There was a time when the hearts and souls of Mid-South sports fans did not turn on the fortunes of the Grizzlies or the Tigers, but on what happened Saturday mornings as they sat in front of their television sets at 11 a.m. to watch what happened on the mat and inside the ropes and turnbuckles of the wrestling ring.
Professional wrestling was the King of Memphis sports and through that popularity, Memphis’ own Jerry “The King” Lawler has become one of the icons of the sport.
Ringside to call the action for many of those Saturday morning broadcasts were Lance Russell and Dave Brown, the now-retired chief meteorologist for WMC Action News 5.
Brown and Lawler recently reunited at the Landers Center in Southaven for Wrestling Night with the Memphis Hustle and the following night at FedExForum for round two at Wrestling Night with the Memphis Grizzlies.
“We’ve had Wrestling Night with the Grizzlies for several years in a row now with some great turnouts and some great events,” Lawler said in Southaven. “We started doing actual live matches with the Grizzlies a couple of years ago. This year, we’ve added the Memphis Hustle to the agenda.”
Brown, who said he started as a radio disk jockey in Memphis before starting his television appearances on WHBQ Channel 13 with the wrestling show, and later to WMC, was hired by then WHBQ-TV program director Russell to work the wrestling show. He said the popularity of wrestling on television in Memphis was immense.
“By the time we got into the 1980s, we were routinely doing a 60 share, which means 60 percent of televisions turned on were watching us,” Brown said. “There were weeks where as high as 80 percent of the televisions turned on, not just in Shelby County and not just in DeSoto County, but in the whole area, were watching the wrestling show.”
Lawler said it was Brown and Russell who actually got him involved in wrestling after they showed his caricatures of what happened in matches held at the Mid-South Coliseum.
“Lance Russell and Dave Brown primarily helped me get my foot in the door in the wrestling business by taking some drawings that I drew as a teenager,” Lawler said. “I sent them in to the wrestling show where Lance and Dave were doing the commentary. I just fell in love with the business and the lifestyle.”
Brown said the growth of professional wrestling went worldwide with much of it due to what took place on Memphis television and at the Mid-South Coliseum,
“The fact that it started locally and the fact that there are people all over the world that follow Memphis wrestling even today is pretty amazing,” said Brown. “Virtually all of the big names in wrestling for a number of years all came through Memphis, Tenn.,” although Brown added there was pro wrestling in other parts of the country.
But wrestling became mainstream with the running feud that developed between Lawler and Andy Kaufman, the late comedian who became attracted to the sport, put himself in the ring with women and eventually to continuing battles with “The King.”
“Andy Kaufman was the best thing that ever happened to me in my career,” Lawler said. “Andy Kaufman, coming to Memphis and having the matches and giving it the exposure that he did, put wrestling in the main stream. It made it go Hollywood.”
Lawler remains active in the sport, through broadcasting and being in the ring, just as he did with the Wrestling Nights with the Hustle and Grizzlies.
“As long as somebody keeps calling me and wants me to come out to perform, I’ll keep doing it,” Lawler said. “I’m still involved with WWE and on Jan. 22, we have the 25th anniversary of Monday Night Raw. I’ve been on more Monday Night Raw television shows than anybody in the company, in the history of the company. They’re going to put J.R. (Jim Ross) and me back together again, hopefully, where it all started and we’re going to do a special show.”
Lawler added he also has a series on CW 30 WLMT Television seen on the weekends that highlights classic Memphis wrestling.
“We go back and we show all of the great matches from the Mid-South Coliseum from the 80s and 90s and the Saturday morning TV show,” Lawler said. “We’ve had Bill ‘Superstar’ Dundee on, showed a lot of his ‘Loser Leave Town’ matches. We’ve had Eddie ‘Hot Stuff’ Gilbert and had Dangerous Doug Gilbert on the show.”
Lawler remains the “King of Memphis Wrestling” and the name most synonymous with the sport in the Mid-South.
“I am constantly amazed at how well and how the fan base has remained in Memphis and the surrounding area,” Lawler said. “It’s been unbelieveable. There’s literally no place in the world that has wrestling fans like we do here in the Mid-South.”
Bob Bakken is Sports Editor and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.