This belt signifies you're the greatest wrestler walking the face of God's green pastures in Tennessee and Kentucky...and parts of Indiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.
After years of frustration in his attempts to convince the National Wrestling Alliance board to give his homegrown star Jerry Lawler a run with the NWA World title, Memphis wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett created his own championship–the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) heavyweight title. The idea was that AWA Southern champ Lawler would win the strap from former WWWF champion Superstar Graham and then issue challenges to AWA kingpin Nick Bockwinkle and perennial NWA titlist Harley Race for a series of unification matches. Jarrett, who had begun working with Verne Gagne the previous year, was thinking that perhaps the AWA owner would eventually agree to have Lawler and Bockwinkel “unify” the titles in Memphis, with each man holding the undisputed championship for a period of time.
Of course, Lawler broke his leg just as the unification series with Nick was getting off the ground, forcing Jarrett to go in a different direction with Billy Robinson, who was a classic wrestler in the mold of the men whom the young promoter admired growing up.
With Lawler on the shelf, Robinson drew some strong houses in Memphis defending the belt against the likes of Bockwinkel (after Verne decided to have one last run with the AWA crown), Bill Dundee (who Robinson traded the belt with), former NWA champion Lou Thesz, and Paul Ellering; still, he wasn’t the consistent draw that Lawler was. In fact, it was “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant who picked up the babyface slack with Lawler sidelined. Disappointed with his champion’s drawing power, Jarrett gambled, going with the charismatic if not reliable Austin Idol, who defeated Robinson for the belt on Oct. 6, 1990, when Billy was “forced to quit” after twisting his knee in a rare show at Chicks Stadium–an outdoor show on a chilly fall night that only drew 2,642 fans, despite $3 and $4 tickets and advertised “50-cent beers.”
Idol, who could have played the role of the flamboyant World champion well a la Ric Flair, lasted all of two weeks–just long enough to have publicity photos taken with the title–before forfeiting the championship of the world to rising star Bobby Eaton. I believe Idol left in a pay dispute–certainly not the last with Jarrett–the money he was making in Georgia was probably too good to pass up. (Unless, of course, it was a Fred Ward town.) While he was already one of the best young workers in the business, Eaton lacked credibility, so Jarrett went back with Robinson as champion on October 27 in front of just over 3,500 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum. Lawler returned from his layoff to again set the territory on fire as 1980 came to a close, drawing a SRO sellout crowd at the Coliseum on Dec. 29.
Jarrett wanted the belt off Robinson, but the champ this time refused to relinquish the belt, no-showing a scheduled bout with Dutch Mantell on March 16, 1981. Robinson took off with the title, continuing to defend it in Japan. The last result I saw involving the championship was a title loss to Dory Funk Jr. in Tokyo; however, I have no idea if this title switch actually took place. Robinson has since claimed his ex-wife took the belt following their divorce, which sounds like a WWE storyline. Jarrett was anxious to confront Robinson at the 2009 NWA Legends Fanfest about the belt’s whereabouts…but Billy no-showed that event as well. (In a recent interview, Robinson changed his story, saying his dog ate the belt.)
Despite holding the belt for only 14 days (though that’s nearly triple the amount of time that Tommy Rich held the NWA World title), Idol recently commissioned renowned belt-maker Dave Millican to recreate the 1980 championship belt for photo-ops at upcoming personal appearances. Though Millican wasn’t the biggest fan of the original design–which has Lawler’s artistic style all over it–he agreed, making some slight enhancements, such as accurately depicting the Japanese flag. (The real strap had the red-and-white color scheme inverted.)
Belt-mark critics in the past have slammed the original’s license-plate design and frugal production, but for longtime Memphis fans, the CWA World title is fantastic sentimental piece. I think former esteemed CWA president Nick Gulas would agree. Besides, if you think the original CWA title belt was bad, you should have seen the World championship trophy it replaced–I believe it was one of promoter Eddie Marlin’s old bowling awards.
Though Jarrett’s unification concept eventually came to fruition in 1988, with Lawler wining both the AWA and World Class belts, it would have been interesting to see how the scenario would have played out had Lawler not broken his leg in ’80. But then we might have missed out on the Lawler-Hart feud, which is the program that really defined the territory in the ’80s.
Maybe it was a lucky break after all.
For more on Millican’s incredible work, check out his site and colorful gallery of belts by clicking here.
Four years earlier, Jarrett booked a long program, the Quest for the Title, which was designed to get Lawler over in the fans’ eyes as a serious contender for the NWA World championship, held at that time by the late Jack Brisco. The roots of the program can be traced to Jarrett’s teenage years, when he was worked a part-time job at wrestling matches at the Hippodrome Arena in Nashville.
“I was a 14- or 15 year-old kid sitting in front of the arena tearing tickets as folks walked in. Lou Thesz was the World heavyweight champion. Most of the wrestlers would pull up behind the building and go in the side door and duck into the side dressing room. But Lou pulled up in a taxi in front of the building. I was tearing tickets at the matches. He would walk up those steps to the Hippodrome, and literally, goosebumps would jump on my arms and the hair on the back of neck would stand on end. You knew he was the champion–even if you’d never seen wrestling–just from the way he carried himself. Lou Thesz was an inspiration to me. I was so impressed with Lou that I had this reverence for the World title and still do. It signifies that you have achieved the very top in this profession. So Jerry Lawler was very talented, and I knew that he deserved to be the champion, so I developed the Quest for the Title for him.”
Jarrett called some of his closest friends in the wrestling business, including the late Eddie Graham, who had a tremendous influence on the young promoter, to get dates on some of the biggest stars in the business. Jarrett billed them as the top 10 contenders that Lawler had to defeat to get a shot at the 10 pounds of gold.
One by one over a period of months, Lawler knocked them off…whether the stars agreed to lose or not. When the Sheik (Ed Farhat) and Dick the Bruiser refused to do a job for Lawler after arriving at the Coliseum, Jarrett simply filmed a false finish and then turned the cameras off when the bout later ended inconclusively via a disqualification or count-out. 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.
“He [Bass] would say, ‘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.” The program culminated on Sept. 16, 1974, with more than 10,125 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum on hand for the title showdown. Lawler appeared to defeat Brisco for the belt but the decision was overturned when the referee discovered that the King had used a chain to knock out the champion. Backstage, two men watched with tears in their eyes. ”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.”
Of course, in a sense, the Quest for the Title was really just beginning, as the promotion continued to return to the storyline for the next several years as Lawler always fell heartbreakingly short of bringing the World championship home to Memphis. And without the benefit of a professional sports team in our city at the time, Lawler was the home sports team for my friends and me growing.
“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.”
Despite the consistent success of the territory, Jarrett claims the NWA made it clear that Memphis would most likely never see a title change, even a quickie (similar to Tommy Rich in Georgia and Dusty in Tampa). In addition, the perennial NWA champ in the ’70s and early ’80s, Harley Race, disliked Lawler and Jarrett because the promotion had made it appear that the King had pinned all of his challengers during the Quest for the Title run when in fact most of the wins came via disqualification or countout.
Race claims he was so ticked off about the King’s apparent conquering of “the entire NWA and Andre the Giant” that he challenged Lawler to a shoot prior to a scheduled title defense. Luckily for Lawler, cooler heads prevailed. Race’s last appearance as NWA champ in Memphis was in December 1977 when his bout with Lawler was stopped when “Handsom” Jimmy Valiant busted a Coke bottle (which had been baked in an over for 2 hours to soften it) over Lawler’s head.
King for a night: Lawler wins the AWA World title from Bockwinkel in 1982 but the decision is overturned.
In August 1978, Jarrett began working with Verne Gagne, who owned the successful American Wrestling Association territory, and booking AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel instead of NWA kingpin Race. Jarrett also changed all the area titles to AWA affiiation, including the NWA Southern title to the AWA Southern title.
With his regal demeanor and arrogance, Beverly Hills’ Bockwinkel played the role of the rich playboy champion to perfection, some would argue much more effectively than NWA World champion Ric Flair. (Not only that, but it was also cheaper and easier to get dates on the AWA champion, whose schedule wasn’t nearly as hectic as his NWA counterpart.) You practically needed a dictionary on hand when watching a Bockwinkel promo. And, man, could he work. Lawler and Nick had some of the bouts of the King’s career–amazing chemistry that had the fans on the edge of their seats.
“Well, not only was he a great wrestler, but Nick was also an articulate, decent man,” Jarrett says. “I really cared for Nick, and I counted myself lucky that I knew Nick Bockwinkel. And the politics of it…let’s just say that the NWA was beginning to slide a bit. Also, I was not successful at getting Lawler a run with the NWA title, and I figured I’d have much better luck talking to Verne Gagne–one man–as opposed to an entire board, so that played a big part in it. Verne also had some really stellar talent besides Nick that would help us draw money.”
Lance Russell describes the nights of World title matches at the Mid-South Coliseum as “magic.”
“The atmosphere was charged by the fans,” Lance says. “You couldn’t help but feed off the fans. The fans were so excited, ‘Tonight’s the night. This is the one we’ve been waiting for. Jerry’s had the champion on the ropes before and this could be the night he takes it!’ The enthusiasm was just unbelievable.”
I attended several bouts in which Lawler came up just short in his bid to become World champion, most notably a 60-minute draw with Bockwinkel in August 1979; a 40-minute-plus DQ win over Nick on Jan. 1, 1984; and a DQ loss to Flair in a forgettable bout on Sept. 30, 1985. During Lawler’s title bout with Hennig, on Aug. 11, 1987, an old drunken man sitting next to me at the Coliseum was in tears as confessed to me that he’d “do anything–even give up a month’s pay–to see Lawler win the World belt” in his lifetime. That’s how much it meant to Memphis fans.
Unable to negotiate a title change with Gagne intially, Jarrett created his own World title, the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) championship in 1979. To give the title credibility, Jarrett brought in Superstar Graham, who two years earlier had been all over the Apter mags as WWWF champion, to dethrone journeyman Pat McGinniss in Memphis. Graham, of course, dropped the belt to Lawler a short time later in Lexington.
After Lawler broke his leg, the CWA title bounced around to guys like Bill Dundee to Austin Idol to Billy Robinson before it was finally forgotten. When Lawler returned from a broken leg in December 1980, the chase for a true World title was back on.
Today, Memphis; tomorrow, the world.
With the AWA crumbling in 1988 and champion Curt Hennig, probably the top worker in the business at that time, finally accepting a WWF offer to come in with the perfect gimmick, Gagne finally agreed to put his World championship belt on Memphis’s number-one son.
Although the magic of the original Quest for the Title had waned a bit, along with the luster of the AWA and NWA championships, Jarrett booked the title switch on May 9, 1988, which was actually deemed “Jerry Lawler Day” in the city of Memphis by then Mayor Dick Hackett, who even sat ringside for the bout. (Tensions were running so high during the bout–Lawler had vowed to retire if he lost–that a huge fight broke out in the main event, directly in the seating row behind of Mayor Hackett, who had to scramble for cover.)
Area king crowned.
Although not one of Lawler’s best bouts, the May 9 title switch was pretty damn good, with Lawler juicing heavily over his eye, putting the fear in the fans’ hearts that maybe father-figure Fargo would stop the bout to prevent permanent injury. Of course Hennig, one of the best bump takers in the biz, did his part to make Lawler look tremendous, which he didn’t have to do.
When special-ref Jackie Fargo counted to four (by accident), the pop from the nearly 9,000 fans in attendance at the Mid-South Coliseum was about as amazing as you might expect, as the bloody King of Memphis was finally crowned heavyweight champion of the world. Prior to the bout, in a rather tacky money-making venture, the promotion had set up a 900 number, enabling the fans to vote for either Fargo or Curt’s father, Larry “the Ax” Hennig, as the official. Even worse, Lawler claimed on the air that Hennig had posted the number in Minneapolis and that the voting was dead even a week heading into the Monday night showdown. Thankfully, “a hometown surge” carried Fargo to victory. (I believe Jarrett and Lawler each made $5,000 from the 900 “voting.”)
To celebrate the monumental end of the chase, my friend and I scooped up dozens of complimentary Jerry Lawler posters, which had been distributed to the fans in attendance by a tobacco company. We arrived early at our high school Tuesday morning to tape the posters all over the campus, along with a huge sign in the cafeteria congratulating the new King of the World. I’ll never forget the reaction of my appalled English teacher, Mr. Scates: “That horrid man’s face is all over the school!”
In reality (and I use that term loosely when discussing the business), Lawler defended the title against a pretty impressive group of challengers: Hennig, Kerry Von Erich, Eddie Gilbert, Austin Idol, Tatsumi Fujinami, Dutch Mantell, Buddy Landel and Wahoo McDaniel. The feud with Von Erich was initiated to create a new chase, this time for the World Class championship, which Lawler won at the AWA’s SuperClash III in Chicago. Even though I’d pretty much stopped buying the Apter mags at that point, which I used to check regularly as a kid to see where Lawler was ranked in the AWA ratings, it was nice to see the King get recognition as a legit World champion. Maybe that’s because Lawler’s chase for the title was my chase–my dream–as well.
I wonder if today’s fans feel that same connection when John Cena goes after his 13th WWE heavyweight/World championship in the near future.
Special note: If you like the portrait of the King above, check out the Kickstarter campaign of Rob Schamberer, an artist and longtime Kansas City wrestling fan, who wants to paint a portrait of every world heavyweight champion.
Says Rob: “I’m going to start with the NWA, AWA, ECW, WCW, WCWA/USWA, TNA, ROH and WWWF/WWF/WWE. I’m a guy from the Midwest with a lifelong dream of being a full-time artist. I’ve had my work featured in many shows and I have worked as a comic-book writer and artist as well as a freelance illustrator. I want to take it to the next level and focus all of my energies on my art, and with your help I can do this! My style is a mix of influences like street art, comic books, and mid-century illustration, which I feel creates a vibrant and energetic approach to this subject. The art created around professional wrestling has always seemed to lack something. Either it’s too real, or it’s too cartoonish. It’s too polished or too amateurish. I want to be honest to the wrestlers while also bringing that kinetic energy they deliver to their fans. I’m going to do this with a mix of mediums, mostly consisting of acrylics, oils, and spray paint. I’m an experimenter, though, and I’m sure to try new approaches and media as I go. What is the money going towards, you ask? Twenty grand’s a lot of money. I want to get real studio space that can also serve as a gallery. I think it would be great for people to be able to come see the paintings in person. Paying for all of these supplies to make the art is costly to boot. For reals, I’m going to need to buy wood and supplies for around 250 paintings!”
I’ve personally sponsored this endeavor with a $25 pledge. Click here if you’d like to contribute…and pick up a cool collectible while you’re at it. But hurry–only a few days remain.
For more on this project, check out this YouTube clip:
“[Wrestlers] don’t even know what heat is today. They don’t know what it’s like to go out to your car and find four flat tires and a brick through your window. [Fans] today don’t try to cut you with a knife. Back then, we made the people believe. Hell, we believed.”
–Bill “Superstar” Dundee, on “heat”–the magic behind the mayhem in Memphis wrestling’s heyday
For me, it felt like the summer of 1977 as the opening shots of “Memphis Heat,” the long-awaited labor of love documenting the glorious grappling history of the Tennessee territory, began unfolding on my 52-inch flatscreen earlier this week. I was once again that post-Pop-Tart, sugary-breakfast-cereal-filled kid positioned in front of my parents’ (seemingly 2-ton) Zenith wood-paneled, 25-inch set on so many Saturdays long ago as announcer Lance Russell, “right along ringside,” welcomed me to another BIG day of Championship Wrestling, before giving way to “Davey” (co-host Dave Brown) to run through the “most interesting” lineup of matches in store for the next 90 minutes.
Watching “Memphis Heat,” it was Saturday morning all over again for Scotty Bowden.
There was always an element of nervous energy during those Saturdays of my youth–I imagine it was the same feeling other kids in “real” sports towns must have experienced prior to Terry Bradshaw taking the field at Three Rivers Stadium or Larry Bird warming up on the parquet court of the old Boston Garden. But for me, the anticipation was for the outrageous antics and interviews of my hometown hero/heel Jerry Lawler and his rivalries with the likes of Dundee, Valiant, “The Universal Heartthrob” Austin Idol, Terry Funk and “Lumberjack” Joe LeDuc. In addition to these heated personal issues with his hated foes–which were usually settled in a hair-vs.hair showdown, a loser-leaves-town bout or a no-holds-barred fight within the confines of a steel cage at the Mid-South Coliseum, the King’s chase of the World heavyweight rasslin’ crown, the equivalent of a Super Bowl ring in Memphis, was equally as captivating.
The kid's got an arm: Memphis-native Jerry Lawler's accuracy was on par with the Terry Bradshaws and Roger Staubachs of the era.
As the “Heat” documentary opens with former Memphis stars Dundee, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant and Buddy Wayne explaining to the viewing audience the concept of “heat”–the goal of every nefarious heel back in the day–I had that same nauseous feeling in my stomach, hoping that executive producers Ron Hall and Sherman Willmott and director Chad Schaffler had nailed this documentary feature like the chain-wrapped fist of Lawler knocking out many a hapless pretender to the throne.
Indeed, “Memphis Heat” is a winner, the Southern heavyweight champion of wrestling documentaries, as the film packs quite a punch with a dizzying array of classic clips, rare photographs, and candid discussions that interweave to tell the complex, fun story of how the Memphis territory became, for a time, the hotbed of the business–all set to a kick-ass, rockin’ soundtrack that I imagine must have been handpicked by Hall, a longtime authority on Mid-South music.
When was I growing up, Memphis was a minor-league sports graveyard, so our “home team” was Lawler, a local who went from being a skinny kid from Treadwell High to the Southern champ 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 gimmick bouts and colorful performers in the history of the professional wrestling business–which is saying a helluva lot.
I suppose it’s only fitting that Lawler, who attended Memphis State University briefly on an art scholarship, continued working on a different kind of canvas–-one riddled with razor-blade-induced blood drops that made it appear like an abstract painting. In the ’70s, the local joke was that if a professional sports franchise were ever to succeed in Memphis, they’d have to present pro wrestling matches at halftime. While short-lived franchises like the Grizzlies (World Football League) folded because of poor attendance, the headlining feud of Jackie Fargo vs. Jerry Lawler attracted an average of nearly 10,000 fans to the Coliseum every Monday night as they battled over the right for rasslin’ supremacy in the River City.
Lawler became a bonafide star in 1974, with the brash cocky upstart eventually unseating the legendary Fargo for the Memphis throne after a series of bouts, including several overflow sellouts at the Coliseum. Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett recalls that the program basically wrote itself, as Fargo had helped Jerry break into the business: a classic case of the teacher–the aging superstar–fending off his pupil, the young buck trying to knock him off the top of the mountain.
“Jackie was a disc jockey in his spare time, and Jerry was one of his interns, or as Fargo jokingly called him, ‘my lackey,’” recalls Jarrett. “Lawler [submitted] some wonderful sketches he’d done of the matches, and Lance Russell eventually started showing them on the air when giving the results of the previous week’s matches at the [Ellis] Auditorium. So when Jerry later became a big star and threatened his top spot, there really was some resentment there, though Jackie did everything he could to get Lawler over.” Lawler’s story of how he broke into the business with his artwork is included in the Extras section of the newly released “Heat” DVD, along with the tale of a diabolical plot involving Mario Galento that could have very well changed the course of Memphis wrestling had he been successful. (To give you an idea of Mario’s evil mug, I believe costume manufacturers used his face as the mold for the traditional Satan rubber masks that rise from the depths of retail hell every Halloween.)
Announcer Dave Brown, who was not interviewed for the documentary, told me that it was Jackie’s willingness to create a new star that made the program so successful–including perhaps the largest crowd ever at the Coliseum, with 11,783 fans on hand on June 24, 1974, for a card headlined by Fargo vs. Lawler.
“The key to the transition was Jackie,” he says. “Jackie was so good at selling [a loss] that he was over even more than he was before–and Jerry was now a star. Jackie had a willingness to make the program work; he could have said, ‘I’m the star, and I don’t want to do it.’ But he was on board.”
Indeed, there are moments in “Heat” where Fargo’s love for Lawler, “the kid,” is still evident. In many ways, Fargo was a father figure for Lawler, whose dad passed away while Jerry was still in high school. In fact, the King still fondly refers to his mentor as “Pops.” And I’ll be damned if Fargo still doesn’t have that glint in his eye and that swagger that made the fans emotionally invest in the tough-talking, brash bruiser back in his day. Hell, in his interview with the “Heat” crew, Jackie still displays more charisma than most of the current WWE roster–and looks like he could even whip half of them.
Fargo also provides insight into the work ethic of Nick Gulas, the man who ran the traditional NWA territory until greed got the better of him, causing his young “partner” Jarrett to ambitiously regroup with rising-star Lawler to wrestle the away the Memphis end and, in a coup, move the TV show–and WHBQ program director Lance Russell and weatherman Dave Brown–to channel 5 from channel 13. Within months, Jarrett and Lawler were playing to packed houses at the Coliseum, while Gulas was forced to pack up and concentrate on the Nashville end before eventually going out of business and dying virtually broke. And to think, the bitter split started over Jarrett’s refusal to book Nick’s goofy, athletically awkward son George as a main-event player in Memphis.
Before Fargo and Lawler, Sputnik Monroe and Billy Wicks were two of the city’s biggest stars in the late 1950s and 1960s. Unlike most of the boys, the Cadillac-driving, diamond-ring-wearing Monroe played to the section of black fans, who were forced to cheer and jeer from “the Crow’s Nest,” the limited number of cheap seats in the Ellis balcony. Steadily, the African-American fan base grew so large that promoters were forced to integrate the seating to accommodate the number of blacks waiting to get into the building. And if they didn’t, legend has it, Monroe threatened to walk out. Sputnik also made newspaper headlines for frequenting “negro” taverns and other black-owned businesses on Beale Street in Memphis. Born Rocco Monroe Merrick in Dodge City, Kansas, he became Roscoe Monroe Brumbaugh in his teens when his mother remarried. In 1945, he began wrestling (i.e., beating the shit out of unsuspecting marks for their money) in the carnivals as “Rock Monroe.” Wrestling lore has it that in 1958, an elderly lady attending the matches in Alabama match became incensed when Monroe entered the auditorium with his arm draped around a black acquaintance–in those days, that was the wrong kind of heat. The enraged old bag called Monroe every derogatory name in the book, including that of the recently launched Soviet satellite. The “Sputnik” moniker stuck on that apparent Commie bastard, who had the nerve to tag with the likes of Norvell Austin in the South.
All ears: A rare moment--Jack Eaton not speaking--as babyface Billy Wicks tells the Memphis fans what he has in store for Sputnik Monroe.
Several Memphis-area teens identified with the rebel ‘rassler Monroe, going so far as to emulate their hero by bleaching their hair a blonde streak up the middle. Although Sputnik passed away in 2006, the “Heat” producers obtained clips of an interview Monroe conducted before his passing. Thankfully, Wicks, Monroe’s nemesis, is still alive and spoke glowingly of their rivalry that packed the Ellis Auditorium as well as attracted nearly 14,000 fans for a show at Russwood Park, headlined by their bout officiated by former heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano. I was also delighted to see longtime channel 5 sportscaster “Big” Jack Eaton comment on the legendary Monroe/Wicks feud with his usual panache. (Eaton’s tongue-in-cheek Memphis wrestling reports in the late ’70s/early ’80s on the Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon newscasts were priceless.)
In addition to all-time greats Len Rossi, Lawler, Rocky Johnson (father of the Rock), Fargo, Dundee, Wicks and Wayne, the doc features interviews with the late Mr. Guy Coffey (to whom the film is dedicated), referee Jerry Calhoun, and Jimmy Hart, who gives the unique perspective of being a teenage Memphis fan who sold Cokes at the Auditorium, later living out a childhood fantasy as the King’s manager shortly after he wrote and produced the song/music video for “Handsome” Jimmy’s iconic “Son of a Gypsy.” I had to laugh, though, when Hart commented how all of wrestling’s biggest stars had passed through Memphis, including “Hulk Hogan…and Brutus Beefcake.” (Ed Leslie did indeed appear in the territory in 1979 as the Hulk’s little brother, but he’s hardly a name I’d mention when describing the legends who cut their teeth and foreheads learning the ring ropes in Memphis.)
The Three Muskateers of Memphis Wrestling: The King, the Superstar, and "Handsome" Jimbo from Mempho.
It’s a shame more fans nationwide don’t realize just how innovative “Handsome” Jimmy could be in Memphis, as he was among the first in the business to use pop-culture references in his promos. I remember him bouncing off the walls in the WMC-TV 5 studio one Saturday morning in 1978, explaining to Lance that Burt Reynolds and Sally Field had just dropped him off in the parking lot and that the Bandit must have “slipped something in my Coca-Cola, baby!” In the ‘70s, he was wonderfully entertaining, arrogant and a tremendous brawler. Years before his “Boogie Woogie Man” persona, Valiant was in great shape and had a flamboyant, head-turning look that was usually reserved for rock stars of the era–tailor-made for Memphis. You have to credit Jarrett for seeing something in him and handpicking Valiant to be his new singles superstar in Lawler’s absence following the King’s brief retirement angle in 1977.
Valiant’s joy in discussing those glory days for the documentary is clear as he speaks of working in the packed Coliseum, that dazzling “flying-saucer”-shaped arena. And the eclectic cast of characters in Memphis in the late ‘70s was truly out of this world: King Lawler, the hometown hero; Dundee, the scrappy Australian; LeDuc, the crazed, ax-wiedling lumberjack; Tojo Yamamoto, the sneaky Japanese wrestler; Archie Goldie, a.k.a., the Mongolian Stomper; Sonny King; the soft-spoken, almost philosophical black wrestler; Johnson, “the boxer-turned-wrestler;” and Valiant, the cocky boy from New York City.
I began attending matches at the Coliseum on January 29, 1979. In the years that followed, pulling into that Memphis Fairgrounds parking lot and passing that rickety, wooden Zippin’ Pippin’ rollercoaster at the Liberty Land theme park next door gave me goose bumps in anticipation of the “wild and woolly” (a Russell-ism) action ahead that evening. I vividly remember the 50-cent souvenir programs, the stale popcorn, the Cokes with the melted ice sold by vendors in the stands, Mrs. Guy Coffee chain-smoking at the gimmick table, that massive speaker contraption (later replaced by a digital scoreboard) hanging directly over the ring (which I always envisioned snapping from its cables and squashing the wrestlers below), and the circular-shaped ceiling with missing tiles (blown off during the annual Monster Truck and tractor-pull events), which seemed to provide nearly flawless acoustics for the fans’ cheers and jeers as the heat crescendoed. After the matches, the snaking lines of cars while getting out of the parking lot, with intoxicated fans darting in front of our vehicle, was just as thrilling. And if the heels had gone over (won) in the main event, the irate spectators (who all clearly witnessed the obvious rules infraction missed by the clueless and/or unconscious ref) could be rowdier than wrestler Red Roberts. Ah, such childhood memories.
“Heat” follows Memphis wrestling’s meteoric rise into the early to mid-1980s, when it was often the third-highest-rated TV show in the city, including prime time, trailing only “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” By that time, the term “Monday Night Wrestling” (pronounced “Rasslin’) had transcended to everyday conversation to describe any household, schoolyard or workplace ruckus. (E.g., “Calm down, y’all, this ain’t Monday Night Wrestling!”)
For decades, Memphis wrestling’s stranglehold on the town was a phenomenon that was perhaps difficult for outsiders to fathom. Until now. I’m thrilled and relieved that “Memphis Heat” tells the story as it was meant to be told, with entertaining, action-packed footage, riveting interviews and a killer soundtrack…all in 90 minutes–in other words, just like that wrestling show broadcast live from 1960 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, throughout my younger years.
A closing, haunting shot of the now-empty, barren Coliseum nearly brought me to tears, like visiting the gravesite of an old, cherished friend–powerful stuff, pally. Thankfully, the territory’s legacy lives on in “Memphis Heat.”
Mercy, daddy! Order the “Memphis Heat” DVD (and red-hot movie poster) by clicking here. Check out the trailer below, jabroni.
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