In Memphis, Jerry Lawler was the king. There was no prince, no duke, not even an especially popular nobleman or count. Lawler was Memphis wrestling. And in Memphis, wrestling mattered.
Saturday morning wrestling on WMC-TV captured the city's imagination like nothing else. Filmed live in the studio on Union Avenue, the show routinely outpaced any other programming in the city. Not any other wrestling programming, mind you. Any programming.
Lawler ruled Memphis with an iron fist and a sly smile. No one was even close. So while wrestling promoters occasionally battled opposition groups in the 1980's, outlaws with nothing to lose, the Memphis territory seemed safe. Promoter Jerry Jarrett made sure Lawler was happy, eventually making him a part owner. Lawler was staying put. And without Lawler, why bother?
No one was crazy enough to challenge the King. No one, that is, except the Poffos. Operating out of Kentucky, wrestling veteran Angelo Poffo and his two sons Randy Savage and Lanny Poffo waged a guerrilla war against Jarrett's Memphis-based promotion for years.
Poffo had been a regional star in the 1950s and '60s, a traveling talent managed by a tuxedo-clad manager named Bronco Lubich. Although he's remembered today primarily as Savage's father, Angelo was once the United States Champion, way back when that title still meant something.
A notorious fitness fanatic, Poffo claimed he set the world record for sit ups, completing 6000 in a row and then an additional 33 for good measure.
"One for each year of Jesus Christ's life," he explained in an interview.
Like many wrestling stars, Angelo wanted to make a place for his sons in the business. When a young Randy, fresh off a stint in minor league baseball, failed to capture Jarrett and Lawler's attention in Memphis, Poffo created a place for his sons to be the top stars.
He founded International Championship Wrestling in 1978, competing not just with Jarrett, but with the Knoxville-based Fuller family and even Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association. Even with his sons on top and a talented cast of free thinking rebels like Bob Roop and Ronnie Garvin, the ICW failed to make up much ground against the entrenched powers in the area.
Soon the promotion was resorting to desperate measures to grab fans' attentions, spending as much time trash-talking their rivals as they did building their own talent up. Jerry Lawler recalled their brutal taunts in his autobiography It's Good to Be the King... Sometimes:
They'd go on their show and challenge all the guys on our show. They wouldn't talk about their own matches; Savage would just rip into me. "I went to Jerry Lawler's house in Memphis and I threw a rock through the window and he was too scared to come out." Stuff like that.
Promoter Jerry Jarrett was happy to just ignore the jibes. After all, Poffo and his crew were just cementing in fan's minds that Lawler and company were the only wrestlers in the area worth talking about. Savage was one of the best wrestling talents in the country, but without an established fanbase or a large television outlet, he was playing in front of just a few hundred fans. It was like watching the Beatles in their primes perform in a dive bar.
“Randy, his dad, Angelo, and brother, Lanny, made the mistake of making promos for our talent," longtime Memphis announcer Lance Russell said. "We were sitting in the dressing room, and I believe it was Bill Dundee who said, ‘Can you explain to me why Randy, and particularly, Angelo, who knows the business well, would spend all their interview time knocking us and challenging us. Why are they plugging us instead of their own matches?’ I said, ‘Well, Billy, I don’t know that. I can’t answer that because I don’t know how stupid people think.’"
Soon, however, things escalated. Savage actually was filming interviews outside of Lawler's house and violence was in the air. Jarrett's Memphis crew began traveling to and from the arena with guns in their cars, prepared for trouble if it came knocking. One night in Lexington, Ky., according to wrestling historian Dave Meltzer, the situation very nearly boiled over (subscription only):
The Jarrett crew went to Lexington for their regular show. As they pulled up, Savage, in front of fans, saw Hart and started talking about how tonight, he’s taking out Lawler, and apparently he really meant it. Hart told him that Lawler broke his leg and wasn’t going to be there.
Savage paused, collected his thoughts, and told Hart, “Okay, tonight, I’m taking out Dundee.”
Not just Savage, but the entire ICW roster bought tickets and came into the building, apparently waiting to cause a scene in the main event that involved Dundee. However, in the semifinal, a fan attacked Hart and a riot started, not involving the ICW crew, and the police had to come to quell things down. The show continued, but with officers everywhere, the ICW guys never made a move.
Roop, the former Olympic wrestler, was the most fearsome of the ICW wrestlers. But Savage was, perhaps, the most feared. He lived in his character, slightly crazed, with wild eyes blazing. Wrestlers, despite being accustomed to gimmickry, seemed to instinctually believe Savage was just as crazy as he seemed. Maybe because he was method acting to the point reality and fiction became one and the same.
"He was still developing the Macho Man character," wrestler Dutch Mantell told Scott Bowden. "But every time you saw Randy—I don’t care it was 6 o’clock in the morning—he was Macho Man. You saw him at midnight—he’s still Macho Man. He was always in full-blown, wide-open Macho Man mode."
At around 200 pounds, up about 30 pounds from his wrestling debut, Savage wasn't one of the biggest men in the sport. He was, however, willing. And willingness goes a long way when a situation moves beyond words and into the realm of the physical.
Savage seemed intent on creating a confrontation and in the fall of 1982 things finally exploded, either in the parking lot of a gym or outside a diner, the location depending on who is telling the story. Savage and his crew had finally caught up with the enemy, in this case the No. 2 babyface in Memphis, Bill Dundee, a 5'6" spitfire with an Australian accent and huge talent in the ring.
Wrestling history is a funny thing. They say wrestling has no history, only legend. And the Randy Savage legend includes a fight with Dundee that left the smaller man laying:
Supposedly, the two exchanged words outside a diner with Dundee retreating to his car to grab a gun. Savage wrestled the gun away from Dundee and pistol-whipped him, breaking his jaw and putting the Superstar out of action for nearly six weeks. (Ironically, Dundee used to wear trunks with the words “Macho Man” on the backside in 1977...clearly false advertising.) More important, it gave the Jarrett group an embarrassing black eye as the Macho Man bragged loud and often about the incident on ICW TV.
While Dundee doesn't dispute the incident happened, he spins a different version of the same yarn, one, not surprisingly, where he ends up triumphing against the odds.
"It was Randy, Angelo, Thunderbolt Patterson and Pez Whatley. Thunderbolt came up talking to me and Randy came around the corner and sucker punched me. We never really went off our feet, we just punched at each other standing up," Dundee said in a 2011 interview. "So I got to thinking, if I get to the back of this Cadillac, I can restore order. I got to the back of the Cadillac and I restored order. Because there was a thing in there with an S and a W on it. That stands for Smith and Wesson and the fight was over. Randy run away saying 'He's got a gun, he's got a gun.'...That was the end of the fight. There was no beatdown."
He continues the tale in his autobiography written with Memphis wrestling historian Mark James If You Don't Want The Answer, Don't Ask The Question:
I got sucker punched. There was a bunch of them, one of me, I grabbed my gun and that ended the fight. I have read that I had a broken jaw, that I was pistolwhipped, I read a bunch of stuff. What I told you is the truth, as sure as my name is Bill Dundee.
They drove off and went to the police station to file charges of assault with a deadly weapon against me. Jarrett got a lawyer for me and I filed charges against them. We had to go to court and instead of exposing the business, both sides decided to go broadway and drop all charges. However, I told Savage on the way out of court that I had taken his best shot and he hadn’t yet had mine. They went on their TV saying that Savage had fought me in a parking lot and broke my jaw. Normally, we ignored them. However, I did go on TV and show my eye off. I said I had been attacked by four monsters.
It's hard to know, when stories diverge like this, exactly where the truth is to be found. According to historian James, Dundee missed several weeks worth of matches following the incident and suffered an injury to his orbital socket as well as a blackened eye. When he returned to television, he did indeed blame the incident on a fight—although not mentioning Savage by name.
"The last five weeks since the Superstar ain't been here, I have heard all kinds of stories what happened to me. Now I'm here in living color to tell you what happened folks...this is a true story. Somebody said I fell off my horse. Somebody said I wrecked my motorcycle. Somebody said I got drunk and fell down. Well brother, I'm here to tell you what happened.
"Five weeks ago I was working out in Nashville, Tennessee. Now I walked out of the gymnasium and there was four of the biggest gorillas you ever seen in your life man. They were nine feet tall. So one of them wanders up to me and says 'Hey are you Bill Dundee?' And I says 'Yeah, I'm the Superstar daddy. What you want?' He said 'What do I want?' Whack (here Dundee pantomimes throwing a punch)."
What may have sounded like nonsense to many in the audience was actually a clever way to share the truth about what happened. Were the "four gorillas" supposed to represent the opposition wrestlers who confronted him in the parking lot? I think so.
For Savage and his family, victory was short-lived and awfully hollow. Business continued to struggle and eventually they had to make amends with the wrestling establishment. Savage, after all his talk, came to Memphis for what Meltzer described as a successful feud with Lawler:
They actually tested the match out in Lexington, putting it on cold with no angle and no television, and it drew more than 8,000 fans at Rupp Arena, ending without a decision in a long match described as tremendous. It was, up to that point in time, the largest crowd and gate ever for wrestling in that city.
With the trust issue seemingly put to bed, Savage and Angelo Poffo showed up on Memphis television, acting like they were barging in on a live television show. Savage demanded Lawler. Eddie Marlin, who played the role of promoter, tried to reason with Savage about leaving during the live show. Eventually Lawler said he was tired with all the talk for all those years and wanted the match.
The match took place on December 5, 1983, at the Mid South Coliseum, with Lawler retaining his Southern title and winning via DQ, before 8,012 fans, about double what they had been doing. It wasn’t a sellout, but it was the fourth largest crowd of the year for the promotion that ran every Monday night, trailing two appearances by Andy Kaufman in handicap matches against Lawler, and a Lawler challenge of Nick Bockwinkel for the AWA title.
Savage and Dundee never came face-to-face in the ring, but Bill did have to suffer through several shows with Savage wrestling Lawler on top before leaving the area. During most of Savage's short run in Memphis, Dundee was revitalizing business for Bill Watts in the Mid-South territory. By the time "the Superstar" returned to his stomping grounds in Tennessee, Savage had made his way to the big time, becoming one of wrestling's biggest stars for Vince McMahon.
Bad blood lingered, at least for Dundee, who was the victim, in legend if not in life. But on hearing about the passing of his old rival in 2011, Dundee refused to hold a grudge.
"Randy and I had our ups and downs. We weren't the greatest of friends...but what we did for a living kind of made us brothers....God bless you."