According to paleontologists, something monumental and unprecedented in Terran history occurred some 65 million years ago. The dinosaurs still ruled the earth, but subtle changes had been taking place that set the stage for a catastrophic event that would literally change the world.
Studies indicate that a massive asteroid crashed into earth, setting off an intricate chain of events that subsequently led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, dominance of mammals, and ultimately the rise of the bipedal primates known as homo sapiens, or “man.”
One celestial body—a mere six-to-12 miles in diameter—set in motion the events that forever changed the history of earth.
That, my friends, is impact.
We here in the professional wrestling community have spent this week attempting to identify the single wrestler who has had more impact on pro wrestling than anyone else.
Now, to me, that is a profound question. Not “the best;” not “the most decorated;” not “the most famous;” not even “the most popular.”
But “the most impact.”
I submit to you that there is only one wrestler who can stake a legitimate claim to such a far-reaching designation. That wrestler is none other than Jerry “the King” Lawler.
Many of you know that Lawler was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007. Legendary film and television actor William Shatner gave the induction speech, in a sign of the high esteem in which Lawler is held.
Born Jerry O’Neil Lawler on November 29, 1949 in a now rapidly-deteriorating area deep in the heart of Memphis, TN, the King is probably best known as the broadcast partner to Jim Ross. Together, they call the action on WWE’s Monday Night RAW, and have done so for the better part of 20 years, having been first paired together in 1992.
Lawler has a deep allegiance to Cleveland, OH, because he lived there for a time as a child. However, he is outspoken in his deep-seated love of Memphis, where his family returned to in his teenage years.
Before he became the King in the home of the “original” King, Elvis Presley, Lawler grew up a fan of two things: art and wrestling.
In high school, Lawler, by his own admission, “just hated to study. I remember one of the teachers said of me to my mother one time, “Jerry does just enough to get by.” I guess it was the perfect description of me and it was really the attitude I had at school: as long as I got by.”
But drawing in class led to two things: a teacher discovering his passion (and talent) for art got him a full ride at then-Memphis State on a commercial art scholarship (the teacher filled out all the paperwork without his knowledge), and he presented some of his artwork to legendary wrestling announcer Lance Russell, who got him exposure at Channel Thirteen, where Saturday morning wrestling shows were held.
In due time, “Fabulous” Jackie Fargo—one of the finest wrestlers to come out of the South—noticed Lawler and hired him to do artwork, signs and paintings for Bond-Fargo Signs.
Fargo knew for some time that Jerry wanted to wrestle; he wanted the young man to speak up for himself before introducing him to the business. Jerry and a childhood buddy, Mike Mashburn, would practice moves in the backyard, taking bumps on the ground worse than any they could ever take in the ring.
“What I thought was that one day, I’d get the nerve up to tell Jackie Fargo what I was doing,” Lawler wrote in his autobiography It’s Good to Be the King..Sometimes. "I’d ask him for a chance, or I’d ask him how I’d go about getting a chance.
“Jackie says now that he knew I was bursting to ask him about wrestling and he was waiting for me to make the first move.”
In the summer of 1970, his first break in wrestling did not come from Fargo, though.
Lawler thought for a time that he wanted to become a radio broadcaster, and he was a night disc jockey for KWAM-990 in Memphis. He traded air-time on the station for a shot at his first match for renegade promoter Aubrey Griffith, who ran an “outlaw” promotion across the Mississippi River in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Lawler and Jerry Vickers, who sold the future king his first set of boots and tights for $75, were booked to wrestle in the tag team main event, which they lost.
For his six dollar payday, Lawler ended up on the arena floor unconscious, as he eagerly jumped out of the ring on a move and landed awkwardly. The fans loved his enthusiasm.
But Fargo, who had heard the free on-air wrestling promo that Lawler had cut, decided it was time to take the ambitious Memphian under his wing.
“Tell you what, kid,” Fargo said. “If I get you a match with a Memphis promoter, if I get you booked with Nick Gulas, will you quit talking about that crap on the radio?”
Lawler quickly said yes.
“Okay, kid. Next Saturday night, you’re going to be wrestling in Jonesboro. You can ride out there with me.”
Lawler was a jobber as he learned the ropes. However, he quickly rose up the ranks and was a top star before long.
Promoters Gulas and Roy Welch ran the Arkansas-Kentucky-Tennessee territory of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), known as the NWA Mid-America territory, and later the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA). (It became Championship Wrestling Association in later years, still CWA.)
Lawler was also allowed to wrestle for small, local promotions. It was for such a local outfit, the Tri-State (Alabama) Wrestling Association, that Jerry won his first ever singles title in a battle royal.
He won the first of his more than 200 recognized, “major” titles in 1973: the NWA Mid-America Southern tag team belts, with partner Jim White.
He literally won his nickname as “the King.” His idol and trainer, Fargo, was the American Wrestling Association (AWA) Southern Heavyweight Champion. (The AWA and NWA Mid-America shared titles and sometimes talent through a formal agreement.)
Fargo was known in the territory as “the King of Wrestling.” But all that changed on July 24, 1974, when Lawler won the Heavyweight Championship belt, and the fans in the Mid-South Coliseum embraced Lawler "the new King".
He has used the gimmick, complete with a stunning collection of robes and crowns, for 35 years now.
So how has Lawler impacted wrestling during his nearly 40 years in the business?
Yes, there are the over 200 recognized titles, including the AWA World Heavyweight title, the World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) Heavyweight title, and the Unified Heavyweight title, when he defeated the WCCW’s Kerry Von Erich to unify that belt with the AWA’s in December of 1988.
The United States Wrestling Association (USWA) used the Unified title as their top belt from their inception in 1989, and Lawler won it a record 27 times.
But titles are honorary. Having more than anyone else is a feather in Lawler’s cap, but it does not begin to tell the story of his impact.
Lawler dominated one of the most important wrestling territories in the country (Memphis) at a critical time in the evolution of professional wrestling.
Lawler’s popularity and ability to perform as a heel convinced Vince McMahon of the WWF (now WWE), not only to sign the King to the Northeast territory, but also to ink a talent exchange agreement between WWF and the USWA, of which Lawler was part-owner.
The USWA remained the last full-time wrestling territory in the country after the national expansion of McMahon’s WWF. The promotion finally folded in 1996.
He also quickly became one of the premier color commentators in the WWF.
His skill in telling a story on the mat led Memphis wrestling fans (including a young Leroy Watson, Jr.) to truly care about his character.
When Lawler lost his hair in a vicious steel cage match at the Mid-South Coliseum—often known as “The House That Lawler Built”—and was brutalized by Austin Idol and Tommy Rich (whom the King had broken into the business years before) afterwards, the police had to be called to quell the ensuing riot.
Lawler entered into the most famous feud (even though, admittedly, it was far from the best) in wrestling history, with comedian Andy Kaufman in 1982. This was famously intensified by a slot on the Late Night with David Letterman show, helping pro wrestling to crossover into the mainstream of American consciousness.
Lawler introduced or discovered some of the best known talent pro wrestling has ever seen.
He drew school chum Jimmy Ray Hart, better known as WWE Hall of Famer Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart, into the business.
James Ware was a skinny kid from rural West Tennessee, who was discovered by Lawler and also became the WWE HoFer, Koko B. Ware.
Lawler put together Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, the original Fabulous Ones, surely the most popular tag team in the history of the Memphis territory.
Wayne Ferris, better known as Elvis knock-off the Honky Tonk Man? Lawler’s cousin, introduced to the business by the King.
Brian Christopher, aka “Too Sexy” and “Grandmaster Sexay”, one-half of the wildly popular WWF tag team Too Cool? Lawler’s son, Brian Christopher Lawler.
April 1, 1989, he put over Master of Pain as USWA Unified champion. Master of Pain was portrayed by Mark Calloway. You might know him now as the Phenom, Undertaker.
Lawler brought a big guy named Glenn Jacobs to the attention of the WWE while he was wrestling in Smoky Mountain Wrestling in late 1994. When the Undertaker verified that Unabomb, as he was then known, was an amazing wrestler, Jacobs was sent to Memphis and re-packaged as a man wearing all red and a mask, Doomsday.
You better know him now as Kane.
Actor Dwayne Johnson debuted as Flex Kavana in the USWA in 1995. After cutting his teeth there, he was unleashed on the WWF as Rocky Maivia at the November 1996 Survivor Series.
Most of you know how the story ends: he became known as the Rock, surely one of the 10 most recognizable wrestlers of all-time.
Anthony Norris, using the name Ahmed Johnson, body slammed Lawler repeatedly on his way to becoming USWA Unified champ in November of 1995. He became the only Black man to ever be the WWE/F Intercontinental champion.
Lawler, along with Randy Hales, was co-owner of Power Pro Wrestling in 1998. That year, they broke in Olympian Kurt Angle.
They later re-packaged Solofa Fatu, Jr. during a period of extreme weight gain. When he was pushed again by WWF, it was as the hugely popular Rikishi.
Lawler has feuded with (both beating or putting over) Fargo, “Superstar” Billy Graham, “The International Heartthrob” Austin Idol, Bill “Superstar” Dundee, Hulk Hogan, Ken Patera, Ric Flair, Curt Hennig, Kerry Von Erich, Tommy Rich, Nick Bockwinkel, Ware, Jeff Jarrett, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Lord Humongous (Sid Eudy, aka Sid Vicious, whom Lawler discovered), Steve Austin, Brian Pillman, Maivia, Bret Hart, and too many other superstars of various renown to ever recount.
In addition to all of that, Lawler helped his promotions, during the 1970s and ‘80s, stay ahead of the curve. With his background in the music industry, he helped to popularize entrance music and promotional videos before anyone else in the business realized their potential impact.
Lawler has been entering rings to the majestic strains of the bombastic “Gates of Kiev” since the 1970s. The practice of having ring music was so prevalent in the Memphis territory by the 1980s that it stunned me to watch wrestling from other areas which did not use the practice.
Lawler once had his own TV show, has written his autobiography, starred in a movie (Man on the Moon, 1998), and twice run for Mayor of Memphis, finishing third in 1999 with 11.7 percent of the popular vote.
For all of his contributions to the industry, Jerry “the King” Lawler has had more impact on pro wrestling than any other talent. He forever changed the landscape of professional wrestling, and continues to have an impact today.
Quotes courtesy of the Lawler autobiography, It’s Good to Be the King. . . Sometimes
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