On this day in Memphis wrestling history: King at last! Jerry Lawler dethrones Curt Hennig for AWA World championship
In 1978, Memphis wrestling territory owner/promoter Jerry Jarrett made a gamble that would pay off 10 years later. Despite gaining the support of NWA promoters in his infamous battle to take the Memphis territory from longtime promoter Nick Gulas following a dispute, Jarrett in 1978 had become disgruntled in his dealings with the Alliance and their reluctance to put the NWA World title on his rising star, native Memphian Jerry Lawler.
Four years earlier, Jarrett booked a long program, the Quest for the Title, which was designed to get Lawler over in the fans’ eyes as a serious contender for the NWA World championship, held at that time by the late Jack Brisco. The roots of the program can be traced to Jarrett’s teenage years, when he was worked a part-time job at wrestling matches at the Hippodrome Arena in Nashville.
“I was a 14- or 15 year-old kid sitting in front of the arena tearing tickets as folks walked in. Lou Thesz was the World heavyweight champion. Most of the wrestlers would pull up behind the building and go in the side door and duck into the side dressing room. But Lou pulled up in a taxi in front of the building. I was tearing tickets at the matches. He would walk up those steps to the Hippodrome, and literally, goosebumps would jump on my arms and the hair on the back of neck would stand on end. You knew he was the champion–even if you’d never seen wrestling–just from the way he carried himself. Lou Thesz was an inspiration to me. I was so impressed with Lou that I had this reverence for the World title and still do. It signifies that you have achieved the very top in this profession. So Jerry Lawler was very talented, and I knew that he deserved to be the champion, so I developed the Quest for the Title for him.”
Jarrett called some of his closest friends in the wrestling business, including the late Eddie Graham, who had a tremendous influence on the young promoter, to get dates on some of the biggest stars in the business. Jarrett billed them as the top 10 contenders that Lawler had to defeat to get a shot at the 10 pounds of gold.
One by one over a period of months, Lawler knocked them off…whether the stars agreed to lose or not. When the Sheik (Ed Farhat) and Dick the Bruiser refused to do a job for Lawler after arriving at the Coliseum, Jarrett simply filmed a false finish and then turned the cameras off when the bout later ended inconclusively via a disqualification or count-out. Lawler and his manager Sam Bass would then come out the following Saturday morning, airing only the footage of the false finish but claiming victory nonetheless.
“He [Bass] would say, ‘Jerry Lawler beat the stew out of the Sheik and beat him 1, 2, 3.’ Because their credibility was important, Lance and Dave would try to dispute it saying, ‘Oh, c’mon, Jerry.’ So Lawler would scream, ‘Play the tape if you don’t believe me!’ And then we’d show the false finish with Lawler appearing to beat him for a three count. Lawler would then proceed to talk about next week’s challenge, as Lance just shook his head. So, in that sense, Lawler effectively beat everyone in the nation as part of the Quest for the Title–if not by pinfall, then with a little creativity.” The program culminated on Sept. 16, 1974, with more than 10,125 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum on hand for the title showdown. Lawler appeared to defeat Brisco for the belt but the decision was overturned when the referee discovered that the King had used a chain to knock out the champion. Backstage, two men watched with tears in their eyes. ”Eddie Graham and I stood at the back of the Mid-South Coliseum…we were both very emotional,” says Jarrett. “Brisco was Eddie’s man, he loved him, he groomed him and he nurtured him to become the World champion. Lawler was my man. That night, it almost felt like our sons were out there really fighting for the World title. That was such a fun time of my life.”
Of course, in a sense, the Quest for the Title was really just beginning, as the promotion continued to return to the storyline for the next several years as Lawler always fell heartbreakingly short of bringing the World championship home to Memphis. And without the benefit of a professional sports team in our city at the time, Lawler was the home sports team for my friends and me growing.
“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.”
Despite the consistent success of the territory, Jarrett claims the NWA made it clear that Memphis would most likely never see a title change, even a quickie (similar to Tommy Rich in Georgia and Dusty in Tampa). In addition, the perennial NWA champ in the ’70s and early ’80s, Harley Race, disliked Lawler and Jarrett because the promotion had made it appear that the King had pinned all of his challengers during the Quest for the Title run when in fact most of the wins came via disqualification or countout.
Race claims he was so ticked off about the King’s apparent conquering of “the entire NWA and Andre the Giant” that he challenged Lawler to a shoot prior to a scheduled title defense. Luckily for Lawler, cooler heads prevailed. Race’s last appearance as NWA champ in Memphis was in December 1977 when his bout with Lawler was stopped when “Handsom” Jimmy Valiant busted a Coke bottle (which had been baked in an over for 2 hours to soften it) over Lawler’s head.
In August 1978, Jarrett began working with Verne Gagne, who owned the successful American Wrestling Association territory, and booking AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel instead of NWA kingpin Race. Jarrett also changed all the area titles to AWA affiiation, including the NWA Southern title to the AWA Southern title.
With his regal demeanor and arrogance, Beverly Hills’ Bockwinkel played the role of the rich playboy champion to perfection, some would argue much more effectively than NWA World champion Ric Flair. (Not only that, but it was also cheaper and easier to get dates on the AWA champion, whose schedule wasn’t nearly as hectic as his NWA counterpart.) You practically needed a dictionary on hand when watching a Bockwinkel promo. And, man, could he work. Lawler and Nick had some of the bouts of the King’s career–amazing chemistry that had the fans on the edge of their seats.
“Well, 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 Verne 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.”
Lance Russell describes the nights of World title matches at the Mid-South Coliseum as “magic.”
“The atmosphere was charged by the fans,” Lance says. “You couldn’t help but feed off the fans. The fans were so excited, ‘Tonight’s the night. This is the one we’ve been waiting for. Jerry’s had the champion on the ropes before and this could be the night he takes it!’ The enthusiasm was just unbelievable.”
I attended several bouts in which Lawler came up just short in his bid to become World champion, most notably a 60-minute draw with Bockwinkel in August 1979; a 40-minute-plus DQ win over Nick on Jan. 1, 1984; and a DQ loss to Flair in a forgettable bout on Sept. 30, 1985. During Lawler’s title bout with Hennig, on Aug. 11, 1987, an old drunken man sitting next to me at the Coliseum was in tears as confessed to me that he’d “do anything–even give up a month’s pay–to see Lawler win the World belt” in his lifetime. That’s how much it meant to Memphis fans.
Unable to negotiate a title change with Gagne intially, Jarrett created his own World title, the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) championship in 1979. To give the title credibility, Jarrett brought in Superstar Graham, who two years earlier had been all over the Apter mags as WWWF champion, to dethrone journeyman Pat McGinniss in Memphis. Graham, of course, dropped the belt to Lawler a short time later in Lexington.
After Lawler broke his leg, the CWA title bounced around to guys like Bill Dundee to Austin Idol to Billy Robinson before it was finally forgotten. When Lawler returned from a broken leg in December 1980, the chase for a true World title was back on.
With the AWA crumbling in 1988 and champion Curt Hennig, probably the top worker in the business at that time, finally accepting a WWF offer to come in with the perfect gimmick, Gagne finally agreed to put his World championship belt on Memphis’s number-one son.
Although the magic of the original Quest for the Title had waned a bit, along with the luster of the AWA and NWA championships, Jarrett booked the title switch on May 9, 1988, which was actually deemed “Jerry Lawler Day” in the city of Memphis by then Mayor Dick Hackett, who even sat ringside for the bout. (Tensions were running so high during the bout–Lawler had vowed to retire if he lost–that a huge fight broke out in the main event, directly in the seating row behind of Mayor Hackett, who had to scramble for cover.)
Although not one of Lawler’s best bouts, the May 9 title switch was pretty damn good, with Lawler juicing heavily over his eye, putting the fear in the fans’ hearts that maybe father-figure Fargo would stop the bout to prevent permanent injury. Of course Hennig, one of the best bump takers in the biz, did his part to make Lawler look tremendous, which he didn’t have to do.
When special-ref Jackie Fargo counted to four (by accident), the pop from the nearly 9,000 fans in attendance at the Mid-South Coliseum was about as amazing as you might expect, as the bloody King of Memphis was finally crowned heavyweight champion of the world. Prior to the bout, in a rather tacky money-making venture, the promotion had set up a 900 number, enabling the fans to vote for either Fargo or Curt’s father, Larry “the Ax” Hennig, as the official. Even worse, Lawler claimed on the air that Hennig had posted the number in Minneapolis and that the voting was dead even a week heading into the Monday night showdown. Thankfully, “a hometown surge” carried Fargo to victory. (I believe Jarrett and Lawler each made $5,000 from the 900 “voting.”)
To celebrate the monumental end of the chase, my friend and I scooped up dozens of complimentary Jerry Lawler posters, which had been distributed to the fans in attendance by a tobacco company. We arrived early at our high school Tuesday morning to tape the posters all over the campus, along with a huge sign in the cafeteria congratulating the new King of the World. I’ll never forget the reaction of my appalled English teacher, Mr. Scates: “That horrid man’s face is all over the school!”
In reality (and I use that term loosely when discussing the business), Lawler defended the title against a pretty impressive group of challengers: Hennig, Kerry Von Erich, Eddie Gilbert, Austin Idol, Tatsumi Fujinami, Dutch Mantell, Buddy Landel and Wahoo McDaniel. The feud with Von Erich was initiated to create a new chase, this time for the World Class championship, which Lawler won at the AWA’s SuperClash III in Chicago. Even though I’d pretty much stopped buying the Apter mags at that point, which I used to check regularly as a kid to see where Lawler was ranked in the AWA ratings, it was nice to see the King get recognition as a legit World champion. Maybe that’s because Lawler’s chase for the title was my chase–my dream–as well.
I wonder if today’s fans feel that same connection when John Cena goes after his 13th WWE heavyweight/World championship in the near future.
Special note: If you like the portrait of the King above, check out the Kickstarter campaign of Rob Schamberer, an artist and longtime Kansas City wrestling fan, who wants to paint a portrait of every world heavyweight champion.
Says Rob: “I’m going to start with the NWA, AWA, ECW, WCW, WCWA/USWA, TNA, ROH and WWWF/WWF/WWE. I’m a guy from the Midwest with a lifelong dream of being a full-time artist. I’ve had my work featured in many shows and I have worked as a comic-book writer and artist as well as a freelance illustrator. I want to take it to the next level and focus all of my energies on my art, and with your help I can do this! My style is a mix of influences like street art, comic books, and mid-century illustration, which I feel creates a vibrant and energetic approach to this subject. The art created around professional wrestling has always seemed to lack something. Either it’s too real, or it’s too cartoonish. It’s too polished or too amateurish. I want to be honest to the wrestlers while also bringing that kinetic energy they deliver to their fans. I’m going to do this with a mix of mediums, mostly consisting of acrylics, oils, and spray paint. I’m an experimenter, though, and I’m sure to try new approaches and media as I go. What is the money going towards, you ask? Twenty grand’s a lot of money. I want to get real studio space that can also serve as a gallery. I think it would be great for people to be able to come see the paintings in person. Paying for all of these supplies to make the art is costly to boot. For reals, I’m going to need to buy wood and supplies for around 250 paintings!”
I’ve personally sponsored this endeavor with a $25 pledge. Click here if you’d like to contribute…and pick up a cool collectible while you’re at it. But hurry–only a few days remain.
For more on this project, check out this YouTube clip: