It’s only fitting that in the same city where Sputnik Monroe refused to wrestle until Ellis Arena removed its “colored section” and allowed all fans to sit in any seat in the building, we saw perhaps the most sophisticated and nuanced race-based program in wrestling history. The topic was not one from which pro wrestling typically shied away, but its track record was mostly exploitative and embarrassing. Wrestling promoters usually either played on the fears of their most bigoted fans by pushing black heels, or they cynically pushed black wrestlers in a token babyface spot where white heels threw racist comments at them, thinking that the promise of revenge would draw black fans to the arenas.
Memphis wrestling was hardly above these tactics, which made the approach they took with this feud surprising. Lawler had a history of both penning wildly offensive comic strips — he notably drew one focused on Porkchop Cash’s exaggerated facial features and love of fried chicken and watermelon — and throwing racist lines in his promos, mostly as a heel but occasionally he even did so as a babyface. However, Lawler had a great affinity with the majority of black wrestling fans in the Memphis area in spite of all of this. He could even occasionally get the predominantly black fans in the Memphis studio to laugh at his racist jokes, which created a cognitive dissonance that was both unexplainable and undeniable. In fact, nearly a decade later when Lawler ran for mayor of Memphis, he saw his best path for victory as one where he would campaign in predominantly African American neighborhoods in an attempt to rally support.
The Snowman, real name Eddie Crawford, was trained by Lawler in the early 1980s. He was not a great worker or talker, but he had a great look and decent charisma. After starting out in the Memphis area, he jumped to Mid South Wrestling in 1985 where he had his most notable career push. Snowman was one of promoter Bill Watts’ many attempts to recreate the popularity of the Junkyard Dog years earlier. The push was predictably not successful and Snowman faded into obscurity over the next few years, outside of a brief 1987 stint back in Memphis. In 1990, he began doing interviews both on local R & B stations and in local black newspaper the Tri-State Defender criticizing the hiring practices and promotional policies of the USWA, making accusations of racism and even criticizing Lawler specifically. Lawler and promoter Jerry Jarrett were worried that these interviews would hurt their ability to draw black fans — a significant portion of their remaining audience years after the popularity of wrestling in Memphis had peaked — and decided to make a deal with Snowman to come to the USWA and work a program with Lawler that would play off of the radio interviews he was doing.
On the May 19 episode of USWA TV, Lawler, a heel at the time, came out to do one of his standard interviews about the Unified World Title, laughably accusing the larger WWF and WCW promotions of refusing to unify their world championships with the CWA and World Class. Lawler was quickly interrupted by The Snowman, appearing in the WMC-5 studio with his own entourage and getting a stunned reaction from announcer Dave Brown. Before Snowman could utter a word, matchmaker Eddie Marlin came out to tell him that he could not just show up anywhere he wanted, especially when they were airing a live television show. Marlin added that he tried booking Snowman in the past, but he never made his bookings. However, he was willing to give him another chance if he was willing to start at the bottom of the cards and work his way to the top.
Snowman was insulted by that offer and also added that he was tired of Lawler’s racist comments on television, specifically mentioning his many references to welfare and food stamps. He said point blank that the reason Lawler would not face him was because he is black. Before Lawler had a chance to respond, Marlin replied that all of “the blacks” were not on Snowman’s side on this issue before namedropping black wrestlers that had worked in the USWA over the last few months. Lawler, finally speaking, declared that the problem was that Snowman would not take the time to work his way to the top to get a title shot, although he claimed that he was being held back because he was black. Security guards attempted to escort Snowman and his friends out of the studio, but they were not leaving and Marlin was quite angry.
“Everyone in the USWA is worried that they’ll wake up one day and that there will be a black king,” Snowman said.
Lawler mentioned King Cobra, a Memphis mainstay and former Unified World Champion, in response and the argument continued on for a few minutes. Before finally leaving, Snowman promised to buy a ticket for the show on Monday night at Mid South Coliseum. Lawler was flustered for a few moments, even getting in the face of a heckling studio fan to scare him into silence, before returning to the original premise of his promo, a brilliant touch in a segment that was filmed in a way where we were clearly supposed to leave with the impression that we had just seen something we were not supposed to see, something not part of the show. The segment was even filled with unusual camera angles and jump cuts to give off the impression that the USWA had lost control of its television show. In reality, they were very much steering their own ship.
By the end of the decade, the wrestling scene was littered with poorly executed angles that attempted to make us think that we had just seen a shoot, but where those angles failed was that they also promoted the idea that the rest of the show we watched faithfully every week was in fact scripted and artificial. This segment did no such thing. Lawler never referred to Snowman as Eddie Crawford and Snowman never mentioned that Lawler had the book and even partial ownership of the promotion. The focus was on championship matches, main event positioning and opportunity, eternal themes in pro wrestling.
As promised, Snowman purchased a ringside seat and appeared in the audience at the May 21 Mid South Coliseum show, which was headlined by a familiar match — Lawler defending the Unified World Title against Kerry Von Erich. Marlin confronted Snowman at ringside and sent him packing in a chaotic scene involving building security and even a few fans. Interest in this feud was certainly there, as evidenced by the stunned facial expressions of nearby fans during this ordeal. Marlin invited Snowman to the Memphis studio on May 26, where he sat silently in the audience, building tension for what everyone expected to be a violent showdown with Lawler. However, Marlin had a different idea — rather than invoke another confrontation, Marlin simply wanted to give Snowman a chance to air his grievances and have an adult conversation, largely because he did not want another disturbance like the one earlier in the week.
Snowman immediately threw out accusations of racism, with Marlin replying that he thought that might be the case, so he asked King Cobra to join them. Snowman was not impressed, pointing out that the only reason Cobra had a job was that they knew he was not good enough to stay champion. Marlin asked Cobra if he had ever encountered any racism during his 15 years in Memphis. Cobra responded that he had not been a victim of any racism from the organization, but he had dealt with racist people in the area from time to time. In a fascinating moment, the predominantly black studio crowd did not buy this for a second and nearly booed Cobra out of the building, showing the emotional resonance this program already had. Cobra seemed unphased, casually pointing out that the fans were not in the business so they would not know.
Snowman was accompanied by black business owners in the Memphis area, one of whom was the brother of former Memphis wrestler Norvell Austin, who had choice words for Lawler and got in a few comments on his own about the racism in the USWA. Another member of Snowman’s entourage, billed as Bohemian Brother, pointed out that The Snowman defeated Ted DiBiase, Steve Williams, the Junkyard Dog and Jake Roberts, so it made no sense to have him start at the bottom of the card.
Lawler finally had enough of this and came out to add his opinion. Cobra, a longtime rival of Lawler’s, walked away immediately and glared at Lawler in an incredible bit of subtle continuity. Remember that Cobra claimed to have encountered certain racist people in the organization, and television viewers had seen Lawler make racist jokes about Cobra in the past. Lawler wanted a match with Snowman the following Monday night at Mid South Coliseum, but Marlin reminded Lawler of who was in charge, telling him he had no match until Marlin said so. Lawler responded that Marlin was giving credibility to Snowman’s accusations by denying him the title shot. He claimed that he was ready to fight Snowman right then and there, but Marlin played momentary peacemaker before finally agreeing to allow the match on Monday night. However, the USWA would not sanction it and he even said he hoped they would beat each other’s brains out. Later in the show, Snowman slapped Lawler and they ended up in a brawl, which Marlin broke up before having security escort Snowman out of the building. Their first match was signed for May 28.
Alternatively, in the much larger and nationally televised WCW, Ole Anderson had just become the booker. It was Ole’s first stint as a booker in over five years and in his first weekend in the role, he dove into familiar territory and demonstrated how behind the times he was. Ole converted WCW World Champion Ric Flair into a latent racist and booked the Four Horsemen to bully black jobber Rocky King. Arn Anderson referred to King as a “human stick of licorice” and when King and Junkyard Dog, Flair’s new top challenger, recruited support from Paul Orndorff and Sting, Barry Windham responded that JYD could not get anyone else of “your kind” to help him out. Flair added that there were other wrestlers he did not like for professional reasons, but that he did not like Junkyard Dog for personal reasons, even adding that when Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson were in the limo with him, they said nothing about JYD. If you were told about both of these feuds, you would probably think the regional promotion was running the Horsemen versus Junkyard Dog feud and the national promotion was tackling Lawler versus Snowman. The USWA clearly had a better understanding of their fans and the complexities of racial tension than WCW, and they handled the subject matter through a more progressive lens. The numbers vindicated the USWA’s approach, as the program doubled the average Mid South Coliseum attendance at the time.
In front of an electric crowd, Lawler and Snowman finally locked up as promised on May 28 and in a brilliant twist, this was not worked at all like a typical wrestling match. Instead, they continued to feed the perception that there was a legitimate grudge that went beyond pro wrestling, going for all sorts of awkward takedowns and throwing wild punches. This was purposely not smooth, almost like a home-cooked version of something we would see from Japan’s UWF, as the last takeaway they wanted fans to have was that they were cooperating and working together to have a match. The match only lasted four minutes before the referee lost control and threw it out, and while it may have seemed questionable to book such a short main event in front of a paying crowd, they wanted us to think that these guys really hated each other and they were also laying the groundwork for things to come. A short match was more beneficial in achieving their goals than a longer one precisely because it was a departure from typical wrestling tropes. They worked a similar style in their June 4 match, which this time ended when Snowman accidentally caught referee Lou Winston with a right hand in the mouth. Winston attempted to break them up after the match, but his efforts were in vain, as the two continued fighting.
Back at the studio on Saturday, June 9, the uncanny ability of promoter Jerry Jarrett to tap into the local culture was on full display. Lawler and Snowman traded barbs against a backdrop of disc jockeys and mascots from the Magic 101 radio station, with Snowman wearing a t-shirt from a competing station to further cement his outsider status. In one of the most heated studio squashes ever, Lawler took on underneath black wrestler Freezer Thompson while Snowman watched on and Lawler taunted him to get into the ring. While the program started with neither guy as a true babyface or heel, Lawler fully embraced the heel mantle by this point, calling on referee Jerry Calhoun to restrain Snowman and dropping an elbow on Thompson’s groin during the distraction. Eddie Marlin announced later in the show that the referee for the rematch on Monday night would be longtime Lawler nemesis Kerry Von Erich. Marlin said that Snowman should be ecstatic that Von Erich was the referee, even promising to strap the belt on Snowman himself if he could win the title. He added that he loved the idea of having a black world champion and hoped that all of the black fans in Memphis would fill Mid South Coliseum to witness history. Make what you will of Marlin’s constant attempts to prove how not racist he was, but Snowman and Marlin seemed to have reconciled many of their earlier differences. Meanwhile, Lawler cut a promo walking through fire (on a green screen, of course) and essentially promised that he would be throwing a fireball on Monday night. To further drive home the point that Lawler was the heel in this feud now, he announced that Downtown Bruno would be in his corner and even accused Snowman of walking around Memphis with his hand out asking for a title shot.
While it could be argued that speaking in racist code words is beneath the thoughtfulness of this feud, it could also be argued that Lawler simply hated The Snowman and said what he thought would anger him (and by proxy, black fans) the most, levels of taste be damned. We see other examples of this later in the feud, with Lawler saying to Snowman “You couldn’t beat me if you had a knife and a gun, which you probably do” and even referring to Snowman’s entourage as The Welfare Stooges. The racism of such comments cannot be denied, but perhaps the goal was to vindicate Snowman’s earlier complaints. We no longer had to take Snowman’s word that Jerry Lawler was a racist, because we were now able to see it for ourselves.
Intrigue over how the June 11 match, the third in their series, would play out ran high. Marlin had installed a referee that likely would not be too affected by an accidental punch and even promised the fans that the match would not end until one wrestler pinned the other wrestler. Lawler went over the top as a heel this time around, recruiting not only Bruno but other local managers Ronnie P. Gossett and Reggie B. Fine to be in his corner. Their purpose was to distract Kerry and it worked, as Lawler threw a fireball to secure a cheap pinfall after they worked some more of their now trademark awkward, non-cooperative appearing exchanges.
The following Saturday morning, it was announced that former professional boxer Leon Spinks would be the special referee for the fourth consecutive Lawler/Snowman match. Lawler objected to this on the grounds that Snowman seemed to always get his way, even accusing Marlin and Snowman of a top secret conspiracy. During Lawler’s match with Rex King later in the show, Snowman had enough of Lawler’s incessant taunting and they ended up brawling in a wild pull-apart scene that saw Marlin lose his glasses. In the June 18 match between the two, Spinks refused to count when Lawler had Snowman pinned, even rolling Lawler off of him. Lawler punched Spinks in retaliation and Spinks punched him back before performing a fast count to give Snowman the Unified World Title. This led to an angry Lawler challenging Spinks to a boxing match on June 25 believe it or not, which was promoted with a hysterical Spinks promo and old footage of a fight against Muhammad Ali. That match ended when Lawler took exception to Snowman’s interference, leading to Snowman and Spinks doing a number on Lawler. The goal of this was to turn Lawler babyface, but the studio fans were still skeptical of him, as despite being the longtime top star of the promotion, he had been a heel for well over a year and his promos were filled with racist comments in recent weeks.
The feud was running its course at this point. Lawler and Snowman had a match on July 2 with no referee, attempting to play off of all the previous problems with officiating in their matches. To further cement Lawler’s babyface turn, Downtown Bruno turned on him, pushing Lawler’s leg off of the bottom rope during Snowman’s pin attempt and costing him the match. The two had their final match on July 9 in a match with two referees which ended in another Snowman win after Downtown Bruno distracted Lawler. Bruno led a swarm of heels to hit the ring and attack Lawler after the match. Bill Dundee attempted a save, but the numbers game caught up to him. Snowman looked on, but did not intervene initially. However, when he finally came to the rescue of the the duo and helped clear the ring, the fans cheered enthusiastically. Lawler and Snowman shook hands, finally cementing Lawler as a babyface, and with that the best feud of 1990 was over.
While the feud ended on July 9, the story did not end there. Snowman defended the title on USWA cards for the next few weeks, working second from the top while Lawler’s feud took the headlining spot. Unhappy with his pay and position on the card, Snowman left the territory without dropping the title, leaving the group with no Unified World Champion. In addition, Snowman promoted himself through various Memphis media outlets as the real champion who had never been defeated, a claim aided by Snowman still having the championship belt in his possession. Snowman’s name was not mentioned again on USWA TV until September 22 when it was announced that a tournament would take place to crown a new champion, which gave Lawler a chance to sound off on the circumstances of Snowman’s departure. On October 6, Eddie Marlin famously accused Snowman of pawning the belt to a drug dealer, something that Snowman insists was untrue and was merely a reference to him flippantly telling USWA promoters that he would sooner pawn the belt to a drug dealer than return it to them.
The same real emotions that gave this feud life were the ones that killed it in the end, perhaps demonstrating why such high-tension, reality-based feuds are not the norm in professional wrestling. It was those real tensions that made the feud work, as an attempt to recapture the magic of the feud in Dallas, Texas by feuding Jeff Jarrett and Iceman King Parsons would prove. Jarrett was a great worker and Parsons was far better both as a worker and talker than Snowman, but the element of danger was missing in the Dallas version. While the Lawler/Snowman feud contained detail work to distinguish it from other feuds happening in the territory, Jarrett and Parsons were simply working a pro wrestling angle, demonstrating that a feud this good cannot be manufactured, even if all the professional elements appear to be in place.
Charles is just a wrestling fan who likes talking about wrestling with other fans. He is the owner and admin of ProWrestlingOnly.com and posts there under the name Loss. You can register for an account there by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can also follow him on Twitter at @prowresonly.
Charles is currently working on ‘The ProWrestlingOnly.com Viewers Guide: 1990s Edition’, which is hopefully the first in a series of e-books tackling various wrestling topics. This book will review what he sees as the 500 best wrestling matches from around the world throughout the 1990s and will also include blurbs on interesting and forgotten news items, angles and zany stories from a landmark decade. It is tentatively scheduled for release in March 2015.