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Posts Tagged ‘Dave Brown’

Monday night Memphis wrestling memories featuring Jerry Lawler, Terry Funk, Eddie Gilbert, Austin Idol…and Elvis Presley?

March 12th, 2012 No comments

Eighteen years ago, I was a skinny college senior finishing my BA in journalism at the newly christened The University of Memphis. (It was years before I stopped saying, “Memphis State,” when asked about my alma mater. Even then, I felt silly saying the new, apparently more prestigious name.)

This photo appeared in the U of M yearbook. I love the caption: Scott Bowden, journalism senior, prepares to make a ruling. Then it quotes me mentioning how getting hit with chairs is an inherent risk of the job.

In addition to a full class load (desperately trying to cram in all those math courses I’d put off for 4-plus years) and my part-time jobs as a writer for the Memphis State University  The University of Memphis (Alumni) Magazine during the week as well as a tug driver/plane loader for FedEx on weekend afternoons, I was a working as a referee for Saturday morning rasslin’ and at the Mid-South Coliseum on Monday nights.

Of course, I had to pass an accelerated course in Referring 101 by Jerry Lawler backstage after the promotion had fired Jerry Calhoun in spring 1991.

While it may seem odd that journalism led to my brief but exhilarating run in the business, in a way it made perfect sense as I was a voracious reader of not only comics books, but also sci-fi novels and any books on larger-than-life subjects such as the Loch Ness Monster, Alcatraz and the Bermuda Triangle as well as the newsstand wrestling magazines (a.k.a., the Apter mags) since I was about 7 years old.


I considered myself lucky to be in the right place at the right time to live my dream of appearing alongside the same heroes and heels I’d cheered and jeered as a kid, not to mention the voices of Memphis wrestling, Lance Russell and Dave Brown, who helped guide me through my initial interviews when I eventually turned heel. (And trust me, it wasn’t always easy being a heel in your hometown, especially when you’re feuding with Jerry Lawler.) OK, so one promo with Brown turned ugly….

But my heel turn was still months away on Saturday morning, March 5, 1994. On this day, the live Memphis TV show was geared toward promoting a reunion show with not only the regular crew but also special appearances by legends Sputnik Monroe, Don & Al Greene, and Jackie Fargo as well as the return of classic in-ring performers from the territory’s heyday, such as Terry Funk and Austin Idol.

Handsome” Jimmy Valiant had come in early for the show, and just as Dave Brown described him years later, he was subdued before exploding through the curtain to hype the biggest card in Mempho in years. One of the fondest memories of my peek behind the curtain of the business: Lawler and Eddie Gilbert standing side by side at the backstage monitor (where most of the comedy happened), laughing hysterically as quiet “Handsome” Jimmy morphed into his boisterous, lovable Mempho persona on camera. It was a special moment–one that felt like the old days when I was a young fan watching at home yet somehow privy to this backstage experience.

At that point, the promotion was still hoping Jimmy Hart would make a cameo Monday night. Although it was not to be (scheduling conflicts, though Hart tried to the bitter end to make the show), the Mouth of the South quickly arranged a song saluting the Monday night mayhem that made him–and countless others–a damn good living in the age before cable TV. (Let’s face it: It’s not easy to come up with a lyric following “Tojo Yamamoto.”) I realize this likely comes off cheesy to those who never had the Memphis experience. To me, though, I nearly get teary-eyed every time I see it. Truly came off like a love letter from Hart to, ironically, the people who hated him for years. (I recall the spot in the following video when Tommy Rich punches Gypsy Joe and covers him: Lawler and Gilbert almost simultaneously bellowed, “Back then, that was a finish!”)

The nostalgia paid off-literally. Instead of the 2,500 regulars, more than 8,000 fans (paying more than $32,000) showed up, which was was reflected in my paycheck. (I made $75 instead of $50.)

Still, it wasn’t about the money. I’d practically begged to work the show, as I was anxious to meet Funk, one of my favorite performers. I confided in Eddie Gilbert (my first mistake, as Hot Stuff was a great ribber) that Funk and I had a mutual friend in actor Red West.

West was Elvis Presley’s former bodyguard and best friend, who’d forged a successful career as a character actor, including an appearance with Funk in the classic (ahem) Patrick Swayze vehicle ROAD HOUSE. West, a former member of Presley’s Memphis Mafia, had turned part of his home into a makeshift actors’ studio, located near my hometown of (ahem) Germantown, Tenn.

I had been a student at the Red West Actors Studio for a few months, adding to my busy schedule.

I later learned that Eddie had informed Terry that a nervous rookie ref would be approaching him, using the West connection as a way to break the ice. As I hesitantly approached Funk in the dressing room, his eyes widened before he said, “Who the hell are you?” I quietly introduced myself as the ref and quickly offered up Red West’s name. He looked at me incredulously, slowing saying, “I don’t know any Fred West.” I looked at the ground, shuffling my feet, before speaking up, “Um, no sir. I said, “Red West.” Funk’s reply: “I already told you: I’don’t know any Fred West!” Needless to say, I was scared shitless. I looked over at Eddie, who began shaking his head and waving me off. Undaunted, I pressed ahead, a little louder this time: “No, sir! RED West!” Funk stared me right in the eyes before he cracked. He began laughing, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Oh, Red West! I know that guy! He’s a helluva guy!” We then talked for a bit about Red, as I noticed Eddie with a broad smile on his mug. Clearly, I’d been set up.


Following the six-man tag introductions, I made my rounds to all the participants inspecting their boots and tights for foreign objects. Growing up in the kayfabe era, I’d seen refs perform the frisks to add to the realism, but given this was 1994—with six wrestlers in the ring, no less—I probably should have let it go. By the time I got to Idol, the boys had been standing in the ring for about two minutes. In that classic throaty delivery, Idol says to me, “Mr. Referreeee…have we rung the bell yet?” I mumble, “Um…no, not yet.” Idol glared down at me checking his boots, saying, “Well…why don’t we ring it then?”

Oh. Right. Yessir!

To give you an idea of just how highly Idol’s work is still regarded today, the Rock never saw much footage of the Universal Heartthrob until the late ’90s—Dwayne Johnson reportedly was blown away at just how brilliant Idol’s promos were.

Later that evening, Tommy Rich piledrove me in the ring, signaling the end of the six-man tag involving Funk.

Even though I was supposedly knocked out from the piledriver, selling it like the Kennedy assassination, Funk picked up my lifeless body by the hair, screaming, “C’mere, you sonuvabitch!” The former NWA World champ punched me before putting the boots to me. Then Rich scooped up my prone body and gave me my second piledriver. Brutalized by two ex-NWA champs in the same match–dream come true, really.

Monday night memories to last a lifetime.

Former ICW, WCW, WWE World champion Randy “Macho Man” Savage dead at 58 years old

May 20th, 2011 3 comments

Immortalized by Mattel: Savage recently made amends with WWE, with several pieces of Macho merchandise hitting shelves for the first time in years. Here he's posed with the Memphis area's Southern title.

Stunned. That seems to be the reaction among the wrestling fraternity and fans today, when word spread quickly on the Internet that Randy “Macho Man” Savage, 58, died this morning after apparently suffering a heart attack behind the wheel of his vehicle and crashing into a tree in Tampa.

Almost immediately on receiving the word, I contacted Dutch Mantell on Facebook to break the news to him. During a four-part interview series I conducted with the Dutchman last year, he raved about the ability of a young Randy Savage during their 1978 feud in Nashville when the two young grapplers were just starting to headline. This morning, via IM, Dutch wrote to me: “I can’t believe it. Wow. I almost don’t know what to say. I had some classic matches with him; he will go down as one of the best of all time. He was Macho Man 25/7. Hard to tell if there was really a Randy inside him once Macho took over.”

During our talk last year, Dutch remembered the ’78 program that put them both on the map in Music City, working for promoter Nick Gulas: “I actually perfected that formula for getting into the psyche of Tennessee in my matches with Savage. Again, the fans were used to guys hitting each other with chairs and 2’ x 4’s, so Savage and I went out there and wrestled…with a lot of action and a lot of emotion. And we told a story. The deal with Savage started….see, business was horrible in Nashville…and we were both heels. I remember I looked at Savage in the dressing room one night and said, ‘We’re wasting our time, buddy. Heck, we ought to be wrestling each other.’ They had nobody else, in my mind, who could do anything. There weren’t many fans to begin with and those who were there had no emotion. There was nothing to sink your teeth into. So Savage and I got into it, and he’s got that wild crazy interview, and I’m kinda low key as a babyface—it worked perfect. …In probably a four-week period, from doing about 200 people in Nashville—the building wasn’t that big—to doing about 1200 to 1400 people. It was a big, big turnaround. When I first him, he was still developing the Macho Man character. But every time you saw Randy—I don’t care it was 6 o’clock in the morning—he was Macho Man. You saw him at midnight—he’s still Macho Man. He was always in full-blown, wide-open Macho Man mode. I think, really, Randy Poffo morphed into Randy Savage, who then morphed into Macho Man. So he had three distinct personalities.”

Memphis TV announcers Lance Russell and Dave Brown and promoter Jerry Jarrett remembered the Macho Man during the roundtable discussion I moderated at the 2009 NWA Fanfest in Charlotte:

With Jimmy Hart leaving for the WWF in January, Jerry Jarrett brought in Tex Newman (Jeff Walton) from California and turned Randy Savage heel to reignite a feud with Lawler for the Southern title. Savage had been a babyface for months after a memorable debut as a heel. Less than two years earlier, the first Lawler vs. Savage match drew more than 8,000 fans on Dec. 5, 1983, a match that was years in the making. Leading up to that first encounter, Savage and his family had been running opposition, the ICW, with a weekly show airing Saturday mornings since 1980 on local independent station WPTY an hour prior to Jarrett’s show. Savage and NWA outcasts like Ronnie Garvin, Bob Roop and Bob Orton Jr. devoted their interview time to running down Jarrett’s crew instead of promoting their own lineups at the Cook Convention Center in downtown Memphis.

“Randy, his dad, Angelo, and brother, Lanny, made the mistake of making promos for our talent. We were sitting in the dressing room, and I believe it was Bill Dundee who said, ‘Can you explain to me why Randy, and particularly, Angelo, who knows the business well, would spend all their interview time knocking us and challenging us. Why are they plugging us instead of their own matches?’ I said, ‘Well, Billy, I don’t know that. I can’t answer that because I don’t know how stupid people think.’ Sputnik Monroe was sitting near us, and he jumped up and said, ‘Well, by God, I can tell you how stupid people think!’ We all had a nice laugh. But after their organization folded, I called Randy Savage and said, ‘You have plugged a match against Lawler for years. I don’t know if you were really angry or what it was–but why don’t we make some money off it?’ And Randy was sort of emotional saying, ‘After all that I’ve done to try to put you out of business, you’re calling to give me a job?’ I said, “Yes. And I’ll take your whole family. We’ll do a deal where you show up on Memphis TV and carry right on with your challenge to Lawler, and we can pretend it’s a shoot until we have the match.”

Savage had made such an impression on announcers Russell and Brown during the promotional war, they were leery of the Macho Man when he finally debuted for Jarrett. 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.”

Macho Madness hits the Mid-South Coliseum for the very first time, against Jerry Lawler before 8,000-plus fans.

Savage never forgot Jarrett’s willingness to put aside personal differences for the good of the business. When McMahon came calling for the Macho Man’s services in 1985, Savage asked Jarrett’s opinion.

“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.”

On a personal note, having watched Randy from his ICW days, I can tell you he was an amazing performer at a young age who captivated the fans with his outrageous personality and incredible athletic ability. He was so naturally gifted for the business. Having watched that slow build on ICW TV, where he’d badmouth the Jarrett crew, and seeing the newspaper ads he placed challenging Jerry “the Queen” Lawler, I just had to be in the audience for his Memphis debut at the Mid-South Coliseum in December 1983. I had the pleasure of watching him develop over the next year and half with his bouts with Dutch, Austin Idol, Terry Taylor and teaming with his brother, Lanny, against the Rock ‘n’ Express. There was no doubt in my young mind he’d be a superstar in the WWF. Upon debuting in the Former Fed, he was groomed from the start to be unique with all the different managers clamoring for the free agent’s services before he revealed the lovely Miss Elizabeth, who passed away from a drug overdose in 2003.

He went on to have an incredible career with Vince, before he left for greener pastures in WCW and creating tremendous heat with McMahon in the process. McMahon only recently began to lift the tacit ban on anything Savage-related, including approval of the releases of a Savage DVD, action figures and a video game in the last year, In fact, I just picked up Mattel’s Savage action figure last week. Hard to believe that only 15 months after the death of his father, Angelo Poffo, Randy Savage is gone.

Details are sketchy at this time, but BayNews 9 is reporting the following:

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Savage, whose legal name is Randy Mario Poffo, was driving west on Park Boulevard near 113th Street North when his 2009 Jeep Wrangler went out of control just before 9:30 a.m. The vehicle went over the raised median in the road, crossed the eastbound lanes, jumped the curb and smashed head on into a tree. Savage was taken to Largo Medical Center where he later died. Officials said the passenger in the car, believed to be Savage’s wife, suffered only minor injuries. Authorities said he may have suffered a “medical event” before the accident, but they said they will need to perform an autopsy to be certain.

Anatomy of an Angle: Lawler crowns Hickerson “King of Jackson”

March 3rd, 2010 3 comments

Former NWA Southern tag champions: Jerry Jarrett once described the team as "pure magic from the start."

One of the great things about Memphis Wrestling TV was how Jerry Jarrett and Jerry “the King” Lawler could either slowly build a turn or an angle over a month or make an abrupt change that morning to spark the house for Monday night’s show at the Mid-South Coliseum and attendance the following week (once TV aired around the loop) in the surrounding cities. Such was the case one Saturday morning, when longtime area heel Phil Hickerson turned babyface to become Lawler’s partner in his feud with the Fabulous Freebirds.

For about three weeks, Lawler had been feuding with the ‘Birds, teaming with Austin Idol, and the foursome had two great brawls that drew well, including a show attended by about 8,500 Memphians (including me) on Aug. 5, 1985. The feud had ignited when Lawler accidentally burned Michael Hayes’s hair with a fireball following a match with Bota the Witch Doctor (one those unfortunate Memphis gimmicks no one likes to discusss today). Recently, as part of the WWE Legends of Wrestling Roundtable discussions, Lawler revealed that Hayes wanted a larger payoff following the incident because his precious locks did actually catch fire, which prompted the former Freebird (who was also sitting on the panel) to bring up the fact that successfully lobbied Jarrett for more money–reportedly no small feat in Memphis.

With Jarrett’s territory hurting a bit for talent with Vince McMahon picking off Memphis stars like Randy Savage, Hickerson had received his first huge push as a singles wrestler in the area since ’76, winning the International title from Terry Taylor and beating former NWA World champion Harley Race on consecutive weeks at the Coliseum. (Not too shabby for a guy who was only working part time at that point; I believe was also running a watering hole in his native Jackson, Tenn.)

While other longtime territories were struggling to keep up with McMahon, Jarrett was still packing 'em in with cards like this, on Aug. 5, 1985.

A former star in the territory in the ’70s teaming with Dennis Condrey–largely considered one of the best pairings of the era locally–Hickerson was always a solid wrestler with the gift of gab. He’d returned from relative obscurity the year before, teaming with the Spoiler (Frank Morrell–not Don Jardine) to feud with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and the New Fabulous Ones (Tommy Rich and Eddie Gilbert). During this singles run in ’85, he was turned loose on the mic, and delivered some hilarious promos that had the fans–and nearly announcer Lance Russell–in stitches.  Case in point: When Lance questioned how much longer Phil might hold the belt, the International champion bellowed, “I’ll always be the champion! I love this belt, man! I take a bath with it! I go to bed wearing it!  Heck, my old lady’s got belt marks all over her from sleeping with me.” It was almost getting difficult for the fans to hate the guy as his delivery was priceless.

In what may have been cost-cutting move (what…in Memphis?), Idol was eliminated from the program, with Lawler claiming an injury at the hands of “Florida champion Lord Humongous,” leaving the King without a partner. After numerous guys turned him down on short notice (amusing that Lawler even claims to have called the Von Erichs, given their history with the ‘Birds), Lawler relented and agreed to team with Hickerson,who had been pleading with the King to give him a chance.

Two nights later, Jerry “the King” Lawler walked down the aisle side by side with the newly christened “King of Jackson” Phil Hickerson.

Thankfully, here’s Dave Brown to break down this amazing turn of events:

 

The following week they came back with a Taped Fist match, which was loudly protested by the ‘Birds. After all, as Terry Gordy points out, he “never claimed to be a boxer!” (Apparently, Bamm Bamm was pretty tight with Elvis Presley, a fact I didn’t know.) I love the expression on Gordy’s face when Hayes refers to their good looks.

Clipping courtesy of Memphis Wrestling History.

File under Jerry “the King” Lawler, Phil Hickerson, Memphis Wrestling.