To this day, Jackie Fargo swears he could take Sputnik Monroe easy. In Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin', the silver-haired wrestling legend looks into the camera and bluntly declares that anybody who couldn't beat Monroe had no business in the ring. At age 72, Fargo can still strut. And he still knows how to bring the heat.
In the world of professional wrestling, "heat" is the expression used to describe public animosity between wrestlers and the resulting fan frenzy. Heat is desirable. It's the currency of professional wrestling, and once upon a time, Memphis, Tennessee, had heat like no other city in America. All of that energy is encapsulated in Memphis Heat, an always entertaining and surprisingly enlightening film co-produced by Sherman Willmott and Ron Hall, the creative team behind the books Sputnik, Masked Men, & Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling and Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-75.
Ask Hall how he became a wrestling fan, and he answers succinctly. "It was a blast," he says. Hall's family moved to Memphis in 1959 as he was starting fourth grade. Sputnik Monroe and Billy Wicks were laying the foundation for their 1961 feud, and since all the kids at Hall's school watched wrestling on TV, this classic battle of good vs. evil was a hot topic of conversation on the playground. In one corner there was Wicks, the blond hero type. Monroe — the loud, abusive bully — shouted taunts from the other.
"I was hooked," says Hall, a lifelong collector of memorabilia. "I cut out clippings, bought pictures, watched every week: The Baby Blimp, Mighty Jumbo, Rowdy Red Roberts, Treacherous Phillips, Mario & Spider Galento." Hall cuts his list of Memphis wrestlers short. Had he gone on, it could have included some of the pseudo-sport's biggest names: Hulk Hogan, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Jerry "The King" Lawler, and WWE attraction turned Hollywood action hero Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, many of whom make at least cameo appearances in Memphis Heat.
Professional wrestling evolved from carnival strong-man attractions, once a standard sideshow con. Burly roustabouts would take on all comers, offering a substantial bounty to any man in the crowd who could lick him in a fair fight. But nobody could win against the house, because, as several wrestlers interviewed for the documentary observe, the fight was never fair. A second man always hid behind a curtain with a blackjack, ready to finish off tough challengers.
As wrestling moved from the carnival midway to gyms and arenas, it became more theatrical. Novelties like midget and female wrestling gave way to the development of larger-than-life characters and ongoing feuds and story lines that often reflected political and cultural insecurities. In the years after World War II, the most effective bad guys were sadistic Germans like Kurt and Karl Von Brauner or heartless Japanese villains like Tojo Yamamoto. Likewise, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, heels from oil-producing countries became popular in the ring. Memphis Heat touches on this brutal kabuki, but it also shows how Sputnik Monroe used his star power to take on racism.
When Monroe was arrested for drinking in blacks-only bars on Beale Street, he fought back with heat, hiring African-American attorney Russell Sugarmon and trash-talking segregation like he was trash-talking one of his opponents. "What kind of communist country would tell a man where he can and can't have a drink?" he'd ask. Monroe lost his case, but he won the fight to further desegregate Memphis wrestling, and when any of his fellow wrestlers complained, Monroe would tell the bookers, "Don't give that man any black money."
Former wrestler and promoter Buddy Wayne doesn't think Monroe intended to treat his case like a wrestling match. "He was the kind of man who, if you really needed something, he'd make sure you got it," Wayne says. "And I think he really loved black people. And they loved him."
Memphis expanded its reputation as a wrestling town in the 1970s and '80s due in no small part to the contributions of a fire-and-flour-throwing antics of Lawler, whose feud with comedian Andy Kaufman climaxed with an explosive appearance in 1982 on Late Night With David Letterman that helped to mainstream professional wrestling.
Director Chad Schaffler and editor Prichard Smith set a brisk pace, and Memphis Heat covers a lot of ground, including the birth of WMC's live-studio wrestling, which outperformed the World Series locally. The film touches on behind-the-scenes feuds between rival promoters who shaped the business of wrestling. It also explores the pre-MTV relationship that developed between area wrestlers, musicians, and TV personalities, which made the emergence of former Gentry Jimmy "The Mouth of the South" Hart an inevitability.
But will Memphis Heat appeal to non-fans? Hall thinks it's possible.
"My wife was never a fan and thought all the pictures I got in the mail while working on Sputnik, Masked Men, & Midgets were gross," he says. "But this movie changed her mind. It's a hell of a story."
Premieres at Malco Paradiso with shows at 7 and
9 p.m. on Thursday, March 24th; March 24th also will be named National Sputnik Monroe Day in honor of the wrestler.
Memphis Heat starts a week-long run at Studio on the Square beginning Friday, March 25th.