Let’s start this one off with a wildly cliche bit about trees in forests and no one seeing them fall. Does said tree sell the bump? Well, it does if there’s at least a microcosm of civilization watching it. Unfortunately, the masses know nothing of the ubiquitous fall. However, once the forest burns, it catches the attention of the world,and THAT becomes what everyone remembers. Not the mighty oak that tumbled in front of a few thousand in the mid southern territory of the USWA in 1993. You see, the wrestling world would soon come to know Vince McMahon as the evil genius billionaire on WWF/WWE programming. That, however, would be around 1997 at the earliest. The wrestling game would also become aware of several “invasion” storylines beginning in 1996 with the New World Order in WCW; and the ECW invasion of Monday Night Raw in WWF circa 97. More invasion attempts would follow once the WWE purchased rights to its competition that was WCW and ECW. The USWA itself would be in on the invasion game again in 95 AND 96-97 ,as it rivaled Smoky Mountain Wrestling and briefly ECW respectively for territorial bragging rights.
Once upon a time however, the thought of an onscreen villain Vince, or rival promotions invading another, were relatively unheard of. Not to mention, in the case of the WWF invading USWA turf; it was quite the turn. The big, nation wide juggernaut turning its attention to a regional small pond in the south? What’s going on here?!?
To grasp the whole story, we must rewind to latter day 1992. The first shot fired to lay the framework for such a storyline happened at a WWF house show in Memphis. Bret Hart was in the ring to defend his Intercontinental Title against another WWF superstar. Honestly his opponent is of little consequence here, but going by time line, it was most likely the Warlord or Skinner. Although Shawn Michaels was a frequent Hart opponent at this time too, so it may very well have been him. At any rate, prior to the match starting, the USWA’s #2 baby face, Jeff Jarrett, jumped the guard rail and challenged Hart to a future title match. Hart did respond respectfully and that was that. Jarrett left, Hart’s match went on. At the time, it came off as an unscripted scenario. A nice way to make the local hero seem confident in his abilities against the global star Bret was fast becoming. No one really thought there would be any match, let alone what was to come. The next event, however, signalled the wheels were indeed in motion for bigger things.
During a late 1992 broadcast of one of the final episodes of WWF Prime Time Wrestling, Bobby Heenan introduced Curt Hennig’s replacement on the show - - Jerry “The King” Lawler. Although there was no mention that he was USWA champion, nor ANY mention of the USWA at all, Lawler debuted as a clear cut heel and a big deal via the rub from Heenan’s introduction. This heel persona was in direct opposition with Lawler’s status as the #1 babyface of the USWA. That juxtaposition would set the tone of the entire WWF vs USWA angle. Lawler played vile troublemaker in WWF, heroic defender in USWA while the list of WWF invaders were booked as heels in USWA, no matter their affiliation on WWF television.
Lawler’s first major act in WWF occurred when he assaulted Bret Hart in June 1993. Hart had just won the King of the Ring tournament, and during his post tourney celebration with Mene Gene Okerlund looking on….Jerry Lawler decimated Bret Hart with a vicious attack. In a moment of surrealism, there was “our King” laying waste to “their king” on live, worldwide pay per view. This storyline would play out on BOTH WWF and USWA TV ,but with polar opposite rules of engagement. Lawler and the USWA faithful felt justified in the Kings actions of malice toward Bret. While the WWF played up their conquering hero being the victim of an unprovoked assault from a jealous outsider. Perfect booking 101. So the battle lines were drawn, and the war was upon us.
There were a great many WWF stars that made their way to Memphis at this time. Papa Shango and Owen Hart were among the first. BOTH of which had runs with the USWA Championship. During that time Vince McMahon himself took the opportunity to put the championship belt around his waist to mock Lawler and the USWA fans. There was a very, strange, Kings Court segment taped at a WWF show in Boston, during which, Lawlers guest was Vince McMahon. In another surreal moment, Lawler and Vince traded their heel and face roles seamlessly and hyped up their USWA heat in front of a no doubt confused WWF audience, who had to be even more befuddled, as King and Vince switched right back into their on screen WWF personas by the end of the segment. I’m almost 100% positive this only aired on USWA television,and not on any WWF programming at the time.
All of this publicity lead to a showdown at the Mid South Coliseum between Jerry Lawler and Jeff Jarrett vs Bret and Owen Hart. The WWF would get the first victory in the war,when referee Paul Neighbors turned heel by, effectively, letting Bret use an illegal object to gain a pin. This put the heat on Neighbors and allowed for the momentum to continue the next week, even without Bret or Owen appearing. However, there would still be a WWF superstar appearing the next week. Specifically FOR the Lawler vs Neighbors showdown - - Vincent Kennedy McMahon himself!
During the Lawler vs Neighbors bout, the co-host of WWF Superstars, Vince McMahon, showed his first ever glimpse at how far “Mr McMahon” could potentially take things. As Lawler chased Neighbors around the ring, McMahon nonchalantly stretched out his leg and tripped Lawler! The Mid South Coliseum was ripe with shock and awe. Vince, of course, would not travel to “backwater” Memphis alone. He had help from first ever Intercontinental champion, and future Mr McMahon Stooge, Pat Patterson. In yet another surreal moment, Lawler and Patterson would come to blows and even McMahon himself would lay a punt in. As of now, without question, we had ourselves a truly heel Vince McMahon. Although Vince never got in the ring for a match with Lawler, one can only speculate the drawing power of such a bout ; especially in Memphis at that time. Vince would send in the occasional taped interview to gloat,but for all intents and purposes, his major involvement with the angle piqued during his confrontation with Jerry during the Neighbors match.
Of course, there was more mileage to get out of this invasion even without our proto-Mr McMahon’s presence. Lawler and Bret would have their major blow off encounter (at least the USWA blowoff) inside a cage. The King would get this victory thanks to errant interference from the WWF’s Giant Gonzalez. Other stars were sent to dethrone the King to, Tatanka and Lex Luger made very brief attempts to enforce McMahons revenge. Also, this invasion saw the rebirth of a classic Memphis feud, when Randy Savage returned to make trouble for Lawler.
By late summer,however, the angle was being cooled off to some degree. The WWF/USWA experiment was still a go, but the general invasion idea and the Lawler vs McMahon story was mostly wound down. The crossover of WWF stars into the USWA still occurred, but now there was a streamlining of the WWF characters’ being portrayed in the USWA as their heel or face alignments on WWF television. For instance, the baby face Big Bossman was brought in to help Jeff Jarrett deal with Brian Christopher and his heel cronies in the USWA. WWF Intercontinental champion Shawn Michaels came in to face USWA Southern champion Brian Christopher in a battle of the cockiest, arrogant super-kickers in the business.
Shortly after that, the flip-side of this working agreement started to bear fruit on WWF television. Vignettes began airing, touting the arrival of country music wannabe 'Double J' Jeff Jarrett. Now the USWA talent were being brought in to ply their trade and make their name at a national level. Over time, the WWF was able to recruit several names to their roster from USWA. Years down the line, the USWA was the training ground of a youngster named Flex Kavana. Kavana would go on to the WWF ranks as Rocky Miavia. Or, perhaps, best known as The Rock later - but who’d THAT guy ever beat?
In closing, the fact that there was never a proper blow off to the invading WWF from the USWA perspective; was really the only downside to the McMemphis angle. With that said, the long term ramifications of this working agreement far outweighed the gate that blow off match would have drawn. The USWA benefited from having these globally known names competing with their homegrown stars on a regular basis. WWF notables such as Razor Ramon and the Undertaker made appearances at USWA shows in 95/96. The WWF faction, the Nation of Domination, had a USWA chapter which would lead to some USWA talent such as PG-13 getting their first national exposure when they appeared with the WWF Nation of Domination. While the WWF greatly benefited from early access to talent that would be seasoned as rookies prior to making the jump to WWF programming. Plus the invaluable experience of Vince McMahon playing the heel. A shocking character turn that Vince would return to at a time when it played a HUGE part in saving his own company from potential extinction.
I started this article with a cliche, so I’m going to finish it off with one as well. Who won the WWF/USWA war?
Brian Riggle - Kayfabe the Gimmicks