Where it all began: Lawler vs. Funk Jr. in 1976. (Courtesy of memphiswrestlinghistory.com.)
More than 35 years after their first bout together in Memphis on Aug. 2, 1976, Jerry Lawler will headline vs. Dory Funk Jr. at the next !BANG! TV Taping at the Funking Conservatory Wrestling Sound Stage in Ocala, Fla., Saturday, September 10.
Lawler won that initial with Funk Jr. in 1976, mere days after his manager Sam Bass had been killed in a car accident. Lawler, who had been knocking off the top-10 NWA contenders, had beaten Harley Race a week earlier in Memphis to become the No. 3-ranked challenger behind Dory Jr. at No. 2. Following the Race bout, Bass was killed along with Pepe Lopez and Frank Hester en route to Nashville.
As was a typical storyline at that time, Lawler had to defeat Dory Jr. as part of his climb to get a shot at the king of the mountain, NWA World champion Terry Funk, who had defeated Jack Brisco for the 10 pounds of gold on December 10, 1975. Likewise, when Dory Jr. was champion years earlier, Terry picked up plenty of bookings around the country to set up local challengers for shots or rematches against his brother. Lawler and Terry wrestled to a classic one-hour Broadway in their first NWA title match on Aug.22, 1976.
To get a rematch with Terry, Lawler agreed to take on Dory Jr. in a Texas Death Match weeks later. For years, the Funks often billed themselves as being undefeated in Texas Death Matches, which were no-disqualification bouts in which pinfalls were followed by a 60-second rest period, then a 10-count to determine the last man standing as the winner. (I believe the longest such match in Memphis history was a Texas “Tornado”–meaning a tag bout with all four participants in the ring at once–Death Match in 1986, with Lawler and Dutch Mantell defeating Bill Dundee and Buddy Landell in a showdown that went 26 falls and lasted nearly 85 minutes.)
Of course, Lawler defeated Dory Jr. under Texas Death rules on Oct. 11, 1976, to get the return shot at Terry, which ended inconclusively. Years later, when I discussed the death of Brisco with Lawler, he rated Terry and Dory Jr. among his favorite opponents ever.
For more on the Lawler vs. Funk family feud, check out the following links:
Finally, here are some clips of Dory Jr. serving as one of Jimmy Hart’s bounty hunters shortly after the King returned from a broken leg in 1981, with the idea that Funk Jr.’s spinning toehold would snap Lawler’s limb like a twig and put him back on the shelf.
Amazing. More than 40 years after beginning his career working outlaw shows in front of a few hundred fans in West Memphis, Ark., for a $6 payoff, Jerry Lawler is the talk of the wrestling (or sports entertainment…whatever). Following his impromptu bout with Miz for the WWE title on Monday’s RAW, Lawler was honored with a standing ovation backstage and a beaming Vince McMahon, who was thrilled with the match. Kevin Dunn called him earlier this week to thank him, saying USA Network was also delighted. Wrestling fans young and old have been tweeting all week about the King and his performance, including many who were skeptical initially that a 61-year-old man could pull off an angle challenging the young champion and come off credible. Not only was it believable, but it was also downright dramatic, with the Philly crowd and those tweeting at home going wild in their support of Lawler as he literally had the WWE title in his grasp.
Miz is to be credited as well, as he was reportedly thrilled when told of the scenario Creative had laid out for the new champ and the King. An old-school wrestlng mark, Miz excitedly approached Lawler saying he’d do whatever he wanted in the bout, and he was especially eager to take a the King’s patented piledriver; however, that move is currently banned by WWE. Lawler and Miz delivered a thrilling TLC match despite very few big bumps (though Alex Riley and Miz both sold Lawler’s right hands beautifully, crashing through tables), relying on brilliant psychology to tell a story–a style that has not only made Lawler one of the best performers of his era but has also enabled him to continue working into his ’60s.
I think it was especially gratifying for longtime Memphis fans to see Lawler challenging for the most important title in wrestling, as the King’s quest for the World championship was the Memphis promotion’s longest-running storyline, beginning with a 1974 bout the with the late Jack Brisco for the NWA World heavyweight title and ending with his AWA title victory over Curt Hennig in 1988.
The original Quest for the Title program featured Lawler facing off each week against the biggest stars of the era, like The Sheik, Bobo Brazil, Harley Race and Mr. Wrestling II in effort to get the young Memphis star over as a credible challenger to Brisco. Lawler recalls his first backstage meeting with the Sheik prior to their bout at the Mid-South Coliseum.
“I introduced myself in the dressing room and we chatted for about 20 minutes. Finally, he asked, ‘Who’s this kid I’m working with tonight?’ I said, “Uh…that would be me, sir.’ I guess he thought I was some guy who set up the ring or worked for the company. Of course, he refused to put me over clean. Most of those matches ended in a disqualification and then I’d come out and brag about how I’d whipped ‘em all.”
A young Eddie Gilbert writes a story about his idol's quest for the NWA World championship.
The young wrestler’s buildup culminated on Sept. 16, 1974, with 10,125 fans packing the Coliseum to see Lawler challenge Brisco for the 10 pounds of gold. With tears in their eyes, Jarrett watched backstage with Florida promoter Eddie Graham, who was instrumental in Brisco’s ascension to the NWA throne.
“Eddie Graham and I stood at the back of the Mid-South Coliseum…we were both very emotional,” says Jarrett. “Brisco was Eddie’s man: He loved him, he groomed him and he nurtured him to become the World champion. Lawler was my man. That night, it almost felt like our sons were out there really fighting for the World title. That was such a fun time of my life.”
On that night, Lawler appeared to defeat Brisco for the belt but the decision was overturned when Gerald Brisco (his brother, Jerry, who was sitting ringside) stooged off to the ref that the King had used a chain to knock out the champion.
On October 18, 1976, at the Coliseum, Lawler again seemingly won the NWA World title from Terry Funk, who had dethroned Brisco in Miami Beach. This time, however, in the bout with Funk in ’76, the NWA strap not only made its way to Lawler’s hands but also around his waist for a post-bout photo shoot with CITY OF MEMPHIS magazine. The publication was doing a type of article that seemed to pop up every few years on the phenomenon of Memphis wrestling’s popularity, which thrived in the ’70s and early ’80s. With a crowd of just under 7,000 on hand, Lawler was awarded the belt and retreated to the dressing room to pose with the belt for photos before returning the strap to Funk. The magazine hit the stands with Lawler wearing the NWA championship on the cover.
Lawler recalls, “I literally ran back to the dressing room with the belt where the photographer had set up, put the belt on, and said, ‘Hurry up! Take my picture!’ He took a few pictures and I quickly took the belt off and gave it back to Terry–he had no idea I then claimed to be the real champion and had the these photos to back it up.”
King for a Night
Although he never officially won the NWA title, local-boy Lawler was for years viewed as the uncrowned champion in Memphis. As I wrote in one of my very first KFR columns:
Lawler was a Memphis local who went from being a skinny high school kid to the Southern heavyweight wrestling champion in less than five years. Which, where I grew up, pretty much made you a legend. The home field was a bloodstained mat at the Coliseum that served as a stage to some of the most outrageous antics in the history of the professional wrestling business–which is saying a helluva lot. Lawler has never claimed to be the best worker around, but he could brawl and take bumps with the best of them. And he could run his mouth, which, in pro wrestling, is more important. During my early days as a fan in the late ’70s/early ’80s, he could come across like the hometown boy who had made good or the most vile menace since Darth Vader–who, amazingly enough, also found time to wrestle in Memphis on occasion.
But the question is, could Lawler have succeeded on a national stage in the ’70 and ’80s as NWA World champion? Did Lawler have the ability to work with a variety of wrestlers, adapting to any style as part of the NWA kingpin’s then-role of making the local challenger look like a million bucks? Would his cocky, funny promos as NWA champion been convincing in places like Greensboro? Would the NWA Board have tolerated the King gimmick? Could Lawler have withstood the travel schedule and grueling grind of the NWA titlist? Because of the travel, would Lawler have even wanted an extended run for the title? Or would he have better suited for a brief run a la Dusty Rhodes and Tommy Rich?
In the past, Lawler’s in-ring ability was sometimes cited by his peers as as only average–not good enough to be NWA champion. But those critics usually had not worked with Lawler much. Longtime champ Harley Race despised Lawler in the ’70s for the King’s shameless self-promotion at the NWA’s expense–such as the aforementioned photo shoot with the belt despite not actually winning it. In his shoot interview, Race claims that Lawler was below average and that even Hulk Hogan was a better technical wrestler than Memphis’ number-one son. I can’t help but think Harley’s personal animosity toward Lawler is influencing his opinion. The Race/Lawler 60-minute draw from 1977 was fantastic–as good as any bout I’ve seen involving the eight-time World champion. Dutch Mantell, who wrestled both men, says Race was “OK” in the ring and nothing more.
Veterans like Mantell and Jimmy Valiant, who both feuded with Lawler for years, rave about his ability, saying he was one of the best. Though biased, Jarrett calls his longtime star the best overall worker he ever saw. Before Brisco’s death, I asked the former NWA World champ about his bouts with Lawler. Brisco replied that he thought Lawler was “very underrated” in the ring and that “Jerry and I had great matches.” In Terry Funk’s bio, More Than Just Hardcore, the Funker puts over Lawler: “There’s none better at conniving or manipulating than Jerry, and I mean that as a compliment. Thank God he’s never had a reason to put a dagger in my back. Lawler, right now, could step in a WWE ring, get on the microphone and cut as good a promo as the top 10 percent. He can also throw a better punch than 99.9 percent of anyone working today.” Nick Bockwinkel, with whom Lawler had several memorable bouts for the AWA World title, told Wade Keller in a TORCH Talk interview years back that “Lawler is very talented” and it was “a shame Lawler didn’t catch on with a larger promotion.”
You have to consider that a lot of wrestlers in the ’70s and ’80s had good matches with Brisco, Race, Funk and Bockwinkel–it was almost difficult not to. Perhaps the title defenses in Memphis were simply routine–the NWA champs of that era made a practice of going 60 minutes with the local challenger and making him look invincible. Still, at the very least, Lawler capable of a classic and could more than keep up with the champs of the era.
To those who don’t think Lawler could have adapted to any style in the same vein as former champs Race, Terry Funk and Dory Funk Jr., what do you think he did in Memphis all those years? Lawler was excellent at getting over a newcomer in the territory as a big star, even a guy like journeyman Cocoa Samoa, who debuted in Memphis in 1982 as “Sabu the Wildman.” As a partner in the promotion, his livelihood depended on his ability to help new (and often, cheap) talent get over as main-event stars, making headliners out of guys who would be midcarders at best elsewhere–a task that became more difficult when Vince McMahon’s machine began expanding and cherry-picking talent from promotions nationwide.
Some say Brisco had difficulty working a heel style against a babyface challenger, but I thought Jack did a great job as a subtle heel when defending against Lawler, who was a bit of a ‘tweener at the time of their matches. Lawler’s size–or lack thereof–served him well in Memphis as both the underdog babyface and the chicken-shit heel but may have worked against him on a national stage. Brisco, Terry and Race may not have been much bigger, but they certainly came off like stud athletes during their heyday, which Lawler did not. It’s hard to imagine Lawler being accepted as NWA World champ back in the ’70s in a territory like Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, which boasted performers like Johnny Valentine, Wahoo McDaniel, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat.
Lawler often rose to the occasion when working the champ, exhibiting more mat wrestling than his typical punch, kick, sell, pull-down-the strap repertoire. I’m not certain he could have pulled that off night after night in a different city with a first-time opponent. Working the small towns throughout the Mid-South area, Lawler often relied on clownish spots and psychology, of which he was a master. No matter if he was working in a packed Mid-South Coliseum or in front of 1,500 fans stuffed into places like local armories and high schools, every single fan fixated on Lawler’s every move. Like all the great ones, Lawler could sense what the crowd was giving him and adjust to get them into his match. Judging from his performance Monday with the Miz, Lawler still has that keen ability to get the fans emotionally invested. In many ways today, it’s a lost art. Psychology-wise, Lawler remains as good as any in the profession.
I think Lawler’s promos as the arrogant champion would have been off the charts, though he probably would have had to tone down the King gimmick. Guys like Fritz Von Erich, while considered for a run as champion, never won the title, as the NWA board made it clear that the champion shouldn’t have a gimmick–being the NWA kingpin was enough. Still, being the champion of the world would have complemented Lawler’s royal arrogance as King quite nicely.
Still, as charismatic as Lawler could be in and out of the ring, he wouldn’t have been able to defend himself against a double-cross like Brisco, Terry, Dory and Race. One of the reasons Harley kept the title for so long was because he would have a great bout with anyone and he was never in danger of being sucker-punched out of the title. Still, the NWA loosened up on this idea with Dusty’s three-month run in 1981 as well as with Flair, who dethroned Big Dust and assumed Race’s role as the last territory-traveling NWA World champ. As tough as Flair was, he couldn’t defend himself like Race in a true fight–you simply didn’t screw with Harley.
“I campaigned unsuccessfully for years to get the NWA title for Jerry,” Jarrett says. “But some people on the NWA board felt that he wasn’t tough enough. I was always saying, ‘Tough?’ What do you mean ‘tough’? This is show business.”
Nowadays, that’s such a foreign concept, as it’s usually just the guy who’s hottest at the moment who carries the WWE title–being tough or even the best worker hardly factors at all. (Jarrett was always a little ahead of his time.)
Overall, I’d have to say that while Lawler may not have been the right choice for an extended NWA title reign in the ’70s and ’80s, especially when you consider performers like Ted DiBiase and Dick Murdoch never got a run, he could have easily thrived in a six-month reign. Lawler’s squeaky-clean lifestyle would have been made him a more logical choice than Murdoch, whose hard-partying ways killed his chances to be champ–although he was considered at one point. DiBiase was practically assured of the belt by Race down the line, but the timing never seemed to be right for Ted.
Plus, the fact that Tommy Rich and Dusty were awarded the belt to give them credibility in future matches with Race–to prove that they were capable of winning the title–makes me feel that Lawler also deserved that rub. The atmosphere for World title matches in Memphis was unreal, as Jarrett wisely used the champion sparingly to emphasize just how special these appearances were. As much as money as there was in the title chase, Jarrett has said he that realized that eventually the fans would catch on that Lawler was never getting the belt if the champion were overexposed in the area.
Of course, eventually Lawler did get his run as AWA World champion–at a point when the title–and really the concept of a true World champion–was practically dead. Memphis fans wanted to believe, though. The 8,500 fans in attendance at the Mid-South Coliseum for Lawler’s title win over the Hennig on May 9, 1988, erupted like Lawler had been crowned king of the world. In their eyes, he had always been the champion.
More than 35 years after Jerry Lawler’s first World heavyweight title match—a defeat at the hands of NWA titlist Jack Brisco on Sept. 16, 1974—the King and World Wrestling Entertainment turned back the hands of time with one of the most riveting WWE championship matches of 2010 on last night’s RAW. (For more on Lawler’s bouts with the late Jack Brisco and his quest to be World champion, click here.)
Like so many times before in his career with the likes of champions Brisco, Terry Funk and Nick Bockwinkel, Lawler came up heartbreakingly short despite a valiant effort against new WWE kingpin the Miz in a TLC (Tables, Ladders and Chairs) bout that was laid out exceptionally well.
In 1974, Jack Brisco was the first World champion Jerry Lawler faced; more than 35 years later, Miz was most likely the last.
Initially, the potentially dangerous TLC stipulation came off like a sadistic rib on Lawler, who was not only celebrating his 61st birthday Monday but was also still recovering from a staph infection in his leg. Instead, Lawler was portrayed postively as the aging Hall of Fame legend who still had at least one last great match left in him, much like his former hero, mentor and rival, Jackie Fargo, in Memphis.
While it was billed as Lawler’s first WWE title shot, the King had received at least three championship matches for the company’s top strap over the course of his 17-year run with Vince McMahon. Bret Hart defeated Lawler in a cage match for the WWF title on consecutive nights in 1996 at the Municipal Auditorium in Nashville on Feb. 16 and at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis on Feb. 17 in front of 7,500 fans. I believe Lawler also had a shot at the belt when Shawn Michaels was champion on an episode of RAW in 1996.
Last night, as Lawler repeatedly punched Miz, who Mr. Perfectly sold the King’s offense, I couldn’t help but suspend disbelief like I had done so many times growing up, thinking just maybe the Memphis native would win the World title. In Memphis, a minor-league pro-sports graveyard, Lawler was our home team, so his quest to be champion of the world captured the imagination of many fans in the ’70s and ’80s, culminating with his AWA title win over Curt Hennig in 1988. (Nice touch last night showing a clip of the World title victory.)
Ironically, Monday’s bout was held in Philadelphia, a city Lawler routinely trashed in anti-ECW promos years ago, though this was a completely different audience. On this night, the Philly fans rallied behind the King—nowhere near the anticipation of a packed Mid-South Coliseum on a Monday night but definitely enthusiastic as Lawler sent both Miz and his crony, Alex Riley, crashing through tables at different points in the match. The only thing missing was Lance Russell or Jim Ross calling the action, but new RAW announcer CM Punk did an OK job of selling the possibility of Lawler rising to the occasion. (It was nice to hear the voice of ol’ Banana Nose in a pre-match video retrospective of Lawler’s career.)
By this time, Lawler was trending like crazy on Twitter, with several Memphis fans online tweeting for the King to “pull the strap down”—the sign of his Superman/Popeye comeback on many a Monday night. Several Memphis-based tweets were also calling for a fireball, a staple of Lawler’s offense over the years. (Personally, I was marking out over the possibility of a patented Lawler fistdrop off a ladder—a spot that never materialized.)
As Lawler slowly climbed the ladder, seemingly feeling every bump of his incredible 40-year career as he ascended each rung, the Philly fans pushed him on with their cheers. While there were several chants of “Miz is awesome” early in the bout, most were pulling for the King at the end. Just as it appeared Lawler finally had the WWE title literally in his grasp, his longtime RAW broadcast partner, Michael Cole, charged into the ring and grabbed his left leg. Turning his attention away from the WWE bling, Lawler confronted Cole, who begged off, claiming, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!” Never one to turn the other cheek, Lawler responded with a big right hand and followed up with a flurry of punches as the crowd popped.
Miz scurried up the ladder but Lawler cut him off. The two traded punches with the title dangling just over their heads. Miz conked Lawler between the eyes with his prized trophy, with the King taking the first and hopefully last bump off a ladder in his career. The young champ retained the title, while the legend maintained his dignity.
The angle’s objective appeared to be completing the gradual heel turn of Michael Cole, who will most likely be revealed to be the new RAW GM. I expect Punk will remain as announcer with Cole, who will “fire” Lawler as part of the storyline. Or perhaps Lawler stays on with Punk, as Cole constantly threatens the King’s job security. Cole, who has excelled at being wonderfully annoying with his heel comments praising Miz and criticizing Daniel Bryan, should flourish in his new role if in fact that’s the direction they’re heading.
Afterward, John Cena led the crowd in the singing of “Happy Birthday to You” as WWE Divas presented him a cake. On an evening when the company crowned its new King of the Ring tournament winner, Sheamus, to set up the return of Triple H (the so-called King of Kings), Jerry Lawler once again shined as wrestling’s true royalty on the big stage—fittingly, on a Monday night.
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