IV. A History of Wrestling (continued)
Roy Shire recalled wrestling in Yonkers back in the mid-1950s as part of a tag-team: "We were wrestling Perez and Rocca, and Jerry Graham starts the match. (Jerry Graham was another one of those guys who didn't know anything much about wrestling, he was just a big show guy, big mouth.) So he goes out there, and he tries to get Perez to 'sell' -- which means register to the people that you're hurt. But no matter what Graham does to Perez, he won't show them that he's hurt.
"So he comes over and tags me and he says, 'Ah, shit, I'm gettin' the hell out of here, you go in and wrestle.' I say, 'What's the matter?'
"He says, 'Ah, that son of a bitch, no matter what I do, the guy won't sell. I punch him, he won't register.'
"I said, 'Oh, give me that son of a bitch.'
"So I went in there, and he tried it on me. I leg-dived him, I bar-armed that bastard," said Shire, a one-time high school state champion, then later, while he served in the Coast Guard an all-Service champion. "And so I rode him all over a piece of paper, and then I said, 'All right, you little son of a bitch, you better sell, or I'm going to kick your brains out' -- he didn't know how to wrestle, they brought him in because he was a Puerto Rican. And they beat us, just like they did every night.
"A couple of days later I walked into the office, and Kola Kwariani got a hold of me, he was a Russian guy." (Kwariani, described in one magazine article as a "Slavic Buddha," also owned a cat named Pushkin.) "'What you try do to Perez?,' he tells me.
"And so I tried to explain to him, you know? I said, 'Hey, to make the show look a little better -- when he made that big comeback, and he sold for us, it would have been greater!'
"Kwariani says, 'I don't care, you make him look like piece shit! From now on, if you ever do that again, you're done! In fact, you got one week off, with no goddamn money!'
"I said, 'Aw come on, Kola,' and he said, 'Two weeks off for you! You bastard!'
"I said, 'You mean you're gonna give me two weeks off 'cause I made that asshole look crazy?' He said, 'That's right! He brings the Puerto Ricans. You don't bring the Puerto Ricans!'
"Of course, all the other guys in the territory are sayin', 'Boy, we'd better make Perez look good, or we'll be in the same fucking' boat.'"
"Wrestling always had that reputation of being run out of a cigar-box," recalled Ted Lewin, "although it may just have been that the box was a little bigger than the wrestlers thought it was." Lewin also remembered that "some of the wrestlers didn't like that wrestling took the heat for being rigged, given the way boxing was in the 'fifties."
The loss of network prime-time television programming sent promoters scampering to barter for local time slots, and presaged the splintering of the NWA: the independent television station got a cost-free hour of programming in which to air its own commercials, while the promoter could advertise his own product. Verne Gagne recalled that the only air time he could get was on Sunday mornings, and he had to sell vitamins to finance the program. Gagne (who, the story goes, had been demanding a shot at the NWA title) split off and banded together with several other promoters to form the American Wrestling Association, which eventually came to include a few Far Western promotions, along with its original base in the northern Midwest.
In the East, after the DuMont network broke up in the late fifties, McMahon held onto several T.V. outlets. In 1963 he founded the World-Wide Wrestling Federation by naming Buddy "Nature Boy" Rogers as his champion. In May of the same year, Bruno Sammartino began an uninterrupted eight-year reign as WWWF champion by beating Rogers.
Finding that their weekend-morning telecasts were competing with cartoon programs, some promoters began designing shows that appealed to children. (At one time, unaccompanied youngsters under the age of 16 were prohibited from attending wrestling matches in New York State; the minimum age was subsequently changed to 14, and finally to eight, some seven years ago.) And so, many of the fans under thirty-five who are said to be regularly watching wrestling on television in such impressive numbers have been watching T.V. wrestling since they were young children; if, perhaps, only occasionally, on rainy weekend mornings.
Television-wrestling's kiddie-show angle also explains why so many of wrestling's villains look and sound more like scary uncles or cartoon bullies -- blustering, deranged, or neurotic -- than barroom brawlers. The delight with which many wrestlers play contemptible heels in interviews makes for a great deal of energetic comedy: "Rowdy" Roddy Piper had been effective switching between roles as a heel and as a babyface in the Carolinas and the West Coast before joining the WWF, but he is the most effective as a jeering blatherskite: by turns a Russian sympathizer, and a racist xenophobe. When he first came to the WWF, Piper was used exclusively as an interviewer -- evidently it was felt that at six-foot one, he was too short to wrestle in main events -- on his own talk- show, "Piper's Pit," playing a sycophant for guest villains, or lashing out at fan favorites. (Piper has a few competitors for best actor, including Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin, a vain, whining heel who brings his girlfriend to the ring with him.) A good performer can enliven even an ancient routine: when bad-guy Bobby "The Weasel" Heenan became a manager, he tried to change his epithet to "The Brain"; when arena fans start chanting "Weasel!" at him, Heenan, poised at ringside like a pompous small-time hood, eggs them on with gestures of vexation.
The choice of a wrestler to be a promotion's flagship babyface is often as much a matter of fashion as of personality or ability; thus the arrival of pro football late in the 1920's carried a few former football stars to wrestling championships. (Until fairly recently, scores of professional football players moonlighted as wrestlers in the off-season.) Bruno Sammartino's massive popularity during the 1960's -- Sammartino is still greeted enthusiastically by fans in many cities -- attests equally to his own charisma and to Vince McMahon, Sr.'s television packaging. Sammartino successfully projected a sturdy, blameless virility and in New York, especially, benefited from the momentary absence of a stellar Italian athlete -- a DiMaggio or a Marciano -- from the national scene. (In lean times, New York promotions have tended to name Hispanic champions like Pedro Morales or Mil Mascaras.)
Current WWF champ Hulk Hogan presents an unusual case; whether his current popularity is due to the break he got playing a fearsome wrestler in the third of Sylvester Stalone's "Rocky" movies (where Mr. T costarred, also as a villain), or to a national weightlifting fad (though steroids are so popular that Hogan's musclebound physique would not be very remarkable without his height), or to the heartfelt garrulity of his interviews, or the music that is played over arena loudspeakers immediately before he enters and tears off his shirt (for a long time it was a song from "Rocky III") he has never drawn well in a city where he appears with too much regularity. Hogan seems to function best as a kind of instant memory -- he sparks a flash of excitement as soon as fans find themselves in the same arena with him.
Dave Meltzer thinks his charm doesn't run as deep as Sammartino's: "The fans loved Bruno in a different way than Hulk. I mean, the fans go bananas when Hulk comes in the door, but they don't live and die with him. I don't know if you've heard about the night Bruno lost the title in 1971, but everyone sat and cried. They said you could hear a pin drop in the Garden. If Hulk Hogan lost the title, I don't think people would be crying."
Once a passably competent ring worker, Hogan appears nowadays to be very limited as an athlete: his matches do not last longer than fifteen minutes, and his repertoire is limited to a couple of throws, including the now-famous "leg drop" in which he jumps several feet in the air and lands sitting on the canvas, with the crook of his knee falling across his opponent's neck.
Shire complains, "How can Hogan be in shape, when all he does is go around the goddamned ring, raisin' his fists up -- what we call 'beating the people.' You know, when I wrestled, and I worked for Al Haft, if you did that with Al Haft, boy, you wouldn't wrestle more than a week. He'd say, 'Wait a minute, the people are seeing you to wrestle, great moves, flying around the ring, taking bumps, et cetera, -- you don't have any time to be beating the goddam public out there.' That's a cheap way of getting heat, of getting response.
"You know, Hogan -- he does something, he turns to the crowd, right? And he raises his hands up, and his fists, and he's shaking 'em, and the crowd goes nuts. Cheap way of getting a reaction. You couldn't do that years ago, most promoters wouldn't go for it. So consequently, he wrestles about two minutes, then he spends about three minutes doin' that while he's relaxing. So he's not in shape." (Sam Muchnick said of wrestlers today, "A lot of the guys -- they can't wrestle, but they start pestering the audience in order to get a reaction.")
One wrestler said: "Actually the music is what goes over, the rock song is what really got the people going. The song was over and the shirt was off, there wasn't a lot left to watch."
Many of the WWF's shenanigans were inspired by the antics of the late comedian Andy Kaufman, who frequently appeared on television talk-shows in order to bait a professional wrestler into a convincing fracas, and then entered the ring for a few dozen matches around Tennessee in 1977. "T.N.T," the WWF's mock talk-show, which was borrowed from Kaufman, was at least partially responsible for getting WWF wrestling over with many "sophisticated" fans. According to one story, Andy Kaufman initially approached Vince McMahon Jr. about getting into the ring, but McMahon declined his offer, saying that it had no place in professional wrestling.
The appearance of a popular television actor (who is very popular with children as the result of one of NBC's most successful prime-time T.V. shows) in several highly-touted bouts only helped the WWF's popularity. Mr. T has been a professional wrestling fan since he was a child, and several promoters have reported that they had rejected out of hand his entreaties to allow him to perform in the ring.
In December of 1984, Mr. T began showing up near the ring at WWF events, and a few months later, he was seen on WWF promotional telecasts. Few wrestlers welcomed him -- while Mr. T was seated at ringside during a December card in Los Angeles, David Schultz challenged him to come into the ring, and not as part of the act. Mr. T declined. Backstage at a subsequent card there, a WWF agent was forced to have Schultz arrested to prevent an incident after Schultz began telling other wrestlers that he was going to go after him. When the television star finally made his professional wrestling debut in a main event at Madison Square Garden as Hulk Hogan's babyface partner, and reportedly was paid more for his single round of wrestling than others on the card now make in half a year, the reactions of wrestlers -- who generally spend years playing smaller circuits before they hit a big- time promotion like the WWF -- ranged from chagrin to disgust. (Of course, Hollywood comedians such as Chaplin, W.C. Fields, and Abbott and Costello used to incorporate wrestling gags in their films. And many wrestlers would undoubtedly rather act in Hollywood -- as did former pro grapplers Nat Pendleton and Mike Mazurki -- but the only other actor ever to jump into the ring was Andy Kaufman, who played a petty heel who got thrashed in every match.)
The commonest gripe about the WWF is that its matches rely more on flashy, recognizable personalities than on skillful, acrobatic athletes. One wrestler may be more willing than another to risk his body for sensational effect -- somersaulting over the top rope and landing on the floor outside the ring, for example. The work rate in the WWF is quite low -- perhaps as a consequence of the hectic schedule, for it is not unusual for them to perform without a day off for three straight months -- and furthermore, some wrestlers who have joined the WWF have reportedly been instructed to limit their repertoire of moves.
Wrestling's profitablity has generally relied exclusively upon gate receipts and concession sales of souvenirs. Except for revenues gained from television in the 'fifties (and from radio, earlier) the media had served mostly to advertise wrestling's live product, especially after the demise of network-T.V. wrestling programs. Since then most promotions have forsworn televising main events, preferring to entice viewers into the arena with modest "free sample"-matches, taped in studios, that show off main-event talent beating more or less anonymous wrestlers.
As a new generation of promoters replaced the old NWA powers, promotional formulas became more sophisticated, and so wrestling changed somewhat in many territories, particularly in the East and the South. But the first angle that Roy Shire broadcast on television to build up fan interest in the Bay Area two and a half decades ago does not differ in kind from modern "campaigns" and "marketing concepts."
Shire detailed how he got started: "I went in, and with a friend of mine who was in promotion, flew out west here. We got a television out here -- Channel 2, which was the big independent -- and we got on at nine o'clock on Friday nights -- how much better can you get? Gateway Chevrolet sponsored us, and though they'd had tape on before then, we started doing the live show.
"And I brought Bill Welch out, gave him a piece of the action -- I don't know if you ever heard of Bill Welch or not, he used to be the commentator for the Divorce Court on T.V. years ago, so he had the credibility. Fantastic announcer -- he was kind of a celebrity, and at that time, he did all the West Coast football games, like UCLA, you know, or USC, on games that were going around the country. See? So the guy was known. He said, 'I'll do it if you give me a piece of the action, plus a salary.' I says, 'Man, you got it.' So he started in with me.
"And with all that going, coming into a town that had no television -- I wrote the script for my wrestlers, tellin'em what to say on television.
"Nobody had ever come to San Francisco and said they didn't like San Francisco. Everyone just came out here and fell in love with the city.
"Well, I got Ray Stevens -- him and I had wrestled together for a while, up until I started promoting -- I brought him out. And I wrote his script, and I had him call San Francisco "Fogsville." Said all the girls were ugly as hell, and just knocked and lambasted San Francisco like you couldn't believe -- in those days you could get by with a lot of stuff you couldn't get by with today.
"So then I worked an angle on television, and I walked into the Cow Palace, and everybody says, 'Aw, shit, he ain't gonna draw.' Even the management says, 'What you gonna draw here, Roy?'
"I said, 'What's the place seat?' He says, '16,000.' I says, 'We'll fill it.' He laughed at me, says: 'Not wrestling.'
"We came in, we didn't draw sixteen -- we drew something like 17,000. We turned six, seven thousand away from the doors. They were scalping tickets for 50 dollars outside -- this is back in '60, friend.
"I ran television for six weeks before I opened in town. See, I was working an angle on them. What I did was, I took a guy out of retirement: Bill Melby, who had won third in Mr. America, and 'Best Legs.' A bodybuilder and a wrestler -- good-looking S.O.B., from Salt Lake, a friend of mine from wrestling, but he'd quit and was building apartment buildings. And he was close -- I said, 'Melby, you know you've gotta come back.' I said, 'I'll feature you, and you'll make some money. You know, I'm only gonna be running the T.V. on Friday nights, and the Cow Palace every couple of weeks, 'till I open the whole territory, so why don't you come out and give it a try?'
"So I convinced him to do it. Meantime, I'm bringing a guy in from the Indianapolis territory, which was Jim Barnett's at the time, and he was a Japanese guy named Mitsu Arikawa. He beat everybody with a stomach claw.
"Well every week we would would carry the guy out
-- Arikawa would give him the stomach claw, and he'd give up. And Arikawa'd run back, and give the guy the stomach claw two, three times after the guy'd give up, and they'd carry him out on the stretcher.
"Now Melby, with this beautiful body, abdominal section -- anybody'd get him in the stomach, he'd never sell it. I'd make guys keep hittin' him in the stomach, and he'd flex his muscles, and he wouldn't sell it to him. So everybody knows now that he's got a tough abdominal section, right? So I get Melby on television, two weeks before the fourth week.
"The fourth week he comes on the television, after Arikawa wrestles, and Melby says, 'You know, I have been watching this now for one month.' And he says, 'This guy is making me sick.' (I've got Arikawa with Cowboy Ellis, and I've got Melby with someone else, I don't remember who it was. This is two main events.) And he said, 'One of these days, he's goin' to keep doin' this, and I'm gonna run into this ring and just kick the living heck out of him.'
"And Bill Welch says, 'Now you can't do that, you just can't do that.'
"Arikawa looks at him, that funny expression again, puts it on him again, nothing happens. And then Melby comes back, starts kickin' the shit out of him, and Arikawa runs right out of the ring, with Melby right after him.
"So I come running behind the camera, I jump on the television, I say, 'You know, in all my days of wrestling' -- I was still wrestling -- 'I have never seen Arikawa run from nobody, I mean from nobody. I mean nobody can do this to this guy.' And I said, 'You know what? I'm gonna go back into the dressing room, and I'm gonna try to change this match, for March 4, and see if Melby and Arikawa will wrestle one another in a main event.'
"So I run off, now we have a match, I come back at the intermission, and we come back out, and I say, 'Ladies and gentlemen -- I did it, I did it! I got the match changed!'
"Arikawa says, 'Nobody can do this to me! I lose face! I lose face! I can't afford to lose face, my ancestors' and all this bullshit. He says, 'Give me contract, I sign!' He signs the contract. And then rushes off, and Melby comes on, and he signs the contract.
"Now, I got -- cause tickets aren't moving too good -- I got about ten days to sell the tickets. You know, I went in to the match that afternoon at twelve o'clock -- we had served $32,000 in the kill. And those tickets were two, three, and four dollar tickets. We sold out -- we had $53,500. That was a sellout, and I mean, we had, something like 2000 standin' in the aisles. That gimmick did it.
"Well, you see, the reason that Vince McMahon is doing so great is not because of his manipulation or his expertise of promoting, or anything else, of knowing the business, it's strictly that he has got the T.V. that goes national. Over everyplace, and he has the next prestigious thing coming, that it's coming from the Garden, you know, or affiliated with the Garden, which is probably the most prestigious arena in the United States.
"Not because he is a great promoter. He's not that great a promoter. But if you've got T.V., and you go national, you know, and people are seeing those wrestlers, week in and week out, then you come along -- that's the scenario of our business -- you put a guy on T.V. and you get people to like him or hate him, then you put him in a town, and the people that have seen him on T.V. for seven, eight, ten weeks or months or ten weeks -- or whatever, long enough to either you really like him, or really hate him, you bring him in the people'll pay their money at the box office to see him. That is the essence of our business. Has been. Like I'd go when I was promoting -- take Las Vegas, say.
"I went in, I would make the tape here in San Francisco. I put it on, I run it for about ten weeks. And I got the people liking and disliking guys. And then I took a good match, and I put it on the Convention Center down there, you know? I made nothing but money.
"And I used to always run anywhere from every two to four weeks, in all my big towns. I didn't want to overdo it -- it's like cake, if you eat too much of it, you lose the taste of it. So I'd work a angle, bring the thing back, and draw money again. I'd do this all over -- I did it in Anchorage, Alaska, did it in Honolulu, you know, and I did it in Phoenix, Las Vegas, you know to name a few towns that I did this.
"I'd just take that tape and run it, and I'd cut from the tape for that market -- it's very simple. You take a master tape: if I'm making a tape for the Cow Palace, which is my master tape, I'd have the wrestlers come in, and interview the ones that are in the main event at the Cow Palace. And then, when I go and make the tape for say Las Vegas, I had the spot in there, say three minutes, that was blank. Where the interview had been done for the Cow Palace by, say, Pat Patterson. Well then -- but Pat is not in the main event in Las Vegas -- say, Joe Blow's in it. Well, I put Joe Blow in his place, talking about the match in Las Vegas . . . .
"So you make custom tapes for everything, you know? And the guy's there sayin' 'I'll kill that sonofabitch!,' and the other guy sayin' 'He ain't gonna kill me!'
"The essence of the whole deal: 'You kill me, and I kill you.'"
V. A Game of Cards
The wrestling "season" begins roughly in November and lasts through mid-April; in many areas, the biggest night of the year for wrestling comes on a family holiday such as Thanksgiving, or Christmas.
The advertised main event is what brings in the fans. Quite a few promotions will on occasion "main- event" two good guys in the ring against one another, or likewise feature two heels -- more often than not, in both cases one wrestler is actually hated more than the other -- but the WWF always advertises main events which feature a battle between personifications of "good" and "evil": a pair of contestants fighting for, say, the pride of the free world.
Or the main event might be a "Battle Royale": all the wrestlers from the undercards meet en masse in the ring, (looking like a Muscle Beach party moved out of the rain) until the one who jettisons his last remaining rival is declared the winner. Shire, who is said to have had the best Battles Royale in the country, explained the buildup: "Well, you bring in the best guys, you give 'em a lot of money, and they talk about it -- and the biggest thing is that everyone's scared to go into it. Which is not true, but -- you know, and the guys go out, and say, 'Well, I don't know if I want to go out or not,' -- they're hesitant about goin', 'cause of gettin' hurt. With all that hyping before, everyone thought, 'Well, geez, a guy's gonna get killed in there.' I always got somebody hurt -- you know, hospital deal or whatever. Consequently it had that atmosphere of brutality, and that kind of thing, that the fans love."
Promoters embellish rivalries any number of ways: if, say, the last sellout main-event matchup of Dreadnaught versus Flaming Tommy ended with both wrestlers disqualified for leaving the ring, the promoter might announce that next month's rematch will be held inside a steel cage to prevent either wrestler from escaping. New York promotions generally draw the line at steel-cages; but elsewhere there are "no stopping for blood" matches and "loser-leave-town" matches. Matches in which contestants are strapped together invariably lead to a bloody finish; there are bouts held on platforms high above the ring, or with purse money at the top of a pole. Promotions that are more wholesome enhance their main events with harmless penalties, such as as forcing the loser to wear a costume (a diaper, for instance), but Meltzer recalls a series of "hangman's noose" matches held in Florida during the summer of 1984, in which the object was to hang the loser: "They did draw -- the fans who were out there were either so sick that they believed it, or maybe they considered it campy to watch someone kill himself . . . Normally what would happen is the good guy would win, and then all the bad guys would jump in, and they'd still try to hang the guy who won, until his good-guy friends would save him, and he'd say something like, 'Thank you, Dusty, for saving my life.'"
Ordinarily, however, having filled the arena on the strength of a main event, the promoter's next objective is to get the fans to come back for the next card. As in any business, indifference, laziness, complacency, or cynicism may not necessarily be hazardous; but generally, if the talent and the booker click, and the area has a dedicated, steady following, things don't go badly for a promotion until it runs out of angles or "finishes."
The booking process is at the heart of wrestling's secrecy. Jay West, a ring announcer for Georgia Championship Wrestling, commented: "The people behind the scenes, the big folks, they've always been very, very protective of how they do what they do. And they have always thought that the fans were incredibly stupid, and this is why it was so silly for them to be so protective around somebody like me -- you know, for a long, long time I was never allowed to see how matches were made, or anything, even though I worked for them for almost eight years."
Arranging the array of matches and selecting the winners and the "finishes" is the job of the booker. He is also responsible for devising the rivalries which are promoted on television interviews, which set the stage for the arena. The biggest promotions might have more than one booker, but the scripts for shows in large arenas are the responsibility of its number-one booker. (The lesser cards that big-time promotions stage in armories, or high-school or college gyms are usually booked by one of the wrestlers, or a representative of the office -- a "sub-booker," as it were, who may handle other duties, such as making sure the boys show up sober. These "spot shows" are usually modest, reprising one or two matches with a name or two from the last big-city show, or rehearsing for the next big one. The WWF seems to shuttle the same two or three road shows -- changing them once every one or two months -- into different cities around the country.)
Vince McMahon, Jr. is said to "do the finishes" for WWF events in the larger arenas. It's likely that he dreams up the bigger angles, like "Rock and Wrestling," while others help put them into action -- dressing the undercards, for example, and perhaps even the main events -- then submitting them for McMahon's approval.
Some fans prefer promotions that put together "logical" cards, fashioned with a regard for common sense and a concern for continuity. Shire, who was titled "The Professor" during his wrestling career, has often said that "preached logic" as a promoter. Meltzer commented on Shire's ability: "It was a real well-run promotion. And it consistently drew well, the Cow Palace was a real great -- for the size of the city they drew real great crowds, always. I mean, a crowd of 5,000 at the Cow Palace, that never happened. Always consistent, 8-12 thousand.
"All of the matches on the card always made sense. If a guy won a match, he'd be moved up on the card; if a guy lost, he wouldn't. Every match was important, because the guy on the preliminary match, if he won two straight preliminary matches, he'd be moving up to a main event, and then if he won that, he might get a title shot. No one came in and was in the main event the first time.
"Every match on the card was important, the title matches were always long, and they always had good endings. He was really sharp at endings, and the rematch always made sense. (Promoters now -- I'll give you an example -- cage matches: of all the gimmick matches, the number-one draw is the cage match. Sometimes they'll just throw in a cage match, to draw. If Shire had a cage match, it was because the two guys were fighting in the stands the week before, and that's why he had the cage match, to keep 'em in the ring. If he had a match where there was no stopping for blood, it was because the guys were bleeding all over the place the card before. His gimmicks always made sense.)"
Wrestlers have always had an idea of their opponents' repertoire of throws, and after touring a circuit for a few months, improvising a series of lumps becomes quite simple. WWF bouts seemed more rehearsed and less improvised than before; there were perhaps other reasons for the dissatisfaction of longtime fans, but in many WWF matches, "advantage time" seems to be fully scripted out. With less emphasis on athleticism, the role of the WWF's bookers has apparently become more important.
Another complaint about WWF cards concerns the preliminary bouts, which by and large feature freaky, flashy, or unathletic characters. A preliminary which creates too much excitement too soon might upstage the main event, bringing the crowd's enthusiasm ("heat") to a premature climax. If the main event that night features Hulk Hogan, who is a notoriously unathletic performer (but, of course, a heavy "fan favorite," thanks to his notoriety) the chances are good that an acrobatic good guy on the undercard will diminish Hogan's impact on the crowd. And so in many of the undercards, often the most dramatic moment comes when a wrestler steps through the ring ropes and walks around the perimeter of the platform, because he'll be disqualified if he stays out for longer than the referee's count.
"All I'm doing," Vince McMahon, Jr. told Newsweek in March, "is filling a marketing niche for a wholesome show at a reasonable cost." People have been describing wrestling cards as "morality plays" for some forty years. The WWF's Washington's Birthday card would be more accurately described as a serial spectacle, or a variation on the theme of humiliation. Events and matches patch together elements appropriate to soap operas or snuff-films.
To a degree, hostility animates the crowd at every sporting event. Unfortunately for franchise-owners of perpetual also-rans in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, ordinary sporting events cannot guarantee that a great competitive performance or a favorable outcome for the home team will mitigate fans' discontent at not having their way.
Much of cardmaking consists of experimenting with old formulas. Even when a promoter chanced upon an innovation, it might have taken him a while to discern what it was that he had found, develop it into something that might not be perceptible as a gimmick, as such, and tailor its use to a given region.
The fun seems to derive from creating and shifting various opposing forces in the audience -- here, between confusion and resolution; there, boredom and fascination; yonder, isolation and reassurance. This kind of pairing-game pits wrestlers (or their reputations) off one another only in a secondary way -- the fans who are used to good-guy/bad-guy look for these roles in every encounter, and not much deeper. Thus a card may parade two dozen wrestlers in an evening, but often there seem to be really only two wrestlers on the fans' minds.
Nor is it essential that every fan in the arena hate the villains. A heel whose sullen or arrogant plight evokes sympathy among certain of its fans can be used to great advantage -- to introduce new angles, for instance. (Fans who thought that "Rock and Wrestling" was a reprehensible notion were gratified to hear the WWF's evildoers saying "rock has no place in wrestling.")
The fans entering the Felt Forum this evening to watch "The War To Settle the Score" were handed a sheet listing the night's events; a simple souvenir providing the simple pleasure of recognition. Unfortunately, a disclaimer printed at the bottom asserting a promoter's "right to make suitable substitutions" when "scheduled talent is unable to appear" makes the WWF's handbill almost useless. Cast and order of matches often fail to appear as advertised; some promotions go so far as to advertise main-event talent which is long gone. (And the thoroughly distorted account of the results of the Washington's Birthday card given by a Titan booker over the phone a few weeks later suggests that "circumstances beyond the control of the promoter" include his memory.)
Likely the cardmaker decides the order as the night progresses -- in the WWF, a wrestler himself often won't find out who he is matched against until a few minutes before he goes on -- keeping the crowd in suspense as he watches to guess what it will want next.
At eight o'clock in the Felt Forum, not a straggler was to be seen. The house seemed to have quieted itself by the time the anthem came on, but after the lights darkened to allow the pair of screens in front to come alive with an aspect of the ring inside the Garden, the first match was a few seconds in progress before several fans realized that the sound wasn't working. There was patient muttering for half a minute before the yelling started, until finally the voices of play-by-play announcers Gene Okerlund and Gorilla Monsoon could be heard over the background noises of the Garden crowd.
The biggest difference between arena wrestling bouts and the ones shown on the syndicated television shows of most promotions are the matchups themselves. There are few "good guy-bad guy" pairings on T.V. shows; instead, a T.V. bout will usually feature a top name -- whether hero or villain -- paired against a "T.V. loser," one of an assortment of wrestlers who are hired to perform in the taping sessions once every few weeks. (Most every wrestling star seems to have gotten his start this way, so some of these lesser-known wrestlers probably nurture hopes of moving up in the promotional ladder.) In the WWF's T.V. matches, the better-known wrestler invariably wins. Members of the audience in the arena or studio where a T.V. show is taped often like to yell "Chickenshit!" or "Loser!" at the entrance of one of the more familiar scrubs, -- "job boys" to wrestlers, who also refer to them by names such as "Gibronis" or "Joe Blows."
These lower-echelon performers -- who are never interviewed on television, never get written about in the magazines, and are paid much less than the "top boys" -- are often featured in the first few matches of wrestling cards. Unfortunately, perhaps, for these wrestlers, a crowd anticipating the talent that has been promoted more aggressively tends to get impatient after a while, especially if the matches are slow, confusing, or inconclusive.
The first match, unmentioned in the program, was between Rick "Quick-Draw" McGraw and a much taller, blondehaired, bearded veteran named Moondog Spot, brother of Moondog Rex. A murmuring passed through the crowd as it recognized McGraw, a babyface of rather modest renown, who has been out of action for several months with a broken neck. Sure enough, when the rulebreaking Spot begins to get the better of McGraw with a few lackadaisical forearm smashes to the latter's chest, commentator Monsoon ascribes McGraw's weak defense to "ring rust." Eventually McGraw lost his temper, except too late; he got a few shots back against Spot, but before he could gain an advantage the bell signaled the end of the twenty-minute time limit, and so the match ended in a draw.
Up next was a veteran "scrub" named "The Unpredictable" Johnny Rodz, whose nickname refers as much the status of his role (which shifts beween minor good-guy, when he is facing an overpowering heel, and minor heel, when he is battling a fan favorite) as to his ring demeanor, and another Hispanic scrub named Jose Luis Rivera. The match is of some interest for pitting two wrestlers whose reputations are slightly tarnished: each is more often seen as fodder for a bigger name, but each, when left to his own devices -- that is, if wrestling another wrestler who is only as recognizable or less so than himself -- will become a moderately strong rulebreaker. His seniority makes Rodz something of a favorite; moreover as an arrogant, petty scoundrel he is a competent performer, pounding his opponent with bent elbows. For his part, Rivera suffers his licks with admirable patience until at one point, after Rodz had succeeded in tossing him out of the ring and proceeded to strut around the ring -- grinning and lifting his arms triumphantly -- Rivera climbed back onto the top turnbuckle (the padded collar covering the point at which each of the three ropes is lashed to the four ringposts) and jumps him from behind. Rodz, miffed, redoubled his own effort and appeared to bite Rivera at one point. Eventually Rodz won.
A screen graphic introduced a match between David Sammartino and Moondog Rex. Sammartino, the son of "Wrestling's Living Legend," does not seem to have emerged from his father's shadow, and he seems rather self-conscious in the ring; sadly, he is sometimes booed (but never when appearing in a tag-team with Bruno). His contract with the WWF was said to have been the result of the out-of-court settlement negotiated between Bruno and Vince McMahon, Jr. after the former filed a nonpayment suit against the WWF. Tonight he earned a victory over Rex, but not without being thrown out of the ring at one point ("I think he might have a nosebleed," commented Monsoon.)
According to Shire and others, the heel "leads" the match -- that is, he tells the "babyface" what to do. Shire, discussing "high spots" and "ring psychology," elaborated on how this works: "Say the guy's got a headlock on the guy, and he's punishing the guy. And he's punishing him, and the fans now react -- how can the fans get out of a headlock? I mean, there's not much action to it.
"So now the fans are quieted down -- that's when you do it, when the fans are nice and quiet, and their throats are rested, 'cause if they keep hollerin' all night they get hoarse, and they can't holler anymore. (This is what I call psychology; you bring 'em up, you set 'em down, bring 'em up, set 'em down.) So now, here comes the high spot. Everybody's settled, no screaming.
"I'm the bad guy, you're the good guy. So I got the headlock on you. You throw me into the ropes. I come off, I give you one tackle. I give you two tackles. And then, I go to give you the third tackle, you drop down, I jump over you. I hit the rope, I come off, I'm gonna give you the next tackle, but you dropkick me. And when I go down, you snatch the headlock on me, take me over. That's what we call a high spot. The people just rise to it. You see, that's all action. . . ."
"I'd go into a match and have a good matchup. And the crowd -- when I'd say, 'Okay, let's settle down, let's settle down now,' that meant I didn't want any noise, so I'd tell the wrestler, 'Get a hold on me. Get a leglock,' an armlock, a headlock, whatever. 'Let's settle the people down.' Now they would be settled down for two or three or four minutes. And you could drop a pin in the place and there's no noise going -- a little bit, not much.
"And I'd say, 'Okay, let's bring 'em to their feet.'
"And then I would make my move -- maybe chop meat. People'd start yelling, and then we'd go into high spots, and I'd go flying all over the ring, you know -- lyin' upside down on the top ropes, you name it. And boy, we'd have them screaming, the whole goddamned arena'd be screaming.
"And then, when I figured they'd screamed long enough, I'd say, 'Okay, so I'm gonna get a hold on you now. We're gonna settle it down' -- so that next time we do this, they'll be rested, they'll be able to react.
"See, if you keep doing this constantly, cutting meat, and the high spots, pretty soon the people have yelled so much that they can't yell anymore and they're going hoarse. No matter what you do, you can't get a reaction. So then when you get finally to the finish, which is the high spot of the whole match, and the people don't react to it because they're hoarse and tired or whatever, at the end of match, the people say, 'Oh that was a lousy match.' All because they didn't react to the finish."
The prospect of a sequence of unannounced bouts involving wrestlers as forgettable as Rodz and Rivera has quieted the fans. Vince McMahon boasted to Newsweek that "you won't sit there feeling bored," but so far tonight, the first hour has been taken up with three rather hopeless matches. At this point, the main event seemed far, far away, and the crowd started getting restless; one distracted fan in back at the Felt Forum began to entertain himself by experimenting with the beam of his pocket flashlight to see if it will reach the floor, the backs of other specators, the ceiling of the auditorium. Another fan seemed intent upon securing the armrest to the left of his seat, at the expense of another customer -- who, however, yielded his elbow to the pressure.