A Case of Beer, A Pay Increase, and A New Haircut – My Favorite Professional Wrestling Angle
"For those who understand, no explanation is needed. For those who do not understand, no explanation is possible." Traditional adage about professional wrestling.
Piledrivers and chair shots. Cage matches and battle royals. Jerry “The King” Lawler, “The Superstar” Bill Dundee, “Handsome” Jimmy Valient. The Fabulous Ones. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express. Men that wore masks and were from “parts unknown.” Bleached blondes, fire balls and foreign objects.
From the 1950s through the mid-90s, professional wrestling was a major part of Memphis culture. Local stars included Sputnik Monroe, Billy Wicks, “The Fabulous One” Jackie Fargo, Tojo Yamamoto and, of course, Jerry “The King” Lawler. I have a few memories of wrestling from the 1970s (Lawler working with manager Sam Bass, the famous empty arena match with Terry Funk), but did not become a real fan until the early 1980s. I knew it wasn’t real; the evidence was too clear to miss. However, I became a fan of the characters, the interviews, the psychology of a well constructed match. As I learned how wrestlers rotated between territories, it was interesting to see where wrestlers were working, if they were getting a “push” (moving into higher profile matches) or getting “jobbed” (losing matches).
Memphis television became a goldmine for professional wrestling fans in the 1980s when cable television expanded. In addition to the Memphis wrestling circuit, fans could watch World Championship Wrestling out of Georgia (featuring Tommy “Wildfire” Rich, Mr. Wrestling II, and the Fabulous Freebirds, among others), World Class Championship Wrestling from Dallas (the land of the Von Erichs), Oklahoma based Mid South Professional Wrestling (which featured The Junkyard Dog, Ted DeBiase, and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan), and the World Wrestling Federation (which primarily promoted in the Northeastern United States prior to the acquisition of Hulk Hogan and the expansion of the territory).
The advent of cable made for a quick evolution of the wrestling business as territories expanded, consolidated or went out of business. While most of the smaller territories were beginning to fade by 1987, Memphis was still doing consistently solid business. A major factor in the promotion’s success was Jerry Lawler. As a teenager, Lawler attended the matches in Memphis every week. As he grew older, he became fascinated with the characters and the lifestyle. He befriended Jackie Fargo and began wrestling in a small company in West Memphis. He eventually was brought into the Memphis promotion in 1972.
After a few years of dues paying, Jerry Jarrett decided to give Lawler a major push. At the time, Jarrett was the booker for the several cities in the Nick Gulas territory and would later buy 25% of the promotion. As the booker, Jarrett decided which wrestlers would work the card, who would be a babyface (good guy) or heel (bad guy), who would win/lose, and how to hype the matches. Jarrett developed a plan that would have Lawler wrestling many of the top stars in wrestling, in preparation for a match against National Wrestling Association (NWA) world champion Jack Brisco. Many years later, Jarrett described to Tim Dills how he planned Lawler’s “Quest for the Title.”
Jarrett, “I had always had great respect for the championship title. I held it in the same awe as the national champion in baseball, or basketball. As a child I would watch as Lou Thesz walked through the arena to the dressing room with the same awe as I did the night the great Yankee players, Yogi [Berra] and Whitey Ford came to the matches in Nashville. When I booked Dory Funk and Jack Brisco in towns years later as a promoter, I felt the same respect as I did as a child towards the champion. So when I first thought of the 'Quest for the Title,’ I held the idea in a kind of awe inspiring thought. I had gained respect in many circles in the wrestling business and I began calling friends in the business. I was very direct in each call and told them of my idea to create Lawler as a real title contender.
I called the Sheik and pitched the idea to him and asked for a date on him and Bobo Brazil. I called Dick the Bruiser and asked for a date on him. I spoke to Eddie Graham, Dory Funk, Sr., Sam Muchnick, Jim Crockett, Sr., Vince McMahon, Sr., and Fritz Von Erich. I explained the program to each of them and asked for their cooperation. The 'Quest for the Title', with the help of so many promoters and great wrestlers, established Lawler as a top title contender. One of the highlights of my promotion career from an emotional standpoint was the night Lawler wrestled Jack Brisco for the championship in Memphis. The fans were as ready as a crowd can be. Everyone there could feel electricity in the air. I was filled with emotion and Eddie Graham could see my feelings. In a rare moment among two supposedly 'macho men,’ he put his arm around my shoulder and said simply, 'Well done kid.'”
From that point onward, Lawler remained the top star in the Memphis promotion. Lawler’s position was further strengthened in 1977 when Jarrett decided to end his partnership with Nick Gulas and started his own promotion. Jackie Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto remained loyal to Gulas, leaving Lawler as the most established drawing card for Jarrett. History almost repeated itself in the early 1980s as Lawler began making plans to start his own promotion, feeling that he was not being properly compensated. At that point, Jarrett made Lawler the co-owner of the promotion.
Lawler was an outstanding performer in all aspects of the business. In the ring, he knew how to structure a match to maximize crowd reaction while ensuring both he and his opponent would look effective to the wrestling fans. He specialized in the rough, brawling style of wrestling that Memphis fans loved. He gave tremendous interviews as both a babyface and a heel. He made tons of money, chased (and caught) a lot of women, and made a beeline for the spotlight at every opportunity.
Tommy Richardson made his start in wrestling after Lawler was an established star. His mother was a friend of the Jarrett family and Jarrett was pressured by his wife to give Tommy an opportunity. Lawler and Jarrett began training Tommy and Jerry Bryant in a barn on Jarrett’s property. Tommy Richardson evolved into Tommy Rich and quickly became a huge star in the southern wrestling territories. While he never had a traditionally well defined athletic body, as a young man, Rich was extremely quick, exploding into his offensive moves. He developed a humble, soft spoken good old boy character and became a major star among young women and children. He went to the Georgia territory in the late 1970s and was the featured performer on WTBS in Atlanta. He wrestled in main events across the country and was frequently featured on the cover of nationally published wrestling magazines. He often wrestled large heel wresters and would blade (cut his own forehead) as he was being beaten. The sympathetic screams he received bordered on hysteria. In 1981, he defeated Harley Race for the NWA world strap, the most prestigious title in wrestling at that time. Five days later, he lost the world title back to Race. By 1984, Tommy had gained weight, had a major alcohol problem and was no longer beloved by young girls and children. When the steroid era hit, Tommy did not look credible wrestling against powerhouses like The Road Warriors. He was past his peak and back working in the smaller territories.
Dennis McCord was a Tampa, Florida native that broke into wrestling in 1972 as a superheavyweight powerlifter. He wrestled in the Carolinas and went to the WWWF in 1973 as “Iron” Mike McCord, receiving title matches against the promotion’s world champion, Pedro Morales. In 1975, McCord was in a major plane crash with fellow wrestlers Buddy Colt, Gary Hart, and Bobby Shane. Shane, who passed away in the plane crash, ironically was the first wrestler to give Lawler a crown, which started “The King” gimmick. McCord suffered serious injuries from the crash and was out of wrestling for several years.
In 1978, Dennis McCord returned to wrestling with a new, slimmed down powerful physique and a new persona – Austin Idol, “The Universal Heartthrob.” The women’s pet; the men’s regret. While somewhat based on the flashy style over substance approach developed by “Superstar” Billy Graham, Idol was unique enough that he didn’t seem like a mere imitation. A virtual charisma machine, Idol oozed confidence when wrestling as either a heel or a babyface. Idol was not popular among the other wrestlers or promoters, he had a reputation for not showing up when booked on cards and for not liking to lose matches. However, he knew how to draw money, which kept him in the business. His charisma on interviews was unparalleled as he would often hype his matches as cataclysmic events.
In late 1986, Rich and Idol were working as babyfaces in the Memphis promotion. Idol had been one of Lawler’s primary foes in the early ‘80s, but had switched sides after his heel run and became one of the most popular wresters in the area. He and Lawler had formed a tag team that faced some of the biggest names in wrestling. While Lawler still carried the main events, Idol was viewed by the fans as someone on an equal footing as Lawler. Tommy Rich was a step below Idol and Lawler on the cards, but still had the credibility of being a former NWA World Champion, a pinnacle in wrestling that Idol and Lawler had never reached.
Attendance for the promotion was down in late 1986. As World Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation had expanded, most major stars were under contract to those organizations. The traditional territories had a difficult time attracting and keeping established stars. Memphis had a built in advantage at the time – since Lawler had an ownership stake in the Memphis promotion, he wasn’t going to leave as long as they could keep it profitable. Austin Idol had no interest in the travel requirements that would have been inherent in a major federation. Tommy Rich no longer had the look to be a significant player in the “major leagues.”
The feud began with a heel turn by Tommy Rich. Tommy was upset that he was not in line for a title match against Nick Bockwinkel, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) champion. Tommy’s storyline logic, not without credence, was that Lawler had been given at least a dozen chances to wrestle for the AWA title and couldn’t get the job done. He stated that he had been told he would be given the opportunity when he came back to the promotion and since he had held a world title, he deserved the match.
Rich and Lawler then wrestled with the winner to get the title shot. Prior to the match, Austin Idol stated that he also wanted a shot at the championship and he would like to wrestle the winner of the Rich/Lawler match. The interesting aspect of this is that the AWA promotion, which was one of the most successful promotions in wrestling in the 1970s, was no longer able to compete with the major federations and had fallen on hard times. Luckily, the promotion still had a great champion in the aging Bockwinkel and the Memphis fans still bought into the importance of the title.
The match between Rich and Lawler was stopped by referee Jerry Calhoun due to bleeding by Rich and Lawler was declared the winner. Stopping a match in Memphis due to blood was unheard of and Rich gave a great heel interview, stating he’d never been beaten, questioning the “bosom buddies” relationship between Lawler and Calhoun (who were close friends at the time in real life) and noting that he had been bleeding when he beat Harley Race for the NWA title.
Lawler was now in line for his shot at Bockwinkle. Before the match got underway, Idol expressed his displeasure with Lawler. Idol explained that he had asked to wrestle the winner of the Lawler/Rich match and had not received his opportunity. Idol started to step out of the ring and then returned and blasted Lawler with a (worked) punch to the head. Lawler sold it like he had been shot with a gun. After being a fan favorite for several years, the fans in Memphis were shocked when Idol turned heel. The ensuing Lawler/Bockwinkel match was a time limit draw.
The following week the feud would kick into overdrive with one of the most memorable nights in the history of Memphis wrestling. Lawler had decided that he would wrestle both Tommy Rich and Austin Idol in single matches. He wrestled Rich first and that match ended in a disqualification when Lawler threw a fireball into Rich’s beer filled stomach. Idol immediately entered the ring and started blasting Lawler. As the match continued, Rich reappeared from the dressing room and both men attacked Lawler. A two on one attack in wrestling wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but then the heels executed a move I had never seen. Both men grabbed one of Lawler’s legs as they stood outside the ring. They positioned Lawler in front of the post and then aggressively pulled at the same time, smashing Lawler’s little crown jewels into the ring post. As Lawler was writhing in pain, Idol cradled his head and slapped him in the face, adding insult to injury. That moment turned the storyline from a typical wrestling angle to one of the most heated feuds in wrestling history.
The promotion stated that Lawler had a “ruptured testicle,” although part of the explanation was censored when broadcast. Lawler was actually fine. He later noted in his book that he had made an adjustment at the last second and the impact was on his inner thigh. There was a real life reason for the injury angle. Lawler was undergoing vasectomy reversal surgery and needed the time off. The promotion kept the focus on Idol and Rich while Lawler was gone and the duo delighted in stating that they had made Lawler “half a man” in the interviews. Paul Heyman, known alternately as Paul E. Dangerously and Paul E. Dangerly in Memphis, would later state to a wrestling publication, “Idol and Rich were veterans that didn’t truly like each other, but they knew they could make an awesome tag team presentation to the public.” Rich came off as legitimately crazed in the interviews, making it seem as though the pair would stop at nothing to destroy their nemesis.
When Lawler returned from his injury angle, he teamed on a few occasions with Nick Bockwinkel against Rich and Idol Nick explained that
he didn’t like Lawler, but he respected him. He also found the actions that Rich and Idol took were so despicable that he was more to stand beside Lawler in this battle. Those were heated, good matches, but the feud went to another level when Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow returned as Lawler’s partner.
Bigelow would work in all the major federations and sadly died as a young man, with no money, after many years in wrestling. Although he was often a featured performer in WCW and the WWF, nobody promoted him as well as Jarrett and Lawler did in Memphis. They got Bigelow over as an unstoppable monster, who could either destroy opponents with sheer power or also do standing dropkicks. Bigelow was 400 pounds with a shaved, tattoo head and a prominent gap from a missing front tooth. He was perfect for Memphis wrestling.
The first match with Bigelow and Lawler versus Idol/Rich had a wild finish. Rich handcuffed Bigelow to the ring ropes while Idol strangled Lawler with an electrical cord. (Not sure what was stranger in wrestling logic - that heels carried handcuffs in their tights or that someone also had a key to unlock the defenseless babyface). Bigelow had juiced during the match and it appeared that someone could have been seriously injured before all the babyfaces from the locker room came to the rescue. At the next television taping, Lawler stated, “I don’t come out here and make a lot of promises to these fans, but I promise that one of you jerks is going to the hospital.”
The next match was another wild brawl (fighting throughout the arena, liberal use of weapons) that ended with another major injury angle. Bigelow and Lawler tied Idols arms in the ring ropes, leaving him helpless. The two then posted Rich twice and Bigelow hit Rich with several additional shots to the groin. It was almost to the point that the crowd was feeling sympathetic for the heel. (I had missed the program when these highlights were aired. I was in the military at the time and I heard some of my colleagues discussing the action later in the week. A guy from Louisiana started laughing and said, “Whew, they put Rich’s shit up AROUND HIS NECK!” In the past 23 years, I’ve yet to hear that sentiment repeated). Rich’s first “injury” interview demonstrated that subtlety was not required in this storyline, he sat in a bed, holding a bag of ice on his groin area. (When wrestlers took tours to Japan, they were often injured in their home promotion to explain their absence. The joke among wrestling insiders was that Japan must have had the best doctors in the world, since every injured American wrestler immediately went there).
The feud transitioned to Lawler/Idol single matches for the next few weeks and built to a hair versus hair match. In the storyline, another gimmick match was scheduled and Idol abruptly challenged Lawler to the hair match in a steel cage. He also promised to refund the ticket money for everyone that attended the match if he lost.
The afternoon of April 27th, 1987 must have been an interesting one. Prior to the matches, Tommy Rich was placed under the ring with an air mattress and an undisclosed amount of beer. Austin Idol, realizing the leverage that he had, demanded double his usual salary before performing. The penny pinching Jerry Jarrett would never forgive this particular sin (Jerry Lawler once described Jarrett as being so cheap “he wouldn’t tip a canoe.”)
The bout started with Idol doing a coward heel routine (demanding that manager Dangerly be placed inside the cage, trying to escape, etc.). Lawler dominated most of the match until the obligatory Jerry Calhoun ref bump. With Calhoun “knocked out,” Lawler scored two visionary pins (a visionary pin is one that the audience can clearly see but is not counted by a ref). The second pin came after a piledriver, which was always sold as the most devastating move in Memphis wrestling.
At that point, Dangerly gave Rich his cue and he came into the ring to the shock of most of the fans (on the tape of the match, you can hear at least one fan screaming in horror before Tommy’s arrival, “Tommy Rich is hiding under the ring!”). The duo took Lawler down with two stuffed piledrivers. They then repeated their most infamous move, which had been shown countless times on the weekly program, and posted Lawler again. There is almost a primal, visceral reaction of pain when seeing a man take a viciously hard shot in the groin. The crowd was at a fever pitch after Idol won the match. One fan tried to scale the cage and jump into the ring, but thought better of it and was then removed by security. The crowd howled when they saw their hero Lawler get his head “shaved” (in reality, he received a short haircut which was coming into style) as Idol and Rich held him on a chair with a chain. After the match, the heels were surrounded by security and had to run through the crowd to reach safety. Idol gave one of his most memorable promos after the match giddily declaring, “I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, Jack. I grew up not on the baby bottle, I grew up spinning the roulette wheel, I grew up playing five card stud, I grew up pulling slot handles, I was a gambler on the day I was born and I’ll be a gambler until the day I die!"
Memphis wrestling would never see that level of heat again. The rest of the feud was anticlimactic. A returning “Superstar” Bill Dundee became Lawler’s partner against Idol and Rich. The feud ended with a scaffold match between all four. Paul Heyman, who had already “accidentally” had his jaw broken by Lawler, had legitimate concerns regarding his safety and refused to get on the scaffold. (Heyman had major heat in the promotion and Lawler later admitted he broke Heyman’s jaw on purpose). Neither Rich nor Idol were willing to risk injury by falling from the scaffold to the ring. Rich left the promotion with a “broken wrist” and Idol stayed for a few more weeks as the
promotion tried to transition Brickhouse Brown into the top heel slot. (A horrible idea, poorly executed).
I enjoyed wrestling for a few more years after this feud, but slowly lost interest. Although I saw some entertaining wrestling in the late 1980s and early 1990s, very little of it had the true emotional impact of the Lawler/Idol/Rich story line, which was voted the “Feud of the Year” in the annual Wrestling Observer Newsletter poll.
Never again have groin shots, beer, a pay increase, and a haircut intersected to provide so much entertainment.
----Steve Crawford is an author himself and a college friend - he published Shake Some Action: The 318 Greatest Songs Of All Time. It is a great book for any music fan. If want a copy of it, do a Amazon.com search!!
----The Lawler/Idol/Rich feud is all over youtube.com, but I did find an user who has the complete match up - CLICK HERE.