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RIP, Jack Brisco

February 1st, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments
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Gold standard: The late Jack Brisco always carried himself like a champion.

Gold standard: The late Jack Brisco always carried himself like a champion.

I was saddened to learn of Jack Brisco’s passing this morning. An NCAA champion and two-time NWA World champion, Jack was largely considered by his peers to be one of the greatest performers in professional wrestling history.

One of the first cards I ever attended at the Coliseum featured three former NWA champions in the main event (which was a rarity in the days when only a select fraternity got to carry the prestigious honor of NWA titlist): Jerry Lawler teaming with Brisco vs. the Funks on May 18, 1981.

Years before, Brisco made several appearances defending his NWA laurels in Memphis, including a defense against his childhood idol, Lou Thesz, on Oct. 8, 1973.

In 1974, Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett began building up rising-star Jerry Lawler as a serious contender to Brisco’s NWA championship. Along with his legendary feud with Jackie Fargo, Lawler’s Quest for the Title program and matches with Brisco established the King as a singles star in the eyes of Memphis fans.

In a telephone interview with me this morning, Lawler credited Brisco as one of the top three workers he faced in Memphis.

“Jack was in that same class as Dory Funk Jr. and Nick Bockwinkel,” he says. “He was so smooth inside the ring. Jack never rushed things; he never got flustered and always took his time in building a match. Just  a pleasure to work with. He made it appear that even a local kid like me could beat the World champion. He was the first World champion I ever faced in Memphis, which really was the start of the program that we always went back to, with me chasing the belt.  All the NWA champions of that era were great—Terry Funk, Harley Race-but Jack was special. Because of his amateur background, he truly carried himself like a sportsman, which added to the prestige of the NWA title.”

In a Wrestling Classics message-board response to me years ago, Brisco said he had fond memories of his Memphis appearances: “Jerry and I had very good matches. I really enjoyed working with him. We had a very good chemistry together.”

The 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. Lawler recalls his first meeting with the Sheik.

“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.”

King...not even for a day: Following his title bout with Brisco, Lawler held the NWA title for about 10 seconds.

King…not even for a day: Following his title bout with Brisco, Lawler held the NWA title for about 10 seconds.

Jarrett recalls: “I simply filmed a false finish and then turned the cameras off when the bout later ended inconclusively. Lawler and his manager Sam Bass would then come out the following Saturday morning, airing only the footage of the false finish but claiming victory nonetheless: ‘Jerry Lawler beat the stew out of the Sheik and beat him 1, 2, 3.’ Because their credibility was important, Lance and Dave would try to dispute it saying, ‘Oh, c’mon, Jerry.’ So Lawler would scream, ‘Play the tape if you don’t believe me!’ And then we’d show the false finish with Lawler appearing to beat him for a three count. Lawler would then proceed to talk about next week’s challenge, as Lance just shook his head. So, in that sense, Lawler effectively beat everyone in the nation as part of the Quest for the Title—if not by pinfall, then with a little creativity.”

In the end, the young Lawler impressed the Sheik so much that he took a photo of the King back to Detroit and instructed the editor of the famous Body Press program to run it in the next edition, telling him “the kid’s a fabulous worker.” Lawler says, “When the Sheik came back to Memphis a few weeks later, he showed me my picture in the program. The caption read, ‘Jerry Lawler, A Fabulous Worker.’ Man, we laughed about that.”

Lawler featured this image on his Christmas cards this year, showing him throwing powder in Brisco's eyes during a Memphis bout on April 24, 1977.

Lawler featured this image on his Christmas cards this year, which captures him throwing powder in Brisco's eyes during a Memphis bout on April 24, 1977.

The Quest for the Title 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.

The finish set up a bout the following week between Jerry Brisco and Lawler-which drew less than 5,000 people. “Years later working together in WWE, he [Gerald] and I would always joke that it was the biggest drop-off in attendance ever at the Mid-South Coliseum,” Lawler says.

After dropping the NWA title to Terry Funk, Brisco returned to Memphis to win the NWA Southern title from Lawler on Aug. 9, 1976, before dropping it back to Memphis’s number-one son a week later before 10,962 fans at the Coliseum. That two-match series led to a Lawler vs. Funk showdown for the NWA belt on Aug. 22, which drew a crowd of 10,430. In 1981, Brisco was also one of the big names brought in by Jimmy Hart to put Lawler over upon the King’s return from a broken leg.

RIP, champ. You will be missed.

From Dave Meltzer at the Wrestling Observer:

Brisco had been battling an assortment of health problems in recent years, including circulatory problems and emphyzema.  He underwent open heart surgery a few weeks ago, and a little over a week ago, collapsed while undergoing rehab, and flatlined at one point.  Brother Gerald, who was very close with him, has been battling to regain his health after suffering strokes.

Outside the ring, Brisco was a well known practical joker, but in the ring, for his time, he may have been the best in the business.  Wrestlers like Dory and Terry Funk, who wrestled virtually every major star of the era, had both told me at times that Jack Brisco and Johnny Valentine were the two best workers they had faced.

Brisco, who grew up in Blackwell, OK, was a huge wrestling fan as a child, telling stories about going to the newsstands and leafing through wrestling magazines to see stories on his two heroes, Lou Thesz and Danny Hodge, never to realize that he would grow up and be mentioned in the same breath with them.  Brisco got into amateur wrestling because of his love for pro wrestling, and was an all-state football player as well as a state high school wrestling champion.

Due to having to work and support a young family, he only wrestled two years at Oklahoma State, as part of a powerhouse team that included wrestling legend Yojiro Uetake.  During those two years, he only lost one match, in the finals of the 1964 NCAA tournament to Harry Houska, helping his team capture the NCAA title.  Brisco went undefeated in 1965, taking the NCAA title at 191 pounds, and immediately started wrestling for Leroy McGuirk, capitalizing on his national title.

  1. Old School Sammy
    February 1st, 2010 at 14:16 | #1

    The Great card in the sky just got a real main eventer—Rest In Piece Jack…

  2. William Burnett – Little Rock
    February 2nd, 2010 at 03:33 | #2

    I attended — & enjoyed — that Memphis match with Thesz vs. Brisco.

    It’s a style of pro wrestling we will, sadly to me, never see again.

    Wrestle in Peace, Jack.

  3. February 3rd, 2010 at 09:19 | #3

    Excellent article, Scott.

  4. Chris B
    July 1st, 2010 at 13:22 | #4

    I always loved the way Brisco sold the chain shot – exaggerated and realistic at the same time. Great article, Scott.

  1. February 24th, 2010 at 17:16 | #1
  2. March 8th, 2010 at 01:11 | #2
  3. August 11th, 2011 at 09:30 | #3