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Eye for an eye: Terry Funk seeks revenge on Jerry Lawler in Memphis (Part II of III)

February 26th, 2010 1 comment

Eye-opening: Terry Funk sees the vicious side of Jerry Lawler in an empty Mid-South Coliseum.

I sat there stunned in my parents’ living room in Bartlett Germantown in 1981 after viewing the empty-arena footage between Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk in early May, an incident that left the former NWA World champ writhing on the canvas struggling to keep his eyeball in place. Terry may have been down, but certainly not out–which was evident in his desperate post-match plea for help.

In between requests for Lance to get help, he continues to insult Lawler: “Help me, Lance! God, help me! My eyeee! Where’s Lawler?! My eye! He’s chicken! He’s yellow! Yellow pig! Piiiiggg!” I knew I just had to be at the Mid-South Coliseum when the Funker came calling from revenge.

I believe the promotion aired the empty-arena footage on Saturday, May 9, to set up a Monday, May 11 bout between Lawler and Dory Funk, Jr., who was returning to get payback for his little brother’s latest royal ass kicking at the hands of the King. This scenario unfolded around the time of my birthday, which meant a trip to the matches with my Uncle Robert was forthcoming. We waited a week for Terry’s return on May 18, which occurred the following Monday night after Lawler’s victory against Dory Jr. on the 11th.

This time, both Funks would be after Lawler’s hide. Realizing that he’d be in the ring with the only brother combo in history to win the NWA World title, Lawler secured the services of another former NWA titlist: Jack Brisco, whom Terry had defeated for the belt. I don’t recall much of Lawler’s promo, except for a tidbit that even a recently-turned-10-year-old could understand. When thinking of a partner for the bout, Lawler said he was trying to picture someone who hated the Funks just as much as he did. The King explained to announcer Lance Russell that Terry cost Jack Brisco the World title and about $150,000 additional income a year. “Wouldn’t you hate somebody who cost you $150,000?” the King asked rhetorically. I envision my big head nodding in front of my parents’ set upon hearing those words. (Funny how Lawler didn’t disclose how Jack for years thought Dory Jr. faked an injury to avoid dropping the World strap to him as planned. Upon healing, Dory instead lost the title to Harley Race, who eventually dropped the belt to Jack in Houston.)

I can’t say for certain, but I’m willing to bet that Lawler used the standard line when bringing in an ex-foe to be his partner for a big tag match: “When you’re looking for a partner for a match like this, you try to think of the person who has given you the toughest bouts of your career. And nobody has given me any tougher matches than … (fill in the blank, which included over the years the following: Bill Dundee, Austin Idol, ‘Handsome’ Jimmy Valiant, Dutch Mantel, Joe LeDuc and Nick Bockwinkel).”

Lance, of course, heavily hyped the May 18 grudge match as the first time three NWA World champions would appear in a tag bout together. Terry also sent in an interview with his injured eye bandaged, vowing to overthrow the King once and for all. I was sold.

Two rings were set up for the evening’s two-ring, triple-chance battle royal, which resulted in the main event tag action spreading onto two canvases. Terry got color over his injured eye, which made for a creepy sight as the blood turned the bandages red. As Dory was locked up with Jack in one ring, Terry threw powder in Lawler’s eyes, blinding him–an eye for eye, I suppose. Terry then quickly small packaged Lawler for the win. I was despondent upon leaving the Coliseum, as I believed that a Lawler victory over two former NWA champions in the same match would have catapulted him in the ratings, putting him in line for a World title shot. I vividly recall asking my Uncle Robert, “Do you think this will hurt Lawler in the ratings?” Bless my heart.

Crowds for the Lawler/Funk feud were good, though not great for Memphis at the time, with crowds usually in the 5,000 to 6,500 range. The promotion would get hot later in ’81, with the emphasis on wild tag bouts involving Lawler and various partners (Dundee, Valiant, Steve Keirn, Tojo Yamamoto, etc.) against members of Jimmy Hart’s First Family, including a sell-out of 11,300-plus for Jerry Lawler and “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant vs. the Dream Machine and Bugsy McGraw. The blow-off to Lawler/Funk occurred on May 25, with Lawler winning the showdown. Funk wouldn’t show his face in Memphis again for over two years…this time at Lawler’s request.

Yep, you guessed it: seems Lawler needed just the right partner for a grudge six-man tag involving the King and freshly turned babyface Sweet Brown Sugar (Koko Ware) vs. Hart’s team of Bobby Eaton, Sabu (the late Coco Samoa…not the one of ECW fame) and Lawler’s cousin, the ever-bland Carl Fergie, on Sunday, Jan. 30, 1983. And apparently, this time it was Terry Funk who had given Lawler the toughest battles of the King’s career, as the Funker was summoned for emergency babyface tag-team duty. (Actually, the storyline was that promoter Eddie Marlin had secured Funk as Lawler’s partner after the King told him to find the toughest, meanest, goofiest wrestler he could find to be his partner. Upon hearing the news that it was Funk, Lance Russell bellows “Ohhhughhh.” Classic.)

The six-man bout for the 30th was set up by a brilliant brawl on Jan. 24, with Eaton and Sabu defeating Lawler and Sugar in one of the best brawls in wrestling at the time and widely regarded as a classic among tape traders in the ’80s. Afterward, the evil Family painted Lawler black, with Hart screaming, “You wanna be black, Lawler? You got it, baby!” (Lawler, always looking to promote racial harmony, formed an alliance with Koko after the former Family member refused to shine Hart’s shoes on the air.)

Funk made an appearance on the live Jan. 29 show to again remind fans of just how crazy he was. He uttered a line that I’ve never forgotten over the years: “When I was just a kid, I used to bite the legs off grasshoppers and eat them. And my dad used to say, ‘Terry, why do you do stuff like that?’ And I’d say, ‘Just for the hell of it, Dad.'”

Funk, Sugar and Lawler then proceeded to beat the hell out of the Masked Marauders, Jesse Barr and referee Jerry Calhoun on the TV show’s expiration-of-time match. Rookie manager Jimmy Cornette, who was managing Barr, made the mistake of telling Lawler before the show how big a fan he was of Funk’s. As a rib–and unbeknownst to Cornette–Lawler told Funk to go after Jim during the bout and rip his clothes off. Good thing Cornette was quick on his feet, as Terry fired a chair his way that could have taken his head off, with Lance screaming at Jimmy, “Get away from me! Don’t be standing around me!” Just tremendous.

Poor Jimmy then had to go out there with his slacks taped up for the show’s closing moments.

The King, Sugar and Funk defeated the hated trio the next day in a Texas Death match at the Coliseum, with Fergie unable to answer the bell after repeated Lawler piledrivers.

Next week: More than 20 years after their first NWA World title bout, Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk battle again for the World title…in the ’90s. And Eddie Gilbert and Funk play a rib on rookie referee Scott Bowden.

A Funkin’ amazing feud: the Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk rivalry in Memphis

February 24th, 2010 2 comments

When I was speaking with Jerry Lawler on the day Jack Brisco died, he reflected on his past bouts with former World champions in the ’70s, reserving his highest praise for AWA kingpin Nick Bockwinkel, Dory Funk Jr. and Jack as the top three wrestlers he faced in the ring. However, he also  spoke glowingly of Terry Funk, saying those bouts “were definitely some of my favorites.” The two enjoyed working together so much that the Lawler vs. Funk feud spanned four decades.

I was too young to recall the early battles for the NWA World title between champion Terry Funk and challenger Jerry “the King” Lawler in Memphis. From what I understand, the two had amazing chemistry from the start, with their first bout, a 60-minute draw on Aug. 22, 1976, considered a classic.

The buildup for the bout was excellent, as in the preceding weeks, the promotion supposedly “charted” the young challenger’s rise in the NWA “rankings,” with Lawler knocking off the top contenders before he earned a shot at the famed 10 pounds of gold.

On July 26, fifth-ranked Lawler defeated third-ranked Harley Race to retain the NWA Southern title. Hours later, en route to Nashville on I-40, Lawler’s manager, Sam Bass, died in an automobile accident with wrestlers Pepe Lopez and Frank Hester.

A bit troubling how this clipping from the Commercial Appeal mentions the successful Southern title defense first, and then the death of Bass.

Promoter Jerry Jarrett initially assumed that it was Lawler who had been killed.

“We were all in tears when we approached the traffic that was backed up for miles,” Jarrett recalled in an interview with Tim Dills at kayfabememories.com. “During the drive to the site, we had all concluded that it was Lawler and whoever was with him. It was impossible to determine the kind of car that was burning. We asked how they knew it was wrestlers and the police told us that wrestling gear was down the road from the impact. About that time, Jerry Lawler was spotted walking toward the crash scene. We all cried for joy and then suddenly became somber wondering who was in the car. Lawler told us it had to be Sam Bass.”

Still, the show had to go on.

The following week, attendance jumped from under 6,000 to 9,131 to see No. 3 contender Lawler battle second-ranked Funk, Jr., a former NWA World champ and older brother of titlist Terry. A typical gimmick for the time period: Dory would enter a territory in the weeks preceding his brother, eventually putting over the local star to build them up as a serious threat to Terry. (A similar formula had been used with the Brisco brothers on occasion during Jack’s reign as well.) That was clearly the plan on Aug. 2, 1976, as Lawler defeated Dory to retain the Southern title and climb the NWA ratings to No. 2.

Lawler stumbled in front of over 10,000 fans the next week, dropping the Southern strap on Aug. 9 to No. 1 contender Jack Brisco, the man whom Terry had defeated for the World title. The King regained the throne on Aug. 16, defeating Brisco as a near-capacity crowd looked on. The finish saw Brisco go for his vaunted figure-four leglock. Lawler kicked him off, sending the former World champ shoulder-first into the ringpost. The King finished Brisco with a fistdrop off the middle rope, with Jack selling it beautifully. (This finish was shown several times in several Lawler music videos over the years.)

With higher “championship ticket prices” (this tactic was used by several promoters during the time to offset the percentage paid to the champ and the NWA office) in effect–a whopping $7 for ringside–10,430 were on hand Aug. 22 as the King and the Funker went to a 60-minute Broadway. The seeds were planted for a memorable rivalry that would last for decades.

Lawler was in line to receive a rematch for the World strap in October of ’76; however, once again the King had to first go through Terry’s “policeman,” big brother Dory Jr.–this time in a Texas Death Match. For years, the Funks claimed that they invented the Texas Death Match in Amarillo. I’m not sure about that, but the gimmick match came off to the fans as the ultimate test of manhood, typically used to blow off a feud: pinfalls don’t decide the winner; the match keeps going until a man can’t answer the referee’s count of 10, i.e., the last man standing wins. Lawler prevailed, setting up another showdown for the domed globe belt on Oct. 18.

Lawler seemingly won the title from Funk on the 18th, but the decision was overturned with Terry declared the winner by disqualification. That didn’t stop Lawler from retreating to the dressing room with the World strap for a photo shoot with MEMPHIS MAGAZINE. A shot of Lawler wearing the NWA World title ended up gracing the magazine’s cover that same year as part of a piece on Memphis wrestling. I asked Lawler about that incident recently, inquiring whether Funk gave the OK for the publicity stunt.

“No, he had no idea. We did some of kind of deal where I thought I’d won the match, so I took the belt to the dressing room. When I got to the back, I ran up to the photographer who was there to take pictures for the article, saying, ‘Hurry up, hurry up…take my picture! And I put the belt on real quick before Terry got back.”

In the weeks following the Oct. 18 bout, Lawler was billed as “NWA World title claimant,” which the King proclaimed on the Oct. 23 episode of Championship Wrestling on WHBQ. (This rare footage is courtesy of  ’70s-TV.com, which has an incredible selection of Memphis wrestling footage from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s for sale. Click here to check out the selection of rare Memphis wrestling DVDs.) Incidentally, don’t ever refer to Jerry Lawler as a “queen”–not that there’s anything wrong with that.

My first real exposure to Funk came in 1981, when Lawler returned from nearly a year-long layoff after suffering a broken leg. I had become a huge wrestling fan around ’77 at age 6. By ’79, I was picking up every Apter newsstand magazine my meager allowance could afford, which was the only way for a young mark to himself back in the day. I quickly became familiar with the NWA and AWA World champions, always scanning the ratings for Lawler’s inclusion.

Apter mags like INSIDE WRESTLING, THE WRESTLER and PRO WRESTLING ILLUSTRATED extensively covered Terry’s dastardly attack on Dusty Rhodes on August 26, 1979, which cost the American Dream the NWA championship vs. Harley Race after only a five-day reign on top. While Dory looked like an insurance salesman in photos, Terry with his crazed, wild-eyed looks and sometimes braided hair, appeared insane to me.

By ’81, I was well aware of the fact that Dory and Terry were the only brothers in history to hold the NWA title, wrestling’s biggest prize. So when Jimmy Hart announced on Saturday, March 21, 1981, that Terry was his latest bounty hunter to come after Lawler’s hide, I knew the King was in for a wild one.  It was easily Lawler’s best match of the year, with the crazed, bloodthirsty Funk  looking to re-break Lawler’s leg with his infamous spinning toe-hold. Following a Texas Death Match on April 6, with Lawler and Plowboy Frazier beating Terry and his brother, Dory, before 8,147 fans, Terry challenged Jerry to an empty arena match at the Coliseum, which was some of the most bizarre footage ever recorded.

What transpired exceeded 9-year-old Scott Bowden’s expectations. In the craziest bouts I’d seen at that age, Lawler and Funk had a classic bloody brawl in front of a hot crowd. For years, Jim Cornette (who was at ringside that night taking photographs for the Apter mags) called this his favorite match, making it required viewing for any young, budding star in the business.

Funk not only sold his ass off–making Lawler appear like a true badass in the process–but he also screamed like a maniac throughout the match. I really thought Terry Funk was insane. Lawler won the no-disqualification bout via countout after hitting Funk’s left leg repeatedly with a steel chair, with announcer Lance Russell (obviously having a ball) comparing it to a lumberjack (Joe LeDuc perhaps) “swinging a big ax.” A tremendous professional wrestling brawl by anyone’s standards.

The following week, Lawler downed big bro Dory, who had returned to Memphis to avenge Terry. On April 6, Lawler and “Giant” Plowboy Frazier beat the Funk brothers in a Texas Death tag bout.

Terry Funk was fed up–and by God, he was going to do something about it. Claiming that Lawler had the fans, the referee, the promotion, the announcers–and even the Memphis Police–on his side, Terry (in a tremendous taped promo) challenged Lawler to a fight in an empty arena. The date of the fight wasn’t made clear, as Lawler quietly accepted on the air and walked off, refusing to elaborate, much to Lance’s chagrin.

When people ask about what I miss most about how wrestling used to be, I always mention the gritty presentation of the ’70s and ’80s product I grew up on, which always made the feuds and issues come off so personal and realistic to me. This entire angle epitomizes that. Funk and Lawler were just two guys who you’d swear hated each other. And they’d settle it in or out of the ring.

Longtime Memphis Wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett laughed when I asked him about the inspiration for the empty arena bout, which has become a cult classic.

“That was all Terry’s idea,” he says. “To give you an idea of how Terry’s mind works, he called me once saying, ‘Jarrett, I’ve got an idea that’s going to make us both a lot of money. You and I both know that wrestling promoters are stupid sons of bitches. Well, not you, Jarrett. But, anyway, the biggest night to run wrestling is Thanksgiving night. Let’s put a deposit down on every major arena in the United States–I pay half, you pay half–and we’ll sell the date back to the local promoters when it finally dawns on them that we’ve already got their building locked up on that date.’ I calmly explained to Terry, ‘There are probably 300 arenas that we’d have to cover. I think the promoters will simply switch to a different arena rather than pay us. And then we’re gonna be stuck with hundreds of empty arenas and flat broke.’ Terry says, ‘Trust me–they’ll pay us.’ I said, ‘We’ll, do you think they’ll pay us before or after they shoot us?’ The wrestling business was a lot different back then. But that’s how Terry’s mind works, so I wasn’t surprised when he called to say, ‘Let’s have a match in an empty Mid-South Coliseum.'”

About two weeks later, I was watching the live Saturday morning show as Lance announced that an incident had happened between Lawler and Funk. The promotion and TV station had debated whether or not they should even air the footage because it was so graphic. Needless to say, this got my attention. In Memphis, fans had seen just about everything up to that point. Was one of them maimed? Killed? What in the Sam Hill was going on? What followed was some of the strangest footage ever shot in wrestling.

The intro to the infamous empty-arena match is memorable, with Lance lighting a cigarette before proclaiming that there’s a chance “you will never see this.” Too good. And when Funk storms the area and calls Lance and Lawler every name in the book, the Memphis announcer is at the top of his game.

Then Lawler finally appears in full regal regalia for the empty-arena showdown, Funk shouts: “Look, Lance, it’s a clown! Look at that fool; look at that idiot! There’s nobody here, Lawler, you jackass! What, you got a gun under there? A knife? Huh, Lawler, you got a knife?” (Lawler years later told me he wished he hadn’t come out with the crown and cape–he almost cracked up when Funk started in on him.)

Cape Fear: The maniacal Funk rips into Lawler for showing up in all his royal glory.

The brawl culminates with a seemingly career-threatening eye injury to Funk, who screams the immortal words, “Lance…my eye. My eyeeeee! Arrrgghhh-eeeeeeee! My eyyeeeee!” (The late Eddie Gilbert could do a spot-on impersonation of the incident.) The action itself is lame by their standards, but still, it’s damn fascinating to watch.

For more on the Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk feud in Memphis Wrestling, check back tomorrow.

Clippings courtesy of memphiswrestlinghistory.com.

File under Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk feud.

RIP, Jack Brisco

February 1st, 2010 4 comments
Gold standard: The late Jack Brisco always carried himself like a champion.

Gold standard: The late Jack Brisco always carried himself like a champion.

I was saddened to learn of Jack Brisco’s passing this morning. An NCAA champion and two-time NWA World champion, Jack was largely considered by his peers to be one of the greatest performers in professional wrestling history.

One of the first cards I ever attended at the Coliseum featured three former NWA champions in the main event (which was a rarity in the days when only a select fraternity got to carry the prestigious honor of NWA titlist): Jerry Lawler teaming with Brisco vs. the Funks on May 18, 1981.

Years before, Brisco made several appearances defending his NWA laurels in Memphis, including a defense against his childhood idol, Lou Thesz, on Oct. 8, 1973.

In 1974, Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett began building up rising-star Jerry Lawler as a serious contender to Brisco’s NWA championship. Along with his legendary feud with Jackie Fargo, Lawler’s Quest for the Title program and matches with Brisco established the King as a singles star in the eyes of Memphis fans.

In a telephone interview with me this morning, Lawler credited Brisco as one of the top three workers he faced in Memphis.

“Jack was in that same class as Dory Funk Jr. and Nick Bockwinkel,” he says. “He was so smooth inside the ring. Jack never rushed things; he never got flustered and always took his time in building a match. Just  a pleasure to work with. He made it appear that even a local kid like me could beat the World champion. He was the first World champion I ever faced in Memphis, which really was the start of the program that we always went back to, with me chasing the belt.  All the NWA champions of that era were great—Terry Funk, Harley Race–but Jack was special. Because of his amateur background, he truly carried himself like a sportsman, which added to the prestige of the NWA title.”

In a Wrestling Classics message-board response to me years ago, Brisco said he had fond memories of his Memphis appearances: “Jerry and I had very good matches. I really enjoyed working with him. We had a very good chemistry together.”

The 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. Lawler recalls his first meeting with the Sheik.

“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.”

King...not even for a day: Following his title bout with Brisco, Lawler held the NWA title for about 10 seconds.

King...not even for a day: Following his title bout with Brisco, Lawler held the NWA title for about 10 seconds.

Jarrett recalls: “I simply filmed a false finish and then turned the cameras off when the bout later ended inconclusively. Lawler and his manager Sam Bass would then come out the following Saturday morning, airing only the footage of the false finish but claiming victory nonetheless: ‘Jerry Lawler beat the stew out of the Sheik and beat him 1, 2, 3.’ Because their credibility was important, Lance and Dave would try to dispute it saying, ‘Oh, c’mon, Jerry.’ So Lawler would scream, ‘Play the tape if you don’t believe me!’ And then we’d show the false finish with Lawler appearing to beat him for a three count. Lawler would then proceed to talk about next week’s challenge, as Lance just shook his head. So, in that sense, Lawler effectively beat everyone in the nation as part of the Quest for the Title—if not by pinfall, then with a little creativity.”

In the end, the young Lawler impressed the Sheik so much that he took a photo of the King back to Detroit and instructed the editor of the famous Body Press program to run it in the next edition, telling him “the kid’s a fabulous worker.” Lawler says, “When the Sheik came back to Memphis a few weeks later, he showed me my picture in the program. The caption read, ‘Jerry Lawler, A Fabulous Worker.’ Man, we laughed about that.”

Lawler featured this image on his Christmas cards this year, showing him throwing powder in Brisco's eyes during a Memphis bout on April 24, 1977.

Lawler featured this image on his Christmas cards this year, which captures him throwing powder in Brisco's eyes during a Memphis bout on April 24, 1977.

The Quest for the Title 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.

The finish set up a bout the following week between Jerry Brisco and Lawler–which drew less than 5,000 people. “Years later working together in WWE, he [Gerald] and I would always joke that it was the biggest drop-off in attendance ever at the Mid-South Coliseum,” Lawler says.

After dropping the NWA title to Terry Funk, Brisco returned to Memphis to win the NWA Southern title from Lawler on Aug. 9, 1976, before dropping it back to Memphis’s number-one son a week later before 10,962 fans at the Coliseum. That two-match series led to a Lawler vs. Funk showdown for the NWA belt on Aug. 22, which drew a crowd of 10,430. In 1981, Brisco was also one of the big names brought in by Jimmy Hart to put Lawler over upon the King’s return from a broken leg.

RIP, champ. You will be missed.

From Dave Meltzer at the Wrestling Observer:

Brisco had been battling an assortment of health problems in recent years, including circulatory problems and emphyzema.  He underwent open heart surgery a few weeks ago, and a little over a week ago, collapsed while undergoing rehab, and flatlined at one point.  Brother Gerald, who was very close with him, has been battling to regain his health after suffering strokes.

Outside the ring, Brisco was a well known practical joker, but in the ring, for his time, he may have been the best in the business.  Wrestlers like Dory and Terry Funk, who wrestled virtually every major star of the era, had both told me at times that Jack Brisco and Johnny Valentine were the two best workers they had faced.

Brisco, who grew up in Blackwell, OK, was a huge wrestling fan as a child, telling stories about going to the newsstands and leafing through wrestling magazines to see stories on his two heroes, Lou Thesz and Danny Hodge, never to realize that he would grow up and be mentioned in the same breath with them.  Brisco got into amateur wrestling because of his love for pro wrestling, and was an all-state football player as well as a state high school wrestling champion.

Due to having to work and support a young family, he only wrestled two years at Oklahoma State, as part of a powerhouse team that included wrestling legend Yojiro Uetake.  During those two years, he only lost one match, in the finals of the 1964 NCAA tournament to Harry Houska, helping his team capture the NCAA title.  Brisco went undefeated in 1965, taking the NCAA title at 191 pounds, and immediately started wrestling for Leroy McGuirk, capitalizing on his national title.