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Bottoming Out in Jacksonville

Life and Death in Sugar Ditch Alley

Jerry "The King" Lawler and Memphis wrestling are still alive and drop-kicking, 40 miles south

On the second floor of the Resorts Casino in Tunica, Mississippi, a radio station has set up a little table in a sea of Mardi Gras–themed carpet. A DJ is interviewing a slight, bent-over man with a slick of gray hair. The old man is Lance Russell, the pomaded, big-beaked, paternalistic voice of Memphis wrestling, whose weekly outrage at the shenanigans of the Bluff City’s cruel desperadoes stretched from 1959 to 1997, minus a brief detour to the big stage of WCW. Russell is smartly dressed and tanned, and if his aura is diminished by his age, the fans standing behind him don’t show it. They’re gaping at him, nudging each other and pointing. One woman leans back into her husband and whispers up toward his chin: “I can’t believe he’s alive.”

They’re waiting in line for a meet-and-greet with a ramshackle troupe of Memphis wrestling legends — “Superstar” Bill Dundee and “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant. Much of the crowd seems older than the wrestlers themselves, a crew of frosted-hair couples with vacation clothes and cameras standing eagerly next to a block of idle slot machines. A fiftysomething black man waiting in line with his unenthusiastic teenage son drawls wistfully with an excited white couple in matching red shirts; wrestling memories segue into high school football, where there was some dispute about whose team kicked whose butts.

A few yards away is a colossal wall that’s been recently converted into the Jerry “The King” Lawler Museum, which was recently relocated from Wynn Automotive, a Memphis used-car dealership. The hall consists mostly of Lawler’s threadbare robes, first editions of his music albums, and photos of him with minor celebrities. And, almost everywhere you look, drawings. Drawings of the Undertaker, of Triple H, of Batman and Superman. Lawler — a huge comic-book fan who recently bought a replica of the Batmobile from the old Adam West TV series — is a more than respectable illustrator, but his sketches permeate the exhibit to the point that you start to wonder if the fantasy world he lives in isn’t enough for him, if it’s possible for a man to need escapism from escapism. Wall-mounted TVs bring you back to the diversion at hand — little screens looping archival footage of Lawler-centric Memphis wrestling shows. I see a young Lawler call Russell “Banana Nose” with vertical lines of snow rolling up the screen, and suddenly I’m 8 years old again.

I know what you’re thinking. A casino is better than a car dealership, but at least the dealership was in Memphis. Memphis is where Lawler made his name, after all, and where, even after all these years, he’s regarded as something of a demigod. Long after local wrestling heroes like Sputnik Monroe, Eddie Marlin, and Jackie Fargo aged out of the game, Lawler stuck around to keep Memphis wrestling viable while the WWF and cable television were putting all the other territories out of business. Even after he was hired away by the McMahon megalith, Lawler kept coming back, endorsing events and wrestling on weekends through the years. The Memphis wrestling scene lingered around through the 1990s and 2000s, repeatedly dying quiet deaths only to be resuscitated in vain attempts to recapture the magic of Lawler’s heyday. That’s why the crowd is here, even if it’s 50 minutes south of Memphis: another revival. We’re here today for a Memphis wrestling show.

A murmur rushes through the crowd and everybody looks back toward the end of the line, and there he is: Lawler, in one of his ridiculous metallic-ink T-shirts. Seeing him in person, you can see the logic that led Milos Forman to cast Lawler as himself 15 years after the fact in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. He’s still shockingly boyish and fit for a man who’s been wrestling for 43 years. He wanders up the hallway dragging a black rolling suitcase — the trusty steed of every pro wrestler — with one hand and holding his conspicuously young girlfriend in the other. “Is that his daughter?” asks the woman in the red shirt. The old football rivals laugh together.

Back when it was a bastion of the National Wrestling Alliance, the territory was called NWA Mid-America, and it was run by a promoter named Nick Gulas. Home was Nashville and Memphis, but Kentucky and Alabama were part of the regular circuit, and they frequently traveled as far as Tupelo, Mississippi, and Dayton, Ohio. The stars were tag-team wrestlers, duos like Tojo Yamamoto and Jerry Jarrett and the Interns and the Fabulous Fargos.

Not long after Jerry Lawler left behind his disc jockey day job and his dreams of being a commercial artist and ascended to regional wrestling stardom, he and Jerry Jarrett split off and started a competing venture. There are two common explanations for the split: one, that Jarrett, who was working a backstage role, had paid the famously stingy Gulas $50,000 for 10 percent of the company, only to learn that Gulas had sold him options instead of actual stock, leaving Jarrett empty-handed; and two, that Gulas was intent on pushing his son George as a star, even though George looked like the kind of guy you’d buy wood-paneled stereo speakers from when he took off his shirt. Lawler and Jarrett took Memphis, leaving Nashville to Gulas. They called their new promotion the Continental Wrestling Association; it was a pirate ship that would eventually pillage Gulas’s entire territory and its NWA affiliation. CWA stole the popular broadcast team of Russell and his grinning cohort, Dave Brown, from WHBQ — which broadcast Gulas’s NWA — to their new station, WMC, making their wrestling show the city standard. There were stretches when 355,000 out of roughly 700,000 Memphians were tuned in to CWA’s Saturday-morning show.

Lawler took his regal moniker after he beat his old mentor Jackie Fargo for the rights to the mantle of Memphis wrestling royalty, but unlike Fargo, for whom it was mostly a nickname, Lawler decked himself out in robes and a crown. Like Memphis’s other favorite son, Elvis Presley, Lawler somehow managed to make sequins a part of his working-man shtick. Jarrett and Lawler took turns booking the promotion. There would be six months of Jarrett’s old-school clan feuding followed by six months of Lawler’s pop-culture plagiarism. The constants were Russell and Brown and promoter Eddie Marlin and the wrestlers: Lawler and Dundee and Valiant and Dutch Mantell, presently working in WWE as the manager Zeb Colter. There were tag teams like the Rock ‘n’ Roll RPMs, the Moondogs, the Fabulous Ones, and the Sheepherders (a.k.a. the Bushwhackers), managers like Jimmy Hart and Downtown Bruno, and singles competitors like “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert, Austin Idol, and Koko B. Ware. Eventually, a steady procession of steroidal newcomers arrived. Some of them would become stars with names like Hulk Hogan and Sid Vicious and the Ultimate Warrior, while some were stiffs like the Spellbinder, who put the lie to the myth that steroids begat charisma. Even during its heyday, Memphis was more of a highway truck stop for current or future names than it was a place where stars were created. Aside from Lawler and “Macho Man” Randy Savage — who was really the product of his father’s outlaw micro-federation, the ICW — the biggest national stars to come out of the CWA were the “Ugandan Headhunter” Kamala, Soul Train Jones (a.k.a. Virgil), and a kid named Jeff Jarrett.

In 1986, Jerry Jarrett’s skinny, goldilocked son started showing up as the referee on Saturday mornings. For kids like me, it seemed like the best part-time job ever; for the CWA, it was a way to familiarize the fans with young Jarrett before he started brawling. (Presumably his father was trying to avoid the errors of his old mentor Nick Gulas and smooth over the nepotism of turning his son into a star wrestler.) By the time Jeff got drawn into ring combat by a career jobber named Tony Falk, who picked Jeff as his opponent because he was determined to win one match (he lost), Jeff’s career path was set. He filled out with muscles, grew his hair long, and started posing for Playgirl-style posters in unabashedly lewd — and, for preteen boys like me, confusing — video spots during the Saturday show.

Lawler was the icon and Jeff was the fresh-faced comer when the Memphis crew partnered with Minnesota’s AWA and Texas’s WCCW to compete with national promotions like the WWF and NWA; they failed, but not before Lawler established himself as the top star not under contract with the Big Two. Coming on the heels of a massive expansion by the WWF, that may be faint praise, but to Memphis fans, Lawler still reigned supreme.

Soon both Lawler and Jarrett ended up in the WWF. Lawler went on to an accidental career as — with apologies to Jesse Ventura and Bobby Heenan — the company’s most famous color commentator. Jarrett went on to be a semimajor player with clinical wanderlust — he jumped ship for rival WCW and jumped back and back again. Eventually, he started a new outlaw outfit with his dad called TNA Wrestling, which is still around, though Jeff’s not much involved. The last time I had seen Jarrett was in the film Spring Breakers. He was wearing a tight T-shirt and preaching about the awesomeness of the resurrection of Christ as Selena Gomez’s Bible study leader. He had come a long way from his stomach-churning, awkward interviews as a CWA newcomer and from his nasal, worked-shoot promos during his wrestling heyday. He seemed more authentic playing a part in a movie than he ever did playing heel.

Jerry Lawler, Jeff Jarret - Courtesy of Jeff Jarret

I didn’t come to Tunica just because I grew up watching Memphis wrestling. I came because Jerry Lawler had suffered a massive heart attack on an episode of WWE Raw in September 2012. I’m here because I want to see my idol wrestle in person again before he retires (or, I can’t not say it, before he dies) and because I can’t believe my idol is still wrestling at all. Lawler never stopped doing indie shows on weekends, even into his sixties, and WWE never required him to do anything but show up for Raw and the monthly pay-per-view shows, so he has time. The heart attack was an anomaly — a sudden cardiac arrest instead of a blockage issue — and because he’d received constant CPR through his 20 minutes of flatlining, he never lost circulation. He was back to normal almost immediately, and he had his doctor’s blessing to keep brawling. Lawler claims to have never had a drink or a smoke or used any illicit drug in his life, and in an interview on the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin podcast that ran days before the Tunica card, he offhandedly blamed his heart attack on a series of elbow drops he’d received from Dolph Ziggler during a match on Raw. (Two days after that night in Tunica, Lawler was in Detroit for WWE’s Night of Champions pay-per-view. Midway through the card, when Dolph Ziggler started dropping elbows on his opponent, fellow commentator John Bradshaw Layfield said, “Uh-oh. Get out your nitroglycerine, King.”) And who am I to judge? If doctors have cleared Lawler to wrestle, then why shouldn’t he? That’s what I asked myself, though it was rhetorical and it would’ve been hard to hear the answer over the turning of my stomach.

The original plan was for Lawler to fight his old foe Austin Idol, with whom he had an epic cage match in 1987. A few weeks before the event, Idol tweeted that he wouldn’t make the show, and he was replaced by the significantly younger Jarrett. Despite his Memphis roots, though, Jarrett didn’t share a storied rivalry with Lawler. They were often costars running on parallel paths, Jarrett a notch below Lawler. When Jeff’s fame started peaking, they had some fairly memorable contests, but when they shared screen time, it was often as a team. Lawler and Jarrett joined forces to maintain the dwindling legitimacy of Memphis wrestling — now redubbed the USWA — in feuds like the one against those Neanderthal hillbillies the Moondogs. Which is not to say they were always pals; because of the territory’s meager roster, friendship was always fungible in Memphis. Many were the Saturdays when Lawler or Mantell or Dundee regaled the viewing audience with monologues about how one of the others had lost his respect with casual, damning egotism, or, months later, about how that same narcissist had re-earned his respect.

At the meet-and-greet in Tunica, while fans line up to get autographs from their heroes, I stand back to take it all in. There’s Bill Dundee — diminutive, stout, and face-lifted, hawking shirts. There’s the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express — thinning hair still in mullets and teased high, at adjoining tables with their wives between them, standing side-by-side only when somebody shelled out for a photo. There’s Koko B. Ware — although his trademark macaw, Frankie, has been replaced by a plush, red parrot headdress that looks like something from a Busch Gardens gift shop. There’s Rikishi, the dancing Samoan sumo — he looks way too young to be among that zombie horde, but then I remember that his sons, the Usos, currently wrestle for WWE.

I see Brian Christopher, Lawler’s son, who had some success as a silly WWF hip-hopper named Grand Master Sexay. Nowadays, he’s outrageously tanned and bleached-blond, as if he spends a lot of time drinking Bud Lights on a boat at the lake. Doug Gilbert, the lesser Gilbert sibling behind his late brother Eddie, is separate from the rest against the front wall. His little remaining hair is spiked like a child-size crown, and he sits quietly in a Ribera jacket with a black baseball bat and his blonde girlfriend. Reggie B. Fine, a sometimes wrestler and sometimes manager — always playing a cartoonish, Blaxploitation-style street hustler — wanders in with little fanfare. As I walk out, I nearly trip over Downtown Bruno, the weaselly manager who went on to some fame in the WWF as Harvey Wippleman. He now works as the wrestlers’ concierge backstage at WWE events. He’s in a blazer and slacks and he looks remarkably normal, so much so that nobody seems to recognize him. A couple hours later, on my way to the event, I run across Ricky Morton, half of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express. Throughout his career, Morton has spent so much time in the damsel-in-distress role that “playing Ricky Morton” became industry slang. The smaller member of the Express, he would enter matches and get beaten down relentlessly by the baddies while fans screamed in outrage. And just when it looked like he was a goner, just when he was about to be laid out for good, he’d get a spark of life and a second of luck and he’d will himself to the corner to tag in his partner, Robert Gibson, who would clear house. Morton would then miraculously revive and join in the excitement and the Express would win and the cycle would begin anew. Morton’s legacy was the legitimacy of catastrophe in the wrestling ring. His role was to make audiences question whether the good guys would always prevail. His job was to be human in the face of superhuman heroics. When I run into him, Morton is standing outside a hotel buffet with two coffees and a cigarette in his mouth. He wears wire-rimmed glasses that put the lie to whatever youth his hair bleach bought him in the autograph line. He is smaller than I expected. A couple fans approach him and he raises his eyebrows in acquiescence. He looks like he wants to be anywhere but here.

When Morton gets into the ring later that night, he looks two feet taller. He has teamed up with Gibson and Bill Dundee against a trio of doughy young locals. Despite the usual theatrics — Ricky Morton is playing Ricky Morton, of course — the ending is never in doubt. Nobody is here to further feuds or to tease out story lines. This is a tribute show, and the heroes are going to win. There has been enough mythmaking in Memphis — this is the highlight reel.

All of the legendary moments in Memphis wrestling history occurred in three venues. There was the ramshackle WMC studio, where wrestlers used folding chairs as stepping stools to enter the ring while fewer than 100 fans sat on the bleachers along the far wall. The Ellis Auditorium was where black fans remained segregated in the crow’s nest until Sputnik Monroe demanded they be allowed to sit anywhere they wanted. He got his way, because that was what it meant to be a wrestling star back then. Finally, there was the Mid-South Coliseum, the arena where the Ku Klux Klan once threatened the Beatles before a show because they’d recently claimed to be bigger than Jesus (and when somebody let off a firecracker, everybody thought the worst).

Those spots are all gone, and so here we are in Tunica, a city that was known in the ’80s as the poorest city in the poorest state in America. It was the kind of place that made for galling local news profiles, and in 1985, when South African politics were making international news, Morley Safer of 60 Minutes blasted Tunica as the U.S.’s own little apartheid state. The black part of town, which was just behind the white Baptist church on the town’s main drag, was dubbed “Sugar Ditch Alley,” a euphemism for the exposed river of sewage that flowed through the neighborhood for decades. Eventually the nickname took ownership of Tunica proper, and, reeling from the indignity of the 60 Minutes report, the city bulldozed the gully. Many blacks still lived in destitution, without electricity or running water, and the schools were functionally segregated because all the white families sent their children to one private school and the black families sent theirs to the public school. The guys talking football in the autograph line were probably laughing about a game between these schools.

I talk to a black fortysomething bartender who remembers watching Lawler and his ilk on TV every week. He laughs when I sheepishly ask whether everybody in Tunica back then had TVs. “Not every house, no, but we had TVs,” he says. He asks me about Lawler’s heart attack, says he saw it on the news when it happened, and I tell him I can’t believe he’s still wrestling, and for some reason I laugh myself. Lawler laughed about it, too, in his podcast interview with Austin. When Ziggler started pounding him with elbows, Lawler said he thought to himself, What the hell happened to the day when we could do this and not kill our opponent? When he woke up, two days later, in the hospital, the last thing he remembered was being on vacation with his girlfriend. “Are we in Aruba?” he recalled asking her, and laughed again.

It’s almost fitting that Lawler was brought back to life and ended up here in Tunica, the resurrected backwater across the state line from Memphis. In 1990, Mississippi made casinos legal. Although they were ostensibly to be of the riverboat variety, they were nonetheless subject to the loosest regulation in the nation. Before long, Tunica — or, rather, Robinsonville, an unremarkable parcel of Tunica County that formally changed its name to Tunica Resorts after the casinos moved in — became a gambling hot spot. After Hurricane Katrina, when other Mississippi cities hit hard times, Tunica became the third-biggest gambling city in the country behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Just south of the Tennessee line, Sugar Ditch Alley was reborn as Memphis’s slot-machine suburb, a sort of hard-luck Las Vegas with RV parking and early-bird specials.

Here, a mile off Casino Strip Resort Boulevard, down a two-lane driveway with soybean crops lining the way, is where the King relocated his kingdom. It makes sense: Professional wrestling is a Vegas-style spectacle that somehow found a place on cable TV — it’s the ur–Cirque du Soleil, or Siegfried & Roy without the pretense — and Tunica is a casino town in need of some lighthearted spectacle.

A couple of my buddies and me, we got drunk at the Coliseum and said, ‘We’re gonna whoop their ass,'” says a really drunk guy in a sleeveless T-shirt. He’s talking to Bill Dundee, who’s smiling in absentminded reminiscence, about a time when the drunk guy and some pals decided to beat up the nefarious Dundee and his partner, “Nature Boy” Buddy Landell. “Then y’all got out of the car and we said, ‘No we ain’t!'” The guy laughs, and Dundee laughs, and the guy turns and repeats the same story to his friends. Dundee wanders through the throng of fans toward the third-floor ballroom that was our proxy coliseum that night. In the corner, an elevator door opens and the event’s medical staff mopes off, two EMTs with a rolling gurney. Despite the lack of grimacing and ominous theme music, I can’t help but wonder if the real villain of the night has just made his entrance.

Inside the ballroom, the specter of death gives way to clouds of cigarette smoke. The room is packed and the show is better than I expected. There is a surplus of theatrics, of jawing at the ref and hamming for the crowd, anything to drag out the matches and draw out the suspense with minimal physical contact. Nobody here is a marathoner anymore. This is the victory lap.

Koko B. Ware does the bird dance with anybody who will have him and a few who would prefer otherwise. The Spellbinder, still so inflated with muscles that I can’t tell if he is being played by the same man who played him two decades ago, stands in silence as Reggie B. Fine spends 10 minutes trying to back out of their match. Doug Gilbert trades barbs with Brian Christopher and Rikishi, and their match is half the length of the postmatch sequence, in which a hapless local manager gets stinkfaced and a cadre of little kids hop in the ring to dance with the heroes. One little towheaded boy yanks off his John Cena T-shirt and stomps around topless, growling in his best approximation of a wrestler. An older couple next to me jump at every hint of indecency, screaming and laughing like teenagers, and then fall back into their seats, whispering to each other. A crew of five siblings behind me climbs over laps and backs for a better view. In a cordoned-off section of the front row, wearing a smart polyester suit and meticulously beehived hair, sits Miss Betty, the legendary fan and moral matriarch of the Memphis wrestling scene.

When the main event hits, Lawler comes out and introduces Russell to the crowd, and then he calls out Jimmy Valiant, who will serve as the match’s special guest referee. Valiant cuts a traditional Valiant promo, pandering and lewd and magnificently affected, and Russell reacts with his trademark indignation: “Wait a minute!” he yells in mock seriousness. “Don’t start with that smart stuff!” This is how he dealt with heel theatrics in the old days. Now they’re catchphrases, and everybody laughs, even though back then we were all just as outraged as he was at the moment’s villainy.

Jarrett comes out with his wife, Karen, the former wife of Kurt Angle and former TNA onscreen harpy, and it’s clear that Jarrett will be playing the villain. Despite his sterling Memphis credentials and a formidable career under his drawstring, he is no Jerry Lawler. It works for him, too — maybe it’s the innocent simplicity of the show, or maybe Jarrett is acting out a lifetime of resentment for living in Lawler’s shadow. Either way, it works — Jarrett is almost as convincing here as he was in Spring Breakers. In comparison to Lawler, anybody would seem wicked.

Sure, Lawler often played the villain on his home turf, but he was the home turf. Lawler is Memphis wrestling, and tonight, this casino ballroom in Tunica is as close to Memphis as I’ve ever felt. When Jarrett deals Lawler his first hard bump — a rudimentary backdrop — I hold my breath along with everybody else. When Lawler writhes on the ground in pain, a smart-ass voice behind me says what everybody was thinking: “He had a heart attack!” But Lawler keeps going. He gets up, and suddenly the match is back on. Suddenly it’s 1980-something again, and the King is as indestructible as ever.

The end of the match is a mess of indecision — Jarrett dips into his arsenal of underhanded tactics, and Lawler can only shake his head sadly, as if the bad boy of Memphis has internalized some of Russell’s disappointment in his old age. Karen gets involved, then Valiant intervenes, and finally Lawler’s girlfriend arrives to tip the odds in the King’s favor. The match doesn’t end so much as it digresses into a standing ovation, with Lawler in the middle of it all, fist held high. He didn’t win, he seems to be saying, but at least he survived.

It isn’t life and death, after all — it’s just pro wrestling. I’m no longer a little kid and Lawler isn’t 30 and Jarrett isn’t 20. We are all moving a little bit slower. We’re only human. For a few minutes, though, everything feels like it will last forever.

Filed Under: Sports, Wrestling

Shoemaker

The Masked Man is David Shoemaker, author of the new book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan

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