Malice in Dallas
Let’s settle this like men…
The scene: the Sportatorium, a dark, smelly, run-down, wrestling palace somewhere in Dallas, March 1992. The restless murmur of the crowd, punctuated by the shouts and chants of cheerleaders, crescendoed quickly to hoarse shouts and piercing whistles as, from the darkness at the top of the aisles, the two contenders marched toward the ring. Down one aisle strode a burly thirty-seven-year-old weightlifter, dressed in slacks and a dark-colored muscle shirt, wearing a menacing sneer and displaying the tattoo “Born to Raise Capital” on his massive right arm. Down the other, to the hair-raising trumpet blasts of the theme from Rocky, strutted a skinny, white-haired, sixty-one-year-old lawyer decked out in a white T-shirt, gray sweat pants under shiny red boxing shorts, a sling on his right arm and a cigarette dangling from his infectious grin, accompanied by a handler wearing a bandolier holding rows of airline-size bottles of Wild Turkey. It was “Malice in Dallas,” the match of the decade!
Actually, it was just a friendly contest between Southwest Airlines, represented by Herb Kelleher, and Stevens Aviation, championed by chairman Kurt Herwald, to decide the rights to a slogan. Stevens, an aviation sales and maintenance company in Greensville, South Carolina, had been using “Plane Smart” as its slogan at least one year before Southwest unknowingly began infringing with its “Just Plane Smart” ad campaign. After bringing this to Southwest’s attention, Steven Aviation proposed that rather than paying teams of lawyers to hash out the dispute over many months and under cover of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, the companies send their top warriors to battle it out, one-on-one, in an arm-wrestling tournament before an audience of their employees and the media. The best two out of three matches would win the rights to the slogan–and the loser of each match would donate five thousand dollars to a charity of the winner’s choice.
Naturally, Herb accepted the challenge. And naturally, he appointed himself to defend the honor of the Southwest Airlines. It would be “Smokin’” Herb Kelleher versus “Kurtsey” Herwald–let the world watch in anxious wonder. Round One took a rapid turn for the ugly as Kelleher, reading a legal opinion conveniently provided by Texas Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn, sent in a ringer, sixty-three-year-old one-time Texas arm-wrestling champion J.R. Jones. Before the match could proceed, however, Kelleher suddenly lunged at Herwald and had to be restrained. The former champ then bested Herwald, and the Southwest faction of the crowd roared its approval.
Round Two did not go so well. Kelleher was quickly trounced by Herwald’s designated ringer, Annette Coats, a tiny customer service rep. It was the South Carolinians’ turn to cheer. Kelleher complained loudly that his fractured wrist, injured while saving a little girl from being hit by a bus, had hampered his performance. “Herb, Herb, Herb!” jeered the disgruntled Southwest partisans.
Finally it was time for Kelleher against Herwald, in person. The two combatants took their positions and glared at each other over the cigar-stained table. Their hands touched, gripped, locked. Knuckles cracked. Brows furrowed. Muscles strained. Sweat poured. It seemed to go on forever. But it took only ten seconds. Kelleher blamed his defeat on his hairline fracture, combined with a weeklong cold, a stubborn case of athlete’s foot and having accidentally overstrained by walking up a flight of steps. In the end, the event was clouded by allegations of a fix: Herwald announced shortly after his victory that he had decided to let Southwest keep using the slogan “Just Plane Smart.”
So–had it all been done just for the publicity? Said Kelleher as he was carried out on his stretcher:
“Why, I never even thought about it in those terms.”
THE POWER OF A GREAT STORY
“Malice in Dallas” is now an epic, a story thousands of people inside and outside Southwest Airlines know almost by heart. This rambunctious alternative to a drawn-out, boring, lawyer-enriching, half-million dollar courtroom battle was exactly the sort of antic that Americans have come to associate with their favorite maverick airline. Everybody won: the companies got great publicity, the media had a field day and charity got $15,000–a $10,000 check was presented to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and a $5,000 check went to the Cleveland Ronald McDonald House. Everybody had a blast. Southwest’s canny ability to perpetuate its image this way is a large factor in its name recognition and success.
DEAR MR. KELLEHER
“Malice in Dallas” even got President Bush’s attention:
March 23, 1992
Just Plane Terrific! Your clever arm wrestling match with Kurt Herwald was a win/win, not mention great comic relief to serious watchers of nightly news. Congratulations on your “loss,” and best wishes.