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When we were Kings: Jerry Lawler challenges Rocky Johnson to ‘boxer’ vs. wrestler match in ’76

November 12th, 2011 4 comments

In June 1976, Rocky Johnson was a young high-flying, muscular black wrestler–more chiseled than boxer Muhammad Ali–who had headlined St. Louis cards challenging Harley Race for the Missouri title when he got an unexpected call in June 1976 from young promoter Jerry Jarrett, asking him to appear in Memphis against the territory’s hottest heel, Jerry Lawler.

Five days before Ali vs. Inoki, this bout in Memphis answered the question of who would win between a wrestler and a boxer.

As he explained in the documentary “Memphis Heat,” Johnson was perplexed initially when Jarrett wanted to book him as a boxer–not as a wrestler–to take advantage of the worldwide publicity surrounding Ali’s bout in Japan with grappler Antonio Inoki on June 26, 1976, at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo. It helped that Rocky did in fact have some amateur boxing in his background to add credibility to the concept.

To give you an idea of the media circus, the heavyweight champ appeared alongside the inspiration for his “heel” boxing persona, legendary brash wrestler Freddie Blassie, on “The Tonight Show,” with guest-host McLean Stevenson.

To prove a point that a legit wrestler could beat any boxer in a fight, Johnson would be knocked out by the King of Memphis before returning later for revenge–eventually becoming the first black man to win the area’s Southern title.

But when he got the call in June ’76, Johnson claimed he balked at the overture–that is until Jarrett offered him a guaranteed amount of money to appear, a rarity for a territory known for its, um, frugal payoffs.

In a nice touch, with the Memphis TV still airing on WHBQ TV, channel 13, (before the Jarrett/Nick Gulas split), local sportscaster Charlie B. Watson even got in on the hype, with weigh-ins conducted at the studio like a legit sporting event.

Of course, Johnson’s past as a wrestler was never acknowledged–an omission you could get away in the days before the Internet and cable TV–as Rocky boasted to Watson that Lawler couldn’t last 15 rounds with him. (Note on the video below: The match buildup begins at the 3:30 mark of the video; in the meantime, enjoy Dave Brown’s high-tech weather forecast–and unfortunate sports jacket.)

In front of a near-sellout crowd of 11,188 at the Coliseum on June 26, Lawler beat Johnson, no doubt with the help of a chain. The headline in the Memphis newspaper the next day highlighted the wrestler’s win.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a King: Johnson is down for the count.

A rematch at the Coliseum on July 12, drawing 10,138 fans, planted the seeds for Rocky to make the “transition” to wrestling, as he knocked out Lawler in the 6th round.

No small feat: Lawler educates Johnson on the finer points of wrestling.

Months later, after “training as a wrestler,” Johnson beat Lawler for the Southern title on Nov. 1, kicking off a hot feud between the two. And for Memphis fans, plenty of whom were African-Americans, it gave them a true hero to identify with and rally behind.

The charismatic Johnson was almost the Ali of the Southern squared circle in the eyes of Memphis wrestling fans.

Johnson’s son, the Rock, would eventually make his debut in Memphis in 1996 as part of a developmental deal with WWE. From what I understand, Johnson’s kid has done pretty well for himself since then.

Flex appeal: Recalling the Rock’s early Memphis wrestling days as the Great One finally returns live to WWE Monday Night RAW

March 28th, 2011 1 comment

A rocky career start: Flex Kavana debuts in Memphis in 1996.

(Originally presented at comics101.com, with a few new thoughts.)

When I first shook hands with newcomer Flex Kavana in the decidedly no-frills dressing room of the Big One Expo Center in Memphis in 1996, little did I realize I was meeting the man who would become one the biggest stars in the business. While many a young worker had cut their teeth (among other things) learning the ring ropes of the business in Memphis, it had been some time since a future major star had honed his craft in the territory.

Enter Kavana (Dwayne Johnson)–the man who would become The Rock.

I grasped Kavana’s hand ever-so-lightly, letting him know I was one of the boys. (A soft grip is kind of like a worked handshake.) He smiled, returned the light grip and asked a few questions about me. I was a little surprised at his friendly demeanor since the word was that Kavana was a developmental guy, signed by the then-WWF, which meant that he didn’t have to count on his meager $70 payoffs, gimmick sales and the kindness of arena rats to survive. I figured he must have been counting the days until his time was served, but he acted more eager to learn than escape. And unlike a lot of the boys in the area at the time–Tommy Rich, Tony Falk, Bart Sawyer–at least he had someplace to go.

I was a bit familiar with Kavana’s background–his father was Rocky “Soul Man” Johnson, who feuded with a young Jerry Lawler over the NWA Southern heavyweight title in the mid-’70s, my earliest memories of Memphis wrestling. In a hot racial climate like Memphis, Rocky was over huge as a babyface; even though his promos were nothing special. Rocky Sr. was built up as a boxer, the sparring partner of George Foreman, in his early Memphis appearances to set up “Boxer vs. Wrestler” matches at the Mid-South Coliseum. (This bout took place five days before the heavily hyped Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki match, which was being broadcast on closed circuit in the States, along with a live Andre the Giant vs. Chuck Wepner match from Shea Stadium.)

Here’s a clip from a TV-5 newscast promoting the Lawler vs. Johnson match, which drew a near-sellout of 11,188, with the King winning. (Rocky would score a “knockout” of Lawler in the rematch on July 12, 1976, drawing over 10, 000 fans.) But first a word from weatherman/TV wrestling announcer Dave Brown about the forecast using the latest cutting-edge technology.

Fans black and white–well, maybe not all the whites–rallied around the Soul Man after Lawler whipped Johnson while he was being held by Dennis Condrey and Phil Hickerson (a hell of a tag-team in that day). In those days, Lawler wasn’t exactly known for race relations. I can’t believe the King made it out of Puerto Rico with his crown jewels still attached after this promo in the ’70s to build up a rare appearance at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.

Toward the end of that same year, the Rock made his first TV appearance anywhere as part of the Memphis Wrestling Christmas special mugging for the camera on the floor as he did tries to cut a promo. (The kid was a natural.)

Rocky found his way to the WWF in the early ’80s, feuding with the Magnificent Muraco over the Intercontinental title. He and partner Tony Atlas became the first black wrestlers to capture Federation gold when they won the tag straps from the Wild Samoans at a TV taping after manager Lou Albano’s interference with a chair backfired. (A common mistake made by several of us rasslin’ managers over the years.)

Rocky even made it back to Memphis in the late ’80s to avenge Lawler’s head-shaving at the hands of Tommy Rich, Austin Idol and rookie manager Paul E. Dangerously (Heyman). His first night back, he subbed for no-show Bam Bam Bigelow, teaming with Dundee against Idol and Rich in front of nearly 9,000 fans–a testament to the incredible heat on the heels.

Kavana’s grandfather, Peter Maivia, had been a star in Vince McMahon Sr.’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) in the ’70s–first as a babyface, then as a heel who turned on then-champ Bob Backlund. (Hmmm. Wonder if Vince Jr. considered going back to the WWWF after his grudge-match loss to the World Wildlife Fund over the initials “WWF”?) Here’s a clip from the ’70s as a crestfallen Maivia bemoans the shattered remains of his prized Samoan ukulele in one what sadly considered a hot angle back in the McMahon Sr.-era WWWF. You don’t mess with a man’s automobile. And you sure as hell don’t f*** with a man’s ukulele. Vince looks sad, too, thought it’s probably because of his hairstyle.

I also knew that Kavana had played for the Miami Hurricanes squad that lost to Nebraska in the 1995 Orange Bowl, which earned the Cornhuskers the national championnship. We talked in the makeshift dressing room of the Big One–a building reserved for flea markets on the weekends–discussing the upcoming 1996 football season. After a few minutes, I walked away thinking that he was one of the most genuinely nice guys I had ever met in the business. Too bad about that goofy name, though.

His first few months, Kavana was wasted in openers, teaming with the likes of journeyman wrestler Bart Sawyer, who never did quite perfect his Roddy Piper imitation, though not for a lack of trying during interviews. At that time, it was nearly impossible for a young guy–no matter his potential–to break past the clique of the USWA good ol’ boys: Brian Christopher Lawler, Rich, Doug Gilbert, Bill Dundee and PG-13. The thinking then was that it wasn’t good business to push the developmental guys because it wasn’t known how long they’d be around. And obviously Reggie B. Fine wasn’t going anywhere.

In the days before he got things cooking, Kavana’s ring entrance was limited to him walking out in cheesy sunglasses–always grinning from ear to ear–as Foreigner’s “Double Vision” played over the sound system. Not that you could tell what song it was; believe it or not, the flea-market facility didn’t have the best sound system or acoustics. Things had gotten so bad at that point, I believe, that the promotion was holding a microphone to an old ghetto blaster to pipe in the entrance music. Talk about rock bottom.

A smile rarely left Kavana’s face. Unless he was selling an opponent’s offense, he was usually grinning in the ring. Which means that during most of his TV squashes against job guys, his white teeth never left the screen. Probably because he knew it would be any day now that WWE talent guru Pat Patterson would be calling him up to the big leagues.

Toward the end of a TV taping at the WMC-TV studio, Lawler and I were discussing a head-shaving angle with former backyard wrestler Tony Williams, when Kavana lightly knocked on the door. “Um, Jerry, I hate to interrupt,” he said quietly, “but I was just wondering if you were going to need me for anything else today?” Lawler smiled and dismissed him. “Nice kid,” Lawler said with a laugh, slightly taken aback by Kavana’s manners.

After six weeks or so, Kavana and Sawyer got a push, capturing the USWA tag titles and beginning a feud with Lawler and Dundee – managed by me. Lawler and Dundee were a legendary team of the past, holding the area’s AWA Southern tag titles several times in the ’70s, highlighted by the Tupelo concession-stand brawl with heels Larry Latham (the future Moondog Spot) and the King’s cousin Wayne Farris (the eventual Honky Tonk Man).

During our interview to promote the first match between the two teams, I compared Lawler and Dundee to the Chicago Bulls–but with even more pure athleticism than the NBA championship dynasty. (Manager Jim Cornette was obviously an influence on me.) Throughout the promo, I referred to Sawyer and Kavana as “Bart Simpson” and “Copa Cabana” before turning things over to Lawler and Dundee, at one time two of the best interviews in the business.

Thanks to our strong promos, the gate receipts jumped by a whopping $10 for the first bout. Despite the limited WWF affiliation, the promotion was struggling, with fan support down to the same number of hardcore marks every week. Sad to see. Even with a head-shaving stipulation for one of the bouts–which used to pop the Memphis crowds in the ’70s and ’80s–the feud didn’t draw. (To get a rematch for the belts one week, The Rock had to put up his flowing curly hair, which he referred to as his “pretty Polynesian locks.” I told Kavana on the air that we’d be doing him a favor when we cut his “nappy mane.”

The King and the Superstar traded the tag titles with Sawyer and Kavana a few times, usually with my interference being the deciding factor one way or the other.

Even though he was an ex-champion, things weren’t all bad for Kavana–his call from the WWF had come. In his first book, Mick Foley described working in Memphis as like being in the Marines–quite a statement coming from a guy who loves the business like Cactus Jack. If that’s the case, one of the boys getting the call from Patterson must have been like a wartime soldier learning he was going home.

In traditional territory fashion of old, Kavana was booked to exit with a loss in a loser-leaves-town match. Since Patterson’s call came a little earlier than expected, there was no time to effectively build up such a bout–though with Randy Hales booking, that probably wouldn’t have happened anyway. Instead, during the next TV taping in Memphis, Lawler agreed to put his Unified World title–which was rarely defended outside of Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky–against Kavana leaving the area in an impromptu challenge.

With TV time dwindling, Lawler and Kavana rushed through a bout, with me interfering the whole way, holding the future People’s Champ tights while the King pummeled him. As the ref is distracted by my shenanigans, Lawler applies a barred-in-Tennessee-piledriver toKavana, enabling the King to secure a pin.

I can only imagine the anguish Kavana must have felt knowing he’d likely never again work in front of his dozens–and DOZENS–of fans at the flea market. I would imagine that Flex couldn’t get out of town fast enough.

Kavana, of course, went on to become Rocky Maivia in the WWF. Smiling more than ever in his ill-fated babyface role, Rocky was pushed too hard, too soon, quickly winning the Intercontinental title. The funs turned on him quickly, chanting “Rocky sucks” at every stop. Even John Cena never had it that bad as a babyface. Eventually, he found his calling as “The Rock,” as part of the Nation of Domination. He became an exaggerated version of himself, a brash, trash-talking stud athlete who just didn’t give a damn what the fans thought. The era of the cool heel had arrived, and so had The Rock. The fans loved the transformation, so much that he started to receive jeers despite working for jeers. It was only natural to turn him babyface and “let” the fans love him.

Rock went to become a seven-time WWF(E) champion and, eventually, a movie star enjoying celebrity never before seen by a wrestler.

Chris Ryall, who used to run Kevin Smith’s moviepoopshoot.com, interviewed the Rock as part of a telephone press junket for Walking Tall. For his final question, Ryall asked if it was “true Scott Bowden had a hand in driving you out of Memphis?” The Rock paused before saying, “The only thing Bowden ever drove me to was the toilet.” Classic ad-lib.