James Reviews Chad Schaffler’s Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’ [DVD Review]

Anyone that knows me or listens to the podcast, especially our former Disc 2 episodes, they know that I’m a bit of a wrestling fan. No, I don’t watch the new product. WWE or TNA. Even ROH, a smaller company which I followed for years, I stopped watching a couple of years back because I just couldn’t get into it anymore. Mind you, I dip my toes every so often. I’ll catch a live wrestling show if it comes up and the price is right. But I frequent Youtube and watch old matches all the time. When Netflix has a wrestling centered documentary, usually WWE produced ones, I will watch them and relive what I consider the ‘good ol’ days’ of wrestling. Which was the 1980’s and 1990’s to me. To others, those days have been over even longer, considering the wrestling business has been going on since the early 1900’s. To borrow a line from All In the Family, when girls were girls and men were men. Which is why I was excited to check out the new documentary from Chad Schaffler about the Memphis wrestling scene, which sadly the only thing I knew on the fly about it was Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler and his public feud with the comedian Andy Kaufman. But it was so much more than that.

Imagine a time when professional wrestling was in competition with Saturday morning cartoons. And the larger than life strong men, women and little people were winning in the ratings, leaving Scooby Doo and company behind. With characters like Sputnik Monroe, Jimmy Valiant, Bill Dundee, Jerry Lawler, Jimmy Hart, Jackie Fargo and many others to excite audiences every week, to pay their hard earned cash to see them perform live on Monday nights at the old Ellis Auditorium and the Mid-South Coliseum, to most outsiders these fans were just watching huge men in shorts fight one another in a ring. But these men told stories in the ring, dramatic, comedic and violence personified, letting imaginations run wild in a time when people were not aware it was all scripted beforehand.

It’s not to say that these wrestlers never got hurt. Broken bones, life on the road and drugs and alcohol took their toll on many wrestlers. We’re lucky enough to get plenty of them speak about the rise of Memphis wrestling from the 1950’s until the decline in the 1980’s due to underhanded politics, bigger wrestling promotions picking the better wrestlers for their own and leaving behind the scraps while the audience dwindled down. Jackie Fargo, who never holds anything back, talks about the way they had to cut corners every chance they got and how he used a young man by the name of Jerry Lawler, who is a fantastic artist, to draw up event posters not only for the wrestling promotion but for Memphis businesses as well in order to make some extra cash. It just so happened that Lawler had a drive to become a wrestler and became the King of Memphis in the process. Beforehand, though, we get him speaking about his first match which for him lasted about 2 minutes when he fell out of the ring attempting to replicate a splash and waking up 15 minutes later, having been knocked out cold from falling on the outside.

We also get a civil rights hero not many have heard about in Sputnik Monroe, called Sputnik not because he was Russian or a Russian sympathizer (which was a common gimmick for villainous, or heel, wrestlers), but because someone randomly called him Sputnik as a term of anger, due to the fans hating him so much. Monroe loved to hang out at bars with black patrons, and this being in the 1960’s, this was a huge no-no for any white person to do, which landed him in jail, harassed by the cops all the time and fined any chance they could do so. But he wouldn’t back down and even in the wrestling business at that time, they segregated the audience, having black attendees in their own section at the arenas they went to. Monroe said he’d take the profits from their ticket sales, because he was behind them all and thought they should have fun too at these events. Why should white people be the only ones? And supposedly at many black residences, there were three pictures in their homes: Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and Sputnik Monroe. It gives a different side of the wrestling business that I was sort of aware with when it came to black wrestlers, but not with the fans themselves.

There are so many stories I could wax poetically about, pointing out the highs and lows of all these wrestlers, promoters, referees and everyone else in between. But that would truly take away from the surprises that this documentary sprang on me, and I’m a fan of the wild and crazy world of wrestling. What Schaffler and company put together here, which was a 2 year journey of finding everyone for interviews and luckily getting some choice stories and comments from some who passed away soon after being talked to (Sputnik Monroe being one sad example), is amazing for any documentary filmmaker and team to do. I showed this film to a non-wrestling fan and they were enthralled by the stories of these men and still love to talk about the business even if they’ve been retired for years or wronged in some way. You can order the film over at Memphis Heat’s website and I think it’s a no brainer. With tons of extra interviews (about 4 hours of footage to sift through), it’s a wonderful story with some colorful characters giving us all their even more colorful stories. A must see documentary.