Monday, May 25, 2015

Memphis Heat

I have always heard a lot about Jerry Lawler dominating the Memphis wrestling territory, but somehow did not really know a heck a lot about the actual history of the promotion. My only memories of it were how Jerry Lawler recalled his days breaking in there and becoming the main star of the promotion in his autobiography, It’s Good to Be the King…Sometimes. Lawler did a tremendous job recounting his run in his book, including his epic feud with SNL/Taxi star Andy Kaufman that got the promotion some nationwide attention. Other than Lawler’s run there, I recall hearing how the territory being one of WWE’s first official developmental territories in the late 90s before Ohio Valley Wrestling took over around 1998 and Memphis wrestling folded up right around the turn of the century.

Despite knowing about the Memphis territory, I never saw much video of it over the years until as recently as a year ago when WWE finally got the rights to their video library. It is time to fill in a lot of those gaps because a documentary finally came out detailing the history on Memphis wrestling throughout its glory years until the mid-80s. Believe it or not, WWE did not produce or release this documentary, Memphis Heat (trailer), that came out from an independent distributor in 2011 shortly before WWE acquired all the Memphis wrestling video rights.

Other than being the promotion where Jackie Fargo and Jerry Lawler reigned supreme, it was good to finally get a proper history lesson on Memphis wrestling. Memphis Heat goes all the way back to the 1950s covering the origins of the territory. A lot of time is spent on covering the pioneering stars for the promotion like Sputnik Monroe and Jackie Fargo. I also learned from this documentary that the Memphis territory was known for its version of hardcore wrestling with wrestlers throwing fire at each other, wrestling bears and tar and feathering one another. I certainly got the impression after watching Memphis Heat that the Memphis promotion was the ECW of the wrestling territories of the 70s and 80s before ECW and the ‘Attitude Era’ of the WWE brought it mainstream in the mid-to-late 90s.

The filmmakers tracked down a lot of old Memphis talent such as Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo, Jimmy Hart, Jerry Lawler, Rocky Johnson, Bill Dundee and many more to take you down the rise of the promotion and what made it stand out among the other territories. The changeover from Fargo to Lawler becoming the headlining star got a fair amount of treatment. So did Memphis being one of the premiere territories to go to see women’s and midget wrestling.

The last several scenes of the documentary focus on Jerry Lawler’s rivalries with Jimmy Hart and Andy Kaufman. The documentary abruptly stops detailing the history of the promotion around 1985 when it Jimmy Hart talks about leaving for WWE in time for the first Wrestlemania. Memphis Heat goes on to say that Hart leaving Memphis, combined with a poorly timed injury from Jerry Lawler in early 1985 marked the end of Memphis as a major wrestling territory. I found it a little hard to believe at first that a manager leaving was the death nail of a promotion considering how Lawler was the star wrestler of the company and competed there until it folded in 2001. After doing my research online however, it does appear that Jimmy Hart leaving the promotion was the equivalent of Hulk Hogan leaving the AWA that started the slow decline of the promotion.

I was still pretty miffed to see the documentary just end after detailing Hart’s exit in 1985. There are a brief few screens of text afterwards detailing the aftermath of Memphis and that it hung around until 2001. I would have at least appreciated an extra 15 minutes or so detailing what the heck transpired in those 16 years. I know Lawler hung around until the promotion folded and was allowed to wrestle there while still under contract with the WWE. As I detailed above in the intro I knew that WWE used it as a developmental league in the 90s where guys like the Undertaker and Rock went to learn the fundamentals before appearing on WWE television. I also heard how Vince McMahon himself made a couple cameos on Memphis wrestling previewing the evil promoter gimmick in the mid-90s before the “Mr. McMahon” character rose to prominence in the Attitude Era.

Yeah, Memphis may have floundered as a small-scale independent league in its last 15 years of existence, but I think that period definitely deserved some attention here and it is a major negative on the documentary. One other small knock against the documentary is the lack of subtitles. A lot of the Memphis stars interviewed here are getting up there in years and it is slightly difficult to make out what some of them are saying at times. I went to turn on the captions and was disappointed to see the option was unavailable.

There are at least a good two hours of bonus features however. There is a little over an hour of bonus interview stories that did not make the final cut of the documentary. Jerry Lawler has a great story in extras on how mailing in his fan art lead to him getting his big break in wrestling. There are also bonus vintage interviews and clips of old matches as extra features as well. One nice surprise was a pre-Hulk-a-Mania Hogan making a cameo on the Memphis set delivering a interview with a full head of hair! There is also a hilarious chain match in its entirety between Austin Idol and Jerry Lawler that had me cracking up. The final extra feature is titled The Galento Incident and details how a planned murder was prevented at the last moment during a Memphis show.

I enjoyed how Memphis Heat detailed the glory years of the territory and filled in a lot of gaps of wrestling history for me. And I get how you do not want to focus on the promotion’s dwindling years, but it just feels rotten to give it zero attention whatsoever, so make sure to have that in mind when going into Memphis Heat. WWE now has the rights to the Memphis video library, and I am looking forward to watching the long overdue Jerry Lawler documentary they just released a couple weeks ago and it is filled with a lot of his Memphis highlights and matches. If you want to strictly learn about the rise of the Memphis promotion, Memphis Heat is the documentary to watch and you can still order it off its website today.

Past Wrestling Blogs

Best of WCW Monday Nitro Volume 2
Biggest Knuckleheads
Bobby The Brain Heenan
For All Mankind
Goldberg: The Ultimate Collection
Ladies and Gentlemen My Name is Paul Heyman
Legends of Mid South Wrestling
Macho Man: The Randy Savage Story
OMG Vol 2: Top 50 Incidents in WCW History
RoH Supercard of Honor V
RoH Supercard of Honor VI
RoH Supercard of Honor VII
ScoobyDoo Wrestlemania Mystery
Superstar Collection: Zach Ryder
Warrior Week on WWE Network
Wrestlemania 3: Championship Edition
Wrestlemania 28
Wrestlemania 29
Wrestlemania 30
The Wrestler (2008)
Wrestling Road Diaries Too
WWE Network Original Primetime Specials

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