In the 1989 Wrestling Observer Yearbook, Jeff Bowdren staked his claim as to the 100 greatest matches of the 80s. Over thirty years down the line and with the benefit of the internet and streaming services, Liam Byrne aims to take a look back at each match (where available) that made the list. With a focus on the context in which these contests took place, take a walk back through time as we look at The Wrestling Classic.
Jerry Lawler vs. Bill Dundee
June 6, 1983
In an industry that has long stopped passing itself off as being a legitimate competitive sport, it feels a bit facile to suggest that some of the best feuds in wrestling are the ones in which things feel the most realistic. For many years, it was the prerogative of the wizened old wrestling fan to talk down about modern wrestling, whilst insisting that what they saw back in their day was ‘real’. This eventually shifted to a time where knowledge of the inherent falseness of the sport was increasingly known, yet even then, the animosity that appeared to stem from something genuine was often lauded. A perfect example was Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage: whilst presented as partners from time to time, their feuds always felt like they were a glimpse behind the curtain as the storylines and the promos always hinted at a genuine competitive conflict that could just as easily spill into outright anger.
Down in Memphis, Jerry Lawler versus Bill Dundee has become the embodiment of that “worked shoot” feud, the one that draws upon perceived (and sometimes openly shared) hostility between the two men to draw in the crowds and sell a boatload of tickets. From 1977 all the way up until probably some time this year knowing the two of them, Lawler and Dundee have crossed paths on numerous occasions. They were money as a tag team – effectively the Memphis ‘Megapowers’, they were the two most popular guys teaming up to vanquish foes – but nothing quite compared to when they collided. The definition of good friends, better enemies.
In terms of lost footage, the lack of a substantial amount from their most historically noteworthy feud is a travesty for any wrestling historian worth their salt. Having already feuded in a pre-split Memphis at the tail end of 1975, it was the summer of 1977 when the feud reached its height. Over a period of ten weeks, Dundee and Lawler battled in the main event nine times, each match seeing an escalation in the stakes that the men were fighting for. What began with money and title belts eventually led to cars and hair, ultimately ending when Dundee lost the Southern Heavyweight Title alongside his wife Beverley’s locks. The crowd numbers fluctuated, though with over 7,000 in attendance for every show, it showcased an impressive longevity in interest as the fans actively wanted to see the two men clash week in, week out.
The beauty of the feud was that, given time and distance, the two men could be thrown back against each other to relative success down the years, though never quite recapturing the same magic as the 70s. Teaming together and rubbing along well for a decent chunk of time only made the somewhat inevitable turn all the better, sparking another series of matches. By the time the two men clashed in 1983, the feud had already been revisited in 1979, but it had been over three years since their last singles match.
At the turn of the year, Dundee was a face feuding with Adrian Street and Miss Linda. However, things soon began to change as an initial friendly spat with Terry Taylor saw an increasingly dastardly Dundee cheat his way to the Southern Championship, retaining it over a number of weeks. Next came a run opposite Dutch Mantel as the two exchanged the gold as hair was wagered, both men ended up on a scaffold, and bullwhips were placed on poles. By the time Mantel won the aforementioned bullwhip on a pole match, Dundee’s sights were already fixed on someone else.
In the main event of the same show, Ken Patera defended the CWA International Title against Jerry Lawler. With the King primed to win following a chain shot, Jimmy Hart’s distraction of the referee allowed Dundee to break up the pin with a shot from a bullwhip. As Dundee and Lawler scuffled on the ring apron, Patera clattered his opponent from behind with a knee, dropped an elbow, and retained the gold. By the following week’s Mid-South Coliseum show, a bumped ref, several missed chain shots and a knuckle duster-assisted punch had Dundee not only defeat Lawler, but regain the Southern Title in the process.
When wrestlers leave a territory, a sound option to try and pop a crowd is a “loser leaves town” match. Behind the scenes, Dundee had agreed to a run in Georgia, leaving Memphis with a short window of time in which to build and sell this gimmick. Never a company to shirk away from breaking the televisual wrestling formula when needed (watch the Dundee and Landell show episode from 1986 for another example), an hour was spent promoting the match on Championship Wrestling as Lawler and Dundee sat down with Eddie Marlin and Lance Russell.
What followed was a masterpiece of hype. Musical montages showcased both men, whether in training or in the ring. Talking heads, both heel and face, gave their opinions as to who they thought was most likely to win the contest; Ken Patera and Jimmy Hart were unsurprisingly effusive in their support of The Superstar, whilst Dutch Mantell and the Rock and Roll Express sided with the King. The talking heads even included Freddie Miller, the face of World Championship Wrestling in Georgia, as he lapped up the idea of potentially ending up with either Dundee or Lawler on their wrestling show, whilst Jerry Jarrett and Jackie Fargo also had their say on the match to really sell how important it was.
To break up the talking, Ken Raper and Jim Jamieson were dispatched (by Dundee and Lawler respectively) in quick squash matches that showed how clinical each man could be in the ring, before – being in Memphis – the studio section ended with a brawl that threatened to swallow up both Lance Russell and Eddie Marlin in the process. To finish one of the great shows of wrestling of all time, Memphis or otherwise, one last montage had footage of Lawler set to Elvis Presley’s version of ‘My Way’, a not too subtle link from one King to another.
Frustratingly, the video of the match itself is unavailable online, subject to copyright claims if placed on Youtube. However, the music montage that aired in at least Memphis and Georgia did a fine job in encapsulating the nature of the fight as the two men spent around fifteen minutes punching, kicking and stomping each other in a brutal display that left both bloodied and battered. If the use of ‘My Way’ was a little too obvious when closing the last show, the inclusion of the theme from Rocky over the highlights was incredibly on the nose as Lawler overcame a prolonged assault in order to battle his way back into the match.
The dropping of the strap would usually be the beginning of the end for Lawler’s opponents, yet Dundee was able to hang in and even stage a brief comeback of his own. A missed charge in the corner saw The King connect with the ringpost, before The Superstar targeted the leg with two spear tackles. As he went for a third, Dundee was surprised with a big uppercut by Lawler. Sensing the opportunity to end things once and for all, Lawler nailed a piledriver for the conclusive three count. In a match that had largely been wrestled straight down the line, Lawler had proven himself to be the better man once more and Dundee had to leave Memphis.
Considering how relatively show the window was in order to promote this match, the build spoke to the strength of the character of the two men involved as well as the creative qualities of Jerry Jarrett. A crowd of 11,300 witnessed the show, almost as many as had seen the previous three events run in the Mid-South Coliseum. These were fans who probably didn’t believe they’d see anything other than a Lawler victory, but were willing to pay to see the King get rid of Dundee for good…or until three months later when the booking required it. Whether teaming or feuding, it was rare for either man to spend a prolonged amount of time out of the orbit of the other.
Bill Dundee vs. Jerry Lawler was, is and to some extent always will be a draw for a certain type of wrestling fan. This was wrestling with huge characters that could also seemingly back it up when it came time to throw down, and they were what made Memphis in the 80s a great promotion to watch.