Welcome to Day 4 of our 12 Reviews of Xmas blog feature. I'm proud to know and call many Renaissance men my friends. And when it comes to old school rock, kung fu, workout arcana or, in this case, the history of Southern wrasslin', there's only one man I've got on speed dial – you know him from his appearances alongside ER contributor Louis Fowler on DAMAGED VIEWING – please welcome the one and only John Grace to the program.
The most memorable aspect of MEMPHIS HEAT: THE TRUE STORY OF MEMPHIS WRASSLIN', the first documentary to give us a look at the wildest territory of the long-gone regional pro wrestling circuit, is not the well-known Andy Kaufman angle, the Jerry Lawler-Terry Funk empty arena match, legendary heel Sputnik Monroe at age 75 still wearing his glitter jacket for his interview or the snippets of the first concession stand brawl. It is the site of an elderly Jackie Fargo telling his side of the history of the Volunteer State's mat wars.
Lacking the Adonis looks of today's grapplers, Fargo resembled a barroom brawler that never hit a gym, choosing instead to exercise by throwing trash-talking hayseeds through saloon windows. With his Buddy Rogers-styled bleached long hair, infamous "Fargo Strut" and originating the "hardcore" brawling style of using tables and chairs in the ring, Fargo was the top star for decades. Seeing him now as an old man wearing oversized glasses, still slicking back his long hair and boasting about himself as the toughest SOB around is a sight that memorable documentaries are made for.
In the old territory system, the promotions reflected their founding promoters or original headliners. As the AWA was patterned after Verne Gagne, with Olympic-level amateur wrestlers turned pro, Mid-South patterned after Bill Watts, with ex-football players headlining the roster, WWE after Vince McMahon, where a bodybuilder physique got you far, Memphis continued the tradition of Jackie Fargo: average-sized guys with average physiques having crazy, violent gimmick matches. Scaffold matches, chain matches, cage matches, hair vs. hair, wives' hair on the line, barbed wire and fire throwing were standard promotional gimmicks for a Memphis card. Nick Gulas and Roy Welch started the grappling circus in Nashville, but it took Jerry Jarrett, the shrewdest and smartest US promoter in the sport's history, to create the Memphis promotion after too many small payouts from the notorious Gulas.
Director Chad Schaffler gives us a tight 90 minutes summarizing the territory's rise and fall, with interviews with Jerry Lawler, Jerry Jarrett, Bill Dundee, Jimmy Valiant, Billy Wicks, Jimmy Hart, the great announcer Lance Russell and others. Peppered with old footage – quality which varies from decent air check recordings to almost unwatchable fan kinescopes – the doc is a fine tribute to Memphis' squared circle heritage. Among the highlights: fearsome heel Sputnik Monroe tells us how he fought against segregating the audiences in the civil rights era; Jerry Jarrett details his split with Nick Gulas which led to him becoming the top promoter in the region; the rise of Jerry "the King" Lawler, an artistic prodigy and fan-turned-wrestler who became the biggest star of the territory; Jimmy Hart's transition from musician to the greatest wrestling manager in history (which you wouldn't know from his time in the WWF since he had to water down his act for national audiences); the popularity of Jimmy Valiant as both heel and babyface; Rocky Johnson brought in as a "boxer" to recreate the Inoki-Ali/grappler vs. brawler match with Lawler; and, the Andy Kaufman story, which gave Lawler national attention and likely inspired Vince McMahon to mix showbiz with wrasslin.'
Memphis was arguably the top wrestling city in the US for decades, with a tv show that garnered more than 80% of the ratings. And it's still exciting by today's standards, with more humor and action in one episode than a season's worth of WWE Smackdown or RAW. It's nice for once to see a pro wrestling documentary that is based on success instead of tragedy, family dysfunction or deceit, like the Von Erich documentaries, WRESTLING WITH SHADOWS and BEYOND THE MAT.
As a devoted fan of the territory I have my bones to pick as my favorite angles were overlooked and I have a different perspective on the history. While a national headline grabber, the Andy Kaufman feud was not a main event, nor a big draw at the Coliseum box office, very little of Jimmy Hart's hysterical, very non-PC interviews were used, no footage or stories of the only promotion invasion angle that worked: Angelo Poffo's ICW vs. Jarrett's promotion, sparked by Randy Savage and Lanny Poffo storming into the Channel 5 set on live tv (look for it on Youtube, the crowd goes nuts), nothing on Eddie Gilbert driving over Lawler in the parking lot (legend has it viewers called 911 to report an attempted homicide on the King), and aside from bonus clips in the dvd's special features, no Austin Idol. Most Memphis tv tapes were wiped, so footage was culled from fan sources, but I've found better quality footage purchased on auction sites for $2 a disc. Downgraded quality may have been a protective move, since ownership of the footage is in legal dispute.
But don't let my fannish nitpicking dissuade you from watching this superb documentary. The bonus features of vintage clips and interview outtakes are alone worth the purchase. It'll have the old school wrestling fan inside of you screaming at your television in a joyful frenzy and attempting a flying elbow while jumping off the couch.
MEMPHIS HEAT: THE TRUE STORY OF MEMPHIS WRASSLIN' is available at Amazon.
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