In the '70s, Jerry "The King" Lawler, an up-and-coming wrestling talent and comic artist-supreme, managed by Sam Bass, set the Memphis wrestling world on fire and within the next generation, captured the coveted wrestling championship of the entire planet. Memphis was the king of the world when it came to wrestling. Nowhere else was it as popular.
Lawler's arch-rival for many years was "The Superstar" — tiny Australian Bill Dundee. Those two mixed it up on the tube nearly every Saturday for a month of Sundays, and the fans' loyalty was usually split right down the middle between the two mat monsters.
Lawler took Memphis wrestling to its all-time high in the early '80s when his feud with "intergender" champ Andy Kaufman transferred into the wrestling ring. Lawler and the crazed Kaufman even carried their so-called feud onto "The David Letterman Show" where Lawler slapped Kaufman silly in front of a national television audience.
There were Monday nights in Memphis when the Mid-South Coliseum hosted wrestling matches and fans were turned away because of sellouts. More than 12,000 turned up at the Coliseum in August of 1972 to see Al Greene defeat Jackie Fargo in a "hair match." Following Greene's win, Fargo was placed in a barber's chair, and his golden locks were shaved from his scalp. Crocodile tears flowed from Fargo's cheeks as his hair hit the mat.
During the past decade, wrestling has struggled in Memphis and on its local TV stations. "Hall-of-Fame" announcer Lance Russell moved to Pensacola, Fla., some 20 years ago, and his TV sidekick, weatherman Dave Brown, also "retired" from his ring duties.
Lawler joined the WWE (WWF), and hit the big time with Vince McMahon in New York. Lawler did his best to keep Memphis wrestling abreast of the times, but on Saturday announced that he was shutting down his TV wrestling operation in Memphis for good.
"The King" blamed it on a lack of sponsors, the economy, and the "times," announcing that Saturday's TV show on Channel 50 would be the last in the storied history of Memphis "studio" wrestling. Citing costs of more than $100,000 to televise the show for one year, Lawler bowed out gracefully. The interest in Memphis wrestling has ebbed. It no longer captured the hearts and souls of the TV viewer. The wrestling generations from the '50s through the '90s had aged, and this "new generation" was not dedicated to the local wrestling stars like in years before.
One thing I've learned over my half century of living, is that change is inevitable, no matter what. Change or evolution cannot be reversed, and all things are ultimately affected.
I grew up with those great wrestling stars of the '50s and '60s, and everyone I went to school with at Heidelberg did, too. We would put "full-nelsons" and "half-nelsons" on each other during recess. The only wrestling move we didn't try was the lethal "atomic pile-driver."
We also knew that TV wrestling was a big "fake," but we loved it anyway — the matches, the storylines and the interviews. It was a glorious time and and a golden age, but like everything else, Memphis wrestling has finally met its final demise. Long live Jackie Fargo, Lance Russell, Sam Bass, Tojo Yamamoto, Billy Wicks and Sputnik Monroe, and thanks Jerry for giving it your best. And one more thing: Long live "The King!"