In the 1980s, when cable television changed the pro wrestling landscape and push truly came to shove in the industry, only one regional promotion survived in anything close to its original form. That was the Tennessee-based USWA, owned by Jerry Jarrett and his longtime top star, Jerry Lawler. With a history of astronomical television ratings, especially in their core city of Memphis, the USWA’s success served to future-proof it even as the broader industry consolidated. Star power was a big part of what kept USWA afloat. Incumbent stars like Lawler and longtime rival Bill Dundee already had national reputations and other, younger local stars were starting to make names for themselves. Of the USWA mainstays that first debuted in the ‘90s, none had a bigger impact than Lawler’s eldest son, Brian Christopher, who was best known internationally as Grandmaster Sexay, one half of Too Cool in WWE.
On Sunday afternoon, Christopher died at Memphis’s Regional One Medical Center after reportedly hanging himself in a jail cell. He had been incarcerated for about three weeks stemming from a DUI arrest.
In recent years, Christopher—his real name was Brian Lawler; he used his middle name as his last name in wrestling—aging and made unreliable by his spiraling drug addiction, had largely fallen off the wrestling radar. By the time of his arrest, he was only working small local shows that weren’t even tracked online. His reputation made him tough to book, and that his best-known onscreen persona was that of a goofy white rapper didn’t help, either. But all that belied the fact that he was a genuinely gifted performer in the ring and was near-universally described as a deeply good person who battled an addiction he couldn’t overcome.
In 2001, Maryland Championship Wrestling’s Dan McDevitt described Brian, then “fresh off WWE TV” and making “several thousand dollars” per booking, giving back half his payoff after a show bombed at the box office. “In 25 years in pro wrestling, he is the only star that has ever done that,” McDevitt wrote. “He had his demons, but that’s how I remember him, how he treated me—as a good, kindhearted dude.”
Memphis locals, meanwhile, shared similar stories across Facebook, all painting a picture of a sensitive, generous man.
“I met [Brian’s brother] Kevin and then his whole crew at the ‘Neighborhood Wrestling Alliance’ that they had put together, wrestling in backyards,” USWA referee and manager Scott Bowden recalled. “My friends and I horsed around and did some backyard wrestling, but this was on another level. Kevin had such a great imagination and the artistic abilities of his father, and created all these wonderful characters and would bring them to life. I remember Brian had a tag team called ‘The Ultimate Males’ where he was ‘Bodacious Brian.’”
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Even as a teenager with no formal training wrestling in a homemade backyard ring, Brian flashed the charisma that would carry him through his career. “From the moment I first met Brian, he just had that walk,” Bowden said. “Like Vince McMahon does, or more like Mr. Perfect, I guess. He had that slow, casual walk with his chest out, almost like a borderline strut, like he was in no hurry to be anywhere.” The other side of Brian was there, too, even in the beginning. “It became very obvious to me within moments of meeting Brian that a lot of his tough guy bravado and his veneer were to hide the fact that he’s a very sensitive guy, very intelligent,” Bowden said. “I think he liked to downplay that part of himself.”
Around the time of his high school graduation, Brian and his NeighborhoodWA buddy Tony Williams got a spot on a smaller show, tore the house down, and then quickly parlayed their impressive aptitude for wrestling into USWA gig as “The New Kids.” They hung around the undercard for several months, complete with New Kids on the Block’s “Hangin’ Tough” as entrance music, until Brian broke away and became a villain. While his father’s role in the company clearly helped, Brian also flourished in the role and succeeded on his own merits.
It didn’t matter that it was never acknowledged that Brian was actually the son of “The King of Memphis,” at least in terms of getting over. Brian had a persona and wrestling style that had no similarities to his father’s beyond its roots in the same Tennessee-style rasslin’ fundamentals. Jerry was cocky but smooth as a villain and convincingly down to earth as a good guy, while Brian was the bigger personality in any role. He popped as a fast-talking schemer with a perfectly annoying laugh when cast as a cackling bad guy, to the point where he became the promotion’s breakout star and attracted curiosity from fans who couldn’t even see him wrestle but saw him regularly featured in the newsstand wrestling magazines. But it was a long feud with the other promoter’s son, Jeff Jarrett, who had four years of experience on him, that really put Brian Christopher over the top.
“I woke up Sunday morning in London with many, many texts of the initial report on Brian,” Jarrett wrote on Instagram.
And, over the next few hours I had the time to reflect on all the years that I’ve known Brian; our fathers were business partners for many years and that’s how we initially met. From our first times together in USWA there were ALWAYS two things you could count on him to do—one, he was going to make you laugh no matter what was going on, and two when he stepped in the ring he was going to let his incredible charisma shine thru...his infectious laugh (at times really annoying), his athletic ability, and his knack for making everyone in the match better! For about 3 years I wrestled with or against Brian more than anybody during that time; and, I became a better professional wrestler because of it.
Jarrett, who recently went through a rehab stint of his own and has seen something of a career resurgence that included a WWE Hall of Fame induction, closed by reflecting on his and Brian’s shared issues and how they obscured the man behind the performer. “Over the years the Brian I, and so many more, knew became covered up in ‘life,’” he wrote. “The disease of addiction is real, it’s very dark, and it’s fatal if left untreated. Brian, love ya and I will miss you my friend. I pray your soul is finally at peace!”
“He was driven to go out there and have the best match every night,” the wrestler, historian, and independent promoter Beau James, who worked with Christopher in Memphis, told Deadspin. “I ran a town for the [Memphis Power Pro Wrestling] office, Covington, and there was like 200 people there. And him and Billy Travis went out there and worked their ass off. And I remember watching from the back and thinking ‘He don’t have to do that.’ He was starting to get his push in New York [wrestling slang for WWE], but he never wanted anybody to leave disappointed. He would watch a little bit of every match every night, Brian would, just to see what was going on. And if he saw something he didn’t like, he’d tell you.”
One night, some younger wrestlers got mad about hearing Brian’s feedback. “I said ‘Forget that he’s Lawler’s son, forget where he’s at on the card,” James recalled. “’Remember this: He grew up ringside. He saw it all. He knows what works here and what doesn’t work here. So when he comes to speak to you, he’s he’s coming to try to help you, which helps the product, which helps all of us. And it wasn’t like he went off to be a star and quit caring about home; he cared about home as much as he did WWE.”
Unfortunately, none of Brian’s best work was national in scale. Though there was a brief flirtation with WWE in 1993 in the form of a Madison Square Garden appearance, he wasn’t brought in as a full-timer until 1997, at which point he was shoehorned into the company’s new light heavyweight division. It was among the worst possible ways to use him, as he was both pigeonholed and miscast from the jump. As good as he was, Brian Christopher was not someone who wrestled the high-flying style that had become popular in rival WCW’s cruiserweight division. Instead, he was a guy who was finally getting his chance because WWE had belatedly devised an outlet for wrestlers who were deemed too short for what was historically a “big man’s territory.” To make matters worse, Christopher’s persona was cranked up to cartoon levels, leaving him with little more than an annoying laugh.
“I think WWE was a job,” James said, “but Memphis was his passion.”
Within a few months of losing the tournament final for the light heavyweight championship, Christopher was thrown into a tag team with New England independent standout Scott Taylor as “Too Much.” That didn’t really go anywhere, especially after a teased same-sex romance storyline for the team was abruptly dropped. The pair got a makeover as “Too Cool,” Grandmaster Sexay and Scotty 2 Hotty, but that didn’t quite click, either. It was only after being thrown together with Rikishi as a dancing trio that things somehow worked. And they really worked: fans immediately flocked to the supergroup, and after they got slotted into a famously electric main event match on a February 2000 edition of Monday Night Raw in Dallas, their popularity exploded, immediately launching all three wrestlers into the group just below the top mix.
Their post-match dance routine, plus touches like Taylor’s worm dance flowing into a diving chop and Christopher donning flight goggles before hitting his signature top rope leg drop, became a staple of the promotion during its most popular year. It wasn’t any less goofy than it sounds, but it hit big.
The following year, in May 2001, Christopher was fired after being brought up on drug possession charges; he had been stopped going through customs at Calgary International Airport. While his father claimed that the arrest stemmed from the legal status of steroid precursor androstenedione being different on different sides of the border, the Calgary Herald reported that Brian had marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine on him. It was something of a shock—he had been known within wrestling for being, aside from maybe muscle-building drugs, a teetotaler like his father—and largely derailed his national career. It wasn’t long before he was having trouble finding work.
“He was a hurt kid who really wanted his dad’s attention, and that’s normal,” Bowden said. “[Jerry] Lawler wasn’t the first guy who wasn’t a good father in the wrestling business. It’s somewhat impossible, especially when you divorce. But Jerry, and I think he’ll be the first to admit this: He wanted to be Brian’s buddy, and that he [felt that he] didn’t deserve the right to discipline him because he wasn’t truly around.” In 2009, concerned over his wellbeing, Bowden blogged about a string of trouble that Brian had gotten into, resulting in a call from the man he knew since they were both teenagers.
“[Brian] actually threatened to kick my ass over that article, and finally we talked it out,” Bowden recalled. “He’s like ‘Why would you do that?’ And I said ‘If you actually read it, you’ll see I’m actually putting you over, I’m saying you belong in WWE, you belong as part of that second generation group, Legacy, they’re doing. You’re better on the mic than either of those guys, you’re more of a natural talent, that’s all I’m saying, dude. Most of all, I just don’t want you to die.’”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.