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A roundtable to remember

August 21st, 2009 6 comments

 It was a Memphis wrestling fan’s dream come true. For more than 10 years of my childhood, I spent 90 minutes nearly every Saturday morning in front of my parents’ TV in Germantown Bartlett watching announcers Lance Russell and Dave Brown, right along ringside, calling the action of  another “BIG DAY of Championship Wrestling.”

Saturday morning memories: Russell, Jarrett, Bowden and Brown pose with the AWA Southern title belt following the Memphis Wrestling Roundtable discussion in Charlotte.

Saturday morning memories: Russell, Jarrett, Bowden and Brown pose with the AWA Southern title belt following the Memphis Wrestling Roundtable discussion in Charlotte.

I started watching the show religiously in 1977, the same year the Memphis wresting program moved to WMC-TV channel 5 from WHBQ channel 13 in 1977, following promoter Jerry Jarrett’s split from “partner” Nick Gulas. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I’d wind up as a performer on the show (though that was my lifelong ambition when I was growing up), standing alongside Lance and Dave in 1994–1996 as I insulted the rednecks in the audience a la my hero Jerry Lawler in the late ’70s.

Likewise, I couldn’t have I imagined the opportunity I had on Aug. 8 as moderator of the Memphis Wrestling Roundtable discussion as part of the NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest weekend. For 90 minutes on that Saturday morning, I was joined by Lance, Dave and Jerry to discuss their memories of arguably the most entertaining wrestling promotion in the country in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

When discussing what made Memphis wrestling so special, the three veterans of the business agreed it was not only the talent but also the attitude of everyone involved.

“It sounds so corny, but’s that made our show different—the passion,” Lance says.  “I’m not knocking the other shows, but there was a difference—and I think that’s because of the way we all felt about the business. We loved it, and we enjoyed coming to work.”

“It wasn’t something we had to do—we worked for the station and came in on our day off because we were having fun doing it,” says Dave, who was recruited by Jarrett along with program-director Russell to WMC from WHBQ, where he also did the newscast weather as well as the Saturday morning wrestling gig.  “I had seen other wrestling shows, and I don’t think I would have done it for very long in another area because it just didn’t have the same indefinable spark that Memphis had. A lot of that had to do with three things. First, the history: Wrestling had always been a successful show in the Memphis market going back to the 1950s.  It was one of the first live television broadcasts on my television station, which was the first station in Tennessee. Second, the demographics of the market were such that wrestling was a great fit. We didn’t have a pro football team, we didn’t have a pro basketball team—some argue we still don’t. At the time, the University of Memphis Tigers weren’t that popular. So wrestling was the professional sport in the Memphis market. Another thing that made it so great was when Jerry Jarrett took it over, the meticulous way in which the show was laid out was impressive. Jerry had stuff in his mind for weeks—he knew where it was going and how he wanted to get there.”

Jarrett cites his announcers’ credibility as a major factor in the show’s success.

“I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by unbelievable talent,” says Jarrett, who today owns a successful construction business. “When my son Jeff and I started TNA, I tried to explain to him that the most important talents you can have on a TV wrestling show are your announcers. The announcers are, literally, the show. My star, Jerry Lawler, would have six or seven minutes of airtime—eight minutes at the most each week. So I credit these two gentlemen with the passion they had and the broadcast ability they had for making me look like a pretty smart promoter.”

After I mentioned the fact that Lawler being a Memphian made him the perfect “home team” for the city, we discussed how the young, brash upstart overthrew Jackie Fargo (who was honored the night before during the Hall of Heroes banquet) for the Memphis rasslin’ throne.

Jarrett says 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.

“In addition to being a wrestler, Jackie was also a disc jockey, and Jerry was one of his interns, or as Fargo jokingly called him, ‘my lackey,’” recalls Jarrett. “Jerry gave Jackie some wonderful sketches he’d done of the wrestling matches, and Lance eventually started showing them on the air when giving the results of the previous week’s card at the [Ellis] Auditorium. So when Jerry became a big star and threatened his top spot, there really was some tension there, though Jackie did everything he could to get Lawler over.”

Dave says that it was Jackie’s willingness to create a new star that made the program so successful, drawing several sell-out crowds.

Last man standing...and standing room only: Lawler defeats Fargo before a reported crowd of 11,700 at the Mid-South Coliseum.

Last man standing...and standing room only: Lawler defeats Fargo before a reported crowd of 11,700 at the Mid-South Coliseum.

“The key to the transition was Jackie putting his hair up in a match. Hair vs. hair was the big match in those days. It was a humiliating thing for a superstar to lose his hair. Jackie lost and had his head shaved. We recorded a promo, and Jackie was so good at selling that haircut 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.”

After the program with Fargo ran its course, Jarrett began booking 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 by 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.

“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.”

The man who would be King: Jarrett never got the NWA title for Lawler, except for this photo shoot with Memphis Magazine.

The man who would be King: Jarrett never got the NWA title for Lawler, except for this photo shoot with Memphis Magazine.

Frustrated with the NWA board, 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 Harley Race. 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. Because he was so well-spoken and intelligent, most fans practically needed a dictionary on hand when watching a Bockwinkel promo. And, man, could he work.

“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.”

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.”

One wrestler who Jarrett broke into the business did go on to win the NWA World title—Hendersonville, Tennessee’s Tommy “Wildfire” Rich. Jarrett’s wife, the former Deborah Marlin (Eddie Marlin’s daughter), used to play with Tommy Richardson (later shorted to “Rich”) as kids.

Jarrett says, “When Tommy got out of high school, he wanted to be a wrestler, so Deborah asked, ‘Please, can you help him?’ So I had him come to the farm early one morning, and I when came out in my pajamas, I told him, ‘Tommy, this is gonna get you in shape before I can train you.’ I had a water pipe that I had running from the house to the horse barn. I told him to cut the water pipe here and take it up all the way to the barn. I gave him a pick and a shovel. I look out there three hours later, and he’s still out there yanking on that water pipe. Tommy went through every possible thing I could do to discourage him—but he wouldn’t give up. So we started training him, and he was a good-looking kid who turned out to be a decent wrestler. Tommy had his little run in Memphis, and then promoter Jim Barnett in Atlanta wanted him. He went there right when the SuperStation took off, and he became a national star.”

Between runs at the World championship, Lawler feuded with some of most colorful, craziest characters in the business, such as “Canadian Lumberjack” Joe LeDuc and “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant.

LeDuc was one of the great big-man workers of the era who cut wonderfully insane promos—none crazier than a 1977 promo when he made a blood oath (actually misspeaking, saying, “blood oak”) to get revenge on Lawler.

Recalls Lance: “At the time, we trying to make the show a little less violent and a little more family-oriented and not feature a lot of blood. Well, LeDuc comes out one Saturday morning with a double-edged ax. Well, he takes that axe and cuts across his arm, and here comes the red stuff pouring down his arm. He cut his arm open right there on live TV! Fans for years wondered, ‘Was it real?’ Hey, let me tell you, it was real, alright. I nearly had a heart attack—and I think Jerry Jarrett did have one later when he saw it. I tried to tell him after, ‘Joe, you can’t do that on television.’”

Both Brown and Jarrett remember a different side of LeDuc outside of the ring.

A star is born: Jimmy Valiant becomes a headliner, prompting Lawler to end his retirement early.

A star is born: Jimmy Valiant becomes a headliner, prompting Lawler to end his retirement early.

“Joe LeDuc was such a nice man, and for years after he stopped wrestling in Memphis, I’d get a little note from him wherever he was traveling or wishing me Merry Christmas,” Dave says. “I always thought that was special for a man who was traveling like that to remember the folks he worked with.”

“Joe was a very good wrestler who was a real tough guy,” says the longtime Memphis promoter. “But what I remember most of all about him was that he was a prince of a fellow. When you go through the hundreds of people who you cross paths with professionally, only a few are really special, and Joe LeDuc was one of them.”

Valiant debuted on Sept. 19, 1977, to win a tournament for the Southern title vacated by Lawler following the King’s “retirement” match against Bill Dundee the previous week. Of course, the retirement was an angle designed to turn Lawler babyface and create a new heel star—“Handsome” Jimmy—in his absence. Lawler supposedly was moving on from the sport to concentrate on artwork and his (ahem) music career. The King’s return was cemented when Valiant and the Samoans attacked him before a pre-match concert at the Coliseum, with the new Southern king busting a guitar over Lawler’s head (and perhaps inspiring a young Jeff Jarrett in the process).

“I have a thousand memories of “Handsome” Jimmy, and they’re all good,” Brown says. “I was always amazed to watch him in the back because Jimmy was so quiet and mild-mannered. But when he came through that dressing-room door, he just exploded, ‘Wooo, baby, Handsome Jimbo from Mempho!’ He used to call Lance ‘Lancer’ and, at the at time, Jackson Brown was hot, so he called me ‘Jack-son.’”

Valiant was one of the first in the biz to reference pop culture in his promos. If you believe his promos, “Handsome” Jimmy was the only wrestler in history to date both Sally Field and Linda Ronstadt.

Valiant was too entertaining to keep as a heel for long, with his popularity often rivaling Lawler’s in the area. In fact, Jarrett could always rely on Valiant to spark the houses when the King was unable to appear; for example, nearly the entire year of 1980, when Lawler was on the shelf with a broken leg.

“Jimmy wasn’t here on a consistent basis,” Brown continues, “so when he came to town, it was an event, much like when they brought in Roughhouse Fargo and Jackie Fargo.  Music videos pretty much started on our show—even before they hit MTV. And we did with a video with “Handsome”Jimmy that saw him coming out of a white limo—that was one the greatest record moments of the era.”

The video for Valiant’s song, “Son of A Gypsy,” was produced by Jimmy Hart, who also went on to become a star in 1980, with Lawler sidelined.

For more on Hart and the Memphis Wrestling Roundtable, check out comics.101.com next week.

Somebody say something ’bout Hollywood?

August 12th, 2009 5 comments
Fired up: Reunited with Rich.

Fired up: Reunited with Rich.

 

 As I was walking back to my room at the Hilton Charlotte University Place Hotel last Thursday night, I thought I’d stop by the bar to see if perhaps Ric Flair was strutting around wearing only a $10,000 robe and propositioning a cocktail waitress young enough to be his daughter. No sign of the Nature Boy; however, another former NWA World champion was at the bar knocking back a few cocktails: none other than Tommy “Wildire” Rich, whom I managed in Memphis in 1994-95. (Yeah, yeah, shocking, I know, given Tommy’s rep  for…let’s say…having a good time.) People can judge the man all you want, but Tommy’s always been a straight-up guy with me, and I love him to death.

I approached Rich, asking, “Remember me?” About 10 seconds awkwardly passed as his eyes focused on me. Finally, he exclaimed, “Awww, man!,” and gave me a big hug. Rich asked what I’d been up to, and when I explained I was working for an ad agency while trying to make it as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, his eyes widened, and he shouted, “Hey, hey…fuck ‘The Wrestler’—it was pretty good and all, but you should write me and Piper’s story!” I laughed and said, “I would, Tommy…but no one would believe it!” He got a kick out of that one. (Incidentally, my first script years ago was about a tag-team in Memphis in the early ’80s—loosely based on the Fabulous Ones and the Freebirds—showing the fun side of the industry in the MTV era.)

The following morning, I stopped by Rich’s booth in the vendor area and once again he gave me a Joe LeDuc-like bearhug, despite the fact that I had seen him 12 hours earlier. Looking like he’d been through a shoot with Billy Robinson (which wasn’t possible since the former CWA World champion for Jerry Jarrett no-showed Fanfest), Rich wearily asked, “What are you up to nowadays? Somebody told me you were in Hollywood.”

God bless, ol’ Wildfire.

Great Memphis Wrestling minds think alike

August 11th, 2009 6 comments
Cornette hosted an engaging Q&A session Thursday night that, appropriately enough, lasted until the midnight hour.

Jim Cornette hosted an engaging Q&A session Thursday night that, appropriately enough, lasted until the midnight hour. From left to right: Dennis Condrey, Bobby Eaton, yours truly and the Louisville Slugger himself.

The highlight of the recent NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest for me was discussing the glory days of Memphis wrestling with Jim Cornette, Jerry Jarrett, Lance Russell and Dave Brown.

 

To help kick off the event following the Ric Flair/Harley Race session, Cornette brought the house down Thursday night with his hilarious yet revealing Q&A, during which I addressed three points he had made earlier in the evening:

 

Personal issues draw money: I recalled when I first became a wrestling fan: the summer of 1977. Although Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee had first wrestled each other at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1975 (with Dundee going over), the fireworks between the King and the Superstar really kicked off, appropriately enough, on July 4, 1977, with a little over 5,000 fans in attendance. The Lawler/Dundee matchup headlined nearly each week to close out the month, with attendance climbing to 8,044 on July 11 (cage match) and a sellout 11,300 fans on Aug. 1 (King’s hair vs. Southern title and Cadillac). The feud pressed on to September, continuing to capture the imagination of local fans as the stakes were raised each week: a hair vs. hair bout on Sept. 5 drew 10,129, with Dundee getting his head shaved bald (making the supposed Aussie look “like a cue ball,” according to the King). Jarrett came back the next week with quite possibly the most outrageous stipulation in wrestling history: Lawler’s hair vs. the hair of Bill’s wife, Beverly. About 9,000 fans looked at the Coliseum on as Lawler once again triumphed and a local barber shaved Bev’s head clean.

 

Hairy situation: The King wages his royal locks against the hair of Beverly Dundee.

Hairy situation: The King wages his royal locks against the hair of Beverly Dundee.

 

During our Saturday morning Memphis Roundtable discussion, Lance revealed that the haircut almost didn’t happen.

“We had this older gentleman there who was the barber, and he was in the ring ready to cut Bev’s hair. Up until this point, I think the barber enjoyed the spotlight and thought it was gonna be one of the biggest highlights of his life. But Dundee lost, so here’s this young lady, Beverly Dundee, and the barber just can’t bring himself to take those scissors and start cutting her hair before he shaves it all off. So we had to announce that the barber didn’t think he could go through with it.” Instead of the fans sympathizing with the babyface and his wife, Lance says, “They got so hot, so mad, that they were ready to storm the ring and cut the barber’s hair and do who-knows-what to the Dundees. Finally, Bill told the barber, ‘Please save our lives—get the hair off!’

Jarrett says the feud clicked with Memphis fans because the animosity between his two top stars was quite real.

“George Barnes [Dundee’s tag partner] had gone back to Australia, and Jerry recognized that Dundee was gunning for the top spot,” says Jarrett, who months earlier in 1977 had broken away from his partner Nick Gulas to take control of the Memphis end of the territory. “So Jerry being protective of his spot, he didn’t care much for Dundee personally. Now they were both professional enough not to have a shoot, but, brother, they beat the stew out of each other to the point it was believable to the people. And really, it was real: They didn’t like each other, so they wanted to see if they could make the other one quit. It became the most classic feud that we’ve ever had in Memphis.” When asked how he managed to persuade Beverly to part with her hair, Jarrett simply smiled and said, “Money!”

Cornette says he that “Jarrett always told the fans the truth, at least to the point that he could. Lawler and Dundee are jealous of each other. Dundee was a workaholic and a good booker who would do whatever it took to become a star. And Dundee was a tremendous worker, that is, when he wanted to work. But Dundee also knew he could never be as big as star as Lawler, who had ‘it’ without even trying. So there was always jealousy. When they would be babyface tag-team partners, they’d go to the convenience store and fast-food places after the matches and be knocking each other to the fans. So, again, Jerry Jarrett would say, ‘Tell the truth as much as you can: Lawler and Dundee have never liked each other, so go ahead and say that.’ That way, when you break off into the work, it’s seamless. Nobody can tell where the work begins and where it ends. To the fans, it was real.”

 

The Lawler/Dundee program epitomizes Cornette’s booking philosophy, which he detailed during his Thursday night session: “Sincerity is the key. The art of booking is that you find someone who the people are naturally predisposed to have a negative opinion of…but who’s a good performer. Then you find a good performer who the people are naturally predisposed to have a positive feeling about, and you put those two on trajectories by getting over people until finally the fans say, ‘Holy shit—they’re gonna fight each other!’ You wanna see what’s gonna happen. So you buy a ticket to see them face off, that match ends, and then you want to see what happens next.” Lawler and Dundee achieved that not only for nearly nine straight weeks on top at the Mid-South Coliseum in the summer of 1977, with the crowds peaking at the end, but also off and on again successfully through the 1980s.

 

Humor and seriousness don’t have to be mutually exclusive: For years, the Memphis Saturday morning show was one of the funniest in the country, yet the personal feuds and title matches provided a balance to all the comedy and mayhem. WWE thinks they’re pushing the envelope with their so-called “humor”—WWE “Creative” actually thinks they’re breaking new ground by injecting funny situations into wrestling. But nobody was funnier and edgier than Lawler as a heel in the ’70s, yet the fans still hated his guts, likewise with Jimmy Hart in the early ’80s. And then you had Lance Russell as the straight man between Lawler and Hart during their feud, which Cornette compares to “Howard Cosell standing between Ali and Frazier.” Looking back, Dave Brown, Lance’s longtime sidekick, marvels over Jimmy’s energy, saying that Hart “had all his blood removed back around 1980 and had it replaced with Red Bull.”

 

 

Lawler and Hart were clever and original when devising ways to belittle each other and tarnish the other’s reputation. And while it was entertaining, you believed that that the issue between the two was personal.

 

According to Jarrett, the Lawler/Hart program definitely had its share of realism, much like the Lawler/Dundee feud. Heading into 1980, the territory had been built around CWA World champ Lawler and his efforts to unify all the World titles. Jarrett explains that he wanted to merge his CWA title with the big belt from Verne Gagne’s organization and felt it was more likely that he could convince one man as opposed to the NWA board, which had always denied Lawler a run with the 10 pounds of gold, claiming that he was not tough enough. In fact, two Lawler vs. Nick Bockwinkel CWA/AWA unification bouts had already ended inconclusively as 1979 drew to a close. (Of course, Jarrett evenutally booked a similar deal when Lawler won the AWA World title from Curt Hennig in May 1988 and later unified the belt with the World Class championship. This, despite the fact that Jarrett’s attempt to buy the AWA around 1987 fell through when Verne demanded that he hire son Greg as part of the $4 million offer.)

 

Although Jarrett had warned Lawler against playing in his violent Sunday morning “touch” football games, his champ didn’t take heed and ended up breaking his leg, supposedly when referee Jerry Calhoun tackled him. With his back against the wall, Jarrett decided to take the muzzle off Hart, who was rarely allowed to speak during Lawler’s promos in ‘79, and rebuild the promotion around the manager and a stable of heels in 1980.

 

“We were in a hotel in Louisville discussing TV for the following Saturday,” Jarrett recalls. “Hart asked, ‘What do I say about Lawler?’ I was thinking about being in the home state of the Kentucky Derby, so off the top of my head, I gave Hart this line, ‘What if you have a horse—a thoroughbred, a champion—and he breaks his leg? You shoot him!’ Lawler was watching and took great personal offense to the disrespect shown by Hart, who he broke into the business. Lawler was so mad that Jimmy thinks he purposely broke his jaw in Evansville after he came back from the injury. Jimmy Hart went from being a side man to the center of attention who we built everything around. And while Paul Ellering did a great job as Hart’s new King,  Jimmy was the one who kept the Memphis box office going until Lawler could return. It was a natural. I believe the term they use today is a ‘work-shoot.’ We tried to work with what was in front of us—and the reality was that Jerry had felt like Jimmy had let him down by making the racehorse analogy. Lawler really took offense to that and Hart knew it, so he was gun shy around Lawler, and it came across as real to the fans. So almost everything we did had tension and a touch of realism to it.”

 

Realism, tension, personal issues…and humor. That’s what made Memphis so magical.

 

The allure of the unknown sells tickets: Cornette pointed out how wonderful it was as a fan during the days before cable TV to follow a wrestler in the magazines for months or years before that star eventually appeared in your area. I explained to Cornette that I felt exactly that same way when Mil Mascaras came to Memphis for the Jan. 29, 1979, card at the Mid-South Coliseum. I had seen Mascaras all over the Apter magazine covers, so I assumed he must be one of the greatest wrestlers in the world. Plus, with his mask and colorful outfits, Mil appeared as if he had flying body-pressed his way out of a Marvel comic book, my other passion at the time.

 

Masked aggression: Even Mil Mascaras cannot believe he did a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo in Memphis.

Masked aggression: Even Mil Mascaras cannot believe he did a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo in Memphis.

 

Of course, leave it to Memphis to bring in one of the perceived biggest babyfaces in the country as a heel partner of Austin Idol to face Lawler and Jackie Fargo in a stretcher match.

A 7-year-old mark in 1979, I begged my Uncle Robert to take me to this match not only to finally see my hero Lawler in person but also to see him face off against the “legendary” (in his own masked mind, anyway) Mexican star. When I mentioned that Mascaras did the job and put over Fargo big that night, cementing the Fabulous One’s reputation in mind as the world’s toughest sonuvabitch, Cornette cracked, “I got news for you—that wasn’t Mil Mascaras. If he wouldn’t put Cactus Jack over on Clash of Champions, there’s no way he’s riding a stretcher in Memphis. That was Pepe Lopez under a Mil Mascaras hood!”

OK, Lopez had been dead for three years, so obviously Jim was joking about that last part; however, given the fact that Jarrett occasionally billed a famous masked wrestler but delivered somebody else under the mask, maybe he had a point. For example, Mr. Wrestling (Dickie Steinborn),  the Spoiler (Frank Morrell) and the Masked Superstar (Jerry Oates) all worked in Memphis in place of Tim Woods, Don Jardine and Bill Eadie. And because of Mascaras’s rep for being uncooperative and egotistical, Cornette isn’t the first person who’s questioned if I remembered the match correctly.

 

Unmasking the myth: Jarrett confirms that it was Rodriguez under the hood.

Unmasking the myth: Jarrett confirms that it was Rodriguez under the hood.

So…Saturday morning I was finally able to ask Jarrett about this mysterious booking once and for all: “Was that the real Mil Mascaras under the hood when he did a stretcher job for Lawler and Fargo?” (The masked man on the night in question in 1979 even allowed Fargo to run down the aisle, turn over the stretcher and put the boots to him to further sell his rib injury.) Jarrett confirmed that it was indeed Aaron Rodriguez under the hood as Mascaras.

 

Jerry explained that in the late ‘70s he had become close 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 Mil for a couple of hours, swapping stories about Lutteroth, who had once hosted the Memphis promoter at his house. Mil was clearly enjoying himself when he asked, “So, Jerry, what do you want me to do tonight?” Jerry told me he replied, “Well, Mil, I know what I want you to do….” And that’s how Mil Mascaras did a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo in Memphis.