Royal rumble: The King of Memphis meets the King of the world.
On September 30, 1985, Jerry Lawler and Ric Flair drew a record gate ($95,000-plus) at the Mid-South Coliseum, with nearly 9,500 fans paying the highest tickets prices in the history of Memphis wrestling ($8, $15 and $25) for a loaded Great American Bash card promoted by Jerry Jarrett and Jim Crockett. The stage had been set in fall 1984, with Lawler vowing on the air to win a World title the following the year or retire. At the time, Jarrett had reached a talent-trade agreement with Ole Anderson and Crockett to help combat Vince McMahon, who had taken majority stock control of World Championship Wrestling on WTBS after buying out Jack Brisco and Jerry Brisco.
After angry, confused NWA fans flooded Ted Turner‘s switchboard with complaints, Anderson secured a Saturday morning time slot for his Championship Wrestling From Georgia program, which would feature stars who remained from WCW as well as talent from Memphis and Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling program.
I’ve covered this ground before, but legend has it that as part of the agreement, Jarrett negotiated a NWA title run for his top draw, with the tentative plan that Lawler would win the 10 pounds of gold in September 1985 and drop the belt back to Flair at Starrcade.
A Flair for the Predictable: Lawler was disappointed with the bout because the champ called all his usual spots.
Alas, it was not to be. After buying the WCW time slot from McMahon for $1 million in spring 1985, Crockett didn’t really need Jarrett or Lawler anymore to go national. JCP booker Dusty Rhodes helped nix the title switch, according to Jimmy Valiant, and put himself in the main event challenging Flair at Starrcade ’85. (For the record, I asked Jerry Jarrett about the supposed Lawler title run; he claimed an NWA title run was a possibility but was not promised.) Still, there was money for Crockett to make with Jarrett, who was not relinquishing his Memphis territory to JCP or Vince without a fight. In fact, Jarrett outlasted every other promotion from the kayfabe era–all of which were steamrolled by WWF and, to a lesser degree, WCW. Even with Hulk Hogan on the card, Vince couldn’t draw in Memphis in 1985. If Crockett wanted to make further in-roads in the South, he’d have to work with Jarrett.
Reportedly there had been heat between Jarrett and Rhodes stemming from the previous year, when the elder Double J cancelled his booking of Rhodes for his June 24, 1984, “Star Wars” card the week before the show, citing payroll concerns. Rhodes took it as a personal slight and let Jarrett have it over the phone. When Lawler appeared in the opening match at the Orange Bowl later that year for a show headlined by a Rhodes/Flair bout for a diamond ring, he returned the dressing room to find an autographed 8″ X 10″ of the Dream, signed, “To the King curtain-jerker!” in his bag. Something tells me that perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Rhodes booked the famous ankle-injury angle at the hands of the Horsemen on Sept. 29, at the Omni the night before the Crockett/Jarrett Bash in Memphis, “forcing” him to no-show his scheduled bout with Buddy Landel in order to sell it.
The buildup to the Sept. 30 title bout was memorable as the promotion had two weeks to promote the card as there was no Monday night card on Sept. 23 because of the Mid-South Fair. During those two shows, they had recaps of Lawler’s entire career, with the King practically guaranteeing that it would all culminate on the 30th against Flair when finally won the belt as he quoted the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” and closed his last promo before the bout saying, “I know the fans want this title for me just as bad as I want it–and Monday night, I’m going to give it to them.” Even announcer Lance Russell strongly suggested that fans should buy a ticket “…so you can say you were the night the King won the World title.”
The match had been three years in the making, when Lawler had defeated Flair by countout in an overtime period of an impromptu title bout in the WMC-TV studio in 1982. (Shortly after the angle, Jarrett made the decision to stick with booking AWA World champ Nick Bockwinkel, so Flair had not returned to the area to settle the issue with Lawler.) About 9,500 fans showed up on the 30th for the long-awaited showdown, resulting in a $95,000-plus gate, the largest ever for Jarrett. Unfortunately, despite a great entrance by Lawler, who was carried to the ring on a throne, the bout itself was forgettable, with Lawler disqualified for tossing Flair over the top rope in a modified Dusty finish. (Lawler and Flair had done the same finish two weeks earlier in a bout in Lexington, KY, which drew over 7,000 fans and $70,000.) The King wasn’t pleased that the champ called his typical routine spots, and he didn’t like taking Flair’s chops. (When telling me about his disdain for the bout years later, Lawler asked me rhetorically, “Why chop a guy when you can punch him?”) I was there on the 30th and I can say–as a huge fan of both men at that time–they did not work well together. I recall wincing when Flair (of course) called to be slammed from the top rope and Lawler couldn’t quite reach him but the Nature Boy launched himself across the ring anyway. After years of seeing excellent Lawler vs. Bockwinkel bouts for the AWA championship, this performance left a lot to be desired. Lawler hated the bout so much that he refused to work with Flair in a rematch when Jarrett and Crockett held another combined show two months later. (Koko Ware headlined instead, challenging Flair in a really good bout.) Within two years, Crockett started promoting his own shows in Memphis, including a cardheadlined by Dusty Rhodes vs. Bill Dundee to declare a “New King of Memphis”–without Lawler, they drew less than 3,000 fans.
The King and the Nature Boy wouldn’t lock up again until the 1993 WWF Royal Rumble.
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