The last stand of Flex Kavana: How Jerry Lawler got The Rock out of Memphis on 2 days’ notice
The word came down from on high: Vince McMahon wanted The Rock out of Memphis, Tennessee, and Jerry Lawler had two days to make it happen.
This was nothing unusual for “The King,” who, thanks to a strange confluence of circumstances, had become uniquely adept at solving unusual problems. At this point, he was not only a regular player on WWE programming, but also the star competitor, co-owner and creative force behind USWA Memphis, one of the last remnants of the famed wrestling territories that had begun to wither up during the nationwide expansion of WWE and WCW. Lawler’s continued involvement had managed to keep USWA in business even as its contemporaries faded away, and that persistence had earned the promotion a unique lifeline from the big-leagues.
“[WWE] didn’t really have a place to generate new talent or to get them trained,” Lawler told WWE.com. “After a while, Vince McMahon realized this Tennessee territory down there may be a good place [he] can use as a training ground for [his] new, up-and-coming wrestlers.”
Taking advantage of his relationship with McMahon as well as his status as a promoter himself, Lawler would field prospects sent down from New York, The Rock among them, and get them as ready for the big time as possible with a crash-course in Territory Wrestling 101. “Rather than giving them exposure on national TV while they were still green, [WWE sent] ’em down to Memphis,” the WWE Hall of Famer recalled. “They’d get to work every night, they’d get to do TV shows and all that sort of stuff and get a lot of matches under their belt, and when they’re ready, boom. You’d bring ’em up and showcase ’em.”
The downside? Lawler’s prospects were there until the exact moment that WWE wanted them back … and there was no indicator of when that might be.
“They were there, and you didn’t know how long they were going to be there, and you didn’t know when they were going to get the call to leave,” Lawler said. “That’s what happened with The Rock.”
Now, The Rock wasn’t green, per se. He had, at this point, trained informally under his father, Rocky Johnson, and had a few untelevised matches for WWE against the likes of The Brooklyn Brawler and Chris Candido. But Rock wasn’t quite ready, either, in no small part because the powers that be were trying to distance him from the Hall of Fame shadow of his father in order to relieve Rock of the pressure to fill Johnson’s shoes. That meant a brand-new persona, a cocky character by the name of — wait for it — Flex Kavana.
“I don’t know who came up with that name or where it came from,” Lawler said. “But anyway, he was Flex Kavana.”
While Flex Kavana was the very definition of a work in progress — “he had a very unusual haircut … [that] made him look like a pineapple” — Lawler knew that the tools, on a technical level, were already in place to help build a star.
“There aren’t many people you can say were really naturals but The Rock was,” Lawler said. “It was in his heritage. His dad, Rocky Johnson, was a tremendous wrestler and very talented and had a ton of charisma. Rocky grew up around that and I guess that’s where it came from. We knew from the get-go that the kid was gonna be something special.”
With no set timeframe for his departure, Flex Kavana had enough time to marinate in the same territory where Johnson had once been a mega-star and Lawler’s foil. Despite the attempt to distance Rock from his heritage, the son was proving just as high-wattage as the father, and Lawler knew he had a star on his hands.
“The fans got behind this kid and they really liked him a lot,” Lawler said. Rock did his part, too, working an insane schedule across the South that saw him compete in a different city six days a week. “Monday night was Memphis, Tennessee. Tuesday was Louisville, Kentucky. Wednesday was Adamsville, Indiana, Thursday night was either Lexington, Kentucky, or Jackson, Tennessee, Friday night was Tupelo, Mississippi, Saturday night was Nashville or Jonesboro, Arkansas, and a couple of [TV shows] thrown in there on Saturday as well,” Lawler explained. “It was just a constant of matches every single night. And that’s where you got your on-the-job training.”
It got to the point that, when WWE did want him back, Lawler found himself with a shortage of both time and options to get him out of the territory.
“We sort of got a rush-call. They said, hey, we need the guy to start this coming Monday. And this was maybe on a Thursday,” Lawler laughed. Given Rock’s popularity and Lawler’s onscreen status as Public Enemy No. 1, “The King” knew there was only one man capable of sending Flex Kavana into exile.
“You keep your finger on the pulse of the fans,” Lawler said. “You figure out what wrestler the fans like the most, figure out what wrestler the fans dislike the most, and then you put those two guys against each other. He was up there in fan popularity and I was the main bad guy at the time. It was a natural match to have.”
So far so good. At least until they realized the show was running long.
“We had a 90-minute show and we were about to go off the air,” Lawler said of the fateful bout that sent The Great One packing from USWA. “It was just a rushed job to get the match over before we went off the air.”
The match, which can be found online, is actually pretty entertaining given that everyone seems to be moving and talking at twice the normal speed. “We gotta get this one underway!” yelps the commentator as Flex sprints into the ring and whips off a pair of sunglasses. Lawler yells some final taunts in the vicinity of the microphone; an interfering minion of “The King’s” holds Flex’s tights against the turnbuckle while Lawler tees off and the announcer moans, “I wish we had more time!” A brief commercial break ensues. When the action resumes, all out chaos has broken out. Flex executes a textbook sunset flip, but the ref is too preoccupied with a fracas outside the ring to record the pinfall. With less than 15 seconds to go before the broadcast cuts off, Lawler hits his Piledriver, pins Flex, and it’s over. The announcer, short on both time and oxygen, blurts out his sign-off in one single breath — “Kavana’sgonewegottagoI’llseeyounextweek” — as Lawler pumps his fists.
Given the speed at which it was occurred, it’s a suspenseful match, all things considered, and Lawler contended that, less-than-favorable conditions aside, Rock’s exit came at the right time.
“We certainly would have liked for him to stay longer because he was good, and the fans loved him,” Lawler said. “But he had done everything he needed to do, and that was basically hone his skills in front of a live audience. He had done that enough to have the feel so that when he got to WWE it wasn’t like he was going to go out there and be starstruck or get stage fright or anything like that. It worked out good.”
The next day, Flex Kavana was called up to start at WWE, and, three months later, he made his official televised debut at Survivor Series 1996. He was still, as we know now, a work-in progress. The decision had been made to steer the young competitor back toward his heritage, so his name was Rocky Maivia now, after both his father Johnson and his grandfather High Chief Peter Maivia. The sunglasses were gone. He skipped to the ring with a thousand-watt smile and war tassels dangling from his broad shoulders. The haircut was still there. And in a strange twist of fate, Jerry Lawler was part of the match as well, watching his student take his first steps onto the sports-entertainment industry’s brightest stage.
“There’s this guy making his debut at Madison Square Garden and he came straight from Memphis!” Lawler said. “I was proud of the fact that I felt like we were, in some small part, responsible for making him as good as he was, that he was able to do it that well in his debut in the most hallowed hall of them all.”
Rock ended up winning the match by pinning Goldust. The Rocky Maivia persona, again, as we now know, would not ultimately last. The electrifying shirts and raised eyebrows and the millions and millions of fans wouldn’t come until later. But Lawler knew that it was only a matter of time and opportunity before Rock reached the mountaintop. Even then, there was already a sign to the teacher that progress had begun, that his student had taken a first step toward superstardom.
“I knew then,” Lawler said, “I liked the name Rocky Maivia a lot more than I liked Flex Kavana.”