Contemporary wrestling fans know Jerry “The King” Lawler as the voice of the WWE.
But those who have followed Lawler’s career through the past four decades have witnessed the evolution of a true journeyman and icon of the professional wrestling industry.
Whether competing in the ring, promoting a wrestling show, battling celebrities or calling the action from behind the announce table, Lawler has left an undeniable mark on the business, even transcending the boundaries of wrestling and becoming a pop culture icon with a little help from one Andy Kaufman.
Through his career, “The King” has amassed his fair share of treasure, holding nearly 170 championships in companies of yesteryear and today. But though he has already crafted a legacy for the ages, the 62-year-old wrestling monarch isn’t prepared to slow down yet.
As WWE’s flagship program, Monday Night Raw, prepares for its historic 1,000th episode this coming Monday, Lawler took time to talk with Ring Posts’ Adam Testa about his tenure in WWE, past, present and future. Here is what he had to say:
What should fans expect from this show?
When you talk about 1,000 episodes, that’s just such a historic milestone. No other weekly episodic television show in the history of television has ever done this many episodes. That alone lets you know that this milestone has to be very, very special, and believe me, the WWE is going to pull out all the stops.
At last count there are almost 30 superstars from these past 1,000 episodes that are going to be coming back and joining us for the 1,000th show. Even WWE.com apparently leaked some information about a guest commentator on the show that night, as well. How could you do a 1,000th episode without having good ol’ J.R., who was my broadcast partner for so many years, come back and call a couple matches. So I’m hoping that’s who that’s going to be.
There’s just going to be some many things that take place Monday night. There’s no telling who all is going to be there and what all is going to happen. It’s just going to be a huge celebration of this big milestone.
What part of the show are you most looking forward to yourself?
I love seeing these superstars come back to the show. The past few weeks, we’ve had appearances by Vader, Diamond Dallas Page, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper brought Cyndi Lauper back, Doink the Clown, Bob Backlund, Psycho Sid.
I love seeing these guys that were huge stars and part of the 1,000 episodes of Monday Night Raw come back and the fan reaction. The fans love to see these names and faces from the past that have provided so many memorable moments and that have provided so many great memories for the fans.
The common link between all the legends who have come back has been Heath Slater, who eliminated you in a tag team match during the Nexus invasion. Might we see you seek revenge?
That’s our catchphrase on Monday Night Raw — “Absolutely anything can happen.” I always have my gear. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shown up on a Monday night and maybe an hour before we’ve gone live on the air, someone comes up to me and says, “Hey King, did you bring your gear? We’re thinking of putting you in a match tonight.” I always have it; I’m ready; I’m always excited and happy to get in there.
I would love to square off with Heath Slater. He’s the guy that personifies the saying “youth is wasted on the young.” He’s a guy who doesn’t have a clue and doesn’t have any respect for people who laid the groundwork for him to get the worldwide exposure he’s getting right now. So it’s really exciting for me to see these guys give a young punk like him a little bit of a comeuppance.
And I would love to get in that long line and show him why for the past 40-plus years they’ve been calling me the king. You never can tell; that might take place, who knows. That would be fun, though.
Through the years, you’ve worked with a number of different commentary partners. What has it been like working with such a cast of characters?
I first started as a color commentator when I took the place of “Macho Man” Randy Savage when he jumped ship during the Monday Night Wars. He was doing the commentary with Vince McMahon at the time. I’ve got to tell you; I really, really enjoyed calling the matches with Vince McMahon.
He was so much fun to work with. He never really came out and said it, but he was the perfect foil for me. This was before he was the overbearing CEO of the WWE. I got to make so much fun of him. He even perpetuated the myth that he wore a toupee. Every week, I would say something about his toupee — which of course he didn’t have; he always had a healthy head of hair. I would make fun of him in all sorts of ways and he was so gracious and went along with it. I really enjoyed working with him.
Then, of course, it switched to me and good ol’ J.R. for years and years and years. Man, I don’t know if there’s ever been or will ever be anyone who’s as good at wrestling play-by-play as good ol’ J.R. Nobody who’s going to be more prepared, nobody that’s going to know any more, know all the facts, know all the history, know all the statistics.
That’s just J.R.; he was perfect. He made my job so easy in the fact that I just had to show up and off the cuff come up with a few hopefully witty remarks. J.R. did all the groundwork; he did all the real hard work on the team.
Now, of course, I’m working with Michael Cole, and he’s a different kind of character. He’s sort of taken the place of what I was years ago when I worked alongside J.R. He’s the devil’s advocate, so to speak. He’s not out there trying to win any popularity contests with the fans. He tells it like it is in his view.
He’s easy to work with, and one thing that I can do with Cole that I never would have done with good ol’ J.R. is if Cole gets too out of line and too annoying, I can just look over and just say, “Shut up, you idiot.” And so it’s not too bad working with Michael Cole.
What are your thoughts on your rivalry with Cole?
It’s had its definite ups and downs. He started this thing off with some disparaging remarks about my mom right after she passed away. That was kind of tough to swallow and tough to live with, but by the same token, that led into something that may be my crowning achievement as long as I’ve been in the WWE. That led into my first ever WrestleMania match.
I’d called a lot of WrestleManias but never actually wrestled or performed on a WrestleMania until I got to have the match with Michael Cole the year before last. That was my biggest financial payday that I’ve ever made in the 42 years of my wrestling career.
That was very gratifying, so it’s hard for me to say too many bad things about Michael Cole because so much good for me personally has come out of that rivalry.
In 2001, there was a short time when you left the company for a little while, and when you returned that November, it was with a warm welcome from the crowd. What was that night like for you?
That had to be my own personal favorite moment in the history of all of those 1,000 episodes we’ve done.
I quit the WWE for a period of time, and I thought during that period of time that I would never be back. I thought that was it, I’ve had my little run there, everything was great but it’s over.
Then, I got a call to work out all our differences. Paul Heyman had been assigned to take my place on commentary. That night, I got to make what I call my triumphant return to the announce table and to literally see them drag Paul Heyman kicking and screaming away from that commentary table — and we literally passed on the ramp and he’s clawing and scratching and trying to get at me — I just can’t help but do anything but laugh.
That to me was my favorite moment, to go back there and be reunited with good ol’ J.R. and all of the WWE Universe and all of the fans and to be back on the show that I’ve been back on every single Monday night since then.
The landscape of WWE has changed since that time, which obviously affects commentary. What has that adjustment been like for you through the years?
It wasn’t really a major adjustment; it was just something you knew was expected of you, so you did it.
Back during the Attitude Era, we really, really pushed the envelope, and it worked. We got the attention of the demographic we were looking for, and that was the college-aged students. I went back just a few weeks ago and was watching one of DVDs from that particular time and I just said to myself, “Oh my gosh, how on earth did we get away with that?”
Some of the things we did and said were literally shocking, but that’s what it was intended to do. We shocked the world into watching every single week, and we got them coming back every week by saying, “How much further can they go? What are they going to do next week? How do they top what they did last week?”
Everything changes. In the WWE, we kind of mirror society. We became such a big company – suddenly we’re on the New York Stock Exchange being publicly traded – and when you’re that big of a company, you’re going to go after major advertisers. And, to be quite honest, there are a lot of major advertisers who would not risk being a show that was as edgy and over the top as Raw was during that Attitude Era.
So we just reigned it in a little bit and we became a very family-oriented entertainment product and then that suddenly was appealing to all these advertisers you see on our show now.
I think we did it seamlessly. I do hear people sometimes say, “Man, I miss the Attitude Era” or something, but I think the transition was so smooth that Raw still to me seems to me edgy. There are still things that push the envelope, but by the same token, we’re always cognizant of the fact that we are now full-family entertainment and we keep that in mind every single week we go out there and do a show.
Of all the advertisers in the history of Raw, none may be more iconic than Skittles. What are your thoughts on those reads that you and J.R. used to do?
They were always fun, but I thought that since J.R. and I almost became synonymous with those reads that the Skittles people would have at least sent a few boxes of Skittles our way. I can honestly say that Just For Men did send me a box of hair color, because just up until we started doing Just For Men commercials, when you talked about “50 Shades of Gray” it wasn’t a book, it was my head.
So we got some product from that sponsor, but Skittles never came through. They never gave us any candy. I was always really disappointed about that. Any time I read an on-camera or on-air commercial, I should get some free product, I would think.
In 2007, you were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. How did it feel to have that honor bestowed upon you?
I’ll never forget earlier in that year when Vince McMahon came to me, called me aside one day and said, “King, we’re going to induct you into the Hall of Fame this year,” and I went, “No!” He went, “What?” and I said, “I don’t want to,” and he said, “What do you mean you do want to?”
I had always associated hall of fames with baseball or football, and you didn’t get inducted until years after your playing career was over. I was just associating the WWE Hall of Fame with that. He said, “Why would you not want it?” I said, “I’m not through wrestling; I still want to go out and compete and perform.” He said, “This doesn’t mean that your career is over by any means; we just want to recognize what you’ve done up to this point, not only wrestling but commentating, as well.”
When he explained it to me in that respect, then of course it was a tremendous honor, and to have a major motion picture and entertainment star like William Shatner come to Detroit, Mich., to induct me into the Hall of Fame was an awesome night.
I was so excited. It is such an honor; it’s an elite few who are in the WWE Hall of Fame, to be included in that, I don’t know what to say other than it’s probably the best honor I’ve had in my entire career.
Is it hard to balance your WWE schedule with still working independent wrestling shows?
Not at all. I don’t like to make a major issue out of this because I try to stay under the radar and not make waves, but I probably have the best gig in the WWE. I literally have a one-day-a-week gig. It’s going to be a three-hour-a-week job to go out and do Monday Night Raw and then one weekend a month to do the pay-per-view. That’s the extent of my job with WWE.
I still enjoy climbing in the ring and doing it as much as I did when I started 42 years ago. I still do it fairly regularly. If I’m not wrestling at a WWE live event, I’m going out and doing independent shows on weekends. I still average wrestling – climbing into the ring and wrestling – about two times a week. I still enjoy that as much as I ever did.
What do you see in your future?
People come up and say, “Any plans to retire? When you going to retire?” I always say when they quit paying me, I’ll look around and probably say, “Well, I guess I’m retired.” But as long as someone still wants my services, either as a wrestler or as a commentator, I don’t see any reason you’d quit doing something that at one time I would have paid them to let me do.
I feel like the most fortunate guy in the world in the fact that I’ve had a great career and had a very financially successful career by doing something that I absolutely love to do. Most people, unfortunately, have to go out and work at a job they really don’t like just to make ends meet. I’ve had the lifelong good fortune of getting to do something I absolutely love and getting paid to do it.
As long as I’m physically able, I’d like to continue to do this. As a matter of fact, I’d like to be on the 2,000th episode of Monday Night Raw; I’d love to be there still doing the show.”
To listen to the full interview with Jerry Lawler in its entirety, listen to Episode 17 of From the Rafters Radio, presented by Ring Posts, All American Pro Wrestling and My 1-2-3 Cents, at aapwrestling.com/ftr-radio.html or on iTunes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times