wrestling / Columns

The Top 7 Jerry Lawler Rivals

February 22, 2023 | Posted by Steve Cook
Bret Hart Jerry Lawler Image Credit: WWE

Jerry “The King” Lawler has appeared in the news for a couple of reasons lately. On January 21, he worked a match in Winston-Salem, NC to mark his fifty-third consecutive year in the ring. I don’t know if that’s a record or not, but there’s only a couple of guys I can think of who would be in that neighborhood as far as longevity goes. On February 6, Lawler suffered a stroke at his home in Fort Myers, FL, putting the chances of making his fifty-fourth consecutive year in the ring in serious jeopardy.

Things sounded dire for the King on first report, but he’s since gone home to go through recovery. Honestly, even when things sounded really bad, a big part of me believed that the King would be all right. We’re talking about a guy that died on WWE television for somewhere around twenty minutes. He was back in the ring not long afterward. Just when you think Lawler’s down for the count, he pulls the strap down and the game changes.

Today, we take a look at some of the King’s most magnificent rivals over the years. Considering that Lawler wrestled nearly anybody of note over a fifty-year time period, making the top seven is quite the distinction.

7. Bret Hart

The WWF had four pay-per-view events for several years. People still refer to WrestleMania, Royal Rumble, SummerSlam & Survivor Series as the “big four”. In 1993, they introduced a fifth. The King of the Ring tournament had been held several times on house shows, but this was the general public’s introduction to it. Recently hired color commentator Jerry “The King” Lawler took exception to the idea of there being a King of the WWF. After all, he’d been the King of wrestling for nearly twenty years. After Bret Hart won the tournament, Lawler took the opportunity to establish his status as the one & only King, attacking Hart & destroying his regal attire. This led to several years of issues between Lawler, Bret & other members of the Hart family.

My first experience watching Jerry Lawler do his thing didn’t come until he jumped to the WWF. Cincinnati never got in on that USWA fun, so the first time I really noticed the King was during the time period where he was making fun of Stu & Helen Hart. Constant old people jokes. Bret was always a pretty serious wrestler, so he really didn’t take kindly to Lawler’s act and the King’s jokes about his parents. Until he talked to Mom & Dad, and they informed him that they appreciated the jokes! Stu & Helen loved being part of the show, and got a kick out of Lawler’s insults since they knew that pro wrestling was a work and Jerry didn’t actually hate them.

6. Jackie Fargo

Before Jerry Lawler was the top star in Memphis wrestling rings, the Fabulous Jackie Fargo held that distinction. Jackie & his storyline brother Don dominated the tag team scene in the 1950s, holding championships and main eventing wherever they went. Jackie ended up making his home in Tennessee, where he became a staple of Nick Gulas & Roy Welch’s territory. Jerry and other kids in the state grew up watching Jackie’s exploits on television & at the arenas. It was an honor for Jerry when he got to meet Jackie and actually got to work for him, doing paintings for Jackie’s restaraunt & becoming a disc jockey at a radio station Fargo had a stake in.

Eventually, Lawler got into the ring, and Fargo helped train him and served as a mentor for the young King. Lawler started at the bottom of the territory and moved up the ranks as an arrogant heel. He would end up in the main event, feuding with the man that got him into the business to begin with. Fargo & Lawler battled over the Southern Junior Heavyweight Championship during the summer of 1974. Jerry went on television and told the people that when he defeated Fargo that week in Memphis, they’d have no choice but to call him the King of wrestling. Sure enough, once Lawler defeated Fargo for the championship, the fans started chanting “King” at the new champion & top star of Memphis.

5. Terry Funk

MY EYE. There are a lot of opinions out there about the Empty Arena Match…I think it was pretty great. I think the wrestlers involved were among the best ever at talking people into wanting to see a match. I think the whole thing played out perfectly, with Terry being properly appalled at Jerry making a grand entrance with a crown on his head. Then once the ol’ Funker got illegally stabbed in the eye for no good reason & Lawler peaced out, we got one of the best finishes to a match ever.

I know there were other interactions between Jerry Lawler & Terry Funk before & after 1981, but the Empty Arena Match is the one that matters. That’s what everybody remembers. Terry screaming about his eye. It’s not surprising that Funk & Lawler hated each other until the end of time. Funk was even yelling at Lance Russell during the 2010s, that’s how much he hated Lawler.

4. Eddie Gilbert

“Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert grew up as part of a wrestling family. There was no doubt what he would end up being. While his father was a staple of the Memphis territory for most of its existence, wearing many different hats & filling many different roles, Eddie grew up like most of his peers idolizing Jerry Lawler. Eddie wanted nothing more than to be Jerry Lawler, the King of Memphis main eventing cards at the Mid-South Coliseum for the rest of his days. Gilbert had a brilliant mind for wrestling, and got to book a couple of different territories. Most of the stuff he used to get himself over in those territories was the same stuff that got Lawler over in Memphis.

Jerry Lawler vs. Eddie Gilbert was like Superman vs. Bizarro. Eddie wasn’t quite Jerry, but used most of his tricks. Eddie was a fantastic worker, don’t get me wrong. Great in the ring in spite of his physical limitations, had a mind second to none. I’m not trying to insult him by pointing out that he got most of his stuff from watching Lawler. I’m just citing the original source for Eddie Gilbert’s brilliance. Eddie did not live long enough to see his vision for his career realized, as he died before his 34th birthday. A damn shame. He made the most out of his slightly less than thirty-four years though, including hitting Lawler with a car in one of the most memorable angles in wrestling history.

3. Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman, to use a popular phrase these days, was 1 of 1. Theoretically, he was a comedian, but he was rarely trying to get laughs. He grew up a wrestling fan, and one of his ambitions in life was to be a wrestling heel. Andy started this whole thing where he was the Intergender Champion of the World, wrestling untrained women. He tried to get booked in New York when he was famous, but Vincent J. McMahon had different sensibilities than his son, so it didn’t happen. As the story goes, Andy went to noted wrestling reporter Bill Apter & asked him where he could do his thing. Apter told Kaufman that the Memphis territory was the one place that would totally go with his nonsense (probably not in those words, Bill’s far too nice).

So the deal was made & Andy Kaufman ended up wrestling in Memphis. Which was the perfect place, because he was from Hollywood. He taught those people how to use soap, and they lost their minds. After some of the Andy vs. random girls nonsense, Andy needed to wrestle a man. That’s where Jerry Lawler came in. The big man of the territory got tired of Andy’s act on the undercard, so he decided to kick his ass. The aftermath of that asskicking led to a “Late Night with David Letterman” appearance which made that show.

I have heard almost everything about the angle with Andy Kaufman coming into Memphis. I never get tired of hearing more about it. Part of it is because the story is so interesting. Another part of it is because the storytellers are so charismatic. Thank goodness that Vice got the King, Jimmy Hart, Dutch Mantell and Jeff & Jerry Jarrett together to talk about the Andy Kaufman angle. Lawler had another medical issue, the elder Jarrett has passed away… you have to mine these people for their stories while you still can.

2. Jimmy Hart

Jimmy ended up in the wrestling business when Lawler decided he wanted to try his hand at music. Jimmy & Jerry were both alums of Treadwell High School in Memphis, and Jimmy was the first to achieve stardom thanks to his band The Gentrys. Lawler utilized Hart and some of his bandmates as backup for his musical endeavors. The King didn’t end up quitting his day job to become a full-time singer, but he did bring Hart into wrestling as his manager. He’d regret that idea in 1980. After Lawler broke his leg and was forced to miss several months of in-ring action, Hart went out on television and declared he was done with Lawler. As he told Lance Russell, when a horse breaks his leg you shoot him.

Hart crowned Jimmy Valiant as the new King, and would manage nearly every heel that came through the territory over the next few years. Even Andy Kaufman would seek Hart’s assistance at ringside. Hart’s First Family was so large at times that he had young Jim Cornette there to manage the wrestlers he didn’t have the time for. The #1 goal was to rid wrestling of Jerry Lawler, but Jimmy & his assorted goons could never quite get the job done. Hart would sign with the WWF in 1985. Several managers tried to take Jimmy’s place as the King’s main nuisance, but none were as effective in the role as the Mouth of the South was.

Honorable Mention: Nick Bockwinkel

Lawler had so many rivals during his career that it’s impossible to include them all. Men like Austin Idol, Jimmy Valiant, Randy Savage. Jos LeDuc, Kerry Von Erich, the list just goes on. An important part of Lawler’s run in Memphis was his quest to become World Champion. First, he challenged the likes of Jack Brisco & Ric Flair for the NWA World Championship. After it became obvious that the other NWA promoters weren’t going to approve a Lawler title reign, they started bringing in AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel to defend his title against Lawler.

Lawler came close to defeating Bockwinkel for the championship on a number of occasions in some magnificent matches. There was even an instance where the title was held up in Memphis due to a controversial finish. (Bockwinkel was still recognized as champion elsewhere, it was easier to get away with these things back in 1982.) Lawler’s time as AWA Champion wouldn’t come until 1988, at the expense of Curt Hennig. The matches with Bockwinkel are more well-remembered, because Bock was one of the top touring champions of all time.

1. Bill Dundee

The King had more famous rivals, but he didn’t share the ring with anybody more often than the Superstar from Australia. Bill Dundee came to Tennessee in 1974 from Melbourne and ended up staying there for most of the next fifty years. Dundee & Lawler were among the early examples of “frenemies”, as they spent most of the 1970s & 1980s either feuding with or teaming with each other. Lawler & Dundee made for an effective tag team, as they won the AWA World Tag Team Championship on two occasions & were multi-time champions in the Memphis area. If there was a tag team around the scene getting too big for their britches, Lawler & Dundee were as good a choice as anybody to shut them up. Whether in a wrestling ring or a concession stand.

I think most would agree that Lawler & Dundee were even better as opponents. This would typically happen after they’d teamed for awhile as good guys. One would get jealous of the other, typically Dundee of Lawler. Lawler would crack a few jokes, Dundee would get hot about it, and they were off to the races again. There were multiple Loser Leaves Town matches. There were multiple Hair vs. Hair matches. Bill even put his wife’s hair against Lawler’s one time in a losing effort. Countless championship matches. Lawler & Dundee feuded off & on for decades, and the matches usually did better at the gate than whatever else the territory was offering at the time.

Have Jerry Lawler & Bill Dundee faced off for the last time? I wouldn’t completely rule it out.

Thanks for reading! Hit me up at [email protected] or on the social media with thoughts, comments or suggestions. Until next time, true believers!