Illustrations by Art Fuentes (@arf_the_artiste)
Originally printed in Razorcake #101, Dec. 2017/Jan 2018, here is a printable PDF and full text of One Punk’s Guide to Professional Wrestling
This zine is also available directly from Razorcake.
One Punk’s Guide to Professional Wrestling by James Rosario
I’ve been watching and following professional wrestling for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching WWF (World Wrestling Federation) Saturday mornings in my hometown of Moorhead, Minn. I loved—and hated—all the late ’80s stars like Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior, Andre The Giant, Mr. Perfect, Ted DiBiase, Bobby Heenan, Roddy Piper, and of course, Hulk Hogan. I had no idea then, at age nine or so, that I was living in a state steeped in wrestling history. I wasn’t even aware that there were other wrestling companies out there fighting for my viewership, and that it was a cutthroat business with a mafia-like history of backstabbing, double-crosses, and betrayals. While I was watching Hulk Hogan beat up every bad guy who came his way, I had no clue that just a few years before, he had been lured away from the AWA (American Wrestling Association)—a longstanding and successful wrestling promotion based in my home state—to the WWF, their New York rivals. Hogan’s jump from Minnesota to New York was devastating. It ultimately put the AWA out of business. These kinds of stories were absolutely fascinating to me. As I got older and started to read books on the subject, I was so excited to learn of the history that happened right in my backyard and beyond. Once the internet became available and the information started to flow, I had a field day.
From that point on, it was my goal to know more about the history of pro wrestling than anyone else in the room. I may not know who the current WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) champion is, but I can tell you all about which belt was used for “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers’ month-long, 1963 WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation) championship run and why.
As the years passed, I noticed more and more punks getting into wrestling. I started to wonder why. Lars Frederickson, of Rancid fame and lifelong wrestling fan, said, “Maybe because it’s like an outcast thing.” It’s true wrestling fans, like punks, suffer from a certain stigma. Often, true fans of both are encyclopedic in their knowledge, making them an outsider surrounded by casual fans.
Even when punk became a hell of a lot more tolerated by the mainstream in the mid-1990s (even lucrative), its true base remained marginalized. Wrestling has always carried a similar mark. Even at its most popular, much of wrestling’s fan base is the object of criticism, insults, and stereotypes. The wrestling arena, just like the basement or DIY venue, is somewhere you can go to be among fellow freaks and weirdos.
Punks and wrestling go back to the genre’s inception, and in one case, strangely, even before that. In the early ’70s, Portland, Ore.’s Pacific Northwest Wrestling (PNW) territory had a young heel (bad guy) who was breaking all the rules. Beauregarde (real name Larry Pitchford) was a rocker who couldn’t be tamed. He was one of the first wrestlers to use original music to accompany him to the ring. He even released an album in 1971 of psychedelic-influenced tunes. On it, a seventeen-year-old named Greg Sage played guitar. A few years later, Sage went on to form the highly influential Portland staple, The Wipers.
The Dictators, another influential band, had an affinity for wrestling that manifested in the band member’s stage names. “Handsome” Dick Manitoba, Ross “The Boss” Friedman, and Scott “Top Ten” Kempner all took their names in an effort to mimic their beloved sport and its assortment of flamboyant characters.
Early L.A. punk band the Angry Samoans lifted their name straight off the popular tag team The Wild Samoans, who spent most of the ’70s and ’80s in the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) and WWF.
Legendary punks, The Cramps, in 1981 released a cover of the amazing song “The Crusher,” which was originally performed by Minneapolis garage band The Novas in 1964. A few years later saw the appearance of The Dwarves, and most noticeably their guitar player, HeWhoCannotBeNamed sporting a Mexican Lucha Libre mask on stage. (Although, I suspect the mask is more of a ploy to hide his identity than a true display of wrestling affection.)
In the late 1980s, wrestling got its first true punk rock spokesmen. The always controversial ANTiSEEN from Charlotte, N.C. were hardcore wrestling fans who took their love to sometimes extreme levels. Singer Jeff Clayton often carries a microphone stand wrapped in barbed wire on stage and uses it to bust himself open, bleeding all over the place. The band has an unabashed affection for wrestling’s golden age (the 1950s through the early ’80s), as well as more extreme aspects such as Japanese death matches and the early years of ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling).
Tony Erba, of the insanely wild ’90s Cleveland, OH bands H100s, 9 Shocks Terror, and Gordon Solie Motherfuckers is another well-known wrestling aficionado and connoisseur of the sport. I got my first death match tapes from his Crimson Mask Video VHS distro after meeting him at a show in Minneapolis in the late ’90s. As with ANTiSEEN, record titles, album artwork, and other merch from these bands often displayed wrestlers from the golden age on up through the ECW era. The Sheik, Fred Blassie biting Rikidozan, and Axl and Ian Rotten’s infamous “Taipei Death Match” have all made appearances.
The ’90s powerviolence scene had some wrestling representation as well. Most famously is perhaps the cover of Spazz’s 1997 LP, La Revancha, which features Cuban born wrestler, Konnan, waving a Mexican flag while wearing the AAA (Asistencia Asesoría y Administración) heavyweight title belt. But, it was the Pennsylvania band, The Ultimate Warriors, however, that really connected the break-neck aspects of both lifestyles. Their 2002 album, Our Gimmick Is Wrestling, is a non-stop barrage of samples and references to wrestling’s most violent, charismatic, and down-right weird aspects.
Then there’s the curious case of Bob Mould. In 1999, the one-time singer and guitar player for legendary Minneapolis punk band, Hüsker Dü, found himself in a unique position. A die-hard wrestling fan since childhood, Mould was somehow invited by then Executive Vice President of WCW (World Championship Wrestling), Eric Bischoff, to a few of the company’s live events. This led to him being hired to fill the “gorilla position.” His job was to be the last person a wrestler saw on their way down the ramp. From there, he gave them any last-minute changes in their matches, as well as communicated with the referee via wireless ear piece.
Perhaps the strangest of all, though, is the brief moment The Misfits became wrestlers. In 1999, Canadian-born, Mexico-trained wrestler, Vampiro, was causing WCW bookers some headaches. They had no idea how to use this odd, corpse-painted, dreadlocked, yet popular, weirdo. So, Vampiro made a few suggestions, one of which was to bring in his favorite band to act as his entourage. The Misfits’ tenure was short lived, culminating in a cage match between “Dr. Death” Steve Williams and Jerry Only, with the rest of the band dumping barbecue sauce all over Williams’ manager Oklahoma (Ed Ferrara), but it was a sight to be seen. (“Here comes Doyle, and the other one!” Bobby “The Brain” Heenan remarked as he called the action during a Misfits match.).
But it’s not just the punks who are into wrestling. The wrestlers are into punk too—at least a few of them, anyway. The punk rock “look” has been used in wrestling for decades. From The Road Warriors’ spikes and mohawks throughout the 1980s, to The Rockers and The Midnight Express with their amazingly ’80s pseudo-new wave spandex, wrestling has always tried—and mostly failed—to properly capture punk rock. The reason for this is simple. The wrestlers weren’t punks. As with television and film portrayals of the subculture, the attempts at capturing the spirit, look, and attitude of punk falls laughably short of authentic.
The mid-’90s saw the beginnings of a shift in this trend with both Raven (Scott Levy) wearing a Suicidal Tendencies shirt in his ECW matches and the debut of Amy Dumas in 1999. As Lita in the WWF, Dumas was arguably the first true punk rocker to get over in one of the big companies. Her style, while still flashy and costumey by any punk’s standards, seemed much more authentic. The reason for this was simple: Dumas grew up in the punk scene. There was at last a real fan of punk rock in the squared circle.
More would come. In later years, Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson) came to the ring wearing a modified Dead Kennedys shirt (the “DK” easily changed to “DB”), but it was the break out of CM Punk (Phill Brooks) that brought the combination of punk rock and wrestling to crescendo.
It’s all right there in the name: gimmicky on its surface, but descriptive in its connotation. Brooks is an actual, honest-to-god fan of punk rock, incorporating many elements of it into his persona and merchandise, beyond just the name. A strict adherent to the straightedge lifestyle, Brooks has used this in both heel (bad guy) and babyface (good guy) roles. As a babyface, he extols the health benefits of abstaining from drugs and alcohol, using his station as a role model to help kids stay clean. As a heel, he brilliantly portrays the militant, holier-than-thou side that straightedge is known to sometimes produce, admonishing others for their personal choices while preaching his doctrine of clean living (this is especially effective with wrestling’s more beer-friendly crowds).
Punks in the squared circle generally have strong roots in independent wrestling, working in front of small crowds for very little money. CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Raven, Lita, et cetera all cut their teeth on the independent circuit. The parallels one can draw between the life of an indie wrestler and that of a DIY punk band are numerous and often true. According to indie wrestler Matt Cross, “What is more DIY than an indie wrestler? I have no agent, everything goes through me… I have my own shirts. I have a guy design the shirts and I hawk the shirts.”
It’s hard to argue with that.
Minneapolis-based wrestler, Arik “The Anarchist” Cannon has taken his love for punk rock, perhaps further than anyone. With a studded and patched vest, and Ramones and Operation Ivy-themed merch, Cannon operates and travels with the same principles of most touring punk bands. Cannon’s biannual “Wrestlepalooza” shows, held at legendary Minneapolis venue, First Avenue (where I saw my first big punk shows in the early ’90s) showcases not just wrestling, but burlesque troupes, and, you guessed it, punk bands. These sold-out shows draw big crowds and often turn fans of one showcase piece into fans of another. Punk rock and wrestling are quickly becoming inseparable in Minnesota.
A similar phenomenon is emerging in Gainesville, Fla. Fest Wrestling—run by the yearly punk fest organizer, Tony Weinbender—has been a hot territory for up-and-coming indie stars. The first promotion to be truly born from the punk scene—not just co-opting or adopting aspects of it—Fest Wrestling’s bi-monthly shows are quickly helping to change how punk and wrestling comingle.
This is all well and good, but how did we get here? How did this bizarre, billion-dollar business full of weirdos and musclebound freaks get started?
While wrestling is historically recognized as an ancient display of combat and skill with origins in ancient cultures from around the world, professional wrestling has its roots right here in the U.S.A. with good old American con-men and entrepreneurs.
The Carnies, The Hookers, and The Gamblers
Modern professional wrestling’s roots go back nearly as far as humankind, but the short branch on the long family tree of wrestling that spawned what we know today as professional wrestling can be traced back to 1870s England. Catch-as-catch-can style was a system of wrestling that encouraged combatants to incorporate any and all holds and moves into their repertoire to best opponents. It was brutal, and these athletes or hookers (named for the secret submission holds or “hooks” they used to end matches quickly), seemed to truly enjoy hurting each other. This no-holds-barred approach was both a very popular style to watch and an unpredictable style to combat. This new form of entertainment was an instant hit on the carnival circuit
In exchange for a cash prize, local tough men were encouraged to defeat these “hookers” as part of the carnival’s “athletic show.” They rarely succeeded and were often left battered, bruised, or worse. Many wrestlers eked out a living making side bets with locals, displaying the first cracks in historically recognized legitimate acts of athletic showmanship.
Out of this system rose some of wrestling’s original superstars, most notably, Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt, two legitimate tough guys with real wrestling talent. The popularity Gotch, a small-town kid from Humboldt, Iowa, and “The Russian Lion” developed became one of the best rivalries in the history of the sport. Their second of only two meetings drew over 30,000 fans to Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1911, cementing their names in the history books.
While Gotch, Hackenshcmidt, and others were busy keeping traditional Greco-Roman and Catch wrestling in the headlines, another school was emerging. On the carnival circuit, gambling was often involved in the athletic shows, and thus began the shift from honest matches to less-than-honest ones.
Carnival owners and bookers began encouraging wrestlers to dress in lavish costumes and invent impressive backstories to enhance their appeal. While athletic talent was still a must, showmanship and spectacle grew in importance. Gambling was always rampant in wrestling, but since bookers and wrestlers were staging bouts, secrecy became of utmost importance if they expected to continue making money.
To be able to speak openly about the staged nature of the events without anyone else knowing, they developed a secret language. Kayfabe, as it came to be known, is still used today, albeit mostly as a recognition of tradition rather than any useful secret code. Using Kayfabe, the bookers, carnies, and wrestlers could discuss plans of milking their marks right in front of them. Conning hayseeds out of their hard-earned cash was the name of the game.
Legitimate wrestlers, or “shooters,” were becoming less common, and with Frank Gotch’s retirement from wrestling in 1913—and with no real star to take his place—fixed and predetermined matches became the norm. To the carnie’s dismay, however, spectators wanted what they were no longer providing. The con-men found themselves amid a backlash. The hayseeds weren’t having it anymore. Fans wanted to see legitimate tough guys hurt each other, not flamboyant showmen whom they suspected were on the take. Add that to the languid pacing of the scripted matches and you had fans leaving in droves. Wrestling’s popularity plummeted, and by 1920, something had to be done.
Toots Mondt and Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling
A spark was lit in 1919 that changed the face of professional wrestling forever. Three men formed an organization that provided the basis for how the business is run to this day. The Gold Dust Trio consisted of Ed “Strangler” Lewis (the era’s most recognizable star and champion), his manager Billy Sandow, and the real genius behind the operation and former carnival wrestler Toots Mondt. The changes and innovations Mondt implemented are the cornerstone of modern professional wrestling and have remained largely unchanged for nearly a century.
Debuting in 1912 to very little fanfare, Mondt, a miner’s son, refused to follow in his father’s footsteps. Determined to make it in the wrestling business, he was eventually taught the art of hooking, a skill that proved very useful down the line.
With wrestling crowds at an all-time low, Mondt knew something had to change if anyone was ever going to make any real money. In 1919, after joining forces with Lewis and Sandow, Mondt hatched a plan to bring fans back on a regular, paying basis. He called it “Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling.” It was a mix of traditional Greco-Roman, Catch, and freestyle wrestling, along with elements of boxing and old-fashioned lumberjack-style brawling. It was fast paced, exciting, and, for the most part, what we still watch today. Within six months, it had changed professional wrestling forever.
Wrestlers had so much more to do in the ring. Under the rules of Slam Bang Western Style, body slams, aerial maneuvers, and fisticuffs were not only allowed, but encouraged. Action spilled out of the ring and onto the floor. It was a wild and bloody form of entertainment, and the masses bought it hook, line, and sinker.
While many matches in the previous decades had been fixed for gambling purposes, Mondt created—and convinced Lewis and Sandow to go along with—the idea of the “finish,” a predetermined ending that would entice the crowd to come back to see more. Count-outs, double-count-outs, and time-limit draws were amazingly effective ways to lure fans into coming back for rematches—not to mention the dozens of “submission holds” and other finishing moves Mondt invented to wow the fans. Gone were the days of gambling on fixed bouts, as the trio decided that the price of admission was how they were going to make their money. Gambling was strictly forbidden among wrestlers and promoters, giving a false legitimacy to a sport that had never been more scripted.
Lewis was the obvious choice for World’s Champion, but Mondt and the gang knew fans would eventually grow tired of the same face on the top of every card, so it was decided that, from time to time, Lewis would lose his title, or “put over” another wrestler. This insignificant notion by today’s standards was revolutionary in 1919. This became known as “working a program,” or developing an ongoing storyline to keep fans interested, and was integral to success in this new way of doing business. No one would ever believe that “The Strangler” would lose on purpose, but for match after match to have significance, he had to be shown as vulnerable. This setup, of course, led to rematches in which Lewis regained his title in a glorious comeback of epic proportions and record gate receipts, of course.
In the 1920s, the trio were the guys you wanted to work for. Wrestlers flocked to their stable because, unlike any other promoter up to this point, with The Gold Dust Trio, you received a regular paycheck. This was another innovation, and a necessary one. Without regular pay, there was nothing to stop a disgruntled wrestler from going to the public about the scripted nature of the matches. Everyone got paid, everyone played along protecting the business and its secrets, and everyone was happy and fed.
The trio developed a centralized promotion, handling bookings all over the country. They lured talent away from almost every carnival and small-time circuit. A hierarchy of talent was established, with Lewis on top. Those with enough legitimate talent were permitted to work programs with him and were pushed to the top tier. Those who might have less talent but were entertaining in other ways were kept on the mid or lower cards.
Wrestlers who weren’t considered “American” enough—either by surname, first language, or color—were rarely allowed to challenge for the World’s Championship and were often kept on the lower tiers, unless working territories with large immigrant populations that shared that ethnicity. Mondt and the gang knew how to work the crowd, and they used every means at their disposal—race included—to bring them in.
Race has always been an issue in professional wrestling. The very nature of heels versus babyfaces is that one of them (the heel), is generally some form of “other.” This otherness, from the early carnival days, up to and including right here and now, often refers to race or country of origin. Promoters, from day one, knew that using race to get heat (a reaction from the crowd, generally cheers and encouragement for babyfaces, and boos and resentment for heels) would keep the seats filled and the gate receipts high. Using the crowd’s built-in prejudices was an extremely effective way to generate a draw.
In the years following WWII, the obvious go-tos were Germans, Russians, and Japanese. Sometimes these wrestlers were legitimately from these countries, but often, their gimmicked ethnicity was nothing more than a well-crafted “work” (a scripted aspect of the storyline, as opposed to a “shoot,” which is a real-life aspect). Cartoonish Germans and Russians were occasionally given heel title runs, but these were simply a ploy for the triumphant, white, All-American to win it back in a spectacular fashion.
The ’70s ushered in an anti-Arab sentiment, which made stars like The Iron Sheik (real life Iranian, Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri) one of the most famous heels of all time. Native American wrestlers were also heavily racialized through the years, although often as babyfaces. Many of these wrestlers were of questionable heritage, but even with that, what may have been meant as flattery of culture (decorative headdresses, ceremonial dances, et cetera), ended up, especially in hindsight, appearing as mockery at best. Exploitation is a more accurate description.
In 2003, Triple H (Paul Levesque) cut a promo (an on-air speech meant to rile the crowd and build heat for an upcoming match) on African American star Booker T that summed up the wrestling business’ policy towards black wrestlers. He said, “Somebody like you doesn’t get to be a world champion.” A work to get heat? Maybe, but history backs up his words.
Black wrestlers have been a staple of professional wrestling dating back to, at least, the 1870s (a wrestler named Viro Small often gets the credit for being the first verifiable African American pro wrestler, making his debut in 1870). Like professional baseball, wrestling also had black-only promotions. Stars of these territories were considered by many to be among the best in the world, but were only allowed into white promotions when the proper heat was needed. Lou Thesz, in his book, Hooker, had this to say about ’50s and ’60s African American star, Luther Lindsay: “Like many other industries, wrestling was not open to African-American wrestlers during his career, so it was an amazing accomplishment for Luther to even learn his craft. His place in history is not because he was black; it is in spite of the fact he was black.”
Lindsay, and many others, such as Bobo Brazil were trailblazers for black wrestlers to come. In 1962, Brazil defeated “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers for the NWA championship (a first for an African American). Through a series of contrivances, however, the NWA board did not recognize the title change. Ron Simmons was the next black wrestler to win a major championship in a white-owned promotion, but it wasn’t until 1992, a full thirty years later.
The Rock (Dwayne Johnson, half black, half Samoan) has had numerous title runs and is, by far, the most successful non-white wrestler in history. Combine this with Booker T’s championship win in 2000, and you have a few very clear exceptions that prove the rule. Triple H’s words about Booker T have remained largely true.
This lack of title recognition isn’t the only factor in wrestling’s often racist history. A quick survey of the gimmicks given to non-white wrestlers is an embarrassment. Flamboyant characters are common within the squared circle, but for wrestlers with non-European heritage, this flamboyance is often played out as blatant racial stereotyping. Gang members and thugs for blacks, esés or matadors for Latinos, and cartoonish martial artists for Asians. For white wrestlers, the ethnicity of their opponent is fair game when cutting promos, often sinking to embarrassing depths.
Latino, Asian, and Samoan wrestlers have fared slightly better than African Americans when it comes to championship representation—Giant Baba, Pedro Morales, Yokozuna, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Alberto del Rio, The Rock, among others, have all worn the belt, but have all done plenty of time as racially stereotyped heels as well. For many, these gimmicks are the only ones they’ve ever had on U.S. soil. Historically, in the United States, non-white wrestlers are often nothing more than an “other” for the white wrestlers to defeat.
Back to the Goldust Trio.
From time to time, a wrestler might get upset about his spot in the food chain. Maybe he thought he should be pushed higher on the card. Maybe he thought he should be the champ and not “The Strangler.” On the rare occasion a wrestler got out of line, threatened to expose the business, or refused to go along with the “work” and the “program,” his next bout would be with the original enforcer himself, Toots Mondt.
Mondt was such a good hooker that he was legitimately feared throughout the business. If you found yourself in the ring with Mondt, you were made to realize very quickly that you had better rethink your actions. He had no qualms about leaving you a broken, bloody mess. This genuine fear of Mondt and the fact that everyone was making more money than ever kept most mouths shut. Mondt rarely had to act in his role as enforcer.
The wrestling business had its origins in legitimate violence. While under Mondt’s tutelage, the match finishes may have been decided in advance, but this did nothing to curb the very real violence that still took place. Until at least the 1980s and the rise of WWF’s family-oriented packaging, the business of professional wrestling remained extremely bloody. Legitimate chops, punches (known as “potatoes,” and often came with an angry “receipt”), kicks, and bone-breaking holds were very much the norm. Seeing a wrestler bleed profusely was not only common, but expected. Freely flowing blood was one of the ways to maintain the legitimacy of the sport. You had to keep up appearances.
Television and the Territories
The Gold Dust Trio disbanded in 1928, but the style of wrestling they popularized stayed intact. Strangler Lewis remained an active title holder and contender into the 1940s, but with the Gold Dust Trio no longer active as a booking entity, many wrestlers and promoters saw the need for another organized central office to oversee things. It took some time, but in 1948, a group of promoters from around the U.S. got together and formed what became the dominant force in professional wrestling for the next thirty years.
The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) could not have come along at a better time. Television, still in its infancy, embraced professional wrestling from day one. The larger-than-life characters, melodramatic storylines, and physical violence were perfect for the new medium. Television and wrestling were tailor-made for each other, and they used each other to make a lot of money.
Early television stars like Gorgeous George used this new platform to become household names. Not the world’s greatest athlete, Gorgeous George more than made up for this with his exciting showmanship. With his bleached blonde hair, entrance music, lavish robes, and hoity-toity air, Gorgeous George brought a spectacle to wrestling, and to television, the likes of which no one had ever seen. He was pro wrestling’s first true villain. He cheated at every opportunity, insulted the crowd, and ran from the babyface whenever things didn’t go his way. Gorgeous George had the unique ability to make everyone in the world hate him just by strolling to the ring. What he did in his time was the model for all the best heels to come, and many of the babyfaces too. He was also the first face of one of wrestling’s other popular ways to get heat: homophobia.
As with its race issues, wrestling’s historic attitude toward LGBTQ communities is largely mirrored by society. It’s a bigger picture issue that often gets played out in a wrestling ring, with thousands of fans, sadly, cheering it on. Gorgeous George’s gimmick was that of an effeminate, prim and proper aristocrat. To the television viewers of the 1950s, he may as well have been a Martian. “How could a man act like that?” they wondered.
Effeminate-acting wrestlers continued riling up crowds for decades. In the mid-’80s, veteran wrestler, Adrian Adonis, adopted a “gay” gimmick that was met by the ire of Roddy Piper, who, as the babyface, basically gay-bashed him into oblivion. This wasn’t Piper’s only homophobic program. In 1996, Dustin Rhodes began using his now much watered-down androgynous gay panic character, Goldust, to get under the skin of Piper. In true ignorant fashion, the WWF brass had Goldust repeatedly come on to Piper over the course of several weeks, culminating in what was essentially a televised hate crime.
Adonis and Goldust are the short list of wrestlers posing as gay to gain heat. In the 2000s, tag teams such as Lenny and Lodi, and later Billy and Chuck were portrayed as gay couples in an attempt to stir up some heat. They caught the eye of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which said that they were “…presented with the intention to incite the crowd to the most base homophobic behavior.” They were absolutely right. Wrestling crowds roundly exposed themselves as intolerant homophobes.
The strangest thing about homophobia in the wrestling business is simply, especially since the 1980s or so, how homoerotic the whole thing really is. Fans to this day see no issue with admiring and cheering for “Ravishing” Rick Rude or “Mr. Ass” Billy Gunn, glorified male strippers who oozed homoeroticism. One of wrestling’s most popular bad boys of all time, Shawn Michaels, of DX and The Rockers fame, even posed nude for Playgirl, for chrissakes. The disconnect is staggering.
To the wrestling world, homophobia was just another way to get heat, an added “other” to be exploited and manipulated, but most gay performers have had to keep the secret of their non-gimmick, real-life homosexuality a secret from the business.
There have been some, such as Pat Patterson, who have been lucky enough to be accepted as gay since the ’70s, albeit never acknowledged on television. Patterson’s homosexuality remained an open secret until 2014 when he officially came out on an episode of WWE’s Legends’ House (with Roddy Piper in attendance, of all people).
Others, though, such as Chris Kanyon, were forced to keep their mouths shut out of fear of reprisal. Wrestling writer, Dave Meltzer said of Kanyon: “He kept his homosexuality secret, but it tore him up when other wrestlers would, in front of him, talk about how much they hated gays or made gay jokes.” Chris Kanyon committed suicide in 2010.
While still struggling with its homophobia issues, the WWE, on its surface, appears to be making strides. In 2013, for the first time, an active roster member, Darren Young, came out as gay. The WWE released an official statement supporting Young, with many fellow wrestlers tweeting their support as well.
Meanwhile, back in the 1950s, the U.S., Japan, and Mexico were carved up into territories, each run by a different NWA board member. These bosses had a mafia-like understanding that no other promoter would run shows in another’s territory unless special arrangements were made. Talent pools would no longer be raided, but deals were often struck to trade or loan talent if a wrestler was unhappy or if a storyline or program might benefit from fresh faces. If a rival non-NWA promotion opened up shop, the bosses would band together to shut it down. Intimidation and threats of violence against rogue promotions were common tactics. Not playing the game was no longer an option by the 1950s.
The NWA named Orville Brown as its first World Champion, but after an auto accident ended his career, the title was vacated and handed to his number one contender, a twenty-two-year-old named Lou Thesz. An accomplished hooker, Thesz was chosen for his ability to enforce the new rules on anyone who didn’t play along. If a wrestler didn’t lose to him when and how the NWA board told you to, they were going to get hurt. Thesz traveled the country, defeating regional champs, unifying the titles into one—the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship.
It was decided that the NWA champ would not belong to any one promotion. Instead, he would travel from territory to territory challenging that region’s top stars. Often, the buildup for these programs started a year in advance. Top heels were also sent around to the territories to run programs to sufficiently hype the toughness of the local talent. When the champ arrived, it was important fans believe their guy had a shot at the belt, even though title changes were decided by the territory bosses at annual NWA board meetings.
It was a good system, but cracks emerged. Not all the promoters liked being governed by a board. Within ten years, several promoters left the organization, most notably Verne Gagne in the upper Midwest and Vince McMahon Sr. in New England. Their respective organizations—the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF)—became the most lucrative promotions outside of the NWA, and wound up giving them a real run for their money.
The ’60s and ’70s—Gagne and McMahon
By the end of the 1950s, most of the territories were hitting their stride. Many had settled into well-attended weekly or monthly shows, developed television deals, and cultivated the talent to draw fans to both. Those that failed at this quickly went out of business, only to be replaced by another upstart company. Business may have been down from earlier in the decade, when television was just beginning to become a household commodity, but it was still steady enough to keep most companies open. Getting a program with the NWA champ once a year was just fine for most promoters, but not all. While many were content with their place in the NWA pecking order, there were some who saw a bigger picture. By the end of the 1970s, wrestling was hotter than ever, and big changes were just around the corner.
In Minnesota, by 1959 the territory had come into the possession of their charismatic star, Verne Gagne. A no-nonsense hooker, Gagne had made a name for himself in the 1950s wrestling on national television. He was a household name and one of the most successful wrestlers working in the business at the time. After a series of controversial title change decisions made by the NWA board, Gagne was denied a title run he felt he deserved. In 1960, he officially left the NWA, founding the American Wrestling Association (AWA).
Some of the world’s most famous wrestlers and personalities got their big breaks working for the AWA: Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan, The Road Warriors, and Gene Okerlund, to name just a few. At its peak, the AWA controlled nearly the entire Midwest (with its focus on the Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicago territories), as well as areas stretching into Canada and as far west as San Francisco.
The Northeast territories, centered in New York, had naturally always been a hotbed of wrestling activity. Many years after leaving the Gold Dust Trio, Toots Mondt made his mark on the wrestling business once more. This time around, he partnered with the first in a long line of promoters from the family whose name became synonymous with the industry: The McMahons. Roderick James “Jess” McMahon was the first. He began promoting sporting events in the early 1900s in the New York area that included boxing, baseball, basketball, and of course, wrestling. Shortly after founding the Capitol Wrestling Corporation with Mondt in 1953 and joining the NWA as their Northeast territory, Jess McMahon died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Capitol without a leader. Enter Vincent James McMahon. Under McMahon and Mondt, Capitol Wrestling became the premiere NWA territory, dominating the group’s bookings.
After a falling out in 1963 over championship bookings, Mondt and McMahon left the NWA and formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). After a controversial loss to Lou Thesz for the NWA title, McMahon and Mondt named their top heel, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, as their first champion. The company had been formed so quickly that a WWWF Championship belt hadn’t even been made yet. When Rogers was announced on TV as the new champ, he simply wore his old NWA U.S. Championship belt, a title he still technically held. It wasn’t until a month or so later, when he dropped the title to Bruno Sammartino that a new belt was made specifically for the WWWF. Sammartino held the title for the next eight years, finally losing it to Ivan Koloff in 1971.
As the ’70s drew to a close, wrestling was more profitable than ever. As the world grew smaller, however, the old models weren’t going to work forever. The territory system, dating back to the 1920s, had worked largely unchanged for nearly sixty years, and many old-school promoters saw nothing wrong with it. It took a young, brash, third-generation promoter to change all of that forever.
Vince McMahon, Jr. and the Death of the Territories
The 1980s was a very big decade for professional wrestling. A lot happened in a relatively short amount of time. With the advent of cable television and pay-per-view, the decade saw one company rise to dominance, while the others all but died off. Many of the promoters, in truth, had only themselves to blame. Bad decisions and poor management are what, in the long run, put them out of business, but that’s not what they would have you believe. To many of the old-timers, there was one and only cause of their demise: Vince McMahon Jr.
At the beginning of the ’80s, the territories were still hot. The NWA, the AWA, WCCW (World Class Championship Wrestling, out of the Dallas area and home of the Von Erich family), CWF (Championship Wrestling from Florida, the Tampa territory that saw the early development of stars such as Dusty Rhodes, the Funks, and “Superstar” Billy Graham), CWA (Continental Wrestling Association, out of Memphis, which, in 1982 made national news by promoting the infamous Jerry Lawler versus Andy Kaufman feud), and countless others were all doing good business. They had hot feuds and TV ratings were up. Most promotions were, by and large, respecting the territory system and the old way of doing things. Vince McMahon Jr. had other ideas.
When he bought the WWF (World Wrestling Federation, renamed from WWWF a few years earlier) from his ailing father in 1982, McMahon already had some success in promoting. He’d been working with his father in the business since the late 1960s, giving him an unprecedented education on how it all worked. Combining his knowledge of wrestling with extremely shrewd business acumen, he was eager to try some new ideas. McMahon gleaned early on that the days of the “technical” wrestler were coming to an end. While shooters and hookers were a once necessary piece of the puzzle to keep would-be rebels in line, those days were over. McMahon wanted flash and pizzazz, not headlocks and armbars. Less concerned with old school traditions like Kayfabe and “protecting the business” than the other promoters, McMahon broke as many of the old rules as he could and never once looked back.
In the early ’80s, Verne Gagne’s AWA was poised to become the top promotion in the country. Gagne had cultivated stars like Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby Heenan, the Hennigs (Larry “The Axe,” and later his son, Curt), and most notably, Hulk Hogan. Fresh off an appearance in Rocky III (1982), Hogan was arguably the hottest wrestling star in the world. He was all set to become the AWA Heavyweight Champion, but Gagne had a catch. He wanted a share of Hogan’s merchandise sales from his dates overseas and elsewhere. Gagne argued that he had “made” Hogan, and therefore deserved a cut. When Hogan refused, a rift formed and Gagne booked him to lose to Bockwinkel for the title. Already angry when McMahon came along with an offer, Hogan agreed to jump ship. By not compromising and coming to an agreement with Hogan, Verne Gagne all but sealed the fate of the AWA.
It didn’t take long for others to start jumping ship. Interviewer and announcer Gene Okerlund was one of the first to go, giving the WWF one of its most beloved characters of all time, followed shortly by Jesse Ventura, Adrian Adonis, and many others. But it wasn’t just the AWA talent Vince had his eye on. In fact, he lured away top stars from nearly every promotion.
In need of a heel to face Hogan, McMahon contacted Roddy Piper, who was working for Jim Crockett Promotions out of Charlotte, N.C. at the time. It was a brilliant move that set the tone for the early days of McMahon’s WWF. McMahon had an existing stable of legitimate stars, but the acquisitions from the other promotions, coupled with clever marketing, put the WWF on the road to becoming the top promotion in the world. There were notable early holdouts, like Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes, but by the end of the decade, even they eventually caved to the money McMahon offered.
The talent raids were just the beginning of McMahon’s takeover of the business. He saw no reason to limit his viewership to just his Northeast territory. In defiance of the old agreements, he simply expanded to other markets. He struck a deal with the fledgling USA Network and began running pre-taped shows that were seen nationally, violating rules of the long-standing territory system. At the time, Jim Crockett was McMahon’s biggest competition, largely due to the rabid following of southern fans and the first of many yearly supercards known as Starcade. In November 1983, Jim Crockett held the first-ever Starcade card in Greensboro, N.C. The card featured the biggest names the NWA had at the time, with the main event being a World Championship title match between Ric Flair and Harley Race. Fans were rabid to see the sold-out show, so Crockett and company utilized a novel technology known as closed-circuit television (CCT) to capitalize further. Fans, in a limited number of cities across the South, bought tickets to see the show at a local movie theater, which broadcast it live via a closed circuit. On Thanksgiving night 1983, Starcade became the first wrestling show to be broadcast in this way, paving the way for wrestling’s biggest money maker in years to come: pay-per-view.
Undeterred, McMahon fired back with a supercard of his own: WrestleMania.
McMahon enlisted the help of MTV, Saturday Night Live, and celebrities from across the entertainment spectrum to promote his show. Mr. T, Cyndi, Lauper, Liberace, Billy Martin, and Muhammad Ali were all on hand to help, giving the card an aura of “credibility.” It was a huge gamble that many were certain would not pay off, but it did, and in a big way.
The main event was the culmination of months of press and storyline buildup, including Hulk Hogan legitimately injuring comedian Richard Belzer (he required eight stitches), Jimmy Snuka famously getting hit over the head with a coconut by Roddy Piper, and Captain Lou Albano appearing in the video for Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” This particular angle ushered in a revitalization of women’s wrestling, another aspect of the business’ history steeped in controversy.
The role of women in professional wrestling’s history is predictably sexist. From either being relegated valet (ring escorts) roles, exploitive matches booked as mid-card fluff, or to the even more exploitative “bra and panties” era, women in wrestling have largely been simply used as eye candy or filler. Wrestling began as a sideshow attraction on the carnival circuit, but for women, it has mostly stayed that way.
Women in professional wrestling have always been just as tough as their male counterparts. Old-schoolers like Cora Livingston, Clara Mortenson, Mildred Burke, Jane Byers, and more famously Mae Young and the Fabulous Moolah, were capable of legitimately kicking the shit out of just about any promoter in town. Seeing the opportunity to exploit the lascivious nature of most twentieth century men, women’s matches were generally billed as some sort of “cat fight” between two astutely accomplished grapplers.
The male fans were sleazy, but the promoters were worse. It was common for them to pressure women into sexual relationships in exchange for matches or bookings. They were even known to act as pimps, using the women to gain bookings or talent loans from rival territories. Many women flat-out refused this arrangement, taking their career into their own hands.
Mae Young, a tattooed cigar smoking gal from Oklahoma proved especially tough and especially hard to handle. The stories of her brawling with fans are many and amazing. Here’s what fellow female wrestler, Elvira Snodgrass said of an incident in Little Rock back in 1945: “Young is a natural roughneck. This night in Little Rock she said something to a man fan and he kicked her in the face. Then Mae took him. His wife came to his assistance and Young sent both of them to the hospital. The aftermath was a trip to the jailhouse for Mae and a fine.”
In what apparently passed as a compliment in the 1940s, Ed “Strangler” Lewis had this to say about Mae Young:
“Women belong in the kitchen and not in the ring. I don’t like women wrestling but if there ever was someone born to be a wrestler, you’re it.”
Along with friends and rivals, Mildred Burke and the Fabulous Moolah, Young helped spread women’s wrestling during WWII, taking advantage of the absence of so many men. After the war, they toured the world, further legitimizing it in every town they hit.
Young held several women’s championships until she finally retired from the spotlight for good in 2007, sixty-eight years after her debut. Moolah—whose original gimmick was “Slave Girl Moolah,” valet to Buddy Rogers—is most noted for holding the NWA Women’s title for the better part of twenty-eight years, and participating in the main event of—with fellow female wrestler, Wendi Richter—The Brawl to End It All on MTV. This match was integral to the WWF’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection, and was well-received by the WWF’s predominantly male audience, further helping legitimize women’s wrestling. For a time, anyway.
For many, The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW), which made its debut in 1986, was an entry point to wrestling fandom. Featuring a myriad of racist stereotypes and skimpy outfits, the women of GLOW were not trained wrestlers, or even fans. They were actresses and models who, after being cast, were put through a half-assed training program and paid very little. Medical insurance wasn’t provided so if they got hurt, it was on them. Some see the cheesy camp of GLOW as harmless entertainment, while others view it as pure exploitation.
The ’90s ushered in more in-ring sexism. The addition of Jerry Lawler’s overtly sexual commentary in the WWF, and ECW’s habit of—as Tommy Dreamer puts it in the documentary The Rise and Fall of ECW—“women getting their butt kicked by men,” are more low points in wrestling’s struggles with the issue. Not a lot had been learned in decades past.
For all the WWF’s “bra and panties” matches (you could practically hear Lawler pop a boner every time), they did have one truly great female talent: Chyna. As a member of the DX stable, Chyna was part of one of the hottest cliques since the Four Horsemen. Her high-profile matches with top stars earned her a lot of respect from the locker room, if not from the announcers’ table. She was a legitimate talent who deserves much respect.
The late ’90s and early 2000s ushered in a new era for female wrestlers. Led by Lita and Trish Stratus, and with the additions of talent like Molly Holly and returning vets like Jacqueline and Ivory, the WWF’s Women’s Division found a new audience. It wouldn’t take long, however, for the division to again become focused on looks over talent. Fitness models who were originally brought in as valets were dumped into the women’s division simply because they were already under contract. With very little training, Torrie Wilson, Stacy Keibler, and others, including Stephanie McMahon (Vince’s daughter) were suddenly top contenders for the belt. Many of these matches had far too gimmicked stipulations and were difficult to watch.
The division has been slowly improving since then. With the introduction and success of TNA’s (Total Nonstop Action) Knockout Division in 2007 as its model, the WWE renamed their women’s title to the Diva’s Championship, a reference to how “high maintenance” women can be. The annoying nature of its name and its pink, girly belt aside, the level of female talent involved is among the best ever assembled. The fitness models are out. These ladies work. It’s unclear if male fans are taking them as seriously as they should, but, hopefully, it’s just a matter of time. In 2016, the Diva’s Championship was retired, being replaced by the WWE Women’s Championship, and the talent pool, with the help of WWE’s developmental territory, NXT, continues to grow.
Let’s not forget the valets. Female ring escorts go back at least as far as the Gold Dust Trio, but it wasn’t until the ’80s that they became stars in their own rights. Miss Elizabeth and Sherri Martel, for example, were two of the most recognized personalities in wrestling at one time. Sometimes simply eye candy, sometimes trained wrestlers, valets, like their male “manager” counterparts have always played an integral storytelling role. Whether it be a babyface helping their charge back to their feet by offering moral support, or a heel sneaking them a weapon from their purse, the valet helps generate heat in major ways. Missy Hyatt, Sunny, Beulah, Francine, Marlena, Sable, Baby Doll, Trish, and Woman (yes, Woman) are all amazing talents who helped a lot of wrestlers get over. They deserve as much recognition as anyone. It’s a tough business even if you’re not an active ring participant. For proof, check out the 1997 ECW match between valet Beulah McGillicutty and manager Bill Alfonso. Holy shit.
An age-old conundrum of women’s wrestling is the empowerment vs. exploitation debate. It’s difficult for me, as a male, to effectively weigh in, as the experiences and motivations of each female performer is personal and varied. Still, the debate rages nonetheless. On its surface, up until very recently anyway, the role of women in wrestling was intended by male promoters and many male fans to be largely exploitive. On the other hand, female wrestlers have the power to become positive influences on women and girls all over the world, regardless of how male audiences perceive them. There’s an undeniable power in that.
What Moolah and Wendi Richter did in the mid-’80s was no doubt a large part of WWF’s success. They were integral in helping usher in what came to be known as “The Rock and Wrestling Connection,” a mixture of pro wrestling, music, and pop culture. McMahon was veering away from the traditional violent and often bloody matches happening elsewhere to focus on a more family-friendly approach. It was a novel way to do business and was wildly successful.
The other top promotions made attempts to also capitalize on this, but had little success. Through most of the ’80s, the AWA, NWA, and WCCW were still doing decent business, with plenty of hot stars like the Von Erichs, The Fabulous Freebirds, The Rockers, Curt Hennig, Scott Hall, and the Nasty Boys, to name just a few, but they were struggling to keep up. It should be noted that almost all of these wrestlers would end up working for Vince McMahon by the end of the decade or the beginning of the next. It seemed that all Jim Crockett, Verne Gagne, and the other promoters were doing was grooming young talent to eventually leave for greener pastures. McMahon’s strategies were paying off big time, and the old-school companies simply couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t long before they closed their doors or faded into near obscurity.
The Monday Night Wars
Closed-circuit TV had given way to pay-per-view (PPV). Fans no longer had to go to a movie theater to see the big cards. They could buy them through their cable provider and watch from home. WrestleMania and Starcade continued as yearly events, drawing big numbers and PPV buys. More PPVs were added to the calendar year, quickly making them the most lucrative way for a wrestling promotion to make money. By 1989, the WWF was up to four annually, with more on the way. Even though Vince McMahon had all but monopolized the professional wrestling business and put the territory system out of commission, he still had a small amount of competition.
World Championship Wrestling (WCW) had its roots in the old territory system. In the mid-to-late ’80s, Jim Crockett started buying up NWA territories in a national push to compete with Vince McMahon. These territories were placed under the banner of WCW. Crockett, however, was millions in debt and couldn’t maintain the company any longer. Enter Ted Turner. After purchasing WCW from Crockett, Turner went to work rebuilding the company on a national level.
These early years were not particularly successful. WCW had established stars like Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes (fresh off a run in WWF), and Ricky Steamboat (also fresh off a WWF run), as well as an impressive stable of up-and-comers like the Steiner Brothers, Lex Luger, and Sting. Their failure lay mostly in the bookings. They chose to go the gimmick route instead of showcasing the talent they had. This was the era of the “Dusty Finish,” named for star and booker, Dusty Rhodes. These finishes were often ambiguous in nature, not having a clear winner, or having the results overturned through some sort of rules violation. Fans were not happy.
Ratings were poor, and the company was once again in trouble. By 1993, WCW had officially withdrawn from the NWA and had begun the process of figuring out just how to compete with the WWF. The answer came in the form of a former AWA announcer, Eric Bischoff.
Eric Bischoff rose in the ranks of WCW rather quickly. Tuner liked him and quickly promoted him from announcer to, eventually, president of the company. Once in control, Bischoff began making moves that were straight out of Vince McMahon’s playbook. By 1995, the company turned a profit for the first time since its purchase in 1991, and things were just getting started.
In 1996, Bischoff started his now-infamous talent raids. Much to Vince McMahon’s dismay, it was his WWF that was being raided. Bischoff first lured away popular WWF star Scott Hall, followed quickly by Kevin Nash. Hall and Nash were branded as an invading force from WWF, and they sold it brilliantly. Fans thought Vince McMahon had planted enemy agents into WCW. Fittingly, they called themselves The Outsiders, paving the way for the most dominant wrestling presence of the 1990s.
Bischoff’s raid of WWF continued with the acquisitions of Gene Okerlund, Randy Savage, and many others, but Hulk Hogan was his biggest prize. If there was anyone who could stop those dastardly Outsiders, it was Hogan. On July 7, 1996, at the Bash on the Beach PPV, Hogan came down the ramp to interfere in Randy Savage and Lex Luger’s match against The Outsiders when the unthinkable happened. Hulk Hogan turned heel with a leg drop on Savage. The New World Order (NWO) was born.
The NWO became a “promotion within a promotion,” recruiting wrestler after wrestler for their stable. Their goal, in an elaborate work, was to disrupt as much WCW programming as possible. They were a type of street gang whose sole purpose was chaos. No babyface was safe from the NWO. It was a ratings goldmine, but it wasn’t the only factor in WCW’s success.
At the same time WCW was beginning their NWO push, they began pushing their cruiserweight division bringing in talent from Mexico and Japan. Cruiserweights, sometimes called light heavyweights, are usually smaller in stature and engage in a much faster-paced style of wrestling than their heavyweight counterparts. Bischoff also began raiding another up-and-coming company based out of Philadelphia, ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling). These cruiserweight matches were often opening to mid-card bouts, but the talent involved (Rey Mysterio Jr., Psicosis, Último Dragon, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, et cetera) was astounding. ECW first brought these foreign stars to the U.S. and established the American ones. WCW simply offered them more money and promised them a national stage on which to continue their feuds. The result was some of the best matches of the decade.
WCW consistently beat WWF in ratings (WCW had Monday Nitro on TNT, and WWF had Raw Is War on USA, airing head to head on Monday nights). Vince McMahon’s response was to change gears. Matches got more violent and the programming became very, very sleazy.
Led by veterans such as Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, and up-and-coming talent Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and Mankind (among many others), this became known as the Attitude Era, a mixture of hyper-sexualized gimmicks and ever-increasing bloodshed (a page taken from both the company’s history and the success of ECW). WCW battled back with the rise of, perhaps, their biggest star of the late ’90s, Bill Goldberg, an unstoppable monster and fan favorite who refused to give in to the NWO’s bullying. His winning streak lasted for years and further helped WCW’s ratings reign.
The war was on and WCW seemed unstoppable for a time. However, too much of a good thing isn’t always good for business. The NWO push outlived itself, becoming an increasingly convoluted storyline. The WWF also had simply developed a better roster and was telling much more compelling stories. Fans took notice.
WCW programming became the same thing every week: a match starts, the NWO interferes, repeat. Fans grew tired. Not even Goldberg could electrify them anymore. Meanwhile, the WWF was pushing exciting storylines featuring wrestlers that would go down in history. Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon, The Rock ‘n’ Sock Connection, Hardys vs. Dudleys vs. Edge and Christian, the Hardcore Division, and the arrival of Kurt Angle were just a few elements that lit a fire for fans. In the span of just a few years, WCW went from being fresh and exciting to second-tier wrestling. With dwindling ratings, by the end, it became difficult to watch.
The details are complicated, but in short, poor backstage management and the WWF’s successful cultivation of new and exciting talent destroyed WCW. Seemingly everyone—myself included—tuned in on March 26, 2001 to watch the last episode of WCW Monday Nitro. We thought we would be seeing a nice farewell. Instead, what we got was news the company was sold to the McMahons, with Vince and his son, Shane, appearing on the show. It was amazing—I remember realizing that, not only was I witnessing a historic moment in wrestling history, but that I was glad to see WCW go.
A few weeks later, ECW declared bankruptcy, effectively breaking my heart. ECW owner Paul Heyman and the owners of the AWA, WCCW, and more would later sell the remaining assets and video libraries to Vince McMahon. Most of the visual history of wrestling now belongs to one company.
And here we are.
Today, wrestling is enjoyed by millions of fans, and an ever-increasing amount of punks, all over the world. The U.S. is currently the largest market for professional wrestling, but Japan and Mexico have had their own highly successful—and highly regarded—promotions for decades as well. WWE’s developmental territory, NXT (it’s “minor league,” if you will) has proven especially popular among punks and other fans of a more stripped-down product. Somehow, Vince McMahon has tapped into a market that doesn’t care much for his “big” shows (Raw and SmackDown), but gets them to tune in to his “indie” show (which is anything but). It’s a pretty slick deception, considering that NXT’s roster is made up almost entirely of wrestlers who have legitimate independent backgrounds and who have succumbed to the same talent raids that McMahon used back in the early ’80s to build his brand. Why mess with a good thing?
Is wrestling’s popularity among punks and other “hip” groups a trend? It’s difficult to say. I hope the punks stick around, anyway. The infusion of lefty politics, inclusiveness, and ever more progressive locker rooms and storylines can—I like to think anyway—be attributed, at least in part, to punk rock’s growing influence on wrestling.
It’s doubtful that Vince McMahon—who has a net worth of nearly 1.25 billion dollars—will embrace punk rock in any serious capacity any time soon, but the punk invasion of the indies will surely continue for quite some time. However, with McMahon’s raids of independent promotions for talent, it’s in the realm of possibility that, someday, there could be a full-on punk invasion of WWE. Wouldn’t that be something?
I for one cannot wait to see what the future holds for DIY and independent pro wrestling. I’d like to be able to easily answer the question “Why do so many punks love wrestling?” but it’s not that simple. Or maybe it is. Punks and wrestlers are both by nature steadfastly individualistic. They live the lives they choose with varying degrees of crazy, but mostly, they do just about everything on their own terms. Even if you have an asshole boss like Vince McMahon.
James Rosario is a film critic, punk rocker, librarian, and life-long wrestling mark. He grew up in Moorhead, Minnesota/Fargo, North Dakota going to as many punk shows as possible and trying to convince everyone he met to watch his Japanese Death Match and ECW tapes with him. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife and two kids where he writes his blog, The Daily Orca. His favorite wrestlers are “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, The Sheik, and Nick Bockwinkel.
Art Fuentes lives in Orange County, California and spends his days splashing ink behind the drawing board.
One Punk’s Guide is a series of articles where Razorcake contributors share their love for a topic that is not traditionally considered punk. Previous Guides have explored everything from pinball, to African politics, to outlaw country music.
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