When you think of Memphis, the first name that comes to mind is probably Elvis.
A close second?
The first major star of the Tennessee territory was Sputnik Monroe. One of the first true stars of wrestling, Monroe had black hair with a shock of white running through it, which was quite unusual in the days of just generic tights and boots wrestling. In the 1950’s, Memphis, much like every other Southern city of that time, was heavily segregated, and blacks were assigned a certain area to sit in during the wrestling matches at the old Memphis Civic Auditorium.
Despite the disrespect from the whites, the black fans fell in love with Sputnik Monroe. He stood up for civil rights, and questioned why the blacks had to sit in a different area from the whites. He was truly a brave soul during that time, as most white stars would not say a word about the subject, in fear of losing favor with the Caucasian fans and falling down the card.
Another big star from that time was Jackie Fargo. “The Fabulous One” entertained the masses each week with his flamboyant entrance, mixed in with a tough, kickass style of wrestling. Before Lawler, Jackie Fargo was the man in the Memphis territory.
Coming off the heels of World War II, Memphis also catered to the fans’ dislike of Japanese villains. Tojo Yamamoto played the role of the sneaky Japanese heel who would do anything to win a match. Surprisingly enough, after a while, the fans started cheering Tojo, and he battled some of the area’s most hated wrestlers. Former WWF Tag Team Champions Mr. Fuji and Professor Toru Tanaka also traveled to Memphis, winning the Southern Tag Team Championship in 1979.
The main television show was hosted by Lance Russell, a TV personality and program director of WHBQ-TV in Memphis. He brought a reality to the show that no one had ever seen. Besides Jim Ross and Gordon Solie, Lance Russell is typically regarded as one of the best wrestling announcers of his generation. He along with co-host Dave Brown had a wonderful dynamic, and their partnership would last for decades.
Many big names made frequent stops through the Tennessee territory back in the day. Stars like Hulk Hogan, Nick Bockwinkel, Ric Flair, Ken Patera, Andre the Giant, Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, and Jesse Ventura electrified the crowds at the Mid-South Coliseum in their clashes with “The King”. Even young up and comers cut their teeth in the Memphis rings. Guys like Kane, Steve Austin, The Honky Tonk Man, Hillbilly Jim,The Undertaker, The Rock N’ Roll Express, The Midnight Express and even a young blue chipper named Dwayne Johnson honed their skills in front of the Southern crowd.
That young blue chipper became “The Rock”.
Tennessee was also the area where fans took notice of “Macho Man” Randy Savage. He, along with his dad Angelo Poffo and brother Lanny (known to WWE fans as “The Genius” and “Leaping Lanny”) ran a promotion opposite to Lawler and Jarrett called “ICW”, which ran in parts on Kentucky, Southern Illinois and Tennessee. Eventually, the Poffos folded ICW and joined the ranks of CWA in 1984.
Savage drew fans interest in both teaming and feuding against Lawler. In 1985, after a year of making his name in the South, the “Macho Man” signed with WWF, and became one of the biggest stars to ever grace a ring.
Other than Lawler, the biggest star of the area was “Superstar” Bill Dundee, a fiery light heavyweight from Australia who drew big money either teaming with or feuding with Lawler. Quite possibly their biggest encounter was a “Loser Leaves Town” match in June 1983.
It’s truly one of a kind.
Some of the best managers of the 1980’s made their mark as well. Jimmy Hart, without a doubt one of the top five managers of all time, guided many wrestlers to the Southern Heavyweight Title. Jim Cornette also got his start in the CWA, managing such charges as “Exotic” Adrian Street and The Midnight Express.
Jimmy Hart started out as the manager of Lawler, and the two enjoyed considerable success together in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. But after a foot injury sidelined Lawler for part of 1980, Hart turned on his former charge, and made it his mission to put Jerry Lawler out of pro wrestling. He brought many stars throughout North America to try and wrest the AWA Southern Title from “The King”, and even when it seemed Hart got the upper hand, he always got his just desserts in the end.
Jim Cornette started out as a young wrestling photographer in the old Louisville Gardens when co-owner Jerry Jarrett gave him his big break in 1982. He lasted a few years in Memphis before heading to Mid-South Wrestling in Oklahoma for Bill Watts, then to World Class in Texas for Fritz Von Erich, and finally the NWA in 1986 for Jim Crockett Promotions in Charlotte, where he lead two versions of the Midnight Express to both the U.S. Tag Team and World Tag Team Championship, respectively. Cornette eventually went back to Memphis for a short while in the early 1990’s before starting up his own promotion, Smoky Mountain Wrestling and pulling double duty as a manager in the WWF of then World Champion Yokozuna, and later on guiding Owen Hart and the British Bulldog to the Tag Team Championship. Both Hart and Cornette were some of the best guys on the microphone, and developed their craft in the Tennessee rings.
The biggest angle Memphis ever had involved Jerry Lawler and comedian Andy Kaufman. Despite his very skinny frame and having no wrestling experience, Kaufman could have easily been one of the best wrestling heels ever had he not passed away from cancer in 1984. Their feud was so hot, both men appeared on “Late Night” with David Letterman in 1982, which involved Kaufman taunting Lawler viciously until Lawler slapped the taste out of Kaufman’s mouth. After the show went to commercial break, Kaufman began to scream obscenities at the camera and at Lawler. The feud was not just a small territorial feud.
It became a national story.
There were other notable names that made Memphis famous. Austin Idol, a guy who reminded many of “Superstar” Billy Graham, entertained the masses as both a fan favorite and a heel. Tommy Rich, one of the first major national stars of the TBS-Georgia Championship Wrestling, made many stops in the Memphis territory, with amazing energy that spread like “Wildfire” (pun intended).
One guy who showed great promise in the 1990’s was Jeff Jarrett. Of course, being promoter Jerry Jarrett’s son was an obstacle he had to overcome, with many wrestlers and fans claiming nepotism. But he was truly a student of the game, paying his dues as a referee in the mid-1980’s, then bursting out on his own and earning the fans respect. He eventually jumped to the WWF in 1993, where he enjoyed a successful run as Intercontinental Champion. In 1996, WCW came calling and for a short while, he was a member of the Four Horseman.
In 1997, he returned to the WWF, where he once again captured the Intercontinental Title and Tag Team Titles with Owen Hart. He jumped back to WCW in 1999, then after the company closed down in 2001, he started up TNA Wrestling with his dad. Now, he is the main face behind the upstart promotion Global Force Wrestling.
However, in 1995, USWA made its way back onto my television set. A small UHF station in Fresno started showing the promotion again, and it was fun to see something other than WWF or WCW at that time. However, it only lasted for a short while.
The formula that made Memphis a very successful wrestling area for 50 years, finally started to wane in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. In 1997, after decades of being on the air, USWA folded. In 1998, former CWA announcer/promoter Randy Hales opened up Power Pro Wrestling, but to only limited success. Finally, in the early 2000’s, former USWA color commentator Cory Maclin started up Memphis Wrestling with the help of Jerry Lawler and Jimmy Hart, but that too did not last. No matter how entertaining or promising their ventures were, the costs and the strains of competing with a well- oiled machine like WWE was just too much to compete with.
What Jerry Lawler and co-owner Jerry Jarrett did with Memphis Wrestling should never go unnoticed. They made it one of the most entertaining wrestling products to watch, bar none. Both men were geniuses when it came to planning out story lines, and executing them to perfection. Lawler has been honored for his lifelong achievements with an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.
True, Elvis was the “King of Memphis”, but could he execute a piledriver?
Umm, I don’t think so.