Many wrestling fans only know WWE announcer Jerry "The King" Lawler as the man obsessed with "puppies," a slightly creepy older uncle type with a possibly excessive interest in female mammaries. In that role, it's true, Lawler has established himself as one of the sport's all-time great broadcasters.
Lawler is much more than that, though, more even than just a legendary wrestler. Lawler is a great American artist, our best living practitioner of the wrestling craft.
At its very best, professional wrestling is like jazz or hip-hop, one of a handful of truly American art forms. It's a free-flowing, cooperative dance, two men telling a story together in the ring. Their paint is vivid—they use hyper-violence, angry words and bright red blood to tell a tale as old as time.
Good combating evil. Two men battling for a shared prize. Athlete versus athlete. These are wrestling's three primary stories, and Lawler was a master of each one, combining a folksy wit, an amazing ability to create a powerful narrative in the ring and an edge of redneck violence that throbbed just underneath the surface of everything he did.
As a technician, few have been better. That might make classicists like Lou Thesz spin in their graves, but the modern wrestling match isn't built around an exchange of holds. For more than 30 years, professional wrestling has been built around the punch.
Despite being technically illegal, the closed fist is wrestling. It's a high spot, a transition, a space filler and absolutely critical to making a match function in the ring. And no one did it better, both giving and receiving, than Jerry "The King" Lawler.
When Lawler delivered a punch, you believed it. When he took one right on the jaw, you believed that too. No one got more out of a stock move like the right hand, wrestling's stock move.
Simpler, sometimes, is better, and Lawler's work in the ring was simple and elegant. He wasn't Harley Race, throwing out move after move, utilizing every suplex in the book in a cacophony of violence. He wasn't Ric Flair or Shawn Michaels either, throwing himself around, bouncing across the ring doing anything and everything to grab the fans' attention.
Lawler didn't need that. He had the fans, so his matches rarely reeked of the desperate desire to please that pours from other wrestlers' pores. Instead, he was able to apply the basic techniques of the art to create moments fans will never forget.
Part of what made that possible was Lawler's storytelling outside the ring. Whether the villain was Jimmy Hart, Andy Kaufman, Austin Idol or Eddie Gilbert, Lawler made fans believe he was engaged in a feud that meant life and death for both men.
Beloved in Memphis, he was so over that he didn't need to travel to new territories. It was common in his era for top stars to move on after six months, a year or, if they were really over, two years' time. Lawler never had to leave his home—he was good enough that fans never tired of his act.
Lawler's was a rare gift. No milquetoast babyface, he had a menace about him that practically exuded violence and danger. He had an edge, even against an overmatched heel like Kaufman or Hart, that made it seem possible that he would do something particularly horrible, babyface or not.
When Vince McMahon criss-crossed the nation, taking control of the wrestling business town by town, Memphis was one of the last territories to hang in there. No one, not even the mighty WWF, could hang with Lawler and promoter Jerry Jarrett in their town, especially on television. But eventually, even they had to throw in the towel.
The King went north, to the WWE, his crown just a little less shiny outside of his home base. He carved out a place for himself in this new world, reinventing his character as a sly, funny and bombastic heel. Teamed with Jim Ross, Lawler redefined the standards by which we judge a wrestling announce team, all while continuing to work a solid match on the independent circuit in his off-time.
Jerry Lawler is not gone. He clings to life after a reported heart attack during WWE Raw. But his days as an active wrestler may be done. If so, and even if not, it's important to pay tribute to our best performers, true artists in a most American art form.
There will never be another Jerry Lawler. Long live the King.