America fought a war to form a democratic republic and to end the tyranny of a distant monarchy. But for more than 40 years, a king has reigned in Memphis, Tennessee.
Jerry "The King" Lawler is more than just a professional wrestler there. He's a legitimate icon. Memphis Wrestling's weekly television show on Saturday mornings routinely drew bigger numbers than the most popular sitcoms and even mega events like the World Series. When the King was on television, you watched. Period.
Today, Lawler is two decades into a second Hall of Fame career (WWE Network subscription required), wrestling's leading voice for two generations of fans on WWE's Monday Night Raw. He sat down with Bleacher Report to talk about the moments he'll most remember from his legendary career.
Bleacher Report: For other legends of your caliber like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, we can go to the WWE Network and see all their best stuff. So much of your legacy is wrapped up in the territory we call Memphis. Does it bother you that it's not more widely available for fans to see? And what do you think younger fans who only know you from the broadcast table would think of the King from, say, 1981?
Jerry Lawler: Hopefully they'd be impressed. And you're right. I wouldn't say it bothers me, but I do think about it from time to time. I do realize that there are tons of our WWE fans who only know me as a commentator. Especially the young ones. I'm really excited sometimes that I'm still relevant, even though the majority of my wrestling career they've never even heard about.
The good news is I'm amassing the tape library and I'm talking right now with the people in WWE about making the entire Memphis library available to the WWE so they could use it on the Network.
B/R: Wow. That would be incredible. How much of it survived? I know a lot of older promoters weren't always smart about keeping their tapes. Is the Memphis collection just stuff from the USWA in the 1990s? Or does it go back for the entirety of your career?
Lawler: That's the cool thing. Of course the '90s was good, but the great stuff as far as I'm concerned was from when I started in the early '70s up until the mid-1980s. Even before we started the USWA. We had just plain Memphis Wrestling. Then we were affiliated with the NWA. And then, for the longest time, we were affiliated with the AWA, and I eventually became the AWA champion. And that was all before USWA.
B/R: And it's not just you. You were the headliner of course, but I think there are others out there in the same boat—guys like Dutch Mantell and Bill Dundee—who never got their due because most of their great work was in Memphis. Who do you think are the great talents underrated by the wrestling community at large?
Lawler: There's some guys that come to mind. But the great thing is, as far as the history of the Memphis wrestling territory, almost all the big names that you've ever seen in WWE have a past history in Memphis Wrestling. They either started there or came through there early in their careers.
Memphis was one of the top territories in the country. You can start making a list: the Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels. Oh my gosh. There's an endless list.
B/R: One of those guys was the Rock, and there's a story that's been passed around about Rocky somehow stumbling across a tape of Austin Idol and then trying to find everything he could because he thought that Idol promo was one of the most electric promos he'd ever heard. You worked with him, of course. Do you think Idol was one of the best ever at talking people into the arena?
Lawler: Well, I'm not going to say he was the best ever. But he was great. He was awesome. That was, of course, his strong point, and when I look at the Rock, I can see that he might have patterned some of his promos after Austin Idol.
He was a guy that probably could have had a huge career nationwide. But Austin was involved in a plane crash down in Florida. He survived the crash, which killed one of the other wrestlers on the flight—Bobby Shane—and hurt him pretty bad. After that, he had a fear of flying. And who could blame him?
He just didn't want to travel, so he couldn't go to a place like WWE. He worked mainly the Memphis territory and that was pretty much it.
B/R: That worked out well for you at times.
Lawler: There are certain guys who are just so good at promos that they don't even need wrestling ability. Austin Idol was one of those guys.
Lawler: Not that he wasn't good or anything like that, but the main thing you remember about Idol are his promos.
B/R: I bring him up because I think you two were involved in the greatest wrestling angle of all time. Idol versus Lawler. Hair versus hair. Inside a steel cage.
Can you describe the experience in the cage that night in Memphis when Tommy Rich came out from under the ring and proceeded to beat the hell out of you? There's nothing like it. Have you ever seen a crowd so fit to be tied?
Lawler: That was certainly a memorable night for me. In those days, the biggest buildup you could have, the way to finish off a rivalry, was to end up in a Hair vs. Hair match. I had been in a bunch of them in my career and never lost one. I never had my head shaved. Until that particular night.
Austin Idol had that long blond hair, and he was the most despised villains at the time. He and I going at each other one-on-one with the hair at stake was already a big deal.
B/R: Enter Tommy Rich.
Lawler: And then, of course, Tommy Rich comes out from hiding under the ring. And, a lot of people don't remember, their manager in that match was Paul Heyman. Another guy who got his start down in Memphis.
So that was a pretty intense situation. I had to sit there and get my head shaved. And then, if you remember, they crotched me into the ring post. I had to have surgery after that. We had quite a rivalry.
The only thing with Idol, he was notorious for either wanting to hold you up or not showing up.
B/R: He showed up that night. Did he hold you up?
Lawler: Even Paul Heyman told me not long ago, "I'll never forget that night. When they sat you down in that chair and started to shave your head, Idol came over, put his arm around me and said, 'Kid, we've got him where we want him now.'" (Laughs). He was talking about us, the promoters. He just didn't get along well with the promoters.
B/R: I kind of got that sense. Not just when he crotched you, which is an awesome verb by the way. But what I remember, when you were selling a shot downstairs, was the way Idol slapped you. That was a slap! I know wrestling is a physical gig, but that one seemed a little beyond what you normally see. Were you expecting that?
Lawler: I promise you, the pain between my legs was so severe I didn't even realize he slapped me. I didn't feel that. That was one of those things. A messed-up deal. You don't go out in the ring trying to hurt each other or maim your opponent, but sometimes things go wrong and guys get hurt. That was one of those situations.
B/R: I got sidetracked thinking about that match. It's still vivid to me. But there are so many like that. Memphis was a really special territory. When I went back and watched some of my favorite matches to prepare for this interview, I was shocked at how modern it felt.
Some people might not like this, but I think Memphis, with its wild angles and concession stand brawls and barbed wire—you guys were doing ECW and the WWE Attitude Era before those things ever existed. Did you see some of Memphis is the late 1990s as wrestling exploded?
Lawler: Oh, absolutely. And you know what? I was proud of that fact. You're right. We were extreme wrestling before ECW was even created. But I'd like to think that Paul Heyman carried what he'd learned down in Memphis when he was just getting started and said, "Hey, I can do the Memphis stuff somewhere else and call it extreme wrestling!" I think that's exactly what he did.
B/R: There was something special about it.
Lawler: Our situation in Memphis is that we were a weekly territory. The WWE is similar in the sense they put on a weekly television show. But we came in and ran live events in the same cities every single week. We were in Memphis every single Monday night trying to fill up the 12,000-seat Mid-South Coliseum. Every single week.
B/R: I can see how that might cause things to escalate as you try to keep people interested.
Lawler: You were under the gun, under pressure to come up with something better than you had the week before. And that pressure led to some of what you're talking about, some of these wild and crazy extreme matches. But it was the nature of the beast. We just had to keep trying to put the people in the seats.
Fortunately, throughout the years, we were able to book the territory very successfully. Gosh, we had a longer string of sellouts than anybody in the Mid-South Coliseum's history. And that Coliseum was built for Memphis State basketball, which was a huge thing in this city. But wrestling drew more fans to the Coliseum than any other event in its history, including Elvis Presley concerts, or basketball, or anything. It was phenomenal.
B/R: That is phenomenal. I've been trying to figure out why and this is my theory. You can agree or shoot it down when I'm done. But so often, wrestling is booked by ex-jocks. Wrestlers, football players, bodybuilders and guys like that. Memphis, in your era, had artists, like yourself, and singers and disc jockeys. It had a different vibe. Do you think that helps explain why it was a little bit different, a little more colorful than every other territory?
Lawler: You're probably right about the different kind of personalities we had in Memphis—and have had recently in the WWE. But the common thread there, for Memphis then and WWE now, is that it's built on—and what makes it successful is—the personalities, the character and the amount of charisma these individuals have.
We were really lucky down in Memphis to have these guys with big personalities. Like the Rock. He started his career in Memphis as Flex Kavana and lost a Loser Leaves Town match to me the week before he started his run in the WWE.
We just had so many personalities that people could relate to, who could create promos that fans could relate to. And it's the same today. Everybody can do all these high-flying, death-defying aerial moves. But if you can't get in front of the camera, talk to the fans and make them feel what you feel, you're not going to be that successful.
That's the way the business is. Fortunately, there are a ton of personalities in the WWE right now who are similar to what we had down in Memphis. Guys with great charisma and who were great characters.
B/R: What was great about Memphis was that you did have all those great personalities, the talent that was there week to week. Mantell, Dundee, the Fabulous Ones. Jackie Fargo. Charismatic stars who were there all the time.
But you were able to cycle in a lot of great wrestlers to work with over the years from outside Memphis. The biggest names in the industry like Jack Brisco, Nick Bockwinkel and Ric Flair. Memphis got to see almost everyone who mattered. Was there anyone you can remember wanting to work a program with and not being able to get? I would have loved to see Jerry Lawler-Roddy Piper myself. Was there anyone you wanted who you just couldn't get?
Lawler: No. Actually there wasn't. I came along at the start of my career at an opportune time. I had my first match in 1970. So I got a chance to work with some of the biggest names from the early days of wrestling. Guys like Lou Thesz. Stars that we'd say today were from the distant past. Guys who had wrestled in the 1930s and '40s and were finishing up their careers in the early '70s.
I had the opportunity to wrestle some of those guys and then move on to the Jack Briscos, the Harley Races, the Terry Funks, the Ric Flairs. Even into the next generation. I remember going up to Louisville when Ohio Valley was just getting started and wrestling matches with guys like John Cena when he was just getting his feet wet. Guys like Steve Austin who came through Memphis before they ever thought about being "stone cold."
I've had the opportunity to wrestle in four different decades. And every top star in those four decades. Sure, there were some, like you said, that we really didn't get in Memphis. But anybody we really wanted we were able to get. We even got Andre the Giant to come down from WWE. And later on even brought down Bret Hart. And Vince McMahon, as a matter of fact.
Vince came to Memphis the night I was wrestling Bret Hart along with Pat Patterson as his personal bodyguard and interfered in my match! That was really the first time Vince ever got involved in the matches, and after that, he went on to his historic run with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
B/R: I remember that Vince McMahon stuff on USWA television. Not only were you the first to have him get involved physically in a match, but I would say that Mr. McMahon character that became so famous as the main bad guy in the Attitude Era was born in Memphis. Because some of the promos Vince did on USWA were heel promos. It was born in Memphis!
Lawler: I agree 100 percent. I think that's where the Attitude Era Mr. McMahon was born.
B/R: Amazing. Equally amazing, to backtrack a bit, is the fact that you wrestled both Lou Thesz and John Cena. That durability is incredible. Especially since you weren't one of those guys who never did anything in the ring. I remember in the 1970s and '80s, you took some big falls, big bumps; you did that fist drop off the second rope every night for years.
Those are things that would normally wear a guy down. And yet here you are. How do you account for that?
Lawler: All I can attribute it to is just good luck. You're right about a couple of things. I did the fist drop off the second and sometimes the top rope probably a thousand times and never once in my career ever wore knee pads. And I've never had knee problems. And yet you see some guys in the first three or four months of their career have debilitating knee injuries they never recover from. That can only be, knock on wood, attributed to luck as far as I'm concerned.
A couple of things I can say—and when I tell a lot of people this, they don't think it's true—but I've never in my life tasted alcohol. Not one taste. Not one sip of beer, wine, whiskey. Never smoked or had a cigarette in my hand of any kind. Never done any drugs whatsoever. And I've got to think that's helped my longevity in the business.
B/R: And you're still going strong, right?
Lawler: I was cleared by my personal doctor almost a year ago. I still do shows on the independent circuit. I've got two coming up this weekend. I just haven't gotten back in the WWE ring. But I still feel mentally and physically as good as when I first started. I don't know how to explain it.
B/R: I'm not sure that's coincidence, though. I talked to boxer Bernard Hopkins last month and he's still competing for titles at 49. And, like you, he's never touched a drink of alcohol during his professional career. You guys may be on to something.
I could talk Memphis all day, but it's only half the story. In 1992, you made the journey to a place known in wrestling as "New York." Why was the time right?
Lawler: That's not really an easy question to answer. I don't know if the decision was all mine or the WWE's. We really fought a serious battle against the WWE for a long time. They were a major threat to us. Once cable and satellite television started in the mid-1980s, all the top talent gravitated to either WWE or WCW. All the top stars in the business wanted to be seen on a broader scale.
B/R: Luckily in Memphis, you were pretty sure the top star wasn't going anywhere.
Lawler: Myself and Jerry Jarrett owned the territory. It was our livelihood. It was our business, one we'd had for 20 years. We didn't have that television coverage nationwide or worldwide, so we struggled to hold on here.
A lot of people wonder why we lasted so long here. And it was mainly because I had been the major star. I was the featured wrestler in the territory for all those years and I didn't leave. I stayed.
In all the other territories, the top stars left for either WWE or WCW. Then, WWE would come right back into those same cities with the former main stars now working for them. And they were successful. So the other territories and wrestling companies just kind of dwindled away. We just hung on.
I can remember when the WWE came and ran some shows in our Tennessee territory. And they had a "King" Harley Race. They put the King gimmick on Harley Race.
B/R: That had to sting.
Lawler: I filed a lawsuit when they ran a show in Jackson, Tennessee. I sued Vince McMahon and the WWE for trademark infringement, claiming I was the king of wrestling in the state of Tennessee. And I actually won the case. I think Vince really respected that. It didn't make him mad. I think he got a kick out of it.
We fought hard against them.
B/R: So, how did you go from fighting that battle to joining the enemy?
Lawler: A couple of things happened. Around 1992 or so, Vince was looking for somebody to help oversee the day-to-day wrestling operations while he was in a legal battle with the federal government. And you can look it up in the new book that's come out, WWE 50, which, by the way, is awesome.
B/R: It really is.
Lawler: I sat down the other day and was just going to glance at it and wound up reading it for over an hour. But Vince asked Jerry Jarrett if he would come to WWE and kind of help him out. So Jerry was really the first one who went up and was working for Vince. And they formed a kind of working relationship.
The thinking was, if all of the territories and wrestling companies around the country go under, where is the WWE going to develop new stars? Where are the new, young wrestlers going to come from? So the agreement was made that we would work with the WWE and that's how the Rock and Kurt Angle and different guys came to be in Memphis to get some training.
So we became kind of a developmental territory for WWE at that time. And that's when they started using me in WWE as well. I was working there and in Memphis at the same time.
B/R: You were in a new territory and a new role. Since Jesse Ventura, a lot of great promo guys have gone to the broadcast table and absolutely bombed. It's a different challenge, getting over everybody on the show instead of just getting yourself over. How did you prepare for it? Or had being a promoter already gotten you used to thinking about getting the whole card over?
Lawler: Yeah, exactly. And I think that goes back to a bit of the respect Vince has had for me over the years. He knew I had done just about everything there is to do in the business at one point or another in my career.
As a matter of fact, and I don't tell this to many people, one time Vince McMahon put his hand on my shoulder and told someone: "King is probably the most all-around talented guy I've met in this business."
Lawler: I consider that a great compliment. I think what he meant by that was not just my wrestling ability—but I've owned a territory and I've booked a territory. I started as a referee, helping to set up the ring, and went all the way to wrestling and winning championships.
As far as the commentating goes, that sort of came along as almost a fluke. I never thought about doing commentary in the WWE. I went there to be a wrestler and do the same things I did in Memphis. But this was at the beginning of the Monday Night Wars.
One week, apparently without any warning, without anybody knowing what was going to happen, Randy Savage, who had been the color guy with Vince on Monday Night Raw, all of the sudden turned up with WCW. This was about an hour before we were going to go on TV with Randy as the announcer.
I'll never forget, Vince came to me and said, "King, will you help me out tonight. I'll have somebody to do it on a permanent basis next week." Twenty years later, I'm still doing it.
B/R: (Laughs). You're still waiting on that permanent replacement!
Lawler: I'm still waiting on that permanent replacement. But, you know, I think that's been part of my success. I've never looked at myself as a commentator. I always look at myself as a wrestler, just out there talking about the other wrestlers.
People ask me all the time for advice on commentating. A couple of things—I never took it that serious. I always try to have fun. I think if I'm having fun, the people who are watching are going to have fun and be entertained as well.
I don't tell people this. But like you said, I know what I'm out there for. I'm not out there to put myself over. I'm out there to get the talent in the ring over. And that's what I always keep in the back of my mind.
But, mainly, I'm still a fan. I'm glad I am after all these years. I still love watching a good wrestling show. A lot of the time when I'm sitting there doing the commentary with (Michael) Cole and JBL, I feel like I'm just a guy sitting with two buddies on the couch at home and saying what comes to mind. And that, so far, has worked for me.
B/R: You've done pretty well with that. My last question is about your legacy. And that's a big word. But there's a growing movement of hardcore fans who have been watching all of your old matches and are convinced you're the best wrestler of the 1980s. Between the selling in the ring, some of the bumps you took, the way you threw a punch and your overall storytelling, they see you as the very best. Where do you see yourself in the grand history of this industry. Where is Jerry Lawler's place?
Lawler: Believe it or not, and I mean this with all my heart, I don't even ever think about that stuff. I don't take myself that seriously. I don't ever sit back and say, "Gosh, who was better than me?" Or, "Was I as good as this guy?" I've never looked at this business that way.
This is a business of opportunity. I do know I've been given a ton of them and tried my best to take advantage of them when they were out there. But I've never even thought of the word legacy or what people think of my career. That's part of me not taking myself or the business that seriously. It's not that important to me.
B/R: That's probably actually really healthy. I hope, at least, you were happy while you were making us so happy. That's what matters.
Lawler: Oh, absolutely. I think I'm happier this way than if I sat around and worried about what people think of me. I've never had the notion people were thinking about me because they're probably not—they're too busy thinking about themselves (laughs). I don't even worry about it.
Jerry Lawler, along with Michael Cole and JBL, calls the action weekly on WWE's Monday Night Raw. Jonathan Snowden, Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer, is the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling and is a lifelong wrestling fan.