by Jeremy Cundiff
3. Blonde Bombers vs. Jerry Lawler & Bill Dundee from Memphis Wrestling (1979)
Thank you for your bandwidth. Last week, we looked at some puroresu cruiserweight action on a WWF show. Interesting enough. Well, today we’re going all the way back to 1979. The ’70s were such a wonderful time, filled with quaaludes and sideburns. Everyone’s shorts rode up their crotch and nobody cared. An afro almost guaranteed you would get laid, and the groundwork was being laid in professional wrestling for a radical change—although, like many sports promotions and leagues, it would be years and in some cases, decades, before the effects would be felt all across the board.
Professional wrestling always had its share of gimmicks and carnies, but for the most part it had been centered on athletes working in the ring. While there were flashy personalities, some with elaborate ring entrances, when the bell rang you could rest assured that everyone in the ring knew what they were doing. But as we all know, the same thing won’t work forever when it comes to having a paying audience. Throw the explosion of television into the mix, and it was clear: the formula either had to change, or adjustments had to be made to accommodate for the television cameras. The fans no longer wanted to see plain old fashioned wrestling. They wanted some flair, no pun intended, in their action.
I’m not trying to say that the old style of wrestling is bad. I love the classic style of hooking and shooting, real wrestlers doing real moves. I just understand that there has to be an entertainment aspect to the business as well, otherwise we wouldn’t be watching pro wrestling…we would be in a gymnasium watching an amateur wrestling meet. There has to be some sizzle with the steak, whether it be in the flamboyant personalities that were developing at the time…the Billy Grahams and Ric Flairs of the world that were a direct contrast to former champions such as Lou Thesz and Frank Gotch, who were nothing more than no-nonsense grappling masters…or it be in the content of the wrestling itself. With the advent of broadcast television, wrestling was no longer a big-city arena sport: it was now in the homes of any American with a big enough piece of metal attached to their roof. Now, these wrestlers had a much larger audience than those who were paying for straight-up wrestling: they had to wrestle for every single person who might be flipping through the channels and come across their match.
I believe that when wrestling began to be heavily televised outside of its local markets in the 1960s and 1970s, it began the slippery slope that morphed the business into what it is today. Vince’s national expansion in the 1980s was nothing more than a capitalization on a trend that had already begun: an attempt to make professional wrestling more secular and more appealing to a broader audience, for the purpose of television broadcast. The territory system was not built to compete with television. I believe the writing was on the wall well before Vince Sr.’s death, and this match, awesome as it is, was the sunrise of one era and honestly, the sunset of another.
Memphis Wrestling was one of the hottest territories of its time, and survived well into the national expansion of Vince McMahon’s WWF. One of the reasons I believe it did so was because of its refusal to rely on the flamboyant gimmicks and showmanship that the Northeastern territory did, and instead stayed true to the gritty action in the ring. In their own way, Memphis Wrestling (at the time booked by Jerry Jarrett, father of Jeff Jarrett) was able to stay fresh without changing their product and at the same time, revolutionized professional wrestling as we know it. One way was to take the action somewhere that nobody had ever taken it: to the fans.
Jim Cornette wrote about this match a few years back. I included a link to his commentary to give you more insight on the match, and how it came to be. A combination of a shitty talent pool and really bad ticket sales led Jarrett to go for broke, making a very bold and brash decision to put the Southern Tag Team Titles on two midcard wrestlers who had just been paired together a few weeks before: Wayne Farris and Larry Latham. You may know them better as the Honky Tonk Man and Moondog Spot. Anyways, in Tupelo, Mississippi, a wild brawl of a match ensued where the two youngsters upset the champions, Lawler and Dundee, to win the titles.
That, my friends, is when all hell broke loose.
Lawler and Dundee, the faces in all of this mind you, began to viciously pummel the Bombers (who were the heels, remember) after the match as the television broadcast began to fade to black, going off the air.
You hear somebody yell, “get that camera down here, we have a hell of a fight!” When the video returns, we see the four men, bloody, brawling with one another through the concession stands of the arena. Food is thrown everywhere, bodies are mangled, and a ten-gallon jug of mustard meets its fate against the wall, missing the head of Latham by centimeters.
Everyone who tried to get in the way got served. The tape was re-aired the next day, and the fire was started. According to Jim, this match was the reason he bought a VCR. The tape was passed around more than a doobie in Barack Obama’s dorm room, and a dwindling Memphis territory had new life. Also, I know that when you watch that brawl, three letters come to mind. I’ll give you two consonants and a vowel. If you need a hint, I should smack you. This match reeks of ECW, at a time when Paul Heyman hadn’t even bought his first cell phone yet. Because they weren’t invented yet. And neither was “hardcore,” until this fateful night.
So why don’t we remember this classic match? Because Jerry Jarrett went to the well once too often, using this same brawl through the arena two more times in the next two years. (Think about that. Three arena brawls in three years and it overexposed the territory. ECW would run three arena brawls a NIGHT.) The fans were numb to it, because they had seen it all before. This was where the hardcore, deathmatch style was born. On a tour from Japan, Atusushi Onita participated in one of the brawls. When he returned to his home country, he soon founded FMW, the first hardcore deathmatch wrestling promotion. This led to the American counterpart, ECW. Today many promotions either feature or are centered around hardcore wrestling and well, why the hell would you have a reason to care about this match I’ve shared with you? So what, Jerry Lawler tried to throw a jug of mustard at somebody. Now, you can look up a million matches with barbed wire, staple guns, fire, thumbtacks, or any other weapon you can think of.
I love my old school mat wrestling. I love to see two guys who can work in the ring. But sometimes, yes, I love to see two guys get so pissed off at each other that bare hands just don’t get the job done. I love a good brawl. Done right, and done sparingly, a good street fight can work wonders all around. This match made Farris and Latham stars overnight, and it shot a boost of adrenaline into a crashing territory. This is the first hardcore match I can think of, and it’s a very good flashback to yesteryear. But between the brawl itself and its broadcast on television, and its subsequent taping to be traded, this match also opened the floodgates, for better or for worse. Nothing can be done to go back and fix it, we can only move forward. Except for this series. We’re allowed to look back.
Next week, I’ll think of something else to shock you. There’s so many great matches throughout history, and so many of them right under our noses. Until then, I’m Madman Szalinski, and in the words of Jumpin’ Jeff Farmer…….”Yup.”
See the match for yourself here!
Also see Jim Cornette’s piece on this match here!
Photo 1: fineworkshops.com
Photo 2: wikipedia.org
Photo 3: youtube.com