Jerry Lawler is living the dream.
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Now, from John Beifuss, with the MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL
He’s living it inside the spacious East Memphis home he shares with his fiancée, Lauryn McBride; her 12-year-old son, Peyton (named for Peyton Manning); her chihuahua, Louis (named for Louis Vuitton); a “life-sized” 10-foot-tall Incredible Hulk statue; a 19-foot-long functional replica 1966 Batmobile; an original Norman Rockwell charcoal drawing; autographed photographs of Boris Karloff and W.C. Fields; wrestling costumes and championship belts; souvenirs of his beloved Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Indians; a projection-television screen that covers an entire wall in an upstairs room; more Coca-Cola logos than can be found in all 530 surviving Piggly Wiggly stores; and enough Superman memorabilia to collapse a continent on the planet Krypton.
It’s tempting to write that Lawler, Memphis’ most successful professional wrestler, pursued that dream, chased it around the ring, put it in a headlock, slammed it into the turnbuckle, subjected it to a piledriver and a suplex, and pinned it to the canvas until it cried uncle, or maybe “King.”
But such a description would make Lawler sound desperate and frantic. In fact, Jerry “The King” Lawler — to give him his self-anointed and publicly embraced due — has lived what appears to be a charmed life, although not one immune from tragedy. (In 2018, his 46-year-old son, professional wrestler Brian Christopher, was found hanged in a Hardeman County jail cell, in what authorities said was a suicide.)
Lawler, 70, worked hard to get where he is. But since high school, opportunities have opened up for him like the doors that beckon secret agent Maxwell Smart during the opening credits of one of Lawler’s cherished 1960s television sitcoms, “Get Smart.”
He stepped through each one. As a result, Jerry Lawler is or has been a professional wrestler; a comic book illustrator; a disc jockey; a recording artist; a movie actor; a barbecue restaurant and Beale Street bar owner; a sports commentator; and a nationally recognized television celebrity. Essentially, almost everything a kid of his generation dreamed of being, except cowboy or astronaut.
He has run for Memphis mayor, coming in third in a 1999 ballot-box battle royale that featured 15 competitors. But why be mayor when you’re already the King?
“To me, it’s just a nickname,” said Lawler, who nonetheless acknowledges his royal sobriquet with a large portrait that hangs high inside the two-story entryway of his home, level with a crystal chandelier. In the portrait, a beaming Lawler holds a crown at his chest, as if it were a trophy, a favorite pet, or the head of a vanquished opponent.
“Especially in the wrestling business, everybody just says, ‘Hey, King,'” Lawler said. “I just take it for granted.”
Lawler is more eager to talk about his collections and pop-culture obsessions — Disney, the Beatles, the classic monsters of Universal Pictures — than his career. Among his prized possessions are two working old-school jukeboxes that play 45 rpm singles. One of them almost got him killed, when a stripper he began dating after a lunch meeting at a Taco Bell learned he had stashed $250,000 in cash inside it. She conspired with the police officer son of one of Memphis’ most popular television news anchors to murder Lawler and steal the money. It’s a long story, much-reported by local news outlets in 2004, you can look it up.
The newspaper story you are now reading, however — and yes, we’re finally getting to the point — is inspired by a different bit of history. An anniversary, to be precise — a golden anniversary, to match the gleaming hues of one of the signature crowns the King for decades has ordered from a company in Houston, Texas.
Fifty years ago, on Aug. 17, 1970, Jerry Lawler made his Memphis debut as a professional wrestler.
The event took place at Downtown’s old Ellis Auditorium (this was before wrestling moved to the Mid-South Coliseum), which in 1999 was razed to make way for the expansion of the convention center. Also on the card were such ring legends as Tojo Yamamoto, who relied on “judo” chops and his Japanese-style wooden shoes to bludgeon opponents, and Lawler’s celebrated mentor, Jackie Fargo.
In Lawler’s bout, which he won, he faced off against journeyman grappler Mack York. He also participated in what was touted as a “Nine Man Battle Royale.”
Unlike some other Memphis milestones, Lawler’s wrestling debut has been pretty much overlooked, probably because wrestling doesn’t receive the respect of such other once disreputable pursuits as rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues. Nevertheless, the Memphis-born product of Treadwell High School and what he calls a “‘Leave It to Beaver’ family” might be the city’s most veteran active homegrown celebrity.
Elvis is dead. Justin never really worked here. Al Green left the spotlight for God, while Penny Hardaway reached new heights of fame and fortune in Orlando before returning home.
Lawler, meanwhile, has been Memphis loud-and-proud for the past half-century — and as in your face as a pair of brass knuckles, via local TV commercials, the occasional record release (a 1974 cover of J.D. Loudermilk’s “Bad News” was a regional hit), cable television national wrestling broadcasts, and his restaurants, King Jerry Lawler’s Memphis BBQ Company on Germantown Parkway and King Jerry Lawler’s Hall of Fame Bar & Grille on Beale Street.
“I’d be hard-pressed to figure out someone more consistently in the news and always present than Lawler, regardless of what business they’re in,” said wrestling historian Mark James, 53, author of numerous books on Memphis wrestling (find them at markjamesbooks.com). “He’s been active for 50 years, and you still see him on commercials, you see him on TV, you see him on WWE…”