Lance Russell, the professional wrestling announcer best known as the voice of the sport in the territory surrounding Memphis, Tenn. for decades, as well as for his stint in WCW, died Tuesday morning at the age of 91. He had broken his hip in a fall on Friday shortly after his daughter, Valerie, died in a Memphis hospital after a long battle with cancer. He is survived by his sons Lance Jr. and Shane as well as their families, with his wife Audrey having died two years ago after a lengthy illness. Jerry Lawler, the Muhammad Ali to Lance’s Howard Cosell, broke the bad news on Twitter.
I remember staring at my phone one day 10 years ago. I was trying (and failing) to start a pro wrestling podcast before they were really a thing, and decided that I was going to try to land an interview with Lance Russell, the legendary voice of Memphis wrestling. And I was going to do it with a cold call.
In my head, I ran down the reasons why this was feasible: He had a listed phone number when that was towards the tail end of being a thing, and by all accounts, he was an incredibly nice guy. But for some reason, the one that led me to push forward was reading that Steve Beverly, a southern TV journalist and historian who reported on wrestling in another life, wrote in 1991 about how Russell was “a great booster of young people in the mat industry.” So I figured the worst case scenario was that he politely said no, left a message on Lance’s answering machine, and hoped for the best.
The best was what I got.
Lance Russell was not like other wrestling announcers. With just a few exceptions, they were usually slick pitchmen, but they had to have credibility with the local fans in selling the week’s lineup. In the ’80s, as the business went national and the bond with the local fans in a given territorial promotion was lost, some, like Gorilla Monsoon or Vince McMahon, ended up too far on the salesman side of the continuum, and sounded like they’d be better off selling used cars. But Lance, whether in Memphis or on national television in WCW at the end of his full-time career, was the polar opposite. He was, depending on your age and when you watched him, either your folksy uncle or, if you were older, the laid back guy who wanted to be friends with. Regardless, you definitely wanted to watch wrestling with him, flanked by his announcing partner and best friend Dave Brown.
That was the vibe they gave on TV, but it never crossed the line into being overly casual. Lance and Dave were there to do a job, and they did it better than anyone else, all while relating to the audience in a way that felt natural, without excessive hype, and while being a calming influence in the wildest territory in a wild industry. Memphis had a different kind of philosophy behind its storytelling than the wrestling promotions in the rest of the country: With weekly shows and a relatively small crew of wrestlers, the focus was on humiliating the bad guys as much as possible instead of the good guys violently getting revenge on them. That way, the heels would keep their heat longer until the feud was blown off in bloody fashion.
As a byproduct of that, it was also the funniest wrestling around, by a lot. It was something that others in the wrestling business were generally not fond of; they often accused the Memphis promotion of turning the genre into a joke. Russell, however, simply felt that everyone else was missing the humor inherent in the crazy things that happened week to week.
Russell was the master of ceremonies, serving as foil to numerous wrestlers and managers, the most memorable of which were Jerry Lawler and Jimmy Hart. Lawler, in particular, would take shots at Russell’s “banana nose” and role as pitchman for Baxter Suits, a local menswear store. No announcer in wrestling history has ever been better than Russell at reacting, whether it was exasperation at Hart’s antics, disappointment at one of his favorites turning heel, relishing the comeuppance of a heel who had been tormenting him, or even exasperation over a show’s format being disrupted. My friend Tom Karro-Gassner of the Segunda Caida blog has compared him to Kermit the Frog, someone who was constantly “trying to run a smooth TV show if it wasn’t for these crazy Muppets.”
When you think of the great moments from the Memphis wrestling studio TV show, Russell’s performance is a standout part of most of them. They’re too numerous to list here, but one is particularly notable for his role in it:
In the summer of 1984, the annual Wrestling Fans International convention hit Memphis just after the New Fabulous Ones, Tommy Rich and Eddie Gilbert, had split, with Gilbert going heel. With the conceit that the convention’s awards had been voted on “in the spring,” Rich and Gilbert were awarded Tag Team of The Year, only for Rich to attack Gilbert. After a break, Gilbert, bloody and emotionally defeated, tells Russell that he realizes he’s made a huge mistake and was refusing to show up for scheduled matches with Rich, who walks back out. They agree to reunite and walk off the set as Russell throws to the next segment, normally a sign in wrestling that you’re “safe” and the insanity is over.
Of course, it wasn’t, but the first indication that the television viewer got that Gilbert had attacked Rich was Lance’s face falling as the crowd reacted, feeling Rich’s psychic pain over Gilbert’s betrayal.
I started writing this a few days after Lance was hospitalized, but before he died. I thought about how I hadn’t called him enough lately, thinking it was selfish even if I knew he wouldn’t. You know, the things we all go through. I thought about how this wonderful man who only knew me as a voice on the phone would make a point to call me on my birthday, and how, in an industry full of lies, cons, artifice, and bullshit, the platonic ideal of a wrestling announcer was in reality exactly who he was on TV.
He might have even been more than he was on TV. I remember talking to him about an autograph show he was going to in Evansville, Ind., which was part of the Memphis territory. After Lance’s wife, Audrey—he had been with her since high school—died the year before, their son Shane made a point of getting him out and around wrestlers and fans whenever they had a chance. With a Memphis wrestling panel, this one would get him around some especially familiar faces. But having not been in the city in decades, he was afraid that people wouldn’t remember him. He knew better than anyone else what an amazing cultural phenomenon the show he was on every week for much of his life was, drawing 20+ ratings and 70+ audience shares in Memphis and similar numbers in the territory’s other cities. But he routinely underestimated his celebrity when talking to me and other reporter/historian types. How someone that humble worked in wrestling for decades, I have no idea.
As I try to finish writing this on Tuesday morning, less than an hour after the news of his death broke, “Lance Russell” has made both the U.S. and worldwide trending lists on Twitter, which he’d probably be kind of amused by. As someone who often joked, “When I started in TV, it was called radio” and wasn’t even exaggerating, this was not something he could have conceived of when he read scripted football game recreations as a 20-something breaking into broadcasting. Hell, as VCRs became viable consumer electronics, he was fascinated by tape traders’ unyielding love of his little local television show, to the point of being shocked by how frequently he was recognized in other parts of the country when he took a job with WCW in 1989. (This period, it should be mentioned, featured some of the funniest work of his career as the host of WCW Pro, where he was the straight man to Michael Hayes and Jimmy Garvin’s Fabulous Freebirds.)
Lance Russell’s influence went far beyond being an impossibly great announcer. He was the man who made the call to put the Memphis wrestling show in a Saturday morning timeslot to draw in the adults who weren’t watching cartoons, something his peers all made fun of him for until it became the most popular local wrestling show in the country.
He was the voice of wrestling in a city split by racial injustice when the popularity of Sputnik Monroe led to the integration of events in Memphis.
He hired a young D.J. named Dave Brown and made him not just his sidekick, but an untrained weatherman who became the most popular news personality in Memphis for decades.
When a teenager named Jerry Lawler sent in his cartoons of the Monday night wrestling matches, Lance invited him on the air and paved the road for his career in the business.
He carried countless pro wrestling stars, like Jim Cornette and Raven, through their first TV interviews, cutting the promo for them if he had to.
He supported wrestling reporters and fan conventions before just about anyone else.
Lance even produced the WCW hotline when 1-900-909-9900 was arguably the most well-known number during the 900 line boom, even bringing in outside voices.
On top of all that, long after Lance retired, he would regularly announce wrestling, even calling early Daniel Bryan matches in Memphis.
Lance Russell is synonymous with the most fun and creative pro wrestling I’ve ever seen. But when I try to think of my favorite moment, I just keep going back to him calling me on my birthday.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.