Ask Jerry Lawler why he believes his professional wrestling career has been so successful over the years, and chances are he will strike up an engaging conversation about his feud with entertainer Andy Kaufman in the early 1980s.
“It put me in a unique position to be a professional wrestler who had nationwide publicity,” Lawler said in a recent interview from an East Memphis restaurant.
It all unfolded in July 1982. Lawler, a local professional wrestler and commercial artist who was beloved by Memphians, was invited to appear on the David Letterman Show with Kaufman, who starred in the ABC sitcom Taxi in the late 1970s and early 80s.
There, the two sat in a New York studio, where they were brought in to air out their differences surrounding their ongoing quarrel and Lawler’s disqualification after his pair of piledrivers during a match which hospitalized Kaufman three months earlier.
In one of the most shocking commercial lead-ins in the history of television, a seemingly perturbed Lawler stood up and smacked a neck-brace wearing Kaufman, whose chair tumbled off the platform and onto the canvas as the live audience applauded in wonderment.
While the altercation, which many believed had been staged, made national headlines, it heightened Lawler’s celebrity throughout a wrestling career that spans nearly four decades.
He was 16 years old when he was first introduced to wrestling and was trained by his hero and mentor, Jackie Fargo, who wrestled professionally from the early 1950s until his retirement in June 1980. Fargo said among the things that separated Lawler from his peers was his willingness to hearken his advice, particularly after he beat Curt Henning for his first world championship in 1988.
“I taught him to be a gentleman when he needed to be and to be a butthole when he needed to be,” says Fargo. “He’s just come a long way. He doesn’t give up. Jerry Lawler does not give up. I’m very proud to have taught him. He followed in my footsteps.”
After winning the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight title from Henning during what was a historic night in the Mid-South Coliseum, Lawler saw his career soar to immense heights. He feuded with World Class Championship Wrestling champion Kerry Von Erich for months before ultimately upending Von Erich on December 15, 1988 at Superclash 3 to unify both titles. Three years later, during his brief tenure in the United States Wrestling Association, Lawler teamed with Jeff Jarrett to defeat the Moondogs for the USWA World Tag Team titles.
His thrust, consequently, caught the attention of World Wrestling Federation chairman Vince McMahon, who hired Lawler as an announcer on WWF Superstars of Wrestling in December 1992. His WWF stint was marred by an array of controversy, most notably his run-ins with Bret “The Hit Man” Hart that led to the infamous “Kiss My Foot” match won by Hart during the King of the Ring event in 1995.
Lawler assumed a number of roles for what is now WWE over the next few years before controversy surrounding his then-wife Stacy Carter’s abrupt firing prompted him to resign from the company in February 2001. His absence, however, lasted only nine months, as he rekindled his relationship with McMahon who, reintroduced Lawler on Raw as a commentator replacement for the previously-fired Paul Heyman.
He has been with WWE ever since and is a fixture on the weekly two-hour wrestling show. Three years ago, Lawler—whose 140-plus career championships is most among any active WWE wrestler—was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by longtime actor William Shatner, with whom he had an altercation during a January 1995 episode of Raw.
Still, Lawler, who is in no rush to retire from wrestling, believes it was his well-publicized dispute with Kaufman that helped elevate not only his career, but wrestling with regards to bridging the gap with celebrities and high-profile athletes.
In 1999, Lawler even starred as himself in the movie Man on the Moon with renowned actor Jim Carrey, who played the character Kaufman.
“If you notice every week, Raw has had a celebrity as a guest host,” Lawler said. “I think (the feud with Kaufman) provided wrestling with a tremendous rub in that wrestling is seen as a late night television show. Andy Kaufman was not just big for me, but it was big for wrestling. It was the most famous wrestling match in history.”
Photo by Sharon Bicks.