Royal gems: Counting down five of the King’s greatest bouts as Jerry Lawler prepares for his first WrestleMania match
Jerry Lawler admits feeling proud when Vince McMahon praised him backstage years ago following an episode of Monday Night RAW not long after hell froze over and he joined the Former Federation. He recalls being pulled aside as the Chairman of the Board told him, “You know, King, a lot of people claim to have it done in all in this business–but you really have, in and out of the ring. I’m proud you’re with us.”
Although he certainly has an ego, Lawler is far more humble about his place in wrestling history. As he told me once when I asked him about what he considered to be his best matches: “Oh, gosh, Scott, I don’t know. I’ve always considered this business as just something fun to do that I could make a living at. I’ve never, ever thought, ‘Oh, this has been my greatest series of matches.’ People sometimes lose sight of the fact that this business is a work–they take their own performances way too seriously. Really, one match may stink a little less than the other because you’re in there with a great worker but I’ve never really cared about what my greatest matches were. I was a big star because I was in the right place at the right time, and Jerry Jarrett liked my work. Later, when Jerry approached me and I got into a position of ownership, I kept myself on top because I was protecting my investment. We could build the business around me, and I’d never leave the territory. It wasn’t that I was necessarily better or greater than anyone else, but because it was the smartest thing for us to do from a business standpoint.”
So, as the King marches on to the biggest stage of his career, his long-awaited WrestleMania match with broadcast partner Michael Cole, I’ve taken the liberty of picking five of the King’s greatest matches…from a Memphis mark’s point of view. I think even Lawler would admit these bouts stunk a little less than most. (This list is not meant to be comprehensive by means–merely some of the most memorable Lawler matches from my childhood. I especially don’t mean to slight the Terry Funk feud, which spanned decades, but I covered that thoroughly here over a series of three columns. The Idol hair match has been a favorite of this site as well…both here and here. Anyway…enjoy.)
Jerry Lawler vs. The Dream Machine (Dec. 29, 1980, The Return of the King)
Really, it couldn’t have been booked any better. In the prime of his career in 1979 as the CWA “World” heavyweight champion, Lawler was injured at the hands of Jerry Calhoun, a Memphis wrestling referee, in a “friendly” touch-football game. As Lawler explained from his hospital bed to a channel 5 news reporter: “I was playing football with some old friends — Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, y’know, the boys — and I broke my leg. That’s the way it goes. That’s the breaks.” A tough break indeed for Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett, who had warned his number-one drawing card and top heel against playing in the roughhouse contests on Sunday afternoons in the fall. Years later, Jarrett told me that he had big plans for Lawler in 1980, including a program in which the King would try to unify wrestling’s World titles, much like the program in 1988.
But showing the same resiliency that would come in handy when Vince McMahon would invade his territory years later, Jarrett made the best of it. He removed the muzzle from Lawler’s manager, Jimmy Hart, and put all the heat on the former singer, who quickly became the biggest heel star in the interim. With Lawler looking at months out of action, Jarrett began planting the seeds for the King’s triumphant babyface return. To turn up the heat, Jarrett instructed Hart to compare Lawler’s injury to a “prized racehorse” breaking his leg, an analogy that legitimately irked the King. Hart asks Russell: “What do you do to him, Lance?! You shoot him, right? Jerry Lawler is no good to me anymore. He can’t make me any more money, baby!”
Lawler was not pleased by that comment, according to Dutch Mantel: “No, he didn’t–he did not like that. [laughs] He told me that. He was sitting home and watching it and, you know, Jimmy Hart just disrespected him on TV. I don’t know if Jerry’s feelings were hurt or was mad that they didn’t consult him, or I don’t know what the problem was there. But, he didn’t like it at all. And when he came back, well, he’s always been a great talker. Hart was a great talker. Now, Hart would really run down Lawler on his interviews. Oh, it was funny, and I would laugh at that in the back. Lawler would kind of get hot, but he wouldn’t say anything about it, and then he might stiff Hart with a shot and then Jimmy’s feelings were hurt. But they did great. I liken it to the Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote. Because that ol’ Wile E. Coyote could never quite get that Road Runner, and boy, you couldn’t kill Jimmy Hart. You put him in a wheelchair. You put him in a body cast. You burn him up. You whip him with a strap. But you couldn’t kill him. He kept coming back.”
The heat simmered until December 29, 1980, when Lawler returned to his castle for revenge in front of an SRO crowd of 11,500-plus, with fans sitting in the aisle steps and literally breaking the doors down, which brought police to the scene to restrain irate fans who were locked out of the Mid-South Coliseum.
Weeks earlier, Hart and Lawler had been floored backstage at the interview skills of Troy Graham, who had the gift of gab like Dusty Rhodes on his promos. Not only that, but Graham was a hell of a bump taker for such a big man, complementing his charisma–he’d make the ideal return foe for the King. With Stanback headache powder commercials featuring Dusty airing in the area, often during Jarrett’s wrestling show, the promotion put Graham under a hood and let him do his best impression of Big Dust, playing off Rhodes’ moniker of the American Dream…and the masked “Dream Machine” was born. In prematch interviews, it was sort of played up that he was Dusty, with the Dream Machine claiming that he was a big star nationwide donning the mask as he didn’t want to be held responsible for the punishment he was about to unleash on Lawler when he rebroke his leg.
When the lights dimmed in the sold-out Coliseum and the King ascended magically through the stage in a cloud of smoke (inspired by a KISS concert in the same venue months earlier), the fans, including 9-year-old Scott Bowden sitting way up in the cheap seats, rejoiced.
Lawler defeated the Dream in typical Memphis babyface fashion: Calhoun was bumped, allowing Lawler to pull a chain from his boot and knock Graham to dreamland. As per the pre-match stipulations, Lawler got five minutes with Hart, who got color (blood) about 10 seconds into it. His throne reclaimed, Lawler left Hart for dead. Little did I realize at the time that this was not the end of the storyline but only the beginning. There was blood to be shed, titles to be won and lost, and bones to be broken.
Lawler vs. Dutch Mantell (March 29, 1982, Barbed Wire Match)
The series of bouts between Lawler and “Dirty” Dutch Mantell over the Southern title in spring 1982 were some of the best of the King’s career, in my opinion. The feud was unique for the territory in that Dutch was a fan favorite while Lawler was still riding high in his prime as the babyface Citizen King of Memphis following his return from the broken leg. In Memphis, where heels and babyfaces were black and white, the program between the King and the Dutchman proved shades of gray could draw money if the fans believed in both wrestlers. Dutch was one of the first, if not the only star to pin Lawler clean in the middle of the ring in Memphis in 1982–and on the King’s wedding day no less. (Also noteworthy that a wrestler who worked on his wedding day didn’t end up ambushed or shoving someone’s face into the cake.) The crowd was nearly evenly split in Memphis, with the hometown Lawler receiving nearly 60% of the cheers to Dutch’s 40%. In Louisville, the cheers were about 50/50.
Nashville was most interesting, as Dutch had established himself years earlier in Music City, working a hot program with Randy “Macho Man” Savage, while Lawler often didn’t make the trip for Jarrett cards at the city’s “Sports Arena” at the Fairgrounds.
“When we got to Nashville, buddy, it was like 80/20 for me,” Dutch says. “Lawler told me after the match in Nashville, ‘Damn, Dutch. I went to my car afterward…and I’m used to signing autographs and kissing babies…[laughs]…and they had ripped the antennae off my car!’ Lawler’s funny as hell anyway, but when he told me that, we were both really laughing. See…Lawler didn’t like Nashville and the people there knew that he kinda looked down on ‘em because he’s a Memphis boy. He used to knock Nashville really hard when he was a heel, and the people there never forgot it. So when he came to Nashville against me, they turned on him like a dog even though he was a babyface. He said, ‘Dang it, Dutch, they’re throwing stuff at me!’ [Laughs]
While the Lawler/Dutch bouts in 1982 ended mostly in clean finishes, the promotion decided to have the blow-off to the feud in a barbed-wire match–only in Memphis could two babyfaces resolve their issue one of the most brutal gimmick matches around at the time. The result was a classic brawl.
Lawler vs. Bill Dundee (June 6, 1983, Loser Leaves Town Match)
I recalled when I first became a wrestling fan: the summer of 1977. Although Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee had first wrestled each other at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1975 (with Dundee going over), the fireworks between the King and the Superstar really kicked off, appropriately enough, on July 4, 1977, with a little over 5,000 fans in attendance. The Lawler/Dundee matchup headlined nearly each week to close out the month,with attendance climbing to 8,044 on July 11 (cage match) and a sellout 11,300 fans on Aug. 1 (King’s hair vs. Southern title and Cadillac). The feud pressed on to September, continuing to capture the imagination of local fans as the stakes were raised each week: a hair vs. hair bout on Sept. 5 drew 10,129, with Dundee getting his head shaved bald (making the supposed Aussie look “like a cue ball,” according to the King). Jarrett came back the next week with quite possibly the most outrageous stipulation in wrestling history: Lawler’s hair vs. the hair of Bill’s wife, Beverly. About 9,000 fans looked at the Coliseum on as Lawler once again triumphed and a local barber shaved Bev’s head clean.
Recalls Jim Cornette of those early Lawler vs. Dundee battles for Memphis rasslin’ surpremacy: “Lawler and Dundee were jealous of each other. Dundee was a workaholic and a good booker who would do whatever it took to become a star. And Dundee was a tremendous worker, that is, when he wanted to work. But Dundee also knew he could never be as big as star as Lawler, who had ‘it’ without even trying. So there was always jealousy. When they would be babyface tag-team partners, they’d go to the convenience store and fast-food places after the matches and be knocking each other to the fans. So, again, Jerry Jarrett would say, ‘Tell the truth as much as you can: Lawler and Dundee have never liked each other, so go ahead and say that.’ That way, when you break off into the work, it’s seamless. Nobody can tell where the work begins and where it ends. To the fans, it was real. Heck, it was real to them [Lawler and Dundee].”
The two called a truce upon Lawler’s return in 1980, a pact that lasted until spring 1983, when the promotion suggested that the aging Dundee had become jealous of the new heartthrobs entering the territory like Terry Taylor and the Fabulous Ones (again, probably playing off real emotions). It all culminated with a loser-leaves-town bout on June 6, 1983, in front of a near sellout crowd at the Coliseum. In a nice touch to get over show special this showdown was, all the babyfaces and heels (including manager Cornette) sat at ringside to observe.
In one of the best produced Memphis music videos of the era, the Lawler vs. Dundee showdown highlights were shown the following Saturday set to music from the film “Rocky.” (Think Apollo Creed could have gone the distance with the King? Not on your life.)
Lawler vs. Nick Bockwinkel (Jan. 1, 1984, AWA World title match)
As I detailed in my February 17 post, Nick Bockwinkel was one of the smoothest, most versatile performers in the game in the late ’70s and early ’80s, an ideal choice to play the role of the World heavyweight champion. He and Lawler had some classic duels for the championship, but this is one of my favorites–mostly because I was sitting in the ringside area cheering on the King to finally bring the title home to Memphis. A crowd of nearly 8,000 fans shared the same hope on this rare Sunday afternoon show at the Coliseum.
Although the action might be a little “too slow” for today’s fans, I love how the bout gradually builds, with Nick outwrestling the challenger most of the way…until Lawler pulls the strap and makes his Superman comeback.
Lawler vs. Randy “Macho Man” Savage (June 3, 1985, Loser Leaves Town Match)
For years as a young fan in Memphis in the 1970s, my only television exposure to professional wrestling was Jerry Jarrett’s “Championship Wrestling” program, which aired Saturday mornings at 11 a.m. on channel 5, WMC-TV, the local NBC affiliate. That all changed around 1980, when another wrestling promotion—led by outrageous ICW World heavyweight champion Randy “Macho Man” Savage—started appearing at 10 a.m. on channel 24, WPTY, the market’s first UHF outlet and independent station. I was intrigued from the get-go, as the show’s opening featured violent scenes of wrestling mayhem cut to the theme from “The Midnight Express,” which might have inspired a certain young photographer in Louisville.
International Championship Wrestling, an “outlaw” promotion operated by Poffo, ran some of the same towns as the Memphis territory in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee, making them enemies of promoter Jarrett and his crew. Much like Vince McMahon Jr. upon taking over the World Wrestling Federation following his father’s death in 1984, Poffo and the ICW crossed traditional territorial boundaries, with the idea of providing direct competition in an area already red-hot for wrestling.
As a young fan, I was quickly fascinated with Savage, who delivered some of the most unique, craziest promos I’d ever seen. With a shrieking, throaty delivery that almost sounded like he was speaking with a mouthful of barbed wire, Savage’s uncontrollable rage was evident in his quivering voice. His celebratory promos featured scantily clad women, snakes and confetti—a true wrestling champion in every sense of the word. In my eyes, he was a true psychopath, especially when he would “freak out.” Not only was his presence amazing, but he could also already work his ass off, with fantastic, wild, physical matches the norm.
But the ICW stars’ most scathing shoot comments were reserved for promoter Jarrett and his boys. Instead of building up their talent and airing promos related to upcoming cards, the ICW’s Roop, Garvin, Orton Jr. and especially Savage usually used their interview time to blast Memphis stars Jerry Lawler, Tojo Yamamoto, Bill Dundee and The Dream Machine repeatedly, challenging them to fights. Savage exposed Tojo as Harold Wantanabe during one promo, while Orton revealed the identity of the Dream Machine as Troy Graham. Roop, a legit bad ass, threatened to “stretch” Lawler, while Savage continually goaded “Jerry ‘the Queen’ Lawler.” To me, they came off like a bunch of bad-ass renegades. ICW even placed newspaper ads challenging Lawler and Dundee to show up on ICW cards to face Roop, offering thousands of dollars if they could last five or 10 minutes with the former amateur star. Wisely, the King and the Superstar followed the advice of Jarrett and ignored these threats, despite the fact they would only have to risk a turkey and a chicken vs. $5,000 of the Miser’s money.
It was tense time between the two warring promotions. Savage definitely made an impression on Jarrett’s announcers Lance Russell and Dave Brown. In addition to their misguided attempt to bury Jarrett’s talent instead of building up their own, the ICW folded in part when Russell negotiated to get Memphis wrestling TV on in place of the Poffos’ show in Lexington.
“I didn’t quite know what to expect from Randy,” Brown admits. “The first night I met him, I had taken a night off [from the evening newscast] to ride to Rupp Arena in Lexington with Lance and his wife, Audrey, and my wife, Margaret. But as soon as we get there, there’s this guy in the parking lot yelling at us. Lance says to me, ‘That’s Randy Poffo.’
Russell recalls: “Hey, who could miss him?” I hear this ‘Russssellllll!’ in that raspy voice of Savage’s, and I’m thinking, ‘Uh-oh, he finally caught up with me!’ We had secured their time slot in Lexington, and Randy was really unhappy with all of us.”
Brown: “I remember thinking, ‘We haven’t even gotten to see wrestling or a Kentucky basketball game, and we’re gonna die right here in the parking lot at Rupp Arena!”
Russell: “We actually got back into the van and drove it down into the underground parking facility at Rupp Arena. I was legitimately a scared of him because we had in effect help put his family’s promotion out of business. Then at the end of the night, the cops had already arrested some of the other ICW wrestlers who’d showed up with Savage, so the police warned him not to even cough near us. So Savage said he was gonna wait for us on the Bluegrass Parkway. We walked back in the dressing room, and every wrestler who had made the trip from Memphis was carrying a piece. Dave and I appeared to be the only ones without a gun! I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ So I’m thinking that Savage is going to try to jump us on the Bluegrass Parkway. But big ol’ Sonny King said, ‘Let me lead the way.’ Sonny was as tough outside the ring as he was inside it. Needless to say, we had no problems.”
With ICW on its last legs by December 1983, Angelo and Savage went to work for Jarrett, who set aside his personal animosity toward the Poffos so he could abide by his booking philosophy that personal issues draw money. After all, for years in the area, nothing had been more personal than Savage’s verbal assaults on Lawler. The first match between the King and the Macho Man drew nearly 10,000 fans to the Coliseum, with the Road Warriors appearing in Memphis for the first underneath vs. the Fabulous Ones.
After months in the territory, Savage, despite being a heel, was starting to develop a following as he was so damn entertaining on the mic, and his matches were often the best on the card. All my friends and I imitated his classic catchphrases “Dig it!” and “Oh, yeeaaahhh…” and “Doing the thing!” A huge babyface run was just an elbowsmash away. It came when Lawler was being double-teamed by heels Rick Rude and King Kong Bundy. Savage rushed the King and saved his former rival leading to some hot tag matches with the foursome around the area in 1984.
But after Jimmy Hart jumped ship for the WWF in January 1985, the area needed new heels. Savage was switched back to resume his feud with the King, with the Macho Man this time managed by new heel manager Tux Newman. Savage took his crazed persona to a whole new level for this feud, capturing the attention of Vince McMahon & Co. When the WWF made him a big-money offer, Savage was hesitant to accept, citing his loyalty to Jarrett, who had removed him from the “blacklist” of wrestling. Recalls Jarrett when Savage asked his advice: “I told him he had to take it–WWF was the big time,” he says. “Vince later told me that Randy told him, ‘I’d like to have a chance to make the big money, but my honor is more important. I’d have to give Jerry at least a two- or three-week notice.’ And he did, which gave us enough time to promote a loser-leaves-town match with Lawler on his way out. Randy is a quality, class human being.”
That loser-leaves-town bout was Lawler’s best match of 1985, with excellent drama, including a nice swerve at the end for fans convinced the King wasn’t losing. In his Saturday morning promo, Lawler claimed that he had too much invested in the city to actually leave, so instead he’d just retire if he lost. The stakes were high–and the match delivered. Turns out–things didn’t turn out so bad for Savage, even in losing.
While Sunday’s bout with Cole likely won’t be a classic, it should be memorable if anything, with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the mix. Besides, much like the buildup for Lawler and Hart so many years ago, the fans are dying for the King to get his hands around that slimy little neck of Cole and knock his lights out. I expect that Swagger will interfere in the early going to give Cole an advantage before Lawler makes his comeback and bursts Cole’s bubble about being a wrestler…sports entertainer…whatever. The only question is…what’s Lawler gonna do when Austin puts a Steveweiser in his hand post-match to celebrate? The King’s never tasted a beer in his life, so I’m thinking he pours it over Cole or maybe takes a big swig and spits it in his face a la Carlito. Now that’d be cool.