As most of you will know, last night on Monday Night Raw, Jerry “The King” Lawler suffered a heart attack right at the commentary table at ringside. He was rushed away by crew members to the backstage area and, later, taken to a nearby Montreal hospital where he began recovery, albeit after what one wrestler claimed was twenty minutes of being “clinically dead.”
It’s a frightening occurrence at any time, but for a ringside commentator to keel over at the desk while Raw is live on air is terrible. I’m not a fan of Michael Cole, as regular readers will know, but credit is due for his professionalism continuing to commentate on the rest of the show after his colleague was taken away from ringside and he received updates through his headset in the minutes following the incident.
Obviously, Jerry Lawler is a legend. Of all the Hall of Fame inductees, he’s one of the few WWE choices that can’t be questioned: the career of this other king from Memphis, Tennessee, has been one of credibility, from his beginnings, to the King of Memphis wrestling, to his infamous worked-shoot feud with Andy Kaufman, to his heated rivalry with Eddie Gilbert that I watched as a youngster, to, finally, his part-time heel routine with the WWF against Bret Hart and Jake Roberts, and his near-twenty year colour commentary on WWF/E broadcasts and iconic partnership with Jim Ross that was even given the nod in their roles in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon starring Jim Carrey…despite scandals plaguing his personal life, he has been held dear by those around the pro wrestling business.
Lawler’s on-air heart attack shocked and surprised many. His business partner Randy Hales said that Jerry – who doesn’t smoke or drink – has been in good health, supposedly kept young by his choice of sexual partners. Given that, as JR speculated, this scare was caused by clogged arteries, further speculation can lead one to assume his diet was poor, with perhaps his food choices being the types to be accompanied by some of JR’s own famous barbecue sauce.
But regardless, while the WWE Wellness programme can discover in MVP the presence of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (an abnormal accessory pathway in his heart), it failed Jerry Lawler, as good as it is. Or does the Wellness programme not subject part-timers such as “The King” or The Rock to its procedures, as has been constantly claimed (thus explaining Rock’s pumped physique on his occasional returns from Hollywood)? And this brings us to the point that Jerry Lawler wrestled in a tag team match on-air about half an hour before returning to his headset at ringside, after which he suffered the heart attack.
The inability to elevate and create stars has hindered WWE in recent years, the product stifled by this failure to evolve. What’s worse, in spots where we could be watching proven professional wrestling talents like Dean Ambrose or Seth Rollins, we see them forcibly subjected to WWE insecurity-driven rituals such as “learning the WWE style” or, more ridiculous, “paying their dues,” and instead have Jerry Lawler wrestling on the company’s flagship show at the age of 62.
What are WWE afraid of? Their humbling of young talent such as those mentioned above is notorious, yes, but some slip through the system – look at CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. Is it more a panic over what happens to older stars when they can’t be justifiably used in the ring any more? Perhaps, instead of contractually owning wrestlers (and their day-to-day lives) while still claiming they’re “independent contractors,” they could implement exit strategies, pension plans, and comprehensive health care coverage. Maybe then, the McMahons wouldn’t suffer such criticism, and they wouldn’t have to hold on to aging wrestlers who otherwise might end up like Randy “The Ram” Robinson in the movie The Wrestler.
Let’s hope Jerry Lawler makes a full recovery, but that he also refrains from stepping into the ring. He may even be past his prime on commentary; if WWE can’t find an ambassador role for him, they are going to have to think long and hard and seriously about how they take care of their loyal troops after they’ve moved on. As they preach on their programming as part of their armed forces rhetoric, it’s important not to forget veterans, and this should apply to wrestlers too – it needs to be more than just a salute and some lip service, but in socially and economically taking care of them for their services.
Ironically, it was also Jerry Lawler who sat by and watched as Vince McMahon mocked JR’s Bell’s Palsy on-air, and also made light of the heart attack of TNA’s Bruce Prichard. Perhaps after his recuperation that we hope is successful, he will take WWE’s anti-bullying campaign more seriously, while encouraging his bosses to, as well.