It was 30 years ago this Wednesday that the end of regional professional wrestling began. At the very least, it went out with a bang.
At that point both the WWF (now WWE) and rival Jim Crockett Promotions (later WCW) had expanded nationally, and their glossier television product had taken a bite out of the traditional territorial promotions. But a few full-time territories still remained, with the CWA (covering parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi) arguably being the most popular and Texas’s World Class promotion being the most visible, thanks to syndication and an ESPN deal. The CWA was both uniquely situated and defiantly local; it was known colloquially as—deep breath—“Memphis wrestling” (after its main city), “Championship Wrestling” (after its TV show), “Mid-South wrestling” (after the region and Memphis’s Mid-South Coliseum), and “Mid-Southern” (what magazines called it to distinguish it from the actual Mid-South Wrestling). The expansion efforts of the WWF, Crockett, and others who paid to get on the air in certain markets had instant negative consequences for most regional promotions. Station managers came to see wrestling strictly as paid programming, but the CWA was subsidized in large part by WMC TV-5 in Memphis, which paid a rights fee and provided the studios for the weekly CWA TV show. In that era, a station paying for a wrestling show was incredibly rare in America, but the viewership figures in Memphis—20+ ratings and 70+ shares were common in the promotion’s heyday—more than warranted it.
One of the other remaining territories—just barely—was the AWA, which had become a big name promotion by running the major midwest population bases like the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago. That helped get AWA into the wrestling magazines, and thanks to those magazines, fans were conditioned to see the AWA Champion was one of pro wrestling’s “real” world champions. This came in handy in the late 1970s when smaller promotions—like the CWA, for instance—started to have issues getting dates against the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. That NWA champion, generally considered the most “real” world title holder, made his living traveling the country from territory to territory, making the local hero look good before narrowly escaping as champion. While the NWA champion was always a major star attraction—legends like Terry Funk, Harley Race, Ric Flair, and Dusty Rhodes held the title—some promoters weren’t fans of every champion. So when it became harder to book those traveling champions, promoters like Jerry Jarrett in Memphis and Stu Hart in Calgary turned to the AWA. The AWA’s champion, a whiny know-it-all grown-up rich kid named Nick Bockwinkel, was just as good and more than happy to come in on his off-days to make extra money.
So aside from a couple blips where Flair came in, Bockwinkel was the world champion in the CWA/Memphis area from about 1979 to his retirement in 1987. Bockwinkel had brilliant chemistry with Jerry Lawler, the area’s top star, and something about him just fit better than Flair would have. From the perspective of Lawler, who got half of the promotion in 1983, and Jarrett, his business partner, it would also be easier to convince AWA owner Verne Gagne to give them the title for a short run that it would be to get a vote from the NWA member promoters. If Jerry Lawler was going to ever be the world champion, they reasoned, it was probably going to be as AWA Champion. That ascension would tie a bow on his quest for the world title, a storyline that had begun back in 1975.
Jarrett had crafted a masterful program in which Lawler, who was then still a villain, would dispatch big name stars—billed as the top ten contenders—brought in from outside the area. Eventually, Lawler would get a title shot at NWA Champion Jack Brisco, only to come close enough in losing that he won the fans over. For years, Lawler would continue to come close, but never win the big one. Perhaps most clever in this long line of moral victories and near-misses was a 1982 storyline stemming from Bockwinkel beating Lawler for the Southern Heavyweight Title, a belt that Lawler had already held 29 times. Lawler was able to regain the title four weeks later, proving to the fans that he could beat Bockwinkel cleanly in a title match.
Lawler and Jarrett would come up with new ways to make it look like there would be a title change, like when Bockwinkel said he’d only give “The King” a rematch if he paid $500 for every punch he threw; Lawler accepted and pledged to throw the best punches of his life. In late 1984, it seemed like a deal of some kind had been made with either the Gagnes or the NWA board in which Lawler pledged to retire if he didn’t win a world title in 1985. While Lawler got shots at AWA Champions Bockwinkel and Rick Martel and NWA Champion Flair that year on major shows, they didn’t switch the title and Lawler later brushed off questions about retirement, saying he was too young.
It could have gone on like this indefinitely, but a lot changed over the next few years. The AWA, which survived the losses of Hulk Hogan, Bobby Heenan, and Gene Okerlund quite well, continued to lose top stars like Martel and the Road Warriors as 1985 became 1986. In addition, promoter Verne Gagne and his son Greg had lost touch with what modern fans wanted. Business got bad enough that starting in 1987, there were long stretches during which the AWA ceased running shows between national TV tapings, which were paid for by ESPN. Only a few wrestlers were paid to stick around; one of them, per the reporting of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter at the time, was AWA Champion Curt Hennig, who showed up in the WWF later in 1988 as Mr. Perfect. Before he left, though, Hennig got paid to go to Memphis and work a feud with Lawler. As last gasp’s go, this was a pretty glorious one.
Given how many times as Lawler had challenged for the belt before, it had to be laid on real thick to make it clear to fans that he would, finally, be winning the world title from Hennig on May 9, 1988. The mayor of Memphis proclaimed that it was Jerry Lawler Day, and there was also a vote—on a pay-per-call 1-900 number of course—to determine if the special referee would be Hennig’s father, Larry, or Lawler’s mentor, Memphis legend Jackie Fargo. How hard of a hard sell was it? There were repeated claims about a suspicious amount of votes coming in for Larry Hennig from numbers with Minneapolis area codes.
The pomp and circumstance and unstated promise that yes, Lawler was finally winning the world heavyweight title resulted in an announced 8,000 fans showing up for the big match, a figure that was way above recent crowds. After getting a cut over his eye worked over by Hennig, Lawler found a second wind, hit a huge haymaker, and slingshotted the future Mr. Perfect into the turnbuckle to win the title as Fargo counted the pin. The room went nuts and Lawler started his lone run as an honest to God touring world champion, splitting time between the CWA, AWA, the CWF in Alabama and east Tennessee, FCW in Florida, and World Class in Texas. While the Memphis promotion would last almost a decade longer (it changed its name to the USWA in 1990), Lawler-Hennig was, aside from a 1994 legends-themed show, the last time that the promotion ever really came close to filling the Mid-South Coliseum. In the locker room, Lawler gave the most emotional interview of his career to Lance Russell, who got him his first opportunities in wrestling by bringing him on TV to show off his artwork of the Monday night matches.
Sure, the result wasn’t a real competitive sporting victory. And yeah, in subsequent years, it would become clear that Lawler was probably not much of a babyface in real life. But there was something special about seeing Lawler, whose dad died at a young age, finally reaching the pinnacle of his career in front of a raucous hometown crowd with Fargo and Russell, his two surrogate fathers, by his side. That’s as real as wrestling gets, and it’s why those fans showed up, even if many of them probably never did again.
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