Memphis Madness: Professional Wrestling's Craziest Territory
Originally presented at Canadian Bulldog's World.
Recently, I reviewed It’s Good to be the King: The Jerry Lawler Story, an excellent WWE home video documenting the career of Jerry “The King” Lawler. Jerry Lawler worked in the Memphis area for a large part of his career and while the video focuses on this area, there’s just too much to cover in one hour and twenty two minutes.
Memphis wrestling. A territory that is still fondly remembered by its fans for its exciting matches, sometimes crazy (but always compelling) angles, and an amazing amount of talent that worked there and often was made there before moving on to bigger and better things. The Memphis wrestling promotion that I’d like to discuss is Continental (later Championship) Wrestling Association (CWA), the territory owned and operated by wrestlers Jerry Jarrett and Jerry “The King” Lawler. While the official name of the promotion was CWA, most fans referred to it as either Memphis or Mid-Southern (as the Apter magazines named it).
I remember hearing about Memphis wrestling during the early 1980’s through the Apter mags. Although I only had access to one territory, Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) and later the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), I was able to follow other promotions through the wrestling magazines. There was always something crazy going on with Memphis wrestling and most of the time, it seemed to involve the promotion’s central figure, Jerry “The King” Lawler.
In 1982, Lawler attained national attention when he wrestled TV star Andy Kaufman. Lawler piledrived Kaufman and sent him to the hospital where he suffered a neck injury (or so the media believed thanks to Kaufman’s skill at manipulating people). An appearance on The David Letterman Show where Lawler slapped Kaufman and knocked him out of his chair only captured more attention from the public (as well as this wrestling fan). In 1984 I remember reading an article about Lawler vowing to win the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight title by the end of the year or he’d retire. I couldn’t believe that anyone would make such a crazy promise. Who was this guy? Whoever he was, I wanted to see him.
In 1986, a wrestler named the Honky Tonk Man entered the WWF. I had only seen small black and white photographs of Jerry Lawler so at first, I wondered if this guy was Lawler under a different name (in reality, he was Lawler’s cousin Wayne Ferris). Before long, I realized I was mistaken and wondered if Lawler would ever come to the WWF. Unbeknownst to me, Lawler was co-owner of the CWA (along with Jerry Jarrett) and he was the company’s top star. There was no way that he was going anywhere. Simply put, he had to keep the fans coming back for more. Eventually though, the CWA (now the United States Wrestling Association) was in trouble and did a cross-promotional event with the WWF. Thus, Lawler entered the WWF in 1992, working as both a color commentator and wrestler. He lived up to my expectations and while he worked as a heel, I couldn’t help but get a kick out of his antics.
During the early 2000’s I was finally able to access Memphis wrestling thanks to the magic of bootleg DVD’s. I discovered a fantastic world of wrestling where anything could happen. Looking back at the Memphis scene, it’s obvious that Jarrett and Lawler’s booking was creative and they knew how to bring the fans back every week. Unlike some territories that ran shows at an arena every two weeks or every month, Memphis ran weekly shows in the Memphis Coliseum, selling out the 12,500 capacity arena, sometimes several weeks in a row.
CWA was no big budget promotion. Weekly TV aired out of a small TV studio. What the product lacked in production values, it made up for in heart. The wrestlers knew how to fight and a good number of them were so good on the microphone that they could talk the fans into a building i.e. buy a ticket to a live event (Those that couldn’t talk had good managers). Wrestlers such as Jerry “The King” Lawler, “Superstar” Bill Dundee, “Universal Heartthrob” Austin Idol, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and manager Jimmy Hart were capable of riling up the fans with a few sentences. These stars knew how to push the fans’ buttons whether it was getting them to cheer them on or hoping to see someone kick their teeth in.
While the promotion featured many fine tag teams (and even created two legendary teams-the Fabulous Ones and the Rock and Roll Express), I’d like to discuss some of the singles stars that made the promotion so memorable.
First and foremost comes Jerry “The King” Lawler. Whether he worked as a heel or a face, Lawler was unquestionably the main reason that fans tuned in to weekly TV and attended live events. While Lawler was a good wrestler, his greatest attribute was his ability to talk. His razor-sharp wit and rapid delivery of one-liners kept you laughing. In the ring, he was mostly a brawler but incorporated a few scientific moves including the piledriver for which he is best known. Lawler was not above cheating (either as a heel or a face), using a chain or throwing fire.
Another star of Memphis and unquestionably Lawler’s arch-rival was “Superstar” Bill Dundee. Well under 6’, Dundee was another great talker and one of the best bump-takers in the industry (given his background as a circus acrobat, this should come as no surprise). Dundee clashed with Lawler time and time again, both as a heel and as a babyface. The two men would reconcile and win multiple tag team titles (including the AWA World Tag Team Championship) but inevitably they would break up and feud again. One of Dundee’s biggest programs against Lawler was when he cost Lawler a title shot against National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Champion “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and then sent Lawler packing in a Loser Leaves Town Match.
Muscleman Austin Idol (aka “The Universal Heartthrob) wrestled previously as Mike McCord until suffering serious injuries in a 1975 plane crash. McCord got into terrific shape and rechristened himself Austin Idol. Again, Idol was excellent on the microphone and could work as face or heel (although his cocky nature made him a natural heel). Idol’s biggest moment in Memphis was when he faced Lawler in a hair vs. hair cage match in 1987 and defeated Lawler with the help of “Wildfire” Tommy Rich. The fans in the Mid-South Coliseum were so irate at Idol and Rich that security barely got them back to the dressing room.
Although he wasn’t as much of a Memphis mainstay as Dundee or Idol, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant another tremendously charismatic brawler, had some good campaigns in CWA. Jimmy Valiant worked programs both as a heel and a face including a lengthy program against Jerry Lawler as well as a feud with “Wildfire” Tommy Rich over the promotion’s Southern Heavyweight Title. Valiant recorded a song “The Ballad of Handsome Jimmy” that was used as his entrance music and got airtime on Memphis radio.
“Macho Man” Randy Savage was a big rival to Lawler both in the ring and out of the ring as his father Angelo Poffo ran a rival promotion (International Championship Wrestling) to the CWA. After the promotion folded, Savage, Poffo, and Savage’s brother Lanny Poffo came to work for Memphis. Savage’s run in Memphis was notable in singles and tag team action with brother Lanny. Although Savage had a memorable run against Lawler, he is best remembered for his tag match with Lanny Poffo against the Rock and Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson) where Savage piledrived Morton through a table.
Manager Jimmy Hart was a former member of the rock band the Gentrys (who had a number one Top Five song on the Billboard chart in 1965) whose love of wrestling led to him becoming a manager. Hart actually attended high school with Lawler before both men broke into the industry. Hart managed Lawler until Lawler broke his leg in a football game (a legitimate injury), Hart dropped Lawler, saying that when a race horse broke its leg, you went out and bought a new one. Hart’s ever-changing line-up of wrestlers known as “The First Family” created havoc for Lawler and the company’s babyfaces but inevitably he would get his comeuppance at the hands of the babyfaces. Hart would start his interviews by proclaiming that “This is the greatest day of my life”. His machinegun-like chatter would drive announcer Lance Russell (as well as the fans) crazy.
No discussion of Memphis wrestling would be complete without mentioning the promotion’s announce team of Lance Russell and Dave Brown. On the surface, they looked about as laid back as you could imagine; all they needed were rocking chairs to sit on while they called the matches. However, once you watched them work a couple of times, you realized that they simply made things look easy and didn’t draw attention to themselves but to the wrestlers. Lance Russell did what a wrestling broadcaster is supposed to do-get over angles and help wrestlers get their points across during interviews. While Dave Brown seemed to be under the influence of heavy tranquilizers at times, he was a great sounding board for Russell and provided limited but always insightful color commentary.
Even Batman wrestled in Memphis
There are so many other players who made Memphis such a hot promotion but these are just a few of the top people, many of whom went on to national success. The CWA was a truly one of a kind promotion and I invite you to check it out either on YouTube or through tape trading.
Wrestling legend Jim Cornette (who started working as a manager in Memphis) has a great article on Jimmy Hart