Posts Tagged ‘Hulk Hogan’

Jerry Lawler’s got the Eye of the Tiger

August 15th, 2011 No comments

King of the Jungle: Clubber, Kimala, it makes no difference–they all fall to the eye of the tiger.

As I noted on August 4, several wrestlers set the standard for entrance-theme music long before Hulk Hogan unveiled his thunderous, T-shirt-shredding posing routines of the ’80s, most notably the Freebirds and Jerry Lawler, all of whom a young Terry Bollea (Hulk) studied while working the mid-cards in Memphis in 1979.

While ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote an entertaining piece about Hogan paving the theme-music entranceway for today’s WWE superstars with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Mark James’ excellent Memphis Wrestling History Presents 1982: A Legendary Year from the Golden Era backs up my claim that a month after the release of “Rocky III” (in which Hogan had a memorable cameo as wrestler “Thunderlips”), Lawler was using “Eye of the Tiger” as part of his royal, elaborate entrances at the Mid-South Coliseum. (The 1982 book features high-quality scans of every Memphis arena program that year, with quotes from the men who were a part of that Memphis magic, including Jerry Jarrett, Jim Cornette, Steve Keirn and Austin Idol.) Every top Memphis wrestler had entrance music and over-the-top arrivals to the ring by fall 1982.

In the June 28, 1982, program, Lawler declares that despite losing his Southern title to Kimala, he was so fired up after seeing “Rocky III” with his friends recently that he was aiming to reclaim that “eye of the tiger.” (Hey, if that kind of determination can work for Rocky Balboa, why not the King?)

Here’s a quote that would have made Bill Apter proud: “I’ve cancelled personal appearances, refused offers for commercials and turned down matches far from home. I’m taking care of business and I’m training. It’s mental much more than physical, but I WILL get the eye of the tiger. When I do, Kimala, who’s as mean as Clubber Lang and a lot crazier, will feel like he’s in the ring with a tiger. There will be another day with Kimala, and with the eye of the tiger, I’ll make him fall.”

Almost immediately, “Eye of the Tiger” became Lawler’s theme for the rest of the year and into 1983. Hell, as one loyal KFR reader recently informed me, even Superstar Graham was using “Eye of the Tiger” upon returning to the WWF in 1982 with the kung-fu gimmick to go after Bob Backlund. (See the clip below.) Poor Superstar-Hogan kept ripping him off at every turn in the ’80s!

Damn! I’m so fired up just reading Lawler’s words from decades ago that I could bitch slap Ms. Texas all over again right now! The scan to the right doesn’t do Mark’s book justice-his scans are mint quality, while the background info on what was arguably the greatest, most entertaining year of Memphis wrestling is fascinating. I’ll have more of an overview of Mark’s 1982 book later this week, but for now…click here to get your hands on this great piece of Memphis rasslin’ history.

“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”: The Freebirds and Jerry Lawler-not Hulk Hogan-set the standard for modern-day entrance music

August 4th, 2011 9 comments

Got your back, brother. A young Hulk accompanies the King to the ring on the night the Freebirds used their Skynyrd anthem for the first time.

I admire Bill Simmons, aka “The Sports Guy” from, who wears his unabashed love for professional wrestling on his sleeveless “Austin: 316 shirt,” despite the critics who probably wish he’d stick to “real” sports like football. (His passion for the biz is especially evident in the fall, when he tweets back and forth during Monday Night Football games and WWE Monday Night RAW.)

Despite his enthusiasm-and nerve to write about “sports entertainment” on a legit, high-profile site like ESPN-Simmons managed to raise the ire of the smart mark wrestling community last week.

His crime? Simmons credited Hulk Hogan with having the greatest influence on the pyro-charged, fire-breathing, tailored-themed musical entrances of today, which are often more elaborate than most matches and storylines on WWE’s RAW.

Cynical, longtime fans, much like The Comic-Book Guy character on “The Simpsons,” buried Simmons for buying into Hogan’s hype that he created showmanship in professional wrestling when he started coming to the ring to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” in 1983. That song, of course, was the comeback theme in “Rocky III,” in which Hogan had a memorable role as Thunderlips in a boxer vs. wrestler scene. (Useless trivia: Vince McMahon Sr. recommended part-timer Gorilla Monsoon for the role, not wanting to lose Hogan for any shows. When Hulk did the movie anyway at Sly Stallone’s request, that was supposedly the beginning of the end of his big push in the WWF in 1981.) The column itself was actually a damn entertaining read despite some inaccuracies on Bill’s part.

Simmons wrote: “Once Hogan started crushing his “Eye of the Tiger” entrances and perfecting the finger-pointing/eye-bulging/shirt-ripping routine, it dwarfed everyone else’s entrances so dramatically that the mindset changed overnight. Suddenly, everyone needed their own music. In retrospect, Hogan’s song worked perfectly because of its recognizable hook at the beginning (“Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da … DAH! DAH DAH DA! DAH DAH DA! DAH DAH DAHHHHHHHHHH”), then the energy of the song itself (pretty consistent, no dips), so really, we owe the wrestling entrance boom to Sly Stallone more than anyone.”Eye of the Tiger” launched a two-year free-for-all of wrestlers copying Hogan with mainstream entrance songs such as Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”(Kerry Von Erich), ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” (Jimmy Garvin) , Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” (Junkyard Dog), George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” (Chris Adams and Gino Hernandez), Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Wendi Richter), Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” (Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham), and the best of them all, the Alan Parsons Project’s “SIRIUS” (Ricky Steamboat). (And I didn’t even mention two obscure-but-awesome movie theme song choices: Ric Flair’s using “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme or Midnight Express’ going with music from Midnight Express.) I wish this era could have lasted forever.”

Wow-where to begin? Without being too much of a critic-I really like Bill’s work-I want to (rock ‘n’ roll) express a few thoughts on the subject. First, while he did mention Gorgeous George’s use of music decades earlier and the Fabulous Freebirds, he greatly underestimates the influence of Terry Gordy and Michael Hayes in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The ‘Birds and Jerry Lawler are widely regarded as the innovators to those in the know regarding modern-day entrances to the ring. (I believe Sgt. Slaughter was among the first in the WWF to enter to music, the USMC theme, in late 1980.)

I was at the Mid-South Coliseum on July 23, 1979, when Freebird Michael Hayes first pranced and preened to the ring along with his stoic partner Terry Gordy (barely 18 years old) plodded behind for the first time as their Lynyrd Skynyrd anthem played over the PA. (The brash rookies had been trying to convince promoter Jerry Jarrett to let them use the “Free Bird” music for weeks until he finally relented when they reached the main event.) Hayes loves recalling this story of that night: Despite being heels, the crowd rose to their feet (hell, half of them were probably wearing Skynyrd T-shirts-this was a rasslin’ crowd after all) to observe the ‘Birds’ entrance as a wide-eyed Lawler was taken aback at the fans’ reaction. (Working the undercard that night was a young Terry “the Hulk” Boulder, the future Hulk Hogan, who later worked with the ‘Birds many times over the next several weeks in Mempho.)

Hayes says a plan to turn the ‘Birds babyfaces in Memphis was abruptly dropped after that mesmerizing entrance, most likely out of jealousy-much like “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant’s quick switch to heel following his wildly entertaining “Son of a Gypsy” video (the original “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection”) airing on Memphis TV in 1978.

When Lawler returned from a broken leg in December 1980 in front of a overflow crowd at the Coliseum, he introduced the spectacle that took the art of wrestling entrances to a new level. As the Coliseum was suddenly plunged into darkness, the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” hit, with a spotlight circling the arena, followed by a cloud of smoke, as the King emerged through a stage platform to reclaim his throne as the fans went nuts, with the music switching to the theme from “Star Wars.” (More than two years passed when Ric Flair attempted a similar entrance for Starrcade ’83, which paled in comparison to Lawler’s).

The video recap of the monumental match was set to the theme from “Superman”-Memphis was clearly ahead of its time, pop-culture-wise, admittedly not always for the better. (Lawler told me years later that he was inspired for his royal entrance that December night by the rock group Kiss, who had risen from beneath the stage to kick off their concert at the Coliseum in 1979.)

Although laughable by today’s standards, this entrance was only the beginning, as Lawler tried to top himself each week for the next six months of his return, including a Feb. 9, 1981, bout with Hulk Hogan (fresh off his intial WWF run, when he used no entrance music): The King rode to the ring on a white horse in front of more than 9,000 Memphis fans, arrogantly pointing at the Hulk a la Apollo Creed as the theme from the first “Rocky” movie played. Again, Hogan took notice. (And don’t even get me started how Hogan lifted his eventual babyface spiels and mannerisms from former WWWF champion Superstar Graham.)

Lawler also was the first to be lowered from the ceiling a la Sting and HBK (and, tragically, Owen Hart) for a Jan. 18, 1981, bout with Lumberjack Joe LeDuc. The risk was high, as Lawler admits he was scared shitless as he was fastened to a mere harness as one man using a pulley lowered him down to the floor. In a weird twist of fate, Lawler was one of the first to realize Owen was fatally injured when attempting a similar entrance in 1999, when his quick-release harness malfunctioned, sending Hart plummeting to the ring and killing him almost instantly during a live WWE PPV.

By 1982, nearly every mid-card and main-event wrestler in Memphis had their own entrance music, arriving to the ring via motorcycles, limos, camels, etc. The Fabulous Ones’ entire gimmick was built around MTV-style videos. Really, Jarrett and the Fabs deserve a lot of credit for creating the wrestling music video trend, which greatly broadened the viewing demographic to teenage girls.

When “Rocky III” was released in May 1982, it was Lawler-not Hogan-who first started using the “Eye of the Tiger” song as his entrance music and highlight video. After debuting as a heel in the AWA in 1982, Hogan was switched babyface (when the fans refused to boo him) and began using “Eye of the Tiger” as he stormed to the ring and tore off his T-shirt-Hulkamania was running wild, brother.

Incidentally, Simmons rightfully disses Hogan’s “Real American” theme in the Former Fed, which replaced “Eye of the Tiger” when McMahon didn’t want to pay for the rights and began developing his own dreadful music for entrances. However, he forgets that “Real American” was initially used for Windham and Rotondo until Hogan’s initially revised generic theme (which basically consisted of recorded chants of “Hulk, Hulk, Hulk…) was rejected by the fans. (Bill’s countdown of the top entrance music of all time is a flawed but fun read.)

There’s no doubt that Hogan, Cyndi Lauper and McMahon took the concept to a new level in the mid-’80s, but rock and wrestling was booming in Memphis, World Class (who produced first-rate music videos of the Von Erichs) and Mid-South way before Hogan returned to the Big Apple to capture the WWF title from the Iron Sheik as the guitar rift from “Eye of the Tiger” rocked the Garden.

OK, maybe I’m just nitpicking. Besides, any mainstream sports columnist who devotes time to the recent CM Punk angle and actually recognizes the greatness of Jim Cornette’s Midnight Express is OK in my book.

You say, “Kamala;” I say, “Kimala…the Ugandan…GIANT!”

July 12th, 2011 7 comments

Jerry Jarrett pulls no punches in his new autobiography.

In Jerry Jarrett’s excellent new autobiography, The Best of Times, he admits that when Jim “Sugar Bear” Harris showed up backstage at the Mid-South Coliseum looking for work in January 1980, the owner of the Memphis wrestling territory didn’t quite know what to do with the oversized African-American wrestler. Harris had a menacing look and fantastic size-a legit 6-foot-5-inch frame with broad shoulders that put him well over 300 pounds-so Jarrett took a chance and booked the big Bear as a heel for the January 28 card at the Coliseum.

Harris had plenty of previous heel experience in other territories, working under the monikers “Big” Jim Harris, the Masked Superfly and the Mississippi Mauler (the latter of which, ironically, included his wearing tribal makeup for some reason). Harris had a rep of being a clumsy if not somewhat charismatic performer in the mold of a Rufus R. Jones past his prime. He certainly didn’t have the athleticism, physique and good looks of Rocky Johnson (father of the The Rock) nor did he have the philosophical promo skills of Ernie Ladd and Sonny King. Still, Harris had surprising agility for a big man, if anything.

Shortly after the Bear’s debut on the 28th, Jerry “the King” Lawler, Jarrett’s main attraction, suffered a broken leg in a “friendly” (if you consider Dick Butkus-like play “friendly”) football game at the hands of referee Jerry “the Crippler” Calhoun. With Jarrett reeling from the loss of Lawler and devising a plan to unleash Jimmy Hart as the area’s top new heel, nobody noticed just how bad Harris was stinking up the undercards.

Sugar daddy: Harris in the days before the Kimala (Kamala) gimmick.

A terrible Feb. 4, 1980, bout with Bill Dundee, an excellent worker and a Jarrett confidant, probably didn’t help Harris’ chances. In his new book, Jarrett said another wrestler reportedly told him that Harris was “phony in everything he does. His punches are terrible, and he acts like he is afraid he will hurt somebody when he locks up.” The promotion tried to hide Harris in tag matches after that, teaming him with veteran Ray Candy for a short-lived feud with Sonny King and “Shaft” (one of the area’s many supposed icons of pop culture over the years). After Harris showed no improvement, even surrounded by experienced talent, he was eventually let go.

Often in rasslin’ lore, they say timing is everything, e.g., Tommy Rich’s popularity spreading like wildfire on an ever-expanding national stage on WTBS in the late ’70s/early ’80s. (Incidentally, Jarrett has some nice memories of helping Tommy break into the business, which he covers in his book.)

Two years later, in 1982, Jarrett was thinking of a jungle savage character to introduce to the territory after seeing Ugandan tribesmen featured in the pages of National Geographic, along with the exploits of a Dr. Kimala, who was providing much-needed medical assistance for the people of Africa. For the role, Jarrett realized he’d not only need someone physically imposing but also an individual who appeared to have no idea how to wrestle. He instantly thought of Sugar Bear Harris.

Although Harris had gained even more girth since his initial Memphis days, especially around his Subaru-sized midsection, that made him tailor-made for the territory’s monster heels of the day and only benefitted him in his new role. (Whenever Kimala went on the offensive, he would repeatedly slap his own belly ceremoniously as if closing in on for the kill.) And if anybody could get Jarrett’s new character over, it was Lawler, who had an amazing gift of psychology and could sell an opponent’s offense so well that you’d swear the King was dead.

Extreme makeover: The new Kendo Nagasaki is born with J.J. Dillon at his side.

Around the same time, in addition to his prime headliner days at the time in Memphis, Lawler had been appearing in Florida, engaged in feud with J.J. Dillion, a charismatic manager who would eventually lead the Four Horsemen of the NWA.

In fact, in a rare title switch outside the territory, Lawler dropped the AWA Southern title in Florida to Dillon’s newest charge, Kendo Nagasaki (the former Mr. Sakarada who took the name of the famous British wrestling personality of the ’60s, mixed in with Kabuki’s gimmick). This set up a rematch at the Mid-South Coliseum, with Nagasaki dropping the belt back to Lawler on May 24, 1982, in front of nearly 8,000 fans.

Embarrassed and enraged that Nagasaki was the victim of home-cooked officiating on Lawler’s turf, Dillion taped a promo that aired on Memphis TV. The diabolical manager revealed that while while on safari in Uganda, he’d stumbled upon the most amazing creature  he’d ever seen.

Like a modern-day Carl Denham, J.J. crowed that he had captured this savage beast and was dispatching him to to Memphis-not to wrestle Lawler but to knock the King out of wrestling for good. (Dillon had amazing heat in Memphis before he even actually stepped foot in the Mid-South Coliseum, thanks to great promos like this he was sending in from the Sunshine State.)

What followed was the stuff of wrestling legend: As Nashville-based announcer Michael St. John did a priceless campy voice-over, Jim Harris-now known as Kimala…the Ugandan Giant-was seen “hunting” in the vast jungle of Jerry Jarrett’s backyard estate, wearing “animal hide” around his huge waistline and a tribal nose-ring, with tribal symbols on his chest and belly painted by Lawler’s artistic hands. Carrying a spear, this “jungle savage” confusingly looked at the camera crew following his every move, much like a documentary. Jarrett’s book further details this interesting video shoot and the story of Kimala’s quick rise to fame. I couldn’t locate the original video with Dillion’s intro but did find a copy of the Kimala debut footage, with Jimmy Hart introducing the Ugandan Giant to a nationwide audience on Championship Wrestling from Georgia in December 1984:

Although low budget by today’s standards (the kids from “Super 8” may have had higher production values), that Jarrett video helped Kimala get over in several territories, as it usually aired on TV proceeding the Ugandan Giant’s arrival arrival. Upon seeing the intro video on Memphis TV in 1982, I vividly recall turning to my friend, Greg, and saying, “Oh…my…God! Lawler’s gonna get KILLED Monday night!”

Harris played the gimmick to perfection, acting confused about the “rules” of professional wrestling (yeahyeah, I know); in fact, he didn’t even know how to pin his foe, often mistakenly covering his hapless opponent, who was lying prone belly-first on the the canvas without his shoulders firmly planted. The Ugandan Giant eventually learned to turn over his foe for the ref to make the three count. Kimala had guidance not from Dillion but his masked handler, nicknamed “The Beekeeper” (who was Buddy Wayne, and for one Saturday, even jobber Pat Hutchinson, under a hood).

Kimala as depicted by Mattel. (Jerry Jarrett's estate backyard simulated. AWA Southern title sold separately.)

At the WMC-TV studio, Kimala was at his best, staring into the camera in wonderment as the cameraman slowly backed away; the beast was seemingly in awe. Harris at times engaged the small studio crowd by charging their way with spear in hand, wearing his tribal headdress. (OK, so the gimmick was a tad racist in hindsight.) Still, it revitalized Sugar Bear’s career in ways he could never imagine-and drew Jarrett, Lawler and Harris a lot of money over in the summer of 1982. The fans often responded to a charging Kimala by screaming and running for cover; they believed in the gimmick. Today, Memphis-tomorrow the world.

Before he went on to national stardom, however, Kimala had to plunder and pillage the Tennessee territory. After quickly beating Lawler for the Southern title, he steamrolled over stars like Terry Taylor, Ron Bass, Bill Dundee and Steve Keirn. Much like the Road Warriors a year or so later, Kimala rarely sold his opponents’ offense and beat them decisively, usually drawing blood in the process…which he promptly licked off with delight. (The implied threat of cannibalism was definitely there in the early days of the gimmick-OK, so it was quite racist, but the business was different at the time, with nearly every stereotype played up the fullest.)

Because Dillion wasn’t about to leave Florida and Eddie Graham, eventually Hart “took over” Kimala’s contract. According to the Hart promo below, the basis for these shrewd negotiations apparently involved clauses for “watermelons and women!!” (R-A-C-I-S-T.)

Kimala was so hot that he sold out the Mid-South Coliseum for a match with Jimmy Valiant on Aug. 2, 1982-a bout that never took place because a sick “Handsome” passed out in a North Carolina airport earlier that day and missed his flight to Mempho. Instead, Lawler and Dundee beat Kimala and Dillion in a tag bout, with the manager doing a job, to keep the fans happy. Earlier that night, also to appease the sold-out crowd, Dutch Mantell attacked the Ugandan Giant with his prized bullwhip, Shoo-Baby. (In an interview I conducted with Dutch, he discusses a valuable lesson Jarrett taught him that night.)

The following Monday night of mayhem sold out again (the Coliseum’s only two weeks of straight sellouts in 1982) with Lawler putting his hair on the line against Kimala’s AWA Southern title. On his home court, the King triumphed, and Kimala’s reign of terror was over.

Soon afterward, the gimmick had run its course temporarily in Memphis with the introduction of “Kimala #2”: Plowboy Frazier painted like a fellow Ugandan tribesman. (Yep, it’s about as ridiculous as it sounds.) The evil Kimala was now a comedy figure, which would also eventually happen in the WWF after the unique terror of the gimmick had faded. Of course, the two belly-painted behemoths had a falling out and Kimala briefly turned babyface and eventually left the area following a loss to Hart and Kimala #2.

At that point, Kimala went on to achieve special-attraction status nationwide, in the same mold as Andre the Giant and Bruiser Brody, appearing on several big shows in Mid-South, World Class and Jim Crockett Promotions throughout the early ’80s. As in Memphis, the gimmick worked to perfection short-term, although somewhere along the way, in Mid-South most likely, the name morphed into “Kamala.” He now was a proven draw in several areas, especially when building up to big showdowns with the likes of Brody, where he wouldn’t be overexposed. Fans nationwide were eating up the gimmick faster than Kimala could ravage a bucket of KFC. (OK, now that was racist, and I should be ashamed of myself.)

Eventually, Vince McMahon & Co. saw dollar signs in a Kamala vs. Hulk Hogan feud, which did in fact draw some of the biggest houses of 1986. (Hogan claims he was so convinced the two could draw big money on a house-show rematch that he overruled agent Chief Jay Strongbow’s booking and lost to Kamala by countout instead of winning by disqualification as instructed. Supposedly, the rematch did sell out, but like anything Hogan says, take that with a grain of Mr. Fuji’s salt.) Not too bad for a guy like Harris, who was considered washed-up in the business four years earlier. Just goes to show what the genius of Jarrett and Lawler could do with a heaping of creativity and a little makeup. (Yes, Jarrett’s book also provides some insight into how he created the Fabulous Ones, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and other long-lasting gimmicks that drew money nationally for many years.)

Kimala went to have years of success off and on in the Former Fed, occasionally coming home to feud with Lawler. In fact, one of the highlights of my heel manager career saw Kimala return as Brian Lawler’s babyface partner against Tommy Rich and me. When the Ugandan Giant grabbed me around my pencil neck with his massive hands and lifted me over his head, clearly choking the life from me as the fans roared their approval, I might have been the happiest guy on the planet at that point. After all, the name “Kimala…the Ugandan…Giant” used to send shivers down my spine as a kid in 1982. On this night in 1994, I literally faced the biggest bogeymen of my childhood-and lived to tell about it. (Today, I hear conflicting reports of Kimala’s/Harris’ new career in politics. Hmmm.) Even today, the gimmick endures, as Mattel recently released a new Kamala action figure as part of its WWE Legends line.

A personal note if you please: I apologize for my absence this past month. I’ve been fortunate to pick up a great deal of freelance writing work in Los Angeles-y’know, assignments that actually pay-over the last 60 days. On that note, I do appreciate the few of you who occasionally click an ad on this site, as Kentucky Fried Rasslin’ has always been a labor of love and something I enjoy writing…when I can afford to do so. I should have more free time over the next few month or so. (And quite frankly, WWE’s CM Punk angle and the release of Jerry Jarrett’s book have reinvigorated my interest.)

I will provide more of an overview of Jarrett’s book soon, but in short, let me just say that The Best of Times provides insight into what made Jerry not only one of the greatest wrestling minds of all time but also one of the most decent men I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. To order Jarrett’s book and others produced by Mark James at Memphis Wrestling History, click here.