I. Washington's Birthday, 1985
A few jogged through the crowd to get to the scalpers in front of Madison Square Garden, but most of the wrestling fans streaming down Thirty-second Street were walking at a patient, unzippered pace, lingering in the unusual April-like warmth of the evening. An Hispanic teenager, anxious and calm, walked his girlfriend across Seventh Avenue, past a wary, huddled, sixtyish couple; a crew of postal workers exited a bar, tickets in hand; a group of observant Jewish men, black-suited and bearded, kidded one another as they crossed the concrete plaza.
Inside the Garden, leaning on one of the blue sawhorses that funneled traffic down the corridor, a red-eyed uniformed security guard was getting yelled at from behind by a supervisor wearing a business suit and wielding a walkie-talkie: "See? He's doin' his job, that's why I'm not yellin' at him!," said the supervisor as he indicated the guard's partner, who was just then calling out, "Step this way!" But the first guard protested mildly, without turning back, "I'm doin' my job," through a bleary, oblivious smile.
Ahead, in front of an entry to the adjoining Felt Forum, which had sold out all 2,000 seats for a simultaneous closed-circuit telecast, a red-jacketed usher eyed one better-heeled customer and said, "There's no seats left close to the screen, but if you want to work something out with this guy," he indicates another usher, "maybe another seat could be set up."
Soon after the start of the first match in the three-hour-long card, the T.V cameras feeding the screens at the Felt Forum picked out a few of the recognizable faces dotting ringside: Andy Warhol, television actors Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo (Mr. T, star of a popular NBC show, would make a surprise appearance later on), and NBC Sports announcer Bob Costas, who was on hand to handle the ring introductions for the "main event" (which is going to be featured on an hourlong broadcast "special," called "The War to Settle the Score," on the Music Television Channel, a national cable-television network). The match is between Hulk Hogan, the World Wrestling Federation's six-foot, eight-inch defending heavyweight champion (seen at the top of the MTV show screaming frantically: "I am out of control! I am not responsible anymore!") and challenger "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.
MTV's presentation was a giddy climax to the months-long "Rock and Wrestling" campaign. "The War to Settle the Score" showed Gloria Steinem, Geraldine Ferraro, and many pop-music stars unanimously voicing their desire that Hogan win. Tonight's MTV extravaganza also aired some broadsides Piper had delivered before against women and rock and roll on the WWF's syndicated television programs.
II. "It's all a joke, and you're the butt of it"
Over the next few weeks, features and reports proclaiming wrestling's burgeoning popularity appeared almost everywhere, thanks largely to the WWF's aggressive (and unprecendented, for wrestling) publicity campaign. Frank Haller, of the New York- based public relations firm of Bozell & Jacobs, who directed the campaign for the WWF, boasted: "I'm talking about thousands and thousands of stories -- and I'm not talking about one-paragraph filler -- I'm talking about major feature treatment, all over the country."
Many of the stories focused on the World Wrestling Federation, and credited Vince McMahon, Jr., its lone promoter and one of its featured announcers, with having expanded wrestling's audience by coupling promotions such as "Rock and Wrestling" with an aggressive, spendthrift expansion of the WWF outward from the Northeast. Newsweek wrote in its story that "Madison Square Garden regularly sells out its 26,000 seats for each monthly show." (This is false, however, according to Dave Meltzer, who says that from March through November, 1984, only two cards sold out Madison Square Garden; a crowd of 14,513 in August, '84 was "the lowest in years" for wrestling at the Garden.) Sports Illustrated ran a lengthy story on wrestling, featuring Hulk Hogan on the cover of what turned out to be the second-biggest seller of the year.
Some coverage noted that McMahon's initiative had begun in earnest late in 1983, when, having bought several regional promotions outright, and culled others' talent, he negotiated with many television stations -- offering, on occasion, a percentage of local houses -- in order to replace the established promotional telecast with his own. McMahon's expanded "network" of independents, in concert with the proliferation of his shows on cable-television, gave him "87% coverage" of American television homes, according to information supplied the media by Frank Tomeo, Titan's national television ad sales representative.
Articles about pro wrestling's popularity had appeared earlier: James P. Forkan's "Sports Marketing" column in the Advertising Age dated July 30, 1984 had detailed the WWF's enormous broadcast popularity, while noting that "the one thing wrestling doesn't yet have a hold on is the interest of national advertisers." Based on figures supplied by Tomeo, Forkan wrote that attendance at live wrestling events "rose last year by 32% to 9.5 million, a percentage topped only by the National Football League." (These tallies, however, are open to question. Tomeo's authority was, apparently, The Daily Racing Form, which keeps track of annual attendance figures in each sport: since 1982, the source for the Form's wrestling figures has been Bert Randolph Sugar, a sportswriter and the author of several glossy picture books about professional wrestling, one of which has sold over five hundred thousand copies, according to Sugar. From 9.5 million in 1983, attendance rose to 12.91 million in '84, according to the Sugar/Form numbers. Sugar says that he got his figures from state athletic commissions; but Meltzer -- "Not every state has an athletic commission, and the records aren't kept very well in most of the ones that do" -- estimated that attendance in 1983 was actually 12.6 million, and had dropped to around 10 million in 1984.)
In December, the Philadelphia Daily News ran an exhaustive four-part investigation of professional wrestling by sports columnist Ray Didinger. Didinger talked with fans, athletic commissioners, legislators, and performers, including former wrestlers Eddy Mansfield and Jim Wilson, who in October had testified before a committee of the Georgia House of Representatives investigating wrestling practices.
Mansfield and Wilson each contended that a blacklist had prevented him from wrestling; Wilson (a former professional football player) said that his career had suffered after he had declined the advances of a homosexual promoter, and, citing his own abortive effort at promoting in Atlanta's Omni Arena, contended that promoters commonly secure exclusive arrangements with arenas, in violation of antitrust laws.
But the wrestling story that got the most attention was aired on ABC-TV's weekly newsmagazine, "20/20," just three days after the WWF's Washington's Birthday card at the Garden. ABC consumer reporter John Stossel began the show by identifying himself as a former high school wrestler, and spoke with both Mansfield and Wilson -- who affirmed that promoters arrange the outcome of each matches with the wrestlers beforehand, and that the holds, throws, and punches used by each wrestler are performed with the victim's cooperation.
Midway through the report, Stossel was shown playing a tape of a bout for Eddy Mansfield, asking, "Is this real wrestling?"
"No, it's not real," said Mansfield, who is an engaging, charming talker. "I mean, if somebody believed that, they'd be stupid." (Mansfield, who during his career was known as the "Continental Lover," seems to have many of the attributes of a successful wrestler: he has blue eyes and a cute spoiled-child's face, with dirty-blonde curls that make him look like a well-muscled Harpo Marx.)
Then Mansfield took Stossel into the ring for a remarkable demonstration of wrestling's Kama Sutra. After giving a brief lesson in stagefighting, Mansfield debunked several of the commonest throws, including the "body slam," (in which a standing wrestler appears to pick up another in order to throw him on his back) by allowing the diminutive reporter to perform them on himself. ("He did half the work," said Stossel in a voice-over.) Mansfield also drew a razorblade across his forehead, saying that wrestlers are paid extra for drawing their blood during matches.
Finally, the feature closed by showing an encounter between Stossel and wrestler Dave "Dr. D" Schultz (a former tag-team partner of Mansfield's) taped after Schultz had stepped out of the ring during a Garden card late in December. Stossel, microphone in hand, was seen talking with an angry-looking, six- and-a-half foot tall, somewhat blonde-bearded wrestler. (The segment's producer, Bernie Cohen, recalled later, "I had started the interview with Schultz. And Scultz was acting very nasty to me, but then John walked over to me, and I said, 'John, you finish this.' John still accuses me of deliberately handing him the mike. But I'd figured it was an act -- these guys do an act all the time.")
A wrestler like David Schultz is more accustomed to being interviewed on-camera by a wrestling promoter or an announcer paid by one -- not a network television reporter asking hostile questions. Schultz was flushed and sweaty with exertion, having just emerged a loser from a ring encounter against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki:
STOSSEL: Is this a good business?
SCHULTZ: Yeah, it's a good business. I wouldn't be in it if it wasn't.
STOSSEL: Why is it a good business?
SCHULTZ: Because only the tough survive, that's the reason you ain't in it. And this punk holding the camera, the reason he ain't in it. The reason these rednecks out here ain't in it, because it's a tough business.
STOSSEL: That's terrific.
SCHULTZ: Why, is that all you got?
STOSSEL: I'll ask you the standard questions, you know.
SCHULTZ: The standard question.
STOSSEL: I think this is fake.
SCHULTZ: You think this is fake? [<i>hits Stossel on ear, Stossel falls down</i>] What's that, is that fake? Huh? What the hell's wrong with you? That's an open-handed slap, huh? You think it's fake, you -- [<i>hits Stossel on other ear</i>].
MAN: Easy, easy.
SCHULTZ: Huh, what do you mean? Fake. What the hell is the matter with you?
In a mock-"personal story" segment aired on a WWF telecast six months before, Schultz had been depicted behaving like a mean s.o.b. to his "wife" and "children." Weeks before the confrontation, one wrestler had told Ray Didinger, "Some guys know when to let the ring go. Schultz doesn't. We let him be."
But a month later in the Village Voice, freelance writer Dan Bischoff concluded his wrestling story (and a somewhat distorted account of the incident) by writing, "But he [Stossel] deserved it." Bischoff continued by posing a worthy question, one which seemed to be on many people's minds: "In a post-McMahon world, the real question about wrestling isn't 'Is it fake?' but 'Is it art?'"
The reaction of David Wolff, who, as the manager of pop singer Cyndi Lauper, was perhaps the man most responsible for Rock N' Wrestling, was quite mild. Wolff said, "If you're gonna do that -- but you've got to show the other side, you've got to show really the meaningful side. And I don't think 20/20 did that. I think they were very narrowminded in their approach. In my dealings with the World Wrestling Federation, they've been up- front, professional, gentlemanly, and very positive about everything. And we never talked about fixing matches or doing any of that nonsense. We just talked about how can we, together, turn on the public." (Wolff also said, "I love wrestling, I love Rock and Roll, and I love the hybrid form of entertainment that we're creating, marrying the who industries. What I love the most is the fact that the people of it. And that's why I do it.")
Shortly after NBC launched "Saturday Night's Main Event" in partnership with McMahon, some nine months after the 20/20 report, an NBC television executive said, ". . . the 20/20 report was, A) totally aimed at the fact that it aired during a sweeps period, -- 'let's get people to the T.V., period, no matter what,' -- and B) to do a story on 'Is professional wrestling fixed?' to me is about as interesting as 'Are women who are seen walking on Sunset Boulevard at 3:30 in the morning, hookers?'"
20/20's report didn't hurt WWF attendance. Oddly, since late in 1984, Vince McMahon and several Titan spokesmen had been downplaying wrestling's pretense at authenticity in low-key fashion. "We don't ballyhoo the fact that it's not a sport," Frank Tomeo had told Advertising Age, "but the people vote with their bucks." Vince McMahon was quoted in the Los Angeles Times: "It really doesn't matter to me whether someone believes that wrestling is fake or not." Five weeks after the report aired, a publicist hired by Titan commented: "You'd have to be brain-damaged to think this stuff is real;" Said the NBC executive, "Anybody who's dumb enough to look at wrestling as sport deserves major brain surgery."
The degree to which wrestling matches are choreographed is a trade secret as celebrated as the recipe for Coca-Cola. Wrestling has always been more secretive than any other sport or entertainment industry: wrote Didinger, who exhausted every possible means to interview McMahon: "Newsmen are treated like KGB agents."
If he does get to talk with an insider, a journalist is liable to get himself hooked by some sort of rumor: some thirty years ago, columnist Dan Parker of the New York Daily Mirror broke a story that two wrestlers, Buddy Rogers and Billy Darnell, were actually brothers -- a fact which, in a business as nepotic as wrestling, would not have been terribly remarkable; in 1985, several a story was released by at least one WWF publicist to the effect that Hulk Hogan and another WWF wrestler named Brutus Beefcake were also kin. In fact Rogers and Darnell were merely friends, and Hogan and Beefcake are also thought to be unrelated by a promoter for whom both performed.
"I'd ask a promoter a question," recalled Didinger, "and he'd go on and on about something that didn't really have anything to do with what I'd asked. And I began wondering, 'Why don't I get any straight answers?,' and then I realized, 'I'm dealing with a whole business that's a lie.'"
"Everyone lies to you," said Bruce Newman, who wrote Sports Illustrated's wrestling story. "After a while, you start to get the feeling that it's all a joke, and you're the butt of it."
III. Is it fake?
No one knows how many fans think that the fights they watch in the arenas are genuine. Based on his conversation with wrestling fans, Didinger estimated that about one-fifth of all fans "know it's all bull, they like it because it's like watching the Three Stooges on steroids." A similar proportion are "fanatical believers in all of it," said Didinger, while the remainder concede, "'Yeah, I know most of it's fake, but one in a while, when the championship is on the line, they really go at it'."
Asking this last sort of fan if the contests are "faked" is like questioning a small child about the existence of Santa Claus. As the child might take his questioner by the hand and point out photographs and other likenesses of St. Nick, the wrestling fan will recall brutal episodes from the ring: "I'm a true wrestling fan, and I know fact from theory," said Norman Dicks of the Bronx, a few days after the 20/20 feature. "They've got grudge matches, it's only human nature, you know? A guy hits you with a foreign object, or tries to defeat you by breaking the rules -- the other guy'll keep the grudge." Dicks, who is also a boxing fan, allowed that some of the matches seem excessively flashy, "but the promoter has to sell tickets. Some of it is showmanship, some of it is for real, some of it is not so real." Fans who have a narrower notion of "fixed" may have seen a wrestler lose a match thanks to a spuriously incompetent referee -- that match was fixed.
Many have pointed out that the proportion of "sophisticated" fans is probably relatively high in New York. This type of sports fan may take wrestling's authenticity as seriously he might, say, a prostitute's sincerity; a group of friends, young men a few years out of college, laughed at the question as we stood outside the Garden: "But it's not fake. It's not fake at all!" said one. "These are highly trained athletes! It's real, man, if it wasn't would we be here now?" Another declaimed, "Anyone who thinks that wrestling is fake is the same kind of person who thinks that the N.F.L. isn't fixed."
Another sports fan standing in front of the Garden said in a soft West Indian accent: "No, I don't think that the matches are fake. It's just like in any other sport -- at times there's not the kind of enthusiasm that you find at other times."
Roy Shire, a retired wrestling promoter who now raises livestock in California, said: "When I wrestled in New York, people used to come right up to me and say to me, 'You know I saw you in the match in the Garden on Monday night,' and I'd say, 'Yeah? Are you a wrestling fan?'
"They'd say, 'Yeah, but I don't believe in wrestling, it's all phony.'
"And I'd say, 'Well, why do you go?'
"They'd say: 'Well, it's a great show. I just like to see what's gonna happen. It's a great show, but it's a bunch of bullshit, it's phony as hell.'
"I would say if you walked down the street, and met a hundred people, and you interviewed a hundred people, I would say that ninety out of the hundred would say that wrestling was fake. Ten out of the hundred would say that it's real."
"See a lot of times fans would come to San Francisco, and they'd come up to me and they'd say, 'Roy -- hey, that main event was great.' I'd say, 'Glad you liked it,' you know, cause now I've got to be a nice guy.
"So they say, you know, 'Those preliminary matches, I didn't believe them, I didn't believe anything about those preliminary matches, but that main event, that was for real.'
"Because, you see, in the main event, you always had the best boys in the main event. That's not true anymore. Years ago it was true. Your main-event guys were more convincing, and everything they did, they convinced the people. Like they throw a punch at the guy, it would convince the people that the punch really hurt the guy."
IV. A History of Wrestling
Just when wrestling began to be taken at less than face value by knowledgeable sports fans is difficult to judge. In fact, since cinching the outcomes of wagered contests may itself be the world's fifth or sixth oldest profession, professional wrestling's historical authenticity is nearly impossible to document. The development of the sport of competitive wrestling -- the use of strength, balance, quickness, and coordination to overwhelm an opponent and keep him down is ancient and universal; but in an even-looking match, a skillfully cooperative loser would have always been able to conceal his acquiescence without arousing suspicion.
Wrestling shares with boxing not only the "squared circle", but a long, tainted past (although as boxing overshadowed wrestling, so did its controversies). Promoters of one will often venture into the other, and "mixed matches" have been around at least since 1876, when John L. Sullivan fought wrestler William Muldoon (known as "The Greatest Roman," Muldoon later acted a touring production of As You Like It, and eventually became a New York State Athletic Commissioner). According to one account, the match was ended when fans rushed the ring, "fearing for the safety of both athletes." (Unfortunately they weren't as solicitous at a 1975 mixed match between Muhammed Ali and Japanese wrestler Inoko Aoki, exhibition which even the wrestling magazines found repellent, though it ended in a decision for Aoki; Meltzer blamed this bout for a subsequent slump in attendance at wrestling events in Japan.)
While corruption in boxing led to severe restrictions that by 1900 had made prizefighting in New York virtually unpromotable, wrestling enjoyed some excellent years before anyone thought to question it. Newspaper accounts of these big-time matches in cities in the U.S. and Europe are often as inconclusive as the fights themselves seem to have been. There is a trail of standoffs throughout these old stories -- an inordinate number of the contests seem to end in disqualifications, or with gory, dramatic windups (a gravely injured wrestler is rushed to the hospital, for example) that are still common.
Myths about old-time wrestling survive today. For instance, an article in a recent issue of The Sporting News paid tribute to Chicago's Comiskey Park, by way of citing the 1911 match held there between Frank Gotch and "The Russian Bear," George Hackenschmidt, describing the wrestlers as "perhaps the finest athletes who ever graced the sport, long before it degenerated into theatrics." The record differs -- a day before the match, the New York Times reported scant wagering in Chicago; the following day the Times described the Russian's showing as "pitiful," noting, "The crowd decreed that he had 'quit,' but the defeated challenger, through copious tears, averred that he had entered the arena with a wrenched knee."
And a 1937 book about wrestling, Fall Guys, written by a man named Marcus Griffin, gives yet another perspective. (The book's full title is "Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce -- The inside story of the Wrestling Business, America's most profitable and best organized professional sport.") Frank Gotch was promoted by a man named Jack Curley, and together they were largely responsible for wrestling's heyday in the early years of this century. In Griffin's description, Gotch was a cowardly bully: "Gotch did 'business' with the more capable bonecrushers whom he met, and dominated the lesser lights through a fiendish delight in breaking bones and maiming less fortunate and skilled adversaries."
The first contest between then-European champion George Hackenschmidt and the Iowa-born Gotch had taken place in Chicago a few years earlier at a pavilion near the Stock Yards. "The olfactory odor from the Yards has never since equalled that left by the contest's aftermath," Griffin writes. "It was one of the most disgraceful exhibitions ever witnessed by a capacity audience of enthusiastic mat devotees, and it started the ball rolling toward the general discrediting of wrestlers and grapplers." Griffin quotes a statement made by Hackenschmidt a few decades later, in which the Russian complained that Gotch had oiled his body so thoroughly that he could not get a hold on him; he asked the referee to stop the contest and return both to the dressing room to bathe themselves clean, but to no avail. Hackenschmidt said he received numerous thumb-gouges, and he also accused Gotch of using a noxious hair tonic, which he rubbed in his eyes.
The rematch was even worse. Three weeks before the bout, one of Hackenschmidt's training partners -- a former Gotch second -- stepped on the Russian's knee. "I lay like a log for six hours," Hackenschmidt later wrote. Hackenschmidt wanted to back out, but Jack Curley prevailed upon him to continue, and went so far as to arrange for a double to do perform the roadwork for the Russian late at night, at a site far enough from the street to prevent newspapermen from detecting the switch. By the day of the match, Hackenschmidt's knee had not yet healed; he bitterly recalled that he wrestled on one leg, and that Gotch (who is today listed as the first World Heavyweight Titleholder by the National Wrestling Alliance ) deserved credit for neither of his falls, since he had put himself down. Griffin writes that the public outcry about the presence of legions of pickpockets and gamblers outside the park gave rise to a scandal in the city's police department, and that the match itself was bad enough to have virtually destroyed wrestling in Chicago for years.
There was often a trace of legitimate competition behind wrestling back then. A champion might duck a qualified opponent -- unless the challenger had the backing of a powerful enough promoter, in which case he might be granted a chance to "shoot" -- to wrestle for real -- against the champion privately. If he won, or made a good showing, the challenger might get to wrestle him in a big arena, setting up a hot rivalry. But there was another danger for the champ, especially if the wrestlers were backed by two different managers or promoters, for a challenger would often agree to lose beforehand, and then start shooting in the match, and take a chance on his ability -- known as "hooking." Because a victory would give his promoter his own new star, there was a good deal of physical intimidation to the game.
Though few promoters were really pure, the newspapers provided an occasional forum for whistle-blowing by those who found themselves shut out. As a result, several states implemented commissions to oversee the ring sports, though they frequently did everything but.
Thus in 1915, the New York Times reported: "in the hope that wrestling can be freed from the 'hippodromes' and 'fakes' which have been perpetrated upon the public, a movement has been started to have a State commission appointed to govern the game," and six years later, the New York State Athletic Commission was born. In 1920, then-State Senator Jimmy Walker succeeded in passing legislation creating the New York State Boxing Commission. Before the Walker bill, which paved the way for entrepeneur Tex Rickard to stage many of Jack Dempsey's bouts at Madison Square Garden, prizefight promoters had been restricted to "private clubs" and prohibited from selling tickets; decisions were outlawed, and contests limited to ten rounds in duration. A year later, another bill was passed replacing the boxing commission with an Athletic Commission to assume jurisdiction over wrestling, as well as boxing. (One might think that any man who took on a task as weighty as insuring "fair, sportsmanlike, and scientific wrestling contests" in New York State in 1921 would have deserved a pay raise, but the new slate of Commissioners was to be the first to serve without salary.)
In December, 1923, the Commission denied Rickard a license to promote wrestling in the Garden, apparently because a competing promotion run by Jack Curley and Matty Zimmerman at the 71st Regiment Armory had failed to stir up business. "The License Committee does not think it would be fair to Curley and Zimmerman, under the circumstances, to grant a rival club a permit," said Commissioner William J. McCormick; Rickard did not protest. (Actually, Curley's permit to promote wrestling had been revoked a year or so before; but late in January, 1924, the Commission granted him a new license. Two months later, a man named J.B. Feinberg sent a letter to the Commission alleging that Curley was acting unethically by serving as both manager and promoter for wrestlers. Feinberg listed "shooters" who, he insisted, could beat any of the wrestlers in Curley's stable, and would neither "lay down" nor "talk business." The charges, however, were dismissed.) Griffin noted Curley's shrewdness in staging numerous cards in charitable association with Mrs. William Randolph Hearst's Milk Fund -- which also gave him leverage over his partners, since he pretended to his associates that this connection gave him some pull with the Hearst newspapers.
In the late '20s a man named Billy Sandow (Griffin refers to him sarcastically as "The Brain") united with a younger wrestler and promoter named Joe "Toots" Mondt, and together they promoted a wrestler named Ed "Strangler" Lewis into a nationwide attraction. Lewis was by all accounts one of the most capable shooters that the wrestling game has ever seen.
Mondt had a notion that the wrestling promotion could become a touring operation, something like a vaudeville company. (For his part, Sandow perfected the ever-popular interracial matchup: "'The Brain' paired Germans and Frenchmen, Greeks and Russians, Chinamen and Americans, Japs and Chinamen, Englishman and Irish, Indians and Cowboys, westerners and easterners, and one town favorite against another," wrote Griffin.)
"He had a very brilliant mind as far as matchmaking was concerned," former NWA president Sam Muchnick said of Mondt, who remained a force in wrestling until late into the 1950's. Inspired, according to Griffin, by James Figg, an English bareknuckled fighter of the eighteenth century who often defeated wrestlers "by the simple process of first knocking them out and then pinning their shoulders," Mondt decided to add fisticuffs: "We'll take the best features of boxing and the holds from Greco- Roman, combine these with the old time lumber camp style of fighting, and call it 'Slam Bang Western-Style Wrestling.'"
But Mondt's most important contribution to professional wrestling was probably his perfection of the "finish" -- the scripted conclusion of matches. Many of the finishes Mondt invented are still used today -- Griffin describes one that appears in about every other card: two contestants "bump their heads together, fall to the mat, are unable to continue, and are counted out by the referee, with the bout called a draw. The variation of this finish is for one wrestler to recover consciousness in sufficient time to be declared the victor."
Sandow, Lewis, and Mondt ("the Gold Dust Trio") pushed aside Curley -- as well as Rudy and Ernie Dusek, a pair of Southern wrestler-promoters, and a host of others -- and came to wield enormous influence throughout the large Northern cities. They were the first to bring football players into the ring. (Both Wayne "Big" Munn, a Nebraska player, champion in 1925, and Gus Sonnenberg, a Dartmouth star, champ in 1928, were poor wrestlers, but solid gate attractions.) Lewis seems to have been a formidable enough shooter to ward off challenges to his supremacy, and Mondt and Sandow were quite skillful at dodging not only hooks, but antitrust allegations.
The twenties -- the "Golden Age of Sports" -- were when "good- versus-evil" scenarios first began to tell. Actually, fan favorites and villains had been played off one another for decades, if not for centuries; it was certainly common in the mid-nineteenth century for a barnstorming wrestler's "front man" to swing into a small town with a carnival, show off his star's muscular talent against a good-looking stooge or two, take bets on a match against a local favorite, and then take steps to guarantee the most desireable outcome. (True to wrestling's carnival heritage, arena dressing facilities for professional wrestlers still divide "heroes" from "villains," just as separate locker rooms are provided for the home and visiting teams of conventional sports.)
When big-city promoters started soliciting tickets instead of wagers (presumably, bettors turned to other sports, such as boxing) they nurtured a different following: fans who would regularly stake the price of a seat in the arena merely to enjoy the events, or to see if a score would be settled. The favorite's loss to a hated villain no longer cinched bets, but sold-out rematches, in all probability -- hence, "scientific wrestling."
The most popular script is still used: first, the "good guy" ("babyface" in wrestlers' argot; or "fan favorite" to the magazines) begins the match by trying "scientific" tactics against his opponent; but the "bad guy" ("heel," or "rulebreaker") gains advantage by cheating; good guy becomes enraged at his disadvantage, finally turning cheating tactics against bad guy. (It should be noted, however, that the distinction between "scientific wrestler" and "rulebreaker" today is a virtual anachronism in many promotions.)
One figure in the New York wrestling scene was a diminutive Jewish immigrant from Lithuania named Jack Pfefer. At a time when promoters' sole means of advertisement were posters and handbills, Pfefer made himself a pet of newspaper writers. "He represented the best and the worst things about wrestling," recalled veteran promoter Paul Boesch. In 1931 A.J. Liebling wrote quaintly about Pfefer in the New York World-Telegram; complete with Pfefer's fanciful account of his periodic expeditions to faraway Russia, which he made "equipped with a derby and a picture of Mae West . . . . Once Mr. Pfefer gets the derby over the wrestler's ears, preventing a belated development of the embryo brain, he holds the picture in front of the captive's nose, and walks rapidly until he gets to the boat, and the wrestler follows him with docility."
Pfefer made many enemies in his unsuccessful efforts to dominate New York wrestling. On one wall in his New York office hung photographs of deceased wrestlers, some with malicious remarks written on them. One of them was a wrestler who, convinced Pfefer had cheated him, hung him from a window of a New York hotel by his ankles and held him there until he extracted payment. "It depends, sometimes it's the Piccadilly Hotel; sometimes it's the office that used to be in the Times building," said Boesch, chuckling.
A celebrated gimmick of the 'thirties -- pitting opponents in a ring filled with fish -- now seems a sly acknowledgement of professional wrestling's telltale aroma. Though the statute that denoted wrestling matches as "exhibitions" rather than "contests," did not go onto the books for another twenty-two years, in 1930 the Athletic Commission announced that it had sent out a bulletin requiring promoters to list their events as "shows" unless the Commission had approved otherwise. This did not seem to disappoint many fans, who were listening to radio broadcasts in such numbers that in 1935 the Athletic Commission recommended that New York levy a tax on the profits garnered by radio broadcasts.
The mid-thirties were the era of Jim Londos, "The Golden Greek," one of the worst wrestlers of his era, but quite good-looking. Londos began in wrestling as the designated loser in a scam he ran in a few southern states: his associates would begin a contest, and then Londos -- splattered with plaster and debris, like a laborer just off the job -- approached the ring, and boasted of his superiority. After Londos (Griffin refers to him as "The Wrestling Plasterer") had deked the gilpins into betting against the incumbent, he would, of course, lose.
Between 1948 and 1955, each of the three major television networks broadcast wrestling programs at one time or another (the first and longest-running show was aired by the old DuMont network, originally from the Marigold Arena in Chicago). Wrestling and boxing are both nocturnal, relatively brief, and confined to a small area, making them the most handily producible of sporting events for television. While the league sports were concerned that broadcasting live events would damage gate attendance, television paid off for wrestling.
"No one knew much about television in those days," said Verne Gagne. "I remember the first match I had in the East was in Troy, New York in the early 'fifties. We drove in from Buffalo that night, and we couldn't get near the arena, it was so crowded. We didn't know what else was playing in town; we didn't realize that all those people were there for us. When I got out of the cab, I was just mobbed -- it was like Elvis Presley would be a few years later."
Gorgeous George's success gave "camp" its modern meaning and brought forth a host of playful characters. The interview had come to stay: wrestlers named Golden Superman, Dracula, and Ali Baba compensated for a lack of athletic ability or personality by successfully projecting a tailor-made television character "on the mike" (or "on the stick") as wrestlers say. (An exception was one "Mute Mike," a "deaf-and-dumb" wrestler of the early-T.V. era who relayed protests to the referee in sign language, miming cries of distress by pointing a finger at his open mouth.) Antonino Rocca's leaping, whirling maneuvers eventually helped to begin the transformation of the wrestling exhibition from relatively slowly-paced displays of strength into a much faster, acrobatically sensational show.
In 1950, St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick became president of the National Wrestling Alliance, a trade association which had been formed in 1949 by six Midwestern promoters at a meeting in Waterloo, Iowa, who ostensibly sought only to exchange talent between regions and to facilitate the naming of a national champion, booked out of the office of the president. During his twenty-five years as NWA president, Muchnick, a former sportswriter for the St. Louis Times, became known as something of a statesman. Within a few years of its founding, the NWA counted 38 members from all parts of the country. (After a Justice Department antitrust investigation, in 1956 the NWA's leading members signed a consent decree enjoining them from arranging exclusive contracts with arenas or "blacklisting" wrestlers or promoters; many intramural territorial disputes were resolved within the Alliance itself.)
In New York, the Johnston brothers, Walter and Charlie, helped bring wrestling back to Madison Square Garden after an 11-year absence, with the help of Toots Mondt. (In 1949, one writer described Mondt as looking "like a mountainous cherub. His face is serene and angelic and he gives the appearance of always being seated on some fleecy cloud somehwere.") Mondt, whose stable included Antonino Rocca, was described by Muchnick as having "a very brilliant mind as far as matchmaking was concerned."
Different reasons are given for wrestling's precipitous loss of popularity around the country in the mid-fifties. Gagne feels that T.V. overexposure did in wrestling; Sam Muchnick said, "People just started going to other pursuits, doing other things"; the phenomenon of a babyface named Elvis Presley in 1955 doubtless drew younger fans away.
It's likely that wrestling had exhausted its fans' patience and curiosity along with its inventory of gimmicks -- acts like Gorgeous George's had sputtered by 1953. To turn up the "heat," some promotions occasionally featured main event "extras" -- rewarding the winner with, for example, the right to shear the loser in the middle of the ring. (After losing one such "hair match" in Toronto in 1958, Gorgeous George put up his wife's hair in the following week's rematch.)
Wrestling did not suffer in New York as it did elsewhere. In the words of former wrestler Ted Lewin, "it just went underground." Lewin recalled a riot that broke out in St. Nicholas Arena during a main event between a pair of wrestlers named "Mr. Israel" and "Hans Schmidt" -- "a real Holocaust scenario . . . There were Hasidic jews in there throwing stuff at'im, too."
Much of this "heat" (fan emotion) was raised because of the promotional war raging over New York City, a war which was won by Vincent McMahon, son of one of the boxing matchmakers for the first Madison Square Garden. McMahon eventually won the war, and took over the Garden in the late 'fifties, leaving the smaller arenas around the city -- St. Nicholas Arena in East Harlem, Ridgewood Grove in Brooklyn, and Jamaica Arena -- to Mondt's organization.
Main-events in New York during the 'fifties often targeted Hispanic audiences. "By the time I left New York, I hated Puerto Ricans -- and it wasn't just me, it was every bad guy," said Roy Shire, now a cattle rancher in Northern California. Shire recalled several fights after events, including one in which he and another heel were forced to hide in a garbage can. "Most of the people who came to the Garden just came to see the finish . . . Nobody believed it except the Puerto Ricans."
On one November evening in 1957, a wrestling match in Madison Square Garden erupted into a riot after a violent finish to a tag-team match between Rocca and Edouard Carpentier against Dick "The Bruiser" Affils and "Doctor" Jerry Graham. The incident made a vivid impression on sportswriter Gordon S. White, Jr., who now writes about golf and college basketball for the New York Times, and was covering the event that night:
Rocca got hurt, I believe, to the point where it wasn't part of the act. Blood began to flow, and they immediately began to hit a little harder than they were supposed to, or something. And Rocca got, obviously, a little pissed off . . . And he grabbed Graham, -- and this just couldn't be in an act. (Things were beginning to be thrown by then, I believe.)
Rocca just put his right arm around Graham's head, and from the middle of the ring, ran him right into a ringpost. Head-first, the top of his head. And the blood was now pouring down Graham's face. The people started coming down the aisle towards the ring, and that's when you're in trouble. And it got totally out of hand.
I've covered riots in other sporting events other than that. That was the worst riot situation I was ever in, because -- had we not gotten the hell out of there, we could have been very seriously hurt. Those big wooden chairs were flying towards the ring.
Verne Gagne, who was also in the audience that evening, remembered that "it was like watching the lemmings go over." A few days later, State Athletic Commissioner Julius Helfand levied fines totaling $2,600 on the four wrestlers. (Oddly, current Deputy Commissioner Marvin Kohn was with the Athletic Commission then, but does not remember the incident at all, although it made the back cover of the next day's New York Daily News, as well as Life Magazine).
Perhaps news of this incident elicited reaction this reaction from the Soviet Union (as reported by the Associated Press a month later:)
MOSCOW, Dec. 22 -- The Russians don't think professional wrestling is a sport. They look upon it as just another evil of capitalism.
"We associate the word 'sports' with youth, strength, beauty, friendship, and smiles," the newspaper Soviet Sports said today.
"But the wolfish laws of capitalism, where strength is determined by a checkbook, turns honest competitions into distorted ones in America.
"These laws cripple men and breed base instincts . . . . There are no hold barred in this struggle -- bribery, blackmail, and even murder."