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Jerry Lawler: Scott Coker reminds me 'so much' of Vince McMahon

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When Bellator comes to Memphis on Friday night, one of the most famous people in the city for more than four decades will be at cage side for an MMA event for only the second time in his life.

But being around a ring, or a cage, is anything but a new experience for Jerry Lawler, a Memphis cultural icon who helped promote Bellator's show in his home city, including having activities leading to the show at his restaurant, "King Jerry Lawler's Hall of Fame Bar and Grille," on the legendary Beale Street.

"I've been a big MMA fan for a long time, especially the crossover guys, Brock Lesnar, Bobby Lashley, all the way back to Ken Shamrock," said Lawler on the MMA Hour this week. "That natural tie-in heightened my interest in it. Just recently I was approached by the people from Bellator."

Unless you grew up in Memphis, or followed pro wrestling in Tennessee and Kentucky in the 70s and 80s, it would be impossible to fully comprehend the status of Lawler locally. In those days, every area had their own set of pro wrestling heroes, but Lawler in Memphis, because of the popularity of pro wrestling on television, was bigger in his region than even people like Hulk Hogan, Dusty Rhodes, Bruno Sammartino, Ray Stevens, Steve Austin or Ric Flair in their heydays were in any specific city. He even ran for mayor in the city and was considered a somewhat serious candidate.

On Saturday morning wrestling on WMC-TV, the NBC affiliate, used to regularly top a 20 rating and a 70 share, meaning seven out of every ten television sets turned on at the time would be watching Championship Wrestling. From 1974, until the end of the territorial era in wrestling in the late 80s, Lawler was by far the top star. While his feud with Andy Kaufman is somewhat legendary on a national basis, Lawler believes it was the most famous wrestling match of all-time. Locally, there were an endless number of matches that drew even bigger crowds and were remembered even more fondly.

The biggest coup of all would have been a match in the planning stages, that never happened. Negotiations were going on for a Lawler vs. Elvis Presley match in the 70s, the battle of "the Kings."  Presley was the original King of Memphis, but Lawler, as a villain, nicknamed himself "The King," claiming he sold out the Mid South Coliseum more times than Elvis. Presley was a huge wrestling fan from childhood who would be snuck into the Mid South Coliseum, and before that, the Ellis Auditorium, to watch the matches without people knowing he was there. Presley was known for having a martial arts background and they were going to do a pro wrestler vs. karate match in 1977, after having so much success the year before with a wrestler vs. boxer program with Lawler against Rocky Johnson, the father of wrestler and movie star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But Presley died before the deal was completed.

Memphis wrestling, run by Lawler and Jerry Jarrett, were a forerunner to the wacky modern version, included appearances by Adam West as Batman, the craziest gimmick matches imaginable, and even a match where Lawler put up his hair in a match with arch-rival Bill Dundee, who put up the hair of his wife, and Beverly Dundee had her head shaved bald in front of 10,000 fans.

"It's amazing the history wrestling has in Memphis," said Lawler. "Wrestling was so unique. For years, we didn't have any professional sports in town. We had no sports, pro wrestling was it. We had a live 90-minute show for 35 years straight that people watched growing up, and we'd do live matches at the Mid South Coliseum every Monday night. Everyone in Memphis grew up with me and with wrestling. The Bellator people saw the tie-in with Bobby Lashley, and asked if I wanted to be a part of this. I jumped on it immediately."

While many people have compared Lawler's boss, Vince McMahon, to Dana White, Lawler made the comparison of McMahon with Bellator President Scott Coker.

"Scott Coker, the President of Bellator MMA reminds me so much of Vince McMahon, especially with the new signings," Lawler said. "We had the brand split, and are calling it a new era, bringing in young guys and new women from NXT, the new training facility. All these guys are making that jump. It's the same thing with Bellator MMA. A ton of new guys have been signed by Scott Coker. It reminds me so much of the same type of building things up and the enthusiasm we have in WWE."

Lawler said Friday's show, headlined by Alexander Shlemenko vs. Kendall Grove and Lashley vs. Josh Appelt, would actually be the second MMA event he's seen live, noting he once did a guest commentary spot for a smaller show in Lexington, Ky. 

"Well, I'm definitely going to be there cage side," he said. "I've told  everyone I've been ringside for a million wrestling matches but I've never been up close and personal cage side at an MMA show."

He said he'd love to do commentary for one match, but doesn't know if that would be possible due to his contract with WWE.

Outside of Tennessee, Lawler is far better known for being a television announcer than a wrestler, as he started with WWE's Monday Night Raw, pro wrestling's flagship television show, in its first year in 1993. He remained a regular, with a few interruptions, until the end of 2015.

"You'd be surprised  how often I get told by fans that J.R. (Jim Ross) and I were their favorite broadcast team of all-time," Lawler said. "I just did the New York Comic Con. I heard about 200 times that you and J.R. were the voices of my childhood. It's an honor. I don't know if I take it for granted, but I don't really think much about it. But I should stop and realize what a big deal it has been for so many fans who have watched it for so many years."

As part of a youth movement, or as Lawler put it, change for the sake of change, not necessary change for the better, Lawler was removed from television in July, and now does pre-shows before the television shows and pay-per-view events on the WWE Network, the company's streaming service.

"The date was set a long time ago and the decision was made that they're going in a new direction," he said. "On this date, we're going to change the WWE and it wasn't as if we said we're changing it for the better. They are changing for the sake of change, shuffling up the announcing crew, doing a brand split, doing Smackdown on Tuesdays and putting it on live. You have to realize WWE is looking way ahead in the future an the future of television is streaming video, the WWE Network. All our pay-per-views are on the WWE Network. What they did was try to make it more palatable, trying to build the shows on the networks and put together a Hall of Fame preshow with me, Booker T and Lita. We're on before every Raw live, every Smackdown live and every pay-per-view"

Asked whether the rise of MMA has hurt pro wrestling, a notion many believe but Lawler argued the point.

"No I don't," he said. "There's no doubt about it, MMA has certainly been on the rise, but I don't think it's hurt wrestling at all. WWE just had their biggest quarter financially in history, something like $199 million that they made. They're doing okay, actually better than ever and you can't knock success."

Lawler can also look at things from a business perspective. After several years as the biggest drawing card in Memphis, at his peak drawing 350,000 paid spectators over the course of a year with weekly Monday night shows, he threatened to start up his own promotion, and in doing so, was made a 50 percent partner in the local promotion to keep it from happening.

He notes that as a fan, he doesn't like it when one company dominates, but as an owner, he didn't like competition.

"I don't think it's better when it's one dominant organization," he said. "Competition is good for anything. Even Vince McMahon would tell you the most exciting and most fun time for WWE, and for wrestling in general, was during the late 90s, the Monday Night Wars. It brings out the best in everybody when there's competition. For the UFC and Bellator, it brings out the best in the fighters. The fighters know, `The better I do, the better I look, I'll be able to go to the best and highest paying company' I owned a wrestling company with Jerry Jarrett for 20 years and I can look at it from both sides of the fence. I can look at it from an owners standpoint. Free agency is something they'd rather not deal with. But from a wrestler and fighters standpoint, it's a great thing. It helps everyone's position in their careers."

Even though he suffered a near-fatal heart attack four years ago, Lawler wrestles regularly, just not on television or with WWE. At nearly 67, the company won't clear him to wrestle since the heart attack which came shortly after a match, while announcing at ringside in Montreal, and he only survived because medical care was right there.

"I have not had one problem since that time, and I've wrestled 200 times, but WWE won't give me clearance to wrestle there. It's a P.R. thing. Even though I've wrestled so many times, my cardiologist gave me clearance, they feel there will be backlash that WWE is putting a guy who had a heart attack in the ring. I wish I could have a number of matches and a big sendoff, but I'm not going to lose any sleep if they don't."