Though most saw evil Mr. McMahon on the world stage in 1997, it wasn’t the first time Vince showed a reprehensible side of himself on a wrestling program. That would happen four years before. This is the story of the inter-promotional war between Vince McMahon and Jerry "The King" Lawler and the time Vince and several WWF stars invaded the USWA in Memphis.
The War Between the WWF and USWA That Turned Sports Entertainment on Its Head
Fans who grew up before the Attitude Era remember Vince McMahon as a straight-laced ring announcer, interviewer, and commentator. A man of self-control (and a peculiar fashion sense), he’d wear yellow and powder blue suits and attempted to uphold all that was respectable while interviewing outlandish personalities such as Lou Albano, Dr. D David Shultz, and Don Muraco or while sitting alongside heelish personalities like Bobby "The Brain" Heenan and Jesse "The Body" Ventura at the commentator booth.
In the aftermath of the Montreal Screwjob at WWF Survivor Series 1997, which unceremoniously ended Bret Hart’s career with the company, Vince’s on-air persona would evolve from a composed commentator to the Machiavellian Mr. McMahon character seen during the Attitude Era that was spawned from real hatred radiating from the fans.
Mr. McMahon would routinely make life miserable for the popular fan favorites at the time, and any insubordination was met with swift punishment and/or public humiliation (see: Vince’s “Kiss My A**” Club).
The snarling, maniacal Mr. McMahon yelling, "You’re FIRED!" quickly became a household phrase enunciated by fans across the wrestling landscape.
Thanks to this controversial character and the relatable "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who stood up to the sneering, authoritative boss, fans tuned into WWF programming each week to witness the unleashing of McMahon’s well-deserved comeuppance.
This ignited a feud that had fans expecting the unexpected and became crucial in finally turning the tide in the rating war against Ted Turner’s WCW.
However, it was four years before, in the Memphis-based USWA promotion, where Mr. McMahon reared his ugly head for the first time.
This was a shocking albeit confusing revelation because it was not yet publicly acknowledged that Vince McMahon had a more (much more) significant role within the WWF.
Vince McMahon’s warped alter-ego (or his real persona?), along with several WWF stars, invaded the USWA in a bizarro alternate scenario where what we thought we knew about sports entertainment was turned on its head.
Role Reversals in the USWA
In an unscripted moment on March 14th, 1992, Jeff Jarrett jumped the guard railing during a WWF house show at the Pyramid Arena in Memphis, Tennessee. He challenged WWF Intercontinental Champion Bret Hart to a match. Hart politely acknowledged Jarrett, but nothing was made of it for the time being.
The groundwork for the WWF vs. USWA inter-promotional war was laid.
In storyline, USWA stars like Jerry "The King" Lawler and Jeff Jarrett felt slighted because, according to them, fans perceived the WWF as "big time" and the Memphis promotion as second-rate. They were out to prove that anything the stars of the WWF could do, they could do better.
Once the inter-promotional war began, the USWA undertook a working relationship with the WWF.
In 1992, Memphis soon saw an influx of WWF talent such as Papa Shango, Mr. Perfect, Sgt. Slaughter, Koko B. Ware, 1-2-3 Kid, "The Narcissist" Lex Luger, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, The Orient Express (Pat Tanaka and Paul Diamond as Kato), and even The Bushwhackers. The overly vocal and colorful Jimmy Hart led the charge for the heels and was, for a time, the face of the WWF against Memphis.
It became a throwback to the territory days that saw the local talent fend off all incoming opponents or the babyfaces teaming up with them to vanquish their foes.
Ironically, Jimmy Hart was especially caustic in his long-winded promos belittling the town he grew up in and his former Memphis Treadwell High School classmate who eventually got him into wrestling: Jerry Lawler.
New talent kept things fresh and exciting. And right in the mix of it all was frequent champion Jerry Lawler and the USWA Unified World Heavyweight Championship belt that would eventually find itself an unreal 28 times around his waistline.
The atmosphere was often tense and seemed to bleed into reality, with promoter Eddie Marlin insisting on-air that he and the USWA had no beef with the WWF, saying that he respected Vince McMahon’s "fine organization."
He stressed to Lawler that this was a problem with Jimmy Hart, not the whole WWF.
In December of 1992, Jerry "The King" Lawler began pulling double duty and became a commentator for the WWF but never stopped booking for Memphis.
In the summer of 1993, Lawler took exception to Bret Hart becoming a two-time King of the Ring tournament winner by viciously attacking "The Hitman" from behind and then proclaiming that he was the real "King of Wrestling."
Speaking on this altercation, Bret Hart claimed, “Lawler stiffed the s*** out me with the scepter," emphasizing that "he really potatoed the s*** out of me. I thought he’d broke my back. It was one of the worst potatoes I ever got."
In wrestling, the term “potato” describes a move (usually a strike) by a wrestler that legitimately hurts the recipient. This heinous act sparked a two-year-long feud with Lawler, with Hart as the babyface and Lawler as the heel. But in the USWA, the roles were drastically reversed.
Watch Jerry Lawler Attack Bret Hart at WWF King of the Ring ‘93:
In Memphis, brothers Bret and Owen Hart were a dastardly heel tandem who routinely insulted the fans and their city by calling it "Disgraceland."
Still, Lawler remained the forever conquering hero of the people. When the Harts clashed against Lawler and Jeff Jarrett, crooked referee Paul Neighbors caused the home heroes to lose.
The grudge begged for some closure, so a “Stretcher Match” between Neighbors and Lawler was booked where Lawler promised to refund the fans in attendance if he lost.
Unfortunately, in a promo leading up to the match, Neighbors blundered and unwittingly blurted out that he’d have Vince McMahon in his corner. But even with the surprise now spoiled, the fans were stoked. The reveal only added sizzle to the already red-hot feud.
As the booker, some sources claim it was Lawler’s innovative idea to have Vince McMahon as an onscreen "advisor," dispatching the invading WWF talent into Memphis. But others like Jerry Jarrett claim that he was the owner who encouraged McMahon to give it a go.
Jerry Jarrett: “Do you try to be a heel?”
Vince McMahon: “What do you mean?”
Jarrett: “You are just the most natural heel I’ve ever seen! We’re racking our brain trying to figure out who you can get as the heel for your company. You ought to be your own talent.”
McMahon: “Are you ribbing me, or are you serious?”
Jarrett: “I’m dead serious, Vince. You are a natural.”
McMahon: “I don’t know how to do it.”
Jarrett: “Let’s do it in Memphis, and let’s make interviews because ninety percent of the wrestling business, as you know, are the interviews. I’ll produce them and send them to Memphis. You will be over when you get there. You start off managing, and then you work into a match.”
And oh, did McMahon run with it!
McMemphis and the Roots of Heel Vince McMahon
Gone was the straight-laced harmless commentator/interviewer. In his place, fans observed in disgust a scheming and unbearable head of a pitiless corporation who wanted to end Jerry Lawler’s career and crush all that was right in Memphis.
McMahon treated the fans with contempt in his taped interviews, and he had an army of wrestlers at his disposal and wasn’t shy in lining them up for mayhem.
The Mr. McMahon character would have been inconceivable when his father, conservative but well-respected Vince McMahon Sr., was head of the company. But now, with "Junior" at the helm, he had carte blanche to explore his heel side to its fullest.
Taped exclusively for Memphis television but filmed in front of a Boston WWF audience, Vince appeared as a guest on "The King’s Court" with Lawler and was inserted into the storyline.
Fans witnessed the infamous birth of some of the most memorable yet cheesiest lines ever uttered on a pro wrestling program. The goal was to promote the match between Lawler and referee Paul Neighbors.
Mr. McMahon: “Right in your hometown of Memphis, you’ll be exposed for the kind of king you truly are: [Vince pauses and looks at the studio audience] A Burger King.”
Jerry Lawler: “This Monday night, this Burger King [Lawler lifts his right fist in front of McMahon’s face] is gonna give you a Whopper! Hahahaha! What do you think of that?”
Mr. McMahon: “If that’s the case, I assure you it will not be a Happy Meal.”
After that cutting blow, Vince McMahon walks away.
The Memphis announcers stressed how the reaction of the in-studio fans differed greatly from that of the WWF audience the segment was taped in front of. The fans in Boston must have scratched their heads after this segment, only to see McMahon and Lawler revert to their onscreen WWF personas shortly afterward.
During the match, Vince McMahon (accompanied by Pat Patterson) quickly made his slimy presence felt at ringside when he nonchalantly tripped Jerry Lawler as he ran past him. But the fireworks really started flying after McMahon punched Lawler in front of his fans.
It was indignation for "The King," who could only lick his wounds in front of his loyal subjects. A non-wrestler had toppled the Memphis champion. Adding insult to injury, a northerner, to boot!
This unleashed the Mr. McMahon character in full force as he let loose wrestler after wrestler to challenge Lawler.
McMahon then proceeded to cut scathing promos attacking the Memphis fans and their southern way of life.
It is hard not to think of legendary entertainer Andy Kaufman when watching these Mr. McMahon promos. He compared Lawler’s professed bad case of halitosis to the stench of the Mid-South Coliseum!
But McMahon represented a more cerebral and corporate threat. Many employed working-class people likely hated Mr. McMahon because he shared traits with their own bosses. He promised to continue humiliating “the king of nothing” in front of his legions of fans.
Watch the Mr. McMahon Character Begin To Evolve:
One day before their match at SummerSlam ’93 hosted at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan, Bret Hart and Jerry Lawler’s roles were reversed at the Mid-South Coliseum "Caged Kings" match, and not in an alternate universe as it may seem to us now in hindsight.
After their brutal match inside a cage, Jeff Jarrett revealed that Bret Hart illegally used a chain against Lawler, the referee had no choice but to reverse the temporary win by The Hitman. Yet again, Lawler had promised fans a full refund if he’d lost.
At SummerSlam, Lawler defeated the Hitman by disqualification, but not before painfully being put into the Sharpshooter for an inordinate amount of time.
Hart added weight to Lawler’s back by squatting, and by not breaking his signature leg lock when ordered by the referee, Lawler was awarded the win.
Many claim this was due to an earlier match that evening where Hart faced Doink the Clown. Just when he was about to defeat the evil clown with the Sharpshooter, Lawler interfered and saved Doink by breaking a crutch onto Hart’s upper back and neck.
Here, The Hitman says, “Lawler hit me with the crutch and swung it like a golf club. It snapped all the way around and almost cut my face. I could feel my skin almost get sliced. And it really hurt, big time.”
But in contrast, McMahon and his minions got the best of Lawler in Memphis after the services of the enormous Giant Gonzalez were called upon.
Billed at 8-feet tall (really 7’7″), the fans stared in horror after Lawler found himself a crumpled heap in the middle of the ring.
Heel Tatanka just like Randy Savage, Koko B. Ware, Owen Hart, and Papa Shango, made Lawler’s life miserable when entering Memphis and temporarily dispossessed The King of his coveted USWA Championship.
This spurred McMahon to cut a spiteful promo taunting Lawler while revealing the unified championship belt under his suit.
He essentially claimed ownership just by being Tatanka’s controller.
McMahon believed the belt suited him because it looked better around his svelte (mispronounced in the promo as "slevit") waist instead of Lawler’s more rotund one.
Again, with roles reversed, Tatanka appeared on WWF television as a babyface challenging Bam Bam Bigelow and thanking "the great fans and little kids that believed and supported him," all the while feuding with Lawler in Memphis.
Watch Mr. McMahon Rubbing It In By Wearing the Unified Championship Belt:
One of the WWE’s all-time revered superstars is Randy Savage. Other than the two certainties of life: death and taxes, Mr. McMahon promised the appearance of Savage in Memphis during the continued invasion angle.
In the WWF at the time, Savage was a face and only wrestling part-time. He remained mostly in a color commentator’s role and spokesperson for the salty, spicy Slim Jim meat snacks. But in Memphis, Savage went into full heel mode.
Savage, in all his glory and never at a loss for words, proclaimed in his unique way that there was "no chance in hell of beating the Macho Man," and, "If I’m lying, I’m dying." Madness would soon take over Memphis!
"Sensational" Sherri Martel also invaded the USWA and became Women’s Champion after defeating the very capable Miss Texas (Jacqueline Moore).
Watch Randy Savage Announcing His Memphis Arrival:
Randy Savage and The Poffo Family’s Past History with Memphis
Randy Savage and his family, The Poffos (father Angelo and younger brother Lanny), have prior history in the Memphis territory.
The Poffo Family’s ICW from 1978 to 1984 was considered an "outlaw" promotion that went head-to-head against the NWA and, specifically, Jerry Jarrett’s CWA based out of Tennessee and Kentucky.
When ICW ceased operations, its assets were purchased by Jarrett, and some sources claim Lawler as well.
Before heading to the WWF, Randy Savage made sporadic visits to Memphis and entered a feud with Lawler, which ended in 1985 with a loser leaves town match. The merger of the CWA and Fritz Von Erich’s WCCW in 1989 birthed the USWA.
It mainly remained based out of Tennessee. They aimed to become a major player in the market, and Jerry Jarrett is often cited as the owner until 1997.
The match named "Fire on the Mountain" between Savage and Lawler ended similarly to the one involving the Harts against Jarrett and Lawler, with Macho Man defeating Lawler with the aid of a chain (after Savage practically no-sold a Lawler fireball) but with the decision soon reversed.
Their feud continued, and the involvement of Vince McMahon escalated but was abruptly cut short after litigation fell upon both Jerry Lawler and Vince McMahon.
Legal Troubles Halt the Inter-Promotional War Between the WWF and USWA
Jerry Lawler was dealt a hard blow after charges of inappropriate relations with a 15-year-old girl in Jefferson County, Kentucky was announced. And the gavel of the law was coming down solid upon McMahon with accusations of alleged steroid distribution and use within the company.
In the case of Lawler, the charges were eventually dropped because the young victim confessed that parts of her story were fabricated.
Lawler soon returned to the WWF, but the WWF invasion in Memphis angle didn’t continue, except for a couple more promos that led nowhere.
Vince McMahon, who was found not guilty on July 23rd, 1994, mainly retreated to a behind-the-curtains and more low-profile business role until the return of Mr. McMahon in 1997 after the Montreal Screwjob incident. This time on a national stage for WWF television, he was even more menacing than his previous USWA incarnation.
As the WWF/USWA inter-promotional war began to cool down, we saw babyface Big Bossman help Jeff Jarrett against Brian Christopher (Lawler’s son) and his cronies in the USWA.
WWF Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels also appeared in the USWA and faced Jeff Jarrett for the IC title and Christopher in a battle of superkicks.
Vignettes touting the arrival of country music star wannabe "Double J" Jeff Jarrett soon appeared on WWF television.
Watch WWF Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels vs. Jeff Jarrett in the USWA in ’93:
The whole McMemphis WWF invasion angle couldn’t exist in a world tied together by the internet where spoilers for live events are often posted on social media.
The surreal dual roles WWF stars like Bret Hart, Tatanka, Koko B. Ware, and Randy Savage played in two promotions during 1992, and 1993 is a curious chapter in the rich history of professional wrestling.
The two promotions worked some angles in 1996 and 1997 with Razor Ramon, Diesel, Vader, the Undertaker, the Nation of Domination, and even Sunny with the Boddydonnas appearing for the USWA. But nothing as intense as the WWF invasion.
A young, muscular Flex Cavana (The Rock) used Memphis as a training ground before heading to the WWF, and we all know how well he turned out.
The intimidating Mr. Hughes and the tag team of PG-13 (J.C. Ice and Wolfie D) and Well Dunn (Rex King and Steve Doll) also jumped from the USWA to work in the WWF.
Downtown Bruno as Harvey Wippleman continued to ply his trade as manager of heels when joining the WWF.
Additionally, Harlem Knights, a heel tandem who went on to become Men on a Mission (Mo and Mabel) in the WWF, infused rap tunes and wrestling when they became babyfaces in the WWF.
Never seeing a blowoff match between Jerry Lawler and Vince McMahon is largely considered a missed opportunity. We can only speculate what the gate for that would have been in Memphis.
Nonetheless, the first appearance of Mr. McMahon’s character forever changed the way we thought heels could be portrayed. It really did turn sports entertainment on its head, and once again, Memphis was the epicenter.
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