It was the furthest thing from the greatest wrestling match ever held. It lasted only a few minutes, and most of that was stalling. There were a total of three bumps taken, and it ended in a disqualification. For one of the participants, it was the first pro wrestling match he had ever had. It drew a decent live crowd, but not really anything extraordinary for the venue or the time period. If it was evaluated by the "star raters" of today it would receive a dud, but in terms of being executed flawlessly exactly the way it was intended to be, it deserved 5 stars. It wasn't seen on pay-per-view, and indeed was first broadcast on a tape delay of a week on a regional wrestling show airing on ten local stations. It was a complete mismatch, yet did more to convince fans and non-fans that at least something about pro wrestling was real than anything else that's been done in the sport in the last 75 years.
It is the most famous match in the history of professional wrestling, and it happened 35 years ago, on April 5, 1982 at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee. It was Jerry "The King" Lawler vs. Andy Kaufman. And I was there.
The story of why this match actually worked, and it's enduring appeal and attention, is complicated but fascinating. It illustrates the essence of pro wrestling--that if a logical issue is promoted between two talented individuals who are treating it as a deadly serious confrontation, in their own individual ways--it transcends any of the preposterous elements that may exist and either blinds the fans to the credibility loopholes or hooks them so emotionally that they refuse to see them. Sort of like Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
The convoluted road this match took to Memphis began with Andy Kaufman's rise to fame.
Many call him a comedian, but he really wasn't. He was a performance artist, the majority of whom's performances--but not all--were funny. I had first seen Andy on TV on Saturday Night Live in the iconic show's first season, 1975. His routines, brief but memorable, were taken from his nightclub act, and he never appeared on the show out of character. In one, he would stand almost motionless on the stage, seeming nervous, sweaty and awkward, slightly twitching, with his face frozen in a silly grin while an on-stage record player played the theme from "Mighty Mouse". When the chorus got to "Here I come to save the day", he would break into a huge, wide eyed look, wave his right arm across the stage in a glorious sweeping motion, and lip synch the words. Then he would go right back to the awkward expression and motionless stance, awaiting that line to come up again. For three minutes. By the end, the audience was in hysterics and he had never uttered a word.
Another early bit, one that eventually landed him his network television series, involved his "standup" comedy. At this point, due to his lack of exposure, almost no one knew what Andy Kaufman's real voice sounded like. So as he stood there with just a microphone and a perplexed look on his face that gave the impression he had no idea what he was going to do and had never been on a stage before, he spoke in broken english with an unidentifiable foreign accent. He told a few not-just-unfunny but incomprehensible jokes to nervous giggles from the audience, then announced he also did impressions. He "impersonated" some stars, all of them sounding exactly like him with the same accent, afterwards saying to the audience's applause, or lack thereof, "Tank you veddy much!"
As the audience began to rumble discontentedly, he finally announced he was going to do Elvis Presley. Now the people really started hooting at the idea of this clown doing Elvis. Andy turned his back, flipped up his collar, combed his hair in an Elvis-like swoop, and grabbed a guitar. When the music hit the PA system, he spun around with an Elvis sneer that was dead-on, swiveled his hips like a pro and began singing with such a spot-on, booming Elvis voice that the audience instantly knew it had been had, and went apeshit.
This was a guy who knew how to kayfabe. He was the newest star in TV comedy, and he was 25 years old.
Andy's uncomfortable, strangely-accented character, early on known as "foreign man", got over so well on comedy and variety shows that most people thought he really talked that way. When the producers of the ABC network comedy show "Taxi" were casting the zany characters that would populate the cab company, he landed the part of "Latka Gravas", and was quickly the hottest character on a show filled with name stars and talented character actors. In just a few years, Andy Kaufman had progressed from doing three minute bits on late night TV to one of the hottest network stars in the country. Everybody knew who he was. They would soon find out he was something else--an obsessively-fascinated fan of pro wrestling.
It began in his younger years in New York when he would watch the larger-than-life wrestlers on TV or go to the matches in Madison Square Garden. In his own, quirky way, Andy realized that pro wrestling was the most unique type of performance art in the world, and the fact that they would not "break character" under even the most trying circumstances resonated with him--to his benefit early on, and his detriment towards the end. He idolized the greatest of them all, "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, even getting Rogers a spot on Saturday Night Live when Andy began the next staple act of his TV and live performances--wrestling women.
At about 6 feet tall but barely 150 pounds, Andy was not physically intimidating and couldn't get away with challenging men from the audience for real, but he hit on another idea. He proclaimed himself the World Intergender Wrestling Champion, and announced that he would begin accepting challenges from any women in his audiences for wrestling matches. If he was defeated, he added stipulations ranging from shaving his head to finally that he would marry the woman who defeated him.
In promos for the matches, Andy became a misogynistic, arrogant movie star from Hollywood who felt that women should be in the kitchen "rattling the pots and pans around." He wasn't winking at the audience when he did this--and it was riveting watching an audience go from laughing at the beloved comedian from network TV at the start of the routine to booing the male chauvinist pig acting like a heel pro wrestler by the time it was over. ABC executives weren't happy that the most popular star on their top-rated, award-winning series was being a heel all over the country, but Andy was committed to working the gimmick, and he was so over with mainstream America that it seemed his popularity was bulletproof--for awhile.
The matches with female audience members never took place in a ring--usually mats placed on a TV studio or nightclub stage. While they were shoots, Andy never lost. His challengers weren't Ronda Rousey-type ringers--it's doubtful anyone wanted to take him up on the marriage stip anyway--they were regular women riled up by his sexist heel promos on the spur of the moment. They were usually highly intimidated once they realized they were shoot wrestling a major star in front of hundreds in a club or, scarier yet, millions on TV, and Andy used enough heel stalling tactics, calls for breaks and simple wrestling holds to run out the three minute time limit if he wasn't able to get the pin when the poor woman just quit trying. Andy would admit to no one, not even the producers of the TV shows, that he was "working"--doing the matches or saying those things for "entertainment". He was the Intergender Champion.
But for all this, there was one thing Andy had never done. He had never done his wrestling bit in a real ring, on a real wrestling card, in front of a real wrestling crowd. So he went to the mecca of his childhood, Madison Square Garden, and tried to arrange it with Vince McMahon, Sr.'s World Wrestling Federation. And got turned down flat. It was said doing something like that would be too phony, or funny, or make the business look bad.
Yes, in an incredibly ironic move, the first "celebrity crossover" in major league wrestling of the modern era, two years before Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T and Liberace, the one match out of them all that many people ended up thinking was real for over two decades, was turned down by the WWF as being too goofy for the wrestling business.
But while at MSG, Andy spoke to magazine guru Bill Apter, who had an idea. A good friend of Bill's was a wrestler and promoter in a smaller, weekly territory that constantly needed new ideas to fill their cards and draw the crowds, and so were willing to take chances and think "outside the box" while still trying to maintain the overall credibility of the sport. His territory might be interested in anything involving a network TV star of Andy's magnitude. Bill's friend was Jerry Lawler.
As big a star as Andy Kaufman was nationwide, Jerry Lawler was bigger in the city of Memphis and the states of Tennessee and Kentucky. A Memphian almost all his life, Jerry grew up a lifelong wrestling fan and used his artistic talent and gift of gab to attract the attention of TV presenter Lance Russell and later area wrestling legend Jackie Fargo, who facilitated his entrance into the sport. He had been almost a wrestling prodigy, progressing from a prelim flunky in his first matches in tank towns in Arkansas to being part of a tag team with veteran Jim White that set record gates and sold out the Mid-South Coliseum, within the first three years of his career. That run was followed with booker Jerry Jarrett giving Lawler a one-year push as the top singles heel in Memphis, climbing the ranks towards an NWA World Title showdown with Jack Brisco. That year, 1974, Lawler's classic battles led fifty wrestling events at the Coliseum to sell just over 400,000 tickets, an average of eight thousand fans per week. He was the main star on the Memphis studio wrestling program that aired live every Saturday morning--the highest rated local weekly television program of ANY kind in the country. He had broken Elvis Presley's consecutive sellout record in the Coliseum. He was earning in excess of $100,000 per year, almost half a MILLION in "today's money", as the star of his hometown promotion. And he was only 25 years old.
Over the next seven years, Lawler became the undisputed top dog in Memphis wrestling, his popularity growing organically as a heel when he became an "anti-hero", then finally a full-fledged babyface. Ratings for the TV show continued to boom, and each year the weekly bouts at the Coliseum drew hundreds of thousands of fans. Lawler's exploits were covered in the newspaper, he hosted TV talk shows and made personal appearances and topped polls of Memphians' favorite sports stars AND celebrities. His appeal was such that one day, with me and my camera in tow, he appeared cold at the Northwest Airlines counter of the Memphis airport, telling them he wanted to take a picture inside the cockpit of a 747. Within ten minutes, he was sitting at the controls while I snapped away. Jarrett had broken away from promoter Nick Gulas to start his own company using Lawler as the top star, and Jerry was so integral to the operation that he had been made a partner. And finally, one day in late 1981 he got a phone call from Bill Apter that picqued his interest.
A commonality that Kaufman and Lawler shared was the ability to convince people that what they were saying was true, to convey the personality, whether likeable or unlikeable, that they wanted to convey. Just as the physical, spot-on body language of Andy's wide-eyed, nervous-twitched foreign man sold you to his legitimacy on a closeup TV screen, Lawler's mastery of pro wrestling body language sold his aura of realism to the fan in the highest general admission seat in the arena. In not only his facial expressions, but physical stances and reactions, you knew Lawler's emotion, whether it was anger, fear, agony or amusement. Verbally, he could convince you he was pure evil, or engender your sympathy and support.
"The King" had very little "amateur wrestling" background or knowledge. But he seemed born with jawdropping athletic ability and co-ordination in all the facets needed to work a wrestling match--his most famous, and biggest-drawing bouts, resembled a classic movie fight scene. When modern-day fans became conditioned to main event wrestlers that looked like comic-book superheroes, it became more daunting to understand how an entire city could see the 230 pound Jerry Lawler as the toughest man in wrestling, but "the bottom line" is not how big a wrestler is, it's how BAD they can convince the fans they are--Lawler, in Memphis, was the Steve Austin of his day.
The King quickly agreed to bring Kaufman to Memphis to do his Intergender wrestling. On November 23, 1981, Andy stepped into a real ring at the Mid-South Coliseum for the first time. Four challengers were selected from the audience as the fans wondered what to think--emotions ranged from catcalls to giggles. But as Andy defeated each one, one at a time, using the same tactics he used in his nightclub matches against his amateur opponents unsure of what to do, he started getting heat. When he stood over one woman after a win and mockingly wiped his foot on her back, men started standing and cussing.
The fourth opponent was the clincher. An African-American woman named "Foxy", outweighing Andy and about as round as she was tall, went last, and almost immediately threw Andy ass over teakettle to a deafening roar. All the matches had been "shoots", but this was the first one to be a CONTEST. Foxy was on top almost as much as Andy was, and truth be told he was lucky to hang on for a three minute draw. Foxy had become a folk hero, and Lawler and Jarrett, sitting ringside for the spectacle, smelled money.
Andy was invited back to Memphis to wrestle the next week, November 30, to face Foxy in a rematch, and Andy announced he'd give her $5,000 if she won. This time, an added wrinkle was added in Foxy's corner too. Lawler announced on TV that he was going to help Foxy by giving her advice on how to beat Kaufman. Foxy's interviews told the real-life story that her house had just burned down, and she needed to win the money, which Andy would have had to pony up if he lost. She was never smartened up that this was a work going on all around her, which meant that she was trying just as hard to win the rematch as she had the first one. However, the combination of nerves, adrenaline and exertion gassed her out, and Andy knew what to expect this time, hadn't just wrestled three other women, and eked out a victory.
What happened afterwards was serendipity. Andy stood over the fallen Foxy, taunting her, when Lawler came into the ring and, in a working way, went to restrain him. Andy went with it full-force and it looked like Lawler threw him halfway across the ring. Jerry picked up on it and stood over Foxy while drawing back his big right hand, and the fans came unglued. This is what they wanted to see. And Lawler knew it.
Immediately after the match, Kaufman began sending in videos shot by the pool at his "mansion in Hollywood." He used every heel pro wrestler cliche, but they worked, because the viewers believed he really WAS an asshole TV star. Andy would exclaim that he could not be treated that way, being physically assaulted like that, and that he would sue Lawler for every penny he was worth. He would adopt a phony, Southern-hickish accent and tell the people of Tennessee that all they did was "farum in the feeyields" but HE was "from Hollywood". He sent a video showing Southern people what soap was, and how to use it--what a toothbrush was, and it's use as well. When Lawler finally "had enough", and challenged Kaufman to come back to Memphis and face him one-on-one to see that wrestling was no joke, Kaufman shockingly accepted, and ratcheted up the heat. He even had a poolside "match" with an obese, 300 pound woman to show what he could do to Lawler since "this woman is even bigger than you." These videos appeared not just on the Memphis wrestling shows, but on Andy's appearances on talk shows across the country.
Lawler's promos, meanwhile, told a different story. That Kaufman was just like a lot of people, and thought wrestling was all "fun and games", and that he could come down there to Memphis and insult the fans and his sport. The week before the match, Lawler was deadly serious:
"I make my living, I put food on my table by wrestling, and it's a very serious sport to me. And I don't like anyone like you coming around making fun of it, or thinking they can do it just coming in off the street. So I'm going to show you just how serious it is, so don't expect any mercy from me, Andy Kaufman. Because when you climb in that ring, I'm going to consider you a professional wrestler, and I'm gonna burst your bubble about being a wrestler...it'll be the last time you EVER fantasize about being a wrestler. Andy Kaufman, you're going to get hurt, son."
Interviewed on the local evening news before the match, sportscaster Jack Eaton asked Lawler if he was really going to hurt Kaufman. Jerry's response was played over and over--"I think I HAVE to hurt him".
Finally, the talking was done. On April 5, 1982, the official Coliseum attendance was 8,091--nothing unheard of for a Monday night in Memphis, as some fans figured the King would break that loudmouthed TV star in half in 30 seconds like a Tyson fight and if they blinked they'd miss it. Lawler had sold out the arena plenty, but that was for matches with the biggest stars, for World Titles. People had no idea at the time this would be his most famous match. But the ones that came were howling for Kaufman's skin from the first glimpse of him. His heat was off the charts.
After the introductions, the bell rang--and Andy ran. He spent several minutes either mocking Lawler, acting like an ape, or running from the King's advances and bailing to the apron or floor. Finally, Lawler came up with a strategy.
Jerry put his hands behind his back, stuck his neck out and offered Andy a "free headlock." Hesitantly, Kaufman took it. Building the anticipation for the fans, Jerry's body language sold to everyone that he was in no pain, no trouble, and then he suddenly picked Andy straight up and dropped him straight back in a suplex that folded him up like a jacknife. The roof came off the Coliseum. Lawler gave the signal he was about to apply his famous piledriver, the most devastating move in wrestling, so dangerous it was an automatic disqualification if used. And he hit it, with the fans practically throwing babies in the air as referee Jerry Calhoun called for the bell and declared Andy the winner. The piledriver was so well received that Lawler paused, asked the fans if they wanted another, and stuck Andy again with one that looked as if it had crippled Kaufman for life.
As Lawler basked in the cheers of the crowd, Andy's manager, Bob Zmuda, and others dove into the ring to check on him. The fans were standing, some throwing garbage at his prone body. Amazingly, the longer he laid there motionless, the more the crowd seemed to hate him. Finally, Calhoun went over to Jerry and relayed the information that Andy wanted an ambulance--he didn't want to leave the ring under his own power.
Lawler, mindful of how long it would take to get an ambulance there--as well as the $500 it would cost--sent Calhoun back to Andy to say no, only to have the referee return moments later to say, "Andy says he'll pay for it." And so Andy Kaufman, one of the hottest stars on network TV, laid in the ring in the Coliseum with 8000 people throwing garbage at him and cursing his existence, for over twenty minutes, until an ambulance crew could come put him in a neckbrace, strap him to a backboard, and take him to the hospital. Where he remained, at his own expense, for three days. Yes, this really WAS a guy who knew how to kayfabe.
My cousin's wife was a head nurse working nights at the hospital they took Kaufman to, and she reported to me the next morning that the whole place was buzzing. Even if you weren't a wrestling fan everybody in Memphis knew Monday was wrestling night, but the staff admitting a Hollywood star who'd just nearly suffered a broken neck at Jerry Lawler's hands was still a bit unusual. She knew wrestling was a "work"--how else could I be in it--but she, and everyone else at the hospital, believed this was real, and that Lawler was showing an "outsider" that wrestling wasn't "fake".
Every newspaper carried the details of the match and Andy's "injuries", from the local Commercial Appeal to papers across the country via the Associated Press. Magazines from Newsweek to Rolling Stone did the same. TV news and talk shows showed clips, including the devastating piledrivers. And this was where the angle took it's most artistic turn.
Now, Andy was switching his tone, coming off as a humbled man who had been set straight. He wore the neck brace any time he appeared in public for MONTHS, doing low-key interviews in a voice filled with regret. He would explain that he had indeed thought that wrestling was all fun and games, and he was just "playing wrestler" and he thought that Lawler would take it easy on him. Instead, he had been badly injured, and Lawler had shown him that pro wrestling was no joke, pro wrestling was REAL! He apologized to the fans, and to wrestling itself, but never to Lawler. There was still "heat" there. Legal action was still an option.
With Andy making the TV rounds, the producers of the "Late Night with David Letterman" show got the idea to book Andy and Jerry together, and as a "bit", have them apologize, make up, and sing a song together. Kaufman and Lawler had other ideas. Unbeknownst to anyone else on the show, including Letterman himself, the two decided not to do the song bit, but weren't sure what they would, or should do. They had a few different ideas going in, and finally just went out there to call it based on what they felt the audience wanted. After some verbal sniping back and forth, Andy eventually gave a grudging apology, Lawler started peppering him with zingers, things escalated, and Jerry called the ultimate audible in TV history. He slapped Kaufman so hard he knocked him backwards over his chair.
A quick break was taken, with a shaken Kaufman leaving the stage and Letterman obviously perplexed. Lawler agreed to stay on and apologize, but when the show came back on the air Andy charged over and hurled enough F-Bombs to blow up Rockefeller Center, wearing the bleep machine out as he threatened to sue Lawler, then grabbed Letterman's coffee and threw it on Jerry before storming out.
This shocking occurance made even more news than the match had, and Jerry Lawler and Andy Kaufman became the talk of the wrestling world and many parts outside it.
Not wanting to give up a good thing, Andy kept coming back and forth to the Memphis territory to feud with Lawler, helping manager Jimmy Hart, wrestling in handicap matches, even once causing Lawler a loss in an AWA World Championship match with Nick Bockwinkel. This run drew diminishing returns in the national press, as familiarity bred indifference, but to his last appearance the fans in the Memphis area hated Andy more than almost any experienced heel wrestler. About a year and a half after the first bout with Lawler, Andy got bad news on his health--the cancer that would eventually kill him on May 16, 1984--and quit the ring for good.
Outside the ring, things had gotten worse for Andy before his illness. He kept pushing the envelope, often in the wrong direction. His most infamous creation was his alter-ego, lounge singer Tony Clifton. Really Andy in disguise--most of the time, anyway, except when he spiced up the work by appearing in the same place as "Tony"--Clifton was an abrasive, crude, insulting pig to audience and show biz execs alike, and got Andy "heat" even with the folks who didn't mind his wrestling antics. Kaufman was even, in a shoot vote by viewers tired of his more bizarre behavior, booted off Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.
Possibly his longest-lasting, best known legacy remains his wrestling career, and specifically "The Match". A documentary of his foray into the sport, "I'm From Hollywood", was produced. Books were written about Andy's life heavily featuring his wrestling fascination. It was referred to in the REM song "Man In The Moon", which became the title of the movie on Andy's life starring Jim Carrey, with Lawler playing--who else?--himself. The Letterman appearance was named one of the 100 Greatest Moments in TV History by TV Guide magazine. There is still a dedicated Kaufman fanbase that has begun to recognize his genius, and some of them think he faked his own death in the ultimate work.
Lawler? You know what's happened to him in the last 35 years. The "Teflon King" has prospered in every role from wrestler to promoter to announcer to WWE Hall Of Famer, always dropping the strap of his wrestling attire to make a comeback from real-life adversity like it was Monday night in the Mid-South. He even survived a fatal--for twenty minutes, at least--heart attack on live RAW and made a comeback on death. After all, it was Monday night.
Jerry kept his promise to Andy that he would never reveal their whole issue was a work until Zmuda released a tell-all book and made it a moot point. Since then, Lawler has credited Andy for what he did for his career, and for wrestling. Even today, there are some that haven't heard the inside story, and believe it was real. This article may have shot that in the foot, but as you can see upon close examination, it wasn't ALL real, but it wasn't all fake, either. And that's the essence of kayfabe in the first place.