There’s no drama like wrestling.
I have been a fan, to varying degrees, of professional wrestling since I was 5 years old. My aunt was the one who really got me into it around age 7 or 8. She was still in high school at the time and her room was full of wrestling posters(and posters from Tiger Beat but that wasn’t as interesting). I would spend Saturday mornings with her watching wrestling on TBS. WCW(World Championship Wrestling) became my world. I still loved basketball but pro wrestling was quickly overtaking it. I remember that same year her and my grandparents rode to Charlotte, NC to see a big time wrestling house show. I so much wanted to go but my grandpa didn’t want us down there around all that at this age. At this point, many people still thought wrestling was real and some shows tended to get very out of hand. And, sure enough, after the big cage match to end the show the crowd went a little crazy. Not too bad but nothing to have your kid around. This love affair continued to grow all through elementary school. My friends and I would lay down tumbling mats in the gym and stage our own Pay per view events! In high school, pro wrestling exploded nationally. Suddenly it was cool to like wrestling. I found myself associating with people I never would have before, simply because we shared a common interest in pro wrestling. After high school, I took a break from wrestling for a few years. Many of my favorite stars had retired or left by then. But I couldn’t stay away forever. I don’t watch as much as I use to. I don’t buy all the pay per views anymore. But I still love it. Maybe because it was such a big piece of my life for so many years. Or maybe that it is just extremely entertaining to me and you can’ t put a value on that. So I will start our story now. From the beginning.
Wrestling is one of the oldest(if not the oldest) sports ever invented. A common test of strength, skill, and athleticism among Ancient Greeks. It was THE Olympic sport for generations on into the old Roman Empire, who also valued the skill and ability needed to win a wrestling match.(though they later added swords and spears to it. foreign objects indeed) The system they invented is the one we still use today. It is still referred to, at it’s purest, as Greco-Roman wrestling. Taught in gyms all over the mid-west and anywhere else wrestling is a popular sport.
After the time of Rome, wrestling remained a huge sport in medieval Europe and on through to modern times. In 19th century England and America a new form of wrestling, referred to as catch-as-catch-can wrestling, began to gain popularity. The traditional Greco-Roman style barred certain holds and did not permit grappling below the waist, such as a leg or ankle lock. This evolution opened up the sport more, added a bit of excitement, and drew in larger crowds. At the turn of the 20th century, wrestling was hugely popular all over the world. Surpassed, barely, in yearly draw only by boxing. But wrestling was missing something that boxing had. A legitimate world wide championship belt and a wrestler to hold it. So, matches were put into place to decide the first World Champion. At the time there were 2 recognized champions. Georg Hackenschmidt, the European Greco-Roman Champion and Tom Jenkins, the American Heavyweight Champion. Hackenschmidt was a genetic freak in his time. An avid bodybuilder in his home of Estonia, he set several weightlifting records that stood for decades. A worldly, educated man who could speak 7 different languages and once challenged Einstein to a debate on his theory of relativity. Einstein politely declined. In 1896, he defeated Tom Cannon in Liverpool England to become EGR Champion and many considered him the Undisputed Champion at that point. But it was not cemented until he defeated Tom Jenkins in New York in May 1905. The titles were combined and Georg became wrestling’s first ever Undisputed Champion.
Hackenschmidt would remain undefeated for 3 years until he faced wrestling’s first superstar Frank Gotch . The match lasted 2 grueling hours and Hackenschmidt finally submitted to an ankle lock. Gotch was World Champion. The match drew huge crowds and the rematch, 3 years later at Comiskey Park, set an all time attendance record for any sporting event. Gotch became a national figure. The media fell in love with him and he even attended dinner at the White House with Teddy Roosevelt. Himself a huge wrestling fan. Gotch reigned as champ for 7 years and won 88 consecutive matches. Gotch retired undefeated.
The next great wrestling champion was Ed “The Strangler” Lewis in the 1920’s. He became a national celebrity much like Gotch. On par with the likes of Babe Ruth. Lewis’ matches were epic marathons though. One match had to be called after 5 hours and both participants rushed to the hospital immediately afterward. It was mostly theatrics, which was becoming a strong part of the sport, but both men were treated for major dehydration and minor internal bleeding. A problem was forming in wrestling. Matches were lasting WAY too long, audiences were leaving, and many athletes were complaining about injuries. Wrestling was becoming a huge business and someone needed to make it a steady profitable one.
It was around this time that pro wrestling became “wrasslin’ “. By the middle of the 20th century, wrestling had been divided into a regional sport with every region having it’s own champion. Once again, someone needed to unify and create one champion to rule them all. This eventually led to the formation of the National Wrestling Alliance(NWA). The NWA felt that having 5 or 6 different champions basically made any championship meaningless. Any region could call anyone they wanted champion and it was very confusing to many fans who felt their guy was the REAL champion. 90% of all matches were predetermined at that time and the NWA proposed a single champion that could travel from region to region and face that area’s main guy, giving profits and exposure to everyone. The regions bought in and the NWA Championship was created.
Orville Brown was named the NWA’s first ever champion. After a unification match with the former “regional champion” his career was cut short by an automobile accident. Lou Thesz stepped in to become the first true NWA Champion in 1948. Lou Thesz is considered one of the best, if not THE best, pro wrestlers in the modern era. Thesz excelled as a mat technician and innovator of offense. He was versatile. He could work pre-scripted matches and “shoot” matches. Matches that were not scripted and were legitimately contested. At this point in wrestling your marketability mattered as much as your ability to wrestle. Your stature in the business depended greatly on our ability to draw people to events. Thesz was spectacular. He held the World Title for almost 7 straight years. An unthinkable feat in modern pro wrestling. His popularity and in ring ability was just that strong. Thesz became the first “TV star” in pro wrestling. He introduced several new moves including the “German Suplex“(named in honor of Frank Gotch), the STF, and the Powerbomb.
During Thesz’s reign television was moving into more households and wrestling was quickly becoming the most popular program on many stations. Wrestling had been losing ground in many areas and most promoters struggled to give tickets away. Now Lou Thesz, a pro wrestler, was being seen on TV more than any other entertainer of his time. Including the likes of Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, and Gene Autry. Even Thesz’s pre-match workouts were drawing huge TV audiences. At this point many stations were struggling for programming and wrestling stepped up to deliver in a big way. Thesz’s matches set records for the time in attendance, gate proceeds, and TV viewership. Wrestling was arguably the most popular pro sport in America and it’s early relationship with TV would continue to build.
But TV presented new challenges for wrestling. The public was consuming your product on an almost weekly basis but they were now craving new faces, new stories and new matches. TV wrestling needed a star. Thesz was popular but not enough to hold TV audiences repeatedly, like a true showman. Enter Herman Rhode. Or as wrestling audiences would come to know him, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Rogers understood what the burgeoning medium of television could do for a career if you played it right.
Rogers had a look and an attitude that lent itself to television. A bleach blond loudmouth from New Jersey, he strutted around the ring constantly berating his opponent and the audience. The first truly great “heel” in pro wrestling. At the time it was truly revolutionary. Pro wrestling had become somewhat of a show at that point but Rogers took it to another level. Rogers attitude rubbed some promoters the wrong way and it is rumored that during one particular “shoot” match, a wrestler was ordered to break Rogers’ hands. He did. But Rogers could not be bowed. He was a legitimate superstar. Again Comiskey PArk hosted a monumental wrestling match, this time featuring Rogers. it set an attendance record that stood for over 20 years until it was broken by Wrestlemania 3.
Through the 70’s and 80’s the NWA hosted many matches with many great champions, including Harley Race, Terry Funk, and Jack Briscoe. In the early 80’s the next great wrestling superstar emerged. Donning a familiar nickname, the wrestling world was introduced to “Nature Boy” Ric Flair in 1977. Flair had already been wrestling for several years and had suffered a broken back during a plane crash, which almost ended his career before it really began. Flair made a name for himself in the AWA regional promotion with matches against Dusty Rhodes, Andre the Giant, and Chief Wahoo McDaniel. His natural charisma and mic skills had made him a crowd favorite in many different regions. When he eventually joined the NWA, it is said that every region came together and demanded Flair be made the next NWA World Champion or they would refuse to fully promote whomever they made champion instead. So, Flair became the new NWA World champion. Flair became a world ambassador for pro wrestling. It was becoming very popular in Japan and Flair made frequent trips to challenge Japan’s top pros. He spent more time on the road than any other champion before or since. Every region wanted him. He was so good at what he did. He drew fans who loved and hated him and he was so good in the ring. In 5 minutes he could turn that region’s top guy into a superstar. A true ring general. Flair fought many of the most classic matches in wrestling history during the 80’s. Epic record setting bouts against Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, Ricky “the dragon” Steamboat, and Terry Funk helped propel wrestling back into a top spot among sporting fans and TV viewers. Flair’s series of matches with Steamboat are still considered some of the best matches of all time.
During the early 80’s, promoter Vince McMahon Jr. had bought out his father’s, Vince Sr.’s, wrestling territory and was looking to take wrestling in a new direction. He saw a lot of potential in a unified front for pro wrestling. No more territories, no more “traveling champions”. One single entity that toured across the world. The WWF was formed. McMahon faced a ton of resistance to his plan to end the territory system. McMahon began selling his product to TV syndication outside his perceived territory. A big no-no to many. He began taking stars from other territories and forming a very respectable roster, headlined by relative newcomer, Hulk Hogan. Hogan’s turn in Rocky III had made him a very visible commodity and McMahon scooped him up immediately after his AWA contract ended. McMahon’s gamble could have been a costly one. He had sunk all his money and every ounce of profit into getting the WWF off the ground and it’s future all hinged on one idea that Vince had been sitting on for years.
The NWA had seen some pretty good success with closed circuit television “pay per views” like Starrcade in the late 80’s but Vince wanted to go bigger. He conceived of a national pay per view wrestling event to be named,Wrestlemania. McMahon put everything into it. If it failed he was bankrupt and out of business. Probably forever considering the bridges he had been burning to pull this off. On March 31, 1985 the first Wrestlemania was broadcast live around the country on pay per view. The event was a giant success. It set pay per view records for the time and made the WWF millions. In one day the WWF had gone from teetering on the edge of bankruptcy to THE dominant force in professional wrestling.Wrestlemania II did even better and Wrestlemania III set an indoor attendance record that still stands. The WWF was established and on top. Hulk Hogan was not just the biggest star in wrestling but one of the most visible and recognizable people on Earth. By this time the NWA had folded and become World Championship Wrestling(WCW). WCW took some of Vince’s lead and began to expand to multiple regions and syndicate. A big ruckus stirred up between WCW and the WWF in 1991 when Ric Flair left WCW ,still holding their title belt, and went to the WWF. He appeared on WWF television with the belt and WCW sued to have it pixeled out in all broadcasts.
This was only the beginning of a “war” between the companies that would carry through the 90’s and into the new millennium. In the mid 90’s both companies established weekly shows on cable television. WWF Monday Night Raw on the USA Network and WCW Monday Night Nitro on TNT. WCW began to gain ground on the WWF so Vince decided to change things up. he called his creative people together and decided on anew path for his talent. He moved away from cookie cutter hero and villain stereotypes and told his wrestlers to start coming to him with their ideas for their character. He wanted “real people”. More of the person’s personality in their characters. This led to what would be called the “Attitude Era” in the WWF.
The first huge star to break away in this new format was a long time wrestling journeyman named Steve Williams. Williams had a short stint in WCW but felt underused. He signed a developmental deal with WWF and debuted as “the Ringmaster”, Steve Austin. The gimmick didn’t take off. After McMahon’s new “be yourself” declaration, Williams totally changed his look and his character. At the 1996 King of the Ring pay per view, Williams introduced his new vision. He was wrestling Jake “the Snake” Roberts who was presenting himself as a born again Christian and constantly quoting Bible verses. After Austin won he was interviewed and during this segment uttered the phrase that changed a generation “….Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!” Austin 3:16 is still the most quoted phrase in wrestling history. Williams adopted the moniker of “Stone Cold Steve Austin” and the Attitude Era took off like a rocket.
Austin was soon joined at center stage by Dwayne Johnson. Or as we know him, The Rock. Dwayne Johnson was a third generation wrestler. His father and grandfather had both been in the business. A talented athlete and former Miami Hurricane football player, Johnson had something that every great entertainer needed; Shitloads of charisma. Like Austin, the Rock was introduced as someone completely different from the character he would become. He was the fresh faced, excited, wrestler following in his father’s footsteps, Rocky Maivia. A “face” or good guy. The audiences didn’t go for it. Soon chants of “Rocky sucks” began filling arenas. Rocky went to Vince and said he had an idea for his character. Vince said go for it. One year later Rocky joined the Nation of Domination, a wrestling version of the Brotherhood of Islam, turned heel and became “The Rock”. Audiences ate it up. As a heel, Johnson had no boundaries. He could pick up the mic and just riff on anything or anyone. It was gold. Soon smackdown, jabroni, candy ass, and “Do you smell what the Rock is cooking” became staples in every dorm room and high school around the country. Together Austin and The Rock took pro wrestling to heights never before seen. Austin is widely considered to be the greatest WWF superstar of all time. Surpassing even Hulk Hogan. But the WWF had help.
WCW was also making news. Beginning with their signing of Hulk hogan in 1994. Hogan brought instant interest to WCW. A veritable legend of the industry, many fans immediately took notice when WCW signed him. Hogan’s early run in WCW was quite successful monetarily but the execs at WCW, namely Eric Bischoff, had an unthinkable idea stowed away. Early in 1996, Bischoff approached Hogan with the possibility of turning heel. He was bringing in new talent from WWF, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall (formerly Diesel and Razor Ramone in the WWF), and he was wanting to try out an idea he had picked up from Japan. An “invasion” of WCW by “Outsiders” Hall and Nash. He wanted Hogan to lead this new group. Hogan was iffy on it at first but eventually saw the possibilities of this crazy idea. It was always funner to play heels so Hogan figured he might get a kick out of it. That summer, at the Bash at The Beach pay per view, Hogan turned on fellow WCW wrestlers and aided “the Outsiders” Hall and Nash in wining their match. Fans were stunned and pelted the ring with drinks and boos. Hulk Hogan was a bad guy!
Hogan adopted the nickname “Hollywood” and formed the New World Order(NWO) with Hall and Nash. WCW’s ratings skyrocketed. Every week, for almost 2 straight years, WCW beat the WWF in ratings. Some nights just absolutely crushing them. Around 1998 it appeared as though WCW may very well run the WWF out of town. But it was not to be. WCW execs gave too much backstage control to their big gun: Hogan, Hall, and Nash. They put themselves front and center every week and the rest of the roster took a backseat. New wrestler, Goldberg, was building quite a following as he racked up a giant, record “undefeated streak” with brutal attacks and power moves many had never before seen. But WCW overplayed him adn eventually the audience lost a little of their love for him. backstage politics and complete misuse of talent led WCW to eventually sellout to Titan Sports and the WWF in 2001. barely 2 years after being the most dominant promotion in wrestling,WCW closed it’s doors. This ended the Attitude Era and the second “Golden Age” of wrestling.
Today the WWF is the main game in town having bought out WCW and fledgling company ECW. Other small promotions exist but they are really just farm systems for the WWF(now called the WWE). A decade removed from the second Golden Age, pro wrestling is still trying to recapture that magic. A more PG slant has opened up the audience as more parents are introducing their kids to wrestling but they still play a bit to those more helter skelter days in the 90’s. The Rock and Steve Austin are both set to appear at this year’s Wrestlemania and interest is big again.
My 5 favorite wrestlers of all time starting with the favoritest:
1.) Ric Flair
3.) The Undertaker
5.) Arn Anderson
My favorite match of all time:
The Rock vs. Stone Cold at Wrestlemania 17
I still love wrestling though I don’t watch as much as I used to. I catch Monday Night Raw every week and a big pay per view when i can. Definitely be tuning in to Wrestlemania. I can’t really explain my love for it to people nor do I feel a need to. It’s entertainment. Controlled violence. A “soap opera for men”. Doesn’t matter how you define it. I stick by it through thick and thin because it always finds away to pull me back. A charismatic new character or an insane storyline. I just can’t stay away forever. Some of my favorite memories are watching Ric Flair’s matches with my grandpa. Cheering as he pins the asshole unlucky enough to be put against him. I love wrestling and I think, if you give it a chance, you will too. Viva Wrestling!