Having spent the last few months either teaming with or feuding against Tommy Rich, there was a brief moment of respite for Eddie Gilbert before his next long term storyline.
Coming out of the Rich feud as the CWA International Title holder, Gilbert became a target for many of the bigger face wrestlers in the territory. Usually, any singles champion would be under threat from Jerry Lawler, yet the King was busy in the main event dealing with King Kong Bundy and Rick Rude. Though Bundy was the Southern Champion at the time, the feud largely revolved around tag and six-man action. This even saw Lawler extend the hand of friendship to one of his nemeses throughout the year, Randy Savage, a partnership that also eventually clashed with the debuting Dirty White Boys team.
If Lawler isn’t going for you and Bill Dundee isn’t in the territory, the next one up on the list is Dutch Mantell. Mantell’s involvement stemmed largely from his support of Tommy Rich, with the two popular wrestlers teaming together in the studio to defeat Gilbert and Keith Roberson, a jobber who valiantly tried (and failed) to audition for Jimmy Hart’s First Family. With Gilbert defeating Rich in the definitive final contest of their feud, Mantell became Hot Stuff’s next title opponent the following week.
Even though the two men only feuded for the equivalent of a little over one week, there was still enough time for the International Title to change hands twice. A three week run like Gilbert had was a rather long reign relative to the standards of the territory, something that Lance Russell vocalized on commentary as he was surprised Gilbert had held the gold for so long. While this might have been considered disparaging, Russell was also quick to give kudos to Gilbert as he nailed Mantell with a picture-perfect back suplex.
This was a good match to showcase the evolution of Gilbert as a heel. Taking advantage of a missed knee drop, Hot Stuff worked the injury with help from the ring apron, a folding chair, and the ropes at ringside that separated the ring from the fans. There wasn’t any measure he wasn’t willing to stoop to, which initially helped him pick up the victory. A Mantell comeback was cut short by a low blow and a rope-assisted pinfall, seemingly enough to keep the title around Gilbert’s waist.
However, some combination of Mantell’s reaction, the response from the fans, and Russell’s complaints saw the match restarted. Immediately, Mantell took advantage of Gilbert’s distracted nature and rolled him up for the win. There wasn’t long to celebrate, either in terms of that victory or the title reign itself. Gilbert assaulted Mantell with a DDT and the title belt to leave him laying, while six days later he’d regain the title in the Cook Convention Centre (the de facto ‘main show’ of that window as the Mid-South Fair left the Coliseum unavailable for wrestling).
Families always mattered in Memphis and it was with this creed in mind that Gilbert’s next feud took shape. Running between 1978 and 1984, the outlaw ICW territory run by Angelo Poffo had largely been carried by the involvement of his sons: Randy Savage and Lanny Poffo. With the promotion dying off, Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler saw potential money in bringing all three in as a chance to run an inter-promotional angle that played off of what had been genuine animosity.
By this time in the year, both Savage and Poffo had turned face, with the Macho Man teaming alongside Lawler in the main event. Lanny hadn’t really had a chance to shine away from his brother, but was afforded that chance with a number of battles against Gilbert. Acting as the white knight for an injured Johnny Wilhoit – almost quite literally, wearing a full suit of armour – Lanny’s desire was not only to take the gold from Gilbert, but to restore a sense of chivalry and honor to wrestling that wasn’t present in the type of debilitating attack Eddie had perpetrated on Wilhoit.
The two men met three times in the Coliseum in singles matches, but it was a match on Memphis television that was most notable. Coming off the back of Poffo’s challenge, Gilbert came out to accept, telling Keith Roberson to step aside in the process. Believing Lanny had nothing to unduly worry him, not only was Gilbert happy to put the International Title on the line, he wasn’t even going to take off his trousers or dress shoes.
In many ways, Poffo was ahead of his time in terms of the moves he was able to pull off, yet there was always something slightly amiss about his overall presentation. However, it spoke to Gilbert’s heat with the fans that the Memphis studio was solidly behind everything Poffo did as he outthought and outfought a cocky champion. It was rare for Gilbert to be facing someone of a similar size, making his slams and hiptosses at ringside all the more bully-like in their application. Ref bumps, interference by Hart and the ultimate end to the match of Randy Savage’s involvement were all designed to give the fans a taste of the next Coliseum show as Gilbert was lucky to leave with the title around his waist.
Defeating Poffo wasn’t really enough to push Gilbert up to that next level. Lanny had largely been presented as the weaker link of the brother tandem, so it meant less to consistently defeat him. However, with two Poffos active in the promotion, the next segue was to bring back Tommy Gilbert as a way of extending the feud beyond its initial setup. Now at the age of fourty-four, it was only ever going to be a brief run for Tommy, but it incorporated helping his son retain the gold a number of times, as well as matches like an elimination tag and a coal miner’s glove match.
What finally did for Tommy Gilbert was a tag match with a very Memphis set of stipulations. Dubbed a loser’s nightmare match, Eddie would have lost the International Title if he was pinned, while Savage (wearing a dress for 30 days), Poffo (giving up his new car) and Tommy (leaving the area) all had their own potential issues if they were defeated. However, it was Savage who pinned the elder Gilbert to send him packing.
Though the Poffos were successful here, Gilbert had managed to retain the International Title in a couple of matches against Randy Savage, either via shady victory or disqualification loss. This meant a lot more than the feud with Lanny had in all honesty; Randy had only really battled with wrestlers at the top of the card whether he was heel or face during this run. In a promotion where the title belts didn’t always mean the most, the importance of the feuds and who Gilbert was facing spoke to an elevation in his importance to the territory.
The International Title still often played second fiddle to the Southern Title, meaning that when Gilbert eventually did lose the gold to Terry Taylor on the 28th of December, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing or a demotion. Instead, it freed him up for a shot at the reigning Southern Champ. The reigning champ I hear you ask? You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it was one Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler.
The two men had already faced off once at the tail end of 1984, in Memphis but not for Memphis. As confusing as that might sound, it was part of the first taping for Pro Wrestling USA, the collective of CWA, JCP, AWA and a number of others who aimed to halt the juggernaut that the WWF had become. With Jarrett wanting to showcase the best that Memphis had to offer and almost occurring within a separate timeline to what was happening in the territory at the time, it wasn’t surprising that Lawler beat Gilbert pretty handily on this debut taping. Lawler was the bigger star after all, and likely to be one of the biggest names for Pro Wrestling USA if things took off in the near future.
Things were always going to be a fair bit hotter when the two clashed under the Memphis banner on New Year’s Eve.