Like most people in professional wrestling, it was a phone call Jimmy Hart always wanted, but one he also never actually expected to receive. New York, after all, was the big time and a long way, literally and metaphorically, from Memphis, Tenn., where he made his living as Jerry "The King" Lawler's eternal nemesis.
Once part of the King's court, Hart had shown his true colors when Lawler went down with a broken leg during a touch football game. His cold-blooded response made him a permanent persona-non-gratis on Beale Street.
"What do you do when a horse breaks its leg? Baby, you shoot him."
It was an interview, he says, that cost him dearly when an angry Lawler eventually returned. Still on crutches "he broke my jaw," Hart said, his exuberance a product, he believes, of Lawler trying hard to make his anger look good for the cameras.
"He said 'Oh my fist slipped,'" Hart remembers. "I told him, you tried to give me a root canal with your fist! I can't believe it."
But while he paid the price, both in storyline and in life, it was segments like that one that brought him to the attention of one Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
"I was at a Denny's in Nashville and called home to check my messages. I said 'Did anybody call?' and they said 'Yeah, Vince McMahon called.' You gotta be kidding me! I thought it was a rib, so I never called the number," Hart said. "This went on for a couple of weeks. Finally, Hillbilly Jim called me and said 'Jimmy, WWF's been trying to reach you.' I thought it was a joke."
For Hart, it was an enormous culture shift. The WWE asked him to come out immediately to discuss a deal and Hart wasn't quite ready.
"I had one suit that was decent. Buddy, I got in there and brushed it up, put water on it to get the wrinkles out," Hart said. "It was like all the sudden Barney Fife was in New York City. It was unbelievable. A limousine picked me up to take me to the hotel and the next day I was meeting Vince McMahon. I walked in and there he was. Suit in place. Hair in place. Looked like a million dollars."
Three months later, he walked to the ring twice on one of the most pivotal nights in wrestling history—WrestleMania I.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Hart said. "In one corner there was Liberace and on the other side there was Muhammad Ali. Cyndi Lauper. It was like a dream come true."
Combat sports were no stranger to closed circuit technology, basically a network of movie screens all over the country, sometimes set up in giant arenas to maximize their impact. This was the best way of reaching a mass audience before pay-per-view but hadn't been used in wrestling on a national basis since a 1976 match between Antonio Inoki and Ali went belly up.
The top boxing matches were delivered that way and North Carolina promoter Jim Crockett had pumped his Starcade wrestling extravaganza to several markets. But WrestleMania was something bigger—a legitimate, nationwide show. And not everyone saw the vision. Many, comfortable with the segmented world of the wrestling territory, thought the grand experiment wasn't going to work.
"Some of the agents, "Chief" Jay Strongbow and guys like that use to call Vince Caesar. And they were saying 'I can't believe Caesar is doing this. This ain't going to work. Do you think people are really going to go to movie theaters to watch this on closed circuit? I'll never happen in a million years.' But Vince had a dream, brother, and it came true. Thank the Lord."
McMahon and the WWE spent much of the 1980s in a talent war, first with the dying wrestling territories and later with Ted Turner's WCW. Much of the talent acquisition was done on the sly. If word got out that Vince was interested in a wrestler, things could get difficult. So when WWE decided to reach out to Randy Savage, then a growing star in Memphis, it came to Hart for help.
In Memphis, Hart knew, everyone had to have a side gig just to make a living. For the babyfaces, it was often the gimmick table, where wrestlers often doubled their income selling pictures and t-shirts. But the heels had to be creative. Savage, he knew, sold Amway products to supplement his income. That, he thought, could be their "in" to reach Savage on the sly.
"I couldn't just call and ask for him. I had to be careful. I called the studio when I knew they'd be there for TV and told them I had somebody that wanted to buy $500 worth of Amway. I knew that would get him on the phone," Hart remembered. "I said 'Look Randy, I lied. If you want to squeal on me, go ahead.' Because I still lived in Memphis and so did Lawler and them and they'd be mad.
"I just said 'Look, WWF called me and they'd like to give you a chance.' He said 'Is this a shoot? Is this for real? I'm at TV right now but meet me at the gym after over on Summer Avenue.' I get over to the gym and when Randy gets out of the car he pats me down like I've got a wire or something on. I'm going 'What!' The rest was history."
Hart was part of too many great matches and angles to choose just one favorite. Over the years he worked with as diverse a group of talent as you could imagine, everyone from the Honky Tonk Man to Earthquake. One opponent, however, did separate himself from the pack.
"Just being in the ring, waiting for Hulk to come out, it was such a great feeling," Hart said. "When either 'Real American' or 'Eye of the Tiger' came on, whichever they decided to play at the time, it was just deafening in the ring. You'd get chills up and down your arms. It felt like something special was happening. Hulk's always had that certain thing with the fans all these years. He still does. It was just an unbelievable feeling."
Jimmy Hart and dozens of WWE superstars share their memories on a new WWE video project The History of WWE: 50 Years of Sports Entertainment. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. All quotes were gathered first hand.
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