Shining a Spotlight 09.20.12: Hail to the King
Posted by Michael Weyer on 09.20.2012
As we wish him a speedy recovery, a look at how Jerry Lawler became such a major icon.
The subject for this week seems a bit off to me to be sure. It feels like an early obituary for a guy who hopefully will be around for a while longer. Yet in the last week, Jerry Lawler has been the subject of a lot of people in wrestling columns, people realizing just how important the man has been after his heart attack on air. It's good to see him recovering quickly and hopefully back on the air soon but it makes you realize just how long this man has been in this business. While WWE fans have known him as the smarmy commentator, the fact is, Lawler has been one of the most notable stars for a long time, involved in some controversial events and yet maintain his favor in his hometown. So as we wish a speedy recovery for Lawler, a quick look at why "the King" is so highly regarded.
Coverage of the Continental area wasn't big in Chicago when I was growing up so my first view of Jerry Lawler came much in the same way as many people: His 1982 feud with Andy Kaufman. The eccentric comedian had been boasting of being the "Intergender Wrestling Champion" taking on women in various matches and was now challenging Lawler to a match. At first, Lawler ignored it but Kaufman kept being obnoxious so they finally had a bout where Kaufman ran about the ring for a few minutes until Lawler got on the mic to ask "did you come here to wrestle or make an ass of yourself?" Lawler allowed Kaufman to put a headlock on him for a few minutes before dropping him onto his back and hitting him with a couple of piledrivers. That led to the infamous appearance on David Letterman where Kaufman screamed at Lawler and threw coffee at him. Their battle would continue for a while, the heat between them so great that it took a full decade after Kaufman's death for it to come out that the two had planned the whole thing.
However, Lawler was already an established star at that point. Starting off as a disc jockey, he fell into things agreeing to promote Aubrey Griffith in exchange for wrestling training. By 1971, he'd already won his first championship in a battle royal and the NWA Southern Tag title with Sam Bass. 1974 saw him feuding with mentor Jackie Fargo where Lawler won both the NWA Southern title and the title of "King of Wrestling." He'd been a heel but turned face after breaking with Bass in 1974 and soon moved to the Continental area, based out of Memphis, beating Billy Graham to become the CWA champion in 1979. For the next several years, Lawler would be in various NWA territories to take titles like the Mid-American belt and the AWA International championship but Memphis would be his major home.
Make no mistake, Lawler was huge in Memphis. I daresay that even in the 1980's, Hogan or Flair could only hope to get the heat the King received from his hometown fans. He was a great brawler who could get technical if need be, using the piledriver (in a time when that move was considered a real finisher) to such a degree that for a while, it was banned. Long before Hogan was "hulking up," Lawler was getting crowds going by making a comeback after a beating and pulling down the lone strap of his singlet to go on the attack. In interviews, Lawler was great boasting of his power and ability and getting great insults on opponents. He'd have slews of feuds, including a long partnership with Bill Dundee as the two would bounce between allies and enemies numerous times. The King was also well involved in various charities in Memphis which increased his hometown love.
My real exposure to Lawler came in 1987 via the Apter magazines when Lawler got into an epic feud with Austin Idol, managed by a young Paul E. Dangerously. It built up to a cage match at the Mid-South Coliseum with Lawler's Southern title on the line along with the loser having their head shaved. The crowd was a sell-out, fueled by Dangerously' stating that if Idol lost, he'd refund all the money personally. The match was a great brawl as, with the ref out, Tommy Rich suddenly popped up from under the ring to help Idol double-team Lawler with a spiked piledriver and smashing his legs around the ringpost. Idol got the pin and Lawler had to have his head shaved as the crowd almost literally rioted. Heyman laughs in interviews over how he was so happy in this moment at riling the folks up, not getting these people really wanted to kill him. Lawler would war with the two, getting revenge in a scaffold match where Dangerously was sent flying to the mat. Lawler and Dundee would follow that up with a brief run as AWA tag team champions which was really a set-up for the major rise for Lawler's career.
By early 1988, the once-mighty AWA was imploding. The DVD WWE made nicely points out that while Vince's expansion was hurting, the real problem was Verne Gagne's refusal to flex with the times and realize his old style wouldn't work for an ‘80's audience. Verne also couldn't wrap his head around the fact that the AWA was no longer seen as the tops of the wrestling biz, guys just went there to make a name for themselves before going to WWF. That was rising with Curt Hennig, the current AWA champion, also about to leave and box office down. The AWA was already in a working agreement with the CWA, Lawler having challenged for the AWA belt several times. So with things rough, Gagne figured he might as well take a chance and so on May 9th, in front of a sellout crowd, Lawler pinned Hennig to finally win that elusive world title.
That was a great moment, both for Lawler and fans but Lawler would make it better as, for the first time in years, a world champion went to other promotions to defend his title. He'd take on guys in the Continental area along with CWF, SCW, ICW and even IWGP, making the AWA title more relevant than it had been in over a decade and winning over fans with it. The highlight of this was a long-ranging feud with World Class champion Kerry Von Erich. It was a pretty big deal despite how low all the promotions were as they seemed to work well together. But behind the scenes, things were getting tricky. Lawler would win the WCCW title from Von Erich but when Kerry won, it would just be to get that belt back, not the AWA title. The feud was hot, however and thus, the promotions planned for Superclash III, a major PPV with a title unification bout between Lawler and Von Erich to decide the "real" World's Champion.
Sadly, the show turned into one of the biggest debacles in wrestling history. McMahon himself nailed it, the guys in charge couldn't agree on ordering a cup of coffee together, let alone properly run and promote a show. The decision to move the feud that was huge in Tennessee and Texas to Chicago in the middle of December was incredibly stupid and showed with barely over a thousand tickets sold. The card was a mess as no one wanted their guys to look bad losing and it showed in the poor ring work. The main event between Lawler and Von Erich was a wild and bloody brawl with a cop-out finish of the ref stopping it as Kerry had the Claw on Lawler but declaring Lawler the winner due to Kerry's blood loss.
In just a few weeks, the card meant to unify things just made them worse. Gagne believed Lawler was his champion alone and would only do AWA dates. Lawler, of course, wanted to work dates in Continental and WCCW wanted him too. Making matters worse was the discovery that Gagne had pocketed most of the Superclash profits for himself. It led to a blistering argument where Gagne made the final major boner of his life by stripping Lawler of the AWA title and banning him for life despite everything Lawler had done to elevate the company in the last year. Lawler refused to give the belt back until he was paid the money Gagne owed him, which he never was so to this day, the original AWA World title belt is still in Lawler's home.
Lawler would continue to declare himself the Unified World Champion despite this as he stuck to the CWA. When WCCW finally went under later that year, the two merged into the United States Wrestling Association which Lawler helped run. Over the course of the next few years, Lawler would hold the USWA belt over thirty times (although it felt like more), dominating as both face and heel with wild storylines like being run over by a car driven by Eddie Gilbert. He and Jeff Jarrett would have a memorable feud with the Moondogs in 1992 that tore down the house time and again as Lawler continued to ensure the Memphis area remained a major wrestling hotbed. All that would be more than useful when WWF finally came calling to him.
Lawler debuted in December of 1992 as a commentator and quickly showcased his act as an arrogant loudmouth who'd always back the heels. In early 1993, he began his famous feud with Bret Hart as, after Hart won King of the Ring, Lawler would yell over him being the one true King and attacked Bret. Lawler would constantly bad-mouth Hart, even berating his parents in a live crowd during one of Bret's matches. At SummerSlam, he came out on crutches to claim he was injured and Bret faced Doink the Clown. Lawler was of course faking, attacking Bret but was forced to submit in the Sharpshooter, the decision reversed to a DQ win when Bret refused to break the hold.
Meanwhile, breaking with years of tradition, the WWF was finally doing a cross-promotion bit with another company, in this case the USWA. They'd trade talent but also do a WWF "invasion" of USWA where Vince basically got an early start for "Mr. McMahon" as the smug and dictatorial heel trying to dethrone Lawler. The Lawler/Bret feud would continue here with the dynamic over how Lawler was cheered in Memphis while Bret was the huge heel. Owen Hart would show his own early heel instincts playing up to that in attacks on Lawler and another highlight would be Randy Savage returning to his Memphis roots to face Lawler too. While it was never acknowledged on WWF broadcasts, it was a major deal to see Vince and others in another promotion and pushed Lawler as the hero more.
The 1993 Survivor Series was going to be Lawler and his masked "Knights" facing Bret and his brothers. However, just weeks early, Lawler was accused of statutory rape with a relationship with a 15-year old girl. The charges were dropped but Lawler had to take a long break from WWF, Shawn Michaels replacing him at Survivor Series and the WWF/USWA feud dropped fast. Lawler would return by Wrestlemania, spending the year mocking Bret and backing Owen in their feud. Lawler would be forced into programs with Duke "The Dumpster" Droese and Doink the Clown, the latter with a Survivor Series match of Doink and there clown midgets against Lawler and three midgets of his own with them all ganging up on him and putting a pie in his face. Lawler would continue with USWA and Smokey Mountain as well.
1995 was a rough year for Lawler. He and Bret re-started their feud with Lawler winning at the first "IN Your House" PPV but Bret getting the win back at the King of the Ring in a "Kiss My Foot" match where Lawler (having spent weeks dirtying up his feet in stables and mud) was forced to kiss his own foot. That led to Lawler bringing in his "dentist" Isaac Yankem (the future Kane) to face Bret. However, Lawler was distracted as after various legal and financial issues, the USWA was finally forced to close its doors in the fall. Lawler concentrated on WWF after that with an appearance at the 1996 Royal Rumble where Jake Roberts made his return to drape a python over Lawler, causing him to hide under the ring for the next half hour of the match. Lawler would soon have a feud with Roberts where Lawler openly mocked Jake's drinking problem, even pouring vodka down his throat after a match. A highlight of the 2005 Jake DVD is Roberts saying he thought Lawler went way too far, Lawler himself not quite grasping that. In 1997, Lawler would lead against ECW with a big attack on the company, showing up to fight them down but that would be dropped soon.
To Modern Times
For the last decade and a half, fans have known Lawler as the announcer who goes over the top a lot in his job, ogling young women and screaming a lot. He has had notable moments as everyone remembers Jim Ross' commentary during the Mankind/Undertaker Hell in the Cell match but Lawler had good lines too like "there's a human being in there who is absolutely indestructible!" and when Taker finally got the pin, spoke for most with "mercifully, this is over!" I also liked during the Hardy Boyz/Edge & Christian ladder match in 1999 how Lawler was moaning over the spots and yelling out "come on, guys, it's only a hundred grand!" He was well known for his artwork and in 1999 even ran for mayor of Memphis. In 2000, he turned face helping Jim Ross against Tazz. He'd also have his real-life wife Stacy Carter come onto the scene as the Kat, leading to a match where she faced Dean Malekno and Terri and Lawler got up from the announce table to help her to a monster pop from the Memphis crowd. Lawler and Kat would work together into 2001 with the storyline of Kat forced to join the Right to Censor. However, in February, Carter was released an in protest, Lawler quit as well. It was a jarring blow to fans to lose him from commentary and his nice presence backstage. To make it worse, just a few months later, Lawler learned Carter had been cheating on him, making his sacrifice meaningless.
Thankfully, by November, tempers had cooled and the King was hired back, making his return the night after Survivor Series to a huge pop from the fans and hails from Ross. In 2003, he and Ross were involved in a rather sad program facing Al Snow and Jonathan Coachman for who'd get to be the commentary team on RAW and the less said the better. He reached a nice zenith in 2007 being elected to the WWE Hall of Fame and a feud with Booker T over the "King" label. He's bounced around various feuds, standing up for other veterans against the likes of Chris Jericho and the Miz. His feud with Michael Cole may not be a good thing for fans to remember but it allowed Lawler some nice spotlights like a match at Wrestlemania and the great bit of beating Cole in a "kiss my foot match" and Bret Hart coming out to aid Lawler in forcing Cole to kiss his toes, a fun full circle bit.
It's telling how fans seemed to overlook all that until his heart attack. This shock, the near loss of a guy who has been such a part of the wrestling world for so long, has reminded you of how you need to appreciate folks while we still have them. It's good to see him recovering well and sure to get a royal welcome when he makes his return. So for all his many fans, thank you for so much, King and hope to see your reign continue for a long time to come.