Jerry O’Neil Lawler is one my favorite figures in wrestling history. He is both beloved and hated by fans and wrestlers alike, sometimes in the same conversation. The unquestioned “King of Memphis Wrestling”, Lawler’s career spans through 5 decades at this point, as a wrestler, promoter, and announcer. A member of the WWE Hall of Fame, both as an in and out of ring talent, Jerry has left an indelible mark on the wrestling business. Growing up in Ohio, he is an avid fan of the Cleveland sports teams, particularly the Browns. As a lifelong non-drinker, his vice has always been Coca-Cola, and he has an extensive collection of memorabilia and signage to prove it. He loves Superman and Batman, and even owns a 1960’s Batmobile which he drives around Memphis. Outside the state of Tennessee, he is known primarily for his famed run with Andy Kaufman, his announcing for WWE, and his many wives, but let me take you a little deeper into the history of The King.
Lawler spent the majority of his first 20 years in the business in the Memphis territory. Jerry was just 20 years old in 1969, working as a disc jockey and artist when he met wrestling promoter Aubrey Griffith. Lawler would promote Griffith’s local wrestling shows in exchange for free training by legendary wrestler “Wildman” Jackie Fargo. Jerry debuted in 1970 and won his first of a staggering 168, yes I said 168, titles in September 1971. In January 1972, he and first wife Kay had their first of 2 sons, Brian Christopher Lawler (most know him as Grand Master Sexay). Jerry’s other son, Kevin who dabbled in wrestling, mostly as a referee, was born just 2 years later.
Now, here is where things get confusing. From 1970 through 1992, the Memphis territory was promoted by no less than 4 companies, including the CWA, Mid-South, the AWA, and USWA. While the companies changed ownership, the lineage of the belts remained. I will try and navigate these waters quickly and without getting hung up too much on the minutia, ok? However, I can include a listing of these Championships if anyone wants to know later. Just ask.
Lawler was popular as both a heel early on and a babyface in the late 70s. Any chance to get him in front of a crowd was taken. So in addition to his individual success, Jerry captured tag team titles in Memphis and Georgia Championship Wrestling with stars of the era including “The Mongolian Stomper” Archie Gouldie, Mr. Wrestling II, and Don Greene. But his 2 primary partners were Jim White (7 Tag Team Championships) and Bill Dundee (4). He and his partners had wars against the likes of Jerry Jarrett, Dennis Condrey, Mr. Fuji, and of course the Blond Bombers. The Bombers were made up of Jerry’s cousin, Wayne Farris, and Larry Latham (You may remember them better as The Honkytonk Man and Moondog Spot in the WWF). I mention them in particular as Lawler, Dundee, Farris, and Latham are widely credited with first bringing the hardcore wrestling style to American audiences.
In June 1979, at a show in Tupelo, Mississippi, the tag team title match between them ended badly. As the broadcast came to a close, the 4 men, still fighting, left the ring and moved onto the floor. Then, with cameras rolling, they crossed the railing and into the crowd. Soon the foursome was headed down to the stadium’s concession area where the battle raged on. The best parts of the no holds barred fisticuffs may be famed announcer Lance Russell talking to the production team while the fight raged on, culminating in one of my favorite lines in history, “There’s mustard everywhere”. I have included this gem for you, so enjoy before moving on.
But, for all his tag team successes, “The King” was mostly a singles wrestler. Back in 1974, Jerry had feuded with his trainer and mentor Jackie Fargo, culminating in Lawler winning his first (of 52) Southern Heavyweight Championships and the title “King of Wrestling”. During his first decade in the business, he had Championship wins over Robert Fuller, “The Mongolian Stomper” Archie Gouldie, “Bullet” Bob
Armstrong, “Wildfire” Tommy Rich, Paul Orndorff, and Bill Dundee. Yet, for all his titles, Lawler remained an unknown to many fans. In 1981, Lawler was put into a program with visiting star and former NWA World Heavyweight Champion Terry Funk. They had a number of matches, and like any good feud, no resolution was in sight. The feud ended on April 25th, 1981 when Lawler and Funk went hardcore in the now infamous “Empty Arena Match”, an “I quit” match in Memphis with no referee. The pair had another classic, which helped further define Lawler’s legend.
For anything people think of Jerry, he isn’t stupid. In an era where almost no one had satellite or cable TV, and the internet would have been thought of as science fiction, being the star of a tiny promotion in Tennessee didn’t equal big money. The only way most wrestling fans of the day knew about other territories was through magazines available on their local newsstand. These publications were seen nationwide, and Lawler knew if he got regular press in them, he would have opportunities and demand more gate receipts when he toured the country. Jerry befriended Bill Apter, who penned most of the wrestling stories for the different mags at the time. Called “Apter Mags”, they showcased different stars, and Jerry Lawler was a fixture in stories and cover art throughout the 70s and 80s. Through this friendship, “The King” became well-known with wrestling fans that had actually never seen him in person, but that same friendship would bring him infamy with all of America.
In 1981, Andy Kaufman was on top of the entertainment world. He was a star on ABC’s TAXI, now in its 5th season, and he was seen regularly on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and other late night shows. But what Andy loved to do was stir the crowd, much of which came from his childhood love of professional wrestling, particularly the WWWF, run by Vince McMahon, Sr. Andy contacted Bill Apter, presented his idea for a heel character he could play, and asked if he could hook him up with McMahon. When Apter presented Vince Sr. the idea, he balked at it, not wanting to let a Hollywood guy behind the wrestling curtain. So, after talking with Kaufman, Apter pitched the idea to Jerry Lawler. He met Andy secretly in New York and a deal was made, without the initial knowledge of Lawler’s boss and close friend, Jerry Jarrett.
By early 1982, Kaufman had appeared at a number of TV shows and wrestled women from the crowd for his “Inter-Gender World Championship”. When he appeared at a show in Memphis, berating the “dirty, stupid, inbred, redneck” house crowd, a verbal joust broke out with “The King” and a match was made for Kaufman vs Lawler on April 5th, 1982. Despite Kaufman’s backing from Jimmy Hart and others, Lawler delivered 2 piledrivers to Andy and he was stretchered from the building. Kaufman continued to harass the Mid-South Coliseum crowd, wearing a neck brace for months, offering rewards to heel wrestlers to injure Lawler, and generally being a pain in the ass. On July 29th, the pair appeared together on Late Night with David Letterman to end their feud. Much to the surprise of all of America, and Letterman, the interview ended with Jerry slapping Kaufman out of his chair, Andy throwing hot coffee, and a tirade of curses on live TV. This whole scene was of course planned by Kaufman, but it infuriated Letterman who vowed neither would ever be allowed back on his show, which they never were. It was a wonderful wrestling angle, and the 2 friends (Andy and Jerry) loved doing it. Through 1994 in fact, jerry Jarrett sent Kaufman checks that rivaled any star in the company, he never cashed any of them. And good to his word, Andy Kaufman, took their secret to his grave.
With the Kaufman feud behind him, Jerry began to work with Austin Idol, defeating him for the AWA International Heavyweight Championship in early 1983. He then dropped it to Ken Patera, but regained the belt quickly. In early 1984, he defeated Randy Savage for his 1st (of 3) NWA Mid-American Heavy-weight Title. After losing the belt to Korstia Korchenko, Lawler went on a long tour of Japan, where he captured the NWA Polynesian Pacific Heavyweight Championship. When he returned, he beat Bill Dundee for another AWA International Title before being put into a program with Austin Idol to challenge Nick Bockwinkel for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship.
Idol, along with partner “Wildfire” Tommy Rich, and manager Paul E. Dangerously took every shot possible to attack Lawler. The feud culminated in a “hair vs hair” match in Memphis. During the match, Tommy Rich hid under the ring for 6 hours and emerged, costing Lawler the win. A full-blown riot broke out in Memphis’ Mid-South Coliseum as Idol, Rich, and Dangerously chained Lawler to the cage and shaved him bald. With the help of police, the trio fled the building, Idol stating he feared for his life from the crowd.
After that, “The King” moved on to a program with Curt Hennig, and Lawler became AWA World Heavyweight Champion on May 9th, 1988. Later that year, at Super Clash III (a 3 promotion pay-per-view event), Lawler pinned Kerry Von Erich to unify the AWA and WCCW Championships. But like many guys, Lawler didn’t like AWA promoter Verne Gagne and left the company, vacating both titles. He returned to Memphis and won the USWA Tag Team Championships with a young Jeff Jarrett, the son of his long time boss and friend. Around this same time, at a charity softball game, he met Stacy Carter, an 18-year-old bank teller from Arkansas. Lawler, still married to second wife Paula, says he considered an affair with her, but nothing happened for a few months until his wife moved out and then Stacy moved in.
In 1992, he was contacted by Vince McMahon, Jr. and left Memphis to begin limited announcing for the WWF. He was however, still wrestling full time. 1993 saw Lawler feuding with Bret Hart and his Hart Family, which came to a head at SummerSlam. With Jerry injured, Bret Hart would face Doink the Clown (Lawler’s court jester) instead. As Hart went in for the win, a miraculously healthy “King” attacked and the match was awarded to Bret. Immediately, a match was started between Jerry and Bret, which Bret lost when he refused to release the sharpshooter, disqualifying him and naming Lawler “Undisputed King of the World Wrestling Federation”.
Although most WWF fans didn’t know, McMahon, the Hart brothers, Savage, Undertaker, and others were regularly appearing on USWA television at the time. Vince, long before the “Montreal Screwjob” had never been seen as a heel in the WWF, was portrayed as a villain from New York who wanted nothing more than to destroy “The King”. During this time, Lawler pretty much walked through all of them, even defeating Hart and Undertaker in a handicap match in the Mid-South Coliseum. Back in the WWF, things were gearing up for Lawler vs Hart at Survivor Series ’93 when the train came off the tracks. Jerry Lawler was indicted for the raping and sodomizing of a 15 year old girl, and he was quickly replaced by Shawn Michaels in the match. The charges were soon dropped when the girl’s story was found to be fabricated, but the damaged to Jerry had been done.
Jerry returned to the WWF as an announcer at WrestleMania X. Through remarks he made about “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a match was made for King of the Ring 1994, which Lawler lost. He then began working against Doink the Clown, culminating in the horrendous match at Survivor Series 1994. Doink, along with 3 midget wrestlers, Dink, Wink, and Pink, faced Lawler with 3 midgets of his own, Queazy, Cheezy, and Sleezy. Lawler, along with everyone who saw it, lost. He then did a very short stint in a cross-promotion bit with Smoky Mountain Wrestling, and even became their Champion. There he met Glen Jacobs, brokering a deal for Jacobs to move to the WWF, where he was repackaged as….wait for it…..Dr. Isaac Yankem, DDS, Jerry’s sadistic 6’10” dentist (Thank god Paul Bearer thought up the Kane gimmick for that guy like a year later). The two worked through King of the Ring 1995, again against the Harts, and then the angle (and Dr. Yankem thankfully!) disappeared.
1996 saw a short angle with Lawler and Jake “The Snake” Roberts which involved Jerry berating him about his drug and alcohol issues, and pouring Jim Beam down his throat on TV. After that, he became the lynchpin in a cross-promotion angle with Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). He appeared on their TV and insulted the company and its’ fan on both programs (RAW and ECW), and even “put over” Tommy Dreamer at ECW’s Hardcore Heaven 1997. He then advanced to the semi-finals of the 1997 King of the Ring tournament, losing to Mankind, which pretty much ended Jerry’s regular in-ring career.
Over the next few years, Lawler, alongside Jim Ross, became the best commentary team…maybe ever. During this time, Jerry became the character on the mic we all know now. He shrieked in joy during Divas matches, particularly those of Sable, Deborah (Puppies!), Lita, and Trish. He screamed in terror every time Kane’s pyro hit. His son Brian had joined the company, as did his girlfriend Stacy. “The Kat” became popular in the Women’s Division as a sidekick to Chyna and for her willingness to get naked, pretty much anywhere. Jerry and Stacy were married in 2000, but when the company released her the next year, Jerry quit in protest. Jerry also ran for Mayor of Memphis in 1999, finishing 3rd, despite featuring ads with The Rock in them proclaiming “It doesn’t matter who your opponent is!”
Jerry worked independent promotions through 2001 before returning to the WWF in November 2001, after he divorced Stacy. At more than 50 years old, he didn’t want to work matches anymore, but still but still put on his gear now and then. Over the next decade, he was involved in a handful of matches against the likes of Tazz, Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, and Booker T. On the November 29th, 2010 edition of RAW, Lawler (on his 61st birthday) challenged the Miz for the WWE Championship and lost due to outside interference from Michael Cole and Alex Riley. It was his first (and only) shot at the belt. This led to arguably the worst match in WrestleMania history against Michael Cole at WrestleMania XXIX in Atlanta, which Lawler lost. It was his first (and only) WrestleMania appearance.
On the September 10th, 2012 edition of RAW, Jerry Lawler suffered a heart attack at the broadcast table during a match. Jerry was rushed to a local hospital, and commentary was suspended throughout the night, which sporadic updates of his condition being provided by Michael Cole. He would return to RAW and full-time commentary 2 months later. After Paul Heyman made light of his heart attack, Jerry was featured as very anti-CM Punk and cheered wildly for any of his opponents. He was needless to say thrilled when The Rock pinned Punk for the belt.
Jerry has done a lot over the years, and I could spend all day talking about all the belts he has won, but here is some odd trivia about “The King”. In 1976, his manager and friend Sam Bass died in a tragic car accident, when word reached Jerry Jarrett; he contacted Lawler’s family, assuming he was dead as well. Despite winning 168 Championships, he never wore ANY gold in Vince McMahon’s WWF/E, which is a travesty. And it wasn’t due to his age, Pat Patterson was the Hardcore Champion at age 59 in 2000.
It took 2 decades for Lawler to get into a match at WrestleMania, which always shocked me, as he was feuding with a top star in Bret Hart in the early 90’s, and when he did, it was a disaster against an announcer. He was however, inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007, and the company published his biography, “It’s Good to be The King…Sometimes”. He also has provided artwork for the WWE and Mick Foley in different books and posters they released. In 1999, he portrayed himself in the film “Man on the Moon” starring Jim Carrey, though he wasn’t pleased with the finished product or Carrey’s portrayal of his late friend.
Thanks for reading this write-up, I know it may have run a little long, but Jerry has done just about everything. He is very funny and approachable, loving fan interaction, and if you get the chance, I highly recommend meeting him. If you really want to talk with him, I also recommend presenting him a small gift emblazoned with a Coca-Cola or Superman logo. Thanks for reading, and keep your shoulders off the mat.