Theatre and sports. On the surface, it may seem like an odd mix. But that’s me. In fact, one of my closest friends, Mike, when he first met me at an incoming freshman meet and greet for Muhlenberg College (where Comic Book Curious co-founder Nate Lombardi went), heard I played football and did theatre. His reaction, “I gotta meet this kid.” You’ll learn more about me in the “Meet the Writer” article coming out soon.
Right now, the reason for bringing up theatre and sports is because that is what you find in professional wrestling, and it is the reason I love it so much. I can actually thank my buddy Mike for getting me back into pro wrestling, specifically World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). I watched it in the 1980’s and early 1990’s when I young and when it was called the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). This was the golden age of wrestling where Hulk Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage reigned supreme. After that, I made fun of people watching it, including Mike and some other buddies. After college, though, Mike did not get TNN on his TV, so he asked if he could come over and watch at my place. Sure. I was hooked and have watched more in my adulthood than childhood. As an adult, I realized the reason my love for professional wrestling was because it combines two of my other loves, theatre and athletics. Pro wrestling is theatrical because of the storylines (yes, some call it a male soap opera, and it’s not far off) and it’s athletic because of 1. The shape the wrestlers need to be in to perform in the ring and 2. Well, you should see some of the moves these men and women pull off (Google Charlotte Flair Moonsault or AJ Styles Pele kick).
I could easily geek out on pro wrestling as there is so much to write, but this series is intended to present a broad overview. As such, I will do my utmost to stick to major turning points, eras, and persons involved, with the major focus on America and Canada.
Before Vince McMahon became the CEO of WWE in 1982, attempting to create a national wrestling organization, professional wrestling was divided into territories. The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), founded in the 1940’s, was the organizing body for each territory. WWF, then the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), was located in the Northeast, with others such as Jim Crockett Promotions located in the Mid-Atlantic states, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) located in Minnesota and surrounding states and Stampede Wrestling located in the area surrounding Calgary, Alberta Canada. Jim Crockett would be sold to television mogul Ted Turner and become World Championship Wrestling (WCW), WWE’s main competitor in the 1990’s and this led to the Monday Night Wars.
Each territory would have its own champions, and its own top wrestlers. Territories were large and wrestlers would drive thousands of miles a week to get to various venues. Even today, WWE wrestlers drive from venue to venue. The travel, along with the rigors of the ring, lack of health insurance, and injuries resulted in drug and alcohol abuse. Wrestlers did not want to take off because no wrestling meant no money. This abuse continued into the 80’s with the addition of anabolic steroids as McMahon wanted wrestlers to be larger than life. This lifestyle has led to the premature death of a plethora of wrestlers; many have died from overdose, cardiovascular issues and suicide. For the latter, CTE is considered to be a culprit much like it is in the NFL.
Though the roots of pro wrestling can be traced back to carnivals shortly after the end of the American Civil War, and though the 1980’s were vital in catapulting pro wrestling into the mainstream, the 1940’s-1950’s were its first Golden Age. The first WWE/WWWF champion was “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, having won the belt in a kayfabe, or pretend, tournament in Brazil. WWWF had separated from the NWA.
Rogers was beaten by the longest reigning WWWF/WWF/WWE champion, the famous Italian, and pro wrestling hall of famer Bruno Sammartino. Sammartino held the title for eight straight years and sold-out Madison Square Garden multiple times. Had Rogers not had heart problems, he may have held the title longer, so they had Sammartino beat him in 48 seconds. Such injuries sometimes force wrestlers to relinquish titles before the companies want them to. Luckily, Sammartino was an incredible draw.
Wrestler Gorgeous George could be considered the first ever cosplayer. Beginning in the American Northwest, he travelled the territories, greatest heels (explained below) the business has ever seen. He bleached his hair blond and wore elaborate frilly costumes reminiscent of English and French royalty, and was accompanied to the ring by a valet who would remove his robe and hand him a mirror so he could admire himself. He played the role of an effeminate pretty boy, setting the stage for wrestlers beyond measure, and his showmanship even influenced Muhammed Ali and James Brown.
Like any industry, professional wrestling has it important terms one needs to know. These include face, heel, feud, angle, manager, shoot, work, heat, bump, gimmick, and push. A typical storyline, or “angle” might be two wrestlers who are “brothers,” though in reality they are not, fighting over the same woman. Their “feud” might last for months with one wrestler winning the first match and the other wrestler winning the second match before culminating in a final blowoff match where one will come out on top overall. The one who comes out on top could be said to be getting a “push,” meaning he or she has more momentum and popularity.
The public is familiar with these terms today. However, this was not always the case and that is due to another important term, the aforementioned kayfabe. Kayfabe refers to wrestling being “staged” or “scripted,” though many would balk at calling it fake as the “bumps,” or moves, wrestlers take are real. Wrestlers get quite injured, and a few have been paralyzed and even died in the ring, most notably Owen Hart.
Because of kayfabe, the business was highly protected. People believed it was real and no wrestler would dare let anyone in on it. So much was wrestling protected that Nelson Scott Simpson, who played a Russian character, or “gimmick”, in the mid 80’s, legally changed his name to Nikita Koloff, his character’s name. He also learned to write his name in Russian and did not speak English, even when not working. Koloff was not the only wrestler to maintain character inside and outside of the ring; “heels” (bad guys) and “faces”, or “babyfaces” (good guys) would often not travel together, though they did sometimes. In fact, a 1975 accident threatened to expose the pro wrestling business. Basically, a top face was in a plane crash with several heels and if the public found out they were traveling together, the business would have been ruined. Wisely, the face, “Mr. Wrestling” Tim Woods, gave his real name to police as opposed to his wrestling name. Another incident that hurt the business occurred when face “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan was busted with cocaine in a car with heel “The Iron Sheik” in 1987, who was actually Iranian.
So completely engrossed in these kayfabe storylines were the fans that more often than not, heels would get so much “heat,” meaning hate, that they would worry about being attacked. One fan actually shot a gun at Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, the greatest manager of all time, at a live event. Managers speak for wrestlers who are not good on the mic and also create more heat in doing so. More heat means more money because fans would pay to see the heel lose. The “manager” is not a manager like an actor has; rather, the pro wrestling manager is a “work.” It’s part of the story. The opposite of a “work” is a “shoot,” and this occurs regularly now with the advent of social media in “shoot” interviews, where those in the business reveal inside information.
As with Koloff, wrestling gimmicks often came from real life. As a result of the Cold War, the 1980’s featured evil Russians and Iranians, along with their All-American counterparts like Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter. The 1980’s, where bigger was always better, also featured over the top characters with fluorescent colors, and these included Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, who would sometimes cut people’s hair after a match, and “The Million Dollar Man,” Ted DeBiase, who would pay money to fans to kiss his feet.
Arguably, kayfabe ended in 1989 when McMahon stated, to avoid state athletic commission regulation, that wrestling was entertainment. However, the effective end of kayfabe, as it changed the way the business, occurred in 1996 when four wrestlers broke character after a match. Two of the wrestlers were leaving WWE for WCW, and guaranteed contracts, so all four decided to hug it out after the match; the reason this was controversial was that two of the wrestlers were heels while the others were faces. The second blow to kayfabe was a result of the infamous 1997 Montreal Screwjob. Current WWF champion Bret Hart was scheduled to beat Shawn Michaels, but Hart was also leaving WWF for WCW. Afraid Hart would appear on WCW television as WWF champion, McMahon ordered the referee to end the match prematurely so that Michaels won. McMahon interfering the way he did inserted a reality to the match, as McMahon also became the biggest heel the company had ever seen.
These events changed the business, and the business was ready for a change. The attitude era, lasting from the mid 1990’s to the early 2000’s moved away from the Golden Age larger than life, colorful characters to more reality-based and adult stories. It saw the advent of Stone Cold Steve Austin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Triple H and Kurt Angle, a legit Olympic gold medalist. Though these characters were more “real,” there were still “gimmicks”, such as the Undertaker, aka The Deadman, and Val Venus, who was a porn star. Yes, a porn star. This time period also saw the Monday Night Wars, with WWE and WCW battling it out for supremacy. Wrestling’s over the top theatrics were taken to a new level, while its athleticism was demonstrated with smaller wrestlers and new kinds of matches. The Attitude era was born.
Coming up next: Please, Give Me Attitude.