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Does History Repeat Itself?

By David Skolnick

This article firstappeared in Wrestling Perspective, Volume XI, Issue 87. 

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 Lex Luger.

"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 run."

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 performers.

 "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 now.

"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," Wrestling Perspective,
Volume XI, Number 87, (2000): 1 - 3.

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