The best of the bookers: Jerry Jarrett’s new bio recalls the best–and worst–of times
Our memories of yesterday will last a lifetime
We’ll take the best, forget the rest
And someday we’ll find…these are the best of times
–Teen anthem from my youth
Although I’d worked for the Memphis-based USWA promotion in 1991 and again from late 1993 to 1996, I had never had the opportunity to even be properly introduced to the man who owned the territory and had helped turn professional wrestling into a Mid-South cultural phenomenon.
So I was nervous as I anticipated the arrival of Jerry Jarrett at the 2009 NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest in Charlotte. Jarrett, along with longtime announcers Lance Russell and Dave Brown, had agreed via e-mail to participate in a Memphis Roundtable Discussion, moderated by yours truly, as part of the festivities that weekend.
Although I had lived my dream to become a part of the Memphis TV wrestling show for a few years and had plenty of experience on the mic with Russell and Brown, I was curious to get to know Jarrett, whose brand of mayhem was a cherished part of my childhood. Maybe not so coincidentally, I was captivated by Memphis wrestling when I was 6 years old in 1977–nearly the exact time that Jarrett split from his former partner, Nick Gulas, and took over the Memphis end of the territory, moving the TV show (along with Russell and Brown) from WHBQ channel 13 to WMC-TV channel 5 in the process.
With the Roundtable scheduled for Saturday on that weekend in 2009, I had two nights to think of all the questions that I assumed most fans in attendance would want answered. Really, it was agonizing. After all, this might be the last time these three legends of Memphis wrestling would be in the same room, let alone participating in a forum, so I wanted it to be as educational and entertaining as possible. Lost in thought on Friday afternoon and heading to my hotel room, I passed Jerry Jarrett in the lobby.
I did a double-take and introduced myself to the Original Double J as he ordered a glass of red wine from the hotel bar. He graciously shook my hand, replying, “Oh, hey, Scott! You’re much younger than I thought you’d be!” He explained that he had been reading some of my columns and, based on my vivid observations of Memphis wrestling from the ’70s, he assumed that I would be an older man. I explained that Memphis wrestling meant everything to me as a kid, so its rich history was as fresh in mind as if those early days of the first series of bouts between Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee had just taken place last week. (My family was also an early purchaser of a VCR, and I taped the programs religiously and watched them repeatedly.)
For the next two hours, we talked wrestling, life, business interests, and even poetry, interrupted occasionally by several of the boys–former Jarrett employees–who stopped by to embrace him and give thanks for their start in the business. He patiently answered my questions, including one based on the first card I ever attended at the Mid-Souch Coliseum: “How in the world did you get Mil Mascaras to do a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo? Jim Cornette claims it must have been Pepe Lopez under a hood!” It was an afternoon I’ll never forget.
I walked away thinking that Jerry Jarrett was not only one of the most creative minds in the business but also a goodhearted, intelligent man. (Yes, I know of his supposed reputation for payoffs, but judging from the reception he received from his colleagues throughout the event, that was a rep created by Gulas that Jarrett was never able to overcome, no matter the packed houses at the Coliseum and around the territory.)
The following Saturday morning at Fanfest, as “Also sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” blared over the PA (which I had arranged to the surprise of my guests), I was taken back to pleasant times–the best of times, in fact–of my childhood, spent in front of the TV watching “another BIG day of Championship Wrestling.” During the Roundtable, we talked about everyone from Gulas to Jackie Fargo to Lawler to “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant to Joe LeDuc. But as it often did each Saturday morning, just as it was getting really good, the program ended after 90 minutes. As usual, Jarrett had left us wanting more. Less than two years later, with the help of Memphis Wrestling History’s Mark James, we finally have it: Jerry Jarrett’s Story: The Best of Times was released earlier this week, providing an in-depth look into the man behind the magic.
In detail, Jarrett recalls his humble beginnings and drive to succeed in wrestling, uncovering a seedy side of the business that rivals the mafia, as the young, determined man from Hendersonville, Tenn., began his unlikely rise to ownership of the most innovative, profitable promotions in the country. The stories of the wide-eyed Jarrett riding with his longtime heroes Jackie Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto brought back memories of my own, working with Lawler, Dundee and Valiant for the first time–I was still in awe of them in the ’90s but trying hard not to let on that I was the mark they knew I was.
The business was so vastly different in Jarrett’s early days, which is illustrated all too vividly as his onetime mentor Roy Welch slips further into dementia and threatens to eliminate the young promoter at any cost. Jarrett might have met an untimely demise at the hands of Mario Galento if not for his intense training sessions with Sailor Moran, a tough-as-nails shooter, i.e., a legit bad ass.
Jarrett provides an overview of his time in Atlanta with Jim Barnett, the Truman Capote of the business, during the territory’s wrestling war, which showcased one of his earliest, greatest gimmick creations: Johnny Walker’s transformation into the masked Mr. Wrestling II, which capitalized on the popularity of the longtime Peach State legend Mr. Wrestling (Tim Woods). During this chapter, he also tells a different version of what I can only assume is the Gary Hart confrontation in an Atlanta bathroom stall. (I liked Gary’s book a lot, but I never believed that Jarrett threatened him unprovoked with a chain.) Jarrett’s success in Georgia paved the way for what would become perhaps his most lasting legacy: control of the Memphis end of the Tennessee territory.
At that point, his life became a “roller coaster without brakes”: enduring a bitter divorce from his first wife and later meeting Deborah Marlin, the love of his life; overcoming the betrayal of Gulas to take command of the territory and earn the trust of the NWA; establishing Lawler as an NWA World title contender and then nearly losing him and Russell in a dispute; nearly losing his eyesight; creating gimmicks like the Fabulous Ones and breaking in new talent like Hulk Hogan; introducing MTV-style music videos to a wrestling program; “negotiating” a Thanksgiving extravaganza with Terry Funk; and trying to co-promote with the likes of Jim Crockett, Verne Gagne and Bill Watts. He recalls Vince McMahon Sr.’s prophetic last words to him and his experiences working with Vince Jr. and the World Wrestling Federation–which unfortunately occurred during the time I was starting as a heel in Memphis, hence my lack of communication with Jarrett at that time.
If you think his wrestling career was turbulent, you’ll find the chapters detailing his construction business equally as riveting as Jarrett somehow becomes $7.2 million in debt and overcomes nearly losing his life’s wealth–just in time to risk it all again to help his son, Jeff, start a new wrestling promotion, TNA, against the odds. His heartbreak over the lack of communication over the years with sons Jerry Jr. and Jeff is apparent as Jarrett pours his soul into these pages. And if you thought you disliked Vince Russo now, wait until you read Jarrett’s experiences working with McMahon’s former right-hand man in The Best of Times (one of those chapters where the book title is certainly ironic).
Reading Jarrett’s autobiography, you’ll get more than insight into his booking philosophy and his opinions on the stars he worked with. The Best of Times delivers the goods into makes Jerry Jarrett a successful yet graceful, humble man–a rarity in today’s world.