Most would agree that Jerry “The King” Lawler’s triumphant return to Monday Night Raw, just nine weeks after surviving a near-fatal heart attack, was a surefire highlight in the storied history of WWE’s flagship show.
Wrestling-related miracles — at least the non-contrived ones — are rare, and WWE had plenty to be happy about with Lawler’s amazing recovery from what could have been one of the lowest points in company history.
But this was to have been a night reserved for the return of The King.
Lawler’s address to the crowd in Columbus, Ohio, was sincere and heartfelt. He offered his gratitude for the support he had received and seemed genuinely touched by the outpouring of affection from his fans.
Lawler, a beloved performer who began his wrestling career more than 40 years ago, received a hero’s welcome and a standing ovation.
He compared his recent experience to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
It was a real moment in a make-believe world.
But what happened afterward hit a nerve with many fans and viewers who feel WWE crossed the line.
Instead of allowing the Hall of Fame announcer to finish his speech and end the segment on a feel-good note, WWE writers opted to use the situation to put heat on the company’s top heel.
C.M. Punk, along with manager Paul Heyman, mocked Lawler’s heart attack and the fact that he almost died.
“If you hadn’t had a heart attack, I’d have beaten you to death,” Punk told the 62-year-old Lawler.
Heyman went a step further by feigning a heart attack in the ring. Then he, along with Punk, laughed at Lawler.
That’s when former wrestling star and promoter Jerry Jarrett tuned out.
“I got up and told my wife that I was going to bed. Wrestling should have some limits and boundaries. If you offend great portions of the audience, it is a bad angle,” said Jarrett, who once served as a creative consultant for WWE.
Generating cheap heat is a basic tenant of the wrestling business, and exploitation certainly isn’t a foreign concept to the profession either. Wrestling has never been the bastion of good taste, with a wealth of historic precedence to prove it.
But that’s not really the point here.
The fact of the matter is that the WWE brain trust seems confused in its direction, and in this case, it squandered an opportunity to rise above the fray.
Some fans pointed out that the angle would have received rave reviews had it happened during the Attitude Era at the height of the Monday Night Wars.
But that was nearly 15 years ago, and much has changed since then. WWE has long since shifted its direction from an edgy, envelope-pushing product that attracted a young adult demographic in droves, to a more watered-down, family-friendly product that appeals to mainstream sponsors.
As close as Lawler came to dying nine weeks ago (he was actually declared clinically dead for more than 10 minutes), this might not have been the right place or the right time to make light of a very serious subject.
One that’s serious as a heart attack. Pun intended.
Jarrett, 70, says he doesn’t get to watch much wrestling on TV these days, but he tuned in Monday night to see his old friend and business partner make his return.
He even thought the segment was inspirational until it gave way to an angle that exploited a real-life tragedy.
“I think the thing that disappointed me was that the presentation started out so classy,” said Jarrett. “I was feeling very proud that Vince (McMahon) was doing something with class. Then suddenly, as soon as C.M. Punk’s music hit, I knew right then that it was over. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
Like Jarrett, Minnesota-based wrestling historian George Schire believes WWE crossed the line.
“I thought it was in extreme bad taste. But I’ve come to expect nothing better from the WWE. Over the years they have continually provided distasteful content with regard to sensitive issues. I have zero respect for McMahon and the disregard he shows time and again for sensitive issues. I did tune in to see Lawler return, but clicked it off when they went to the skit.”
Some fans even went so far as to criticize Lawler for taking part in the angle. The segment reportedly had been planned weeks in advance with all the participants on board.
Longtime fan Joe Dobrowksi of Washington, D.C., opines that Lawler should have never taken part in the segment, although he points to the many controversial angles “The King” took part in over the years while headlining in the Memphis territory.
As recently as last year, when Lawler’s 90-year-old mother died, WWE used that in a wrestling angle.
“Lawler will do anything —like letting Eddie Gilbert hit him with a car — to put an angle over,” said Dobrowski, alluding to a 1990 angle in which Lawler was “run over” by a car driven by the late Eddie Gilbert. “My immediate inclination was it was horrible and in terrible taste. I was disgusted by it.”
“Whether Lawler gave his approval or not is not the question. Was the whole thing necessary and a good thing for the image of the WWE?” asked J.D. McKay of Louisville, Miss.
Jim Ross, Lawler’s longtime Raw cohort and friend, noted in his blog that the latter part of the segment wasn’t his favorite part of the show.
“The King’s return was the highlight of the show for me personally,” Ross posted. “But just like any other entertainment entity, all content is subjective. Some folks will like some things more than others, and there are some who will downright despise specific aspects of a broadcast.”
No less than former WWE superstar “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a main player in the Attitude Era, criticized the angle and thought WWE was pushing the envelope in the wrong direction.
“I believe in pushing the envelope in an aggressive fashion. But when a guy damn near dies at ringside, let it go,” Austin told wrestling journalist Arda Ocal. “You look at all the contributions Jerry Lawler has made in this business: from a work standpoint, a promo standpoint and then as a broadcaster. I think that’s pushing the envelope in the wrong direction. There’s better ways to go get real heat than that.”
Veteran wrestler and trainer Dr. Tom Prichard says he would have been surprised if WWE hadn’t run an angle.
“I don’t think anything’s off limits – especially when it comes to Lawler,” said Prichard. “Here’s the guy that did the deal with Andy Kaufman. I don’t understand all the uproar. But at the same time I understand why since there’s a lot more morally righteous people than myself. But I really didn’t see the issue with it. What would you expect from WWE? I would expect nothing less.”
Whether the angle was tacky, tasteless, disrespectful or disgraceful might be irrelevant in the grand scheme. It was far from the worst thing anyone’s ever seen in professional wrestling.
Was it good for business? That remains to be seen.
Jarrett says a thousand thoughts flashed through his mind as the segment unfolded. His first one centered around former WWE CEO Linda McMahon’s “hard work and great expense” running for the Senate.
“It is exactly this kind of programming that prevented her from becoming a senator,” said Jarrett, who revealed he had been “quietly pulling for” the Connecticut conservative. “She is a very intelligent, very classy person, and she spent a fortune to become a senator. This is why she got beat. She could not escape the stench of wrestling.”
“During my time up there, over the course of knowing her, she really is the class of WWE,” he added. “It just hit me that this stench is what she could not escape despite probably being the most qualified person that I know of to serve in the Senate.”
Jarrett then pondered something else. It was directed at WWE owner Vince McMahon.
“Shame on you Vince McMahon,” thought Jarrett. “You have spent millions and millions trying to do other endeavors so that you would not be in the wrestling business. You tried bodybuilding, you tried football, now you’re trying movies. While you enjoy the money, you hate wrestling.”
Jarrett recalls McMahon proudly declaring that he was in the sports entertainment business — not professional wrestling.
“He hates it so much that he went out of his way to say that he wasn’t in the wrestling business. To outsiders, other than himself, it doesn’t make sense. But he really hates the fact that he is in the wrestling business. The reason he hates it is that it has this stigma that there’s something about it that makes you feel dirty. And the primary reason for that is Vince McMahon.
“Years and years ago wrestling had a stench about it that most of us look back now with great melancholy. The modern-day stench is all caused by Vince McMahon. So the irony of it is that he has created what he’s trying to run away from. It’s so bad that his wife, spending $90 million, could not get elected senator.”
WWE had a true feel-good moment with Lawler returning after surviving a life-threatening heart attack, yet everything else that happened overshadowed that moment, says Jarrett. All, he says, for “a juvenile cheap-heat angle.”
“As brilliant as Vince is, that’s what he doesn’t get,” said Jarrett, who once ran the Memphis territory with Lawler. “The Shakespeare that pro wrestling is in storytelling needs to have some shining redemptive moments. And Vince just can’t bring himself to allow it.”
Jarrett doesn’t deny using controversial angles and storylines during his days as booker in Tennessee, but says there was always a time and a place for them.
“My answer on most occasions was for us to let this moment be a shining moment for the wrestling business. We always have next Saturday morning on Memphis television to shoot our angles.”
McMahon, he says, could also have waited for another opportunity.
“Vince had the whole rest of the show. It was disappointing. Ironically it was disappointing to me for Vince’s sake. After I thought about Linda, I thought here’s this man who is a billionaire and he’s the epitome of the wrestling promotion. And he’s been running from it all of his life because of the stink. And here he throws stink on it again.”
Jarrett, who has suffered a heart attack in the past, said he could relate to every line Lawler recited Monday night.
“It (a heart attack) affected not only me. It affected my wife, my family and all of my friends. With Jerry, he was shooting when he talked about the outpouring and that he never knew he had that many people that cared. Everybody that cared about Jerry Lawler was (ticked) off at Vince McMahon.”
WWE also aired dramatic but uncomfortable-to-watch footage of EMTs desperately trying to revive Lawler following his heart attack in Montreal on Sept. 10.
“It was horrible. It was all part of a bad angle,” says Jarrett.
Jarrett says he wouldn’t be surprised if Lawler eventually decided to step back into the ring.
“If it’s up to Jerry, I’m sure he would try it. I know that all he’d have to do is tell Vince that he thought he was good for one more match. Vince would go with it, and if Lawler died, he’d say that he tried to talk him out of it and that he held him in such high esteem.”
Jarrett says he’s sure that everyone was on board with the angle.
“Anybody that knows Vince McMahon knows that any fleeting thought that Vince has you better think it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Former WWE performer Lance Storm was disappointed on several levels.
“Thought it was poor. Both he and Punk are capable to get real heat, no need to sink so low. Also thought it was out of character for Punk so it hurt. Punk is about ‘Best in the World’ and himself. Why bother joking about a heart attack? It goes nowhere. Interruption was okay and in character. Fake heart attack was cheap and pointless.”
Former WWE performer Shane “Hurricane” Helms posted that he wasn’t bothered by the angle.
“I can see how it might bother some, but it didn’t bother me. I almost severed my spinal cord and I wouldn’t get offended at a neck injury angle. At the end of the day, it’s a television show meant to entertain. And part of that entertainment is to invoke emotion, both good and bad. That segment was designed to make people hate C.M. Punk and Paul Heyman, and it obviously worked.”
Helms compared the angle to storylines on TV shows.
“Medical issues are used weekly on ‘House’ — do people get offended at that? Hell, even Lawler poked fun of himself moments later when the ambulance arrived for the Ryback-Maddox segment. If that segment made you hate Punk, good, now maybe you’ll cheer a little louder for Ryback or Cena at Survivor Series. It’s basic storytelling. I was more offended at William Regal wearing Moolah’s old ring gear.”
In nothing else, WWE got fans talking, with viewers weighing in from both sides.
Rick Rockwell of Sacramento, Calif., said the angle was little more than an old wrestling formula of heels mocking a sympathetic babyface.
“It’s definitely a hot topic. But I don’t think they crossed the line. Wrestling pushes the boundaries all the time. There have been many things said and done in this industry that have been worse. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say this was a 7.”
“Memphis used real-life personal issues for years to draw money, but that was way before these PC times we live in,” said Robert Haithcock of Conway.
“Very poor taste and classless. But WWE has demonstrated those talents many times in years past, and in my opinion, even if Lawler went along with the whole fiasco, that just shows a huge lack of good judgment on his part,” said John Natoli of Charleston. “Whether or not he accepted it isn’t what the WWE should be concerned with. It’s what the paying fans are thinking.”
“I thought it was very tacky and disrespectful,” Heidi Smith Wooten of Hanahan said of the angle. “Hope Lawler had been advised of the script beforehand. I did like seeing the behind-the-scenes footage of the actual happening, but again hope Lawler OK’d that.”
“At first I thought it was very nice of the WWE to show respect for ‘The King’ considering he was coming back from a major heart attack. Then once C.M. Punk and Paul Heyman came out to disrespect Lawler, they turned a decent angle into something totally tasteless,” commented Scott Thrasher of Horn Lake, Miss.
Fan Brian Westcott of Meridian, Idaho, says the angle gets his vote for worst of 2012.
“So far, I think it’s the most disgusting promotional tactic for 2012. I still remember the fake heart attack angles involving both Fritz Von Erich and Ric Flair. The big question is how will this affect WWE’s bottom line?”
Patrick Coterillo of Lubbock, Texas, disagrees with the majority.
“I don’t think it was crossing the line. It was probably planned beforehand plus the heart attack footage is all over the Internet. People can see it whenever they want to. If you remember later on in the show when the ambulance drove towards the entrance ramp you hear King say, ‘Hey, my ride’s here.’ Even he can joke about it, so I think it wasn’t a big deal.”
“Thinking back to the Attitude Era and everything that they did then, this is not even close to crossing the line,” said Kevin Blackmon of Columbia. “This is what makes WWE so great. They take a situation that is real life and bring the world of WWE into it. If you think about DX and things like that, you realize that this is nothing.”
Fan Mike Siciliano suggests that the angle was a great way to get Punk over as a heel.
“It shows how WWE has had to work awfully hard to get Punk over to the point that the world hates his guts. As much as I may have found it distasteful, I am not surprised in the least bit that it was done.”
And by using a sympathetic babyface like Lawler, says Siciliano, the potential for going even further with the angle is great.
“There was so much positive energy going with the Lawler return that WWE saw the perfect opportunity to further broaden Punk’s heel gimmick, which has sputtered, at times throughout the genesis of it, even with Heyman at the co-pilot’s seat. Lawler acted very professionally throughout the whole thing, and I would be stunned to believe that it wasn’t planned, meticulously, for days prior to its execution last Monday night.
“The real curious part will be whether or not they try to expand on it. If they cut it off and move on to something else, then I think it worked out properly and did what it had to do. If they milk it, say like they milked the death of Eddie Guerrero for so long, then it will venture in the land of tasteless angles.”
Sterling Eby of North Charleston wonders what all the fuss is about. He cites such previous controversial WWE angles as Mae Young giving birth to a hand and Kane setting Jim Ross on fire.
“The angle is supposed to make you feel something. The fact people are talking about is what the WWE wanted, so you are only helping them more by reacting.”
“Those lines were crossed years ago by multiple territories,” said Graham Cawthon of Shelby, N.C. “Not much difference than Fritz Von Erich faking a heart attack to boost business in World Class Championship Wrestling, or even using David’s (Von Erich) name and memory to draw a crowd to Texas Stadium.”
To Jerry Wiseman of Sylva, N.C., the angle was just an example of WWE attempting to cater to a fan base that yearns for the return of the Attitude Era.
“This is just a classic angle that has been done before. The only difference is there is video of Lawler being treated and it is a shoot. How many other heart attack angles have been done? Fritz Von Erich comes to mind. People want the WWE to go back to the Attitude Era and lose the PG, and this was reminiscent of that.”
A cross-section of other comments:
“I think they may have pushed it a little on Raw, but who really cares? They have been doing that for years. And you know Jerry would have done the same thing back in his heyday. If anybody feels offended it should be: 1) How the writers scripted that. Could have been done much better. 2.) How Ryback is relevant. He is horrendous.” — Eric Thackston, Huntsville, Ala.
“I’ve seen worse angles, though I didn’t like this one. Question is, did this attempt at cheap heat work? Probably the answer is yes. I’m sure some fans know or can pretty much guess that Punk is really a fan of Lawler and his career, but there are also many who see Punk as a genuine heel, dropping another pipe bomb, not caring how irreverent he is being.” — Bernie Volpicelli, Boston, Mass.
“I am very upset that a very serious situation was made into one big storyline. Yes, they are always pushing the envelope, but they went too far this time. I have been a fan a long time and I have seen worse, but this was way out of line.” — Miranda Doyle Holt, Conway, S.C.
“Fritz Von Erich used the same stunt and it put the final nail in the coffin for WCCW.” — Michael Alphonse, San Francisco, Calif.
“Didn’t offend me as I expected it. Cheap, sad, desperate attempt at ratings.” — Evan Ginzburg, Queens, N.Y.
“I watched Mike Graham use his dad’s death in an angle with The Freebirds and didn’t care for it, but Mike was trying to save the company and it was his choice, his family. With Vince it is about others. Always at the expense of others. And he isn’t trying to save a company.” — Walter Willis, Suwanee, Ga.
“Vince will do anything for ratings, been doing it for years, no matter who pays the price, no matter who’s family he broke up, all of it for his own gain.” — Debbie Terrazzino Getz, Nutley, N.J.
“Michael Cole (in character) talked about Lawler’s mother not long after her death, so I assume Lawler approved it. I would think it’s the same thing here.” — Charles Kinnin Jr., Charleston
“I was more taken aback by airing of the actual footage. Whether or not Lawler approved, why was tape rolling in what could’ve been someone’s death?” — Abigail Christian Foreman, Cygnet, Ohio
“A heel has to top himself to remain hated. It was probably Lawler’s idea. It put him over even more.” — Tony Rotenizer, Charlotte, N.C.
“I don’t think they were trying to offend people with a fake heart attack. I think they were trying to get more heat on C.M. Punk. They could have done something else, but this is WWE, always pushing the envelope. I’ve been watching WWE/WWF for over 22 years and seen a lot worse. It’s all good. It served its purpose, everyone is talking about it and I’m still a WWE fan. — Willie Holt, Conway, S.C.
“I took it for what it’s worth. It was entertainment. It was an angle that was part of a storyline. It’s not like it was a shoot and that is exactly how C.M. Punk and Paul Heyman felt.” — Bryan Keith Gibbons, Kingstree, S.C.
“I don’t know. I hear all too many people lamenting the past days of ‘attitude’ and many of those same people now condemn WWE for the heart attack thing. This was tame in comparison to the stuff they did in the Attitude Era.” — Jack Houck, Seattle, Wash.
— The first local WWE TV taping in several years will be held Dec. 4 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The Smackdown double main event features Big Show defending his world heavyweight title against former champ Sheamus, and a challenge match between Randy Orton and Alberto Del Rio.
Ticket prices are $95 $50, $35, $25 and $15.