Credit: Anthony Benigno @ wwe.com
The word came down from on high: Vince McMahon wanted The Rock out of Memphis, Tennessee, and Jerry Lawler had two days to make it happen.
This was nothing unusual for “The King,” who, thanks to a strange confluence of circumstances, had become uniquely adept at solving unusual problems. At this point, he was not only a regular player on WWE programming, but also the star competitor, co-owner and creative force behind USWA Memphis, one of the last remnants of the famed wrestling territories that had begun to wither up during the nationwide expansion of WWE and WCW. Lawler’s continued involvement had managed to keep USWA in business even as its contemporaries faded away, and that persistence had earned the promotion a unique lifeline from the big-leagues.
“[WWE] didn’t really have a place to generate new talent or to get them trained,” Lawler told WWE.com. “After a while, Vince McMahon realized this Tennessee territory down there may be a good place [he] can use as a training ground for [his] new, up-and-coming wrestlers.”
Taking advantage of his relationship with McMahon as well as his status as a promoter himself, Lawler would field prospects sent down from New York, The Rock among them, and get them as ready for the big time as possible with a crash-course in Territory Wrestling 101. “Rather than giving them exposure on national TV while they were still green, [WWE sent] ’em down to Memphis,” the WWE Hall of Famer recalled. “They’d get to work every night, they’d get to do TV shows and all that sort of stuff and get a lot of matches under their belt, and when they’re ready, boom. You’d bring ’em up and showcase ’em.”
The downside? Lawler’s prospects were there until the exact moment that WWE wanted them back … and there was no indicator of when that might be.
“They were there, and you didn’t know how long they were going to be there, and you didn’t know when they were going to get the call to leave,” Lawler said. “That’s what happened with The Rock.”
“I don’t know who came up with that name or where it came from,” Lawler said. “But anyway, he was Flex Kavana.”
While Flex Kavana was the very definition of a work in progress — “he had a very unusual haircut … [that] made him look like a pineapple” — Lawler knew that the tools, on a technical level, were already in place to help build a star.
“There aren’t many people you can say were really naturals but The Rock was,” Lawler said. “It was in his heritage. His dad, Rocky Johnson, was a tremendous wrestler and very talented and had a ton of charisma. Rocky grew up around that and I guess that’s where it came from. We knew from the get-go that the kid was gonna be something special.”
With no set timeframe for his departure, Flex Kavana had enough time to marinate in the same territory where Johnson had once been a mega-star and Lawler’s foil. Despite the attempt to distance Rock from his heritage, the son was proving just as high-wattage as the father, and Lawler knew he had a star on his hands.
“The fans got behind this kid and they really liked him a lot,” Lawler said. Rock did his part, too, working an insane schedule across the South that saw him compete in a different city six days a week. “Monday night was Memphis, Tennessee. Tuesday was Louisville, Kentucky. Wednesday was Adamsville, Indiana, Thursday night was either Lexington, Kentucky, or Jackson, Tennessee, Friday night was Tupelo, Mississippi, Saturday night was Nashville or Jonesboro, Arkansas, and a couple of [TV shows] thrown in there on Saturday as well,” Lawler explained. “It was just a constant of matches every single night. And that’s where you got your on-the-job training.”
“We sort of got a rush-call. They said, hey, we need the guy to start this coming Monday. And this was maybe on a Thursday,” Lawler laughed. Given Rock’s popularity and Lawler’s onscreen status as Public Enemy No. 1, “The King” knew there was only one man capable of sending Flex Kavana into exile.
“You keep your finger on the pulse of the fans,” Lawler said. “You figure out what wrestler the fans like the most, figure out what wrestler the fans dislike the most, and then you put those two guys against each other. He was up there in fan popularity and I was the main bad guy at the time. It was a natural match to have.”
So far so good. At least until they realized the show was running long.
“We had a 90-minute show and we were about to go off the air,” Lawler said of the fateful bout that sent The Great One packing from USWA. “It was just a rushed job to get the match over before we went off the air.”
The match, which can be found online, is actually pretty entertaining given that everyone seems to be moving and talking at twice the normal speed. “We gotta get this one underway!” yelps the commentator as Flex sprints into the ring and whips off a pair of sunglasses. Lawler yells some final taunts in the vicinity of the microphone; an interfering minion of “The King’s” holds Flex’s tights against the turnbuckle while Lawler tees off and the announcer moans, “I wish we had more time!” A brief commercial break ensues. When the action resumes, all out chaos has broken out. Flex executes a textbook sunset flip, but the ref is too preoccupied with a fracas outside the ring to record the pinfall. With less than 15 seconds to go before the broadcast cuts off, Lawler hits his Piledriver, pins Flex, and it’s over. The announcer, short on both time and oxygen, blurts out his sign-off in one single breath — “Kavana’sgonewegottagoI’llseeyounextweek” — as Lawler pumps his fists.
Credit: Anthony Benigno @ http://www.wwe.com/superstars/the-rock/article/the-rock-jerry-lawler-loser-leaves-town?sf42587605=1&utm_source=Direct
Here's video of that historical USWA show: