In the 1970s and into the early ’80s Memphis Wrestling was arguably the most popular sporting event happening in the city. Every Saturday morning, Lance Russell and Dave Brown would host the weekly wrestling show live from the studios of WMC-TV 5 on Union Avenue. The following Monday night, Memphis Wrestling would hold its weekly cards at the Mid-South Coliseum. This happened 52 weeks a year. As an example of its popularity, during the summer of 1982, the average weekly attendance for those Monday night shows at the Coliseum was 8,900 paying fans. Week in and week out, the fans loved their wrestling.
To this day, Jerry “The King” Lawler remains the most popular star in the history of Memphis wrestling. During those glory years, The King was one of the main reasons the Memphis promotion was so successful. By the time this golden era was over, Jerry Lawler was synonymous with Memphis Wrestling.
The legend of Jerry Lawler was built on a number of longlasting and popular feuds with other wrestlers and promoters and managers. The five feuds we present here might not have the biggest attendance numbers, nor even lasted the longest, but they are some of the best reasons for the legend that is known as Jerry “The King” Lawler.
#5 Lawler vs. Jackie Fargo, Passing Of The Torch
In the 1950s and ’60s, The Fabulous One, Jackie Fargo had become the most popular wrestler in Memphis. By the late 1960s, Fargo had retired. A few years later, new Memphis Wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett asked Fargo to come out of retirement and help get the promotion going again.
Also around this time a loudmouthed kid was starting to make a name for himself. That kid was Jerry Lawler. Jarrett knew Fargo’s ring time was short and for the promotion to go to the next level, a younger star was needed to help carry it on his back for the years to come. Even though Lawler was as hated as any wrestler Memphis had seen, hate sells tickets. During the spring and summer of 1974, Jackie Fargo and Jerry Lawler battled each other in some amazing matches. Many of the battles were sellouts at the Mid-South Coliseum (a wrestling sellout was considered 11,300 fans). When the feud finally ended, the hated Jerry Lawler had defeated the long-loved Jackie Fargo.
This feud was important for Jerry Lawler because he was no longer looked at as the young loudmouth but as the man who defeated Jackie Fargo in front of his hometown fans in Memphis. Up until that feud, Memphis was considered Jackie Fargo’s home turf. After that feud, Memphis was Jerry Lawler’s city. The torch has been passed to a younger guy who would take the promotion to heights it had never seen.
#4 Lawler vs. Nick Bockwinkel, The World Title
The year was 1982. Nick Bockwinkel had held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship off and on since the mid-1970s. Jerry Lawler had been trying to win a world title for more than seven years.
Bockwinkel came to town in October 1982, and refused to give Lawler another shot at the title. Bockwinkel instead persuaded Lawler to put his Southern title on the line against him instead. Lawler agreed and lost the match, and his Southern belt, to Bockwinkel. Over the course of the next month, Lawler failed in all rematch attempts to get his title back from the world champ. Finally on Nov. 8, 1982, after putting his hair on the line against his Southern belt, Jerry Lawler got a clean pin on Nick Bockwinkel. This win by Lawler set up a huge world title match on Dec. 27, 1982. At the end of the match, Lawler pinned Bockwinkel and won the world title. All the wrestlers from the back came out and congratulated “The King.”
This feud was important to Jerry Lawler was because it was the first time the fans knew Lawler could beat the world champ, not just local guys.
#3 Lawler vs. Jimmy Hart, The Ultimate Rivalry
In January 1980, while playing a touch football game with his old friends, Jerry Lawler broke both bones in his lower left leg. That injury kept him out of wrestling for almost a year.
Lawler’s promoter, Jerry Jarrett, was without his top star. Jarrett took Lawler’s manager, Jimmy Hart, and placed the promotion on his back. On the following Saturday morning show, Jimmy Hart told Lance Russell, “What do you do when you have a horse that has a broken leg? You shoot the horse.” That statement was the start of what would be a long feud between Hart and Lawler.
When Lawler returned to wrestling, the two were locked in a year-long feud. During his feud with Lawler, Hart represented some of the biggest names in the business including Joe Leduc, Austin Idol, Jimmy Valiant, Terry Funk, Dory Funk, Jack Brisco, Hulk Hogan, Kevin Sullivan and many more. When the year was over, Lawler was back atop the promotion. But his battles with Hart would continue.
In Jimmy Hart, Jerry Lawler had found the one thing his career had always lacked – a true nemesis. Batman always had the Joker, Superman had Lex Luthor, Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier, and Jerry Lawler had Jimmy Hart. The ultimate good guys always need to have the ultimate bad guy to go against, and Jimmy Hart was that man.
#2 Lawler vs. Bill Dundee, Hair vs. Hair and Beyond
In the summer of 1977, Jerry Jarrett had just begun his wrestling promotion. Some of his wrestlers included Rocky Johnson, Tommy Rich, Phil Hickerson, Dennis Condrey, and of course Bill Dundee and Jerry Lawler.
Summer traditionally had the best attendance numbers for the Memphis shows. So by the time the summer hit, Jerry Jarrett had decided he would have his top two stars, the hated Jerry Lawler and fan favorite Bill Dundee, go at it in a huge feud.
These two went at it and for every match Lawler won, Dundee would win two. The fans could not get enough of their feud. They thought that in Dundee they would finally find the one person to shut Jerry Lawler’s mouth, for good. On the cards where these two fought, nearly every one was a sellout. The final two matches of the feud saw Jerry Lawler pin Bill Dundee in a hair match. The loser would get his head clean shaven. Bill Dundee got beat and got his hair cut. The following week was the last match in the series. It got a little bizarre when Dundee put up his wife’s hair against Lawler’s hair for one last match. Once again, the fans were stunned when Lawler won the match and Dundee’s wife’s head was shaved as well.
This amazing feud was so hot that it really put Jerry Jarrett’s new promotion on the map. It’s hard to say now, but without that amazing summer attendance that was fueled by the Lawler-Dundee feud, the Jarrett promotion might not have lasted very long after that.
#1 Lawler vs. Andy Kaufman, National Recognition
The top feud in Jerry Lawler’s career did not even involve a real wrestler, but comedian Andy Kaufman. Kaufman had come to Memphis to wrestle women. After unsuccessfully trying to wrestle for Vince McMahon Jr.’s father in the WWF, Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett welcomed Kaufman to Memphis with open arms. Kaufman’s deal was that he was the World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion and would wrestle women out of the audience. This differed from the regular wrestling matches because Kaufman’s matches were real.
After Kaufman barely won a match over a particularly tough young lady, Jerry Lawler went into the ring to help the young lady out. Kaufman was pushing the young lady to the ground every time she tried to get up. Lawler lightly pushed Kaufman out of the way and helped the lady up. The comedian went ballistic and threatened to sue Lawler for assault. On the following Monday night, April 5, 1982, the two fought for the first time. The match only lasted a few minutes and Lawler was disqualified for giving Andy an illegal piledriver. Kaufman sold the maneuver and claimed his neck was severely damaged. He went to the hospital and stayed there for three days. When he got out, he told the local newspapers he was retired from the ring. Kaufman was so convincing that promoter Jerry Jarrett received congratulations from other wrestling promoters for having Lawler teach Kaufman a lesson. The people in wrestling, where nothing is ever real, believed their match had been real.
That wasn’t the end of it. The tape of Lawler piledriving Kaufman was being played all over the United States on TV stations in every city. By July 1982, Lawler and Kaufman were booked to go on David Letterman’s Late Night show on NBC. The duo’s feud was going national. Their segment was supposed to be a chance for both Lawler and Kaufman to apologize to each other for what happened back in Memphis. What happened was nowhere close to that. By the end of the segment, Jerry Lawler had slapped Andy Kaufman out of his chair with the stiffest slap anyone has ever seen. Kaufman came back later and delivered a profanity-laced tirade at Lawler. When it was over, Letterman was not amused because he had no idea what was going to happen.
The angle ended up putting Memphis Wrestling at the center of the national spotlight and for the first time helped make it the hottest wrestling promotion in the country at the time. The two would continue to feud off and on every few months until Kaufman’s death from lung cancer on May 16, 1984.
Mark James is the founder of Memphis Wrestling History, author of Memphis Wrestling History Presents 1982, and a regular contributor for Memphisport. You can join his Memphis Wrestling History Facebook group here.
Photos courtesy kingjerrylawler.com except for Nick Bockwinkel photo by Jim Cornette and Andy Kauffman photo by Chris Swisher.