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Posts Tagged ‘Mid-South Coliseum’

Channel 5’s Big Jack Eaton Signs Off

February 26th, 2016 No comments
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Big Loss: Jack Eaton, the longtime voice of Memphis sports, passed on February 2.

Earlier this month, Memphis lost an icon: “Big” Jack Eaton, the longtime sports director and anchor for WMC-TV channel 5 passed away. Although most Memphians know Big Jack as the voice of the Memphis State Tigers football and basketball teams in the ’70s and ’80s, I always loved his coverage of the Monday night wrestling matches from the Mid-South Coliseum.

Every Monday night during the summer (and occasionally if the AWA World title were hanging in the balance during the school year) my parents would allow me to stay up to hear Eaton deliver the results of the weekly Memphis mayhem. Better yet, on Tuesday afternoons, he’d serve up a clip of the main event with his usual poetic panache.

Eaton’s deadpan delivery let you know he wasn’t taking it all too seriously, especially when describing a ref bump and/or outside interference, a staple of Memphis finishes: “Pow! Great Caesar’s Ghost! Poor ol’ referee Jerry Calhoun has just been momentarily rendered senseless by an errant blow!”

When Jerry “the King” Lawler defeated Eddie Gilbert in a loser-leaves-town bout to send the hated leader of the First Family packing, Eaton cracked, “If Jimmy Hart owes you money, you’d better find him fast.”

"Why I Oughta..." Eaton listens as Billy Wicks tells the Memphis public exactly what he's going to do to Sputnik Monroe.

“Why I Oughta…” Eaton listens as Billy Wicks tells the Memphis public exactly what he’s going to do to Sputnik Monroe.

When Austin Idol and Tommy Rich conspired with Paul Heyman to shave Lawler’s head, Jack chastised the trio saying, “I really don’t see how they could be proud of something as diabolical as that.”

Still, Eaton gave Jerry Jarrett’s promotion some sense of credibility, complementing the excellent job of announcers Lance Russell and Dave Brown on Saturday mornings. Most Monday evenings, the main event would still be in the ring, as the matches usually ended like clockwork around 10:25 p.m.; often, as the news broadcast came to a close at 10:30 p.m., Eaton would finally have the results of the big match, giving it a legit feel as something special.

Of course, Jarrett’s “Championship Wrestling” program was for years one of highest-rated programs on channel 5, and Brown was also the station’s weatherman, so it only made sense for Big Jack to provide the rasslin’ results. In fact, Jack himself did some wrestling broadcasts back in the days of Sputnik Monroe and Billy Wicks in the 1950s. In the Memphis Heat documentary released a few years ago, Eaton had a great line when describing wrestling promoters as “a bunch of crooks.”

Prior to Lawler’s infamous April 1982 bout with Andy Kaufman, Big Jack interviewed the King, asking, “Would you like to hurt him?” Lawler paused for a brief moment before confessing, “I think I have to hurt him” Of course, the Kaufman incident was the lead story on that Monday evening’s sportscast.

Below is a clip of Big Jack discussing a December 1979 match between CWA World champion Lawler and AWA kingpin Nick Bockwinkel.

Great Scott! We’ll miss you, Big Jack.

Monday Night Wrestling at the Mid-South Coliseum

March 12th, 2010 1 comment

While the Monday Night War was heating up in June 1996, with the WWF and WCW locked in a grudge match of epic proportions on the USA Network and TNT, respectively, Memphis Wrestling, led by longtime star Jerry Lawler, was still barely simmering on channel 5, the local NBC affiliate. I had left the promotion for the second time months earlier, once again burnt out on the glamorous wrestling lifestyle and $40 payoffs.

The rub about professional wrestling, however, is that once the business gets in your blood, it’s hard to get it out—no matter how many times you slice open your forehead with a razorblade. After booker Randy Hales refused to take me back, I decided to once again go over his head: I called Lawler. In a babyface-like “Aw, shucks” moment of sincerity with the King, I blurted out, “I mean, Jerry, c’mon, I love the business so much that I’d work for free.”

A few days later, Lawler called me back: “Were you serious about what you said about wanting to come back?” After I assured him that I was, Lawler reminded me of what I had said: “And you’ll work for free, right?” Um, what? Never missing a trick, Lawler reminded me of my passion-induced plea for reinstatement. Sensing that I was wavering on this generous offer, Lawler dropped the strap and went into babyface mode himself, despite the fact that he had recently started again working as a heel for the promotion: “You’d be doing me a favor—we can’t afford to pay a manager anymore. And I don’t want you to just come back as a manager. I really want you to be my manager.” Oh, man. A chance to recreate the glory days of Jimmy Hart’s first managerial gig and conduct heel promos alongside one of the greatest interviews ever in the business. Lawler sweetened the “payoff”: He wanted me to debut the following Saturday, just in time to work an angle promoting what was supposed to be the very last card at the Mid-South Coliseum. Gulp. The final card? Ever? Say it ain’t so, Jerry.

Only 50 cents: The first program I purchased at the Coliseum in 1979.

I’d been going to matches at the Coliseum since January 29, 1979. For years, pulling into that 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 Mid-South mayhem ahead that evening. 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, the massive speaker contraption hanging directly over the ring (which I always envisioned snapping from its cables and squashing the wrestlers below), and the round-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. After the matches, the snakelike lines getting out of the parking lot with drunken fans darting in front of our car was just as exciting. And if the heels had gone over in the main event, the irate fans could be even rowdier. Such childhood memories.

In Memphis, a minor-league sports graveyard, our home team was Lawler, a 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 business.

In the late ’70s, the joke was that if a pro 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) and the Rogues (North American Soccer League) folded because of poor attendance, Lawler’s battles with the likes of “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant, “Universal Heartthrob” Austin Idol and “Canadian Lumberjack” Joe LeDuc attracted an average of nearly 8,000 fans to the Coliseum every Monday night.

The term “Monday Night Wrestling” (pronounced “Rasslin’) was used in everyday conversation to describe any household, schoolyard or workplace ruckus. (“Calm down, y’all, this ain’t Monday Night Wrestling!”)

Years ago, I would have paid Jerry Lawler for this opportunity. I agreed to work the show for free.

Reportedly, Gene Okerlund was increasingly frustrated toward the end of his WCW run because Eric Bischoff wouldn’t have a TV outline completed until minutes before NITRO was to go live on the air. In Memphis Wrestling in 1996, 10 minutes would be considered advance planning. So I was shocked when Lawler wanted to go over the scenario for my Saturday introduction as his manager days in advance. The promotion hadn’t been able to reach an agreement with Beth Wade, the manager of the Mid-South Coliseum, (whom I believe Lawler often referred to as “Lady Satan,” former wrestler Cora Combs’s moniker under the hood) to affordably remain a tenant, so the arena’s infamous Monday Night Rasslin’ shows would be no more.

To promote the “Last Blast at the Coliseum,” Lawler wanted to book announcer Lance Russell to be directly involved in a bout for the first time in years. Past run-ins with Lance had been booked only sparingly, usually to great effect. The Dream Machine (the late Troy Graham) grabbed Lance by his Baxter Suit lapels after the announcer aired a highlight reel of the Dream set to the song Alley Oop. A few years later, Jimmy Hart dumped a bag of flour over Russell’s head in the Mouth of the South’s last appearance in the studio. And Lance officiated a bout in 1976 between Lawler and the Mongolian Stomper (Archie Goldie). But this was to be the first time Lance would be in someone’s corner, in this case Cyber Punk Fire (PG-13’s Wolfie D under a hood).

Though perhaps not as threatening as the Dream’s attack on Russell years earlier, I antagonized the announcer throughout the show, interrupting his opening segment. (“You’re gonna have a Last Blast at the Coliseum without Scott Bowden? I nearly jumped out of my Cole Haan shoes when I heard that!”) Later, Russell was disgusted as Lawler introduced me as his new manager, prompting me to tell him to “keep his big nose out of it.” Minutes later, Lance was preparing to show highlights of a classic encounter at the Coliseum in the 1970s: the Stomper vs. Lawler. I pushed him aside, grabbed the microphone and introduced the clip as “one of Lawler’s greatest victories.” Of course, the match ended with Lawler getting pinned, sending me over the edge. After I got in his face again, Lance was so teed off that threatened to come after me with a golf club Monday night.

The stakes were high: Punk’s mask was on the line, and if he was revealed to be Wolfie, whom I had run out of town months before in a loser-leaves-town bout, he’d be suspended indefinitely.

On that Monday night, June 24, 1996, wrestling fans nationwide tuned in for the next battle in the Monday Night War, which featured decidedly more intriguing main events than the USWA could hope to offer at that point. While hundreds of thousands of people saw the Undertaker beat Steve Austin by DQ on RAW and the Harlem Heat win the WCW World tag titles in a three-way bout over Sting/Lex Luger and the Steiner Brothers on NITRO, about 1,200 hardcore regulars trickled into the 11,400-seat Coliseum for seemingly the last time.

Sure, the WWF had guys like Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, the Undertaker and Bret Hart to counter WCW’s Hulk Hogan, Sting and Ric Flair in 1996, but Memphis had the man who would develop into the most electrifying personality in the history of sports entertainment. On the Last Blast card, the Rock (working as Flex Kavana) worked the opening match, a tag bout with partner Bart Sawyer.

Although I carried my entire bag of PING golf clubs to the ring to defend myself against Russell’s threat to use my head as a Titleist, he still got the better of me, chasing me from the ringside area with his 3-wood in the match’s waning moments. As the ref was distracted, Lawler cheated to get the pin. However, the hooded Wolfie D was one step ahead of Lawler: He does unmask, but has another mask underneath to conceal his true identity.

With the Coliseum no longer a viable option, the once-proud Memphis promotion was relegated to the Big One Expo Center, a dump that made the Coliseum look like Madison Square Garden.

Lawler and Corey Maclin had a few more successful shots at the Coliseum, including a crowd of about 4,500 in 2004 for a show headlined by Terry Funk, who sent in some of the best promos of his career to hype the match. Maclin and Lawler tried in vain to have one last hurrah at the Coliseum in 2007, hosting a rematch of the famous Lawler vs. Hulk Hogan bout from Feb. 9, 1981. For years following the WWF’s expansion, Lawler aired clips of him pummeling Hulk Hogan, editing the bout to make it appear he had pinned the Hulk, when in actuality, the victory was by disqualification. The rematch was a natural and would have been a fitting way to send the Coliseum out in style. But it was not to be. In poor condition, the building wasn’t up to city code  and would need thousands of dollars in renovations. The event was moved to the FedEx Forum, before Vince McMahon pulled Lawler out of working the card to spite Hogan during one of their personal spats.

There’s talk that the Mid-South Coliseum might soon be demolished. I remember I heard the arena once referred to as “the Grandfather of Wrestling in the South.” How appropriate. When it’s torn down, it will seem like a death in the family for many Memphis Wrestling fans.

File under Jerry Lawler, Memphis Wrestling and the Mid-South Coliseum.

The Mid-South Coliseum Likely To Be Demolished

February 24th, 2010 7 comments

The Mid-South Coliseum–the “House that Jerry Lawler Built”–may be no more.

Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton was quoted in a recent article that appeared in the Memphis Business Journal, saying the Coliseum, which was the longtime site of major concerts, minor sports (indoor soccer), Memphis State Tigers basketball, and Monday Night Wrestling in Memphis, will most likely be torn down, along with the remains of the Liberty Land amusement park and surrounding facilities at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

The MBJ writes:

Wharton…also addressed the future of the Mid-South Coliseum, which the city closed in 2006 because of the prohibitive cost of bringing the venue into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Although this is clearly a facility that holds a special place in the hearts of many Memphians, we do not believe that we have the financial wherewithal to make the necessary upgrades to re-open the Coliseum, nor is it apparent that sufficient market demand exists in Memphis for a venue of its size to be open year-round,” Wharton said. “Our intention now is to convene a public hearing to determine the best options for its future, which may include its eventual demolition.”

As the Memphis Mayor closed his press conference, Jerry Lawler emerged from the front row, disguised as a reporter, and threw a fireball into the face of the Wharton, who defeated the King in the city’s mayoral race last year, screaming, “We’ll see about that, brother!”

File under Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis Wrestling and Jerry Lawler.