Written under duress by Critical Bill (@williamrenken83)
At age 31, we I am asked what I like about wrestling, I answer with a lopsided statistic that, no, is not inspired by the mathematical genius of Scott Steiner.
95% is the physicality. When a match gets truly Olivia Newton John physical, (well maybe not that kind of physical) but I’m talking snug, aggressive, fast paced, angry disposition physical, I’m buying in. You’ve got me. And I don’t think it’s arrogant to say to some degree that’s what we all get from wrestling. We like it when shit looks real and gets real.
The other 5% is the show of it all. It’s theatrical, we get it. We don’t need to obsess about how “it’s as real as we want it to be.” Stop it! We know it’s a work, let’s move beyond that. That 5% constitutes that willing suspension of disbelief that makes the physically wrapped in a hell of a fun story. That’s the goal, anyway. But here and now, I’m talking about one particular part of that 5% that might as well be the full 100% of that 5% (oh shit, I am becoming Scott Steiner). It’s straight up, the guys who call a match.
About two years ago, I wrote for Bleacher Report as a columnist for WWE and professional wrestling. It was the wild wild west of PG-laden, troll inspiring propaganda that might have been as phony as journalism as that Shattered Glass fella’s work was.
Sometime during that fall, I came across Arda Ocal and a typical list article from the illustrious BR. “Top 5 Pro Wrestling Commentators in History (WWE, WCW, etc.).” Alright, you know and I know who the usual suspects are. Jim Ross number one, Gordon Solie number two. Right on, I get it. Jerseys in the rafters. The legends. Joey Styles checks in at number three, Michael Cole at four and Tony Schiavone at number five. And that’s when I fucking lost it.
I shouldn’t have. It’s not like this piece was anything other than Tuesday filler, but it set me off like start of Mission Impossible. What about the great Lance Russell? That’s what I asked immediately.
Now look, I’m not some esoteric hipster that only likes the things that no one else does to make me special. There’s a hell of a lot of people out there that love Lance Russell’s work from the boom days of Memphis wrestling. If you don’t, then I hope you get a little bit out of this.
1981. Mid-South Coliseum. Memphis, Tenn.
Lance Russell stands with a microphone in an empty arena talking to the cameraman as the footage rolls.
He’s openly doubting that either Terry Funk or Jerry Lawler is going to show for the supposed challenge that Funk had set up the week before for an unsanctioned match. He treats the set-up like he does all of the matches he commentates: cool, calm and collected with his usual heavy drawl and reluctance to seem outrageous and overbearing.
“We’ll see what happens,” he tells the cameraman, and then casually lights up a cigarette when the same cameraman cues him to run his lead-in. Not a problem for Russell. He discards the cigarette and jumps right in without error. Like he’s done so many times before for Memphis wrestling fans… (Excerpt from my Bleacher Report response to Arda Ocal)
Now, the premise of this entire feud and blowoff was pretty simple. Jerry Lawler was the big face in Memphis, and Terry Funk is the most badass heel coming to town to spill his blood all over Biehl Street. The culmination in their feud comes when Funk delivers a letter to Russell who in turn delivers it to Lawler. Please indulge yourself with how it plays out in the following link: http://youtu.be/6g_lecgQzb8.
Brilliant. Empty Arena match. At this point, a pioneering gimmick match that as we know now isn’t always what its cracked up to be. Fast forward to the match itself. As I wrote two years ago, and re-watching it today still agree: the believability, my buy-in as a fan hinges almost completely on how Lance Russell sells it to me as the gate way and voice of this affair. Don’t wait, watch the best Terry Funk performance of all time here: http://youtu.be/2peOLg5gqKY
When you go back to the boom periods of Memphis wrestling, it hinged simultaneously on the ridiculous and the ridiculous violence. But Memphis fans were engaged. Their buy-in was a guarantee. And it was Russell over those Saturday morning broadcasts that sold the product in the most perfect way. He sold wrestling to fans as if he was covering something that was legitamite. Something as legitimate as six o’clocknews story. You bought in. I’m looking at it decades later, and I’m still engaged.
It’s not like Russell could rattle off holds like Mike Tenay, or Ross, or Solie. He didn’t need to. He sold the action and the physicality as if it was real and he was the guy with a news van bearing witness.
One final piece of video evidence for your viewing pleasure is the often mentioned Tupolo, Mississippi brawl that has been often credited as the beginning of hardcore wrestling. It’s a hell of a throw down, link here: http://youtu.be/xTndTO1tqVk.
The brawl speaks for itself. Its a sloppy, gritty mess that Russell anchors beautifully and sells as just a balls out affair where anything that wasn’t pinned down became a weapon.
I’m not going to go get crazy this week with heavy paragraphs. I know the last couple of weeks have been hefty. When I saw that Raw this past Monday was in Memphis and that Justin Roberts via Instagram had posted this picture with Lance Russell, I couldn’t help but think about what truly I love about wrestling. As a performer, myself, the art of the sell is so very critical in any type of theater. The guys inside the ring have to bring it to a level that makes us lean forward in the chairs and stay engaged, but it’s also that special type of commentator who fills the audio gaps with reasons to stay engaged.
Lance Russell is that 5%. Hell of a career, sir…
(Bonus: Check out Dutch Mantell’s “Vietnam” Promo alongside Lance Russell http://youtu.be/JnaqRT7viyY)