When Major League Baseball
retired Jackie Robinsonís number in 1998, a survey showed that numerous
baseball players, including several minority participants, had never heard
of the legendary Dodger who broke the gameís color barrier. If you surveyed
today's professional wrestlers about Frank Gotch, George Hackenschmidt,
Strangler Lewis or even Lou Thesz, the results would be similar or worse.
Perhaps that can be excused. After all, Gotch, Hackenschmidt, and Lewis
were pre-World War II attractions and Theszís prime was well before todayís
wrestlers were born. But what about some of the biggest headliners during
the Sixties and Seventies? Most of the names from 30 or 40 years ago would
register blanks on the faces of todayís wrestlers. How about some of the
most well respected trainers in the business? Many of todayís wrestlers
have no idea that their trainers - Dory Funk Jr., Les Thatcher, Tom Pritchard
and Danny Davis - were once stars in this business.
"Of the people who come to me for
training, very few know I was a wrestler," said Thatcher, who runs Cincinnati's
Main Event Pro Wrestling Camp, which has been profiled on numerous national
television programs including 20/20. "They know my reputation as a trainer.
They have some sense of my history. The odd kid here and there will amaze
you with how much history (he has). But for the most part, a large percentage
donít know I ever wrestled."
Itís not exclusive to Thatcherís
students. Those who have daily dealings with todayís performers say, for
the most part, that their knowledge of the business begins with Hulk Hogan
and the early Wrestlemanias.
"Most people in the business have
no concept of the history," said David Meltzer, editor and publisher of
the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "When it comes to wrestling, thereís
so much history. The last 15, 18 years, we know the history. You go back
any further and itís a collection of stories that may or may not be true
told by the survivors romanticizing it."
Or as the Phantom of the Ring noted,
wrestling doesnít have a history, it has a past.
As part of his training program,
Thatcher often shows videotapes of great wrestling matches from the Sixties
through the Eighties. The reason is simple: Although the styles and the
fansí reactions are different than compared to today, there is much to
be learned from those who came before Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and
"I think knowing history can help
you build a promo or an interview," Thatcher said. "You can make comparisons.
I see a lot of value in that. Whatís possible, if they would do it, is
you can go back and some of the things that were commonplace during my
era would be brand new today. Sometimes Iíll show these kids a little something
and theyíll just be amazed by it. Even something I probably did three times
a week, year-round 30 years ago."
One of the tapes Thatcher shows is
the classic June 30, 1961 National Wrestling Alliance world title match
at Chicagoís Comiskey Park between Buddy Rogers, who Thatcher grew up idolizing,
and Pat OíConnor.
Thatcher warns his students not to
look for high spots. "I tell them, ĎYouíre not going to see any huracanranas,
no moonsaults, no fireworks. But what youíre going to see is facial expressions,
body language, timing and psychology. Now sit down and absorb this and
take it and modify it to fit the stuff youíre doing today. If the stuff
youíre doing today is good without it, it will be sensational with it.í
There are a lot of things to draw on the history of this business. A lot
of comparisons could be made if weíre talking about suspending disbelief,
which is the key to professional wrestling."
Although there are advantages to
wrestlers knowing and understanding history, Meltzer said it is critical
to a companyís success that the people in charge know and understand the
history of this business and have the ability to use that history to make
todayís product better.
"If youíre a ball player, all you
need is the ability to play," he said. "You donít need to know baseball
history if youíre a great baseball player. But if youíre a manager of teams
and you have no concept of strategies that work or donít work, youíre probably
in the hole a little bit. If you have a general manager with no clue as
to how to build a franchise, youíre going to be in trouble in the long
In many ways, that is a key reason
why the World Wrestling Federation is at an all-time high, selling out
arenas, drawing solid television ratings and strong pay-per-view and merchandising
numbers. It is also a major shortcoming of World Championship Wrestling,
which is experiencing record financial losses, embarrassingly-low PPV buy
rates and TV ratings, and has all but completely canceled its once-thriving
house show business.
According to Meltzer, having Vince
McMahon Jr., Pat Patterson, Gerald Brisco, Jim Ross, Michael Hayes and
other experienced wrestling people filter the storylines given to them
by WWF writers is invaluable to the company.
"I think itís good to have creative
guys," he said. "I think (WCW Head Writer Vince) Russo is creative as all
hell. But heís a complete moron because he doesnít know the first thing
about wrestling. I donít want to say those guys (in the WWF) were covering
for him. He was in the right position in that company. In the WWF, they
have a team of writers and those writers have no sense of history. Theyíre
just throwing out ideas."
Before ideas ever make it to the
air, they go through wrestling veterans Ross, McMahon or Patterson. Because
they each have more than 20 years of experience in the wrestling business,
they can weed out ideas that they know their wrestling audience won't buy.
Though the days of having wrestling
people writing the day-to-day story ideas for the major promotions may
be a thing of the past, people with wrestling experience are a vital cog
in the process. The recent Taz-Jim Ross-Jerry Lawler angle, which is eerily
similar to the legendary Don Muraco-Gordon Solie-Roddy Piper angle from
nearly two decades ago, is a perfect example.
"I think the filter of someone who
is there week in and week out and has the knowledge and experience, they
may not be the best person to write the story, but theyíre the best person
to filter the story to make sure the stupid stuff doesnít make the air
too often," Meltzer said. "I guess the better word would be the stuff that
works against the progress of your product because you can put stupid stuff
on the air and itís just kind of there. I donít think it really hurts.
You can put stupid stuff on the undercard. Itís still the main event that
still draws the interest. But if you mess with your main event, like the
David Arquette thing for example, now youíre messing with the money part
of the show. All of a sudden when you do that, you have people going, ĎWhoa,
wait a minute. This is not good for our product.í"
WCW certainly has people in the front
office who understand wrestling including Terry Taylor, J.J. Dillon, and
Jimmy Hart. But those with that knowledge are not in any positions of power.
"The guy who has the absolute power,
Brad Siegel, obviously has no clue," Meltzer said. "You canít be an administrator
from another business and understand wrestling because itís completely
different. The (number of) people who are in wrestling who fully understand
it is pretty low right now. Youíre getting some executive from the television
world being bamboozled by some guy who can throw out a good line even if
the line doesnít make any sense. Itís like the Kevin Nash lines. He can
come up with all these lines and rationales, but when you examine them,
do they make sense?"
Having no concept of wrestlingís
history does not allow a company to exploit the successful angles of the
past and avoid repeating the disastrous ones.
"Itís sad because (WCW) repeats so
many of the mistakes that they should have avoided," Meltzer said. "I see
it in WCW five times on every show. The total ignorance of history does
lead you to repeat mistakes. Obviously, the fans are different now than
the fans of years ago. But some things that didnít work then still arenít
going to work today. The actual psychology of wrestling, I donít know that
itís changed. Itís got to be faster paced and there are certain production
values they didnít have back then that you need now as in football or anything.
But the basic what-gets-people-to-buy-tickets is similar. Itís hard to
explain what it is. You know what it is and I know what it is. Putting
it into words is hard."
But you know it when you see it.
"If you watch the TV and thereís
something in your gut going, ĎIíve got to see this match,í obviously, it
succeeded," he said. "It was the same 30 years ago. When itís in your gut
and youíre watching it going, ĎTheyíve hyped this and I want to see it,í
thatís all it is. Thatís simply what pro wrestling is. Having people gripped
by it. Whether itís a soap opera storyline or two guys colliding in a match.
When Iím watch Raw and they build up an hour into the show and Iím really
into the match that theyíre going to put on the end, eight times out of
10, the next day, the ratings come in and theyíre through the roof. When
Iím not, eight times out of 10, the ratings are average."
Because so much of wrestling is recycled
or taken from previous angles, it is vital to a companyís success to understand
what has happened in the past.
"Letís say there was a show whether
it be Shea Stadium in 1980 or shows that did good business," Meltzer said.
"If you watch the six weeks of TV or four weeks of TV leading to that and
you figure out what they did to get so many people interested, I think
you can learn a hell of a lot from that. For me to sit back and watch something
like that is a good refresher course. Also, look at the TVís of the stuff
that didnít work and go, ĎOkay, this didnít work. Maybe we should learn
why this didnít work.í"
While todayís wrestlers do not know
the names of the legends of the Fifties, Sixties or Seventies, many wrestler's
from that era have little to no knowledge about current performers. Most
retired or soon-to-be retired wrestlers interviewed over the past decade
by Wrestling Perspective say they do not follow todayís product, nor do
they have any interest in it. Others in the business who have spoken to
former and older wrestlers echo my sentiments.
The reasons as to why they do not
watch are various. Some, such as former WWF Champion Bruno Sammartino,
are turned off by the over-emphasis on theatrics and soap-opera-style and
oftentimes tasteless storylines that leave less and less time for actual
wrestling matches. Some are upset about those involved in the business
publicly saying itís all a work. Some have just moved on with their lives.
Others are jealous of the success and money achieved by todayís top performers,
some who obtained it without the benefit of much wrestling ability.
"Iím not going to name names because
these people I love dearly, friends," said Thatcher, one of the few retired
wrestlers who has been able to keep pace with wrestling over the past few
decades. "My adjusting has caused me some real headaches with my friends.
What I mean by that is this: I broke into this business when you protected
it. It was tough for me to open up on my radio show and to talk about finishes
and angles and talk openly. But now, I wouldnít have it any other way.
Yet there are guys such as one Iíve known for 20 years or more who Iíve
never had a cross word with who virtually wonít speak to me because of
what I said on 20/20. I said, ĎMan, are you crazy?í when he first
said it to me. I thought he was ribbing. A lot of older guys donít watch
it. I donít know if I would or not if I wasnít still involved."
Many former wrestlers simply donít
agree with the changes in the business. The rules of the wrestling business
were different. Matches and the finishes were important. Today the matches
are often incidental to the storyline. Sex is sold as often as violence.
Add in a dozen run-ins on a Monday night show, and no real finishes, and
the product is barely recognizable to many retired wrestlers
Despite that, Thatcher said it surprises
him that so many of his former wrestling colleagues do not watch todayís
"We did some goofy things,"
Thatcher said. "We had a more realistic style. Thereís no two ways about
it. But a lot of the things we did in the Seventies wouldnít have been
accepted in the Fifties. I know some of the things we did in the Sixties
that Karl Gotch was not happy with. I know there were things that Thesz
wasnít happy with. But that wasnít the point. He was making his living
in this business so he adjusted as well. These guys who arenít making the
adjustments arenít in the business. They donít have to work in it. I can
maintain that whole (kayfabe) thing, but Iíd be so embarrassed if I did
and where would my school be?"
A former old-time wrestler "was out
of his mind" the first time he saw the Headbangers wearing skirts in the
ring, Thatcher said. "I said, ĎListen, I was the same way at first. It
rubbed against my grain. But the uniqueness of it now is these guys can
actually wrestle.í When you first see them, youíre offended and then when
you see they can wrestle and then they flaunt the way they look at you,
thatís stronger heat. Just like Gorgeous George."
Although money for wrestlers in the
two largest United States promotions is better than it was in the Seventies,
there were more wrestlers making a living in the business back then than
"Nobody ever made $10 million, but
we werenít paupers," Thatcher said. "In the little Knoxville territory
in Southeastern in the mid-Seventies, the top guys were doing between $60,000
and $70,000 and they were home every night. Your longest trip was probably
125 miles. That kind of money back then, that was serious change. Thatís
about $150,000 to $200,000 now. My feeling as an old-timer is I donít begrudge
these guys the money if they can get it. I begrudge the fact that some
of them donít want to work for it. Thatís my problem. I donít care if they
get it. I say that not just about wrestlers. I say that about football
players, baseball players and actors."
A mutual respect between old and
new can only benefit this business. Todayís wrestling performers and officials
can learn a lot from those who came before them. If other promotions followed
the WWFís example of hiring former wrestlers who have great minds for the
business and the ability to successfully change with the times, they might
not find themselves struggling to stay afloat. WCW could easily turn to
Terry Funk or give Terry Taylor more control. Instead, they continue to
allow Russo, Nash and their cronies to lead them further into a hole.
"You need to have some sense of history
and respect it," Thatcher said. "Itís all about teaching psychology. People
respond to it. I donít care if itís 1932 or 2000. Thatís what people respond
to. Itís still the same. Thatís all there is to it. Itís that simple and
why are we trying to make it so hard? I donít know."
David Skolnick's articles are
a regular feature of Wrestling Perspective.
To read more of his great articles,
subscribe to Wreslting Perspective today.
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This article is Copyright ©
2000, 2001 Wrestling Perspective
Footnotes/Endnotes for this article
should read as follows:
Skolnick, David, "The Founding Father,"
Volume XI, Number 87, (2000): 1