Who was that masked man? In December 1980, Jerry Lawler returns from nightmare yearlong layoff to defeat the (American) Dream Machine
(I’m back from summer vacation; as always, Parts Unknown was lovely this time of year. This column is dedicated to the King…Jerry Lawler…my childhood hero and, later, my friend. Let’s go, King….)
A bad break ultimately led up to one of the most defining moments of my youth.
When CWA World champion Jerry Lawler broke his leg in a not-so-friendly “touch” football game at the hands of referee Jerry “the Crippler” Calhoun in January 1980, Memphis wrestling territory owner Jerry Jarrett decided to put all the heat on the King’s manager, Jimmy Hart, the former Gentrys singer.
With less than a year of experience as Lawler’s manager under his jumpsuit, Hart rarely had interview time in 1979, as the King was in his prime as one of the greatest heel promos in the business at that point.
Prior to the injury, most of the dastardly duo’s interviews saw Lawler boast and brag, with Hart relegated to nodding, smiling, carrying the King’s CWA World belt and occasionally chiming in to reassure Lance Russell and the viewing audience, “That’s right, baby!” But with Lawler now on the shelf for an undetermined amount of time in 1980, Jarrett removed Hart’s muzzle, and the young manager was off to the races while his champion stud was put out to pasture for nearly the remainder of the year.
As Jarrett recalls, “We were in Lexington, Kentucky, shortly after we got the news of Lawler’s injury. I was furious with Lawler because the entire territory was centered around him. So I turned to Jimmy. Hart nervously asked me, ‘What do I say about Lawler?’ I was thinking about being in the home state of the Kentucky Derby, so off the top of my head, I gave Hart this line, ‘What if you have a horse–a thoroughbred, a champion–and he breaks his leg? You shoot him!’
“Lawler was watching and took great personal offense to the disrespect shown by Hart, who he broke into the business. Lawler was so mad that Jimmy thinks he purposely broke his jaw in Evansville after he came back from the injury. Jimmy Hart went from being a side man to the center of attention who we built everything around. And while Paul Ellering did a great job as Hart’s new King, Jimmy was the one who kept the Memphis box office going until Lawler could return. It was a natural. I believe the term they use today is a ‘work-shoot.’ We tried to work with what was in front of us—and the reality was that Jerry had felt like Jimmy had let him down by making the racehorse analogy. Lawler really took offense to that and Hart knew it, so he was gun shy around Lawler, and it came across as real to the fans. So…everything had tension and a touch of realism to it.”
With a ready-made angle in his lap, Jarrett initially planned for “King” Paul Ellering, the future manager of the Road Warriors, to oppose the baby face-by-default Lawler upon his return to reclaim his crown down the road.
This interview with Lawler from summer 1980 is about as real as you can get, as he was legitimately hot about Hart becoming a big star in his absence and did not like Ellering parading around with his crown—especially without his blessing. (Jarrett explained this in great detail during our memorable Memphis wrestling roundtable discussion.)
Just one problem: Lawler’s leg was healing in time for a September 1980 return but the impatient King, with the help of Calhoun, sawed off his cast way before the doctor’s orders and couldn’t resist getting in the ring early for “unofficial” bouts with Hart and “Killer” Karl Krupp. He ended up reinjuring the leg, delaying his “official” return until December.
With Ellering now gone, Jarrett was more than willing to welcome back his Tennessee protégé Tommy Rich, the hottest babyface in the country on WTBS, Ted Turner’s SuperStation. The theory goes that Rich was looking to turn heel in an effort to prove to the NWA that he could work any style as a touring World champion. He actually did a damn good job, but local fans didn’t want to boo the homegrown heartthrob, so he wasn’t a great draw as a heel in Mempho. Lawler just happened to be providing commentary during Rich’s televised return against longtime babyface Bill “Superstar” Dundee, which led to an angle to set up an eventual bout between the King and Wildfire. )
Rumor has it that NWA president Jim Barnett, who would eventually arrange a short NWA title reign for Rich months later, advised him not to bow before the King, citing the publicity surrounding Lawler’s return to the ring after such a long layoff. Less than four months after turning heel and attacking a crippled Lawler, Rich abruptly turned babyface just weeks before Lawler’s comeback and began taking sporadic bookings back in Georgia, eventually leaving Memphis and working full time in the Peach State in March 1981, a month before his NWA title win over Harley Race.
So…who would face the King? “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant would have been a natural choice, as he’d been the catalyst for Rich’s babyface turn when he attacked Wildfire’s mother, Peggy. Valiant had been a heel crony of Lawler’s at the time of the injury but was quickly switched babyface to give the fans a new hero in the interim, as the Boy From New York City was always a hot draw as a hero in the short term. In anticipation of Lawler’s return, Valiant was turned heel in November 1980 to set up an eventual showdown for the Southern title upon the King’s return in December. (After defeating Ellering earlier in the year, Valiant had also taken to parading around in Lawler’s crown—mercy indeed, daddy.)
But the fans had already seen Lawler vs. Valiant dozens of times in every type of wild stip possible. The promotion needed new blood who had a big name to go with it.
Then fate stepped in. Troy Graham, who had worked in Knoxville as jive-talking Troy T. Tyler, showed up backstage at the Mid-South Coliseum looking for work. When Jarrett asked if he could “talk,” Graham exploded into his spiel—a charismatic mix of Dusty Rhodes, Superstar Graham and a TV evangelist—absolute gold in the wrestling business. Hart was so impressed, he immediately told Lawler, “We gotta use this guy—he sounds just like Dusty.” Not only that, but Graham could also move great for a big man and was an excellent bump taker. And, um, he came much cheaper than Dusty, a hot box-office draw from coast to coast.
Memphis had taken gimmick-infringement liberties in the past, booking several national masked stars with someone else under the hood. For example, when I mentioned to Jim Cornette that the first card I attended at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1979 featured a heel Mil Mascaras doing a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo, he speculated that it must have been Pepe Lopez under the hood. For the record, Lopez died in the same car crash that killed Sam Bass in 1976, and Jarrett confirmed for me that it was indeed Aaron Rodriguez under the mask nearly three years later.
But in this case, the promotion would be billing the most charismatic star in the country as Hart’s masked bounty hunter. Stanback Headache Powder commercials featuring Dusty had been airing in the Memphis area—often during Jarrett’s show—for months in fall 1980,, so local fans knew the blue-eyed tower of power was a big star.
Although Dusty had worked a few shows in Memphis in ’77 at the behest of Florida promoter Eddie Graham to help Jarrett in his promotional war with Nick Gulas, the American Dream had not appeared in the area since to inconclusive battles with Lawler in 1977.
Jarrett put Troy under a hood and let him do his best impression of Big Dust, playing off Rhodes’ moniker of the American Dream—the masked “Dream Machine” was born. In pre-match interviews, it was strongly implied that Dusty was Jimmy Hart’s gun for hire, with the Dream Machine claiming that he was a big star, with fans nationwide, so he was donning the mask to hide his identity as he didn’t want to break the hearts of his fan base for the punishment he was about to unleash on Lawler. Graham even managed to drop in a reference to Dusty’s sponsor, Stanback Powders, during one promo. A week before Lawler’s return, the promotion attempted to get the Machine over as an unstoppable force, beating up several jobbers, before Lawler made the save to a frenzied crowd reaction.
The stage was set for the return of the King…in public, if you will….
I had to be there.
As 9-year-old Scotty Bowden waited in line for tickets on that fateful Monday night (while it was a given the show would sell out, Memphis was notoriously known as not being an advance town), an older black gentleman behind my uncle Robert and me told his friend he was sure it was Dusty under the hood. Suddenly, it all started making sense to my young mind. Then I bought the 50-cent program, which confirmed my newfound suspicions with a poem written by the Dream Machine himself. (Never mind that the illustration of the mysterious man seemed to be the product of Lawler’s artistic handiwork.)
When the lights dimmed in the sold-out Coliseum and the King ascended magically through the stage in a cloud of smoke (inspired by a KISS concert Lawler had attended in the same venue months earlier), the fans, including me, sitting way up in the cheap seats, rejoiced. Today’s younger fans hear a lot of hyperbole about the kayfabe era, but I can assure you the atmosphere in that building was electrifying. I fell in love with the business that night. I often wonder if today’s young fans have that same emotional connection to their heroes. The buzz in that flying-saucer-shaped arena prior to the main event threatened to knock the arena into orbit.
Lawler defeated the Dream in typical fashion: Calhoun was bumped, allowing the King to pull a chain from his boot and knock Graham to dreamland—a standard babyface move in Memphis. Afterward, Lawler got five minutes with Hart, quickly pummeling his former friend into a bloody pulp. Revenge is a dish best served cold. And it can be very cold in Memphis in December.
Lawler and the Dream drew huge houses around the horn into January 1980 with the same finish, though a predicted sellout at Rupp Arena was hampered because of a snowstorm. For most of 1981, the Dream was Lawler’s biggest rival, including this loser-leaves-town bout that proved to an angle to turn longtime jobber/midcarder babyface Koko Ware into headlining heel Sweet Brown Sugar.
More than 14 years later after the monumental showdown between the King and the Dream in 1980, I found myself in the ring during a main event tag match with Lawler and Jeff Jarrett vs. Eddie Gilbert and the unmasked Graham.
On this night, I’d turn against my hometown hero and help the Dream get the win.(I’d never forgiven Lawler for cheating to get that win back in 1980; plus, like Calhoun, I was sick of being pushed around by the Monarch of the Memphis mat.)
When recalling Graham, I can’t help but think of the protagonist in the movie “The Wrestler”: Randy the Ram and his unwavering, though misguided, commitment to the business. Fourteen years after seeing Lawler vs. the Dream battle in front of a sold-out Mid-South Coliseum against in 1980, I became Graham’s manager in Memphis.
The big crowds were long gone, a victim of McMahon’s ’80s expansion into traditional territories nationwide. Even though we were often working in front of under 1,500 fans, Graham put his battered, broken-down tattooed body on the line working a very stiff, physical style and getting color (bleeding) in nearly every match. Following a tag-team brawl with Lawler and his son Brian at the Mid-South Coliseum, Graham was preparing to shoot a promo (interview) to promote next week’s rematch, when I walked past his dressing room. I stopped when I heard a repeated, sickening smack against flesh—it sounded like someone was getting his ass kicked. I peered into the dressing room to find a bleeding Graham punching his eye, trying to close it. He saw me in the mirror and asked, “How do I look?” Wincing, I replied, “Dream, you look… terrible.”
Excitedly, he said, “Great, let’s do this!” And off we went to shoot the interview. It did not matter to Graham that in 1994 Memphis was drawing the same number of hardcores each week, no matter what we did. Graham died of a heart attack in 2002. Apparently, he’d spent some time living on the streets.
Last night on RAW, we nearly lost the other half of that great main event in Memphis on Dec. 19, 1980. Jerry Lawler suffered a heart attack at the announce table Monday night, shortly after working a bout with Randy Orton, CM Punk and Dolph Ziggler—a testament that the King could still be creditably in the mix with the best workers in the biggest promotion in the world.
C’mon, King. Pull the strap. Make the comeback. Just once more.