The Wrestling Classic: Memphis Madness

To start this week of The Wrestling Classic, I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’ve never been to America.

I’ve never really wanted to go to America. New Orleans interests me, but as a balding nearly-30 man living in the UK with limited cash at his disposal, my desires to travel don’t tend to extend very far. As I grow older, my interests might change, but for the time being I don’t expect to set foot on American soil any time soon.

To make it worse, my geographic skills are limited. Sure, when I was younger I was passable at picking out place on a map, but not anymore. I couldn’t point out Memphis on a map, and the only time I’ve ever heard of Tupelo before was in a Nick Cave song – a particularly good one, but no real indication of the quality of the place as a holiday destination of choice.

With that said, the world of Memphis Wrestling is something I’m a little more knowledgeable about, a DVDVR Best of Memphis DVD compilation allowing me to indulge in the world of Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee and Dutch Mantell, amongst many other giants of the wrestling world. Arguably a promotion that relied more on sizzle than the steak of wrestling, the fans in Memphis filled out the Mid-South Coliseum week in, week out to watch some of the best wrestlers in the US at the time. CWA may not have the reputation of the NWA, Mid-South or WCCW, but they offered some of the best and most memorable angles and matches of the early 80s – a true dark horse of the territory days.

When spending time delving back into the annals of wrestling history, a modern fan would probably be surprised (and spoilt) by the amount of tag team action that was often highlighted on the cards of many a promotion. Tag teams drew arguably as well as some of the bigger singles names and the feuds were just as intense and violent as those seen at the top of the card, and would even often involve the big singles names on a much more regular basis than a thrown together main event on Raw.

Seemingly to confirm my suggestion that Memphis was often more about the sizzle than the steak, the two matches that have ended up on the top 100 list I’m working my way through seem to be more about the shenanigans around the match than the match itself.

One of the most important stables (at least in the world of CWA) at this time was Jimmy Hart’s First Family, a stable designed with the sole intention of destroying Jerry Lawler, Memphis’ favourite son. Part of this stable included the team of a pre-Honky Tonk Man-era Wayne Ferris and Kevin Sullivan, ridiculously ripped for a man who would appear to more closely resemble a hobbit during his time in WCW during the mid 90s. They were the AWA Southern Tag Team Champions (a title, strangely enough, defended in CWA due to the NWA connections) at the time, their masterful reign having lasted a grand total of one day (and due to only last another 48 – title reigns were passed around like chocolate in CWA). In a rematch from the night before, they met the team of Bill Dundee and Dream Machine, wrestling’s very own version of Laurel and Hardy at least when it comes to their respective sizes.

In my time watching Dundee, it is very rare that he puts anyone over outside of Lawler, so for the heels to retain the title, a screwy finish abounded. Sure enough, Jimmy Hart interjects himself to save his team, causing the DQ finish. It is the aftermath of the match that writes all the headlines after what had appeared to be a fairly forgettable match (though Dundee does play a very good face-in-peril). Jerry Lawler hits the ring to save the face team; The Nightmares (another team from the Hart Family) nullify his arrival; Dutch Mantell hits the ring to even the numbers. Before we know it, the wrestlers are in the bleachers, throwing each other up and down stairs and over chairs. We’ve already seen that promotions weren’t averse to a bit of violence and blood, but this is arguably ground-breaking stuff – this is hardcore over a decade before it was popularised in the mainstream wrestling world. Lawler himself is even sent head over heels tumbling down the steps, a man who has never been afraid to make his opponent look like his equal.

Unfortauntely, compared to this second angle winging its way from Memphis, this seems to get lost in the shuffle. The Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl was an event that I’d heard spoken about in magazines, usually accompanying descriptions of brawls involving the Public Enemy and, later on, The Dudley Boys. I had no real clue what the reference was until I popped in the DVDVR Best of Memphis set and was face to face, on Disc 1, with a huge brawl that wouldn’t have looked out of place twenty years later.

The original Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl also included Bill Dundee and Wayne Ferris, Jerry Lawler and Larry Latham their partners respectively. Seemingly as a way to give the fans something to go home happy about after the face team lost the tag team titles, a mass brawl broke out at the concession stand. Condiments were thrown, tables were brandished as weapons and Bill Dundee battered anyone standing with a mop. How can you top such an act of wanton destruction and violence?

You invite the Japanese.

Atsushi Onita, in particular. One part of a successful tag team with Mr Fuchi in CWA during 1981, they met the team of Ricky Morton and Eddie Gilbert in a two out of three falls match (two teams who had been feuding over those magical AWA Southern Tag Team Titles). The end of the match saw interference from Tojo Yammamoto, the manager for Fuchi and Onita, as he threw salt in the eyes of Gilbert allowing the Japanese team to pick up the third fall and the victory. Fuchi, Onita and Yammamoto don’t have long to celebrate, as an irate Morton grabs the ‘Japanese Fighting Stick’ (…a kendo stick) off of Tojo and begins to wail on the two men and their manager. The brawl is on!

What surprises me even now, watching it several years after my first time seeing it, is how violent it is. It is a brutal brawl, four wrestlers and a manager blasting each other with anything that isn’t nailed down. The other surprising element is how long it goes – every time it feels as if things are finally back under control, another man comes flying in with a trash lid to light the spark once more. Even owner Eddie Marlin gets involved, and gets a bloody shirt and a couple of whacks for his trouble.

Click on the Youtube link and give yourself ten minutes of pure wrestling violence that was far ahead of its time. It has been argued that this was the birth of hardcore wrestling as a concept in US wrestling, and when you watch the video, it’s a point of view that is hard to argue against.

Next time on The Wrestling Classic, we take our first trip to Japan for an All-American Tag Team clash.

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