I don’t think one more Memphian could have crammed into the Mid-South Coliseum.
Our hero, the King of Rasslin’, Jerry Lawler, promised us that he would either become AWA World Champion or retire.
We had no choice but to be there.
For years, fate denied Lawler a World Championship. He had faced the best: Nick Bockwinkel, Harley Race, Ric Flair, and others. But circumstances, usually interference from a “bad guy,” overcame Lawler’s opportunities.
This night was his last shot.
My dad and I sat in our usual spot in the risers. We normally went to Monday night wrestling once a year, near my birthday, but this night brought us out two months early.
What if this was the King’s last match?
I don’t remember Curt Henning’s ring entrance, but I’ll never forget Lawler’s.
He came out on a camel.
Twenty five years later I can’t recall many specifics about the match. I’ve watched it a few times since, but my memories of the night center on the final moments.
Lawler polished off Henning with a finishing move I’d never seen him use. He catapulted the future “Mr. Perfect” over the turnbuckle and into the ring post. When Henning landed, Lawler covered him and the Fabulous One Jackie Fargo, the match’s special referee, moved into position.
Fargo raised his hand and we all counted “one” as he slammed it against the mat. The hand shot up again and we all counted “two.” Our chests thumped. His hand extended one more time and the entire crowd called out “three.”
Eleven thousand fans launched from their seats, exploding with shouts and cheers.
I can still feel the Coliseum floor vibrate under my feet.
The wrestlers poured out of the dressing room toward the ring to congratulate the King. They lifted him on their shoulders, and he held up the championship belt.
Memphis’ King was King indeed.
That night was a special one for a kid who grew up absorbed in and obsessed with Memphis wrestling. It’s the highlight of that part of my childhood.
I began thinking about this match just the other day, on May 9, 2013. A pastor friend shared on Facebook that it had been twenty five years since Lawler vs. Henning. I couldn’t believe it.
What happened that night? When I look back, the moment’s emotions dominate my memory. Why was the crowd so united? Why so much joy?
Professional wrestling works like any good story telling medium. It allows us to suspend our belief and be swept into the story.
On Lawler’s victorious night, the crowd was swept into a story that had built for years. Each one of the King’s close calls during his career slowly pushed the fans towards desperation. Whoever created the angle that Lawler would retire if he lost (I suspect it was Lawler himself), knew the storyline was ripe.
And for a few moments, we all believed.
Even though we knew it wasn’t real.
We all agreed to believe the story, and our belief created genuine emotion.
We united around our hero.
My life is now very different than the life of my almost eleven year old self. I’m now a pastor; and as a pastor, I often think about church unity.
To be united around a professional wrestler is fun, mindless entertainment. But, to be united around the person and work of Jesus Christ is the eternal calling of every Christian and church body.
In Acts 1:14, Luke wrote of Jesus’ followers, “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers (NASB).”
After Pentecost, Luke summarized the early church in Acts 2:46–47 by writing, “46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved (NASB).”
Christians impact the world with the gospel when united.
If the church is going to be effective with lost people, then we must be more excited about Jesus than any wrestling fan is about his favorite grappler.
Our personal passions and hobbies make little eternal difference.
But, if we allow ourselves to be swept into the story of eternity, our unity will produce churches that cannot be stopped.
The floor of the Mid-South Coliseum no longer shakes with the cheers of thousands, but the truth of the gospel continues to unite and inspire each new generation to reach the lost.
I believe we can all jump to our feet about that.