Tonight marks the end of an era: TNA Wrestling is presenting what appears to be the last pro wrestling card ever held at the Nashville Fairgrounds, which will most likely be torn down next year.
Y’know, I’ve always snickered a bit when I see stars such as Robin Williams discuss Andy Kaufman’s foray into professional wrestling as if it was the death-knell to an otherwise brilliant career. (Like Mork & Mindy was such high-brow entertainment.) Even the more-fictional-than-factual bio-pic “Man on the Moon,” which, for the most part, wanted to portray Kaufman as a genius far ahead of his time, more or less portrayed wrestling as a blemish that would forever tarnish his legacy.
By the time I turned heel in Memphis in 1994, kayfabe was as dead as Tommy Rich’s career, and attendance was on life support. After attending Monday night wrestling to near-packed houses at the Coliseum in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was a little sad to work in front of the usual 1,200 fans at the 11,300-plus seat Mid-South Coliseum, where heat in the mid-’90 was getting as hard to find as woman in the front row wearing a bra. Most of the fans who were still attending matches at the Coliseum at that point appeared to be there merely at out of habit. I’m not even sure some of them could explain why they were at all.
Nashville, fans, however, were a throwback to kayfabe days gone by, with the fans living and dying with the boys. For those fans of old reading this, think Mid-South’s Irish McNeil Boy’s Club or World Class Wrestling’s Sportatorium, packed with fans vociferous as ever …in 1996.
One hot night in Nashville, in particular, stands out. And, yes, it was really was hot that evening at the Fairgrounds. Try no air-conditioning, in an unbearably humid June, in a small flea-market-style building (the “Sports Arena”–ha, ha, ha) packed with about 1,000 rabid fans, most of whom didn’t pay attention to Kaufman’s heat-generating hygiene-tip promos years back. Yeah, we’re talking heat in every sense of the word.
Some of these Nashville fans bothered me—I mean that in the sense that I was genuinely concerned for all of humanity. There’s nothing more unnerving than seeing a grown woman wearing an undersized Jerry Lawler T-shirt cursing at me with reckless abandon…all while holding her 5-year-old, who was already trying to perfect the art of flipping the bird—a prodigy to be sure. I used to bait this woman all the time with comments like, “Oh, congratulations, you’re the mother of the year” and “I weep for the future.” Still, I loved performing in front of these Nashville rednecks.
The scene: a losers-leave-town match between PG-13 and my tag-team of Rich and Doug Gilbert. I vowed in a pre-bout promo that “for once, one of Randy Hales’s matches was actually going to live up to the billing. Because the two biggest losers I’ve ever met (a bit of a shoot)—J.C. Ice and Wolfie D—are leaving.” Of course, I was careful not to say “Monday night” or “Memphis” during my diatribe. While that interview aired live on Saturday morning in Memphis to promote the card two days later at the Mid-South Coliseum, it would also air in Nashville and Louisville the following week, as if I were referring to the upcoming bout at the Fairgrounds or Louisville Gardens. For years, in the days of weaker TV signals and before cable, the Memphis promotion regularly got away with changing the area’s titles around the horn without very little threat of breaking kayfabe.
For example, Dundee would drop the Southern title to Lawler on Monday night in Memphis, and then walk to the ring still the champion on the following Saturday night in Nashville to lose the strap for a second time, and then again the following Tuesday in Louisville. That way, fans across the area always felt like they were in the thick of things. Of course, there was always the small contingent of arena rats who followed the boys from town to town, but then they could be talked into believing—and doing—anything.
I didn’t expect to tear the house down in Nashville with pretty much the same bout we’d run in front of the Memphis zombies about a week before. Probably because I found it hard to believe that anyone would even remotely care that PG-13 might be leaving town.
The spots in the bout are the same, with heel-manager Scott Bowden (that bastard) interfering constantly behind the broad back of referee Frank Morrell (who was so bad in his role he made Bronco Lubich look like Tommy Young), and, in the end, costing the babyfaces the match by nailing one of the white-trash rapsters with a fire extinguisher.
When the crowd nearly riots, it suddenly occurs to me that there are only a total of two security guards and they’re both former undercard rasslers, which means the fans have zero respect for them. I’m standing in the ring, simultaneously relishing and hating this potentially life-threatening situation when I see a guy flick a switchblade and smile in my direction. We’re not in Germantown anymore. Somehow I make it back to the dressing room with all extremities—and Cole Haan loafers—intact.
Months before this match, I was reading a Pro Wrestling Torch Talk with Cornette, who recalled his days as a manager in the wild Mid-South territory. Laughing, I repeated some of his accounts aloud to my girlfriend at the time. She listened to how Cornette was attacked several times, before finally asking me: “You so wish you were doing this back then, don’t you?” Whimsically, I replied, “Yeeeeahhhh….”
For one night in Nashville, I think I fully grasped what Jimmy Hart and Cornette experienced years before me on a weekly basis. And equally as important, I understood why Kaufman considered rasslin’ the greatest form of entertainment.