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Simply fabulous: WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Lawler shares his memories of Memphis wrestling legend Jackie Fargo

June 24th, 2013 No comments

“I was meaner than a damn rattlesnake and tougher than a $2 steak, pally.”
—The late Jackie Fargo

When Jerry Lawler was a skinny teenager attending the Memphis wrestling matches every week with his father at the Ellis Auditorium in 1967, there was one star who stood head and broad shoulders above the rest: the Fabulous Jackie Fargo.

Put up your dukes, pally.

Put up your dukes, pally.

In an interview with me this morning hours after Fargo’s death, Lawler recalled the memories of the flamboyant Memphis wrestling icon who not only helped him break into the business but also passed the torch and anointed him the new King of the territory.

“Jackie’s personality enabled him to have an incredible connection with the people,” Lawler says. “Nobody in Memphis at that time had the charisma of Jackie Fargo. He was so good on interviews that you hung on every word he said. He was always off the cuff—he never knew what he was going to say until that microphone was in his hand. As a result, there was a sincerity in his promos that people could identify with to the point that they truly believed in him.”

A testament to his connection with the fans was how Jackie helped his legit little brother Sonny Fargo—who weighed about 165 pounds—get over as an unstoppable maniac dubbed “Roughhouse Fargo—the Nut.” The story goes that Jackie would check his brother out of the insane asylum in Bolivar, Tenn., whenever he was desperate for a partner. As part of the gimmick, Roughhouse would make the hot tag and end up cleaning house—decking the heels, the referee, the manager, and even Jackie. The crowd ate it up. Fans of Jim Crockett Promotions’ Mid-Atlantic Wrestling were obviously confused when they saw footage of Sonny from Memphis, as he was a mild-mannered referee in the Carolinas.

Despite his knack for comedy and showmanship, bleached-blonde hair, and colorful sequined ring attire and high hats—not to mention his trademark cocky strut—Fargo had an aura of believability in everything he did in the ring.

“When I first started wrestling, I’d ride to the towns with Tojo Yamamoto, who’d always stress the importance of facial expressions in telling a story to the crowd,” Lawler says. “So much in fact we’d be driving down the road, and Tojo would suddenly grab me and yank my arm or throat or whatever, and I’d wince in pain. This delighted Tojo, who’d say, ‘Yes! That’s it!’

“Well, Jackie had the most charisma and the best facial expressions in the business. The people felt it when he when he was in pain or suffered a loss, and they shared in his joy when he won a big match. I learned so much about psychology from Jackie.”

Jackie Fargo clobbers the would-be King at the Coliseum.

Jackie Fargo clobbers the would-be King at the Coliseum.

Shortly after Lawler’s father passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 1969, Jerry, a talented young artist, began sending sketches of the matches from the Ellis Auditorium to Channel 13, then the home of the Memphis wrestling show.

“I’d always done caricatures of the matches when I attended the cards with my dad, but it wasn’t until after he died that for some reason I decided to send the drawings to Lance [Russell] at Channel 13 in hopes he’d show them on the air,” he says.

At that point, promoter Nick Gulas was still running the territory and was not in favor of picking up the added expense of sending camera crews to the arenas and showing video highlights from the big bouts at the arenas on free TV, believing it would hurt ticket sales.

When Jerry Jarrett took over Memphis in 1977, he began showing clips regularly, giving fans a taste of the mayhem they were missing at the arenas, which helped boost attendance. But during the Gulas era, the young Lawler’s sketches were the next best thing, as Russell and Brown would show the colorful comic-book-style drawings when going over the Monday night results on the following Saturday morning.

The brilliant illustrations were such a hit that Russell eventually introduced Jerry, wearing his Sunday church suit, on the air during the live channel 13 broadcast, never dreaming that the soft-spoken teenager behind the sketches would go on to be the King of Memphis.

Fargo was so impressed with the kid’s artistic talents that he hired Lawler to paint a series of murals and caricatures throughout his Memphis nightclub—called the Southern Frontier—which the wrestling legend co-owned with Eddie Bond, a popular rockabilly singer. At the time, Lawler had dreams of being a disc jockey, so Bond, the program director at KWEM Radio, helped the kid secure the on-air graveyard shift. Fargo and Bond also set Lawler up in a small studio on Madison Avenue to produce signs as well as paint lettering on business trucks. The King still has one of the original business cards of the Fargo Bond Sign Company.

A winning combo: Free admission after the rasslin' matches and a $2 T-bone.

A winning combo: Free admission after the rasslin’ matches and a $2 T-bone.

“I was just a kid out of high school, and it was the biggest thrill of my life to see the three names at the top of that card: Jackie Fargo, Eddie Bond and me—Jerry Lawler. I mean, gosh—my name was right next to Jackie’s! So I was working at the sign company during the day and then I’d help out at the nightclub that evening; I remember constantly running back and forth to the grocery store. Their house specialty was a 16-oz T-bone steak for $2. [I cannot confirm if the house special was the inspiration for Fargo's aforementioned catchphrase.] Then I’d do my radio shift. I loved every minute it, mostly because I was actually hanging around with Jackie Fargo.”

Drawing card: Jackie Fargo, as depicted by a young Jerry Lawler.

Drawing card: Jackie Fargo, as depicted by a young artist by the name of Jerry Lawler.

When Lawler began interviewing Memphis wrestlers on the air as part of his radio show, he became impressed with the grapplers’ flashy clothes, wads of cash and big cars—and their female fans. He soon began thinking of a way to ask Jackie to help him break into the business, which was no easy task at the time. Then fate stepped in. A young would-be wrestler named Jerry Vickers, a part-time ambulance driver who had worked a few outlaw shows in front of sparse crowds in West Memphis, stopped by looking for Jackie, trying to catch a break in the big leagues of Memphis wrestling.

Vickers and Lawler instead struck up a conversation, and the aspiring DJ expressed his desire to break into the biz. So with virtually no training, Lawler bought some gear off Vickers and began his career in earnest, teaming with the other young hopeful to learn the ring ropes. Lawler promptly knocked himself out taking a bump in one of his first bouts for promoter Aubrey Griffith. When Lawler started plugging the West Memphis promotion on the radio—which technically was the opposition to the established Memphis promotion, despite the small crowds—Fargo intervened and got Lawler a spot on the Gulas crew.

When Jerry Jarrett began booking Memphis with great success, he saw a natural arrogance and potential talent in the young grappler and began building Lawler up as the new star of the territory and a top a contender for Jack Brisco’s NWA World title in 1974.

By that point, Fargo had burned out on being a full-time wrestler on the road and was more interested in running his nightclub and other business interests, so he was ready to pass the torch to Lawler.

The host with the most: Jackie eventually preferred serving his nightclub guests than dishing out punishment.

The host with the most: Jackie eventually preferred serving his nightclub guests than dishing out punishment.

Recalls Memphis promoter Jarrett during one of our talks in 2009: “Lawler became a big star and threatened Fargo’s top spot, so there was a bit of tension there, though Jackie did everything he could to get Jerry over.”

Announcer Dave Brown says that it was Jackie’s willingness to create a new star that made the program so successful–including the largest overflow crowd ever at the Coliseum, with 11,783 fans on hand on June 24, 1974, for a card headlined by Fargo vs. Lawler. (Only fitting that Fargo strutted into the afterlife 39 years to the day of his biggest match with Lawler.)

“The key to the transition was Jackie,” Brown says. “Jackie was so good at selling [a loss] that he was over even more when he got beat…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.”

Fargo’s blessing as his successor has always meant the world to Lawler.

“Without Jackie, there would be no Jerry Lawler,” the King says. “But while he was more than happy to step aside, there was a sense of realism in the eyes of the fans because you had me—the young lion—trying to take over as the leader of the pride. Incidentally, that’s how the King gimmick took off. Just on a whim one Saturday morning on TV, I said, ‘Fargo, you’ve been the King of Memphis for a long time, but you’re looking at the kid who’s gonna knock you off the throne.’ Well, I ended up beating him that Monday night for the Southern title, and the following Saturday, a lot of the fans were shouting, ‘There’s the new King!’

“To be honest, I’d forgotten I’d even made that ‘King’ reference. It was one of those wonderful accidents—sort of like the ‘Austin 3:16’ deal years later in WWE.”

Fargo was practically retired by 1979, but could be called on to spark the houses at the Mid-South Coliseum, typically when his protégé, the King, needed a fighter—not a wrestler—as a partner.

In fact, the first card I attended at the Coliseum in January 1979 featured heel Austin Idol bringing in Mil Mascaras—one of the biggest stars in the country from his exposure via the Apter mags—to be his partner against Lawler and Fargo in a stretcher match. Although Mascaras had a rep for being an uncooperative egomaniac, he sold big time for Fargo and did the stretcher job when the aging legend repeatedly stomped the masked man’s ribs after Mil crashed into the canvas after missing a flying bodypress from the top rope.

Years later, when I told Jim Cornette of this night at the Coliseum in 1979, he reminded me that Memphis had a rep for billing established masked wrestlers with no-name guys under the hood, so he figured it was probably Pepe Lopez—not Aaron Rodriguez—under the trademark Mil mask. (Never mind that Lopez had been killed years earlier in the car crash that took the life of Lawler’s manager Sam Bass.)

Jarrett, however, confirmed for me that it was indeed the renowned Mascaras selling like crazy for Lawler and Fargo. He explained that in the late ’70s he had become close friends with Mexican promoter Salvador Lutteroth, who had helped launch the career of Lucha Libre’s first breakout superstar, El Santo, and transformed the masked star into a national pop-culture phenomenon. When Mil arrived at the Coliseum that night, Jarrett says he sat with Rodriguez for a couple of hours, joyfully swapping stories about Lutteroth, who had once hosted the Memphis promoter at his house in Mexico. Mil was clearly enjoying himself when he asked, “So, Jerry, what do you want me to do tonight?” Jarrett replied, “Well, Mil, I know what I want you to do…but I don’t know if you’ll go for it. But he did.” And that’s how Mil Mascaras did a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo in Memphis. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes from the general admission seats at the Coliseum, I doubt that’d I’d believed it either.

8-year-old Scott Bowden watched from the cheap seats as Fargo unmasked the myth of Mil Mascaras.

8-year-old Scott Bowden watched from the cheap seats as Fargo unmasked the myth of Mil Mascaras.

The promotion wisely used Fargo sparingly in the late ’70s and early ’80s—building up his return as the legend returning to kick ass, which never failed to pop the houses.

In fall 1982, following a hot summer for Jarrett Promotions, attendance had declined. Frustrated with business being down despite a stacked roster of solid talent, Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett mentioned to Dutch Mantell that he wished could clone Jackie Fargo and bring him back. Dutch replied, “Well…why don’t you?” And so began the thought process behind a gimmick that would help set the territory on fire for the next two years.

Weeks later, Jimmy Hart announced to the Memphis Wrestling TV audience that he had paired together two guys going nowhere in the business, Troy Graham (the former Dream Machine) and Rick McGraw. He bleached their hair, put them in tuxedos and high hats, and dubbed them his “New York Dolls”–a name the former Gentry came up with in tribute to the infamous band of the same name. Shortly after their transformation, the Dolls won the WWA World tag titles from Spike Huber and Steve Regal. None of this pleased Fargo, who filed a grievance claiming infringement on the dapper-duo gimmick made famous by he and “brother” Donnie as the Fabulous Fargos. (The Dolls’ cheap tuxedo jackets and sequins were enough of an insult, but apparently it was the high hats that really irked the Fabulous One.) Fargo’s unpolished yet gritty delivery is something that’s sorely missing in today’s promos.

A week later, Fargo revealed his Fabulous Ones with this MTV-style video, featuring incredible strobe-light technology far ahead of its time. Fargo’s endorsement alone helped transform mid-carders Stan Lane and Steve Keirn into overnight sensations. Jackie still had that kind of magical credibility with the fans. When Lane and Keirn later took the gimmick nationwide, they never got over to the same level as they did in Memphis because they didn’t have Fargo’s cred behind them.

Lawler, who recently recovered from a heart attack, received word three weeks ago that Jackie, 82, was having severe heart problems. In typical fashion, Fargo refused to sell the doctor’s diagnosis when speaking on the phone with Lawler, brushing it off with his usual bravado in his raspy tough-guy voice: “Oh, hell, I ain’t ever been sick a day in my life.” As sharp as ever, Fargo also told Lawler: ”You’re in the will, pally. But don’t root against me.”

Days later, a neighbor found Fargo lying on the floor in his house. Jackie was rushed to the hospital, where he eventually lapsed into a coma. The former powerhouse of personality was placed on life support until family intervened, saying Jackie wouldn’t want it that way. Down to 130 pounds, Fargo died early Monday morning. On Wednesday, he would have been 83.

“I’m just sick about it,” Lawler says. “Jackie and I remained very close through the years, and I often turned to him for advice. He always called me ‘Son,’ and I always called him ‘Pop.’ I miss him already. There will never be another like him.”

Often imitated. Never duplicated. Pally.

Down but not out: Jerry Lawler makes the comeback of a lifetime

September 14th, 2012 5 comments

On a Monday night at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis in 1978, Joe LeDuc pressed Jerry Lawler over his head and tossed the Southern heavyweight champion from the ring like a ragdoll onto the ringside announcers’ table. My hometown hero took a wicked bump, crashing off the table and crumpling in a heap onto the floor.

I was sure the King was done for.

Indeed, Lawler was really hurt on this night in ’78 . This was no angle— this wasn’t part of the show.

Although he was treated for a leg injury at a Memphis hospital that night, Lawler was back in the ring two weeks later seeking revenge against the maniacal Canadian lumberjack.

I was only 7 years old, and I thought Lawler was Superman.

Over the years, no matter the odds, Lawler always battled back when a dastardly heel like Terry Funk or Nick Bockwinkel had the King on the ropes. Bleeding and reeling, Lawler always rallied in the end, pulling down the strap on his singlet to make his comeback—think Popeye and his spinach—as the rowdy crowds at Monday Night Rasslin’ went berserk.

Wake-up call: Disguised as a mild-mannered announcer recovering from heart surgery, the King enjoys a salad and a Diet Coke...and a huge steak covered in mushrooms.

Thirty-four years later, on the September 10 episode of WWE’s “Monday Night RAW,” Lawler, who had been experiencing chest pains of late, collapsed to the floor near the announcers’ table, where he was doing commentary.

My hero had fallen once again, this time as a result of a massive heart attack. And once again, this was no angle–”…not part of the entertainment,” as his visibly shaken announce partner Michael Cole told the millions watching Monday night.

I again feared my childhood hero was done for. But on the ropes and reeling, Lawler again rallied, pulling down the proverbial strap to make the comeback and overcome his most dangerous adversary yet.

Three days later, with rumors of death and possible brain damage circulating on the Internet, Lawler began showing amazing signs of recovery, joking and laughing with friends and quickly regaining his appetite. Even Lawler’s doctor was reportedly amazed at the shape he was in following surgery.

I shouldn’t have doubted his resolve–the King has made his living triumphing against the odds in heart-stopping action and suspense.

I’m 41 years old, and I still think he’s Superman.

Not quite the 10 pounds of gold, but…. Belt-maker Dave Millican recreates Memphis wrestling’s CWA World title strap

June 6th, 2012 No comments

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.