Long before the bright lights and pyrotechnics of today’s modern wrestling extravaganza there was already a thriving wrestling scene in America, several of them in fact, located in territories strewn across the United States, most of which falling under the dictum of the National Wrestling Alliance. One such territory existed in Memphis, Tennessee the birthplace of the blues, and of Rock N’ Roll. And at the same time that Sam Phillips promoted his new Rock N’ Roll stars like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, just a ways up the road from him Nick Gulas and Roy Welch were promoting the likes of Sputnik Monroe and Billy Wicks, whose intense rivalry in the late 1950s set attendance records for professional wrestling that stood for decades, until the advent of national cable television and Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation took over the wrestling landscape, and spelled the end for promotions such as this.
The more and more of these old wrestling documentaries I watch, the heavier I sigh as it approaches the end, which, in the vast majority of them are exactly the same. Take a territory, any territory, whether we’re talking about Verne Gagne’s AWA up in Minnesota, or Fritz Von Erich’s WCCW down in Texas, Bill Watt’s Mid South territory, Jim Crockett Promotions, or Florida Championship Wrestling, or Memphis as its depicted here. All of these territories had rich histories and devoted fan bases, and, one by one each of them folded due to the inability to compete with Vince McMahon’s national expansion.
As said this documentary tells the story of Memphis “Wrasslin” as the DVD cover calls it, from its heyday in the 1950s until its swan song in the 1980s. The producers of this documentary did a fantastic job of organizing the interviews here to tell the story of this promotion and all its rich history. There were very few people left out that I wanted to hear from as far as interviews went. They’re all here, from the currently deceased Jackie Fargo, and Sputnik Monroe, to WWE employed Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler and the now retired ‘Mouth of the South’ Jimmy Hart. The only living former owner of the old promotion, Jerry Jarrett is also featured, as is the man who many people remember as the voice and face of Memphis Wrestling, and along with Jim Ross, and Gordon Solie, the third member of the holy trinity of great wrestling announcers, Mr. Lance Russell.
Many other wrestlers , fans, and assorted personalities were contacted and brought in for their opinions such as Bill Dundee, Dwayne Johnson’s father Rocky Johnson, and ‘Handsome’ Jimmy Valiant, just to name a few right off the bat. Apparently Memphis is one of the territories that’s not completely under the WWE video library umbrella as this documentary is greatly helped with a ton of great original footage from the many famous feuds and battles from over the years. The editing and framing of the interviews and the footage is handled with great style and accompanied by a driving Rock N’ Roll soundtrack that accentuates every suplex, slam, and fireball shown onscreen. You can tell this was obviously a labor of great love for the makers of this film.
We begin our journey through the annals of Memphis wrestling in the 1950s, an era of wrestling I know very little about, but one that I am quite interested to learn more about now. They detail the story of wrestling from its roots in the carnival days to its explosion in the 1950s with the advent of television, and the move from more straight up shooters and the hard canvas rings, to the more modern springier rings, and the introduction of women and midget wrestlers, which veteran guys like Jackie Fargo were of course, none too pleased about. They then go into the story of Sputnik Monroe and Billy Wicks, and how Nick Gulas, created one of those first truly successful “storylines” if you can call it that, in wrestling history. Sputnik Monroe is definitely someone I am now really interested in finding out more about, and I was excited to learn that aside from this movie, there is an HBO movie apparently in the works about him. Monroe was a very colorful character to say the least. It’s said in the DVD that in the 1950s and 1960s, every black person had three pictures in their home, that being Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, and Sputnik Monroe. This devotion is a result of an incident in the late fifties where Monroe and a friend of his were arrested for drinking in a black bar on Beale Street.
You have to keep in mind this was still the old South under Jim Crow, and that of course, was a big no, no at the time.Sputnik argued his case in court (an event that drew nearly as large a crowd as his later wrestling matches) and said as a veteran of World War 2 he ought to have the right to drink anywhere he damn well pleases. And so he became a hero to many African Americans in that region, and black attendance at Memphis Wrestling skyrocketed to the point where the promoters had no choice but increase the allotted seating for them. When certain racist wrestlers complained of the growing colored element, they were quickly silenced by the assurance that, if they were so bothered by the blacks in attendance, then Gulas would make sure to only divide up their pay from the white members of the audience. While being a hero to the black crowd though, Monroe played a heel (or a badguy) to the rest of the crowd and as such was vilified as the communist sympathizing racial integrator. On the plus side, as a result of this gimmick, many arenas were forced to admit blacks or else lose the business of the highly sought after Monroe. How I’d never heard of this remarkable man before now is beyond me, but I am quite grateful for being introduced to him here in this documentary. He was recently honored (posthumously) in 2012 with the National Wrestling Alliance humanitarian award and also was given his own special day of recognition in his home town of Memphis.
Moving into the 1960’s the DVD covers the career and exploits of the legendary Jackie Fargo, who introduced the world to the famous ‘Fargo Strut’ that was later copied by many wrestlers such as Jerry Lawler and Jeff Jarrett. It is most definitely not to be confused with the Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, or Ric Flair strut however, lest you want to earn yourself a knuckle sandwhich in downtown Memphis. A lot is said about the bosses of the promotion at different points in the documentary. Nick Gulas and Roy Welch are definitely raked over the coals by several of the old time wrestlers here. Many horror stories are told of wrestlers being intentionally underpaid so that they would be “starved out” of the promotion.
Welch gained a reputation as being the somewhat less greedy of the two, although there are still horror stories associated with him as well. Under their leadership Memphis and its surrounding area gained a reputation of being one of the worst places to work in terms of payouts. Eventually all of that double dealing and assorted chicanery would come back to bite them. Jerry Jarrett was for many years the understudy of both of them and the man who many credited with making the area the success it was in terms of booking. After having invested a sizable chunk of money in the promotion Gulas and Welch double crossed Jarrett, who made them pay big time for their mistake by forming his own company, and taking all of their top stars with him when he left. It was in this new era that stars like Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee began their epic runs, and Saturday Morning Wrestling with Lance Russell became a tradition in Memphis.
Of course a good chunk of the documentary details the career and highlights of Jerry Lawler, who had one of the longest running reigns at the top of any territory in history. His feuds with Jimmy Hart and his notorious ‘First Family’ are given a great rundown here, as is his great feud with Terry Funk that culminates with an “empty arena match” that must be seen to be believed. Memphis was nothing if not a physical and brutal territory. Long before the advent of Hardcore Wrestling there were many brawls between wrestlers that went all over the building. In one shot we see Lawler taking a very painful looking series of bumps down a flight of stairs that I’m sure he’s still feeling when he wakes up every morning. The feud with Andy Kaufman, which already has its own documentary is given less time, but is also covered satisfactorily.
Watching this it is apparent the love Andy had for wrestling, and had he lived longer I think there’s a good chance he would have eventually wound up in the WWF or WCW as a big time heel manager there. I was disappointed that there wasn’t really any coverage of Randy Savage and Jerry Lawler’s great feud, and of Savage’s father’s rival promotion that had its home base in Memphis for a while. Those are minor complaints, as overall as a wrestling fan, this documentary satiated my every desire for knowledge and information about this unique time in wrestling history. I’m not so sure how well it would play to a non-wrestling fan, but to the rest of us, it’s a very welcome addition to the overall wrestling library, and along with Heroes of World Class, one of the best non-WWE produced wrestling documentaries you are likely to find.
Memphis Heat gets a four out of five: GREAT.