Two weeks ago on Raw, WWE champ CM Punk wrestled announcer Jerry “The King” Lawler in a steel cage match. It seemed like a terrible idea. See, I grew up watching Lawler every Saturday morning on the CWA broadcast in Louisville. Back then, the WWF had all the glitz and glamour and comic-book mythologizing, and the NWA had the more realistic brawls and blood feuds. But the CWA, taping out of a tiny production studio in Memphis — if it wasn’t reality, it was the truth. Lawler was the beefy, mulletted megastar, always exciting the small studio crowds through his innumerable feuds with “Superstar” Bill Dundee, “Dirty” Dutch Mantell, and a procession of oddballs marched in to battle the King. Lawler routinely addressed the TV audience during cool conversations with announcer Lance Russell that made us feel like we knew him intimately. And when he started throwing punches, we felt like he was doing it to defend our honor.
But that was the 1980s. Lawler is 62 years old now, and he has long since retired into a life of color commentary. To the vast majority of wrestling fans, he’s better known as the lascivious counterpunch to Jim Ross’s chicken-fried play-by-play, or as the do-gooder yang to current commentator Michael Cole’s heelish yin. He has wrestled sporadically for WWE over the years, but mostly in exhibition-type matches to get the Memphis crowds riled up when WWE passes through, and occasionally in headline feuds when the abuse of an old man is part of the narrative. (He wrestles in indie shows most weekends.) Lawler’s ring style has never been the most physically demanding. He was a DJ and sometime artist who traded those skills to Memphis promoter Aubrey Griffith in exchange for a chance to be a wrestler. Lawler always clung to the theatrical, his offense revolving around increasingly dramatic punches topped off with a pile driver or fireball — and so seeing him in the ring doesn’t ring the same alarm bells as, say, powerbombing a 77-year-old woman through a table. (Which happened.) But if wrestling fans weren’t worried for Lawler’s health before he fought Punk, they were worried that the match would be lousy.
They were wrong. Punk and Lawler put on a hell of a show. It was Lawler’s best match in decades, and Punk went against the backstage rules and “bladed” — he cut open the top of his head — to boost the King’s mojo. The match harkened back to Lawler’s heyday and a cage match he fought in 1983 against Punk’s idol Randy Savage. If the blood loss was any indication, Punk’s reverence for the old Memphis act is assured. He beat Lawler, but he made Lawler look better than he has in years. For a few moments inside the cage, for the first time since he joined the WWF in 1992, there was the Jerry Lawler I had grown up with. It was exhilarating; it was touching; it was difficult to watch. It was exactly what pro wrestling is supposed to be.
Last night on WWE Raw, Jerry Lawler collapsed during the show. The latest news is that Lawler is alive and recovering at a Montreal hospital.
The show opened with Canadian legend Bret “Hit Man” Hart returning to a WWE ring in Montreal for the first time since the infamous Montreal Screwjob. Punk interrupted him, earning the ire of the crowd, and addressed Lawler, who was ringside at the commentary booth: “How are you feeling this week, Jerry?” he asked. Hart said that, unlike Punk, who walked out on a match last week, no matter what, Lawler “always showed up.”
Later in the night, good guy Randy Orton was getting double-teamed by Punk and Dolph Ziggler, and Lawler, unable to sit and watch, tossed off his headset and made the save. They brawled into the commercial break and then, when we came back, the four were in a formal tag team bout. Lawler got worked over in the match, but he was in the corner jumping for joy when Orton sealed the win for their team. After the match, he returned to the announcers’ desk, looking winded but hearty.
Later in the broadcast, when Kane and Daniel Bryan were facing The Prime Time Players, something happened. (You can see it here.) Lawler became quiet and appeared to be mumbling and Cole cut him off. Thirty seconds later you could hear heavy breathing over the microphone, and 6 seconds later a long snort. Five seconds after that, you could briefly see the desk, with Lawler gone and Cole doubled over, presumably trying to pick him up off the floor or lay him down onto it. Soon thereafter you can see the first fan stand up to watch, then a stray shot of Cole scooted way back from the desk area while, presumably, the medical staff tended to Lawler. Then, behind the ring, all the fans were on their feet and staring at the desk, and they began a subtle “King!” chant. You could vaguely make out guys working on Lawler. A minute later, there was a “Let’s go, Jerry!” chant — the telltale sign that he was being taken to the back. The story is that he was on a stretcher, his shirt ripped open.
Of course, none of us knew this watching at home. It was somewhere right before the “King!” chant that I noticed that Lawler hadn’t spoken in a while. He’s a pervasive, deliberately abrasive presence; you notice when he’s not talking. Someone tweeted to ask if Lawler was asleep. I chuckled, then shuddered.
Seriously. Is everything okay? RT @keepitfivestar Did Jerry Lawler fall asleep?
— David Shoemaker (@AKATheMaskedMan) September 11, 2012
“Seriously. Is everything okay?” I wrote. Within seconds, word was coming in to Twitter from the arena. There was this: “Security is bringing Jerry out. Omg ” And also: “He is being carried away by personnel to the backstage area. He appeared unconscious as he was being carried.” And this: “Jerry Lawler carried out by at least 7-10 guys and immediately taken onto stretcher shirt ripped open.” Then some pictures were tweeted, and I started rewatching the tape. They kept on with the match, but co-announcer Cole was noticeably shaken. During the next segment, Cole haltingly called the first half by himself and eventually stopped talking altogether. When he finally addressed the camera, he said that Lawler collapsed and was receiving CPR at the hospital, which, considering the tendency to sugarcoat facts until a situation is confirmed, seemed like an ominous verdict. Cole, for his part, was visibly distraught. “This is not part of tonight’s entertainment,” he said. “This is a real-life situation,” he said, in a painful echo of how Jim Ross reported the death of Owen Hart on May 23, 1999. (Jerry Lawler was sitting next to Ross in uncomfortable silence that night.) Then the WWE Twitter account, normally an outlet for Kayfabe and storyline-centric news, confirmed Cole’s report, and Ross chimed in on Twitter: “Hands shaking. Prayers for the King. I feel helpless.”
I’m shaken by the news of my friend Jerry Lawler’s medical emergency in Montreal. Hands shaking. Prayers for the King. I feel helpless.
— Jim Ross (@JRsBBQ) September 11, 2012
In Lawler’s honor, there was no announcing for the rest of the night, but the show went on. That was the manta after Hart’s death: “The show must go on.” That and “Owen would have wanted it that way.”
On this night, during the biggest real-life thing to happen during a live wrestling show since Owen Hart’s death, those words rung out again across the Internet. The dissent was just as loud. I’ve spent more time with Jerry “The King” Lawler than with most members of my family, and I don’t know the man, but he lived and breathed pro wrestling like few others in the industry. The show went on, and I feel comfortable imagining that Jerry would have wanted it that way. But what’s more, I needed the show to go on. I needed to watch the remaining matches in solidarity with other wrestling fans. I needed to not be alone in this. And I needed to not be in the dark: I watched, struck dumb by the eerie silence of the arena, eyes on the clock, waiting for another update on The King. Finally, Cole returned to say Lawler was breathing on his own but he had a long way to go.
People were tweeting me throughout the ordeal asking if this was real or part of the story. I didn’t even have the stomach to respond. I’m working on a book about wrestling history and the legacy of death in the sport. I always joked that the day I turned in my manuscript, Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair would die and ruin the whole thing. I thought of that joke an hour after Raw went off the air and I cried. I’m not a superstitious guy, but wrestling’s a superstitious world. It’s the nature of mythology: The show must go on, because the show is never-ending. If death were bigger than wrestling, there couldn’t be any more wrestling. Too many guys have given their lives stupidly, but that almost overlooks the fact that they had already willingly given their bodies to the sport. Lawler might have been the most clean-living guy in wrestling history — no drugs, no booze, no cigarettes, no coffee, not ever. But he was just like the other guys in the most central way. He suffered so we could cheer.
In the end, Lawler is stable. He had a heart attack, and medical personnel on the scene likely saved his life. We can thank whatever God we believe in that what all of us were thinking throughout the last 45 minutes of Raw didn’t happen. It would have been too easy to say that after the cage match a couple weeks ago and after his win last night, that Lawler went out on top, or that he died doing what he loved. He wasn’t just doing what he loved; he was doing what we love. You can complain about Lawler’s announcing — we all have — and you can complain that he’s a senior citizen wrestling in a spot that could go to younger athletes. But you can’t deny that he was doing it for the love of pro wrestling. That’s why we care, and that’s why we were all so shaken.
Long live the King.