The “Macho Man” invades Memphis: Randy Savage, Jerry Lawler and the battle for Tennessee
Jerry "The King" Lawler tells the wild story of his early '80s rivalry with Randy Savage and all the broken bones, trespassing and public humiliation that went with it.
Jerry Lawler wasn’t home on the night Randy Savage showed up at his house in Nashville, Tenn., looking for a fight.
Eight years before he’d gain international fame as the WWE Champion, the volatile “Macho Man” had marched into Lawler’s Tennessee territory and used both physical aggression and verbal intimidation to get “The King’s” attention. On the evening Savage arrived at Lawler’s front door, the WWE Hall of Famer was at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, headlining a big card as the star of his own promotion, the Continental Wrestling Association. “Macho Man” most likely knew this, but that’s beside the point. What mattered was this — Mr. Madness was loose in Nashville and he was looking for “The King.” ( RARE PHOTOS OF SAVAGE)
“He was saying, ‘I know you’re in there, Lawler! Come out and face me! Are you a coward?’ ” Lawler remembered. “We were always of the mindset that the best thing to do is don’t even acknowledge them, just completely ignore them. But Randy just kept trying to get our attention.”
At that time in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the CWA, owned by Lawler and Jerry Jarrett, was the dominant wrestling product in states like Tennessee, Kentucky and parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Indiana and Arkansas. In 1978, though, a renegade group known as International Championship Wrestling rolled into Lexington, Ky., with intentions of knocking Lawler off his throne.
“What happened was Randy Savage, his brother Lanny Poffo and his father Angelo Poffo got the idea that they wanted to start a little promotion of their own,” Lawler told WWEClassics.com. “When you’re on the bottom rung of the ladder, you usually think the way to get attention is to try to get the rub off the established guys. Well what Randy and his group did is they started making challenges.” ( WATCH SAVAGE'S BEST INTERVIEWS)
A former minor league baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals, Savage had joined his father and brother in sports-entertainment in the early ’70s after a career in the majors didn’t pan out. Although the family name had long ago been established by the veteran Angelo, Randy chose to adopt the surname Savage — an advertisement for the particular brand of mayhem he caused in the ring. At a muscular 6-foot-2 with boundless athleticism and scary intensity, the “Macho Man” was obviously poised for big things in wrestling, but first, in his frenzied mind, he needed to conquer Jerry Lawler. ( MORE ABOUT THE KING)
“Randy Savage would go out and say, ‘I’m going to wrestle Jerry Lawler this Saturday night in Lexington!’ ” “The King” said. “Of course, I was never going to be there. I didn’t even know this was being done. Then Randy would go out to the ring and say, ‘Would you look at this? Jerry Lawler’s a coward!’ That was their philosophy on how to make a name for themselves.”
Savage and his crew — which included a dangerous shooter and former Olympic wrestler by the name of Bob Roop —didn’t just threaten Lawler on local television shows. The outlaw group sometimes came to arenas where “The King” was running events and harassed his wrestlers in the parking lot. There were even rumors that Savage had gotten into an ugly scrap with CWA competitor Bill Dundee in a diner. How horrific the fight really was depends on who is telling the story, but there was no denying that Dundee disappeared from CWA television for six weeks after running into Mr. Madness. ( WATCH SAVAGE'S UNFORGETTABLE RIVALRIES)
“The animosity between Randy Savage and myself went beyond the ring,” Lawler admitted. “It became really personal.”
The boys in the CWA locker room were on edge. Guys started looking over their shoulders while walking around town, half expecting to see “Macho Man” running up behind them. Some started carrying weapons in their cars in case things got out of hand. Savage, with his wild eyes and alpha male aggression, had almost singlehandedly spooked an entire territory. Still, even after “Macho Man” broke his friend’s jaw and brazenly walked up to his front door and called him yellow, “The King” refused to recognize the ICW and its interlopers. But then his phone rang.
“We got a call from Randy’s father, Angelo,” Lawler revealed. “They were no longer financially able to produce their TV show. But he said rather than just go under, he would like to work with us if he could. We could take our TV tapes and put it on their shows and it would help us with more exposure. So it became a behind-the-scenes merger.”
In a testament to the undeniable appeal of good box office, the Poffo family’s ICW group stormed into “The King’s” CWA long before the infamous 2001 WCW invasion of WWE. With southern wrestling fans foaming at the mouth to see Lawler face Savage after months of public challenges, the stage was set for an epic encounter in the fabled Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
“We had two referees, one from his company and a referee from my company. His TV announcer and our TV announcers were there. He had his father in his corner and I had Jimmy Hart in my corner,” “The King” remembered. “In hindsight, it couldn’t have been done any better. It just worked out for everybody involved.”
The gory skirmish ended in a No Contest, but the two rivals continued their personal rivalry in a series of heated brawls that sold out arenas across the territory. Somewhat surprisingly, Savage eventually became a favorite of the CWA fans — even after he gave beloved hero Ricky Morton a piledriver through a ringside table — and actually teamed up with “The King” to face the dangerous pairing of King Kong Bundy & Rick Rude. It wouldn’t last, though, as “Macho Man” and Lawler were at each other’s throats again before long.
The war between Savage and “The King” ended on June 3, 1985, in the Mid-South Coliseum in a Loser Leaves Town Match for the Southern Heavyweight Title. The grisly encounter broke arena records as more than 11,000 fans turned out to see their local idol battle the unpredictable madman in a bout with no disqualifications. Lawler nearly lost an eye in the physical brawl, but he ultimately defeated “Macho Man” with his signature piledriver. Like a true king, Lawler had vanquished a raider who had threatened not only his throne, but also his kingdom.
Two weeks after the showdown, Randy Savage arrived in WWE, where he would embark on a fascinating career as the most iconoclastic and off-the-wall Superstar ever to achieve major success in the company. In the two decades since he left the organization, “Macho Man’s” WrestleMania III bout against Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat still stands as, perhaps, the finest match in the company’s history and his tearful reunion with his lady love Elizabeth at WrestleMania VII may never be replaced as WWE’s most genuinely emotional moment. Hard to imagine that the raving lunatic who once trespassed on Jerry Lawler’s property would one day achieve all this. ( WATCH SAVAGE'S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS)
“I knew he had a lot of potential, but I’ll be honest with you — I never really thought that he would rise up and be the Superstar that he became. To me, there was something about Randy that wasn’t exactly right,” Lawler said, choosing his words carefully. “But he was as big a star as there’s ever been here in WWE.”