Home > Uncategorized > Anatomy of an angle: Robert Fuller’s last stand in Memphis leads to Tupelo concession-stand brawl

Anatomy of an angle: Robert Fuller’s last stand in Memphis leads to Tupelo concession-stand brawl

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Even wrestling fans couldn't believe it when Memphis crowds dropped to less than 4,000 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1979.

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.

In Tupelo, Jarrett booked his two top names, Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee, to defend the Southern Tag Team Title against two prelim wrestlers who had been teaming the previous two weeks–Wayne Farris (later Honky Tonk Man) and Larry Latham (later Moondog Spot). In a wild match where everyone bled and the crowd of 300 or so was on their feet, Farris and Latham scored an upset by screwing Lawler and Dundee and winning the belts. Lawler and Dundee, pissed off, attacked the heels after the match and they spilled out of the ring and fought down the aisle. Lance Russell, in the “crow’s nest” of the arena with a TV camera allegedly shooting for the “B” show that featured arena matches from around the area, signed off and the camera faded to black. The audio, however, was still up. Within 10 seconds you heard Lance yell to the cameraman Randy West, “Hey Randy, there’s a hell of a fight going on down here!” Video coming back up, you saw the camera moved down the back stairs, where Lance, carrying a light pole, shone the spotlight on all 4 men in the concession stand of the Tupelo Sports Arena, a dump of a place with plywood walls, and they were literally destroying the place. Stiff punches and kicks, chairs, tables, cookie sheets, brooms, mops, everything you would expect to find in a concession stand was used along with some of the most realistic brawling you will ever see, as the two teams beat the bejesus out of each other with Lance calling the action. Jarrett, trying to break up the brawl, was beaten down and had his street clothes ripped off. Finally, the combatants were hustled out by security and wrestlers, and the stand was completely destroyed and what was left was covered in blood and mustard, courtesy of a 10 gallon mustard jug Lawler had chucked at Latham that broke against the wall in a million pieces.
(Bowden’s note: To see footage of the infamous Tupelo concession stand brawl, click here: Jerry Lawler Concession Stand Brawl.)
 
The next morning on Memphis TV, the entire tape was shown unedited, and became the talk of the town’s wrestling fans. In an area noted for wild matches, no one had ever seen anything like this. The following week, it had become such a sensation it was shown again in it’s entirety, as well as airing on the one week tape delay in the other markets, Louisville, Nashville, Evansville and Lexington. Kenny Bolin and I went everywhere repeating Lance’s call of the action–”Mustard everywhere!”–and this incident actually convinced me to buy one of those newfangled inventions called a VCR.
 
Adding Sgt. Danny Davis as the manager of Latham & Farris, the Blonde Bombers, Jarrett booked the return matches on top in every town in the territory, filling out the cards with local talent and running Tommy & Eddie Gilbert vs. Buddy & Ken Wayne as the only other real “program” on the cards. In Memphis, he brought Fargo back to offset Davis. The crowds in all the cities started to rise. By July 18, the Memphis crowd was near 7,000, and two weeks later, a triple main event of Bill Dundee vs. Nick Bockwinkle for the AWA Title, Jackie & Roughouse Fargo vs. the Bombers in a cage, and Ron Bass vs. newcomer Terry “The Hulk” Boulder for the Southern Title drew 8,000. A crisis had been averted.”
 
 Another  reason why Fuller’s cards didn’t draw toward the end of his booking tenure (following a decent series of cards with Lawler vs. Austin Idol): For over a month, the territory centered around qualifying matches for a Memorial Day tournament in which the winner would receive the keys to…a brand-new…van. While this was 1979, it still seems a little silly to think all those wrestlers would have to win a half-dozen qualifying matches just to earn the right to enter the tournament for the possibility of winning a van. After all that buildup, the holiday spectactular on May 28 drew just 4,701 fans for the tourney…which, of course, was won by Fuller. The writing was on the wall at that point–Jarrett had to make a switch. Still, Fuller seemed awfully proud of his accomplishment on the June 2 Saturday morning show.

 

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.

  1. Tape Fan
    July 27th, 2010 at 05:40 | #1

    “For over a month, the territory centered around qualifying matches for a Memorial Day tournament in which the winner would receive the keys to…a brand-new…van.”

    Snort. Nice to see they kept up the fabulous prizes a year later when Koko got his TV title. Looking forward to what you cook up with Cornette.

  2. July 30th, 2010 at 02:29 | #2

    That 1979 set is fantastic. I like a lot of the Southeastern stuff but never really dug the Fullers in Memphis, for some reason. They seemed to do better stuff in their own promotion.

    Speaking of Cornette and the Midnights…I was actually at the very first teaming of Lane and Eaton as the Midnights. It was in Boston, of all places, during the NWA’s debut at the Boston Garden. They took on the Road Warriors and I was really surprised to see Lane come out. Flair-Windham was the main event of that show.

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