When the nuclear bombs fall, two things will remain. Cockroaches and wrestling in Memphis, Tennessee. A hotbed of mat action since the 1940's, promoters Nick Gulas and Roy Welch ran a wide-reaching circuit that lasted well into the 1970's.
A long-standing member of the National Wrestling Alliance, the Gulas/Welch Wrestling Enterprises, Inc. (later Gulas Wrestling Enterprises, Inc.) was a successful but notoriously low-paying territory. By the mid-70's, a mutiny arose and wrestlers Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler jumped ship to form a new company, Jarrett Promotions, Inc., to run the Memphis wing of the Gulas circuit. Gulas continued to operate in Nashville for several more years before throwing in the towel in that market as well.
Running on the strength of a successful live Saturday morning television show, Jarrett Promotions operated well into the late-1980's, under the CWA promotion name. In 1989, Jarret bought out Texas promoter Fritz Von Erich's WCCW (see the WCCW section), merging the two into what became the USWA (see USWA section). Eventually, Jarrett sold the territory back to the Von Erichs, continuing to run the Memphis end of the USWA until 1995 when he sold it to a Cleveland, Ohio-based group called XL Sports.
Nick Gulas and Roy Welch, along with Christine and Jerry Jarrett ran the wrestling promotion in Tennessee. Jackie Fargo and Jerry Lawler were the top area singles stars and had feuded with each other much of 1974. As 1975 started they would continue to play a major part of what went on in the area and would be joined by a host of interesting characters including a Mongolian madman, a homegrown talent and a talented star from the land down under.
"Let’s Go Crazy"
Jackie Fargo first appeared in the territory in 1954. For years he had been a part of the team known as The Fabulous Fargos. Jackie had been an arrogant heel until he rescued Len Rossi from a beating in September 1961 from the masked duo of Mephisto and Dante. From that moment forward, Jackie was the area’s leading babyface.
Fargo had battled all the bad guys that had come down the pike over the years including a feud that ran off and on for over a decade against Don and Al Greene. Fargo partnered with many top names over the years but most often with his "brothers" Sonny (Roughhouse) and Don and also with Tojo Yamamoto and Jerry Jarrett.
Early 1975 saw the return to the area of Crazy Luke Graham. It would not take long before Fargo would cross paths with Graham.
Graham was part of the famous Graham family. In reality, Luke and his Graham brothers, Eddie, Jerry and Billy, like the Fargo Brothers, weren’t really related. (There’s also some debate that the Fabulous Fargos gimmick was a rip-off of the Golden Grahams gimmick made famous by Jerry and Eddie.) Luke had made his first appearance in the area over a decade earlier in 1964. In 1966 he returned forming a villainous team with Chin Lee.
Graham had wrestled in many territories over the years including a 1971 run in the WWWF where he and Tarzan Tyler were recognized as WWWF tag champions and also as WWWF International tag champions. Luke also headlined a main event in New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden on June 21, 1971 in a losing effort against WWWF champion Pedro Morales.
The United States of America turned 200 years young during the summer of 1976. Professional wrestling continued to draw good crowds in the cities promoted by Nick Gulas and Roy Welch. Welch, though, was in poor health. Welch had taken Jerry Jarrett, son of longtime Gulas employee Christine Jarrett, under his wing several years earlier and by 1976, Jarrett was not only a major in-ring performer in the area but had also acquired power and respect behind the scenes by running the western end of the territory. Meantime, the in-ring action remained wild and woolly.
The 1970s were full of many great tag teams. A short list of such teams would include Ray Stevens and Nick Bockwinkel, Ole and Gene Anderson, Black Gordman and The Great Goliath, Ric Flair and Greg Valentine, Jack Brisco and Jerry Brisco and Dory Funk, Jr. and Terry Funk. More than likely that short list would not include the tag team of Phil Hickerson and Dennis Condrey. Some who remember them though say they belong on such a list.
Not many fans outside the Gulas territory ever had the chance to see the combination of Hickerson and Condrey. In a sense it poses a question similar to that age-old question: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Since the team of Hickerson and Condrey never appeared in a major TV market (such as New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles) as a team does that mean they weren’t a good team? The Tennessee territory received very little press in the newsstand magazines during the time period, especially in the glossy Apter magazines. Coverage in the Apter magazines often meant that whoever, or whatever territory the Apter magazines were featuring became stars in the business (or became bigger stars) since these magazines were available to more fans coast to coast. Hickerson and Condrey rarely appeared in these magazines so their reputation as a team is remembered by those who were fortunate enough to see them when they teamed in the territory.
Jackie "The Fabulous One" Fargo
Hickerson had made a name for himself in a tag team with Al Greene, and both men complimented each other... they were both big men, and they both hammered away at their opposition, with Hickerson being a little younger, and quicker. Actually for his size, Hickerson was a very quick man. He was from just outside Jackson, Tennessee, and was able to use his hometown to his advantage.
The partnership between Nick Gulas and Jerry Jarrett was on shaky ground as the year started. Crowds were still pretty strong but Gulas was insisting that his son, George, be used more prominently by Jarrett, the booker. The uneasy truce between both sides would fall apart by mid-March. The area was still enthralled at the actions of Jerry Lawler and Jackie Fargo. Both men would have big years in 1977. Changes in the promoting structure during the year in the area would see a lot of different faces pass through the area.
from the forthcoming documentary "Memphis Heat"
During the early part of the year it seemed to be business as usual in the territory. Likely though there was some ongoing power struggles. Booker Jerry Jarrett continued to not use George Gulas on the more profitable western end of the territory. Things moved along until the winds of March, winds full of change, blew into the area.
The March 14 Memphis card was headlined by a Southern tag title tournament featuring such teams as the reunited combination of Jim White & Jerry Lawler, George Wagner & Tommy Rich, Phil Hickerson & Dennis Condrey, Rocky Johnson & Bill Dundee and others. The card drew 6300 fans. This was the last Memphis card promoted by Nick Gulas and Jerry Jarrett together under the Gulas-Welch promotional banner.
The following week WMC-TV, the station which had first shown TV wrestling in Memphis dating back to 1949, began airing a Jarrett-promoted show with local TV personalities Clay Conrad and Bob Young as hosts. WMAQ-TV had been the home of studio wrestling in Memphis since 1958. Until the 1977 split the TV show was hosted by Lance Russell and, in 1966, the promotion added Dave Brown to the show.
Despite the TV changes Jarrett didn’t miss a beat in 1977 as he promoted a card at the Cook Convention Center on Sunday March 20 headlined with Jerry Lawler battling Bob Armstrong. On the undercard were such favorites as Bill Dundee, Phil Hickerson & Dennis Condrey and others. Also making the show were Knoxville area regulars Ron and Robert Fuller and Kurt and Karl Von Steiger.
Recap and Preview
1977 saw the large territory owned by Nick Gulas and booked by Jerry Jarrett split in two because of differences between the two men. Gulas ended up with the eastern end of the territory (Nashville, Chattanooga, Huntsville and Birmingham) while Jarrett ended up with the western end of the territory (Memphis, Louisville, Lexington and Evansville). Gulas wound up with longtime stars Jackie Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto and such young talent as Bobby Eaton and Nick’s son, George. Jarrett’s top stars were Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee. As 1978 starts both groups were doing good business in their own ends of the area but a peaceful coexistence would not be possible for much of the year ahead.
A Handsome Stranger Comes Calling
For years, this territory used a lot of homegrown talent that, for the most part, didn’t stray too far away from home. When the territory encompassed a large section of the South this strategy could work. Wrestlers could work one end of the territory for several months before moving on to the other end where they hadn’t appeared in awhile which meant they were fresh again to the fans. After the territory began breaking apart this strategy would not work. New talent was developed from several promising young stars while veteran talent was brought in from other territories to work with existing talent exposing area fans to some talent they hadn’t seen previously.
Jimmy Valiant had worked territories in the South and Mid-West beginning in the late 1960s. He made a name for himself in a number of big time territories including several major runs for the major Northeastern promotion, the WWWF. Valiant also headlined the Indianapolis area for the WWA during the 1970s. He had worked with and against some of the biggest names in the business in the 1970s including Bruno Sammartino, Ernie Ladd, Dick the Bruiser, Bobby Heenan, Baron Von Raschke, Chief Jay Strongbow and others. He also added a "brother" dubbed as Luscious Johnny in the mid 70s. Together the Valiant Brothers worked territories such as the WWA, the WWWF, Georgia and Northern California. The two together worked as a cohesive heel combination and met success most everywhere they traveled usually holding area tag titles at each stop including the WWWF tag championship.
Recap and Preview
1978 had been a year when both Nick Gulas and Jerry Jarrett tried to invade the other’s territory. Both failed. As 1979 started things stood where they did a year before in regards to each end of the territory. Jarrett relied on tested talent from other territories such as Jos LeDuc and Jimmy Valiant and mixed in his own headliners Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee. Gulas used longtime star Tojo Yamamoto as a heel and headlined with young talent such as George Gulas, Bobby Eaton, Randy Savage and others. After the 1977 split the two groups had drifted apart, would 1979 continue this trend?
Often professional wrestling is about transformations. A young unproven wrestler can transform into a gritty up-and-comer. Sometimes the transformation is less subtle such as when a long-standing fan favorite turns into the most disliked man in the area (or vice-versa). Other times the change is more elusive and goes unnoticed for a long time.
Around 1972 a young wrestler debuted as Dennis McCord and wrestled in the Carolinas, Florida and for Nick Gulas. McCord was a big, powerful looking man with a barrel-chested physique. He would gather more experience by traveling to Australia and holding the Austra-Asian tag titles there with Jimmy Golden. Later, McCord changed his ring name from Dennis McCord to Iron Mike McCord and the big brunette gained more recognition by working matches in the WWWF.
His stay in the WWWF, though productive, did not lead to main event matches as he fit into mid-card status. McCord, managed briefly by Lou Albano, though turned some heads during his WWWF run mainly because of his bodybuilder appearance, then sported by few in the business, and the potential he showed as an overconfident heel.
Since the business was full of opportunities to get steady work via the thriving territorial system, a change fell into McCord’s plans. McCord returned to the South. This time he began working dates in Georgia and Florida.
On the heels of a year that saw Nick Gulas and Jerry Jarrett patch up their differences enough to work together 1980 seemed to be a year where the sky was the limit. Good intentions and well-thought out scenarios though often go awry when something unexpected occurs. Such a monkey wrench would be thrown into the mix in 1980 when an important part of the territory, Jerry Lawler, suffered a serious injury. Promoter Jerry Jarrett would work to fill this gap all year long. While all this was going on, three important players in the history of the territory decided to retire and in the process marked an end to three long, successful careers. Their retirements placed the future of professional wrestling in several cities in the territory up in the air.
Professional wrestling has had many wrestlers who were very good but who never received the honor and prestige that deservedly should follow. Various reasons could be given as to why such things occur. Physical size limits stardom for some because, for the most part, big wrestlers seem larger than life and size seems to make bookers and promoters believe more tickets can be sold. Lack of charisma holds others back sometimes since wrestling depends on the colorful and flamboyant. It could be a combination of these factors or other things. No matter what though, it is hard to hold back a performer who is consistent and dependable day in and day out.
Ken Lucas could fit the description just listed. Lucas was a small man, although stocky, to be a professional wrestler. Good thing for him though that he worked territories where size was not a major factor in determining his worth. Lucas was also a bit dry on interviews but spoke very plainly with rarely any strong emotion. He was a prototypical 1970s babyface wrestler. In ring though, Lucas could connect with the audience. Often he would raise and pump his fist in the air and stomp his feet to get the crowd into the action. Lucas also more than held his own as a professional wrestler. Day in and day out, Lucas could be counted on to put in a top notch performance.
Recap and Preview
1980 saw longtime area promoter Nick Gulas, his co-promoter and TV announcer Harry Thornton, and his main attraction Jackie Fargo all retire. By the start of 1981, Jerry Jarrett, Fuller’s promoting partner, was running most of Gulas’s old cities. Tommy Rich returned to the area in 1980 and shocked fans by becoming a heel. Things had returned to normal by the year’s end when Rich became a fan favorite again. Other big news from 1980 though revolved around the injury that sidelined top attraction Jerry Lawler. The injury forced Jarrett to turn to a crew of veterans such as Billy Robinson, Ken Lucas, Bill Dundee and Rocky Johnson to pick up the slack. It also enabled a new star or two to emerge. With Jarrett picking up the Gulas cities, Bobby Eaton made a splash while Koko Ware, who had worked for both Gulas and Jarrett, began his steady climb to the top. Lawler was out of action approximately eleven months. As 1981 began Lawler was set to return and had set his sights on his former manager, Jimmy Hart, who had severed his partnership with Lawler while the King was injured. Their feud would open the doors to an interesting year ahead.
It’s Good To Be King
The table had been set. Jerry Lawler’s leg injury was healed. Promoter Jerry Jarrett had effectively teased Lawler’s return for several weeks. Lawler’s enemies were waiting in line. Finally it was time for wrestling’s King to return to his home, the rings of Jarrett Promotions.
Lawler had determined prior to his return to set his sights on three men in particular, Jimmy Valiant, who had spent much of 1980 with Lawler’s crown and who would end up as Southern champion during Lawler’s return, Paul Ellering, who had been named by Jimmy Hart as Lawler’s heir apparent and Hart himself, who had announced Lawler’s career as over when the injury occurred. He would get his shot at each early in 1981.
Hart though had decided to toss a roadblock in Lawler’s path before he got to him. Late in 1980, Hart brought in a masked man billed as The Dream Machine.
wrestling story begins at 3:10
wrestling story begins at 3:10
Recap and Preview
Jerry Lawler’s return to ring action in 1981 boosted crowds around the circuit. A slew of top names passed through the area during the year trying to put the King out of action for manager Jimmy Hart. Dutch Mantell returned and proved to be extremely successful as he began the year as Southern champion and Mid-America champion. It seemed inevitable that Mantell and Lawler would cross paths in the new year over the Southern title. 1982 would also bring an interesting mix of faces to the forefront of the area including a cocky blonde world champion, a budding wrestling journalist turned manager wanna-be, a skinny comedian and an area legend and his two hand-picked cohorts whose careers would be reinvigorated by their mentor’s presence. Meanwhile, Jerry Jarrett’s promotion continued to face opposition in Kentucky from the ICW. Things would turn nasty during the year ahead between the two groups. In a much larger sense cable television was changing the way wrestling fans watched their choice of entertainment. Its growing impact was shaking the foundations of the business and 1982 would see more changes within the business. Meantime while all this was going on the Jerry Lawler-Jimmy Hart feud remained on the burner, ready to ignite at any moment.
It’s The Greatest Day of Jimmy Hart’s Life… Again
Jerry Lawler’s return to wrestling in 1981 was very successful for the territory. A portion of that success can be attributed to Lawler’s personality, which connected with the fans who in turn were eager to see their favorite again. Some of the success should also go to the promotion work led by Jerry Jarrett who did enough of the right things with an injured Lawler to whet the appetite of the fans enough that they were ready for his return. A large part of the success though must go to Lawler’s foe in virtually every scenario he faced from week to week in his return. That foe was Jimmy Hart.
Jimmy Hart had been part of the 1960s musical group, The Gentrys. Their biggest hit was the song "Keep On Dancing". After the group’s major success Hart bounced around the Memphis area for a number of years. In videotape Hart can be seen in wrestling-related events as early as 1977. By this time he had befriended the area’s top mat star, Jerry Lawler, who would get Hart involved in the business.
Recap and Preview
1982 saw the debut of manager Jim Cornette to the business. It also saw the legendary Jackie Fargo give his okay to the tag team of Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, the Fabulous Ones, who would prove to be the most successful team ever in the territory. The ICW continued to give steady competition to the Jarrett promotion in Kentucky although by the end of 1983 things between the two groups would take an interesting turn. Overall the wrestling business was changing as cable television, syndication, better video production techniques and video vignettes set to popular rock music were changing the base of fans who followed the business. The power of celebrity was also evident, especially in Memphis, as comedian Andy Kaufman had appeared on Memphis shows during 1982. He would be back in 1983 and place himself in the middle of the long-running Jimmy Hart-Jerry Lawler saga. Lawler had seemingly won the AWA title at the final Memphis card of 1982. The new year would begin with big news about that. During the year, the area would be overrun by a number of top tag teams as well as feature some of the best middle of the card talent in any promotion at the time. Georgia promoter Ole Anderson would have dealings with the Jarrett office during the year in an interesting venture. Also, three major bad guys would try their wares in the area at various times during 1983. Behind the scenes and unknown to Jerry Jarrett, Jerry Lawler and Lance Russell were considering beginning their own promotion. It was business as usual though as the Jimmy Hart-Jerry Lawler feud continued as if there was no end in sight.
The Beat Goes On…
1982 ended with Jerry Lawler scoring a pin over AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel. Referee Jerry Calhoun, who had been knocked down, counted the pinfall without noticing that Bockwinkel’s foot was draped over the bottom rope. Bockwinkel claimed he would raise a ruckus over the situation and he did. Following the match, Bockwinkel sent a tape of the match to AWA president Stanley Blackburn. Blackburn would then order the title held up due to the controversial ending (the title was only recognized as held up in this territory and Lawler’s claim to that title was not mentioned in other territories). Blackburn would order a rematch between Lawler and Bockwinkel.
Recap and Preview
1983 was a banner year for the promotion. The Fabulous Ones laid claim to being the area’s top tag team as they turned back team after team. The new year would find the Fabs and the promotion at odds with each other and the twists and turns the tag team scene would take would prove interesting. In an indirect way the Memphis promotion was involved in the battle brewing between Vince McMahon’s WWF and Ole Anderson’s WCW in 1983 as Anderson hooked up with promoter Jerry Jarrett and for nearly two months the two groups ran a circuit in the long-established Georgia circuit enabling Anderson’s group to expand into running regular shows outside Georgia. As 1984 dawned the WWF was becoming much more aggressive with their plans to expand their business. As the year unfolded Ole Anderson would call on Jerry Jarrett again to help him out. 1983 also saw three major heels, Stan Hansen, Jesse Ventura and Ken Patera all have runs in the area. With Jerry Lawler as the main focal point in the area 1984 would see some new blood challenge Lawler including an old promotional rival. Some old familiar faces would be back to challenge Lawler also, most of them at the behest of Jimmy Hart as the Lawler-Hart feud continued.
Lawler vs. Hart—Part Next
1983 ended in Memphis with a match pitting Southern champion Jerry Lawler against International champion Austin Idol with the winner receiving a New Year’s Day match against AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel. Lawler and Idol had patched up their differences during 1983 to become a formidable tag team. Prior to the match, Jimmy Hart attempted to talk Lawler into letting him manage Lawler in the match against Idol. Lawler refused. Undaunted, Hart then convinced Idol by offering him money to let him manage him in the match. Fans were shocked though when Hart turned on Idol allowing Lawler to win the match. This left them wondering if Hart and Lawler were actually working together.
The Fabulous Ones
Recap and Preview
1984 had been a year that left wrestling fans’ heads spinning with all the activity as the WWF began aggressively expanding their business into established territories including the CWA promotion. Despite Vince McMahon’s initial efforts, the Jerry Jarrett-Jerry Lawler promotion had held off the competition. The past year had seen the promotion take a young piece of raw talent named Rick Rood and turn him into a promising star called Ravishing Rick Rude. The star making process though had failed the company as they tried to recreate the success of the Fabulous Ones. Longtime promotional rivals, Randy Savage and Lanny Poffo, made in-roads in the territory as the two, especially Savage, turned a lot of heads in the business. As the new year dawned a number of ring veterans would make life interesting for area fans. Meantime, the long running Lawler-Jimmy Hart feud was still present as Hart’s man Eddie Gilbert was making life miserable for Lawler.
The Famous Final Scene
Think in terms of bridges burned…think of seasons that must end…see the rivers rise and fall…they will rise and fall again…everything must have an end…like an ocean to a shore…like a river to a stream…like a river to a stream…it's the famous final scene…
The Jerry Lawler-Jimmy Hart feud had raged on in the territory since 1980 when Lawler suffered a serious leg injury in a football game. Hart kicked the feud off then by asking fans what they would do if their prize race horse had broken it’s leg. Hart cackled that the horse would be shot. He then likened Lawler, the man he had been managing, to the broken down horse. From that point forward, the feud was on. As 1985 started the feud still had some life.
In the summer of 1984, Eddie Gilbert split with tag partner Tommy Rich. Not long after, Gilbert became a member of Jimmy Hart’s First Family. After plowing through competition such as Randy Savage, Lanny Poffo and Dutch Mantel, Gilbert arrived at year’s end as International champion and began warring against Southern champion Jerry Lawler.
Recap and Preview
1985 had been another busy year in the territory owned by Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler. Despite wrestling’s newfound popularity, due in great part to the media manipulations of Vince McMahon’s WWF, the business of professional wrestling had changed dramatically in a few years as the WWF’s national expansion destroyed many of the long-standing territories that had served wrestling for decades. In the process of expansion, the WWF was snapping up many of the stars still working the territories. Meantime, Lawler concluded his longtime feud against Jimmy Hart, who left for the WWF, and battled a number of stars throughout the year. By the end of the year though Bill Dundee had returned and defeated Lawler in a loser leaves town match. As 1986 began, Lawler, the area’s leading gate attraction, was nowhere to be found which meant Bill Dundee was the star of the show.
The Bill and Buddy Show
With Jerry Lawler gone from the territory Bill Dundee had free reign as the hottest heel the area had seen in a decade. His reign was nothing short of a reign of terror. Dundee laughed at the authority (figurehead) promoter Eddie Marlin held. Dundee began running through a number of opponents including Big Red, Austin Idol, Steve Keirn, Koko Ware and others. Dundee’s running partner at the end of 1985 was Dutch Mantel. Mantel though was in the midst of a war of his own against Rick Casey. With Mantel battling Casey, Buddy Landel came upon the scene.
Landel had spent the previous couple of years putting together some impressive runs in the business. He had worked the Memphis territory in 1983 but had bounced around a few territories after leaving the area. One of his most memorable runs was in the Mid-South promotion where he was paired with Hacksaw Butch Reed. In 1985, Landel hit the Jim Crockett promotion where he was being pushed toward an eventual feud against NWA champion Ric Flair that some believe would have included a brief run with the title. Landel though self-destructed and was let go by the promotion for conduct the promotion frowned on including no-showing some events. Budro, as Dundee called him, rolled into the area and almost immediately paired up with Dundee.
1987 Part I
Recap and Preview
1986 saw Bill Dundee and Buddy Landell create havoc all over the territory the first part of the year. They had left a long line of victims strewn behind them. They turned on partner Dutch Mantel. They made life miserable for Lance Russell and Dave Brown. They attacked a young referee named Jeff Jarrett, son of promoter Jerry Jarrett. They then ambushed Jerry and went for his ailing eye. The repercussions of their actions led Eddie Marlin to risk threatened “legal action” by Dundee to reinstate Jerry Lawler, the longtime area star Dundee had defeated in a loser leaves town match in December 1985. Lawler’s return popped the territory and led to Dundee eventually losing a loser leaves town match to Lawler mid-year. With the WWF, the Jim Crockett promotion and Bill Watts’ UWF promotion all running cards outside their original territories the landscape of wrestling had changed dramatically. Talent was signed up and locked away exclusively for a promotion. This meant a promotion still operating like the old territory days, such as the Memphis promotion, relied upon a steady diet of area regulars, hit and miss newcomers and veterans other promotions often no longer wanted or couldn’t make room for at the time. As 1987 began, area fans were cheering on Jeff Jarrett as his career began to take off. Jerry Lawler was still around and still gunning for a world championship. Lawler though had his hands full as Austin Idol and Tommy Rich thought they should be in line for world title matches instead of Lawler. It would be the beginning of a feud that would see some shocking and exciting twists and turns.
Lance Russell and Dave Brown
Since the mid-1970s the promotion had pushed Jerry Lawler as a serious world title challenger. Often top name stars from other territories were brought in to face Lawler. Lawler would almost always come out on top in some way and earn a shot at the traveling NWA champion. Although he got close on several occasions Lawler never did win the title outright. By 1978 the promotion began an association with Verne Gagne’s AWA which naturally led to Lawler wrestling for that title which most often was held by Nick Bockwinkel.
1987 Part II
April, May and June 1987
Jerry Lawler bounced back to win the Southern title. He then lost the title and his hair to Austin Idol in an April cage match. He would regain the title once more and enter the summer as champion.
Downtown Bruno’s team of Big Bubba & Goliath had their run as Southern tag champions end at the hands of Rocky Johnson & Soul Train Jones. Johnson & Jones then lost the belts to Chick Donovan & ‘Stretcher’ Jack Hart. Hart became better known as Barry Horowitz but also had a short stint working for the Crockett promotion as Brett Hart, not to be confused with Bret Hart, son of Canadian legend Stu Hart. Hart made an immediate impression on area fans by manhandling both Randy Hales and Eddie Marlin on the TV show. Donovan left the promotion forcing a vacancy that was filled when Billy Travis & Mark Starr won a June tournament.
The Mid-America title, vacant the early part of the year, was reintroduced when Moondog Spot (Larry Booker a/k/a Latham) was billed as champion. Spot then dropped the title to Jeff Jarrett. Jarrett then dropped it back to Spot who promptly lost it back to Jarrett. Jarrett again lost it to Spot before regaining the title.
Soul Train Jones had his International title run end when Chick Donovan won it. Donovan then lost the title to the returning Superstar Bill Dundee.
The International titles were held by Superfly Jimmy Snuka and J.T. Southern. Snuka though left the promotion and the titles were vacant. The Masked Mercenaries were then introduced one week as champions. They were managed by Paul E. Dangerously. The Mercenaries quickly dropped the titles to the team of Steve Keirn & Mark Starr. Keirn & Starr’s reign was short as the team was scheduled to face Paul Diamond & Pat Tanaka in a TV title defense. Keirn was unable to make the show. Starr faced both men by himself and lost. Diamond & Tanaka captured the titles.
"Boogie-Woogie Man" Handsome Jimmy Valiant is "The Boy from New York City"
Recap and Preview
1987 ended with Jeff Jarrett becoming a force in area rings. A number of newcomers and ring veterans stopped over in the area at the time as the wrestling business had changed from a thriving territorial system into a national business where a handful of promotions fought for survival. During 1987 the Jarrett promotion had strengthened their ties with the AWA. The highlight of this cooperation for the Jarrett promotion saw Jerry Lawler & Bill Dundee get a brief run with the AWA tag titles. 1988 would see the AWA title play an important part in the week-to-week events in the area especially as it related to Lawler. Lawler’s 1987 saw him in the thick of things in feuds against Brickhouse Brown, Austin Idol, Tommy Rich and Paul E. Dangerously. The new year though would find Lawler fending off the forces of the family from up the road in Lexington, Tennessee, the Gilberts.
Fire Flew From His Fingertips…
As the area’s top attraction and hero, Jerry Lawler was in constant need of believable foes to cause trouble for him. As 1988 began, Lawler and Bill Dundee squared off for a few weeks after Lawler had downed Dundee for the Lord of the Ring ring. Lawler then segued into a brief battle with newcomer Max Pain over the CWA title. In February though a bitter rival from 1987 returned to battle Lawler. That rival was Tommy Rich.
Rich, of course, had been part of wrestling’s hottest feud for a time the previous spring with Austin Idol against Lawler. Then the feud had lasted about seven months with enough twists and turns to keep fans curious enough to find it interesting. While Lawler was perceived as the winner by the fans since he ended up hanging around after the feud the actual ending of the feud likely ended without the satisfactory payoff that should have occurred for fans as first Rich then Idol left the promotion. With most fans recalling the feud it was easy to understand that Lawler still had issues that needed settling with Rich.
1988, Pt. II
Recap and Preview
1988 had started hot with the return of Eddie Gilbert after a three-year absence. Gilbert returned with brother Doug, father Tommy and valet (and then-wife) Missy Hyatt. Gilbert’s feud with Jerry Lawler was very focused and brought out fans to see the renewal of their feud. When Gilbert accepted a position with the Alabama-based CWF promotion, Robert Fuller returned to the area after nearly a decade away and established the Stud Stable in area rings. Fuller would provide a foe for Jeff Jarrett much of 1988. Jerry Lawler’s year changed dramatically in May and lead him down an interesting path the rest of the year.
Lawler Strikes Gold
In the midst of the Jerry Lawler feud with Eddie Gilbert, Jerry Jarrett made a special announcement. AWA champion Curt Hennig was scheduled to wrestle in Memphis on May 9. The promotion had tapped Lawler to face Hennig that night. Lawler though was ready to put up or shut up. Lawler had decided if he lost the match to Hennig on May 9 he would retire from wrestling.
Jerry Lawler had chased the elusive world championship for the better part of two decades. The promotion even tailored specific programs presented and booked to highlight Lawler as a serious world title contender. Lawler had always fallen short of his goal.
He had tried though. Lawler had battled Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, Harley Race, Ric Flair, Nick Bockwinkel, Rick Martel and Curt Hennig for either the NWA or AWA title in the territory. Lawler had also squared off against others who had claimed some version of the world title before including Lou Thesz, Dory Funk, Jr., Dick the Bruiser and Superstar Billy Graham. He had also faced others before they won world title crowns such as Randy Savage, Rick Rude, Hulk Hogan, Dusty Rhodes and Stan Hansen.
Despite the long list of quality champions and contenders Lawler had faced he had come up short. He had taken Jack Brisco to a sixtyminute draw. He had Harley Race nearly out when Jimmy Valiant rushed the ring and leveled him with a beer bottle.
Recap and Preview
1988 had been a year memorable for local fans. Even though professional wrestling had gone national, the Jarrett promotion remained one of the few surviving territories. Robert Fuller, whose family had deep roots in the business in the area, was creating havoc with a heel group known as the Stud Stable. Fuller mostly made life miserable for Jeff Jarrett. The area’s top star, Jerry Lawler, had fended off a challenge from old foe Eddie Gilbert before realizing a career-long dream when he downed Curt Hennig for the AWA title. From there, Lawler became a fighting champion although he mainly spent much of the remainder of 1988 battling World Class star Kerry Von Erich culminating in a pay-per-view match against Von Erich in December in Chicago. Promoter Jerry Jarrett had purchased the World Class promotion in the fall and was attempting to find a way to successfully use the talent and resources he had acquired. One of the resources he had been able to count on since he began his company in 1977 was the weekly Memphis TV show which had become an area tradition dating back to the 1949.
Right Along Ringside!
Without the medium of television it is hard to imagine what evolved into professional wrestling by the 1940s and 1950s ever achieving any amount of sustained success as it grew into a major territorial force in the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s. The 1950s through the early 1980s saw many cities throughout the U.S. host their own studio wrestling shows. The TV shows were designed to whet the appetite of the wrestling fan. Once hungry for more action, fans were further urged to buy a ticket to an upcoming show where it was suggested their hunger would be satisfied. For decades this worked beautifully for many cities and territories.
The shows generally were easily and cheaply produced. Requiring the services of a production crew, most often provided by the TV station, the studio wrestling show became a fixture in many homes, usually airing over the weekend. The ingredients for such a show included a desk, a microphone, some chairs or risers for fans, a security guard to keep things in line, a referee, a crew of wrestlers and a wrestling ring. A wrestling promotion was then ready for business.
Recap and Preview
1988 was the year Jerry Lawler engaged in a red-hot feud with Eddie Gilbert & Missy Hyatt before realizing his career-long dream of winning a world title when he downed Curt Hennig in May in Memphis to win the AWA title. Lawler continued to appear in the area but worked some outside the area defending the championship. Closer to home, Robert Fuller & Jimmy Golden headed up the area’s leading rulebreaking group called The Stud Stable. While the national expansion had mostly destroyed the territorial system, the Jarrett promotion held on, in large part due to the success of their long-running TV show hosted by Lance Russell and Dave Brown. As 1989 started, the expansion of wrestling nationally drained the talent pool and more than in years before the Jarrett promotion then truly became a testing ground for those getting their feet wet in the business. 1989 would prove to be a good year for area fans as they had the chance to see many future stars of wrestling as they cut their teeth on the business in the area. The promotion would also tap into the pop culture world some midyear as the horror movie genre suddenly became well-represented in the territory. As 1989 started though Jerry Lawler was AWA champion but the fallout of his December pay-per-view match against Kerry Von Erich would turn the recognized world title into a real big mess.
A Really Fine Mess
At one time the AWA world title was one of the most prestigious and respected championships in the business of professional wrestling. Verne Gagne, Nick Bockwinkel, Mad Dog Vachon, The Crusher, Bill Miller (as the masked Mr. M), Dick Beyer (as the masked Dr. X) and Gene Kiniski were some of the more well-known and celebrated champions in AWA history. Poor creative and business decisions by AWA owner Verne Gagne though had helped that title lose much of it’s own luster during the 1980s.
When the talented Curt Hennig, son of AWA legend Larry the Ax Hennig, was given the championship in 1987 there was still some hope that his abilities could help restore the title to some of it’s past glory. Hennig’s title reign though ended when Jerry Lawler was given the strap in May 1988. Lawler, as a Memphis mainstay, had chased a world championship since 1974 and the AWA title since 1978.
Recap and Preview
1989 saw the longtime promotion owned by Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler hit some bumps in the road. Their long-running association with the AWA ended in January. Lawler, at the time of the dissolving of the association, was AWA champion. After the dust settled the AWA refused to recognize Lawler’s claim. Lawler though continued to work billed instead as Unified world champion. A number of young stars hit the ground running in the area in 1989, many of whom would greatly impact the business in the decade ahead. The promotion also introduced a number of performers into the mix who were patterned after horror movie characters. As the year moved on it saw the ending of a few important long-held traditions. By year’s end, Jerry Lawler would shock fans by becoming a lot like the Jerry Lawler of old.
July, August and September 1989
The Unified World title remained in the hands of Jerry Lawler during this time period. He turned back a number of challenges during this time including challenges from The Master of Pain and Kerry Von Erich.
Black Bart held the CWA title until losing it in September to the masked man called Texas Dirt. Dirt suspiciously bore a physical resemblance to Dutch Mantel, who had just lost a loser-leaves-town match. Dirt though didn’t sound like Mantel as he sounded suspiciously like Dutch Mantel trying to disguise his voice to avoid being recognized. Bart and Dirt would swap the title again before September ended and Dutch would eventually reemerge in the area as Dirt disappeared.
Billy Travis & Action Jackson held the CWA tag titles. The titles though were held-up after an inconclusive decision Travis & Jackson had against Wildside: Chris Champion & Mark Starr. In the rematch, Wildside would win the titles. Wildside held the belts until being derailed by The Rock n Roll Express: Robert Gibson & Ricky Morton.
The promotion also briefly recognized a Tennessee tag title in July. The combo of Jeff Jarrett & Ricky Morton downed The Blackbirds: King Parsons & Brickhouse Brown with manager Harold T. Harris to win the titles. The titles were then soon abandoned.
On the last Saturday TV show of 1989, figurehead promoter Eddie Marlin announced the CWA was merging with the USWA. In reality, both the CWA and the USWA were owned by longtime area promoter Jerry Jarrett. The announcement was an ending of an era for the Tennessee end as the merger was seen as a means to incorporate the talent pools and storylines of both promotions into one.
The Tennessee promotion, based out of Hendersonville, north of Nashville, dropped their CWA designation and adopted the USWA designation which was better known to most fans as the promotion that regularly ran shows out of Dallas, Texas. It seemed as if the two separate territories might operate in a more synchronized manner but that was not to be totally. Although much greater detail is given to the USWA from 1990 forward, these next two articles will attempt to summarize many of the major events in the territory during the same time as it related to the names mentioned in this series of articles. What happened to many of the longtime names and institutions synonymous with the promotion that have been mentioned in this series of articles? What follows is an attempt to give an idea of life after 1989 for those mentioned here since the inception of these articles.
The 1989 merger of sorts worked for part of the year ahead. Jerry Jarrett retained the majority of the Texas promotion while the remaining minority part of the territory stayed with Kerry and Kevin Von Erich. While the 1988 SuperBrawl III pay-per-view headed by Jarrett and the AWA’s Verne Gagne was a flop financially there were rumblings that Jarrett with his expanded promotion might make moves toward promoting another pay-per-view. Those rumblings though were only rumblings.
Into 1991 Kevin Von Erich was making noises about how displeased he was with how Jarrett was running the company. Jarrett pulled out of running shows in Texas and allowed Kevin to run shows on his own.
Championship Wrestling TV show
The live WMC studio TV show continued uninterrupted for years until 1997. In 1993, WMC-TV underwent an ownership change and it was feared the station would drop the TV show which still drew excellent ratings. The new ownership though remained faithful to the show and it went on.
In late 1996, Jerry Jarrett sold his end of the promotion to Jerry Lawler. Lawler, in turn, brought in Larry Bertman (listed as Larry Burton in most accounts) as General Manager. Bertman quickly alienated many of the longtime stars and employees of the company. Over time the company was sold to Mark Selker. Legal problems though cropped up over the sale with Selker claiming he was being taken for more money than the company was worth. WMC-TV would eventually cancel the TV show after a twenty year run on it’s airwaves.
After the legal issues were mostly settled, the TV show returned under the name Power Pro Wrestling operated by Randy Hales. Jerry Lawler, who somehow escaped the legal battle between Bertman and Selker, was involved with the new group. Initially the show returned to a late Saturday night slot but a few weeks later returned to the traditional Saturday morning time slot. The show would continue and the promotion would as well although opposition groups had much greater success against the late 1990s group than the Jarrett-Lawler group.
In 2001, citing OSHA standards regarding having a live studio audience in an ill-readied studio, among other issues, WMC again canceled the long-running TV show. A deal though was worked out for a TV show to continue in the old familiar Saturday morning TV slot.
Quotable Memphis/CWA, Part One
It has often been said that actions speak louder than words. This, no doubt, is true in many instances. In professional wrestling though, and especially during the glory days of territorial TV shows, words were the very essence of what happened from week to week. Many times fans lived to hear the area’s bad guy spewing venomous threats against someone and taking the time to hassle the fans to boot. Other times it was the area’s humble good guy, appreciative of his fan support yet bewildered at the nefarious deeds of someone who wanted to do him harm. Sometimes it was the manager who talked a much bigger game than his body and athletic ability could back up when called out. Often it was the announcer drawing very distinct lines between who should be cheered and who should be jeered while also drawing not so distinct lines foreshadowing what would take place in the future all the time urging each viewer that they were more than welcome at the upcoming card at the local arena.
Of course, those shows at the local arenas paid the bills and filled the pockets of those involved in the business. While the actions on a TV show often affected the arena shows, those actions were usually driven in one way or another by the interview segment. Interviews often set the stage for friction which would lead to action. Other times, actions occurred only to be followed by interviews that vowed revenge or provided some reasoning for what just occurred. Sometimes it was a handful of words that fit the scene. Other times lengthy discourses set the tone. The pieces were then put together to bring the arena show together. While each part is important, often it was the words that determined the failure or success of what was going on.
While inflection, emotion, facial and body expression, cadence, accent and reaction also play a part in great interviews they do not always translate well to the written word. So while what follows may be enjoyable to read and remember, it cannot hold up to the moment it took place, where inflection, emotion, expressions, cadence and reaction combined with the words to provide entertaining interviews. With this in mind, this article looks back at the years 1975-1982 in the old Nick Gulas and Jerry Jarrett territories and some of the words, from one-liners to diatribes, that were offered up in the name of a professional wrestling interview.
Thunderbolt Patterson, 1979 in an interview with Lance Russell:
“If I say anything that you don’t understand, I want you to stop me so I can explain it to you.”
By 1983, professional wrestling was in the process of changing dramatically. While the business had drawn well for years it was falling under the spell of changes driven by technology and cable television. Technology would make the visual presentation of wrestling’s video product more eye-catching and in the process more appealing to a younger generation, a generation more attracted to the visual aspect of the presentation. Cable television would be the new means of presenting the product to the masses replacing loosely strung together syndicated networks and local studio shows. This would take the business away from small cities and towns and the territorial system and into an age where the business played out mostly on a national stage. The in-ring product of the times also varied greatly from a more traditional style grounded in mat wrestling to an emerging explosive style gaining in popularity in Japan by stars such as Tiger Mask and The Dynamite Kid to a wild, brawling style to a mixture of the three.
Some things about professional wrestling though remained constant despite the changes. At some point during a TV show, a wrestler still stood behind a microphone and talked or barked or yelled in an effort to get across how tough he was or how mad he was or how determined he was. Those comments were generally directed toward someone he was in conflict with in some manner. He also still tried to be convincing enough to make the viewers part with some of their hard-earned money to see him in person.
This article looks back at the years 1983-1989 in the old Memphis/CWA territory and some of the words, from one-liners to diatribes, that were offered up in the name of a professional wrestling interview. While what follows (or preceded in the previous article) isn’t a definitive list of great interviews or one-liners from the area, it is a good sample of what could be heard week-in, week-out and is a part of the reason the promotion survived as long as it did in the midst of the national expansion.
Jos LeDuc, 1984:
“People say I’m crazy. Do I look crazy to you?”
Jimmy Hart, 1984, as The A-Team attacks Norvell Austin & Stagger Lee and spray paints their backs yellow:
“It’s paint up, clean up, fix up week, baby. From now on, nobody leaves the First Family. You know I’ve said it time and time again, baby, the Family don’t get mad, we just get even. Look at those big sissies, look at them, you gutless wonders. Nobody leaves the Family from now on, baby!”
The previous two articles looked at some interesting one-liners and other dialogue in the territory that at various times from 1975 until 1989 was run by Nick Gulas, Roy Welch and Jerry Jarrett. Purposely, one individual, Jerry Lawler, was left out of those two articles because of his own proclivity to be quotable.
Some consider Lawler to be one of the greatest interviews in professional wrestling history. Some discount him because of their own dislike of Lawler or the style of pro wrestling the territory promoted. It though is hard to argue with Lawler's longevity as Lawler remained the one constant performer in the area from the 1970s into the new millennium. While some of those years have been lean years at the gate, many of them were very good years and most all those years revolved around Lawler as the top attraction. This means his ability to communicate to the fans what needed to be communicated was vital to any success that might be achieved.
Following in the footsteps of area wrestling legends Sputnik Monroe and Jackie Fargo, Jerry Lawler made an initial splash as a bad guy. As Lawler grew into the role and in the business, his smarmy, smart-aleck delivery angered fans. A 1974 feud with Fargo would lead to Lawler kicking up his heel persona a notch as he battled Fargo over the unofficial title of 'The King of Memphis'. Lawler's attitude as a heel though attracted some fans as his humor and delivery made him likable in a certain way hard for fans who usually cheered for the good guys to fully comprehend. Over time, Lawler would become a fan favorite and would become more popular than he ever was disliked as a bad guy.
While the business evolved over time, Lawler's ability to communicate effectively and clearly with the area's fan base, combined with the credibility he earned in doing so, were major reasons the promotion was active for so long. What follows is a sampling of Jerry Lawler's one-liners and dialogues in the Memphis territory from the mid 1970s through 1989. (NOTE: Due to the great volume of tremendous dialogue what follows is a mere example of Lawler's promo ability and is in no way intended to be the end-all, be-all list of superior Lawler dialogue.)
The Heel King
Jerry Lawler, 1980:
"These people aren't stupid. (Points to crowd) Take a look at 'em. Well, wait a minute, these are stupid."
Jerry Lawler, 1979:
"Lance, why don't you go home? Your cage is probably cleaned out by now."
Nick Gulas and Jerry Lawler, promoting a 1976 Chattanooga house show:
Gulas: "Tonight at the Memorial Auditorium you're in store for one of the best cards we've signed for Chattanooga in many months headlined with one of the best NWA Southern heavyweight championship matches signed for Chattanooga as I said in many months when Jerry Lawler returns here after a long absence. He's the NWA Southern heavyweight champion. He's been signed to go against the former North American heavyweight champion, Cowboy Frankie Laine, who's undefeated right here in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Cowboy Frankie Laine demanded this match with Jerry Lawler.
Midway through the decade of the 1960s, life in the United States was a work in progress. A bit over a year earlier the nation was rocked to its core with the assignation of president John F. Kennedy. From Great Britain a musical foursome known as the Beatles had made a splash stateside. Many in the country were growing disillusioned with the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The civil rights movement was also a major part of the lives of many in the country at the time, especially for many throughout major metropolitan areas in the South. Underlying it all, a quiet panic was always a breath away as a cold war between the U.S. and the forces of communism rested uneasily nearby.
On a much different hand, professional wrestling was chugging along just fine in the United States by 1965. A good number of wrestling promotions were doing quite well as what would be known as the territorial system began cementing. Wrestling promotion offices, often but not necessarily based around state lines, were scattered all across the U.S., as well as in Mexico and Canada.
The major governing body of wrestling at the time was the National Wrestling Alliance although two other groups, the American Wrestling Association based in the upper mid-west and the World Wide Wrestling Federation based in the northeast had carved out their own successful territories with their own set of champions. The NWA though revolved around the rest of the territories and uniquely featured a world champion whose appearances in the various territories were infrequent enough that they were truly special events.
What came to be referred to here as the Memphis promotion was doing well in 1965. Although the northernmost cities such as Louisville, Lexington and Evansville were not yet part of the territory, the actual territory at the time stretched across parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri. Building upon years of steady work in the area by such wrestling stars as The Welch family (Jack, Herb, Lester and Roy), Don & Al Greene, Art Neilson, Tex Riley, Rowdy Red Roberts, Len Rossi, The Fargos (Jackie, Sonny & Don), Corsica Joe & Corsica Jean, Sputnik Monroe, Billy Wicks and others, the promotion operated by Nick Gulas and longtime star turned promoter Roy Welch had long tentacles throughout a large part of the southern United States. This was driven home even more so as Gulas and Welch enjoyed good business relations with other wrestling offices in the South such as the Gulf Coast promotion headed by the Fields family (related to the Welch family), the Florida promotion headed by Cowboy Luttrell and the Georgia promotion headed by Ray Gunkel, Paul Jones and Buddy Fuller. With cooperation often extremely necessary between promotions, Gulas and Welch held a great amount of influence in many cities in the South.
While TV was a popular item in households, the syndicated networks put together by promotions were still in the distance so many cities hosted their very own TV shows each week. Most major cities in the area ran weekly wrestling cards which in turn created a regular circuit which enabled Gulas and the promoters who worked with him to build a business from. Of course, smaller towns and cities were also frequent stopovers for the promotions in the territory days.
Covering so much territory meant Gulas and Welch needed plenty of talent. The promoting team came to rely on a steady diet of regulars who often shifted from city to city in the territory to other cities in order to remain fresh in the minds of the fans.
As a contributor to this site since its inception in 2000, I have tried to paint as realistic a portrait of what is known as the Memphis territory as possible through words. My memory and efforts though generally turn nostalgic and tend to favor the good aspects of the territory. While often I'm as sharp as a plastic knife, I do understand that each of us tends to look more favorably upon what we either first saw as a wrestling product or what we grew up watching as it generally became the measuring stick against whatever else we watched. Haggling over which territory was "the best" to me seems as useless as trying to determine what ice cream is the best. Some like one flavor, others dislike that flavor and like another flavor and the reasons for the various likes and dislikes are themselves varied. Ultimately, it is all subjective. It even seems a bit elitist to try to determine what territory was "the best" since there are so many variables to ever objectively know.
All that being said though, my favorite wrestling territory is the Memphis territory. This writer though doesn't mask the fact that that thought and three quarters will get you a cup of coffee at a rundown café on the outskirts of town.
It's easy to analyze a territory and discover the highlights and understand who the stars were. With this promotion, Monroe, Lawler, Fargo, Gulas, Welch, Jarrett, Hart, Valiant, Dundee, LeDuc, Idol, Keirn & Lane and others seem to be shoo-ins for so many of the highlights held high in memory banks. But there is another side, a side hidden underneath all the good stuff hiding the bitter underbelly of wrestlers and events and gimmicks that didn't get over or ideas that just plain didn't work out as planned. That brings us to this special article on Memphis wrestling, the Hall of Shame.
The Hall of Shame
Defined as: a fan favorite, significantly pushed by the promotion, who for whatever reason, just didn't cut it.
George Gulas (Gulas-Welch, 1974-80) The most controversial figure in the Tennessee-based territory during the 1970s, George Gulas, the son of promoter Nick Gulas, was pushed as a main event star from the very beginning of his ring career. George had actually worked as an announcer and referee before donning his tights and zip-up boots in 1974. Actually in 1973, George worked most of the cities in the territory as an advertised special referee. One year later, George was working shows as a wrestler. While promoter's sons or booker's sons are often held in contempt within and without the business due to perceived or imagined nepotism, no promoter's son or booker's son has drawn more ill will from those who worked in the business or with longtime fans than George Gulas. George is remembered for not paying his dues in the business. In ring, George was a mess. He was tall and thin and not very muscular, which made him look really strange when standing next to frequent tag partner Tojo Yamamoto, who looked like a compact fireplug. George also was less than graceful in ring. Since Yamamoto was his partner, George used some of Yamamoto's signature moves including Tojo's chops. The problem with George's use of chops was he didn't know how to throw them in a worked way. Of course, the promotion split up when after a number of years where George was used mostly on the eastern end, Nick Gulas wanted George on the western end. Booker Jerry Jarrett balked and the rest is history. Just how bad was George Gulas? A thread on the KM message board discusses whether or not George was as bad as believed. Of course, the legend of George Gulas is such that even many who never once saw George wrestle view him as the worst wrestler ever. How they came to that conclusion is inexplicable without them having experienced George Gulas-mania firsthand, although drawing such a conclusion isn't too far from the truth.
Just A Job To Do
There are a lot of ingredients that make a wrestling territory successful. One of the key elements of how a promotion attempted to be successful in the territorial days was how it used the TV time they had available to them each week.
Sometimes the weekly TV wrestling show featured competitive, or mostly competitive, matches between established or emerging stars. Sometimes territories were able to use aging stars whose moneymaking days were mostly behind them to provide quality competition to current moneymaking stars. Of course, this method meant that wrestlers who had been big news for a time had to let go of their egos for the sake of allowing the business to continue (something many stars from the last dozen years or so refuse to do). Younger wrestlers then were broken into this type of system and earned a broad education in the business, an education that impressed a deep respect for leaving the business healthy for others that would follow. If done properly, these new young stars would gain enough experience to become the stars of tomorrow by first paying their dues by taking their lumps.
Some territories did not have the luxury of having the depth other territories had so using wrestlers who were hitting the ends of their careers was not much of an option. Some promoters also had the mentality to not give away for free, on television, any match-up that people might pay money to see.
But television began playing an increasingly important role in the business. Promoters wanted to really get over their stars. Something had to be done to strike some balance of whetting the appetite of the audience just enough to make them want to shell out their hard-earned money to see the big matches at the arenas. Increasingly, on television the headline stars of a promotion were usually fed young talent with little, and sometimes, no mat experience.
Over time, this young talent became known as jobbers or enhancement talent. Merriam-Webster defines 'enhance' as "to increase or improve". This encompasses the word "enhancement". 'Talent' is defined as "a special, often, creative or artistic aptitude." So someone who is considered enhancement talent has a special skill to increase or improve. In the case of professional wrestling it is the job of enhancement talent to make their opponent, a star of the promotion, look invincible, or sometimes, vulnerable.
The promoters that operated the Tennessee promotion used enhancement talent. At times in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the promotion used one time main event stars such as Corsica Joe, Rowdy Red Roberts and Frank Martinez, among others as those who helped get over the bigger names on area cards. They of course also used talent that never made it past your TV screen on Saturday afternoons.
As time moved on, the promotion began using younger talent to make big stars bigger. A good number of this group went on to bigger and better things after first paying their dues. Notably a few stars who were drubbed in area TV matches in the 1970s who later would become big stars were Eric Embry, Rick Morton, Tommy Rich and Bobby Eaton. It is also interesting to note that in the very earliest part of his career, the area's top star of all time, Jerry Lawler, was used as enhancement talent for a time.
While a number of wrestlers who were used as enhancement talent actually were able to make a career out of the business by hanging on and paying their dues, many were not able to do so. Still, appearing on the area's weekly TV show and making someone else look good paid some. It was the practice of Nick Gulas, Roy Welch and later Jerry Jarrett to pay enhancement talent for their trouble. Jarrett paid talent $25.00 for their efforts on the TV show. Those who were headliners worked for free since what they were doing on TV hopefully brought people to the upcoming house show where their money was made against other headliners. No doubt though some who took their lumps as enhancement talent were recognized here and there and likely picked up spots on area independent cards where they could enhance their own bottom line.
Book chronicles Memphis mat memories
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Mention the town of Memphis to most folks, and chances are the first name that comes to mind is Elvis.
Mention the town of Memphis to any longtime wrestling fan, and chances are they’ll start talking about Jerry “The King” Lawler, Jackie Fargo, Sputnik Monroe or some of the other legendary figures who helped make Memphis one of the most successful and longest-running territories in the business.
A new book, “Sputnik, Masked Men and Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling,” helps capture the style and splendor of that era in grand pictorial fashion.
Author Ron Hall and editor Sherman Willmott have done a terrific job putting together an attractive, coffee table-style volume that contains nearly 400 nostalgic black-and-white images from a bygone age in wrestling history in one of wrestling’s most enduring cities. Most of the book’s photos are from a period ranging from the early ‘50s to the late ‘70s, and many of the images have never been published before.
There’s even a bonus CD of rare music tracks by Memphis favorites Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo, Jimmy Valiant and Len Rossi.
Lawler, who was regarded as “the King of Memphis” long before his stint as WWE color commentator, wrote the introduction to the book and notes that he patterned his speaking style after another famous Memphian.
Instead of his politeness,” the current Memphis mayoral candidate writes, “I subverted his mannerisms into cockiness and projected myself as the truck driver side of Elvis. I even took his leer and turned it into a sneer that would curdle your toes.”
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, incidentally, was a big wrestling fan and a frequent visitor to the Monday night shows at the old Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, and even dated wrestling star Penny Banner several times.
The book consists primarily of old posed and action photos, but also includes reproductions of Memphis wrestling posters, clips and 45s.
Hall, a post office clerk by trade, pursued the project after writing a couple of nostalgia-based books on Memphis’ garage band history: “Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis, 1960-75)” and “The Memphis Garage Rock Yearbook.”
A longtime music buff, Hall unwittingly helped create a new audience for the genre when many of the groups he wrote about decided to reform years later. It was through ingenuity and a little luck that Hall got the idea for the books.
Hall came across a “treasure trove” of material while going through files and documents that were housed at the University of Memphis Museum. Much of the material previously had been the property of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, a Scripps-Howard afternoon daily that closed its doors in the mid-’80s.
“Everything that had been written about folks in Memphis was probably in their collection,” says Hall.
Once the newspaper closed shop, he says, most of the photo archives were earmarked for disposal.
“They had the stuff out on the dock,” says Hall. “They were going to throw it in the Dumpster. And somebody suggested that they call the University of Memphis, and they sent a truck over there. I think they had to make around five trips. It was a ton of stuff. But all that stuff would have been thrown away.”
It was a godsend for historians like Hall.
“You wouldn’t believe the stuff I found going through there. It’s unbelievable. They had a great catalog.”
As Hall sifted through volumes of documents, he came across some rare photographs of Elvis and various area rockabilly performers, along with photos of the many garage bands that had performed in Memphis over the years.
But what also caught his eye was a vast array of pro wrestling photos. They reminded him of his younger days when Memphis wrestling was a Saturday morning television staple leading up to the weekly Monday night shows at the Ellis Auditorium and later the Mid-South Coliseum.
“As I was going through bands, here would be a picture of the Baby Blimp. It was so cool,” recalls Hall. “It just brought back all these memories. I started looking for things. The more I found, the more I looked for more. The (music) yearbook was hardly even out and I was already looking to put out this next thing.”
“The museum scanned the photos and put them on a disc — at no charge. All they asked is that I credit them on the pictures and bring them a copy afterwards.”
Hall also bought a big batch or original wrestling posters to add to his collection. “It just kind of snowballed from that.”
Hall and his editor were sure that pro wrestling, much like the garage rock bands, would strike a nostalgic chord with a unique audience. For most of the 20th century, Mondays night in Memphis had meant one thing — professional wrestling. At the Ellis Auditorium and later the Mid-South Coliseum, pro wrestling was a major event in a town also known for Elvis, the blues, barbecue, cotton and the civil rights movement.
Hall has been working on the project on-and-off for several years. The success of the movie “The Wrestler” propelled Hall into high gear.
“Everyone who knew I was working on the book started asking me when I was going to finish it,” said Hall. “It lit the spark again. I really went full force after that.”
Hall says early response to the book has very positive.
“The response has been really good ... even from the wrestlers. Jerry Lawler loved it. All of the wrestlers have liked it because it brings back so many memories.”
Hall made sure to include photos of not only main-event stars who came through Memphis, but also some of the mainstays who may not have achieved that level of popularity, but who made their mark in the territory. He also wanted to display some of the other attractions that helped shape Memphis wrestling.
“I didn’t want to leave out any of the women. I didn’t want to leave out the midgets. I didn’t want to leave out the bears. I didn’t want to leave out anything that was connected to Memphis wrestling,” he says. “Anytime you went to wrestling, it was like going to the circus. There were all these attractions. It was great.”
Hall says he eventually acquired photos of most of the talent he was looking for. He purchased a number of images from an individual who owned a vast collection of photos that from that era.
“I had a list of people I absolutely wanted for the book,” says Hall. “When you find something you really need, it was big. I went through those files thinking I had missed something. There were certain icons I just had to have. I wished I had more of referee Jerry Calhoun. He’s really a great guy. I felt so bad I didn’t have a picture of him in the ring.”
Hall says his favorite wrestling performer was Billy Wicks. For years his bout with Monroe at Russellwood Park held the Memphis attendance record of 13,000 fans. Several thousand reportedly were turned away.
“Without a doubt. Sputnik was close behind. I also liked Rowdy Red Roberts. There was just something about him. It seemed like he wrestled every Saturday. He was a mean-looking wrestler with that bald head. Guys like that and the Galentos (Spider and Mario) were great. As a fan I really wasn’t that interested in the scientific wrestlers.”
Of course, before Jerry Lawler became the “king” of the Memphis wrestling scene, there was Wildman Jackie Fargo.
“Jackie was great. Jackie had that bar or restaurant in Memphis, and he liked to tip one every now and then. A wrestler told me that he’d lock the doors after hours and want to wrestle with the young guys. He was a real brawler.”
The book also draws from the substantial collection of Robert W. Dye. Dye was an amateur photographer who shot photos of entertainers around Memphis during the ‘40s and ‘50s. But he had more than a passing interest in pro wrestling, says Hall, and his photos help give the book a window into the early world of Memphis wrestling.
“I don’t think he went to the matches more than four or five times, but he took a lot of great photos.”
As a youth Hall was a fan who watched wrestling on television and, like many of the younger followers of that generation, practiced it in their back yards.
“Everybody would watch it and then go out in their yard and have tag-team matches with their neighbors and beat the heck out of one another. Everybody did. You would even mimic the mannerisms of wrestlers ... like hiding something down in your shorts. It was a lot of fun.”
Coming across the photos years later helped rekindle that interest. The most interesting thing about writing the book, says Hall, was just the thrill of discovering the material that still existed.
“These images, when I first came across them, brought back so many things in my mind. I had a shoebox full of clippings of all the wrestlers and matches.”
Hall says he wants readers to have as much fun going through the book as he had putting it together.
“I just want people to have fun with the book. It’s the type of thing you can just set on the coffee table and show your friends. Even if you don’t like wrestling, just going through these images would be enjoyable.”
Unfortunately the book’s photo display ends in the late ‘70s. Conspicuously absent was a later period in Memphis wrestling history that featured Lawler’s red-hot programs with the likes of Austin Idol, Terry Funk, Randy Savage, Jimmy Hart and late comedian Andy Kaufman, the creation of The Fabulous Ones (Stan Lane and Steve Keirn), and the emergence of Jerry Jarrett as the territory’s promotional driving force. Jarrett took control from longtime promoter Nick Gulas, who lost Memphis TV’s Channel 13 to Jarrett, along with Memphis’ biggest star (Lawler) and popular announcers Lance Russell and Dave Brown.
Gulas, his co-promoter and TV announcer Harry Thornton, and his main star, Jackie Fargo, all retired in 1980. By the start of 1981, Jarrett was running most of Gulas’s old towns.
Hall says he made a conscious decision to end the book in the late ‘70s. Although Memphis wrestling continued to thrive for a few more years, the wrestling business was heading in a different direction, making way for cable television and the national expansion.
It’s also when Hall, for the most part, stopped watching.
Like many of his friends, he says, he moved on to other things, such as music, girls and high school. It would be many years before he would watch wrestling again, but only while his children were growing up, and only in small doses. It was a new generation and a new product. It would never be the same again.
“My attraction to wrestling stopped pretty much when this book ends. It was in the late ‘70s.”
Manager Jim Cornette, who made his debut in 1982, would emerge a little too late for Hall, who says Cornette would have fit in well with those who came before him.
Hall admits he just didn’t have a touch on that era. Cable TV had become the new means of presenting the product to the masses. Business was now being played out on a national stage.
“It started changing. Cable TV and all that. It was a different scene as far as I was concerned.”
It also was harder, he says, to obtain newspaper photos after the late ‘70s.
“Newspapers virtually stopped the kind of promotion they did in the ‘50, ‘60s and ‘70s. They would have a photograph of a wrestler every Monday in the paper. Later all they would run is the card.”
Jimmy Hart, one of the best managers to ever come out of Memphis, also had been featured in Hall’s previous books on Memphis garage bands. Hart had been part of the ‘60s musical group, The Gentrys, whose million-selling hit “Keep On Dancing” reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.
“I’ve known Jimmy for a long time,” says Hall, who has dabbled in the music business for years. “He and I played together in a softball game between “The Hippies” and “The Police” back when things were really stressed in Memphis. It was around 1970. Jimmy was on a team with me, and we played the Memphis Police Department at Blues Stadium. We drew 11,000 people. Hart was a really good athlete.”
“All the Gentrys are like icons here in town,” he adds. “They’ve all stayed pretty visible even though some have moved away.”
Hall still has a special place in his heart for the garage bands.
“There were more than 145 groups who cut at least one 45 here in Memphis. A lot of them came from Arkansas or West Tennessee, but they came here and recorded. The second music book covered a lot of the bands that didn’t record but who were very popular in the area. It was done like a high school yearbook. It’s a lot like the wrestling book with a lot of photos, flyers from concerts and dances, and all kinds of stuff like that. It was very popular.”
“Sputnik, Masked Men and Midgets” ($25, Shangri-La Projects), which will be released Sept. 15, is available at www.shangrilaprojects.com or amazon.com.
Memphis wrestling timeline from wonderful resource "Kayfabe Memories"