes, in many ways, Lawler was not only the class clown/bullying jock, but also the teacher. When the live show was pre-empted in the months leading up to the first Gulf War, most of the boys were dumbfounded; they had no idea that a potential conflict was likely. What followed amused me: A number of the boys backstage circled around Lawler, who explained where the troops were headed and the background of this new heel, Saddam Hussein. Midway through the impromptu lesson, Reggie B. Fine raised his hand to ask a geography-related question. Don’t get me wrong: I loved Reggie to death, but that was damn funny.
For me, it got to the point that Lawler would override Randy Hales’s decision to cut my interview time, enabling me to do whatever I wanted. On live TV. I’m sure at times, however, Lawler would regret that decision.
Even after I had established my confidence, Lawler still ribbed me; however, it was never a knock on my work. And there’s a big difference. One Saturday morning, he planned an angle where I was to fire Tex Slazenger, who had lost the USWA title to Lawler the previous week. Upon hearing the news of his dismissal, Tex was to pull my pants down. Well, Tex not only yanked my Polo khakis down to my ankles but also my boxer shorts. As Russell quickly went to a commercial break, I crawled toward the back, struggling to pull up my pants. I met Lawler’s boots and voice as I opened the curtain. “Do you realize that the entire city just saw your ass and your dick on TV? Oh, fuck, Bowden!” (Ironically enough, Tex would move on to the Naked Mideon gimmick during WWE’s Attitude Era.) I immediately thought of my poor parents watching at home. After the show, I headed straight to their house for any damage control that might be necessary. Instead, they laughed it off as no big deal, which I couldn’t figure out. I nervously watched the replay on their VCR. Somehow, the camera hadn’t caught any of my privates. Lawler got me pretty good on that one.
The dressing-room dynamic would change a bit when the WWF(E) stars would come down. About two weeks after I had headlined the main event at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis in front of the usual 1,200 or so regular hardcores, the crowd just about doubled for a decidedly more attractive main event: Lawler and the returning Jeff Jarrett (that’s J-E-Doubah-F…oh, never mind) vs.then-WWF champion Bret Hart and The Undertaker.
McMahon’s two biggest draws (although in ’96, that was nothing to brag about) were in town as part of his working relationship with Jerry Jarrett, the longtime owner of the Memphis-based promotion. Around 1992 Vince had finally realized he had no other promotion left to raid after he had run nearly everyone else out of business. And given Jarrett’s track record for producing future stars like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage (whose bodies and gimmicks were now getting old fast), it wasn’t a surprise when McMahon struck an agreement with the elder Double J.
McMahon would sign greenhorns, like Dwayne Johnson, The Rock, and send them to Memphis under developmental deals, which would complement those $60 payoffs from Lawler and Jarrett quite nicely, i.e., they could survive. Kurt Angle was another future WWF champ who had a nice run in Memphis before his New York debut.
In exchange for grooming these would-be superstars of tomorrow, Jarrett and Lawler would occasionally receive the services of WWF stars who happened to have the night off from Vince’s schedule. The rationale was that the presence of the WWF would enable the struggling USWA to survive as a farm league of sorts, a feeder system.
I’m sure the WWF boys were thrilled when they were directed to Memphis on their free nights, especially when some guys spent years earlier struggling to get out of the territory for greener pastures in the first place. In the early days of the Mankind gimmick, Foley was sent back down to the Memphis minors during my time there to as part of a trial run working in the leather mask. As Mankind charged the ring during a TV bout in which I was managing Reggie vs. Lawler, I nervously screamed to Dave Brown over the microphone, “This guy’s crazy, Dave. He makes Hannibal Lecter look like Mr. Rogers!” After the TV taping, I drove Foley to Nashville for that night’s matches. When I picked him up, Foley was staying at a $35-a-night motel across from the Summer Ave. Twin Drive-In—his infamous frugality in action. Talking shop with Foley during that three-hour drive was a career highlight.
Given the nature of our demographic at the time, it was almost fortunate that Hart and ‘Taker were available for that particular Monday night—Feb. 14, 1996. Dubbed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the event played host to several couples, some wearing matching Jerry Lawler T-shirts, all ready for an evening of rasslin’ and romance. And really, don’t the two go fist in fist?
The regular crew of washed-up Memphis boys who didn’t see the bright lights of New York at the end of the tunnel looked for ways of their own to benefit from the WWF relationship. On this night, Billy Travis and Reggie B. Fine had the local photographer take several pictures of them posing with The Undertaker, which wound up for sale for $3 at the Mrs. Guy Coffee’s gimmick (merchandise) table as early as the following week.
Once, when comedian Pauly Shore made an appearance on the show, an enterprising Travis jumped at the chance for a photo-op with the then-hot star, so he could make a few extra bucks. Somehow, Shore’s agent got wind of it, and sent Travis a letter threatening legal action if the actor’s photos remained a part of Mrs. Coffee’s wrestling wares. Travis, a talented performer and a nice guy, passed away in 2002 at the age of 4o—one of many untimely heart-related wrestling deaths.
Although I usually ducked out if I wasn’t part of the main event, giving me enough time to escape to my car and exit the parking lot unscathed, I hung around to see Hart work. I must admit that I, too, wanted my pic taken with Hart, but there was no way I was going to add to his angst—more out of respect than anything else. Especially with all the Memphis undercard guys hanging around like marks, hoping for the chance to speak with the WWF stars.
I kept to myself, as I often did in the dressing room, munching on the remnants of the huge box of chocolates allegedly sent to me on the air the previous Saturday by Mrs. Downtown Bruno. (You put out free food in the dressing room in Memphis, and the boys are on it like the Four Horsemen on Dusty in a parking lot.) I remember I was bummed because the angle with Bruno and his wife, Karen, was going nowhere faster than the Dusty/Larry Zbyszko/Baby Doll “blackmail photos” fiasco. Or Dusty’s Midnight Rider return in ’88. Or Dusty’s “Funky Like a Monkey Tour.” Ah, the Dusty/Crockett years…risky bidness, indeed. You can’t judge a booker by looking at the cover; however, you can judge one by how he ruined the company—in public, if you will.
Lawler used to hate it when I’d mention even remotely obscure names during my promos. And I often took veiled shots at those in the biz who I didn’t like. During a promo about Slazenger, I proclaimed my former charge to be “the stupidest wrestler to ever come out of the state of Texas…and that includes Dusty Rhodes and the Von Erichs.” (Out of the corner of my eye, I saw announcer Lance Russell grinning at that remark.) Lawler used to compare me to Brian Pillman, calling me “our loose cannon.” I took it as a compliment
As Hart left his dressing room for his tag match, he saw Brian Lawler, who had made the unfortunate choice of wearing pink tights and black trunks, the Hitman’s trademark colors. Brian had also been using Hart’s sharpshooter maneuver in recent weeks, which I believe Jerry stooged off to the WWF champ as a rib.
Hart says to Brian: “What tha?! You steal my move and now my colors?” Brian, who usually wasn’t nearly as quick-witted as his father, came back with a good one: “Yeah, but Bret, when you do it [the sharpshooter], you roll to the right. I go to the left.” Hart, hardly the excellence of insults, laughed and dropped it.
Brian didn’t fare as well in a battle of backstage wits with me. During a road trip two weeks prior, Jerry asked Brian’s girlfriend to name all the planets in the solar system. When she couldn’t name a single one, Jerry gave her a hint: “Well, for starters, what’s the name of the planet we live on?” Her reply: “The world.” Jerry, laughing uncontrollably, said, “No! No! Earth! We live on Earth!” Dumbfounded, Brian’s girl explained that she thought the term “Earth” represented the entire solar system. Brian was livid. Throwing salt into the eyes, Lawler pressed on: “Let me give you another hint. Mickey Mouse’s dog is….” Her response: “Pluto! See, y’all, I know my Disney.” Lawler nearly ran off the road on that one. I hadn’t seen him laugh that hard since Downtown Bruno had informed the King that he’d sent Vince McMahon a canned ham for Christmas.
The following Saturday, Lawler was looking to stir things up. He told me that Brian had been knocking my girlfriend to the boys–I suspect because Kristi didn’t wear makeup like a hooker or have a fake tan and big hair. (Kristi was more of Midtown hippie chick–very intelligent and sardonic, with great curves and sublime, natural tits like a late ’60s-era Playmate.) I replied to the King that at least my girl had a brain. Lawler’s eyes lit up, and he motioned me to the back where all the boys were getting dressed. He asked Brian: “Hey, what about Scott Bowden’s girlfriend?” Brian: “Geez. I wouldn’t give her the time of day.” I came back with: “Oh, yeah? At least my girlfriend knows the name of the fuckin’ planet we’re living on.” A collective “Ooooooohhh” from the boys followed as Lawler again nearly doubled over laughing. Score one for Germantown’s favorite son.
In Memphis dressing rooms, a quick wit was the ideal foreign object.