Memphis/CWA #9 Page #2
During 1979 the decision was made to turn Lawler into a heel. Lawler’s earlier heel runs in the area saw him use a manager to rile the fans as he used Jimmy Kent (very early in his career) and then later Sam Bass. In 1979 Lawler brought in Hart as his manager.
One of the key elements for most managers is the ability to cut a good interview. With Lawler, one of the business’s greatest interviews ever, this wasn’t as necessary. Instead, Hart would have to prove himself as a ringside distraction, which he was able to do. In the midst of this run, Lawler suffered his leg injury sidelining him for eleven months. Suddenly, Hart was on his own. He would have to prove to be more than just a ringside distraction to last anytime in the area.
Once Lawler was injured Hart disavowed his partnership with Lawler setting up a feud upon the King’s return. Until then, it was time for Hart to become an irritant to area fans.
Hart would spend 1980 managing such stars as Jimmy Valiant, Paul Ellering, Sheik Ali Hassan, Tommy Rich and Bobby Eaton. During the year, Hart was able to cut loose on the microphone some, especially with Ellering, Hassan and Eaton, and began to get more notice than before. 1981 saw Hart spar verbally, and sometimes physically, against Lawler with a wide array of stars he would manage.
Although it appeared he weighed ninety pounds soaking wet, fans quickly labeled Hart as having a mouth much bigger than his body and big enough to get him in major trouble. In most every other occupation this would be bad, but for a professional wrestling manager, this was ideal.
Week after week on the TV show, Hart would appear seemingly bouncing off the walls like a child on a week long soft drink and chocolate binge. Dressed in loud flashy clothes while often holding a cane, Hart’s energy seemed boundless. He also seemed unstoppable despite being thwarted time after time by his foe Lawler. Long before catch phrases became a measuring stick for a wrestling personality’s worth in the business Hart coined the phrase that made announcer Lance Russell sigh and roll his eyes, "Today is the greatest day in my life!"
Hart would plot weekly of ways to eliminate Lawler from the area. Hart lined up most of the heel wrestlers in the area into a stable he came to call "The First Family".
In 1982, Hart would spend the first part of the year trying to eliminate former First Family member Stan Lane from the area. Lane, it was claimed in storylines, had discovered Hart was being less than honest with Lane’s pay. Hart took that money and sent The Cuban Assassin, The Iranian Assassin and The Monk after the bounty on Lane. Hart would line Bobby Eaton up with Sweet Brown Sugar to form one of the area’s top teams ever. Hart also had a brief low card association, then feud with J.R. Hart, who was preliminary wrestler Kenny Shane. It was during a televised party introducing J.R. Hart as a First Family member that Stan Lane ended up slamming Jimmy Hart’s face into a cake, an angle repeated in many territories over the years.
By mid-year, Hart’s managerial territory was invaded when James J. Dillion, the top ringside manager in the Florida circuit, began sending in talent after Jerry Lawler, who feuded against Dillion and his stable in his frequent Florida appearances. Dillion’s entry in the area led to the reuniting of Hart and Lawler for a week to rid the area of Dillion.
Hart would piece together The New York Dolls out of The Dream Machine and Rick McGraw. The combo would end up being the first major feud for the Fabulous Ones tag team and propel Hart into frequent run-ins against the Fabulous Jackie Fargo, the mentor of the Fabulous Ones. Hart’s combo of Eaton and Sugar would also tangle with Fargo and his team.
Hart’s war with Lawler though would see him scheme with NWA champion Nature Boy Ric Flair and then with AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel to get at the area’s top star. Late in the year, Hart would also have a few run-ins and matches with fellow manager Jim Cornette.
Hart was excellently suited for a professional wrestling manager. Besides his larger than life vocal demonstrations his small frame psychologically made him a natural heel when he would interfere in matches causing the fans to want the wiry manager to get his comeuppance since he was more than willing to get involved in the action but only when the action was heavily tilted in his favor. His often gazelle-like speed heated fans up more since it allowed him to get away with illegal tactics and rush away from the fray before he was caught or before his opposition made a comeback. Naturally, this made fans long to see the day Hart would get what they felt he had coming to him.
With Hart’s boundless energy and a live ninety minute TV show to fill every week, Hart became very good at doing what he needed to do to get fans annoyed at him. His energy was also put to good use in skits, sketches and videos that furthered to cement his reputation as the meddlesome mouthy manager. Since Hart was placed in the role of feuding against Lawler, it allowed the feud to have a long life because Hart could bring in wrestler after wrestler to down Lawler. Lawler could defeat Hart’s troops and run them out of the area but Hart would remain behind. So, in a sense, the feud could, and would, last for years without growing too stale or repetitive. The fact that the feud would go on for years without a conclusive finish lent an added dimension that few feuds ever have.
As the heel Hart would ultimately, though not in 1982, end up on the losing end of the feud but he would have his moments prevailing over Lawler. No doubt it was these moments that crossed his mind every Saturday when he stood beside Lance Russell, looked into the camera and gleefully declared, "This is the greatest day of my life!" And no doubt it was those moments that led fans to join Russell in rolling their eyes and breathing a heavy sigh as Hart went on one more diatribe all the while never once considering turning the volume down out of fear that they might miss something important.
January, February and March 1982
Dutch Mantell entered the year as Southern champion. He lost the belt to Jerry Lawler and these two swapped the title several times over the next few months. Although Jimmy Hart didn’t have a great deal to do directly with the Lawler-Mantell feud he often kept the rift between the two fresh which served to keep the Lawler-Hart feud alive and cemented Mantell’s reputation as a loner, yet still likable, with area fans. Mantell would also enter the year as Mid-America champion, lose it for a time to The Dream Machine, and then, regain it.
The Midnight Express trio of Norvell Austin, Dennis Condrey and Randy Rose took the Southern tag titles from Steve Keirn and Bill Dundee. The Express would win the tag titles in a singles match between Austin and Keirn where Austin had insisted on a number of outrageous stipulations, which worked to his advantage. The win would later be overturned and the Express were eventually stripped of the titles. Bobby Eaton and Sweet Brown Sugar (Koko Ware) then won the titles by downing Stan Lane and Robert Gibson in a tournament final in March in Louisville.
Making the rounds for Jarrett during this time period were such stars as Ricky Morton, Ricky Gibson, Roy Rodgers, Gypsy Joe, The Cuban Assassin, The Iranian Assassin, Jay Strongbow, Jr., Chief Thundercloud, Don Anderson, Ric McCord, Tojo Yamamoto, Steve Regal, Speed, Nightmare, The Monk, The Masked UFO, Joe Stark, Kenny Shane, Crazy Luke Graham, Danny Davis and more.
Nick Gulas, once the territory’s promoter, was dabbling again in promoting. He appeared once more in the first few months of 1982 as co-promoter with Bobby Bearden of a group based in Huntsville, Alabama called South Wrestling. Ron Bass was recognized as their champion. Others who worked for Gulas’ group included Pat Rose, Ted Allen, Jimmy Powell, Thurman Dolan, Arvil Hutto, Joey Rossi, and Mike Jackson. Jackie Fargo also worked some shows for his former boss as well. Despite his overall experience in the business, the Gulas effort would not last very long.
Meantime, professional wrestling was in the midst of a boom in many parts of the country including the Memphis territory. Promoter Jerry Jarrett seemed to be using his talent wisely with the resources he had on hand. Other promotions had other resources they were using to great advantage. In Dallas, Jack Adkisson’s World Class promotion used a slick TV show in-hand with a growing syndicated network to push his sons, David, Kevin and Kerry Von Erich into prominence. In the Northeast, the McMahon family, based near the media capital of the world, New York City, had secured a monthly slot on the USA Network where they aired the monthly Madison Square Garden cards. In Atlanta, the promotion aired weekly on Ted Turner’s WTBS cable superstation with TV shows that garnered some of the highest ratings for the station. The Atlanta promotion had proved to be so popular that around November 1980 they began running house shows in Columbus, Ohio, well outside of their original territory. By 1982 Georgia Championship Wrestling was usually running one week’s worth of shows in the long-running Georgia circuit and then the next week in a new circuit, which included cities in Ohio and West Virginia. In Memphis, Jerry Jarrett stuck to delivering a solid, action-packed weekly TV show, which was also one of Memphis’ highest rated TV shows every week, all the while making fans want to attend the house shows around the territory. 1982 would find him taking a few unusual chances in attracting fans to area shows. One such chance involved a scrawny comedian turned TV star who liked to wrestle women.
A Thousand Out of Work Comedians And This Guy Wants To Wrestle?
If there’s no business like show business then there must absolutely, totally, without argument, be no business like professional wrestling. After all, professional wrestling evolved from the carnival sideshows that sucked in unsuspecting marks to try knocking over the tough guy who talked a big enough game to see folks became disturbed enough to test their wares against the bully of the midway. It then grew into a more showy never-ending battle of good versus evil often featuring known athletes which confounded many fans into believing what actually occurred in-ring was also legitimate although when they really seriously thought about what went on inside the ropes it all would never really quite piece together. How these men and women were able to build the business, which claimed legitimacy, yet, depended on subtle slight of hand, into such a force depended on the secret things about the business remaining secret, so they believed. The players of this game would develop their own unique language, "carny", and refused to give up their secrets, which would break "kayfabe". Many of these wrestlers took great pride in really getting into the roles they were asked to portray. To them, the "work", playing their particular role almost full-time, was the thing.
In late 1981, Andy Kaufman, comedian and one of the stars of the TV series, Taxi, began making some appearances in the area claiming to be Inter-Gender champion, an act he had used in his stand-up routine and also a few times on various TV shows including Saturday Night Live. His initial appearances in the Memphis territory were nothing more than curiosities to area fans. By 1982 though those same area fans, many of whom could not quite determine what possessed Kaufman to do what he was doing would get to know Kaufman much better and they would not like him at all.
Kaufman was one of the most unique comic personalities of the last half of the twentieth century. He would perform a wide variety of characters, including a fantastic impersonation of Memphis’ Elvis Presley, in his unconventional nightclub routine that often left some audience members bewildered yet left others blown away at his act. His performances were usually so convincing that it was difficult for anyone watching to peer past the character Kaufman was portraying. It was as if Kaufman actually became the character he was performing. If Kaufman had been in professional wrestling, the "work" would have been the thing for him.
Over time part of Kaufman’s nightclub routine would include his wrestling of women from the audience. Further befuddling the audience, Kaufman would announce that the match was not part of the act and was, in fact, real, which implied unscripted, and hinted that professional wrestling was scripted. This flew in the face of what most folks believed about professional wrestling but added to the difficulty some people would have figuring out Kaufman and his antics.
The wrestling act proved to be controversial. Controversy though was not a stranger to Kaufman. In 1981 his appearance on the ABC late night show Fridays saw Kaufman refuse to go along with the scripted show resulting in a chaotic live broadcast. (Some say Kaufman’s actions were planned.) The event angered executives at Taxi and gave them pause to wonder why they ever hired the unusual comedian. Such antics though only seemed to add fuel to Kaufman’s creative juices. It made some believe he was totally unpredictable.
Underneath the wacky characters Kaufman was a major wrestling fan. Growing up in New York City, Kaufman often attended matches in the legendary Madison Square Garden and usually walked away in amazement at what he had witnessed. Wrestling’s simple backdrop, good versus evil, played out by larger than life characters, could have an amazing effect on those who viewed it. It was something, no doubt, that registered in a great way with Kaufman. As his fame as a comic performer grew he used his celebrity to get backstage to meet some of his mat idols. In 1979, Kaufman added a new dimension to his inter-gender wrestling routine when he appeared on Saturday Night Live to wrestle women and had the legendary Nature Boy Buddy Rogers at his side as manager. Eventually, Kaufman came to know enough people in the business to make a strange suggestion. He wanted to bring his inter-gender comedy act to an actual wrestling circuit. After the WWF was discovered to be uninterested in the idea, newstand magazine legend Bill Apter suggested Kaufman’s act might do well in the Memphis territory. The promotion, never a dull one, agreed. (Kaufman had actually worked a Detroit house show earlier in 1981 defending his Inter-Gender title.) Soon Kaufman began making appearances wrestling women on the undercard of a regular Memphis house show.
This went on for a little while. Kaufman would appear, win his match then disappear. In 1982 though he began to get more vocal as he became more successful. Kaufman would grab the microphone at the Mid-South Coliseum, berate the fans and proclaim his own greatness, ensuring a chorus of catcalls would be returned to him. He often claimed no woman could defeat him and if, by chance, a woman did defeat him, then she could marry him. When Kaufman’s condescending personality mixed with the idea of his wrestling, defeating, then belittling women, the area fans, who took their wrestling very seriously, really grew to dislike the skinny comedian. As Kaufman’s undefeated "record" and obnoxious nature began to grow, Jerry Lawler began to take notice.
Lawler told fans he felt as if Kaufman was making fun of wrestling and wrestling fans with his appearances so he determined to coach one of Kaufman’s opponents, a lady named Foxy. Despite Lawler’s involvement the comedian remained undefeated. After the match Kaufman continued to taunt Foxy which lead to a shove from Lawler. Lawler then suggested Kaufman step up in competition and wrestle him. Kaufman went ballistic at Lawler’s physical contact and promised to sue Lawler by claiming he would use his Hollywood connections, money and power to stop Lawler.
Finally, Kaufman agreed to battle Lawler and the big moment arrived on April 5 with Lawler wiping the floor with Kaufman via disqualification which technically gave Kaufman the win. Lawler used the piledriver, a hold forbidden to use in Memphis rings. Since it was rarely used fans were educated to believe that when it was used it was devastating. Lawler delivered two piledrivers to Kaufman on this night. The end result saw the comedian carted out of the Mid-South Coliseum on a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance. The media, local and national, reported Kaufman was hospitalized from the night’s events. Kaufman even appeared on video in a hospital bed in traction claiming his wrestling appearances were only part of his act and he thought Lawler, the professional wrestler, was acting as well…until the first piledriver. Kaufman would then claim Lawler’s actions had convinced him professional wrestling was more than he thought it was cracked up to be.
It seemed Lawler had shut up Kaufman. Since area fans now understood that Kaufman understood wrestling was "legitimate" it gave some validity to anything Kaufman would do after the April match. And Kaufman, as good wrestling performers do, understood professional wrestling enough to know that in wrestling the "work" is the thing. This meant he would return. Several weeks later at the Coliseum, Kaufman, wearing a neck brace, vowed to one day get even with Lawler.
The feud would continue but on a much different playing field. Kaufman would return to Saturday Night Live on May 15 and the videotape of the Lawler piledrivers would be shown as Kaufman talked about the situation. The feud between Lawler and Kaufman though went to a totally new level when the pair appeared together on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman on July 28. There everyone would be treated to a wild segment that seemed to get out of Letterman’s control.
On the show Kaufman wore a neck brace still selling his neck injury from Lawler’s piledriver nearly five months earlier. As the two squabbled Lawler became fed up and slapped Kaufman. Kaufman would go nuts, storm off the set then return with a heavily censored verbal tirade. He would toss Letterman’s coffee onto Lawler as the studio audience, a pro-Kaufman crowd, roared at the wild action.
Kaufman’s behavior, especially his profanity-laced outburst, ruffled feathers of network officials and some viewers. Because of the controversy Kaufman’s career seemed to be in some trouble. While he had endured a good deal of controversy before, many in the entertainment industry felt Kaufman was going too far by involving himself in professional wrestling which was, as they would remind everyone, fake. These critics apparently didn’t realize the "work" was the thing and they were being "worked" just as much, if not more, as the fans in Memphis and others who bought into the whole Lawler-Kaufman scenario. This quietly turned the tables on pro wrestling’s detractors since they often claimed those who followed the business couldn’t see past it’s obvious staged performances yet they didn’t recognize the genius of Kaufman’s performance which drew them into believing he had gone too far by getting so involved in it.
After the Letterman appearance, Kaufman would then threaten lawsuits against Lawler and NBC although the threats only kept the feud in the public’s eye. Kaufman would tell reporter Geraldo Rivera that he would win the lawsuit against NBC and turn the network into a twenty-four-hour-a-day wrestling network.
Kaufman is also known for another contribution to professional wrestling through the cult classic My Breakfast with Blassie which features wrestling great Freddie Blassie. Although the short film was not released until March 1984 it was actually filmed in early August 1982, in the midst of the controversy Kaufman and Lawler had created with their media appearances. Kaufman would appear in the film wearing a neck brace selling the injury Lawler delivered to him in April.
The Letterman show appearance and Rivera interview would garner some publicity for the Memphis promotion and wrestling specifically, although most of it consisted of tongue-in-cheek reports about wrestling as nothing more than a fascination for the feeble minded. This was rich irony since Kaufman’s act had also drawn them (the media) in enough to get publicity, and any publicity, most wrestling promoters would say, is good publicity. Despite the bad press the Kaufman appearances in Memphis received, it made other promoters notice how the use of mainstream celebrities could generate interest and publicity outside their core audience, and offer the opportunity to draw in more fans, thus leading to increased revenue for them.
After the summer appearance of Lawler and Kaufman on Letterman’s show, Kaufman seemed to disappear from the scene awash in his threats to sue everyone in sight. Lawler, in a sense, seemed to be left laughing at the bony comedian’s attempt to belittle the precious business of wrestling. Kaufman though was hardly through as he would interject himself into a serious situation with Lawler in early 1983 that would leave Lawler fuming and Kaufman laughing as he held to his promise to get even with the King.
April, May and June 1982
Jerry Lawler wound up defeating Dutch Mantell for the Southern title. Lawler and Mantell, after several months of a bitter feud, would patch up their differences enough to challenge the tag team of Bobby Eaton and Sweet Brown Sugar, who held the Southern tag titles. Lawler’s Southern title reign ended at the hands of Kendo Nagasaki. Lawler regained the belt but then lost it to Kimala. Nagasaki and Kimala were originally managed by James J. Dillion, who feuded with Lawler in Florida. Their feud had enough legs to bring it to the Memphis territory for part of the summer. Kimala was one of the most unusual characters ever to pass through any territory. He was billed as a savage from the wilds of Uganda and was accompanied to ringside by a keeper named Kim Chee. In reality Kimala was Jim Harris who had worked the area in 1980 as Sugar Bear Harris.
The Southern tag titles passed from Jimmy Hart’s team of Bobby Eaton and Sweet Brown Sugar to Bill Dundee and Steve Keirn. Keirn and Dundee then dropped the belts to The Midnight Express trio of Norvell Austin, Dennis Condrey and Randy Rose.
Dutch Mantell’s run as Mid-America champion ended when Bobby Eaton took the title. Eaton though didn’t hold it long as he dropped it to King Cobra.
Working the circuit at this time were such stars as Stan Lane, The Monk, The Angel, Bobby Fulton, The Dream Machine, Ric McCord, J.R. Hart, Jackie Fargo, Ricky Gibson, Robert Gibson, Gypsy Joe, Tojo Yamamoto, The Iron Sheik, Danny Davis, Eric Embry, Chief Thundercloud, The Hollywood Hippie, Carl Fergie, Crazy Luke Graham, Joe Stark, Sonny King, Tommy Rich, Ron Bass, Roy Rodgers and more.
Area cards often featured gimmick matches, matches that held unique or special stipulations. The two most favorite seemed to be the hair match, where the loser of the match would lose his hair, and the loser leaves town match, where the loser of the match would leave the territory. During the summer the promotion (re)introduced another gimmick match to the area when Bill Dundee and Sweet Brown Sugar met in a scaffold match in late June. The two competitors would climb onto some boards usually fifteen to twenty feet above the arena floor with the object of the match being to make your opponent fall off the scaffold and onto the ring mat below before he did this to you. Dundee would win this match. The promotion had used this gimmick as early as 1972 when Jerry Jarrett won a best of three falls scaffold match over Don Greene in Louisville. The idea would be brought back a few times by the promotion over the next few months and years but the idea would be popularized later in the decade by the NWA promotion in their "skywalker" matches usually involving Jarrett veterans Robert Gibson, Ricky Morton, Dennis Condrey, Bobby Eaton and Jim Cornette.
Mother Must Be So Proud
Image is everything, so claimed a popular advertising phrase from the 1990s. The image someone projects can be so convincingly portrayed that over time it becomes difficult to separate the image from the real thing. During the 1980s professional wrestling was treated to one of the business’s greatest attractions who actually got his start as a performer in 1982 in the Memphis circuit. His image was that he was a "momma’s boy", an image that one Jim Cornette played to the hilt to great success in a number of territories and then onto a national stage. In reality, while Cornette’s mother was a great influence on her son, she was hardly the rich Louisville socialite who encouraged her son to create havoc in the wrestling world that his wrestling image made her out to be. It was another woman though, someone else’s mother, who played a major part in the career Jim Cornette would begin to build in 1982.
Jim Cornette grew up in Louisville, Kentucky watching televised wrestling from the Nick Gulas promotion and also the Indianapolis-based Dick Afflis and Wilbur Snyder promotion (WWA). He would travel to nearby arenas to attend house show cards when he could. He even served as president of the Bob Armstrong Fan Club for a time. By the early 1980s he had already been working in various capacities in the business. He had sold tickets and worked at arenas as ring announcer. He then moved on to write magazine articles and take photographs for the area programs. Many of these articles and photographs would be featured in Norman Keitzer’s national newsstand magazine, The Wrestling News. Cornette was also known by a group of fans who read various underground wrestling newsletters. Cornette is credited with creating a star system to rate wrestling matches that was used in the underground wrestling newsletter, Weasel’s World, published by Norm Dooley, a Cornette crony and wrestling newsletter pioneer. The star system and much of Dooley’s style would be imitated by Dave Meltzer with his Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which for years has proved to be the leading "on-the-level" wrestling publication (as opposed to newsstand magazines of the 1960s through the 1980s that mixed some truthful news about the business with some fabricated items in order to sell copies).
Along this interesting journey, Christine Jarrett, Nick Gulas’ one-time right hand and the mother of Jerry Jarrett, noticed Cornette. Cornette, as a writer and photographer on the circuit, often dealt with Christine. She saw he had a quick wit and loved the business. Miss Christine, still a force in her son’s company, began telling her son that the Louisville native deserved a shot at something more than photography.
Finally, Jerry Jarrett relented and Jim Cornette’s career would begin to develop. Lance Russell brought Cornette out to the interview area one Saturday on the TV show and introduced the Louisville native. Cornette then expressed his desire to become a wrestling manager. Russell, who made the fans aware of Cornette’s work as a writer and photographer, was skeptical about Cornette’s goals voicing his concerns that Cornette was stepping out of his league. Cornette brushed aside Russell’s worry by stating that his mother was underwriting his efforts, setting up the gimmick Cornette would use for years to follow, the spoiled rich momma’s boy, a gimmick used in the 1970s by manager Playboy Gary Hart.
Russell’s cynicism set up a storyline for Cornette for a few weeks. Who would Cornette manage? He would first approach Jerry Lawler who turned him down and ridiculed him. He then approached Bill Dundee who also wasn’t interested. Finally, he introduced Sherri Martel as his charge. He would also come to an agreement with Dirty Dutch Mantell that would last briefly. He would cost Mantell a victory in a Southern title match against Jerry Lawler. After the match, Cornette threw a temper tantrum in the ring, getting over the spoiled momma’s boy gimmick, as Mantell watched silently. The following week Dutch would wallop Cornette and send him scurrying for more talent to manage.
Later in 1982, Cornette would be paired with Jesse Barr, a legitimate amateur wrestling star, and Crusher Broomfield, a mountain of a man who had worked with the rival ICW promotion much of the previous year and who would see great success later as The One Man Gang. As Cornette’s stay in the area continued into 1983 he would also manage Apocalypse (Karl Krupp’s new gimmick), The Exotic Adrian Street and Miss Linda as well as The Masked Galaxians (Danny Davis and Ken Wayne under masks again) and Duke Myers. Although Cornette’s men, often referred to as a "dynasty", would see some success Cornette, who took to donning a captain’s hat, had to live in the shadows of the area’s number one manager, Jimmy Hart.
Despite his obvious ability and hard work on interviews and at ringside during matches, Cornette could not overcome the foothold Hart had in the area. He was also young in this end of the business and needed room to learn and grow. Opportunity though is often the missing ingredient in some career tracks. Cornette watched the nightly antics of Jimmy Hart, considered by many the top manager in the business at the time, and waited for his moment to shine. That moment would come by the end of 1983. Then the Momma’s Boy from Louisville, Kentucky, would be poised for one of the great runs in wrestling history for Bill Watts’ Mid-South group, all because someone else’s mom, the promoter’s mom, Christine Jarrett, took a liking to him and saw potential in him others had yet to recognize. Meantime, until that moment when he would begin to steal the spotlight arrived, 1983 would turn out to be much like 1982 had been, a learning and growing opportunity.
July, August and September 1982
Jerry Lawler’s regained the Southern title from James J. Dillion’s Kimala during the summer. Kimala had run through a number of opponents but Lawler had his number and regained the belt. He paid an unusual price though to get the title back. Lawler briefly hooked up with arch-rival Jimmy Hart to put down the challenge of Kimala, and others brought in by Dillion. The reuniting of Lawler and Hart to battle a common enemy brought out big crowds. It also led Hart to believe Lawler would find the working agreement acceptable and would see Lawler invite him back as manager. Lawler though had no such ideas as he dropped Hart from his managerial slot as soon as his usefulness had served it’s purpose. Naturally, this would add fuel to the Lawler-Hart feud which was set ablaze by the repercussions felt from a Lawler-Ric Flair TV studio match in August. Hart would also end up managing Kimala for a brief time. Meantime, Lawler turned back the challenge of one of the business’s top heels at the time, The Iron Sheik, during the summer.
The Midnight Express lost the Southern tag titles when Norvell Austin and Dennis Condrey dropped the belts to Ron Bass and Stan Lane. Bass and Lane then lost the belts to Jim the Claw Mitchell and The Dream Machine who dropped them to Jimmy Hart’s team of Bobby Eaton and Sweet Brown Sugar. Steve Keirn and Terry Taylor then won the titles but lost them back to Eaton and Sugar.
Dutch Mantell regained the Mid-America belt from King Cobra in July. Bobby Eaton though upended Mantell to take the belt back. Eaton would then drop the title to Bill Dundee on the TV show, thanks in part to Dutch Mantell keeping Jimmy Hart out of the action. The Dundee-Mantell alliance though would not last as Mantell then downed Dundee to take the belt back. Dundee and Mantell’s feud featured a number of gimmick matches including bullwhip matches and taped fist matches.
The promotion also ran some shows in Indiana in some WWA cities for a time. Spike Huber and Steve Regal were recognized as WWA tag champions but lost them to the New York Dolls: Rick McGraw and The Dream Machine during this time frame.
Working the area for Jarrett at this time were such stars as The Angel, Carl Fergie, Roy Rodgers, Gypsy Joe, James J. Dillion (who came in for a week and worked some matches around the circuit against Lawler, who worked a few Florida dates at this time), Jimmy Valiant, Ric McCord, Bobby Fulton, Kendo Nagasaki, Robert Gibson, Buddy Landell, Mike Graham, Baron Von Raschke, The Masked Super Destroyer, Crusher Broomfield, Kimala II (area mainstay Stan Frazier, doing a take-off on the Kimala gimmick), Sherri Martel, Lelani Kai, Vivian St. John, Velvet McIntyre and more.
An out of ring incident saw things turn ugly between the Memphis stars and their Kentucky opposition, the ICW. Randy Savage and Bill Dundee allegedly got into an out of ring altercation in a parking lot. Dundee would be out of action for over a month. Upon his return to the TV show he joked about being attacked by "four gorillas…nine feet tall" as he left a Nashville gym. Meantime, the ICW continued to survive and provide competition to Jarrett in Kentucky.
History isn’t just something that fills musty thick books in some off-the- beaten-path library. Storytellers use history to add color and flavor to a character’s present often breathing life into characters that would be dull otherwise. In 1982, Jerry Jarrett, a master storyteller using professional wrestlers, reached into the area’s past to create a team of two long-running area stars.
Steve Keirn had entered the area in 1981 after a stint in Georgia where he had held the Georgia title and the Georgia TV title. Keirn’s career had started in 1974 in Florida. He worked mostly the southern circuits early in his career including the Knoxville, Gulf Coast, Georgia and Mid-Atlantic circuits before returning to Florida in 1976 where he most often teamed with Mike Graham. His greatest success occurred in Florida where at various times he had held the Southern title, Florida title, TV title, Florida tag titles, US tag titles and North American tag titles. Keirn also held the NWA International Junior Heavyweight title for a few months at the end of 1979 and into 1980 losing it to Tatsumi Fujinami. Keirn was also billed as NWA Rookie of the Year for 1974, his debut year.
Keirn received a push immediately upon his arrival for Jarrett. He copped the Mid-America title early in his stay and then settled into the tag team ranks by forming a team with Superstar Bill Dundee. Together they held the Southern tag titles.
Keirn then would spend his stay in the area mostly working middle of the cards and usually in tag team situations. A memorable feud for Keirn involved the team he formed with Bill Dundee to battle The Midnight Express trio of Norvell Austin, Dennis Condrey and Randy Rose. Keirn’s father, a celebrated Vietnam prisoner of war, Colonel Richard Keirn, was worked into the feud as the Express, especially Austin, doubted Colonel Keirn’s bravery. With over one year in the territory under his belt, Keirn’s career needed freshening up some. He wasn’t alone in that regard.
Stan Lane had entered the area full time in the fall of 1981 and was paired with Jimmy Hart’s First Family. Prior to this, Lane, a karate fanatic, had spent a good deal of time working the Southeastern promotion in Alabama where he had a run as US Junior Heavyweight champion. He worked the Georgia promotion some in 1980 holding the Georgia Junior Heavyweight title. He then came into national prominence first in Florida in 1978 where he teamed with Bryan St. John to hold the state tag titles. Lane and St. John would hold the Florida tag belts on three occasions, once downing Graham and Keirn for the honors. Initially, Lane was discovered working as a lifeguard by Nature Boy Ric Flair who would train Lane for his ring career. Early in his career, Lane was billed as Stan Flair. For a time he also borrowed the "Nature Boy" moniker to use as his own.
Lane, like Keirn, also found success early in his stay in the area as he had paired with Sweet Brown Sugar to form a team to challenge Dundee and Keirn for the Southern tag titles. Things would change though as Lane was turned into a fan favorite in early 1982. This saw his ex-manager Jimmy Hart place a bounty on Lane. The Lawler-Hart feud went on the back-burner as Hart’s main feud early in 1982 was against Lane. By mid-year Lane was in an unusual team with Ron Bass feuding against The Midnight Express.
Promoter Jerry Jarrett had long proved to be a savvy promoter. He decided to put Keirn and Lane together as a tag team. Together they could be successful but Jarrett decided to add another piece to the puzzle.
After the split with Nick Gulas, Jarrett did not use the services of Jackie Fargo for over two years. He had never really used Fargo on any sort of regular schedule instead using him as a special attraction, which got over his appearances as even more unique and rare. Longtime fans, still an important part of the Jarrett audience, revered their hero, Fargo. Younger fans had seen enough of Fargo, often with the hero of their generation, Jerry Lawler, and often against the area’s top heel, Jimmy Hart, to respect and enjoy his occasional appearances. In short, the name of Jackie Fargo, twenty-five plus years after his first appearance, still meant something in the area.
Jarrett then called upon Fargo to lend his credibility to the new team forming. Dubbed The Fabulous Ones, as a nod to The Fabulous Jackie Fargo, Fargo then claimed he decided he would lend his advice and expertise to a new generation of stars and upon looking on who was available he decided upon Keirn and Lane. Jarrett then put the two blondes in top hats, sparkly tuxedo jackets and canes and made a music video with the pair set to the Billy Squier song, "Everybody Wants You".
With the blessing of an area legend, the costumes, rock music and (unusual for the time) use of music videos (several were made), The Fabulous Ones got over in a big way, and ushered in a period for the promotion where Jarrett and his crew would create a number of very good and successful tag teams. It also opened the eyes of the promotion to the use of rock music and music videos in making new talent successful and older talent seem fresher. The success of the new team was good news since the promotion had big plans for the team.
The team was placed in a program against a Jimmy Hart-managed team called the New York Dolls consisting of The Dream Machine (Troy Graham) and Rick McGraw. The Dolls seemed to be a near carbon-copy of the Fabulous Ones, also appearing in tuxedo jackets and top hats, with the major difference being the Dolls were rulebreakers. After their feud was settled the plan was to have The Fabs, as they would come to be known, turn on their mentor, Fargo and hook up with upstart manager Jim Cornette. They would then feud with the reunited team of Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee, and on special occasions, Jackie Fargo. This would not occur in 1982.
Beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, the Fabs, who adopted Fargo’s attitude right down to his brawling tactics and famed "Fargo strut", got over more than any team in the area in years. Young female fans, who bought into the titillating videos made about the team, were especially enamored so Jarrett scrapped plans to turn the team into heels fearful of turning fans away. The promotion had brought in a team consisting of two tough, and by contrast, not very pretty veterans, Jonathan Boyd and Luke Williams, billed as The New Zealand Sheepherders who were moved into a program against the Fabulous Ones. This feud would prove to be successful and help cement the team of Keirn and Lane as legendary in the annals of Memphis area wrestling history. The promotion would continue to use Fargo on special occasions to boost attendance even more successfully bridging the generation gap between an old school wrestler and his protégés and also between longtime fans and newer fans. With the advent of the Fabulous Ones and the unique use of Jackie Fargo, Jerry Jarrett appealed to the interests of a loyal longtime fan base and a new fan base that would also prove to be devoted with time.
October, November and December 1982
Jerry Lawler’s Southern title reign was cut short by AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel. Lawler regained the title by downing Bockwinkel in a match where only Bockwinkel’s Southern title was at stake while Lawler put his hair at stake if he didn’t win. Lawler’s victory placed into the minds of the fans that he could defeat a world champion. Lawler’s Southern title reign ended though when he lost the title to Jimmy Hart’s Sabu the Wildman (not Terry Brunk of ECW fame but Jack Snuka who also appeared as Cocoa Samoa and who is the brother of Jimmy Snuka). Sabu then dropped the title to Terry Taylor.
The Southern tag titles were captured by The Fabulous Ones: Steve Keirn and Stan Lane in the fall when they downed Jimmy Hart’s team of Bobby Eaton and Sweet Brown Sugar. The Fabs were proving to be a hot team but they were cooled off some when they ran into the wild tag team of The New Zealand Sheepherders: Jonathan Boyd and Luke Williams. The Sheepherders made an immediate splash upon their arrival in the territory with such tactics as attacking and mauling promoter Eddie Marlin (attacking authority figures or non-wrestling personalities was beginning to become a Memphis staple as The Dream Machine had once throttled Lance Russell). The Sheepherders also were Bill Dundee’s first feud back after his out of ring incident with Randy Savage. Dundee would patch up differences with both Dutch Mantell and Jerry Lawler to battle The Sheepherders in matches around the territory. By year’s end, The Sheepherders had downed The Fabs to win the Southern tag titles.
Dutch Mantell held onto the Mid-America title losing it briefly to Jesse Barr managed by Jim Cornette. Mantell would regain the title and hold it most of the rest of the year before losing it to Sabu the Wildman. The working agreement Jarrett had with the WWA fell apart by the year’s end so the promotion no longer recognized the WWA tag titles.
Working the territory at this time were such stars as The Angel, Jackie Fargo, Roughhouse Fargo, Crusher Broomfield, Robert Gibson, Bobby Fulton, Kimala, Steve Regal, Spike Huber, Sweet Brown Sugar, Buddy Landel, Carl Fergie, Jesse Barr, The New York Dolls: Rick McGraw and Troy Graham, Ricky Morton, Apocalypse, Jimmy Valiant, Max Blue, El Bracero, Dick the Bruiser, Abdullah the Great, The Exotic Adrian Street and Miss Linda and more.
George Gulas popped up again in middle Tennessee, southern Kentucky and northern Alabama. George returned to ring action for a group operated by Russ Edwards and Nick Gulas known as Mid-South Pro Wrestling, which had absolutely no association with the Bill Watts group which shared a similar name. Joey Rossi held their singles title while George reunited with Tojo Yamamoto to hold their tag titles. Also working for the group were such Gulas (and sometimes, Jarrett) stalwarts as Chief Thundercloud, Tommy Heggie, David Novak (one of the Bounty Hunters), Butch Thornton and Roger Howell.
Jerry Lawler worked a few other territories late in the year. He traveled to work the Southwest territory in Texas feuding against Mr. Piledriver Bob Sweetan. After nearly a decade away, he would pop up in Atlanta. This time though things were different. The Atlanta TV show could be seen all over the country due to their exposure on cable television. Lawler appeared on the World Championship Wrestling TV show (renamed such in August 1982, previously it was Georgia Championship Wrestling) to set up an upcoming Atlanta match against Rowdy Roddy Piper. Piper had been turned face in the late summer and had become one of the most popular stars in the country. Unfortunately, Piper and the promotion had a falling out in the week leading up to the match and Piper left. The next week Lawler was moved into an Atlanta match against Tommy Rich. The problem for Memphis fans though wasn’t the change in opponents for Lawler, it was Lawler himself, who had appeared for two weeks on Atlanta TV as a smarmy heel, the opposite of his Memphis role. Lawler would try to explain why he did what he did one week on the Memphis TV show. Despite his efforts it all exposed a problem some were learning about the reach of cable television and how it related to professional wrestling. The world was becoming smaller and the territories could not be protected like they had for years. It was a lesson some in the promotional game would never learn.
Sadly, Harry Thornton, one time co-promoter with Nick Gulas and the longtime voice for the live Chattanooga studio show, and, for awhile the Nashville studio show, passed away. Thornton, who retired from the wrestling business in 1980, had continued to co-host Chattanooga’s popular The Morning Show on WDEF-TV after his wrestling retirement. His health was poor at times though and doctors advised him to retire from The Morning Show, which he did in July 1982. A few months after that retirement his health problems worsened and Thornton died on November 15 at the age of 64.
Meantime, back in Memphis, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. Lawler had rode a wave of success since his 1981 return that had seen the promotion do extremely well at the gate. Lawler understood his role in the promotion’s success and felt he was not appreciated as he should be by Jerry Jarrett. Lawler had gotten together with TV announcer Lance Russell and the two had decided to leave Jarrett and form their own promotion. Jerry Jarrett was unaware of this as 1982 came to a close. All he knew was he had an exciting weekly TV show with a great announcing team and three major stars in Lawler, Bill Dundee and Jimmy Hart. The future seemed very bright to Jarrett but what he didn’t know would come out early in the new year.
The King Gets A Flair For Some Gold
During the territory days it was rare when two major stars, entrenched deeply in their own distinct territories, ended up crossing paths. In 1982 though two of the business’s biggest territorial stars would be face-to-face in the famed Memphis TV studio which hosted the weekly Championship Wrestling show.
By 1982, Ric Flair was recognized as the NWA champion. He was also acknowledged by many within the business and a number of fans who religiously followed the business as possibly the best performer the business had ever seen. A decade earlier, few would have seen Flair as the standard bearer for the business.
Legendary AWA star and promoter Verne Gagne had trained Flair for his ring debut. Actually, Flair had been in Gagne’s camp a year earlier but dropped out. He returned, and in late 1972, would have his first match. He would then proceed to work the AWA territory for the following year and a half appearing low on the AWA house show cards. Finally in mid-1974 at the recommendation of Chief Wahoo McDaniel, Flair was brought into the Mid-Atlantic promotion and paired with veteran and area legend Rip Hawk, who was initially billed as Flair’s uncle.
Flair quickly turned heads and the promotion, aided not only by Flair but by the legendary Johnny Valentine and other stars such as Mr. Wrestling Tim Woods and the aforementioned McDaniel, began to catch on fire. Almost as soon as the promotion began to turn up the heat, Flair’s career nearly ended in a 1975 airplane crash that did in fact end Valentine’s career.
Flair would return and during the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s would become one of the business’s brightest prospects engaging in feuds against McDaniel, Ole and Gene Anderson, Jimmy Snuka, Paul Orndorff, Blackjack Mulligan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Ricky Steamboat and briefly against the legendary Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, his nickname’s sake. Flair’s stellar work ethic and great heel character helped turn the Mid-Atlantic territory into one of the most successful of all the territories.
Flair branched out some and began working shows in the NWA stronghold of St. Louis, run by Sam Muchnick. He also appeared on the Atlanta TV show which was expanding audiences by appearing on cable. He worked a select number of dates in New York City’s fabled Madison Square Garden, Japan and in Florida. Finally, on September 17, 1981 Flair became NWA champion by downing Dusty Rhodes in Kansas City.
The Memphis promotion had been an NWA promotion for years but by 1978 after the split between Nick Gulas and Jerry Jarrett, the promotion began using AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel on cards frequently. Prior to that though the promotion had effectively gotten Jerry Lawler over as a serious contender to any major singles title by bringing in major stars from other territories such as Bobo Brazil, The Sheik, Mr. Wrestling II and Dick the Bruiser to battle Lawler. Lawler, then still a heel, would come through the match victorious in some manner. This would lead to Lawler getting a shot at the NWA champion at that time. Lawler would battle Jack Brisco, Terry Funk and Harley Race in various matches, usually in Memphis to sell-out crowds, in title matches. Lawler, usually a heel on a regular week to week basis in the territory, would often be cheered in these matches which often let the NWA champion play subtle heel, since the fans wanted to see a hometown boy win the belt but also likely because the promotion had pushed Lawler as tough and virtually unbeatable, qualities the fans respected.
Lawler despite his success had never won the coveted NWA or AWA titles. He had wrestled a few of the champions to draws or inconclusive decisions (Jimmy Valiant once cost Lawler the NWA title by running in and busting a beer bottle his head as he wrestled Harley Race.) At various times upon his 1981 return Lawler had told fans how important becoming world champion was to him which got over the overall importance of the world title and restated Lawler’s ultimate wrestling goal giving them something to anticipate. Since Lawler had beaten everybody thrown in his path, fans were absolutely sure if given a fair chance, the King would become world champion.
In August 1982, NWA champion Ric Flair came to Memphis, the city where he was born and the city Jerry Lawler ruled, for the Championship Wrestling TV show. Flair was there to sign a contract with promoter Eddie Marlin for an upcoming title defense in Memphis against the Southern champion. Flair was impressed with Memphis he said, considering he thought it was nothing more than a backwater town, a shrewd comment setting up his heel role that would be brought out later in the show.
After Flair’s segment, Jimmy Hart talked about how he and Lawler had patched up their differences enough to defeat James J. Dillion’s wrestler Kimala. Hart though was seething about Lawler’s refusal to add his services as manager and vowed to continue his war against Lawler. He then brought out Lawler’s cousin, Carl Fergie, who had recently won a Southern title shot, and who was now aligning with Hart, claiming Lawler had mistreated Fergie.
Later, Jerry Lawler came out to talk about Jimmy Hart and Carl Fergie but the conversation turned to the rare appearance being made by Flair. Lawler then called out Flair as the NWA champion was about to enter the ring to face Ric McCord. Flair toyed with Lawler by asking him his name. Flair even hinted at Lawler’s recent appearance on David Letterman’s TV show with Andy Kaufman, which drew national mainstream press for wrestling. But on this sticky summer day in Memphis it was Lawler who was busy playing head games.
Lawler played to Flair’s ego by continually putting Flair over as someone who could easily defeat anyone in the promotion. Naturally, Lawler was angling to get in the ring with Flair. Flair finally consented to wrestling Lawler and the two then locked up in a ten-minute match (the match actually went almost eight minutes) with Lawler further goading the champion to put the title on the line. The match went to a draw with Flair locking his famed figure four leglock on Lawler as the bell rang calling an end to the match.
Flair, confident victory was almost his, then demanded five more minutes against Lawler. In the five minute match, Lawler began getting the most of Flair so the champion retreated to the studio floor, grabbed his title belt and left. Lawler claimed victory and demanded the title belt.
After a commercial break an incensed Flair reappeared with Eddie Marlin and Jimmy Hart. Flair nullified Lawler’s victory by claiming there was no contract signed so he still held the NWA title, a ruling Marlin had to uphold. Flair then would present a $10,000 check to Jimmy Hart to find someone who would put Lawler out of action.
As often was the case with the NWA champion’s appearances in the various territories, and specifically with Flair’s TV appearance in Memphis at this time, he was used as a catalyst in setting up feuds before leaving setting the area up for a series of hot programs. Flair’s appearance in Memphis set the Lawler-Hart feud back into place.
A number of individuals lined up to get their shot at Lawler, and, by association, Flair’s bounty money including Fergie, Kimala, Dutch Mantell and Baron Von Raschke. Another scenario though unfolded when Lawler dropped the Southern title to Nick Bockwinkel, who had just recaptured the AWA title. Bockwinkel then announced since he was Southern champion he would get the title shot against NWA champion Ric Flair and that he was having the match moved away from Memphis and to the west coast. Although in a few weeks he would regain the Southern title, Lawler’s chance at Flair’s NWA title was gone.
Despite the match against Flair on TV and Bockwinkel’s machinations it would not put an end to Lawler’s quest for a major world championship. With the focus moving away from Flair and to Bockwinkel, things were falling into place for Lawler and the Memphis fans to get what they wanted, a world title for Jerry Lawler.
On December 27 in Memphis, Lawler got a shot at Bockwinkel’s AWA title. During the match referee Jerry Calhoun collided with Lawler and fell to the mat. Bockwinkel covered Lawler for the pinfall but Calhoun was still not alert from the bump with Lawler. As Bockwinkel turned to assist Calhoun, Lawler rose to his feet and decked Bockwinkel. Bockwinkel fell to the mat with his feet dangling on the bottom rope, Lawler covered the champion and Calhoun, still groggy but observant enough to recognize a pin needed counting, made the three count. Promoter Eddie Marlin and others rushed into the ring to congratulate Lawler as Randy Hales announced over the public address system that Lawler was the new AWA champion. Lawler’s dream had finally come true.
Bockwinkel rushed to ringside demanding announcer Lance Russell admit he saw Lawler illegally pin him. Bockwinkel claimed the videotape footage of the match would vindicate him. Bockwinkel grew more flustered and frustrated realizing his pleas were falling on ears that could have cared less. Russell and the ten thousand fans in the Mid-South Coliseum that winter night understood one thing, their longtime hero had finally reached the pinnacle of wrestling. Jerry Lawler, wrestling’s King and Memphis’ major mat attraction, had at last become world champion.
Professional wrestling was changing and Jerry Jarrett was in the forefront of some of these changes especially in the use of music videos to get over his talent which was a major reason The Fabulous Ones were such a smash success. Other promoters were testing the waters of cable television and flashy video production and in some cases were expanding the borders of their territories. Jarrett though used the celebrity of comedian Andy Kaufman, and his controversial reputation, to get national exposure for his promotion. The opposition from the ICW in Kentucky continued and although Jarrett was doing well at the gate in Kentucky he couldn’t quite put the outlaw group away yet. Tensions got out of hand between the two groups with a nasty out of ring incident between Bill Dundee and ICW star Randy Savage which saw Dundee end up on the shelf for around five weeks. Jimmy Hart had another banner year in the area while fellow manager Jim Cornette started his ringside career. 1982 ended on a high note for area fans when Jerry Lawler scored a disputed pin over AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel to lay claim to the AWA title. Behind the scenes though Lawler and TV announcer Lance Russell felt as if they weren’t appreciated as much as they should be and were planning to leave the Jarrett promotion and launch their own promotion. 1983 looked to be a very busy year.
1983: "Memphis Middle Men"…Three major league heels create havoc in the territory…Jarrett tries an experiment with Ole Anderson…Tag team heaven…Plus, more on the ongoing saga between Jerry Lawler and Jimmy Hart…
Edsel Harrison, Mike Rodgers, Scott Teal, Charles Warburton and David Williamson
Special Addition to 1981 (last month):
There was some confusion regarding the status of the Southern title during the summer of 1981. New information suggests the following happened with the title: Jerry Lawler lost the title in a match against Chic Donovan and Jimmy Hart. Donovan’s leg was injured so Hart claimed the title. Memorable was Hart defending the title on TV against Donovan where Chic and Hart went at it in slow-motion leading to a pin by Hart. The promotion held the title up and held a tournament to name a new champion. That tournament was won by The Dream Machine who would later drop the title to Jimmy Valiant.
Back to Memphis/CWA Main