Monday night Memphis wrestling memories featuring Jerry Lawler, Terry Funk, Eddie Gilbert, Austin Idol…and Elvis Presley?
Eighteen years ago, I was a skinny college senior finishing my BA in journalism at the newly christened The University of Memphis. (It was years before I stopped saying, “Memphis State,” when asked about my alma mater. Even then, I felt silly saying the new, apparently more prestigious name.)
In addition to a full class load (desperately trying to cram in all those math courses I’d put off for 4-plus years) and my part-time jobs as a writer for the
Memphis State University The University of Memphis (Alumni) Magazine during the week as well as a tug driver/plane loader for FedEx on weekend afternoons, I was a working as a referee for Saturday morning rasslin’ and at the Mid-South Coliseum on Monday nights.
Of course, I had to pass an accelerated course in Referring 101 by Jerry Lawler backstage after the promotion had fired Jerry Calhoun in spring 1991.
While it may seem odd that journalism led to my brief but exhilarating run in the business, in a way it made perfect sense as I was a voracious reader of not only comics books, but also sci-fi novels and any books on larger-than-life subjects such as the Loch Ness Monster, Alcatraz and the Bermuda Triangle as well as the newsstand wrestling magazines (a.k.a., the Apter mags) since I was about 7 years old.
I considered myself lucky to be in the right place at the right time to live my dream of appearing alongside the same heroes and heels I’d cheered and jeered as a kid, not to mention the voices of Memphis wrestling, Lance Russell and Dave Brown, who helped guide me through my initial interviews when I eventually turned heel. (And trust me, it wasn’t always easy being a heel in your hometown, especially when you’re feuding with Jerry Lawler.) OK, so one promo with Brown turned ugly….
But my heel turn was still months away on Saturday morning, March 5, 1994. On this day, the live Memphis TV show was geared toward promoting a reunion show with not only the regular crew but also special appearances by legends Sputnik Monroe, Don & Al Greene, and Jackie Fargo as well as the return of classic in-ring performers from the territory’s heyday, such as Terry Funk and Austin Idol.
“Handsome” Jimmy Valiant had come in early for the show, and just as Dave Brown described him years later, he was subdued before exploding through the curtain to hype the biggest card in Mempho in years. One of the fondest memories of my peek behind the curtain of the business: Lawler and Eddie Gilbert standing side by side at the backstage monitor (where most of the comedy happened), laughing hysterically as quiet “Handsome” Jimmy morphed into his boisterous, lovable Mempho persona on camera. It was a special moment–one that felt like the old days when I was a young fan watching at home yet somehow privy to this backstage experience.
At that point, the promotion was still hoping Jimmy Hart would make a cameo Monday night. Although it was not to be (scheduling conflicts, though Hart tried to the bitter end to make the show), the Mouth of the South quickly arranged a song saluting the Monday night mayhem that made him–and countless others–a damn good living in the age before cable TV. (Let’s face it: It’s not easy to come up with a lyric following “Tojo Yamamoto.”) I realize this likely comes off cheesy to those who never had the Memphis experience. To me, though, I nearly get teary-eyed every time I see it. Truly came off like a love letter from Hart to, ironically, the people who hated him for years. (I recall the spot in the following video when Tommy Rich punches Gypsy Joe and covers him: Lawler and Gilbert almost simultaneously bellowed, “Back then, that was a finish!”)
The nostalgia paid off-literally. Instead of the 2,500 regulars, more than 8,000 fans (paying more than $32,000) showed up, which was was reflected in my paycheck. (I made $75 instead of $50.)
Still, it wasn’t about the money. I’d practically begged to work the show, as I was anxious to meet Funk, one of my favorite performers. I confided in Eddie Gilbert (my first mistake, as Hot Stuff was a great ribber) that Funk and I had a mutual friend in actor Red West.
West was Elvis Presley’s former bodyguard and best friend, who’d forged a successful career as a character actor, including an appearance with Funk in the classic (ahem) Patrick Swayze vehicle ROAD HOUSE. West, a former member of Presley’s Memphis Mafia, had turned part of his home into a makeshift actors’ studio, located near my hometown of (ahem) Germantown, Tenn.
I had been a student at the Red West Actors Studio for a few months, adding to my busy schedule.
I later learned that Eddie had informed Terry that a nervous rookie ref would be approaching him, using the West connection as a way to break the ice. As I hesitantly approached Funk in the dressing room, his eyes widened before he said, “Who the hell are you?” I quietly introduced myself as the ref and quickly offered up Red West’s name. He looked at me incredulously, slowing saying, “I don’t know any Fred West.” I looked at the ground, shuffling my feet, before speaking up, “Um, no sir. I said, “Red West.” Funk’s reply: “I already told you: I’don’t know any Fred West!” Needless to say, I was scared shitless. I looked over at Eddie, who began shaking his head and waving me off. Undaunted, I pressed ahead, a little louder this time: “No, sir! RED West!” Funk stared me right in the eyes before he cracked. He began laughing, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Oh, Red West! I know that guy! He’s a helluva guy!” We then talked for a bit about Red, as I noticed Eddie with a broad smile on his mug. Clearly, I’d been set up.
Following the six-man tag introductions, I made my rounds to all the participants inspecting their boots and tights for foreign objects. Growing up in the kayfabe era, I’d seen refs perform the frisks to add to the realism, but given this was 1994—with six wrestlers in the ring, no less—I probably should have let it go. By the time I got to Idol, the boys had been standing in the ring for about two minutes. In that classic throaty delivery, Idol says to me, “Mr. Referreeee…have we rung the bell yet?” I mumble, “Um…no, not yet.” Idol glared down at me checking his boots, saying, “Well…why don’t we ring it then?”
Oh. Right. Yessir!
To give you an idea of just how highly Idol’s work is still regarded today, the Rock never saw much footage of the Universal Heartthrob until the late ’90s—Dwayne Johnson reportedly was blown away at just how brilliant Idol’s promos were.
Later that evening, Tommy Rich piledrove me in the ring, signaling the end of the six-man tag involving Funk.
Even though I was supposedly knocked out from the piledriver, selling it like the Kennedy assassination, Funk picked up my lifeless body by the hair, screaming, “C’mere, you sonuvabitch!” The former NWA World champ punched me before putting the boots to me. Then Rich scooped up my prone body and gave me my second piledriver. Brutalized by two ex-NWA champs in the same match–dream come true, really.
Monday night memories to last a lifetime.