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On this date in rasslin’ history: Jerry Lawler defeats Superstar Billy Graham for CWA World heavyweight title

November 8th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments
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Clipping from a 1979 copy of the Ring Magazine. Jim Cornette took this photo on Nov. 8, 1979, at Lexington's Rupp Arena.

On the evening of November 9, 1979, my father, Memphis firefighter Travis Bowden, telephoned me from the station to tell me something he just knew would make me happy. He had been watching the Action News broadcast on channel 5 when sportscaster “Big” Jack Eaton announced that my wrestling hero, Jerry Lawler, had won the World heavyweight title the previous night at Lexington’s Rupp Arena. Jumping up and down with the phone in my hand, I exclaimed, “He beat Nick Bockwinkel?!” My dad paused for a second and said, “Uh, no. Someone named Superstar Billy Graham.”

Oh, man. Bummer.

Introduced a month or so earlier when journeyman Pat McGinnis came in lugging the championship trophy, the World heavyweight title as recognized by the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) wasn’t over at all with 8-year-old mark Scotty Bowden. Back in those days, fans bought pretty much whatever Jarrett, Lawler and announcer Lance Russell told them; however, pushing McGinnis as a World trophy-holder—especially after seeing past NWA champs like Jack Brisco and the Funks—was really pushing it. (Besides, I read the Apter mags, so I knew the real World champs were Bockwinkel, Race and Backlund.)

Still, Graham was an inspired choice to defeat McGinnis and carry the newly created championship, as the Superstar was at least a former WWWF champion who was a wrestling-media darling less than two years before. Superstar, who had always wanted a babyface run as World champion, gave the belt some semblance of prestige.

Most important, this introduction of the CWA World title enabled Jarrett to finally crown his king: Lawler defeated Graham for the title, and they even had a championship belt ready in time for the coronation.

To educate the Memphis audience that this truly was a “World” title, they even had the belt change hands outside the city limits: Lawler beat Graham in the exotic location of Lexington, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.

As an added touch, Lawler asked sportscaster Eaton to mention the World switch on the air in Memphis a few times during his evening sportscasts that week to help get the accomplishment over as something special.

Years later, I was able to ask Jarrett about this questionable decision to introduce another World title to the area. After all, the promotion had regularly used the NWA World champ on cards for years and of late had been using AWA titlist Bockwinkle, who played the role perfectly. So, why the CWA title? Jarrett replied, “I had planned a series of matches in which Lawler united several of the belts for a long time. I can’t say when the actual dates were or when they were planned. I know we did hold a [unification] match with Verne Gagne’s belt, and it was relatively successful.

Memphis, in effect, had become an “outlaw” promotion of sorts, recognizing their own CWA World champion and AWA kingpin Nick Bockwinkel over NWA titlist Harley Race. 

Says Jarrett of his decision: “I campaigned unsuccessfully for years to get the NWA title for Jerry,” Jarrett says. “But some people on the NWA board felt that he wasn’t tough enough. I was always saying, ‘Tough?’ What do you mean ‘tough’? This is show business.”

Frustrated with the NWA board, Jarrett began working with Gagne, and booking AWA World champion Bockwinkel instead of NWA kingpin Race, whom Jarrett wasn’t high on to begin with. 

“Not only was he a great wrestler, but Nick was also an articulate, decent man,” Jarrett says. “I really cared for Nick, and I counted myself lucky that I knew Nick Bockwinkel. And the politics of it…let’s just say that the NWA was beginning to slide a bit. Also, I was not successful at getting Lawler a run with the NWA title, and I figured I’d have much better luck talking to Gagne–one man–as opposed to an entire board, so that played a big part in it. Verne also had some really stellar talent besides Nick that would help us draw money.”


Jarrett hoped it would lead to unification bouts with Bockwinkel and giving his local star a run with the combined CWA/AWA belt before dropping it back to Nick.

The plan took longer than Jarrett expected, thanks in part to Lawler’s broken leg and the emergence of Jimmy Hart as a tailor-made feud, before his king was crowned in ’88 and went on to unification bouts with Kerry Von Erich. 

War of the Worlds

In Lawler’s first interview as CWA World champ, Lance Russell asked if he was going to vacate his AWA Southern title to concentrate on CWA title defenses, the King bellowed, “No way, baby! I want to win ‘em all!” Of course, Lawler broke his leg two months later, so we’ll never know how it would have played out. In typical Jarrett fashion, the CWA title bounced around with much the same regularity as one of the area’s regional titles with Lawler on the shelf, with stars such as Billy Robinson, Austin Idol, Bill Dundee and even a young Bobby Eaton holding the title over a six-month period. T

That said, Robinson–the antithesis of Lawler–and cut from the same mold as classic champs like Funk Jr, was an interesting choice as champ for a territory known for gimmicks. To get the belt over, Robinson retained while Lawler was on the shelf, turning back Bockwinkel (who had dropped the AWA title weeks earlier to Verne for the old man’s last hurrah) and even 6-time NWA champ Lou Thesz.

The 'World' champion of Memphis; Nashville; Senatobia, Miss.; Evansville, Ind.; and Jonesboro, Ark.

When Jarrett asked Robinson to eventually drop the title again after regaining from it from Dundee, the insulted champ, in a huff, left the area with the strap.

The last result I saw published on the CWA belt was Robinson dropping it to Dory Funk Jr. in Japan, but I cannot confirm that the bout actually took place. I believe Robinson still has the belt in his possession, though he claims his ex-wife got the strap as part of the divorce settlement, which, if true, means it’s probably in a pawn shop in the Midlands.

While the magic of the World title chase was gone by 1988, I suppose Jarrett finally got to see his unification storyline come to fruition when Lawler won the AWA title from the late Curt Hennig. Following that win on May 9, Lawler almost immediately began a series of World title vs. World title bouts with the World Class champ, the late Kerry Von Erich, which culminated in the creation of Jarrett’s so-called “Unified” title.

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  1. Tape Fan
    November 8th, 2010 at 23:13 | #1

    At least the CWA strap didn’t appear to be held together by Velcro!

  2. Chris B
    November 10th, 2011 at 16:18 | #2

    Great column, Scott!

    No disrespect meant to either champion, but that photo looks like they’re both holding serving platters the family breaks out at Thanksgiving.

    I did buy that issue of Ring, though, and I remember wondering what the heck the CWA was and how Graham got to be champion. Funny that it was Jim Cornette who took the shot. It is a great photo.

  3. November 10th, 2011 at 16:44 | #3

    Hi Scott,
    Fantastic article. Jerry Lawler “chase to the world title” is one of wrestling’s all time territory storylines. Jarrett was a genius in always making that “big match” feel whenever Lawler contedned for a World title. What a lost art of today, the big World title match feel.

  4. Meekrob
    November 10th, 2011 at 18:44 | #4

    That belt looks like a license plate.

  5. admin
    November 10th, 2011 at 18:53 | #5

    I’m not certain if it was this card or not, but around this time period, Nick defended the AWA title against Jackie Fargo–talk about contrasting styles. Would have loved to have seen that one. (Actually, I think Nick worked with Bill Dundee on this night.)

  6. admin
    November 10th, 2011 at 18:55 | #6

    FYI: Lawler designed the CWA belt–and somehow managed to screw up the Japanese flag.

  7. JB
    November 13th, 2011 at 21:07 | #7

    Thank you Scott. Fantastic article. Confirmed a lot of what I believed. After Lawler returned from the broken leg and the Hart feud started, You didn’t hear CWA mentioned on the shows, only AWA and NWA (Flair appearance). But the CWA sign did hang in the background. To me, CWA left Memphis with the World Title. And in ’88, Lawler stated he would retire if he couldn’t beat Hennig, and made a statement like he had never won an individual world title being a reason to retire, if I remember correctly.

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