The Unreal Story of Pro Wrestling
A&E Entertainment - Originally Aired On A&E Network
Run Time: 100 Minutes
VHS: $14.95 - Buy It At Amazon.Com
DVD: $19.95 - Buy It At Amazon.Com
Unreal Stories, Part I
This column appeared in Wrestling Perspective, Volume IX, Issue 75.
Copyright © 1998 Wrestling Perspective.
Over the last two years, at least, there has been a veritable explosion of wrestling history among those who consider themselves serious fans. There was a time when I was writing this column for just a few; now I write it for just a few more. Besides my own fleeting contributions, there are now at least two newsletters devoted to the past as well as a couple of websites. Books on wrestling history are making their way to the shelves. But, why history, and why now? That's what we're going to attempt to find out. Over the next few columns I will trace the current infatuation with wrestling and its shady past. Though I won't tip too much at this stage, you may be surprised to discover that wrestling history owes much more to a French academic of the Fifties than to any one wrestling historian.
The best place to begin a historical journey is with a relevant event of the recent past. The biggest thing in the recent past, at least the most talked about among wrestling fans, is the A & E special, The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling I've spoken with a few fans and read a few commentaries about it. However, everyone misses the point. For instance, Dave Meltzer begins his critique in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter by asking us to "imagine a documentary on the NBA where the name of Wilt Chamberlain was not even mentioned and where history was recreated to where Michael Jordan claimed to have invented the slam dunk and where the recent commissioner was credited with the idea of putting the NBA on prime-time television." What's wrong with this critique, you ask? Everything, I say. The critics of the documentary make the mistake of taking it literally. Wrestling, unlike other sports, is not to be taken literally. That's why they call it "sports entertainment." The only thing that should be taken literally here is the title of the documentary: The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling.
Yeah, yeah, but what about the show's falsification of history? What falsification? How can one falsify the history of a sport that specifically has no history? What do you mean, "no history?" Of course wrestling has a history. No, it doesn't. What wrestling has is a past, and that is completely different. History is a coherent record of events. For instance, we may not agree if Edward I of England was a good king or a bad one, but we do agree, for we are certain, that he was king. There is an official record of succession English history students can use to determine whom Edward succeeded and who succeeded him. Ah, but doesn't wrestling also have such a list of its champions? Technically yes, but only if you want to get real technical. There was such a list used by the NWA to trace its champions, but that list is bogus. There was such a thing as "England" when Edward I was king, but there was no such thing as the NWA when Frank Gotch was supposedly its champion. The NWA list of champions is nothing more than a convenient form of myth created for the purpose of making that which is essentially shady look for all intents and purposes legit. For instance, when I was researching the career of Earl Caddock, I found he was one of at least four wrestlers claiming the crown. The former champion, Joe Stecher, still claiming the title, was recognized in certain areas of the country. Which organization recognized Caddock? Which recognized Stecher? None. Unlike other organized sports, and unlike its close cousin, boxing, anyone can pass himself off as a champion, as long as a promoter is willing to recognize (i.e., make money) his legitimacy.
Wrestling has no one else but itself to blame for this. Not that anyone really cares. The less you know the better off they are. We know more about the behind the scenes goings-on during the World Series scandal of 1919 than we do of the behind the scenes preparations for the Gotch-Hackenschmidt match of 1908. That is sad.
So, barring an adequate history, wrestling turned to the next best thing - a mythology. The history of wrestling is in fact a thinly-disguised mythology, bent and twisted to fit the needs of whoever is telling the story at the time. Wrestling is a sport living in the eternal now; its future only stretching ahead to the next big card and its past only reaching as far back as the last big card. This is what The Unreal Story captures rather brilliantly, the fact that there is no history of the game, just a series of matches and anecdotes. Baseball needs a history, wrestling needs the next big card.
That being the case, is the documentary accurate? Yes and no. In wrestling, accuracy is a most tenuous term indeed. Because wrestling took place behind closed doors, there are very few objective facts. Newspaper records of matches that took place, attendance and time of said matches, and newspaper records of proclaimed territorial champions are what pass for objective facts in wrestling. But even these were subject to editing, depending on the objectivity of the reporter and quite often supplied to said reporter by the promoter before the matches took place. Accuracy is in the eye of the beholder, the one who is writing the history. In this case, the producers of the A&E documentary are writing the history and they are being aided and abetted by experts in the field. Of course, they have chosen these experts, but let's not quibble over that. Do I agree with these experts? Again yes and no. My version of wrestling history is different from theirs. It is up to the reader to make the choice. But that's the great thing about wrestling ? one version of history is as good as the other.
Steve Allen narrates The Unreal Story, and the viewer would be led to think this is because Allen is a skeptical comic. But Allen actually cut his broadcasting teeth doing wrestling play-by-play. Not that you'd know this from watching the documentary; Allen doesn't even mention it once. After all, it would clash with his current pose as an intellectual. Wrestling is something to be laughed at, not taken seriously. Speaking of laughing, one of the first images we see is that of Dr. Michael Ball, Professor of Popular Culture at one of our higher centers of learning. Echoing Aristotle in a smarmy way, he tells us that "people have an insatiable appetite for the re-enactment of rituals." Based on his book about wrestling, Dr. Ball has an insatiable appetite for making stupid statements. People have an appetite for entertainment. I can only be glad Dr. Ball has not discovered the Three Stooges. Vince McMahon describes wrestling as a magic show; only he's not going to tell you how he does the magic. It's all right, we figured it out long ago.
That being said, the show now takes a u-turn and attempts to trace wrestling back to ancient Greece. If, as McMahon says, wrestling is a magic show, why the need to trace it back to the Greeks? Were the Greeks also magicians? Just keep in mind that during this "expose" nothing will be exposed. All facts and theories presented will be to justify the mythology that passes for history. Like Martin Heidegger, wrestling must always return to Greece. Even Marcus Griffin did this in his expose of the game. The wrestling contests of the ancient Greeks bear as much relevance to today's professional wrestling as ancient archery contests do to those the archery contests of today. (Unless we can somehow conceive of Milo of Croton winning his matches with a top rope hurracanrana and then a Stone Cold stunner for the pin.) At any rate our time is wasted with much useless information, and some erroneous information also, such as "Plato" meaning "broad-shouldered." The name "Plato" actually was a nickname meaning "broad." In today's parlance, "fatso." So much for the Greeks. The ancient sport that most closely resembled today's wrestling was the Roman gladiatorial contest. Violent, and often faked. (See Robert Graves's I, Claudius.)
A more earnest attempt comes in when the Americanized form of "scuffling" is mentioned, although claiming the likes of Washington and Lincoln as championship wrestlers is specious indeed. It is only when the documentary stops at the carnival that the real roots of modern-day wrestling are revealed in all their glory. This was glossed over by the producers, which is quite in keeping with the accepted myths of wrestling history. If the viewer ever knew what really went on in those carnivals, it would destroy the delicate fabric being woven and morph into another show entirely.
Cut to Gotch vs. George Hackenschmidt. Where was William Muldoon? Barely mentioned, that's where, although Muldoon was the first to combine Greco-Roman with American "scuffling" and laid the foundation for what became known as "catch-as-catch-can." Muldoon also brought the matches from the back rooms of taverns and carnival tents into theaters, promoting a more wholesome, festive, storylined atmosphere. The 1908 Gotch-Hackenschmidt match, and the subsequent rematch in 1911, caught the attention of the press and public like no wrestling match before, or since. We are told the first ended with a Gotch victory, but Hackenschmidt later claimed foul because Gotch's body was so oiled, a hold could not be properly applied. A rematch was agreed in 1911. Lou Thesz then goes on to tell the story of Gotch's camp insuring victory, by engaging Ad Santel to injure Hackenschmidt. Gotch promised Hack a fall, but then, knowing Hack was injured, double-crossed the Russian and won two straight falls. Because the Santel story hit the papers shortly thereafter, wrestling became discredited.
That's the story, anyway. I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now. Gotch was notorious for working programs with opponents. It was easy money, and besides, Gotch's toe hold was so feared it made cooperation that much easier. (It is certainly ironic that the common wisdom now is that Gotch worked a program with Fred Beell. Yours truly was the first to expose Gotch on this years ago, but I guess it just sounds better when they say it.) Further, many of Gotch's opponents were from his camp, such as Dan McLeod, Emil Klank, and Yankee Rogers (who doubled as Gotch's policeman). Hackenschmidt was a devotee of what was known as physical culture, a combination of weightlifting, body-building and wacky nutrition theories. He was put over as champ in Europe, but crowds were diminishing after eight years on top and Hack was looking for a big payday. The first loss to Gotch killed Hack's box office. He was for all intents and purposes finished as a headliner. But Gotch needed Hack, needed the big payday and restoration of respect Hack would provide this. Things had not gone well for Gotch either since that first match. Too many bouts with too many shenanigans for the public to stomach. It was so bad that Gotch even worked a few circus matches. Of course they both claimed to be injured. In reality, Gotch wasn't, but I believe Hackenschmidt was. I believe Hack went into the match with a bad knee. Was Santel at Hack's camp? Yes, but as an observer for Gotch and a coach for Hackenschmidt. Santel was there to coach Hack on the ins and outs of "catch" wrestling. Remember, Hackenschmidt worked the European style, which was heavily Greco-Roman. Did Santel injure Hackenschmidt at the behest of Gotch? No. That would have been a cowardly act. Gotch was many things, most of them bad, but he was no coward. Gotch also knew he'd have little trouble with Hackenschmidt (even wrestling historian Mike Chapman admitted on the documentary that Hack had only one move). Hack was there for the money, the only concession made by Gotch being to give Hack a fall. When Gotch discovered Hack was already injured, the deal was off and Hack was pinned two straight falls. I don't, nor would I ever, doubt Thesz. I'm sure he heard the story from Santel. I just believe we should look at the context of the story and who was telling it. Who comes off best in the story? Santel. Who was telling the story? Santel. Also, the story never hit the papers, existing only in the imagination of Ad Santel. Great story, though, and a worthy addition to the myth of wrestling.
Other bon mots to come out were the insistence that wrestling changed because fans were tired of all the five-hour bouts. This came from Mike Chapman. In reality, bouts this long were the rare exception rather than the rule, and only when the boys couldn't trust each other. I found only two while doing my research. In one, Muldoon supposedly went an astounding nine hours with Clarence Whistler. Watching that must have been every bit as exciting as watching molasses drip. Chapman is an excellent historian, really top notch, but he is one who protects the business. The best remark on Gotch was made by Sheldon Goldberg, who was easily the best thing about the entire show, when he compared Gotch with Hulk Hogan in terms of image and popularity. This is why Gotch went out as champ and why Hogan probably will when his time comes. The terms "hooker," "shooter" and "journeyman" are also explained, providing a hierarchy and a sense of contest in a sport that had neither. "Hooker" and "shooter" come from the carnival. To "hook" is to double-cross, such as the barker rigging the carny games so the sucker can't win. In wrestling it also refers to a double-cross, a "hooker" being a double-crosser. After a while it became a badge of honor and signified people outside the wrestling trust. To be a hooker, you had to be really good at your craft. "Shooter" comes from "straight shooter," referring to rifles that weren't tampered with; eventually "shoot" was equated with honest. "Journeyman" comes from tradesmen who work job to job, doing a "job" eventually meaning losing.
Next we go to the Twenties and the era of Ed Lewis. Lewis was given his due as a great champion, but strangely glossed over were the contributions of wrestling's greatest genius, Toots Mondt. Toots is the man who invented modern professional wrestling and a mere mention is all he gets. Around 95 percent of the finishes and 80 percent of the finishing holds today were invented by Mondt. One tidbit passed out about Ed Lewis was that he got the name "Strangler" while in Paris. Hooey. Billy Sandow gave him the name after Evan "Strangler" Lewis. Also stated is that Lewis beat Joe Stecher in 1915 in one of those five-hour shooting contests. Supposedly, after the bout Lewis went partying in search of a good time and Stecher went to the hospital in search of medication. That one sounds just a bit too good for me. Remember, a shoot could simply be little or no contact or movement in a ring. We are also told that Lewis beat Stecher in a shoot in 1921. Thus Lewis is built up into the stuff wrestling myth is made of. Lewis is also set up as the toughest pro wrestler of his time, important for the viewer to know in an era of double-crosses, but again, this only serves legend and not history. Actually, the toughest s.o.b. of the era worked alongside Lewis, and that was Mondt. If there was a rumor that a wrestler wanted to hook Lewis, the guy just might find himself in the ring with Mondt. Remember, years after retiring from the ring, Mondt still had enough in him to destroy Dick Shikat who was no cream puff himself. Besides, all this is academic because hooking "trust-busters" such as John Pesak, Fred Grubmeier and the like never got a shot against Lewis unless the rules were agreed to beforehand. At any rate, scant time is spent on Lewis, who, more than any other wrestler, represented the championship. That was because the last wrestling champion to be taken seriously was Ed Lewis. Was Lewis the greatest? It's hinted at in the documentary, but in reality... well, that's a different story. Put Lewis in his prime into a ring with Thesz in his prime and Thesz would have cleaned Lewis's clock. The same goes with Bruno Sammartino. Bruno would have little trouble. Nor would Dick Hutton, Danny Hodge (both trained by Lewis, ironically), Verne Gagne and Karl Gotch. Why? Not only are these wrestlers bigger and faster than Lewis, the game (including amateur wrestling) is bigger and faster. However, what the documentary doesn't mention is that Lewis was one of the greatest teachers of wrestling who ever lived. This would have been interesting to dwell on, but to do so would take time from the current scene, where the color footage lies.
Next, we are treated to the rise of Jim Londos, the dominant (in terms of popularity and influence) wrestler of the Thirties. However, unmentioned goes the fact that Londos could not defend his title in about 21 states due to outstanding warrants for his arrest on fraud charges. That would ruin the tapestry being ever so carefully woven by the producer. The documentary rightly points out that Londos was the greatest draw of his era, roughly 1929 to 1940, and credits him with bringing in women fans (due to his matinee idol looks), but then goes on to qualify this statement by telling us that wrestling nose-dived in attendance during the Depression. True? Well, again yes and no. Meltzer, in his review, would have us believe that wrestling, like the movies, prospered during this time because the public craved escapist entertainment. This argument is as loony as the one put forth in the documentary. Logic, and its partner, critical thinking, on the other hand, tell us that it is preposterous to make absolute statements when dealing with such a lengthy period in history. The Depression began in 1929 and many historians agree that it was due to World War II that we were able to escape. In the early years of the Depression, escapist entertainment did quite well. "Forget your troubles, prosperity is just around the corner," was the slogan of the day. However, in 1934 it became clear that prosperity was a lot further away than the corner. As a result, escapist entertainment faltered. Several movie companies, such as Universal, Warner Bros., and Paramount teetered close to extinction. RKO was single-handedly saved in 1935 by the Astaire-Rogers musicals. Theaters turned to gimmicks like "dish night," "bank night," and "screeno." Wrestling, too, turned to gimmicks: Farmer Jones and his pig helped save Morris Siegel in Houston. Mud wrestling became a hit, only to be followed by Jell-O wrestling, and even fish wrestling, in which the combatants fought in a pile of fish. Challengers were called from the audience to the ring; this was especially popular when a woman wrestler was in the ring.
How does the documentary deal with this? It doesn't. We are told that wrestling attendance declined during the Thirties but not why. Thesz tells us that guys were forced to lose to wrestlers they could beat in order to get a paycheck. As if that never happened before. Or since. We are also told the story of the drunken press agent who mistakenly sent out the evening's results to the papers before the matches began - wrestling's version of the urban myth - and thereby ruined wrestling for everyone. In actuality, sportswriters took sadistic delight in getting the results beforehand and publishing them in the early evening edition. This form of enjoyment began with Dan Parker of the New York Mirror. Parker got the information from Jack Pfeffer, who at one time or another during the Thirties, was on the outs with every major promoter in the city and hence looking for revenge. No doubt this hurt, given the economic climate. But wrestling also contributed to its demise in New York. The Danno O'Mahoney-Shikat and Ali Baba-Dave Levin matches were public embarrassments. The final nail in the coffin came with the death of promoter Jack Curley. Curley had the political connections necessary to keep the political wolves from the doors. One of his great moves was allying himself with the Hearst Fresh Milk Fund, guaranteeing free publicity and support from the Hearst media chain. Curley's successors lacked his magic touch and soon found themselves squeezed from the Garden by political opponents. Tex Rickard, Garden boxing promoter, was said to have borne a grudge against Curley for a part Curley supposedly played years ago when Rickard was denied a wrestling promoter's license, and when the chance came, Rickard helped squeeze the boys from the Garden.
So far the special has covered wrestling from the Greeks to the Forties in only 30 minutes, one-fourth of its allotted two hours. But as we shall see next issue the best is yet to come.
Unreal Stories, Part II
This column appeared in Wrestling Perspective, Volume IX, Issue 76. Copyright © 1998 Wrestling Perspective.
When we last left The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling, we saw 3,500 years of wrestling neatly packaged into 30 minutes. The remaining 90 minutes are dedicated to the postwar era. Why the disparity? The answer is simple: Television. Footage. The special is downright dependent on this footage, and the closer we get to our era, the more footage we see, even though there was just as much from the early days of televised wrestling. The producers were just too lazy to dig.
One of the resident academics, Michael Ball, opens the segment with a dull and facile diatribe on the importance of television for wrestling. One doesn't have to be a Ph.D. to figure out the importance of wrestling for television. What Ball doesn't mention is the reverse: The effect of television on wrestling, which was far greater. Of course, having read his "work," this does not surprise me. Ball, like fellow academic Gerald Morton, is nothing more than a learned kayfabe, too dazzled by the sleight of hand, and the study of the sleight of hand, to notice anything else.
Lou Thesz becomes the focal point, and rightly so, for Thesz was the dominant wrestler of the First Television Era, a term coined by noted historian J. Michael Kenyon and not mentioned on this special. That era ran from 1945 to 1960. The documentary calls Thesz "the most watched man in America." due to the popularity of televised wrestling. Not true. Thesz was perhaps the most watched champion in America, but the most watched man was Gorgeous George. Comedians of that era, such as Bob Hope and Jack Benny, frequently mentioned the Gorgeous One in their monologues. I don't remember anyone ever mentioning Thesz.
The documentary now goes completely loopy in explaining George. It states that he was a trained psychiatrist, which is not even close to true. If anything, George belonged on the shrink's couch. His gimmick, extreme for the time, contributed to a drinking problem that eventually drove him from the mat and contributed to an early death in 1963. Steve Allen notes that George "could wrestle, too." No, he couldn't. George's skill was his gimmick; in the ring, he was just another run-of-the-mill journeyman. Of course, compared to the stiffs of today, George comes off like Thesz. Verne Gagne -- who, I believe, comes to us through the Mike Chapman connection -- notes that George was the first bleached blond character in wrestling. Killer Kowalski states that George was the first wrestler to use television to get himself over.
Also mentioned is Buddy Rogers, who, we are told, called himself "Nature Boy." Again, not true. Jack Pfeffer gave him that tag in the late Forties. It was then mentioned that Rogers was the greatest "performer" of this period. This is open to debate, for it depends on one's viewpoint. From the inside, the boys themselves, Rogers was the greatest. But what was Rogers, really? Just a macho imitation of Gorgeous George. George was a national attraction, Rogers was not. George could command as much as 50 to 60 percent of the gate where he appeared. Rogers could not ever hope to get that much. Rogers, however, was far and away the better worker, and he lasted a lot longer than George did. The reason I listed George as the greater showman was because I feel that if there were no Gorgeous George, there would have been no "Nature Boy." Nature Boy really didn't blossom until the mid-to late-Fifties. By the way, the best line of the Rogers segment was Fabulous Moolah mentioning that Rogers had a beautiful natural body. I thought that funny given the bodies in a bottle of today.
Other things I found odd during this segment: the claim that Thesz sold out Madison Square Garden two times. No, the Garden was one of the few places where Thesz did not do well, not even against Antonino Rocca. Considering the heat between him and Toots Mondt, who ran wrestling in the Garden, I can't imagine Lou taking that well. I did get a kick out of Thesz demeaning Rocca's abilities in the ring, rightly calling him an acrobat, and not a wrestler, but had to laugh when he followed that up with the statement that Rocca was someone Thesz considered a nice guy. Read my interview with Thesz in Wrestling Perspective #50 for the real story. That said, I can't find it in my heart to rip Lou for showing class on television, considering Rocca isn't here to defend himself.
Ethnic villains are discussed next with the same degree of accuracy. Hans Schmidt is mentioned as the first "Nazi" wrestler. Again, not true. Karl Von Hess was the first to do those honors. But again, Schmidt is big, bald, and looked thoroughly nasty. Match the man to the myth and keep in mind that Von Hess was never very popular with the powers that be. The most important part of wrestling is the politics involved. In fact, this is the undercurrent a perceptive viewer will pick up. The funniest part of this discussion is Ball's assertion that the Iron Sheik had been a successful villain in the Fifties and Sixties. Obviously Ball is confusing the Iron Sheik with the Sheik of Araby, Ed Farhat, the Original Sheik. Don't you just love someone who knows his subject? A perfect case of not seeing the trees in the forest.
We now shift gears to the women wrestlers. Mildred Burke is mentioned, but in a left-handed way as a cultural phenomenon and not as a performer. Burke, who would have been great in any period, was truly superb in her own day, which was a sort of "golden age" of women's wrestling, especially compared with today. (Excepting Japan, of course, but Japanese women wrestlers have rarely fared well over here.) Burke's championship reign is seemingly attributed to the fact she married promoter Billy Wolfe, and she is said to have retired undefeated. The real facts are far more "unreal" than what passes muster on The Unreal Story. To say Wolfe had a wandering eye was an understatement: he used his wrestling school as a harem. He also left Burke stone broke at the time of their divorce, palming her off to the management of his son as the marriage deteriorated. Burke was also jobbed out of her title in a scenario not unlike that of Bret Hart and Vince McMahon, although the Georgia Athletic Commission ruled it a draw. It didn't matter anyway, because Pfeffer was about to put over his old valet, Slave Girl Moolah, as the champion in a tournament in Baltimore in 1956. Pfeffer changed her name to The Fabulous Moolah and thus she became Junior Heavyweight Women's Champion of the world, although the "Junior" was quickly dropped when Moolah and then husband Buddy Lee grabbed control of her career from Pfeffer. Of course, Moolah claims never to have been beaten for the title and it is amazing her nose didn't grow wild during that statement. How could she say that she's never been beaten? Simple. Wrestling results are in the minutia of sports history, buried in the back pages of microfilmed sports sections. Not easy for the layman, and often difficult for the historian to find. You won't find any record of Moolah's losses in an easy-to-find reference work on wrestling because none exist. That includes her losses in the WWF during the eighties and her losses in Japan. This is wrestling, and in wrestling, the survivors write the past.
Midget wrestling is glossed over, and in this case, rightly so. The midgets never really did anything for me and I always looked at their matches as a signal to go to the bathroom. The only midget match I ever enjoyed was when six midgets took on Haystacks Calhoun in a handicap bout. That was fun. Fred Blassie had the perfect take on the women and midgets when he said that they were very popular when they started, but the more people saw them, the less interest they were able to sustain. Blassie compared it with eating steak every night. Soon you get tired of steak. Fred is completely right, of course, and it is worth noting that neither of the resident academic "experts," Ball and Morton, said it. They were too busy giving esoteric reasons why a certain heel was over while another was not. In any case, midget wrestling is superfluous in today's modern age. In the Fifties and Sixties the midgets provided a sort of comedy relief from the men's athletic contests. Today, wrestling is comedy relief. Who needs the midgets when you've got Goldust and the Ultimate Warrior?
We are now informed that, due to overexposure (I guess; they never make it quite clear) the networks dumped wrestling. After 10 years on top, wrestling returned to its regional roots, according to the documentary. Promoters established territories and named their own champions. Now there's something new. This happened around 1960. Yet later, as a prelude for extolling Vince McMahon Jr., we are told that "wrestling had always been ruled by promoters who controlled their regions like barons. Each region had its own stars and championship belt. It was considered nothing short of an act war to cross boundaries without permission." So which is it? Actually, it was both. Wrestling, like boxing, like baseball, etc., had always been ruled by promoters. However, until 1948, boundaries had been considered flexible. In New York, Jack Curley shared his turf with Rudy Dusek and the Johnston Brothers. In 1948, spurred on the by the television boom and the changing tastes of the postwar public, the NWA was formed. Membership in this august organization meant that your territory was sacrosanct; there would be no invasion from another promoter. If anything, this business model had its origins in that of one Charles "Lucky" Luciano, organized crime genius. Like Luciano's model, the NWA was a cartel, a monopoly. One of the most unreal stories in wrestling was the 1956 federal antitrust suit against the NWA. This served as the catalyst for the eventual formation of the AWA. This story was apparently too unreal for the producers; in fact, I doubt whether they even knew it happened.
The Sixties and Seventies are treated simply as the prelude to the 80s. Wrestling hit rock bottom in the Sixties, re-grouped during the Eighties, and came out on top once again in the Eighties. At least that's the story as presented to us. Of course, to do this, one must make omissions, such as the Funks, Briscos, Von Erichs, Ray Stevens, and many others. The biggest omission, and the one that's been most discussed, is that of Bruno Sammartino. How does one skip over not only the biggest name of the Sixties, but also one of the biggest names who ever lived? Sheldon Goldberg told me he had discussed Bruno but the producers due to time constraints cut it. Possible, but not probable. I spoke about this with Bruno himself and he told me he thought McMahon was behind it. One could simply blow this off as Bruno's paranoia. However, consider McMahon supplied the footage necessary if this thing was going to fly the way producers set it up. Add the fact that McMahon controls the WWF footage from the Sixties, where we would see Bruno at his best, and Sammartino seems way more prescient than paranoid. I believe he's right.
Of course, our resident academics must be heard. Ball provides commentary on how the Germans and Japanese were replaced as villains during this period by the likes of the Iron Sheik and Nicoli Volkoff. Ball, believing he has insight into what's going on, is as simpleminded as a 10-year old mark. For Ball, because wrestling draws from the working class and teenagers, it must therefore be simplistic and all answers in black and white. But in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter article, Dave Meltzer, in a brilliant riposte, points out that the big heel draws were not the ethnic types like the Sheik and Hans Schmidt, but "arrogant types with a lot of heel charisma from Rogers to Stevens to Blassie to Piper to DX and NWO." Actually, it goes back further than that. Consider types like Dick Raines and Bill Longson from the Thirties and Forties, who honed their art before television came along (The Wrestling Observer Newsletter is available from Dave Meltzer at PO Box 1228, Campbell, CA, 95009. $10 for four issues.)
The stories get stranger from here on. One of the most bizarre is how "television changed wrestling into rasslin'" and the real wrestlers couldn't squawk because they had been in arranged matches from the time of Strangler Lewis." This reminds me of something one says when one has nothing to say, but feels compelled to say something. Television changed wrestling - more than they know - but it didn't turn it into "rasslin'." "Rasslin'" was a term first used by sportswriters in the 20s to describe the antics in the ring and to mock its enthusiasts, who were usually of the lower socio-economic rung of the ladder and who pronounced the word "wrestling" in just that way. In other words, "rasslin'" was around long before television, and the academics, discovered it.
But wait, it gets even sillier. In the build-up to the modern day spectacle, the past, and the reality of the past, must be jettisoned: "With competition removed from the equation, titles weren't important anymore. But, then, if the outcome didn't matter, what was the point? There had to be something at stake, didn't there? The answer . . . had been there all the time . . . (TV) had only underscored what the fans had instinctively recognized - wrestling was not about athletic competition and championship titles. Wrestling was a passion play, depicting the never-ending conflict between good and evil." An unreal story if there was one. Titles have and will always matter to wrestling, for they provide what Alfred Hitchcock call the "macguffin," the rationale that sets up the drama. Wrestling is about athletics and championship titles, the title, or macguffin in this case, acts as a Holy Grail and provides the basis for the struggle between good and evil to control it. That is the way Mondt set up wrestling and that is the way it works to this day.
It is exactly at this point that the documentary truly lives up to its name as it presents the most unreal story of all: That of Vince McMahon Jr. One gets the feeling that the previous hour or so was simply used as a build-up to the contemporary scene. In a very real sense, who can blame them? Professional wrestling is unique, for out of all the major professional sports; it has no real history. It can truly be said to exist only for the time period in which it is taking place, sort of an eternal now. Once an angle has run its course, it is stored away to be recycled years down the road. Neither it nor its participants to be remembered if it can be helped. To remember something is to spend time thinking about that something, and this is precisely what wrestling wishes to avoid. It's the old carny philosophy: "What the suckers don't know can't hurt you."
McMahon's story is all encompassing as it includes the sub-texts of Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. Andre's story is told in the style that one might use when discussing Paul Bunyan or Odysseus. We are told that Andre was 7'4" (in reality about 6'10"). We are told the stories of his supposedly prodigious drinking, the 100-bottles-of-beer-at-a-sitting story. Of course, the old saw that Andre could beat anyone anytime he really wanted to, yada, yada, yada. That myth died hard with Akira Maeda. But, again, it doesn't matter. The content of the story is secondary to and dependent on the presentation of the story. The medium is indeed the message.
McMahon is presented as the greatest genius ever to promote a wrestling card. The way it comes off, both Andre and Hogan were his creations. He's given credit for localized television interviews (actually begun in the Fifties, as cut-ins on the national shows from Chicago), syndication of pro wrestling tapes (a Sixties invention), and the concept of going national. Supposedly, when he bought the WWF from his father, Senior had no idea Junior was going to declare war on his fellow chiselers. But, it has been documented that Senior knew, and thus if not openly, at least tacitly agreed with Junior's plan. By the way, Vince's method of gaining control from his fellow promoters strangely echoes the plan of mob boss Vito Genovese, who ousted both Albert Anastasia and Frank Costello to gain control of his mob family. Genovese used Vincent "Chin" Gigante as his gunsel while McMahon used Hulk Hogan as his, although in different ways, of course.
Hogan is presented as a savvy, charismatic, clean-cut All-American type; not as a wrestler. Lou Thesz mentions that Hogan has only one move, the legdrop, "which my grandmother could do better." In the most idiotic statement of the night, Michael Ball refers to Hogan as "a good role model for kids." The Dead End Kids, maybe. Ball also appears to be oblivious to Hogan's heel turn.
In the finale, the wrestling war between Vince and Ted Turner is discussed. Suffice it to say this war has already been covered to death in other publications. The only thing worth mentioning in all this is that what we are led to believe is that Vince invented wrestling as entertainment and Turner invented WCW as an answer to Vince. Our academics are nowhere to be found here, and that is just as well. The last image they have is of Morton being body-slammed and stomped by Moolah and Mae Young, and I'm not going to comment on the Freudian aspects of that one.
Was it worth it? Well, it was entertaining in its own strange way. However, for all the added touches by our pseudo-intellectual sociologists Morton and Ball, The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling is little more than the same old kayfabe version of wrestling we've seen in wrestling magazines and books down through the years: No less, and certainly no more. Left unspoken is the tremendous effect television had on wrestling itself. Television did much more than simply change aspects of the game -- it changed the game itself. Wrestling adapted itself not only to the technical confines of television, but also to the cultural confines. It became more of a soap opera, and with a weekly show, better able to adapt to the cultural wind of the moment. Characters came not from the headlines, but from the movies and comic books. This movement within the game is the stuff of . . . the stuff of . . . Why, it's the stuff of sociology. So why didn't our resident sociologists mention this? Because they were too busy showing us in the audience how much they didn't know about wrestling.
The Phantom of the Ring is a regular contributor to Wrestling Perspective. To read more of his great columns, subscribe to Wrestling Perspective.
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