Anatomy of an angle: Robert Fuller’s last stand in Memphis leads to Tupelo concession-stand brawl
I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be interviewing Jim Cornette for Kentucky Fried Rasslin’ as soon as the controversial manager comes up for a breath following the upcoming NWA Legends Fan Fest in Charlotte. Jim and I finally met again at the 2009 Fan Fest, years after we briefly worked together in the the Memphis-based USWA in 1991, and we had a nice time discussing what made Jerry Jarrett’s territory so special in its heyday.
Similar to my four-part interview series with Dutch Mantell, Jim and I will be discussing all the great Memphis angles from the ’70s and ’80s, getting his perspective as a fan, photographer and, eventually, as a performer before Jerry Jarrett traded him, Bobby Eaton and Dennis Condrey (among others) to Bill Watts and Mid-South Wrestling, where the dastardly trio found their niche as the Midnight Express.
As most of you may know, Jim has his own Web site (confirming that, indeed, hell has frozen over), where he often recall’s wrestling’s history while lamenting the changes that have made our beloved onetime caricature of true sport into a sports-entertainment caricature of itself. Case in point, Cornette’s excellent column from May 20, 2009, where he details booker Robert Fuller’s final days as booker in Memphis in 1979 and the angle Jarrett conceived in the days after his departure to spark the territory…unwittingly creating the now-beaten-to-death concept of “hardcore” wrestling.
Cornette writes: “The real birth of…what has come to be known as “Hardcore” wrestling, came June 17, 1979, in, of all places, Tupelo, Mississippi. Promoter Jerry Jarrett, who had started his own promotion two years earlier and taken over Gulas’ area, had a problem. Over the previous four months or so, his booker had been Robert Fuller. Fuller had installed his own crew of talent over that time, and only a few Memphis mainstays were currently working the area. The problem was, for whatever reason, the success Fuller and his crew had in Knoxville for brother Ron’s Southeastern Wrestling had not translated to the Memphis end. On June 11, the crowd at the weekly Monday night matches in Memphis had dropped below 4,000 fans, an alarming level at the time, and previous weeks’ houses showed it wasn’t a fluke. Jarrett replaced Fuller (and I would love to someday hear the first-person account from Jerry of that conversation), and took the book back himself. Now he was in another quandary–almost all the top names featured on TV and in angles over the previous several months were gone–Fuller, the Mongolian Stomper, Gorgeous George Jr., Mr. Fuji & Prof. Tanaka, Ronnie Garvin, Jimmy Golden, Dick Slater, Boris Malenko, Tony Charles, all were gone from the territory instantly after the June 11 Memphis card. Jarrett, in my opinion a booking genius, realized he had to take the talent left available to him on short notice and do something that would get such attention, cause such talk, and most importantly, sell enough tickets, that the territory could weather this storm until he had time to build new programs and import new stars.
As Cornette pointed out, the June 11 card proved to be Fuller’s last. The following week, nearly all the wrestlers Fuller brought with him from the Southeastern promotion were packed up and gone–presumably in Robert’s van. Again, on paper it doesn’t seem like a bad card, but the chemistry just wasn’t there. Following Idol’s departure, there were no personal feuds that captured the imagination of the fans, which would drastically change in the months ahead.
Jarrett followed the July 18 card up with a hot crowd for the July 23 Memphis card, which drew about 7,000 fans for a main event of the Freebirds vs. Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee. In the audience that night were fans from the WFIA Convention (including the late Brian Hildebrand), Cornette…and 8-year-old mark Scott Bowden, which I wrote about here. The Bombers/Lawler and Dundee drew several strong houses along the way–as Cornette pointed out, Jarrett even called on area legends Jackie Fargo and Roughhouse Fargo to join the fray to spike attendance, which always worked for a few weeks out of the year when business was a little slow. After that feud ran its course, the King turned against the Superstar, once again giving the area one of the hottest heels in the business. After cheating his way past Dundee the week before to win the opportunity, Lawler challenged Bockwinkel for the AWA World title on Aug. 27 , drawing over 10,000 fans–and the Robert Fuller era was a distant memory.
For more information on how you can relive virtually the entire 1979 season of Memphis wrestling, click here.
Look for the Jim Cornette interview on Kentucky Fried Rasslin’ in mid-August.