Uncrowned King: Should Jerry Lawler have been NWA World champion?
Amazing. More than 40 years after beginning his career working outlaw shows in front of a few hundred fans in West Memphis, Ark., for a $6 payoff, Jerry Lawler is the talk of the wrestling (or sports entertainment…whatever). Following his impromptu bout with Miz for the WWE title on Monday’s RAW, Lawler was honored with a standing ovation backstage and a beaming Vince McMahon, who was thrilled with the match. Kevin Dunn called him earlier this week to thank him, saying USA Network was also delighted. Wrestling fans young and old have been tweeting all week about the King and his performance, including many who were skeptical initially that a 61-year-old man could pull off an angle challenging the young champion and come off credible. Not only was it believable, but it was also downright dramatic, with the Philly crowd and those tweeting at home going wild in their support of Lawler as he literally had the WWE title in his grasp.
Miz is to be credited as well, as he was reportedly thrilled when told of the scenario Creative had laid out for the new champ and the King. An old-school wrestlng mark, Miz excitedly approached Lawler saying he’d do whatever he wanted in the bout, and he was especially eager to take a the King’s patented piledriver; however, that move is currently banned by WWE. Lawler and Miz delivered a thrilling TLC match despite very few big bumps (though Alex Riley and Miz both sold Lawler’s right hands beautifully, crashing through tables), relying on brilliant psychology to tell a story–a style that has not only made Lawler one of the best performers of his era but has also enabled him to continue working into his ’60s.
I think it was especially gratifying for longtime Memphis fans to see Lawler challenging for the most important title in wrestling, as the King’s quest for the World championship was the Memphis promotion’s longest-running storyline, beginning with a 1974 bout the with the late Jack Brisco for the NWA World heavyweight title and ending with his AWA title victory over Curt Hennig in 1988.
The original Quest for the Title program featured Lawler facing off each week against the biggest stars of the era, like The Sheik, Bobo Brazil, Harley Race and Mr. Wrestling II in effort to get the young Memphis star over as a credible challenger to Brisco. Lawler recalls his first backstage meeting with the Sheik prior to their bout at the Mid-South Coliseum.
“I introduced myself in the dressing room and we chatted for about 20 minutes. Finally, he asked, ‘Who’s this kid I’m working with tonight?’ I said, “Uh…that would be me, sir.’ I guess he thought I was some guy who set up the ring or worked for the company. Of course, he refused to put me over clean. Most of those matches ended in a disqualification and then I’d come out and brag about how I’d whipped ‘em all.”
The young wrestler’s buildup culminated on Sept. 16, 1974, with 10,125 fans packing the Coliseum to see Lawler challenge Brisco for the 10 pounds of gold. With tears in their eyes, Jarrett watched backstage with Florida promoter Eddie Graham, who was instrumental in Brisco’s ascension to the NWA throne.
“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.”
On that night, Lawler appeared to defeat Brisco for the belt but the decision was overturned when Gerald Brisco (his brother, Jerry, who was sitting ringside) stooged off to the ref that the King had used a chain to knock out the champion.
On October 18, 1976, at the Coliseum, Lawler again seemingly won the NWA World title from Terry Funk, who had dethroned Brisco in Miami Beach. This time, however, in the bout with Funk in ’76, the NWA strap not only made its way to Lawler’s hands but also around his waist for a post-bout photo shoot with CITY OF MEMPHIS magazine. The publication was doing a type of article that seemed to pop up every few years on the phenomenon of Memphis wrestling’s popularity, which thrived in the ’70s and early ’80s. With a crowd of just under 7,000 on hand, Lawler was awarded the belt and retreated to the dressing room to pose with the belt for photos before returning the strap to Funk. The magazine hit the stands with Lawler wearing the NWA championship on the cover.
Lawler recalls, “I literally ran back to the dressing room with the belt where the photographer had set up, put the belt on, and said, ‘Hurry up! Take my picture!’ He took a few pictures and I quickly took the belt off and gave it back to Terry–he had no idea I then claimed to be the real champion and had the these photos to back it up.”
Although he never officially won the NWA title, local-boy Lawler was for years viewed as the uncrowned champion in Memphis. As I wrote in one of my very first KFR columns:
Lawler was a Memphis local who went from being a skinny high school kid to the Southern heavyweight wrestling champion in less than five years. Which, where I grew up, pretty much made you a legend. The home field was a bloodstained mat at the Coliseum that served as a stage to some of the most outrageous antics in the history of the professional wrestling business–which is saying a helluva lot. Lawler has never claimed to be the best worker around, but he could brawl and take bumps with the best of them. And he could run his mouth, which, in pro wrestling, is more important. During my early days as a fan in the late ’70s/early ’80s, he could come across like the hometown boy who had made good or the most vile menace since Darth Vader–who, amazingly enough, also found time to wrestle in Memphis on occasion.
But the question is, could Lawler have succeeded on a national stage in the ’70 and ’80s as NWA World champion? Did Lawler have the ability to work with a variety of wrestlers, adapting to any style as part of the NWA kingpin’s then-role of making the local challenger look like a million bucks? Would his cocky, funny promos as NWA champion been convincing in places like Greensboro? Would the NWA Board have tolerated the King gimmick? Could Lawler have withstood the travel schedule and grueling grind of the NWA titlist? Because of the travel, would Lawler have even wanted an extended run for the title? Or would he have better suited for a brief run a la Dusty Rhodes and Tommy Rich?
In the past, Lawler’s in-ring ability was sometimes cited by his peers as as only average–not good enough to be NWA champion. But those critics usually had not worked with Lawler much. Longtime champ Harley Race despised Lawler in the ’70s for the King’s shameless self-promotion at the NWA’s expense–such as the aforementioned photo shoot with the belt despite not actually winning it. In his shoot interview, Race claims that Lawler was below average and that even Hulk Hogan was a better technical wrestler than Memphis’ number-one son. I can’t help but think Harley’s personal animosity toward Lawler is influencing his opinion. The Race/Lawler 60-minute draw from 1977 was fantastic–as good as any bout I’ve seen involving the eight-time World champion. Dutch Mantell, who wrestled both men, says Race was “OK” in the ring and nothing more.
Veterans like Mantell and Jimmy Valiant, who both feuded with Lawler for years, rave about his ability, saying he was one of the best. Though biased, Jarrett calls his longtime star the best overall worker he ever saw. Before Brisco’s death, I asked the former NWA World champ about his bouts with Lawler. Brisco replied that he thought Lawler was “very underrated” in the ring and that “Jerry and I had great matches.” In Terry Funk’s bio, More Than Just Hardcore, the Funker puts over Lawler: “There’s none better at conniving or manipulating than Jerry, and I mean that as a compliment. Thank God he’s never had a reason to put a dagger in my back. Lawler, right now, could step in a WWE ring, get on the microphone and cut as good a promo as the top 10 percent. He can also throw a better punch than 99.9 percent of anyone working today.” Nick Bockwinkel, with whom Lawler had several memorable bouts for the AWA World title, told Wade Keller in a TORCH Talk interview years back that “Lawler is very talented” and it was “a shame Lawler didn’t catch on with a larger promotion.”
You have to consider that a lot of wrestlers in the ’70s and ’80s had good matches with Brisco, Race, Funk and Bockwinkel–it was almost difficult not to. Perhaps the title defenses in Memphis were simply routine–the NWA champs of that era made a practice of going 60 minutes with the local challenger and making him look invincible. Still, at the very least, Lawler capable of a classic and could more than keep up with the champs of the era.
To those who don’t think Lawler could have adapted to any style in the same vein as former champs Race, Terry Funk and Dory Funk Jr., what do you think he did in Memphis all those years? Lawler was excellent at getting over a newcomer in the territory as a big star, even a guy like journeyman Cocoa Samoa, who debuted in Memphis in 1982 as “Sabu the Wildman.” As a partner in the promotion, his livelihood depended on his ability to help new (and often, cheap) talent get over as main-event stars, making headliners out of guys who would be midcarders at best elsewhere–a task that became more difficult when Vince McMahon’s machine began expanding and cherry-picking talent from promotions nationwide.
Some say Brisco had difficulty working a heel style against a babyface challenger, but I thought Jack did a great job as a subtle heel when defending against Lawler, who was a bit of a ‘tweener at the time of their matches. Lawler’s size–or lack thereof–served him well in Memphis as both the underdog babyface and the chicken-shit heel but may have worked against him on a national stage. Brisco, Terry and Race may not have been much bigger, but they certainly came off like stud athletes during their heyday, which Lawler did not. It’s hard to imagine Lawler being accepted as NWA World champ back in the ’70s in a territory like Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, which boasted performers like Johnny Valentine, Wahoo McDaniel, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat.
Lawler often rose to the occasion when working the champ, exhibiting more mat wrestling than his typical punch, kick, sell, pull-down-the strap repertoire. I’m not certain he could have pulled that off night after night in a different city with a first-time opponent. Working the small towns throughout the Mid-South area, Lawler often relied on clownish spots and psychology, of which he was a master. No matter if he was working in a packed Mid-South Coliseum or in front of 1,500 fans stuffed into places like local armories and high schools, every single fan fixated on Lawler’s every move. Like all the great ones, Lawler could sense what the crowd was giving him and adjust to get them into his match. Judging from his performance Monday with the Miz, Lawler still has that keen ability to get the fans emotionally invested. In many ways today, it’s a lost art. Psychology-wise, Lawler remains as good as any in the profession.
I think Lawler’s promos as the arrogant champion would have been off the charts, though he probably would have had to tone down the King gimmick. Guys like Fritz Von Erich, while considered for a run as champion, never won the title, as the NWA board made it clear that the champion shouldn’t have a gimmick–being the NWA kingpin was enough. Still, being the champion of the world would have complemented Lawler’s royal arrogance as King quite nicely.
Still, as charismatic as Lawler could be in and out of the ring, he wouldn’t have been able to defend himself against a double-cross like Brisco, Terry, Dory and Race. One of the reasons Harley kept the title for so long was because he would have a great bout with anyone and he was never in danger of being sucker-punched out of the title. Still, the NWA loosened up on this idea with Dusty’s three-month run in 1981 as well as with Flair, who dethroned Big Dust and assumed Race’s role as the last territory-traveling NWA World champ. As tough as Flair was, he couldn’t defend himself like Race in a true fight–you simply didn’t screw with Harley.
“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.”
Nowadays, that’s such a foreign concept, as it’s usually just the guy who’s hottest at the moment who carries the WWE title–being tough or even the best worker hardly factors at all. (Jarrett was always a little ahead of his time.)
Overall, I’d have to say that while Lawler may not have been the right choice for an extended NWA title reign in the ’70s and ’80s, especially when you consider performers like Ted DiBiase and Dick Murdoch never got a run, he could have easily thrived in a six-month reign. Lawler’s squeaky-clean lifestyle would have been made him a more logical choice than Murdoch, whose hard-partying ways killed his chances to be champ–although he was considered at one point. DiBiase was practically assured of the belt by Race down the line, but the timing never seemed to be right for Ted.
Plus, the fact that Tommy Rich and Dusty were awarded the belt to give them credibility in future matches with Race–to prove that they were capable of winning the title–makes me feel that Lawler also deserved that rub. The atmosphere for World title matches in Memphis was unreal, as Jarrett wisely used the champion sparingly to emphasize just how special these appearances were. As much as money as there was in the title chase, Jarrett has said he that realized that eventually the fans would catch on that Lawler was never getting the belt if the champion were overexposed in the area.
Of course, eventually Lawler did get his run as AWA World champion–at a point when the title–and really the concept of a true World champion–was practically dead. Memphis fans wanted to believe, though. The 8,500 fans in attendance at the Mid-South Coliseum for Lawler’s title win over the Hennig on May 9, 1988, erupted like Lawler had been crowned king of the world. In their eyes, he had always been the champion.