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

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

November 12th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments
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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.

  1. Sean D,
    November 12th, 2011 at 16:53 | #1

    “We’ll tell you what you need to know about fire…” Lawler contribute to that story as well?

    Dave’s jacket wasn’t so bad compared to some of the station blazers they wore in Evansville. That shirt on the other hand…wow.

  2. chuck morris
    November 14th, 2011 at 09:18 | #2

    my very first live card,a youth trip from my church,I can only imagine with our current preacher if a wrestling show was suggested,he would say we are on the highway to hell.

  3. David
    November 14th, 2011 at 17:06 | #3

    Not to get off subject, but can we expect a review of “Memphis Heat” from you, Scott?

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