Continental Wrestling Association (later on “Championship Wrestling Association”) was a wrestling promotion managed by Jerry Jarrett. The CWA was the name of the "governing body" for the Championship Wrestling, Inc. promotion which was usually referred to as Mid-Southern Wrestling or the Memphis territory. This promotion was a chief NWA territory during the 1970s and early 1980s while operating out of Tennessee and Kentucky. The CWA was a member of the National Wrestling Alliance until 1986 and affiliated with the American Wrestling Association until 1989. In 1989, the CWA merged with the World Class Wrestling Association to form the United States Wrestling Association thus ceasing to exist as a separate entity.
The professional wrestling territory commonly referred to as the “Memphis Area” was originally part of the NWA Mid-America promotion that was founded in the 1940s and operated in Memphis, Tennessee and in Nashville, TN, but also included stops in Chattanooga, TN, Jackson, TN, Louisville, KY, Lexington, KY, Bowling Green, KY, Evansville, IN, Birmingham, AL, Huntsville, AL, Tupelo, MS, Jonesboro, AR, Dayton, OH, Wheeling, WV and even small towns in southeastern Missouri, northern Georgia and eastern North Carolina. The "NWA Mid-American" territory was a tag team hot bed for most of its early years, featuring tag teams in nearly all of its main events, and sometimes featuring only one or two singles matches to compliment an evening of tag matches. Such teams as The Von Brauners, The Interns, The Infernos, The Bounty Hunters, Tojo Yamamoto and Jerry Jarrett, Don and Al Green, Bobby Hart and Lorenzo Parente, The Fabulous Kangaroos, Jerry Lawler and Jim White, The Fabulous Fargos, and a host of other teams were regulars. During the mid-1970s the focal point of the territory changed from tag wrestling to singles action around the same time as Jerry Lawler's rise to become the "King", and a split that forever changed the territory.
In the mid-1970s the territory split in two, with separate promoters for each half. Jerry Jarrett ended up as the promoter in charge of Memphis, Louisville, Lexington and Evansville while still part of NWA Mid-America, while Nick Gulas, who had been the primary booker, continued to promote the other half of the territory. A dispute arose between Nick Gulas and Jerry Jarrett. Many of the wrestlers in the promotion were upset at Nick Gulas for over booking Nick’s son George Gulas in the extremely profitable Memphis half of the territory. George Gulas was not built very well at all, he was tall and lanky but physical build was something which was not all that important to the fans in the area, but he was also not a great worker. It was very hard to believe, even for wrestling fans used to poorly built wrestlers, that George could regularly beat his larger more experienced foes. George was given matches and wins over longtime veterans of the territory without "paying his dues". This started the rift. After Jerry Jarrett had invested 50000 Dollars into what he thought was a 10%-share of the promotion and learned that Gulas had tricked him into paying for an option to buy only (which by the time he learned had already expired) he decided to go his own way. Jarrett decided to break away by starting competing cards at the Cook Convention Center in March 1977. Nick Gulas, who lived in Nashville, eventually made "Music City" his home base, running weekly cards at the Fairgrounds and all over mid-Tennessee. Originally Gulas was backed by many of the areas top draws but Jerry Jarrett had two aces up his sleeve. First he was backed by Jerry Lawler, who had just toppled Jackie Fargo as the headliner of the area, and second was that with Lawler he had Memphis. Memphis was clearly the hot spot for the territory. Gulas did attempt to run shows in Memphis for some time but without the headliner, Lawler, he could not compete. The split between Gulas and Jarrett created the Continental Wrestling Association as a totally separate promotion run by Jarrett. In 1980 after only three years, the Gulas territory folded when Nick Gulas retired and the CWA took over some of the more profitable locations (e.g. Nashville).
After the split from Nick Gulas, the CWA became a National Wrestling Alliance affiliate, which entitled the CWA to NWA World Heavyweight Championship defenses. The champion would regularly tour through the territory defending the title against top contenders. With the World champion being a “traveling champion” the main title of the CWA was the Southern Heavyweight Title, which was nominally sanctioned by the NWA (into 1978) or the AWA (beginning in 1978).
The cornerstone of the CWA was the weekly Monday night shows from the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, where the cards regularly drew full houses. These shows were repeated in some form weekly in Louisville and Nashville (on Saturday nights). Having three major shows at all three cities, and additional shows through other towns in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and Northern Alabama provided significant profits into the early 1990s. These shows showcased a series of legendary wrestlers as they made their way through the Memphis territory; future superstars such as Hulk Hogan performed there before the birth of Hulkamania, as well as NWA headliners such as Harley Race, Terry Funk, Jack Brisco, and Ric Flair. A who's who of wrestling superstars made visits to the area, usually to face Lawler. While Lawler was often a "heel" or bad guy wrestler he was still the "home team." No matter what dirty tricks the "King" had played on the locals, when an out of town wrestler would surface, Lawler was cheered. For a while Lawler was managed by an old high school pal Jimmy Hart. That was until Lawler broke his leg in a backyard football game. During Lawler's absence, Hart proclaimed Paul Ellering as the "New King" of wrestling. When Lawler returned he engaged in one of the biggest feuds in the promotion's history.
The biggest run of the promotion was the Jerry Lawler-Jimmy Hart feud which would last throughout the 1980s. Jimmy Hart's "First Family" included dozens of wrestlers who Hart brought in to face Lawler. Included in this list were The Iron Sheik, The Dream Machine, The Nightmares, Eddie Gilbert, Ken Patera, Jesse Ventura]], [[Hulk Hogan, Bugsy McGraw, Kevin Sullivan, Bobby Eaton, "Killer Tim Brooks", Paul Ellering, and countless others. The feud ended when Hart was signed by the WWE and Lawler won a match against Eddie Gilbert in which the stipulation was Hart leaving the territory.
The federation also aired live Saturday-morning wrestling cards from the studios of WMC-TV in Memphis, hosted by Lance Russell and Dave Brown. In the territorial era of wrestling, many local promotions had huge ratings with their wrestling shows, but none of them topped the ratings for the weekly CWA show which drew previously unheard of shares behind the strength of Lawler's local popularity.
Throughout the late 1970s, the 1980s and into the early 1990s, Jerry Lawler also engaged in bitter top of the card feuds with Dutch Mantell, Robert Fuller, The Mongolian Stomper, Bruiser Brody, Handsome Jimmy Valiant, Austin Idol, Rocky Johnson, Tommy Rich, Randy Savage, Rick Rude, and Bill Dundee among others. These men were on and off again partners to Lawler. One week they were allies the next week they were feuding. Of all the foes Lawler feuded with, Bill Dundee was probably his most bitter rival. The "Superstar" was easily the second biggest draw behind Lawler, despite his short frame, Dundee's charisma made him a draw. Fans were nearly split in the area as who they would cheer for no matter which wrestler was the "good guy."
The Mid-South Coliseum also played host to one of the most famous angles not only in the CWA but in all of wrestling, an angle that would get nationwide exposure on Late Night with David Letterman.
Andy Kaufman comes to Memphis
In the early 1980s, Andy Kaufman would routinely wrestle women during his shows, soon proclaiming himself the “Intergender Wrestling Champion” where he would offer women $1000 if they could beat him. As part of this performance, Kaufman would imply that these matches were “real” and thus also imply that professional wrestling was not “real”, which countered the sacrosanct belief of fans in that era that wrestling was "real".
Kaufman even started appearing on the Mid-South Coliseum shows wrestling women in the undercard matches, and after winning Kaufman would berate the Memphis crowd and proclaim his own greatness in the sport. He even went so far as to claim that no woman could beat him and if they did – he would marry that woman. Enter Jerry Lawler, proud defender of wrestling and angry at Andy Kaufman for mocking the sport that made him a star, so he decided to coach one of Kaufman’s opponents. Kaufman still won despite Lawler’s coaching and gloated like it was going out of style, until Lawler had enough and pushed Kaufman, sending the comedian on a tirade.
The fans loved every second of it, watching the local star defend the sport against the arrogant actor from Hollywood. When the inevitable Lawler/Kaufman match was finally held, the Mid-South Coliseum was packed to the rafters. The delighted fans saw Lawler execute two Piledrivers (a move that was "banned" in Memphis) after which Kaufman was carried out of the arena on a stretcher (kayfabe). The following day several newspapers reported that Kaufman had in fact broken his neck.
Several weeks later, Kaufman returned to the Mid-South Coliseum wearing a neck brace, and the skinny comedian vowed to get even with Lawler no matter what. The feud got national exposure in several newspapers after Kaufman’s supposed injury, and it would get even more press after Kaufman discussed it on Saturday Night Live. But that was just a preview of things to come.
On July 27, 1982, Kaufman and Lawler were guests of David Letterman on Late Night with David Letterman. Kaufman still wore the neck collar to indicate that he still had not gotten over the brutal match five months earlier. After Kaufman unleashed a profanity-laced tirade on Lawler, culminating with Kaufmann throwing a cup of coffee at him, Lawler stood up and then slapped the comedian out of his chair and off the stage. Kaufmann then continued cursing Lawler as he (Kaufmann) stormed out of the studio.
The wild antics of Lawler and Kaufman made the NBC network executives uneasy, believing that the hatred between the two was real and that mayhem could break out at any time. Kaufman and Lawler would keep claiming that their hatred was real, that their actions were real and that they would maim one another if they got the chance. Kaufman and Lawler's famous feud and wrestling matches were later revealed to have been a staged "work", as the two were actually friends. The truth about it being a work was kept secret for more than 10 years after Kaufman's death, until the Emmy nominated documentary A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman aired on NBC in 1995. Coincidentally, Jim Carrey is the one who reveals the secret, and would later go on to play Kaufman in the 1999 film Man on the Moon. In a 1997 interview with the Memphis Flyer, Lawler claimed he had improvised during their first match and the Letterman incident. Although officials at St. Francis Hospital stated that Kaufman's neck injuries were real, in his 2002 biography "It's Good to Be the King...Sometimes," Lawler detailed how they came up with the angle and kept it quiet. He also said that Kaufman's explosion on Letterman was the comedian's own idea.
At the end of 1982, Jerry Lawler had seemingly won the American Wrestling Association World Title from Nick Bockwinkel, but due to the match's controversial ending, the title was returned to Bockwinkel with a rematch scheduled for January 1983. On the night of the match, manager Jimmy Hart showed up in Bockwinkel’s corner, face bandaged after being beaten up by Lawler in December. Near the end of the match a familiar face showed up – Jimmy Hart. In the confusion Bockwinkel managed to win the match after which Andy Kaufman unwrapped the bandages to reveal the ploy, thus reigniting Lawler’s feud with Kaufman. The Lawler/Kaufman feud would end in the early part of 1983 after Jerry Lawler threw a fireball at Kaufman, ending his run with the CWA. After Kaufman left, Lawler refocused his efforts on Jimmy Hart and his First Family stable.
Lawler challenging for the World title and almost winning it was a recurring theme throughout the mid-1980s, with neither the AWA nor the NWA being willing to actually put their main title on Lawler. The NWA World title was not defended very often in the Memphis area, usually touring with companies that had more political clout in the Alliance, which meant that the CWA actually featured the AWA World champion more regularly than the group of which they were actually dues-paying members.
In 1988, plans were set in motion to actually merge the AWA and the CWA into one federation in an attempt to counter the World Wrestling Federation’s national expansion. The federation was renamed the Championship Wrestling Association in late-1987 when Jerry Lawler began co-promoting with Jarrett. Subsequently, all singles titles in the CWA (AWA Southern, CWA/AWA International and NWA Mid-America Heavyweight) were merged in order to recognize one CWA Heavyweight Champion.
On May 9, 1988 in Memphis, Jerry Lawler took on the reigning AWA World Champion Curt Hennig and won the title. As the year went on the AWA/CWA alliance was expanded to include the World Class Wrestling Association out of Texas, with a title unification match set for the AWA’s first (and only) pay-per-view, AWA SuperClash III. Lawler retained the AWA World Heavyweight Championship and won the WCWA World Heavyweight Championship in controversial fashion—the match was stopped due to excessive blood loss from Kerry Von Erich -- and was declared the “Unified World Champion”, cementing his claim by carrying the AWA and WCCW titles with him.
Due to controversies following the PPV, the CWA (and WCCW) broke off their relationship with the AWA and Lawler was stripped of the AWA World title. In retaliation, Lawler kept the physical AWA World Heavyweight championship belt for not getting his payoff for SuperClash III.
The end of an era
After the cooperative attempt with the AWA failed, Jerry Jarrett bought WCCW from the Von Erichs and unified the two promotions as the United States Wrestling Association in 1989, thus ending the era of Continental Wrestling Association.
- CWA Heavyweight Championship
- CWA Tag Team Championship
- CWA Southwestern Heavyweight Championship
- CWA Super Heavyweight Championship
- CWA World Heavyweight Championship (Memphis)
- CWA World Tag Team Championship
- NWA Mid-America Heavyweight Championship
- NWA Mid-America Tag Team Championship
- NWA World Six-Man Tag Team Championship
- CWA/AWA International Heavyweight Championship
- CWA/AWA International Tag Team Championship
- AWA Southern Heavyweight Championship
- AWA Southern Tag Team Championship