Where did all of this start? How did it all come to be like this? Those are questions a history buff like me asks about anything, so when I discovered this thing called sports entertainment, I wanted to know where it came from, how it came to be this modern day monopoly and I’d like to think I have some knowledge into where it’s going to go, but that’s just fantasy booking when you boil it down. A man can dream…
Today’s topic is a brief insight into the road that this industry went down, from it’s early beginnings, to it’s massive peaks and eventually I hope to ask the question of where it might go, if it will end, how will it end if it does…it’s a long road, but somebody has to walk down it.
Road to Wrestling: Part 1
Looking at the industry today, it’s perfectly normal for one to wonder how in the world wrestling got to be where it is today? Here is a global product that with the amount of trials, tribulations and tragedies that have fell upon it…it’s truly astonishing how it’s managed to shake it off each and every time and keep on making money. It wasn’t always this way though.
When people hear the word “wrestling” what do they think of? Whether you happen to be talking about it directly, or hear about it in a conversation. You expect to eventually hear those three letters we’ve all come to know…WWE. How many of you actually think of this when you talk about wrestling?
Even with all the showmanship that the business is now famous for, wrestling still is a legitimate sport, it’s a totally different world than what I’m familiar with though, so I’ll only cover it briefly because when you start at the very beginning? This is the modern day form of what wrestling started out as.
Wrestling has been around since the ancient times, it’s one of the oldest sports the world has seen and like any other combat sports, has multiple styles in which people can train. The sport itself carries a huge amount of history and tradition with it and that has caused quite a following, especially in the “purist” crowd. This is a sport that was in every single modern day Olympic games since the first one and was most likely featured in all of the ancient games as well, there’s a reason people got so upset when they heard the committee was going to get rid of it…it had a history, it had tradition and it commanded respect.
So who got the bright idea to turn this sport into a show?
Pinpointing exactly when the ideas started to form of pre-determined matches is a little shaky, so these early days carry a grey area with them when it comes to details. What I can say is the idea of wrestling as a show,albeit a legitimate one, from what I can find was popularized in Europe, throughout the middle ages tournaments were a regular thing for people of their nation to show their strengths and prove themselves and wrestling was a popular event, especially within the monarchy’s of the countries across Europe. Japan would also hold local tournaments, though obviously at that time not at the heights that they could be held in Europe but the travelling funfairs? That didn’t start until the 1800’s and that was started by Britain.
Catch wrestling was developed in 1870 and is a very legitimate hybrid style of wrestling, this was the style that was used by wrestlers who were part of these traveling funfairs and carnivals so they could incorporate more submission moves against their opponents. It gained popularity because it seemed tighter and smoother than the previous styles that people had come to know and good money would be paid to visit the fairs so they could see the wrestling match that was on show. As well as the carnivals were the regularly scheduled tournaments pitting the strongest, most athletic wrestlers against each other to crown a champion. As basic as things may have been back then they still followed the same principles we know today and the idea of things being staged still hadn’t developed yet as far as historians are concerned, though it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a few staged matches here and there if there was enough money in it. The discovery of America only spread wrestling to the New World as the Native Americans took an interest to it, they were taught by the colonists and incorporated it into the culture.
America would take the British concept and incorporate their own style, which today we know as “pro wrestling” this is where historians believe the idea of a staged match may have come into play. While the idea of this all being a legitimate competition was still very strong and even promoted as such, America had much more of an idea of turning it into an entertainment industry, even back then. While Britain stuck to the traditional, hard hitting nature of the sport, America was making drastic changes by adding flare and turning it into a spectacle. After the Civil war is when historians believe staged matches began as the carnivals and circuses would hit their peak in popularity. Instead of highlighting the competitive nature like their British counterparts, The carnies of America decided their wrestlers needed to have colorful costumes and alter egos to add to the entertainment of the match and start putting the actual competition to the side. The idea being that people would be attracted to the bright costumes and personalities and pay for that, with the promise of a wrestling match to make them feel like they had earned their money’s worth.
There was a lot of shady goings on behind the scenes back then guys, the fact the promoters of the carnivals were introducing this staged nature to the matches, they basically saw it as licence to print money and turn this into a booming business. Managers, carnies and stunt pilots of all people would band together on a regular basis to discuss the outcome of the matches, similar to that of a creative team or booking committee today. The reason stunt pilots had say in this? Most of the stunt pilots would also perform in the strong man competitions, arm wrestling and also the wrestling matches with the rest of the carnies. Managers chose who would win and create the characters people would have to play. The carnies, wanting to protect their bid in the take would use illegal and dangerous moves in order to look strong, especially if they were to be on the losing end and the stunt pilots wanted a slice of the action because they were performing and would often be the loser against the “legitimate” athlete. The wrestlers had a ladder of succession, the young guys who came and went, the shoot fighters (a shoot fighter is someone who can actually fight real matches) and the top guys were the ones who used illegal moves, as they came across the strongest and most dangerous to the crowds. All of them however kept the dirty little secret on the hush hush and thus wrestling terms were created so nobody knew what they were talking about. The most prominent being Kayfabe.
Kayfabe is all but dead today but back then it was a powerful, powerful tool for the wrestler, it was both a blessing and a curse as the years went on. To describe Kayfabe in it’s simplest form. It’s making something that is made up or staged, look completely real to the audience. It was a tool to help build up the excitement of matches and continue the illusion that what people were watching was real and to an extent it was obviously, people were getting hurt. However the characters, their hatred for each other, their relationships and their back stories were almost always made up and in order for people to believe what was being presented to them, performers were expected to stay in character whenever they were in the public eye. This was a good tool for the wrestler to have back then, this was a world that had a very secluded group working inside it, they didn’t want to expose the business, or themselves to the public. These characters helped them keep all those secrets they didn’t want people finding out, it made sense to do it. However as the years went on, Kayfabe would become more and more of a curse as popularity of the industry increased. Wrestlers had to do interviews in character, remain in character on their way and inside the arena, some promoters would even go to the extent of giving wrestlers separate flights and locker rooms so to keep up the Kayfabe and make the story as believable as possible to the audience.
The Rise of Frank Gotch
Frank Gotch was one of the first big superstars in America when it came to sports, wrestling had kept going the same route, the occasional legitimate tournament, the staged traveling carnivals. It wasn’t the big global force it would later become but it wasn’t exactly slim pickings. Then Frank Gotch came along…
A man trained by a wrestler called Martin Burns (a wrestler who APPARENTLY competed against 6,000 wrestlers during his time and only lost against 10…these however are stats from the early 1900’s, a time when their is no national platform and other than the carnival scene, there are really only competitive tournaments, so take that with a grain of salt) Gotch was the first American wrestler to win the World Heavyweight Championship. Frank from what I can tell was a legitimate athlete, he only wrestled in competitions across the nation up until his retirement, competitions which weren’t staged like the carnival scene was. Although they had their own shady dealings going on behind the scenes as well.
After a series of mixed results, Gotch would gain the respect of Burns who he would get as his trainer, after defeating the American Heavyweight Champion in 1904, Gotch would start his chase for the World title. Gotch would wrestle the match for the titile in 1908 in a two hour long epic which was brutal and very hard fought on both sides before finally getting the victory by his opponent (Georg Hackenschmidt) surrendering after being worn down.
Frank would go on to have a reign that lasted nearly five years. a reign topped only by Bruno Sammartino, Lou Thesz and Verne Gagne, with their respective title reigns. During this time he helped bring the sport to a national level that it had never really been on before, he performed in plays which garnered him standing ovations, he was invited to the White House by Teddy Roosevelt and according to myth, the entire Chicago Cubs team went and asked him for an autograph after a baseball game. As impressive as all of this sounds for a wrestler in that day and age his reign does come with some controversy as Gotch was seen as a dirty wrestler by some of his peers and his rematch against Hackenschmidt is on that,, whether true or not, is a highlight of some of the shadiness that would plague the industry. Hackenschmidt entered his rematch against Gotch with an injured knee, Hackenschmidt’s explanation was that he injured it sparring with his training partner. However another wrestler, Ad Santel told Lou Thesz he was paid by some of Gotch’s backers to cripple Hackenschmidt before thee match. A lot of that “he said, she said” going on here and the truth will definitely not be found today but there’s lots of stories out there of wrestlers getting offered big money to injure somebody. Gotch eventually retired with the title, going on to do the carnival scene for a while in a series of shoot fights which he would never lose. Gotch passed away in 1917
Wrestling is Exposed
Without a national icon to keep the athleticism and competitive nature of the tournaments in the public eye like Frank Gotch did, the media decided to turn their eyes to the controversy and set their sights on exposing the industry, what they found caused a huge dip in popularity. Gotch was gone, wrestlers came out during the time who had a bone to pick or some money to make and said the whole thing was fake, the carnival scene was there as the perfect example as well as apparent ties to the mafia and the controversy surrounding Gotch’s rematch with Hackenschmdidt and nobody was able to stand on the pedestal to take all the attention away. This is one of the many instances in time where the industry really could have fallen flat on it’s face but somehow managed to pick itself back up. These series of events helped establish a couple things…one the industry now knew where it really stood with the media, the media was determined to rain on the parade and expose everything they did and second the industry had to recover, there were a bunch of small promotions at war with each other, shady dealings and mafia ties to be found, something needed to be done to re-establish the image wrestling once had as well as try to fix the cracks that had been formed. That was attempted to be done in the form of the NWA.
The National Wrestling Alliance.
Regional promotions were getting out of hand, talent raids, amongst other dirty tactics were being performed all around the country just so somebody could get some footing. In 1948, the NWA was born, the idea on paper sounded like a smart way to do business at the time after the blow that was dealt by the media. It was an attempt to bring some order back to all of this madness, unfortunately things got out of hand but we’ll get to that. In idea the NWA would be an alliance of all the small regional companies to make a national board that would discuss the direction of the business, it would be through this alliance that promoters would start to unify their titles to eventually create one undisputed, unified World Heavyweight Championship, the man that helped this vision come to life? Lou Thesz, the longest reigning World Heavyweight Champion in history, the man who created the Thesz Press and the STF and a man who has every right to be in the WWE Hall of Fame but isn’t, for whatever reason. Regardless Lou had a tough job doing this, because although the old guys in the board room thought this was a good idea, not everybody else did. Wrestlers and managers alike would fight this idea to the end and Lou would sometimes have to (unwillingly) participate in a shoot fight for the title, however Lou is one of those old school tough guys and never backed down if people were throwing a fight his way. It’s thanks to this long reign of seven plus years that the title was established as the prestigious trophy that it was and the image of the “Most prestigious title in wrestling” would only be repeated as the years went on.
NWA ruled the wrestling world, it was their starting up of the territory system that worked under the NWA banner that started to turn this good idea into a bad experience though. The idea of the territories being that areas in America were split up into their own areas or territories, provided with their own respective owners who would run the operation, being a representative of the NWA. However there were many restrictions and risks when it came to this system, if you owned a territory it meant you could not run a show in any other area unless special arrangements were made, you couldn’t even market or promote your show unless other territories agreed to it. It was even worse if you weren’t a part of the NWA, if you were a non NWA member and tried to promote your show in one of the areas run by an NWA territory? Other groups and members of the alliance were obliged and expected to intervene and force these “invaders” out. According to myth, threats of violence were also issued to anybody not willing to adhere to this system that the alliance was implementing and if anybody broke the rules they would be expelled from the alliance, blackballed from the industry and any and all working agreements would come to an end. In short? While murmurings and suspicions of mafia ties to the industry were around in the earlier years, it was the NWA that truly ran the business like a mafia, once it became the sole provider, with all those board members with money and power in their hands, they became too paranoid and too scared to let it go and enforced all these rules to try and ensure nobody broke away.
In terms of actual wrestling though? The NWA was an excellent source of wrestling, you can find some examples of it on the WWE Network (some of it sadly, during it’s dying days, I suggest mainly the product from the eighties) I’ll admit, the way the system worked was smart, whether that was by design or not is another thing. There was a system in place where wrestlers could travel across the country and gain national exposure, good guys and bad guys would be moved across the country to run a couple of stories with the other companies top guys, the idea being that all the wrestlers gain some exposure, thus gaining popularity. As well as that if somebody was getting stale, their time away in the different promotions gave the audience time to see other performers and then be excited for the return of the wrestler they were once getting bored of (As Jim Cornette says, people don’t miss you, if you don’t go away.) On top of the mountain though, was the champion.
The Heavyweight Champion was not stuck to one particular territory, instead they were obliged and expected to travel around the country and provide exposure to all the territories under the alliance’s umbrella. This would take place in multiple ways, usually from what I can tell, matches which involved the champion were ones that were aimed towards making the top guy of the company looking good while keeping the image of the title itself strong. The champion was advertised weeks or months in advance to make sure the arena got filled, because the champion only visited a couple times during the year and the television shows the territories had only showed in their local area, meaning people had to wait to see the champion in their area, which made it a big deal.
The travelling system, in my opinion at least had another advantage in that it gave the wrestlers experience, if you weren’t good at certain aspects of the business, you got shipped to areas where you could get some experience and hone your craft, that’s what it was treated as at least in the eyes of the performers themselves, a craft which they needed to work on and expand as best as they could, this was an art to them and it was one they had a passion for.
There are so many wrestlers I could suggest to you from this era of wrestling, the NWA had so many memorable stories, feuds and characters that have survived in spirit to this very day. Instead of giving you the massive list I could easily provide, albeit one that would take up far too much of your time. I’ll simply give you a couple of examples of people I believe you should look into and research, as well as people you’ll know as it’ll only open your eyes to even more wild and crazy characters and the stories they tell.
Ox Baker: In a somewhat classless angle that was forced on him, Ox Baker had a finishing move that made him the most hated man in America. Ox had the devastating Heart Punch, the name should leave little to the imagination and it was perceived and sold as a deadly move to the audience. Unfortunately during a tag team match in 1971, one of the opponents Ox faces (Alberto Torres) gets severely injured and dies three days later, a tragic accident which wasn’t really anybody’s fault, although apparently Ox took it to heart and was distraught by the whole thing. The story that people decided to run was that the Heart Punch was to blame. If one time wasn’t enough to get people to hate him, the second unfortunate event certainly would as in 1972, Ox is set to face Ray Gunkel, a popular wrestler in Georgia. Ray unfortunately suffers a heart attack in the locker room after winning his match, the real life reason being he over-indulged just a little too much at a restaurant. The kayfabe, story reason? Ox Baker was to blame!
Setting: It’s 1974 in Cleveland, Ernie Ladd, popular wrestler at the time who is breaking color barriers along with many others and is wrestling Johnny Powers when who should interfere? Ox Baker! Ernie gets laid out and Ox proceeds to deliver multiple Heart Punches to the fallen hero which causes the fans to go absolutely livid and actually start to riot!
Other than this incident, Ox Baker was a brilliant bad guy, he played a brute really well and had an unforgettable look to him with an unforgettable finisher. Sadly no longer with us and at one point even a Price is Right contender, Ox still lives on in the memories of those who saw him as one of the best bad guys in the business.
Lou Thesz: Finding Lou Thesz material wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, seriously just look up “Lou Thesz” on youtube, you’ll find material. While his style of wrestling hasn’t aged well, for those that like old school wrestling I say give it a watch, for all I heard about the man actually seeing a match was totally a different experience that I’m glad I went through. I suggest the two out of three falls match between him and Buddy Rogers, it’s totally legal and on youtube as it’s provided to us by the Chicago Film Archives.
Dusty Rhodes: The American Dream Dusty Rhodes! I needn’t say any more than that really, his rivalry with Ric Flair is famous and helped create some of the most memorable moments in wrestling history. What I remember Dusty for most, is his ability on the microphone, he oozed charisma and even today, knowing the words off by heart and knowing full well the money the man has earned. When he talks about Hard Times? He connects with me.
Ric Flair: Without a doubt, for what felt like the longest time, I’m sure…he just seemed to be the face of the NWA and when people think of the championship, they think of none other, than the kiss stealin’, wheelin’ dealin’, limousine ridin’, jet flyin’ son of a gun! Woo! It’s Ric Flair, if you don’t know who Ric Flair is…how do you not know who Ric Flair is?!
What happened to the NWA?
The NWA is still around today, but what happened to the powerhouse? Cable happened, the board felt too nice and snug in the safety net that they had created and were too afraid of change, their regular arguing of who should be champion and backstage politics were finally catching up with them as promotions were breaking away and when a young man named Vince McMahon Jr. buys his father’s promotion? The NWA and it’s antics would lead to it’s own downfall, but that’s an article for another time. Right now I’ve been sitting here wondering what if? What if they put their heads together and actually did what was best? On paper this seemed like such a good idea, this governing body to give some legitimacy, create some competition but stop a monopoly from forming and in the end they themselves became the monopoly. Honestly leaving all the backstage shenanigans aside for a moment, a system like the territories, I believe is desperately needed in this day and age.
Small companies come and go, they all come in with this idea they’re going to take on the big dog some day and when the one that got the closest to doing it after WCW was TNA? That shows you what the level of competition is today. WWE took the competition, it owns it. What the NWA did, while it’s methods were downright horrible and questionable was create an environment that was profitable, competitive, it gave wrestlers experience and national exposure and most importantly of all, in theory at least, it stopped a monopoly from forming. We’ve seen what monopolies do in other forms, it isn’t fun, there’s little enjoyment to be had of having one avenue to go down and while I’m happy to hear New Japan is taking up the reigns in trying to be a competitor? My heart still yearns for that old system to come back to the mainstream. A small group of companies, willing to band together to create a healthy, competitive working environment, in today’s world? With all the avenues you could go down to get exposure and to have people watch your product? Like the alliance before it, on paper that sounds good to me, you just need the right people to do it and if the NWA teaches us anything? A bunch of old men in suits have no idea how to do that, as we’ll learn in my next article.
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