MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - We don’t often do 5 Star Stories about people, but there are some folks in the Mid-South who have to be labeled a crown jewel.
Some even wear those jewels in real crowns, like lifelong Memphian and Treadwell High School graduate Jerry “The King” Lawler.
A few months ago, Lawler celebrated his 50th wrestling anniversary and more than a dozen championship titles by wrestling, of course.
The event was at “The Ballpark” in Jackson, Tennessee Sept. 26. About 3,000 fans were allowed inside the stands with another 200 on the field.
Memphis Wrestling royalty were there, including Jimmy Hart, Kane, Bill Dundee, Tony Atlas and Koko B. ware, just to name a few.
Despite a 2012 heart attack and a 2018 stroke, Lawler, now 70, even participated in a ThunderDome cage match at his anniversary event.
He appeared in remarkable health when we talked with him in the garage museum at his home. He gives a lot of credit to his healthy lifestyle.
“But I’ve never in my life, never had one sip, never tasted any kind of alcohol,” said Lawler. “No beer, wine, whiskey or anything like that. Never had a cigarette even in my hand much less smoked a cigarette, and never done any kind of drugs. So I feel like that has helped me."
Healthy living may have helped him survive those artful “crown drops,” his signature move, but it was art in its truest form that catapulted him into the ring.
Lawler started drawing when he was about 4 or 5 and said he spent most of his time in school doodling. He thought he might grow up to be a comic book artist.
“And I just really thought that I was, at the time, I would want to grow up and be an artist for drawing Superman or Batman or something like that, you know?” said Lawler. “Or an artist for DC, or also Hallmark greeting cards.”
Lawler credits his late high school art teacher, Helen Stahl, with putting him on a path.
“She had saved a portfolio of my work that I’d done... through the three years that I’d been her student," said Lawler. "And actually she submitted that work to the University of Memphis.”
And through that submission, he won a full tuition Commercial Arts scholarship to the UofM.
“That’s where, I don’t know, all of these things just came together,” said Lawler.
While in college, Lawler sent his artwork to a popular local radio disc jockey who was so impressed he set up a meeting.
“And so I got real interested in being a DJ and forgot about being an artist or anything like that, right?" he said “So I was doing the radio gig and then about that same time, I sent some of my drawings to Lance Russell who was a commentator for the Saturday morning wrestling show. He and Dave Brown.”
Brown, former WMC chief meteorologist and wrestling commentator, recalls meeting a very young Jerry Lawler.
“He’s a great artist and cartoonist and he would go to the matches on Monday night down at old Ellis Auditorium and he would draw cartoons of the matches that he saw,” said Brown. “So Lance and I would put these cartoons on the air. Well one thing led to another and finally we got Jerry down to the studio, introduced him, showed some of his artwork and from there it progressed over the years until he actually got in the business.”
Lawler’s first match in Ellis Auditorium was Aug. 17, 1970, and he’s been in love with the art of grappling ever since.
“I mean it’s just something that, I try not to let anybody know this, but at the time I would have paid them to let me wrestle," said Lawler.
And he practically did pay to wrestle in the early days. He explained it like this.
“We would do Saturday morning TV in Memphis and then drive to Jackson TV," said Lawler. "They had a TV match in the afternoon there. Then from there, drive to Nashville where they had matches at like 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a live show. Get out and wrestle there. Get back in the car, drive down to Chattanooga, do a show in Chattanooga at 6:30. Jump back in your car again. Drive down to Birmingham and have a show in Birmingham at 10:30 that night.”
And that was just Saturdays!
The week usually began with Monday Night Wresting in Memphis; Louisville, Kentucky Tuesdays; Evansville, Indiana Wednesdays; then back to Louisville Thursdays; and Fridays in Tupelo, Mississippi.
“But you would get paid basically just gas money for TV because there was no charge for tickets or anything," said Lawler. "The guys would get like 15 bucks. That’s what you’d get every TV show that you went to. That went into buying your gas to get to the next TV show, you know?”
Around 1974, “The King” was added to Lawler’s persona after a championship match when he defeated his wrestling hero, mentor and friend, Jacki Fargo.
“And as I was going back to the dressing room, there were a lot of kids, slapping me on the back saying, ‘Hey, you’re The King, now! You’re The King,’” said Lawler.
And the legend was born.
Soon after, “The King” was the main draw for sold-out Monday Night Wrestling at the Coliseum. Eventually, he became part owner of the Memphis Wrestling Company.
“You know I started out with just getting a call to go and show pieces of my artwork on the show, to owning the company, so, yeah, it’s been a crazy long and winding road,” said Lawler.
Even crazier is when actor Andy Kaufman from the TV show “Taxi” began showing up for Monday Night Wresting and wrestling women.
“I guess he wanted to live out his childhood dream once he got to being a big celebrity," said Lawler. “And he wanted to be a bad guy wrestler.”
Eventually, “The King” became Kaufman’s ring nemesis. The two even created one of TV Guide’s “100 Most Memorable TV Moments” on the Dave Letterman Show back in 1982.
According to Lawler, "I don’t even know what I was thinking at the time. It was like I’m watching somebody else. I just stood up and I looked Andy right in the eyes and man, I just hauled off and slapped the taste outta his mouth. Knocked him clear over and outta his chair and he was like a ragdoll ... BAM.”
Lawler believes that moment put Memphis Wrestling on the world stage.
“But then after that, after they saw the attention that that national publicity that that got, man! Immediately WWE, right after that they brought in Cindy Lauper and put her with Lou Albano," said Lawler. "He was in a music video with her. And Mr. T was next, then Hulk got in a movie with -- a ‘Rocky’ movie -- and it just, all of a sudden, after that pretty much wrestling went Hollywood.”
But what many people outside the wrestling world and sold-out Coliseum crowds didn’t realize is that behind the antagonism in the ring there was a real friendship between Lawler and Kaufman.
“I didn’t get to go to the Coliseum too often on Monday nights when Kaufman was in town but, after the 10 o’clock news -- when I finished the weather -- I would go in the newsroom and Andy and Jerry would be sitting in an edit booth looking at the video that they had shot at the Coliseum that night," said Brown.
Lawler also threw his hat into the ring -- of politics -- running for mayor of Memphis twice. He calls it the “best thing that never happened to me.”
He also wrote an autobiography entitled “It’s Good To Be King, Sometimes,” and performed and recorded songs, one called “Bad News.”
Lawler has wrestled, commentated or both on WWE’s Monday Night Ray since the early 1990s.
“I’ve been on more Monday Night RAW shows than any other WWE super star, including Vince McMahon," said Lawler. "I mean, I’ve been on thousands of 'em.”
He even helped train up many WWE stars along the way.
“They would send a lot of their new wrestlers when they were just getting started down to Memphis for some exposure to get practice and everything," said Lawler. “And Rock was one of them. Kurt Angle later on was one of 'em. Gosh, a ton of their wrestlers came down and pretty much got their start in Memphis.”
“The King” is now learning a new art form, that of restauranteur. He owns two restaurants -- one downtown on Beale Street and another in Cordova on Germantown Parkway, both filled with his artwork and wrestling memorabilia.
And now a full circle moment. Just like the wrestlers he used to draw as an art student, Lawler is now a cartoon, himself, as the new narrator of WWE’s Storytime.
“I’m an animated character. It’s ‘The King’ Jerry Lawler in a cartoon version of me,” he said.
As for the city that crowned him King, Memphis just wouldn’t be the same without Jerry “The King” Lawler.
“He cares about his audience, he takes care of his audience," said Brown. "He’s always willing to sign an autograph or pose for a selfie and he’s just a good guy. One thing that very few people know about Jerry, but his friends do. There have been people through his career who have been good to him, and in return he has taken care of them when they needed it. I think that speaks highly for Jerry Lawler.”
"The King” thinks very highly of the Bluff City too.
“No matter where it is that I’ve wrestled -- literally all over the world -- or get introduced, to even come out and do my commentary, it’s the same introduction you know," said Lawler. "Every week it would be: Ladies and gentlemen! Weighing 234 pounds from Memphis, Tennessee!' The King' Jerry Lawler! So, yeah. I do think about Memphis every time I walk through those curtains.”