Pro Wrestling: 3 Decades After the Andy Kaufman/Jerry Lawler Late-Night Incident
I've been asked before what I believe is my favorite and most intriguing wrestling storyline ever. It doesn't include Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart. It doesn't have Stone Cold Steve Austin or The McMahon family, either. At the time that it was done, three decades ago, it involved a local wrestling legend from Memphis and a television star from Hollywood.
Thirty years ago, Jerry "The King" Lawler and celebrity Andy Kaufman provided such an incredible storyline that few people, if any, could fully match the level of emotion and realism that pro wrestling constantly strives for.
To understand the storyline, you really need to try and understand Andy Kaufman as a comedian. For that, I invite you to watch any of his old material, including documentaries and a movie about his life, with Jim Carrey portraying Kaufman. Kaufman did not look at himself as a comedian, but rather as a performer. He barely even saw himself as an entertainer, because he wasn't always striving for laughs. Often, he wasn't even trying to get you to like him. Any reaction was a good one for Kaufman.
Kaufman was best known for his role on the TV series Taxi. On the show, he played a mechanic named Latka. It was a take on his foreign act that he would do on stage. Kaufman wasn't a great joke-teller, but having a foreign guy trying to tell bad jokes was funny and was what got him noticed. Kaufman did not want to be known as this well-liked actor who had to do his foreign accent everywhere he went. His admiration for the entertainers in the world of professional wrestling gave him an idea.
Kaufman was going to be a bad guy in the wrestling business. In the style of the old carnival wrestlers, he would walk into a city, challenge a member of the audience and get himself as hated as possible in the process.
His lack of size wouldn't allow him to be able to do such a thing with men, so he became even more hated by challenging women. Kaufman would say that women are more suited for making food in the kitchen and having children.
Kaufman would proclaim himself the Intergender Wrestling Champion and offer up $500 of his own money if he could be pinned within three minutes by a woman. That amount would end up being doubled to $1,000 by the time he reached Memphis, the pro wrestling capital of the southern United States. Kaufman would end up adding additional stipulations, including the honor of shaving his head or taking his hand in marriage to the first woman that could beat him.
Kaufman never had a woman defeat him, but he would get the attention of Jerry "The King" Lawler.
Lawler would accompany a woman to the ring that would fight Kaufman for the title. Kaufman would get a lot of abuse from the woman, as he was already wrestling his fourth woman of the night. Still, Kaufman was able to pin her shoulders to the ground for a three-count and successful title defense. Kaufman would continue to dig the woman's head into the canvas, prompting Lawler to come in and shove Kaufman off of her.
Videos from Kaufman would surface with the actor planning to sue Lawler for assaulting him. It prompted a challenge form Lawler, which would be answered by Kaufman in another video where he is seen beating up another woman.
Buzz would spread quickly and Kaufman's celebrity would garner national attention for this bout. In the Memphis area, it was already a big deal. That's not due to Kaufman, but rather because it involved Jerry Lawler.
Lawler was as big as you got in wrestling down there at the time. The King would ultimately win the Southern Heavyweight Championship in the Continental Wrestling Association (the title would be affiliated with multiple promotions over the years) an incredible 52 times.
On April 5, 1982, The King was just days removed from his 27th reign with the championship when the showdown with Kaufman finally came. After games from Kaufman in the first five minutes of the match, Lawler allowed a headlock from Kaufman, who promptly locked one on to no avail. Lawler would perform a back-body drop on Kaufman, as the actor clutched his head and neck.
Lawler would then signal to the very excited crowd for a piledriver. The move was a banned one, but it didn't stop Lawler, who performed the move on Kaufman and was promptly disqualified. Lawler would pick up a motionless Kaufman and perform yet another piledriver, this one more vicious than the first one. Kaufman laid still in the ring while a neck brace was put on him and he was stretchered out of the Mid-South Coliseum.
It would be almost four months later, on July 28, 1982, 30 years ago today, that both Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler would appear on The Late Show with David Letterman. Kaufman, still in a neck brace, came onto the show and apologized for his harsh words, but he stated that he could have sued Lawler for what he did to him but chose not to. Kaufman stated that he was "not that kind of guy," which prompted Lawler to famously ask, "What kind of guy are you?"
This led to a short exchange between the two as Letterman tried to call for a commercial break.
Before the commercial could be granted, Lawler stood up in front of his nemesis and smacked Kaufman literally out of his chair. As the show returns from commercial, Kaufman is on the other side of the stage and has a profanity-laced tirade directed at Lawler. Lawler then had Letterman's coffee thrown at him by Kaufman, prompting Letterman to say the following: "I think you can use some of those words on TV...but what you can't do is throw coffee."
It would effectively end from there. Lawler would continue to rule the south in pro wrestling before signing on with WWE in late 1992. It would still be the most well-known moment for Jerry Lawler in his life, and it was a moment Lawler would portray again in the 1999 film, Man on the Moon, the movie about Kaufman's life.
Kaufman would see a lot of his spotlight dim after the incident. His show, Taxi, would be canceled just months later, only to return for a season on NBC. The final episode would air June 15, 1983.
Kaufman would succumb to his lung cancer on May 16, 1984, less than a year after his final appearance as Latka. He was only 35 years old upon his death. Kaufman's legacy is still a profound one, mainly because of his unique comedic style.
Just like Elvis Presley, an imitation Kaufman enjoyed doing, speculation came in the years after Kaufman's death about the legitimacy of it. It was accurate to Kaufman's style to pretend that he had died, only to return years later. More than a quarter century later, Kaufman's act has inspired other comedians and other pro wrestlers.
There is one major reason that this storyline is so great. There is no possible way for this storyline to play out in today's society.
Despite wrestling promotions keeping their plans with storylines pretty secretive, it still is rather transparent on the whole. There is also no possible way for anyone to be the type of obnoxious heel that Kaufman was at the time. Being as sexist as Kaufman was at the time would never go well in today's society.
Also, without knocking a guy like John Cena, there isn't a soul in all of wrestling with the grabbing power that Jerry Lawler had in Memphis back then.
So Kaufman can rest easy knowing that he is among the greatest wrestling heels of all time. From wrestling women to insulting the South and threatening to sue more times than Paul Heyman could ever imagine, Kaufman did whatever he felt like doing.
He also nursed injuries that he sustained, but in true Kaufman fashion, it was never very certain as to the severity of the injuries. Did Kaufman really break his neck? We may never truly know. Lawler was in on the scheme with Kaufman, but it didn't always seem like it was that way.
It is that uncertainty that makes this feud so special. It had the realism of old-school wrestling while also containing the exposure that we see today. There was no social media or dirt sheets running rampant, but television and newspapers were all over this feud, which hit its peak on this day 30 years ago.
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