Medical staff flooded Jerry Lawler's body with electricity seven times. The WWE doctor pressed down hard on his chest, giving him CPR as he lay on a gurney. It was hard not to think the worst.
What was supposed to be a night of celebration and spectacle turned unnerving, somber and heartrending all in a single moment.
Lawler collapsed at the announce table on WWE Raw. Medical staff swarmed The King, attending to the fallen commentator. Confusion swirled in the crowd. Worry washed over the wrestlers.
Something terrible had happened.
The Sept. 10, 2012, edition of Raw in Montreal was advertised as Pat Patterson Appreciation Night. The company planned to honor the inaugural intercontinental champion and longtime behind-the-curtains WWE fixture.
It was also supposed to be a night of note because WWE Hall of Famer Bret Hart was returning to Quebec's metropolis for the first time on WWE TV since the infamous Montreal Screwjob.
CM Punk, John Cena, Sheamus and Daniel Bryan all starred on the show. Feuds continued. Action unfolded in the ring.
But when Lawler lost consciousness, suddenly none of that mattered.
A cardiac arrest put Lawler's life in jeopardy. And as he lay in a Montreal hospital, the wrestling show that went on without him turned decidedly unimportant.
These were difficult hours for everyone—from the fans who had heard all his dad jokes at ringside since the '90s to fellow announcer Matt Striker, who was in the building that Monday. This wasn't just a co-worker in grave danger but a family member of sorts.
"I've always had respect for him. I look up to a lot of those guys almost in a father/son way or uncle/nephew kind of way. You respect and revere these people," Striker told Bleacher Report.
Thankfully, doctors were able to save Lawler. He returned to Raw weeks later, approaching the situation with a brand of gallows humor befitting The King.
This is the story of that night—told by those who witnessed it up close.
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Justin Roberts: former WWE ring announcer, 2002-2014
Matt Striker: former wrestler and manager; former WWE commentator and host, 2008-2013; commentator for Lucha Underground and New Japan Pro Wrestling
Dr. Michael Sampson: former WWE Ringside Physician and WWE Performance Center Medical Director, 2009-2013; Clinical Education Coordinator and Associate Professor of Family/Sports Medicine at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, 2015-present
Jessica Aldos: WWE fan; Montreal native; currently a college student
Michael Cole (per Josh Modaberi of Cult of Whatever, 2013): Lawler's broadcast partner; WWE commentator 1999-present
Jerry Lawler (per Lynn Hoppes of ESPN.com, 2012): former AWA world heavyweight champion; Memphis wrestling legend; WWE commentator 2001-present
Lawler, in his early 60s at the time, still stepped into the ring for WWE every now and then. The King competed on the independent circuit as well.
On Raw in Montreal, he and Randy Orton teamed up against CM Punk and Dolph Ziggler. Orton did much of the heavy lifting in the bout, but Lawler took his share of the required beating. At one point, Ziggler crashed onto him again and again, hitting him in the chest with repeated theatrical elbow drops.
Lawler returned to his spot at the announce table next to Michael Cole and continued to call the action.
But suddenly, during The Prime Time Players vs. Team Hell No (Daniel Bryan and Kane), Lawler fell silent at the mic. He had crumpled at the desk.
Jerry Lawler: I remember doing the first segment when Bret Hart confronted C.M. Punk. Then I had a match with Randy Orton against C.M. Punk and Dolph Ziggler. It was like nothing was wrong. I actually wrestled better than usual. I don't remember one bit of that. I think it was surreal watching the tape of that match. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital. I thought my girlfriend and I were still in Aruba, where we were the previous week.
Michael Cole: Jerry had a match that night but it was business as usual, he came back and went to work nothing changed. Whatever match it was we were calling, I thought he was snoring and I turned around to look at him and he was passed out on the table and we went from there.
Justin Roberts: Cole was trying to get me to signal for the doctor who was to my right. As soon as I realized what happened, I pushed the doctor. As soon as I pointed at Lawler, he ran over to him. I didn't know what was going on. I just knew he was passed out. It was scary. They couldn't get the stretcher through. We were just throwing chairs out of the way to make room.
Dr. Michael Sampson: I looked over and Jerry had his head slumped down on the desk. Of course, being the comedian that he is, I'm thinking he's saying this is a big joke or a boring match. Something like that. It quickly went from a joking vibe to something's going on. I went over and tapped him and said "Jerry, Jerry. Are you OK?" He had this snoring-type sound, which is a breathing you get when your heart is not functioning properly and you're trying to grasp for air. I tipped him back and did a sternal rub, which is when you take your knuckles and rub on your sternum. And that hurts even if you do it lightly. I was doing it pretty hard and he wasn't responding at all.
Jessica Aldos: I didn't really notice what happened until everyone on the floor stood up and they were all looking in the direction of the announce table. At that point, I wasn't sure if it was part of the show. I couldn't see who security was surrounding. I didn't know if it was a fan who jumped over the barricade or something going on around the announce table. It wasn't until the security team carried him out and they passed right in front of me that I realized it was Jerry.
Matt Striker: I'll never forget someone—and I won't say who the person is—hit me with some rolled-up papers and they said "Hey, your big break might be coming. King just had a heart attack." And I went behind those curtains there and I prayed. I prayed first for King. Then I prayed for that person. My stomach just turned.
A Team in Action
The WWE medical staff took charge. Dr. Sampson laid Lawler on the ground, trying to revive him. He and his team went to work at ringside and later backstage, where they were met by local paramedics.
Sampson: We started doing the shocks with the paddles. We did it seven times. The problem was he would go into a good rhythm and come out of it. Each time we had to shock him into a good rhythm as we're doing CPR.
Striker: It really is a reflection of the quote-on-quote big bad machine of WWE that those doctors—I don't care what anyone says—those doctors are good. The ones that I know, those guys are good. If it weren't for them, and if it weren't for the company hiring quality, vetted, good people, this would be a much different conversation.
Aldos: The medical team, the security team, they acted really quickly. It all went by really fast.
Dr. Sampson and his team placed Lawler on a gurney, continued to do CPR and soon transported The King to Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital, where he received cardiac care. Lawler's son and girlfriend were soon on their way from the U.S.
Dr. Sampson's dark clothes, meant to help keep medical officials inconspicuous during WWE broadcasts, threw off the Royal Victoria staff.
Sampson: When we got to the hospital, took him in and got to the emergency room bay, I walked in with him and they tried to push me out. They thought I was security. I told them, "No, I'm the doctor taking care of him." Then they were trying to understand why he was in wrestling gear. Here's this 60-something-year-old man in wrestling gear.
Lawler: My girlfriend told me that on the way to the hospital they thought I was dead but they were still working on me and eventually shocked me seven times. It is a real comeback. People were asking me whether I saw bright lights and saw relatives who have passed. No, I didn't see any of that. Michael Cole said that's because I was heading in the opposite direction!
No Chance of Normal
Wrestling has long had an ardent "the show must go on" mentality, and that was true again on this night.
A number of matches aired after the medical team stretchered Lawler away from ringside. Alberto Del Rio took on Tyson Kidd. Sheamus battled David Otunga. And Cody Rhodes defeated Rey Mysterio.
There was an overwhelming discomfort throughout. Fans were noticeably muted.
Cole addressed the fans on TV and informed them that Lawler was receiving medical attention and this was in fact not part of a Raw storyline. He remained wordless during Rhodes vs. Mysterio.
Roberts: For the rest of the night, every time I was standing in the ring, looking down at that empty spot at the commentary table, I was just worried. The whole night. I kept looking over at the timekeeper, who was on a headset, for updates. I kept hoping for a thumbs-up, for any kind of sign that everything was OK. A really, really depressing night. We didn't know what was going to happen.
Cole: ...I didn't know for the last hour of the show if I was going to have to report that Jerry had passed away or if he was surviving and luckily we got the news right as we were going off the air that he was surviving, it was a really tough time.
Striker: You don't think about yourself. You're only thinking about the person and the situation. When someone you know to be a warm, kind person outside of the role he plays is in jeopardy or in pain, you feel that too.
Aldos: There was almost no reaction from the crowd [for the Team Hell No vs. Prime Time Players match] because we were all concerned about what was going on. Fans online were confused. We were confused in the Bell Centre. And nobody knew what was happening.
The King Comes Home
Lawler returned home to Memphis after a week in the hospital. WWE officials asked Dr. Sampson to accompany him as he flew home.
Sampson: The last time I truly saw him, he had been all intubated and knocked out. Now he was up talking and smiling. When I went down the steps, I gave him a big hug, forgetting that I did CPR on him for well over 20-plus minutes. It was just so good to see him again. It's why you go into medicine—to do stuff like this is to see a good outcome.
On Sept. 24, Lawler appeared via satellite on Raw to update fans on his condition.
On Nov. 12, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio, The King returned to work. The Raw crowd gave him a stirring ovation. "I just want to say, from the bottom of my heart, I appreciate it and I love each and every one of you," Lawler told the fans that night.
With his mouthpiece and manager Paul Heyman at his side, Punk interrupted. They jawed with Lawler, and Heyman mockingly pretended to have a heart attack in the ring.
As crass a scene as that was, it was in a way a sign that things were back to normal. Heels were being heels. Lawler was a character again. The show rolled on.
Roberts: When he came back, it was good to see him. I told him, "You scared the s--t out of me. You died in front of me. And you came back." It's not your typical return to wrestling. A usual return is someone who is injured or who left the company. When he came back, I really thought he died in front of me. He was out. To have him come back and be himself, and be healthy, it was really cool. More than any other return.
Cole: It was a surreal thing and I've never watched that moment back, I don't want to but I'll never forget it for the rest of my life.
Lawler: From a business perspective, I realize that tomorrow is not promised to anybody. I just blanked out in a matter of seconds and I could have been gone. I don't even have a will. I think it's important to take care of what you have before you're gone. Personally, it makes me appreciate everything, every time I wake up in the morning. It's a whole different feeling. I'm sure a lot of people out there have survived a traumatic event. It makes you have an appreciation for life and enjoy life more.
Striker: Living on this earth. What I'm going to wear, where I'm going to go. None of that stuff matters. It becomes useless. An epiphany happens. The fragility of life. How we fret about how much money we're going to make or where we're going to work. This was a life-altering event. Not just for him but for me and other people.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.