Memphis/CWA #8 Page #2
Behind the mask was Troy Graham, who had spent some time in 1980 wrestling as Troy T. Tyler in the Knoxville promotion and who had bounced around various independent Southern promotions for a few years prior to his debut as The Dream Machine.
While Hart was anxious to get at Lawler he was less than thrilled at the possibility that Lawler might actually get his hands on him so he announced Lawler would have to defeat the masked man before getting his hands on Hart. Lawler would defeat Machine and get a shot against Hart thanks to pre-match stipulations usually pounding the mouthy manager much to the delight of the fans. Hart would take the beating but vow revenge.
Lawler would get his shot at Paul Ellering in time as well. Ellering had moved out of the area some time before but was brought back to battle Lawler. True to his promise, Lawler would come out on top against the big Minnesota native.
Lawler had also vowed to get his hands on Jimmy Valiant. He would not only get his hands on Valiant but would recapture the Southern title by March by winning a series of Loser Leaves Town matches around the circuit to send Valiant packing from the territory.
Lawler proved true to his word by getting wins against The Dream Machine, Paul Ellering and Jimmy Valiant. Pesky Jimmy Hart though would keep Lawler busy all year long.
Lawler’s year was full of many highlights. Several stand out from the rest though. As Lawler fended off challenges from Hart’s henchmen he would take time off to receive an award on TV. Lance Russell introduced fans to The Masked Black Diamond, billed as one of Mexico’s top stars. Lawler then walked out to receive Mexico’s "Most Popular TV Wrestler" award from the masked man decked out in a black and yellow mask and long black coat. The masked man presented Lawler with a sombrero and then the award. As Lawler went to receive the award the masked man clobbered Lawler with the wooden plaque and then began pounding on Lawler until others ran out to break up the attack. As Lawler was removed from the interview area, the Black Diamond unmasked to reveal longtime Lawler nemesis Austin Idol, which lead to a start-up of their feud from 1978-79.
Lawler though continued to turn back Hart’s men. Lawler even got personal when he downed Idol and in the process gained a piece of personal property belonging to Hart. Hart was forced by match stipulations to give up the gold record he had earned as a member of the musical group the Gentrys for their 1966 hit "Keep On Dancin’". Lawler then promptly marched to the Mississippi River, and as fans and a camera crew watched, tossed Hart’s prize possession off a bridge into the muddy waters below.
Finally, Hart had had enough. Lance Russell brought Hart out one Saturday morning during the TV show. Hart then began to explain how he should be on top of the world since he had just been featured on the cover of one of wrestling’s national newsstand magazines. He was not happy though because every move he had made to stop Lawler had ended with Lawler getting the upper hand. The previous week Lawler had defeated Gypsy Joe and The Angel in a Memphis match where if Lawler lost he would have to sign on to Hart’s crew of wrestlers but if Lawler won, Joe and The Angel would have to leave. Lawler’s victory had stunted Hart’s group as Joe, The Angel and, prior to their departure, Jimmy Valiant, had all been sent packing, Wayne Farris had been injured and Tojo Yamamoto was making plans to manage Masa Fuchi and Mr. Onita. Hart, with tears streaming down his face, told the fans and Lawler that he was through with trying to put Lawler out of wrestling and added that he was set to retire.
Later in the show, Lawler appeared with Russell and feigned crying then wrung out a towel making fun of Hart. Lawler warned the fans not to believe Hart because he knew Hart to be sneaky and untrustworthy. Lawler then entered the ring to team with Koko Ware against The Bounty Hunters managed by Jimmy Kent. The match ended with Kent’s interference but as the post-match action continued Hart hit the ring with his new charges, The Turk and El Toro. Hart, The Turk, Toro, Kent and The Bounty Hunters then proceeded to trounce Lawler re-igniting the Lawler-Hart feud even before the embers had begun to smolder.
Late in the year, Lawler got his hands on Hart after a match in Memphis and delivered a piledriver to Hart. The following week on the TV show, Hart was wheeled to the announce desk in a wheelchair lamenting how the fans were making fun of his ill fortune. Hart then leaped out of the wheelchair and introduced his latest charge, The Masked Super Destroyer (veteran Bill Dromo). Hart then goaded Lawler into a TV match against the big masked man with the promise that if Lawler won he would get a match against Hart. The match highlighted The Super Destroyer as a powerful man who used his two fists to hammer away at Lawler. The match fell to the studio floor where the masked man rammed Lawler into the steel ring post opening up a gash on Lawler’s forehead. The Super Destroyer then pounded away at Lawler to the point that referee Jerry Calhoun stopped the match as blood circled Lawler’s right eye. Later, Lawler gave an incredible low-key interview as the audience sat in a respectful silence as he reaffirmed his promise to not rest until he had eliminated Hart from the area.
Despite his losses Hart was not through with Lawler. Hart brought a number of top name stars into the territory throughout the entire year to put Lawler out of action. Hart was brought in such stars as Lumberjack Jos LeDuc, Jack Brisco, Ron Bass, Hulk Hogan, Dutch Mantel, Wayne Farris, Tojo Yamamoto, Dory Funk, Jr., Terry Funk, Kevin Sullivan, Crusher Jerry Blackwell, Buggsy McGraw, The Masked Nightmares, Koko Ware and Killer Karl Krupp. Often these matches ended with Lawler getting his hands on Hart and pounding him or ripping his pants off which delighted area fans. This feud got off the ground in 1981 and would give the area a base for feuds for several years to come.
Attendance in the territory had been steady in 1980 with Lawler out of action. Lawler’s return though helped the promotion around the entire circuit. Memphis, Evansville, Nashville, Louisville and Lexington all saw large crowds turn out to see Lawler’s return. Often his initial return was highlighted by a dramatic introduction with spotlights, smoke and music bringing the area’s King back to the ring. Such ring introductions, commonplace in modern professional wrestling, were then a rare occurrence and further set the event apart as more special and unique. The King was back in his domain and all seemed well except for his occasional run-ins with former manager Jimmy Hart.
January, February and March 1981
The new year saw the Southern title vacant as previous champion Tommy Rich feuded with Jimmy Valiant and Tojo Yamamoto. Valiant would win the belt in a tournament final, which took place on the Memphis TV show, by downing Hector Guerrero. Valiant’s run as champion ended at the hands of Jerry Lawler in March as Lawler downed Handsome Jimmy in a series of Loser Leaves Town matches around the circuit.
Rich and Bill Dundee held the Southern tag titles at year’s start but lost them to Jim Kent’s Bounty Hunters. Rich and Dundee would regain them after a bitter feud against the Tombstone, Arizona combo but would then lose the titles to Tojo Yamamoto and Wayne Farris managed by Jimmy Hart. Bill Dundee and The Dream Machine would lay claim to the championships only to lose them to Masa Fuchi & Mr. Onita who were managed by Tojo Yamamoto. The Dream Machine who had been brought into the area by Jimmy Hart left Hart’s ranks when he felt Hart wasn’t looking after his best interests. He would then prove to be a thorn in Hart’s side quite often during the year and his interview style, patterned after Dusty Rhodes, caught on quickly with the fans.
Billy Robinson continued to hold the CWA title during this time frame mainly working matches against fellow British star Tony Charles. He would disappear from the area though by April and the title would also be forgotten, although Dory Funk, Jr. appeared as champion on at least one show in April. Austin Idol and Dutch Mantel were recognized as CWA tag champions at this time but lost the titles in March to Bill Dundee and Tommy Rich. The CWA tag titles were then abandoned. This seemed to be the end of the CWA titles in the area at this time. Later in the 1980s CWA titles would reappear but the titles then held no direct lineage to the titles that first appeared in this territory in 1979. The CWA featured during 1979-81 stood for the Continental Wrestling Association while the CWA titles that would appear beginning in 1983 stood for Championship Wrestling Association. In other area title news, Dutch Mantel, in his return to the area, won the TV title from Koko Ware.
Working the area at this time were such stars as Gypsy Joe, Paul Ellering, Ron Bass, Ricky Morton, Danny Davis, Bill Irwin, Carl Fergie, Ken Lucas, Ali Hassan, Chief Thundercloud, Jos LeDuc, Skull Murphy, David Oswald, Sonny King, The Angel, Eddie Gilbert, Eddie Hogan, Hulk Hogan, Jackie Fargo (back for a few matches after his 1980 retirement for Nick Gulas), Roughhouse Fargo, Roy Rodgers, Plowboy Frazier, The Turk, El Toro, Wayne Farris, Vinnie Romeo, Ronnie Sexton, Tommy Gilbert and more.
Jarrett ventured into a new city as the promotion began running some cards in Dayton, Ohio in this time frame. The promotion also continued to face opposition in Kentucky from the ICW. Lawler’s return to ring action there no doubt hurt the ICW efforts but they remained a group to contend against. Legend has it that ICW star Randy Savage would buy a ticket to Jarrett’s cards in Lexington just to be able to taunt Jarrett’s performers from ringside.
What If They Held A Wrestling Match And No One Was There To Watch?
Lawler’s return to ring action provided area fans with some of the best action they would ever see. As part of his plan to eliminate Lawler from the area, Jimmy Hart contacted two of the business’s greatest attractions to try their hand at succeeding where others had failed. Former NWA champions Dory Funk, Jr. and Terry Funk would both appear in the area to battle Lawler. The Funks would become the only brother combination to hold the NWA world singles title.
The Funk family is legendary in professional wrestling. The family patriarch, Dory Funk, Sr., is credited with creating and popularizing one of the business’s great matches, the Texas Death Match. Funk, Sr. settled in the Amarillo, Texas area and ran a successful promotion there until his death in 1973. The Amarillo territory, with Dory, Sr. at the helm, became famous for wild and bloody action, much like the Memphis territory would gain fame in the late 1970s and into the 1980s (and like ECW would in the 1990s). For more information on the Amarillo territory please visit the Amarillo section on this site.
Dory Funk, Jr. went into the wrestling history books on February 10,
1969 when he downed Big Thunder Gene Kiniski in Tampa, Florida to win
the NWA title. Over the next several years Funk battled the best in the
business as he represented the business’s premier organization as
their champion. Funk traveled the territories wrestling the best each
area had to offer. Most notable are his many battles, usually in
Florida, against Oklahoma native Jack Brisco.
Funk dropped the title to Harley Race on May 24, 1973 in Kansas City. Race would lose the title a short time later to Brisco, who would have a long successful run as champion often battling his old foe, Dory, Jr.
Brisco was scheduled to battle Dory, Jr. in a title match in Miami Beach, Florida on December 10, 1975 but Terry replaced Dory that night and upset Brisco for the championship. Terry then picked up the duties of touring champion once so ably fulfilled by his brother, Dory, Jr. and his predecessor, Brisco, to become one of the most respected champions in the history of the title. Terry’s title reign ended on February 6, 1977 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada with a loss to Harley Race.
As NWA champion, both Funk brothers had made their way into the Tennessee territory over the years with Terry notably battling Jerry Lawler on several occasions. Their battles had been epic struggles with Lawler coming short of winning the NWA title every time. It was a new day though and the stakes were much different in 1981 than they had been before.
Both Funk brothers would get their shot at Lawler for Jimmy Hart. The matches were always wild events. Noteworthy are Lawler’s thirty plus minute battle against Dory in Memphis with Jimmy Hart suspended in a cage above the ring, Terry’s wild count out loss to Lawler in Memphis (one of the area’s great matches of all time) and a tag match where Lawler teamed with longtime Funk foe, Jack Brisco, to battle the terrible Texas twosome. It began to become clear as the feud progressed that bad blood was boiling between Lawler and Terry Funk.
Terry taped an interview with Lance Russell where he claimed Lawler was the product of favoritism, charges made previously by Jimmy Hart and Austin Idol. Funk though bordered on near-paranoia when he claimed the promotion, the referees, the fans, the police and even Russell were all on Lawler’s side making it impossible for him to get an even break. Funk then handed Russell an envelope claiming an invitation was inside for Lawler to meet Funk alone with only a camera crew and Russell on hand to document what was to happen. Funk claimed it was an invitation to an event where no one could provide help to Lawler and where Funk would show Lawler who was the better man. Back in the studio, Russell handed the envelope to Lawler, who looked at the invitation then agreed to meet Funk. The match was then set but only Lawler, Funk, Russell, TV cameraman Randy West and a still photographer from the Apter newsstand magazines would be on hand. This whole idea seemed to fly in the face of wrestling logic as the purpose of wrestling at this time (and, ideally, even now) was to do things that would encourage fans to spend money to buy tickets to the weekly arena shows. How would this match, where no fans were allowed, lead to fans wanting to see other matches between the two? Time would tell if this unusual concept would work.
Lance Russell stood in the empty 11,300 seat Mid-South Coliseum waiting to see if anyone would show up for this curious encounter. Terry Funk barreled down the aisle bellowing how Lawler was nowhere to be found. As Funk cursed and threatened Russell, Lawler appeared and the match was set to begin. Before it started though, Funk offered Lawler an escape from what he was certain would be an embarrassing beating.
Lawler passed on the escape route and the two locked up in an old-fashioned fist fight winding up with the two on the outside of the ring. Lawler then tossed Funk into the first three rows of the empty ringside section. Funk tossed some chairs at Lawler before Lawler caught him again tossing him into some more chairs and then leveling Funk with some chairshots to the head. A bloody Funk ripped apart a sign marking a section of seats in the Coliseum. The crazed Funk decked Lawler with the object. Funk then tossed Lawler to the concrete floor and delivered a piledriver to Lawler before tossing Lawler into the ringside chairs. Funk turned his attention to busting up the wooden ring steps. He snatched Lawler slamming him on the announcer’s table while he shrieked for Russell to ask Lawler if he had had enough punishment. The two reentered the ring where Funk produced a sliver of wood from the busted-up ring steps and lifted it to ram it into Lawler’s eye. Lawler blocked the move and the two rolled around on the mat struggling for control of the situation. As Lawler fought from his back, he kicked at Funk hitting the hand holding the wood sliver which then went into Funk’s left eye. Lawler moved in to go after Funk but stopped when he understood the severity of Funk’s injury as the once out of control Texan lay on the mat helplessly crying, "My eye!" As Lance Russell scrambled to locate emergency personnel one of wrestling’s most unusual angles apparently ended as Funk’s cries echoed off the walls of the empty Mid-South Coliseum.
In professional wrestling though such scenarios should usually lead to something bigger down the line. A few weeks later, something bigger came along.
A raving Terry Funk appeared unannounced during a TV match a few weeks later demanding a match against Jerry Lawler. Lance Russell was the bearer of bad news as Lawler was making an appearance that day in Florida. Funk, wearing a patch over his injured eye, refused to accept Russell’s response. He then charged the ring and destroyed several wrestlers. Funk left the ring and grabbed a metal folding chair from ringside. Paranoia returned to Funk as he began to claim everyone was on Lawler’s side, even the airline personnel who he was certain had alerted Lawler to leave town to avoid Funk. Funk then began to punch the chair with his fist. Not gaining enough satisfaction from this, Funk then began slamming the chair over his head. He grabbed at Russell who was urging the madman to leave. Funk began nervously pacing around ringside as the show went to a break. The stage was then set for return matches between Funk and Lawler that would headline arenas in upcoming weeks.
What seemed to be an insane idea, holding a wrestling match in an empty arena, proved to one of the business’s most clever promotional tactics, particularly with it’s exposure through the weekly TV show. (The WWF would resurrect the idea in 1999 when Cactus Jack battled The Rock on national TV during half-time of the Super Bowl in an empty Tucson, Arizona arena.) The empty arena angle in Memphis got the former NWA champion Funk over as a deranged madman bent on destroying Lawler while placing the area’s favorite, Lawler, in the role of having to defend himself against an unpredictable foe out to avenge his near-career ending injury. Funk and Lawler were great in their roles in this scenario but perhaps the most valuable performer in the angle was the veteran announcer Russell, who called the happenings with his usual genuineness at every turn in the angle. This got over the fact that the feud between Funk and Lawler had moved on past ego, past bragging rights and past the sanction of any wrestling organization and into something very personal lending credence to what some fans surely believed after watching the match, that when these two would meet again there would be no telling what might happen. This idea hit the target at the whole purpose of professional wrestling: that being making the most of the opportunities provided to tell a compelling story that fans would care enough about to spend their money to buy a ticket to the upcoming house show.
April, May and June 1981
Despite the challenges from Jimmy Hart’s various charges Jerry Lawler held onto the Southern title turning back all challengers.
Masa Fuchi and Mr. Onita with manager Tojo Yamamoto lost the Southern tag titles to Bill Dundee and The Dream Machine. Fuchi and Onita then regained the belts. Yamamoto, who had been a member of Jimmy Hart’s First Family as a wrestler, ruffled Hart’s feathers when he signed on as manager of Fuchi and Onita.
Making appearances in the circuit for Jarrett at this time were such stars as Terry Funk, Dory Funk, Jr., Dutch Mantel (still TV champion), Kevin Sullivan, Gypsy Joe, Sonny King, The Angel, Koko Ware, Big Red, Eddie Gilbert, The Turk, El Toro, Ronnie Sexton, Vinnie Romeo, The Bounty Hunters, Golden Boy Chick Donovan (originally managed by Tojo Yamamoto then managed by Jimmy Hart after Yamamoto cost Donovan a match), Jimmy Kent, Jimmy Hart, Chief Thundercloud, Buddy Wayne, Wendi Richter, Suzette Ferrera, Diamond Lil, Barbi Doll, Candi Malloy, Donna Christianello, Cowboy Lang, Little Tokyo, Jim Dalton, Roger Howell, Crusher Jerry Blackwell, Jack Brisco, Wayne Farris, Roy Rodgers, Stan Frazier, The Masked Nightmares and more. Originally Danny Davis and David Oswald were under the masks as the Nightmares. Oswald though was replaced by Ted Allen.
Stan Lane debuted by bringing the U.S. Junior Heavyweight title into the area for a defense. The title, mainly defended at this time in Alabama’s Southeastern promotion, though fell out of Lane’s possession when he lost it to Bill Dundee, setting up rematches in Alabama between the two and where Dundee would drop the title back.
Meantime, Lawler’s feud with the Funk brothers saw Lawler accept some dates in the sunshine state of Florida during much of the year. Lawler, who had wrestled some in Florida in the mid-1970s, worked a semi-regular schedule there most of the rest of 1981.
While Lawler accepted dates outside his home base it was becoming commonplace for wrestling fans around the country to watch more televised wrestling than ever before due to cable television. Atlanta’s Georgia Championship Wrestling was one of cable TV’s most popular programs while WWF cards from Madison Square Garden gained popularity when they aired monthly on the fledgling USA Network. Jarrett’s Memphis TV studio show had become one of the most successful local TV shows in any market and the show aired in an edited version in the other cities around the territory and in some cities outside the territory. Cable TV though was going into more homes and opening up more entertainment possibilities for subscribers meaning professional wrestling was in the beginning stages of losing it’s regionalized flavor. It would be interesting to watch and see how one of the business’s most distinctive regional promotions (Jarrett’s) would react to the winds swirling around such changes and where those changes would take the business of professional wrestling.
Beantown Bad Boy
With the feud between Jerry Lawler and Jimmy Hart remaining a constant throughout the area, Lawler often had to turn to tag partners to help him against various foes. He turned to area legends Jackie and Roughhouse Fargo to be his partners against Hart, Austin Idol and Dutch Mantel. He also teamed with Plowboy Stan Frazier to face Idol and Mantel and later against The Funk Brothers. He also teamed with Bill Dundee and The Dream Machine to face Hart, Mantel and Tojo Yamamoto. Most of Lawler’s tag partners had proven track records in the area. With Hart bringing in the combo of The Turk and El Toro after the King, Lawler turned to a name from outside the area to be his partner, Kevin Sullivan.
Kevin Sullivan was a short man in a big man’s business. He stood at 5’6". Despite his small stature, Sullivan’s resume stood tall. Sullivan was a good worker in the ring. This mixed well with his fair hair, photogenic smile and underdog persona he acquired due to his small size proving Sullivan to be a model babyface for most any territory.
Sullivan, from Boston, Massachusetts, wrestled in his backyard, the northern United States, early in his career before heading south to work for Nick Gulas. There Sullivan was able to learn his craft with constant work. Sullivan traveled in and out of Gulas’ Tennessee circuit, John Cazana’s Knoxville circuit and Lee Fields’ Gulf Coast circuit in his early years often appearing under the names Kevin Caldwell and Johnny West. Sullivan held the Gulas-recognized world tag titles with Robert Fuller for one week in 1972 winning them and losing them back to one of the territory’s top heel teams ever, Kurt and Karl Von Brauner with manager Gentleman Saul Weingeroff. Sullivan would also work the Florida circuit in the early 1970s and hold the state’s tag titles with Mike Graham. He would also appear in the WWWF in the mid-70s but would work low on the cards. Sullivan also worked for awhile in the Carolinas and again in Florida during the 1970s.
By 1977 Sullivan had made it to northern California. There he and Bob Roop battled over the area’s United States title and played to large crowds at area arenas. In California Sullivan’ booking ideas began to get some notice. From there Sullivan traveled to the Central States promotion to team with Ken Lucas. By 1978 Sullivan pulled into east Tennessee to work Ron Fuller’s Southeastern promotion where he repeated his feud with Roop and later reformed his team with Lucas. He then worked the Alabama promotion in 1979. In late 1979 Kevin Sullivan began working for the Atlanta promotion where announcer Gordon Solie dubbed him "The Boston Battler". By the time of his return to Memphis in 1981 he had spent the previous year gaining a good deal of attention wrestling for the Georgia promotion which was carried nationwide on many local cable systems.
In Atlanta, Sullivan had had high-profile feuds against Austin Idol, Eddie Mansfield, Maniac Mark Lewin and Abdullah the Butcher. Sullivan had also teamed with Tony Atlas to hold the Georgia tag titles and feud against Ivan Koloff and Alexis Smirnoff. During his Georgia stay he began to take body building much more seriously and bulked up his physique enough to compete in several body building contests. As 1980 came to a close, fans got to see a new Sullivan. His hair grew longer and more straggly and his once clean-shaven face was replaced with beard stubble. Sullivan then turned heel in a televised match to win the Georgia TV title from Steve Keirn.
All this was forgotten (or unknown to some area fans) though as Lawler brought Sullivan in as his tag partner. The match was signed as Lawler and Sullivan were to battle The Turk, El Toro and Jimmy Hart in a two versus three handicap match. Lawler pounded on his three foes and as they fought back, his tag partner, Sullivan, promptly turned on Lawler. Hart’s combo of El Toro and The Turk was a swerve as his real charge was Sullivan. (Hart became Sullivan’s first manager in wrestling, a fact alluded to by the two in the 1990s when they paired again for WCW.)
Sullivan and Lawler then battled over the next several months in a series of matches. Sullivan would also form a team with Wayne Farris to feud against Bill Dundee and The Masked Dream Machine. Notable among their encounters is a Louisville match which saw Jimmy Hart’s interference lead to a disqualification win for Dundee and Machine. The post-match antics though were out of control as Sullivan, Farris and Hart mercilessly pounded their opponents until Lawler rushed in to even the sides. Then the Masked Nightmares hit the ring to help Sullivan, Farris and Hart. Finally, Dutch Mantel charged in to continue the brawl which wound up in the bleachers and saw Lawler take a bump down the bleacher stairs from about ten rows up when one of the Nightmares slugged him. The event whipped the fans into a frenzy and would then lead to a series of eight man tag matches featuring the brawl participants and continued to further Sullivan’s feuds against Lawler, Dundee and The Dream Machine while it saw Sullivan add Dutch Mantel to his list of area enemies. As the summer kicked in, area newcomer Steve Keirn, who Sullivan had turned heel on in Georgia, hit the area also gunning for Sullivan.
As the summer moved on though Sullivan disappeared from the area after taking the TV title from Dutch Mantel. He returned to work the eastern half of the state. Blackjack Mulligan had reopened the Knoxville territory and Sullivan would work that area, which seemed to be one of his favorite territories, into 1982.
For a few months though, Jerry Lawler had to battle one of the scrappiest performers in the game. Lawler’s strong babyface interviews played well against Sullivan’s heel interviews dripping in his thick Boston accent, which due to wrestling’s regionalized flavor at the time drew great heat in the area. Fans heard Sullivan’s accent and realized he wasn’t from their area, thus he wasn’t one of them. The action between the two and their various partners was always fast and furious. Sullivan’s stay is just one small chapter of the history of the Lawler-Hart feud but a memorable one as wrestling’s "Boston Battler" for a few months became a "Tennessee Terror".
July, August and September 1981
The Southern title picture is rather muddled for the summer months of 1981. One report has Jerry Lawler’s Southern title reign ending at the hands of Jimmy Hart, who then presented the title to Golden Boy Chick Donovan. The promotion didn’t like this tactic so the title was held up. Another report has Steve Keirn downing Buggsy McGraw in a July Memphis tournament to win the vacant title. Yet another report has The Dream Machine, who hooked up once more with manager Jimmy Hart, winning the belt by downing Steve Keirn in the finals of yet another tournament. No matter how confusing the situation is, this is clear: the title fell out of Lawler’s possession during the summer and wound up in September held by The Dream Machine, who lost the belt to Jimmy Valiant. The Mid-America title was brought back in this time frame and saw Steve Keirn holding the title but then losing it to Buggsy McGraw who then lost the belt back to Keirn. The reemergence of the Mid-America title may have contributed some to the confusing title situation at this time.
Masa Fuchi and Mr. Onita held the Southern tag belts but lost them in a red-hot feud to Eddie Gilbert and Ricky Morton. The highlight of the feud between the two teams was a duplication of 1979’s Tupelo concession stand brawl. The Fuchi, Onita and Yamamoto brawl with Gilbert and Morton was in several ways a little wilder than the original brawl thanks in part to the two teams as the five men battled amidst ketchup, mustard, trash can lids and blood battering each other from pillar to post in the wild free-for-all which also involved Tupelo promoter Herman Sheffield and his wife, whom Yamamoto slapped at. Yamamoto’s managerial run with Fuchi and Onita would end as Jimmy Hart would steal the duo away from the wily veteran star which in turn would turn Yamamoto back into a fan favorite. Meantime, Eddie Gilbert and Ricky Morton would lose the Southern tag belts to Nightmare and Speed who dropped them to Ricky and Robert Gibson. Kevin Sullivan downed Dutch Mantel for the area’s TV title. Sullivan though rarely defended the title and left shortly after winning it leaving the title abandoned.
Working for Jarrett at this time were such stars as Wayne Farris, Bill Dundee, Tommy Rich, Chief Thundercloud, Tom Stanton, Stan Frazier, Koko Ware (who became Sweet Brown Sugar during this time), Jim Dalton, The Heartbreakers (Joey Cagle and Rocky Sortar), King Cobra, Stan Lane, Roy Rodgers, Sonny King, Buddy Wayne, The Masked Assassins, The Masked Nightmares (Nightmare II lost a match, unmasked as Ted Allen, who had replaced David Oswald, and left town but was replaced by Speed, Ken Wayne under a mask), Rocky Johnson and more. Chick Donovan, who was a member of Jimmy Hart’s First Family, fell prey to a knee injury and was out of action. Hart appointed Donovan Vice-President of the First Family which allowed Donovan to accompany Family members to ringside where he often interfered in their behalf during matches.
The ICW continued to promote cards in Kentucky in opposition to Jarrett’s cards. While many fans in Jarrett’s territory were unaware of the ICW’s attempts to run in Jarrett’s cities, many of the fans in Kentucky were aware of the promotional war and wondered what was in store between the two promotions. During the course of the war between the two groups it was common for the ICW’s top star, Randy Savage, to challenge Jarrett’s top star, Jerry Lawler, to a match with proceeds from the match promised to go to Lawler’s favorite charity. The grandstand challenge, similar to one used by Jarrett in his promotional war against Nick Gulas in 1978 and also similar to ones used by the ICW in their war against Knoxville’s Southeastern promotion in 1979 and 1980, would go unanswered but had to leave some fans wondering what would happen if the two stars and groups ever really crossed paths.
The Dirty Dutchman
Early in 1981 an old familiar face made his return to the Jarrett promotion when Dirty Dutch Mantel came back into the territory. Mantel was a recognizable figure anywhere he went. He wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and often carried a bullwhip. In ring he wore a simple black singlet and possessed possibly the hairiest back in professional wrestling since the glory days of Ginger the Wrestling Bear. During interviews, Mantel, billed from Oil Trough, Texas, rarely yelled and screamed but instead spoke with a matter-of-fact confidence that left little doubt he meant what he said. Mantel, often puffing on a cigar in interviews, came across as someone who fought hard yet fair as long as he had to but once the line was crossed against him he had no reservations about crossing that line himself.
Mantel was a ring veteran having made his debut in 1972 wrestling under his real name of Wayne Cowan for the Atlanta promotion. Late 1972 brought a promotional war to the state and Cowan ended up working for Ann Gunkel’s All-South group. For Gunkel, Cowan held the Georgia Junior Heavyweight title often working matches against Ted Oates, who also began his career around the same time as Cowan. In 1974, Mantel made his first trip to Tennessee to work for Nick Gulas appearing as Chris Gallegher. As Gallegher he teamed with Don Kent and was managed by Jim Kent and the team had a run with the Mid-America tag titles. Late 1974 saw Cowan change his name once again, this time to Dutch Mantel. He then paired with British star John Foley and the two invaded the Knoxville promotion, newly purchased by Ron Fuller, and had a successful run there as Tennessee tag champions often feuding with Les Thatcher and Nelson Royal. Mantel and Foley then moved to Florida and worked there for a good stay.
By 1977, Mantel landed in the Memphis promotion where he held the Southern tag titles with David Shultz. He would bounce around the southern territories, mainly working in Florida, until landing back in Tennessee, again for Nick Gulas, in 1978. Mantel then began to make a name for himself as a singles star as he battled Randy Savage over the Mid-America title and held the Mid-America tag titles on two occasions, once with Gypsy Joe and once with Ken Lucas . Mantel would spend the better part of the next two years working in the Gulas territory. He would also work Puerto Rico, Georgia and Japan before his reappearance in the Jarrett promotion in 1981.
Mantel worked some dates in the territory in 1980 with Austin Idol as his tag partner. The unusual looking combination featuring the flashy, cocky Idol and the low-key, determined Mantel made a very good team despite their mismatched appearance and held the CWA tag titles for a period of time. Mantel and Idol would team some again in 1981 but Dutch’s impact would be felt in the singles ranks most of the year.
On Mantel’s return to the area with manager Jimmy Hart by his side, he downed Koko Ware to win the area’s TV title. Mantel, though managed by Hart, was an independent sort and often seemed to bristle at the thought of having a manager. During a match which saw Tojo Yamamoto’s team of Masa Fuchi and Mr. Onita hand a beating to Bill Dundee and The Dream Machine, Mantel charged the ring to fend off the Oriental stars. Later, in a TV interview Mantel admitted he was a Vietnam veteran and a proud American. He said while he was watching the Fuchi-Onita vs. Dundee-Machine match he saw a young boy drop a small American flag as Yamamoto, Fuchi and Onita continued their assault. Mantel said his love of country became too much to overcome and he charged the ring to fight off the Oriental trio. This turned Mantel into a fan favorite and set up a series of matches with Mantel using Idol, Dundee, Dream Machine, Plowboy Stan Frazier, Koko Ware and Steve Keirn, among others, as partners to square off against Yamamoto, Onita and Fuchi.
Mantel would lose the TV title to Kevin Sullivan. The ensuing battles between the two allowed Mantel to work himself into a hot area feud by teaming with Jerry Lawler, Dundee and Dream Machine against Sullivan, Wayne Farris and The Masked Nightmares.
As autumn came to the area Dutch captured the Mid-America title from sometime tag partner Steve Keirn. Dutch then set his sights on the area’s big prize, the Southern title. He captured that title by downing The Dream Machine, who had returned to Jimmy Hart’s First Family. Dutch then spent the remainder of 1981 feuding with the masked man over the area’s top title.
Trouble though was looming for Mantel. The area’s top dog, Jerry Lawler, had not held the title in several months and had been locked in a feud during the fall against a number of Jimmy Hart’s henchmen such as Sweet Brown Sugar (Koko Ware’s new gimmick), Killer Karl Krupp and The Masked Super Destroyer. Lawler began to make noises about wanting a title shot. As Mantel held onto the Southern title Lawler made rumblings about regaining the title he felt belonged to him and it began to grow clear that a showdown was in the making for 1982 between the King and the Dirty Dutchman.
October, November and December 1981
The Dream Machine downed Jimmy Valiant to win the Southern title. Dutch Mantel then won the title and held it the remainder of the year although a confrontation with former champion Jerry Lawler seemed imminent. Mantel also added more gold to his waist by downing Steve Keirn to win the Mid-America title.
The Southern tag titles were held by Ricky and Robert Gibson. Robert missed a title defense so Ricky defended the titles alone and lost them to Sweet Brown Sugar and Stan Lane with manager Jimmy Hart. This team was then upended by Bill Dundee and Steve Keirn.
Working the area at this time were such stars as Golden Boy Chick Donovan, Nightmare, Speed, Tojo Yamamoto, Roy Rodgers, Tommy Gilbert, King Cobra, Gypsy Joe, Bobby Eaton, The Masked Mr. Mempho (Jimmy Valiant under a mask), Chief Thundercloud, Ric McCord, Killer Karl Krupp, The Midnight Express: Norvell Austin, Dennis Condrey & Randy Rose, The Masked Super Destroyer (Bill Dromo under a mask), The Cuban Assassin, The Iranian Assassin, Eddie Gilbert, Ricky Morton and more. Jimmy Hart squared off in some matches against veteran referee Jerry Calhoun at this time. Hart had long claimed Calhoun to be biased in calling matches for Jerry Lawler. Andy Kaufman, an actor best known from the TV show "Taxi" and for appearances as a comedian on "Saturday Night Live", began working some Memphis house shows by challenging females to wrestle him for his self-proclaimed Inter-Gender championship.
Meantime, one-time area promoter Nick Gulas began to dabble once again in the promoting end of the business. He helped run some cards late in the year in north Alabama headlined with his son George, and also featuring Gulas stalwarts, Joey Rossi and Pat Rose. The attempt would prove to be unsuccessful.
Sweet Brown Sugar
Making someone a star in professional wrestling isn’t always an easy thing to do. It depends on a number of things such as ability, charisma and timing, among other things. It also helps to have someone creative and intelligent enough to know how to use what is at hand to help the process.
Promoter Jerry Jarrett had earned the reputation as a resourceful and creative individual. He broke from Nick Gulas in 1977 and began running the western end of the territory. He then weathered various storms through the years to run what had become a very successful promotion. In late 1978 and into 1979, he began creating a star out of area youngster Wayne Farris. The attempt paid off as Farris had turned into one of the area’s top heels since the transformation kicked in during the summer of 1979.
As 1980 came to a close, Jarrett began to make a star out of another one of the local talents. In 1978, a young African-American man from the northwestern Tennessee town of Union City billed as Koko Ware debuted in the area. For the first part of his career, Ware was used on TV as a jobber, a role to make name talent appear to be very good. He also began working underneath on some area arena cards. Into 1979 and 1980, Ware branched out and worked the eastern half of the territory for Nick Gulas. There he picked up more experience and confidence.
Returning to Jarrett’s end, it was becoming clear that Ware was ready to make a move up the ladder of success. Late in 1980, he won a TV battle royal to claim the area’s first TV title (this whole scenario is described in detail in the 1980 article). The situation also threw him into a feud against Jimmy Valiant and Tojo Yamamoto while Ware teamed with Tommy Rich. The rub Ware received from the three stars helped propel him into a new level of success in the area.
Ware would lose the TV title to Dutch Mantel in the early part of 1981. He then would work against such mat veterans as Yamamoto and Gypsy Joe. He spent much of the first three quarters of 1981 though on the losing end of matches against Masa Fuchi, Mr. Onita, The Dream Machine and The Masked Nightmares. While his efforts in such endeavors lead to Fuchi, Onita, Machine and the Nightmares getting over with the fans (and showed that he was good in the role of making others look good) it was doing little to advance Ware’s career which had seemed to slump.
Ware’s rise up the ladder of success was jump-started though in September when he was asked to referee a Southern title match between champion Jerry Lawler and The Dream Machine. Ware counted Lawler out giving the victory and title to Machine. Lawler, furious at Ware’s actions, then challenged him to a match, thrusting Ware into a series of matches against the area’s top attraction.
To top off Ware’s ascent to the top of the area’s performers, he aligned with manager Jimmy Hart, who claimed Ware had been held back by Lawler. Hart in turn renamed Ware Sweet Brown Sugar adding him to Hart’s First Family. (Ware’s run as Sweet Brown Sugar should not be confused with the run in several territories in the early 1980s by Skip Young who wrestled under the name as well.)
Sugar then faced off against Lawler in some matches. He was then paired with Stan Lane in a tag team to feud with Bill Dundee and Steve Keirn over the Southern tag titles. As 1981 began to close, Sugar got a few shots at Southern champion Dutch Mantel and found himself teaming some with the returning Bobby Eaton. Eaton and Sugar would form a team in 1982 that would prove to be among the most successful ever in the area.
Jerry Jarrett, as promoter, provided Koko Ware the opportunity to make a name for himself in the territory during the year. Ware though had to provide the ability and charisma. Ware had paid his dues and honed his skills working for Jarrett and Gulas and provided solid action when in the ring especially with his spring-loaded dropkick and smashing elbow drop. His charisma, rarely tapped into before, began to show through when he turned heel. Added together, another star was born, one whose career would really begin to bloom as 1982 dawned.
1981 saw Jerry Lawler’s return play to large crowds around the entire territory. His return to feud against former manager Jimmy Hart gave fuel to enough feuds to last well beyond 1981 and most notably provided Lawler great foes in The Funk Brothers and Kevin Sullivan during the year which in turn created some of the wildest action the area had seen in years. Dutch Mantel had a solid year in the area getting over as someone who meant business in the ring and by year’s end held the Southern title and the Mid-America title although perennial Southern champion Jerry Lawler was looking for a title shot. Potential star Koko Ware got a major push when he turned heel, joined Jimmy Hart’s First Family and became known as Sweet Brown Sugar. Jarrett’s promotion also continued to face opposition in Kentucky against the ICW. Although Jarrett had been in promotional wars before the one with the ICW held the possibility of turning ugly as the ICW employed a number of unusual tactics in an attempt to draw attention to themselves. Meanwhile, in a much larger picture, cable television was changing the business of professional wrestling often providing fans with more than one show to watch. How this would change how promoters, including Jerry Jarrett, did business would begin to unfold in 1982.
1982: Jimmy Hart has the "greatest day of his life"---again and again and again…Jerry Lawler gets a "Flair" for some gold…An area legend gives his blessing to a "Fabulous" new team…A "Momma’s Boy" makes some noise in the area…Plus, Lawler embarks on some "Funny Business" but not everybody finds it funny…
Edsel Harrison, Mike Rodgers, Scott Teal, Charles Warburton and David Williamson
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