Home > Uncategorized > We’ve got ‘Heat’: Wrestling documentary ‘Memphis Heat’ debuts tomorrow

We’ve got ‘Heat’: Wrestling documentary ‘Memphis Heat’ debuts tomorrow

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Textbook throw: Lawler often displayed far more accuracy than my other sports hero, Terry Bradshaw.

Mercy, daddy. The Commercial Appeal‘s John Beifuss has written a nice article with details of the “Memphis Heat” documentary and its premiere, which is tomorrow night at the Paradiso Theater. Beifuss was also kind enough to plug Mark James’ Memphis Wrestling History site and Kentucky Fried Rasslin’, which he researched for his piece.

He writes:

Occasional eye gougings aside, “Memphis Heat” should be an eye-opener for the uninitiated, as it chronicles the rise of local wrestling after World War II, when it became one of the city’s most popular spectator events, as highlighted by a 1959 match between [Sputnik] Monroe and Billy Wicks at the old Russwood Park, which attracted 13,749 fans, according to The Commercial Appeal.

Wicks is among those interviewed in the movie, along with such grapplers as [Jimmy] Hart, Dundee, Lawler, Wayne, Jackie Fargo, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant and Rocky Johnson (father of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), as well as promoter Jerry Jarrett and other behind-the-scenes men.

Other wrestlers — including such icons as Gorgeous George and Lady Satan; Farmer Jones, always accompanied by his pet pig; scary Joe LeDuc, apparently slicing his forearm with the blade of an ax; and Kamala, the Ugandan Giant — appear in vintage stills and film clips.

Saturday morning TV wrestling, which began in 1958, was a top draw.  Buoyed by the announcing team of Lance Russell and Dave Brown, first on WHBQ-TV Channel 13 and then on WMC-TV Channel 5, “studio wrestling” — a live 90-minute program — earned larger audience shares in Memphis than World Series games and “Sanford and Son.”

“When I was a kid, there wasn’t a kid on the street when wrestling was on,” [Memphis historian Ron] Hall said. “Then we’d all come outside. Fifteen minutes after wrestling went off, there’s no telling how many broken arms there were in the city of Memphis, with kids trying to do drop-kicks on their brothers and all of that.”

I know how Ron feels. I imagine that if had I grown up in a pro-sports town like Pittsburgh, I would have wanted to be Terry Bradshaw. Although I was a Steelers fan growing up, I don’t ever recall Bradshaw swinging a steel chair at an opponent or using brass knuckles or threatening to beat someone “like an egg-suckin’ dog.” Of course, if Bradshaw had done any of these things, I probably would’ve dreamed of being an NFL quarterback. But nothing captured my imagination like that the Memphis mayhem unfolding before my young eyes every Saturday morning, usually at the hands of King Lawler, the monarch of the mat. I didn’t dream of Super Bowl rings; rather, my friends and I had make-believe backyard battles over homemade title belts representing the AWA World championship and the NWA’s Ten Pounds of Gold.

I recall being fans of the masked Assassins, despite their notorious heel tactics. The Assassins, who wore black and gold, were rumored to be Steelers defensive linemen who wrestled in the off-season to stay in shape. Hey, that seemed logical to me at the time.

In Memphis, a minor-league sports graveyard, our home team was Lawler, a local who went from being a skinny kid from Treadwell High 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. Only fitting that Lawler, who attended Memphis State University briefly on an art scholarship, continued working on a different kind of canvas–one riddled with razor-blade-induced blood drops, making it appear like an abstract painting.

Drawing card: Lawler continued his artistry on the canvas at the Mid-South Coliseum.

In the late ’70s, the local joke was that if a pro sports franchise were ever to succeed in Memphis, they’d have to present pro wrestling matches at halftime. While short-lived franchises like the Grizzlies (World Football League) and the Rogues (North American Soccer League) folded because of poor attendance, Lawler’s battles with the likes of Valiant, “Universal Heartthrob” Austin Idol and “Canadian Lumberjack” LeDuc attracted an average of nearly 7,500 fans to the Coliseum every Monday night.

The term “Monday Night Wrestling” was used in everyday conversation to describe any household, schoolyard or workplace ruckus. (“Calm down, this ain’t Monday Night Wrestling!”) Church groups, Boy Scout troops and civic organizations sponsored wrestling events in smaller towns around the area, usually in packed high-school gymnasiums and armories.

Wrestling’s popularity in Memphis continued through the early ’80s, when it was often the third-highest-rated TV show in the city, including prime time, trailing only “Dallas” and “Dynasty.”  By then, I was really hooked on the biz, watching wrestling religiously and regularly purchasing the Apter newsstand wrestling magazines, which ultimately led to careers in both rasslin’ and journalism…and this Web site.

I wish I could be in my hometown tomorrow on Sputnik Monroe Day to celebrate this cornerstone of my childhood and relive that Memphis magic one more time. For more info, visit the Memphis Heat Web site.

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