1981. Mid-South Coliseum. Memphis, Tenn.
Lance Russell stands with a microphone in an empty arena talking to the cameraman as the footage rolls.
He's openly doubting that either Terry Funk or Jerry Lawler is going to show for the supposed challenge that Funk had set up the week before for an unsanctioned match. He treats the set-up like he does all of the matches he commentates: cool, calm and collected with his usual heavy drawl and reluctance to seem outrageous and overbearing.
"We'll see what happens," he tells the cameraman, and then casually lights up a cigarette when the same cameraman cues him to run his lead-in. Not a problem for Russell. He discards the cigarette and jumps right in without error. Like he's done so many times before for Memphis wrestling fans...
It's easy to leave Russell out of a Top Five Wrestling Commentator's list with the likes of Gordon Solie, Jim Ross, Joey Styles, Michael Cole, and Tony Schiavone. (It's blasphemous for some to have Gorilla Monsoon not be on that list at the same time as well.) The reality is, many people don't know who Russell is since most of his work was relegated to the Memphis territory for his nearly four-decade career as a commentator.
But regardless of name recognition, Russell is a standout in the lexicon of great wrestling commentators. In a time, again, when a play-by-play man in wrestling could be as over the top as the action in the ring, Russell erred on the side of the opposite, going for the slower, deliberate approach with a focus on pointed vernacular rather than circus-like rhetoric. It translated into an instant appeal when wrestling was becoming more and more a television vehicle.
In a time when the Memphis territory was exploding with arguably the most out-of-control action in the wrestling business, it was Russell alongside Dave Brown, who in the sea of madness kept a sense of gravity on the scene and could make even the most silly or out-of-control action seem plausible and legitimate.
His greatest attribute was not that he knew every wrestling hold in the book or the background of every wrestler from where they debuted to where they are now. No, what really sold Russell was how he always remained in the dark on what was supposed to happen. That was his choice.
Rather than be briefed about all of the matches and the finishes before hand, he would be given the cards on the fly, making his reactions all the more real. Like he was just another fan watching the show.
The same tactic also worked during interview segments with wrestlers where Russell was no stranger to calling out heels and eliciting help from the locker room when one of the faces was being ganged up on in the ring. (One of his best trademark lines was "Don't start with that smart stuff!" when going back and forth with one of territory's villains.)
But where it all seemed to work best was during the highlight of Memphis wrestling: the Jerry Lawler-Andy Kaufman feud, which became the center of the pop culture universe even outside of wrestling for a brief time between 1982 and 1983.
For being professional wrestling where "fake" had become every non wrestling fan's biting criticism of the industry, the Lawler-Kaufman feud was sold and performed so brilliantly that it was believed to be a legitimate fight between the Hollywood performer and the face of Southern wrestling.
Where Lawler and Kaufman (rightfully) deserve the majority of the credit for the illusion they created, it was also again the grounded realism that Russell provided at the commentary table as well as with the interviews that brought so much success to the angle.
Russell made the jump to the WCW announce team in 1989 but returned to Memphis in 1992 where he would finish his career in commentary once again alongside Dave Brown. A fitting final act for the man so many wrestling fans had invited into their living rooms week after week.
As I have continued to plug the DVD Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin' as a fantastic reference and tribute to territory wrestling, it also lends quite a bit to Russell's contribution to the promotion's success over the years.
Not to mention, many of Russell's best spots and matches called can be found on YouTube as well. I encourage it for any of the younger fans to discover or even for the older ones to reminisce a little bit over the classics.
It's not to hate on Cole, Schiavone, or even Styles, but none of them hold a candle to Lance Russell.