Tennessee Wrestling- The Best of a Forgotten Territory

Tennessee Wrestling

I read a tweet earlier today that kinda got my dander up. I won’t name any names, but, an individual claimed that Tennessee Wrestling was a joke.

Then, per usual on twitter, the other mouths jumped in. Most of whom, I assure you, couldn’t find Tennessee on a map, let alone ever watched any of its wrestling.

My hometown has a helluva history. Music? Rock and Roll started here, Delta Blues, Stax Records, and Sun Studios Elvis, B.B., The Reverend Al Green Food? Have you tried our BBQ?!!?? We also lay claim to Red West, Cathy Bates, Otis Redding, and Justin Timberlake. That’s just in my home town of Memphis.

Growin up, Memphis had none of the big four pro sports. If you were an NFL Fan, it was mostly Bears, Falcons, or Cowboys. Basketball? Bulls or Hawks. Hockey? Blues, Redwings, or Blackhawks. If you were a baseball fan, you were either Cubs, White Sox, Royals, Braves, or, (like the majority, including myself) Stl. Cardinal fans. Oh, we did have several “Professional” sports leagues (mainly football) that came through, stayed for a short time, and went out of business.

We all remember the Memphis Showboats, Pharoahs, Maniax, etc. We DID have a Royals Double-A Affiliate: The Memphis Chicks, whose stadium was at the old fairgrounds, right next to the Liberty Bowl. The most hallowed ground in all of Memphis sports is the Mid South Coliseum, home to the one pro sport we DID have and the biggest star in pro wrestling at the time, Jerry “The King” Lawler.

Everyone who was anyone came through Memphis at some point. Hogan, Sting, Flair, Austin, Rock, Foley, Undertaker, Ultimate Warrior, ALL came through at different times in their career. The King took them all on. While we were an NWA Territory, he was the Southern Heavyweight Champion. As far as we were concerned, that was the REAL World’s Heavyweight Title.

The NWA never gave Lawler a run, which was a shame. He and Flair were damn good together. I have never known why the NWA never saw fit to give Lawler a run. I have heard the rumors and all, but, nothing concrete. I do know, to us, it didn’t matter. Flair was good. No denying that. But, our hero, Jerry Lawler could take anyone! Going to the Colisseum or to the T.V. Tapings at Channel 5 was an event. Many a Monday Night, I’d take the Bus, ride to the Colisseum, get my ticket, and go inside, and watch with awe as Dutch Mantell, Austin Idol, Jimmy Valiant, The Moondogs, Jimmy Hart, Kamala, “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert, Jeff Jarrett, etc, and, of course, Lawler would put on the show of shows.

I have heard outsiders say to sell out every Monday Night of the Colisseum is Myth. I’m telling you, as someone who lived through it and actually went to shows, nothing could be further from the truth. The place was always packed when I was a kid. We lived in a city of 4-5 hundred thousand, and, for five straight years, sold out a Colisseum of 12,000. Now, you hear about the WWE bragging how, once a month, they sold out Madison Square Garden, all 20,000 seats. That is a hell of an accomplishment, no doubt, but when your arena is in a city of (at that time) about 5 million people and you have national T.V. coverage it takes the specialness away a bit.

We had syndicated, local T.V. and about half a million folks to draw from and they drew 48,000 a month, every month, for five straight years. That should tell you how much our wrestling meant to us. Tennessee Wrestling wasn’t just confined to Memphis or Tennessee either. Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Indiana, and Arkansas were all part of the territory. I simply don’t have enough time to write out the long ( and complicated) history of Tennessee Wrestling. There were many different moving parts, much of which I was too young to fully remember, comprehend, or appreciate. I was too young to fully appreciate the Kaufman feud. I remember Lawler and Funks empty arena match. I vaguely remember Lawler going against Bockwinkel for the AWA Title and losing by D.Q. (Lawler and Bockwinkel were AMAZING together). Of course, I remember the day in 1988 when Lawler defeated Hennig for the AWA World Championship. We were overcome by sheer emotion! Lawler had always been our champion, but, now, a major company formally acknowledged his greatness.

This was Memphis’s World Series/Superbowl/Stanley Cup/NBA Championship all rolled into one. See, we were CWA by this point. We had broken away from the NWA and named Lawler our Champion. We were an Independent promotion working, on equal footing this time, with a major promotion ( The AWA). Lawler, therefore, held the CWA and AWA World Championships at the same time. Not long after, He would take on Kerry Von Erich and also win the WCCW World Title.

That’s right. Lawler held, at the same time, three major promotions World titles. Only other pro wrestler I know of to turn this trick was Vader, but, his weren’t all North American promotions. Then, WCCW and CWA merged into the USWA, which included all the previously listed states and added Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. I was in the Army, overseas in Korea, when the USWA died in 1996. I had no clue. When I had left in 1994 for basic training, things were fine. Troops, back then at least, had very limited contact with the outside during I.E.T. (initial entry ) training. I’d get letters and one five minute phone call a week, which was used for my mother (who was, in no way, a wrestling fan). You were in a vacuum. Which I still think is beneficial, but, that’s a topic for another time.

The USWA held out, officially, until 1997, making it the last true Independent Territory. I remember getting to Ft Carson, Co and running into another Tennessean at my Unit who broke the news to me. I knew Jerry had started working with WWF, but, I didn’t understand the ramifications of that. I thought it was more an AWA-CWA agreement type deal than the end of Memphis Wrestling.

I was heartbroken. Looking back, that’s the day I realized that wrestling really was a business. It may be gone, but, Tennessee Wrestling has left its mark on the industry. It was creative, innovative, adaptable, and, above all, Influential. ECW was the next Evolution of Memphis Wrestling.

Owned by Paul Heyman, who also had a run in Memphis. ECW has influenced so many, and, it was Tennesee Wrestling that influenced it. It even influenced WCW and WWE. The Pro Style of the ’90s and early 2000s, which was more realistic and brawling? THAT’S Memphis. Sputnik Monroe, Eddie Marlin, The Fullers, Jackie Fargo, Bill Dundee, Dave Brown, Lance Russell, and all the others who passed through there are certified legends of the sport.

Revered, respected, beloved, and admired to this day. “The King” is still the King. He always has been, and always will be. There was nothing like being a wrestling fan in Tennessee.

Go to youtube and watch some of it!!

J.H Reeves