THE UNREAL STORY OF PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING
Alright, so back in 1998, A&E produced a special about professional wrestling. Steve Allen, who went on to be one of wrestling's biggest opposition with the PTC provided an insightful, if not a little bland overlook at the world wrestling. When I originally picked this up from Columbia House I wasn't big into wrestling history so I figured it would provide me with a look. It offered me a MUCH deeper look than I'd anticipated!
We start out with various clips of today's wrestling, and a look back at the past in about a minute.
Opening montage includes looks from "newspapers" at black and white clips of huge matches from the past.
Allen suggests alot of people watch wrestling but don't admit it. What are we watching? And why aren't the results in newspapers? Are there any rules? And why isn't the ref enforcing them? How many championships are there? Who's a good guy? Who's not? What do the hand signals mean? Does it hurt? And is it a fake sport? When did it stop being real? Was it EVER real?
A bunch of "in the know" people suggest it's a mix of entertainment and glamour. But DDP suggests other sports are entertainment with Rodman and Deon Sanders. Jerry Lawler calls it a soap opera.
Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan say they're the greatest entertainers and athletes in the world. Verne Gagne suggests we have judges based on how good the wrestlers are. One fan says it's too fake today. Another one suggests to step in the ring and see how fake it is!
Check out Jarrett with the hair! He says some people will believe it no matter what, and others will not believe no matter what.
Gagne says there's no rules, whereas in football you'd know it if someone broke a rule.
Flashback 100 years, when wrestling was the biggest spectator sport in the world. Frank Gotch, and George Hackenschmidt were 2 of the biggest names from when wrestling was scientific and dignified.
Some argue wrestling's the oldest sport on the planet. Others suggest running, but Allen suggests it's easier to picture cavemen fighting rather than run to settle a score.
Greeks and Romans had Greco-Roman style and original shoot fighting which often lead to death. Plato was a wrestler. Japan had sumo wrestling. India had "The King Of Games" where matches lasted for hours. Native Americans wrestled before we landed on the continent. In Ireland, they settled alot with wrestling. When immigrants landed in Vermont they brought it with them.
Presidents who were wrestlers: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Zachary Taylor, William Howard Taft, and Calvin Coolidge. Lincoln wrestled over 300 matches. Legend has it Lincoln once wrestled during the Indian wars to see who would command the unit, and he won.
It was also a popular event during the wars to pass the time.
By the time of the 20th century, it was a big sport. The spread of info by newspapers and magazines made it possible for a World Champion. Europe was huge on wrestling. Alot of men there made claim to being the World Champion. George Hackenschmidt was the best wrestler in Europe. So the US wanted a guy to go up against him in a World Title bout. His only move was a bearhug but because he was so strong when he hit it the guys would tap immediately. He was considered unbeatable.
He wrestled Frank Gotch upon arriving in American in 1908. Gotch went for the stepover toehold at the 2 hour and 3 minute mark and Hackenschmidt gave up his title.
Gotch was the turn of the century Hulk Hogan. Hackenschmidt later complained that he'd lost cause Gotch oiled himself and could slip away. 33,000 showed up for the 1911 rematch at Comisky Park. Gotch hired a German wrestler to cripple Hackenschmidt. During a training session the guy tore up Hackenschmidt's knee. Gotch would retain the title. The fans went home disappointed. However, the gate brought in $90,000.
The media got word of the manipulations and the fans turned away. Besides, the matches were too long. When Gotch retired as World Champion 4 years later, papers were no longer covering the sport.
Touring carnivals ran wrestling shows. Con men carried athletic shows. They would dress the wrestlers in colorful costumes and invent backgrounds. The wrestlers accepted all challenges. Since they had no interest in losing money, they always carried a hooker to cripple the really tough challengers. Lou Thesz lists off a whole bunch of guys.
The shooter was carried as well, but he was a tough guy who could simply carry themselves in matches. And the journeymen were the low guys in the shows, who were usually just toughmen or ex-football players.
Wrestling would go from town to town, and would start promoting shows in their carved out territories. The fans weren't sure what was on the level and what was not. Between 1910 - 1915 Ed "The Strangler" Louis from Wisconsin toured Europe. He got his nickname from his sleeper hold because it was illegal in the US. When Louis used it in Paris, he was dubbed "Le Strangler".
The first thing a promoter did was create titles and get a champion. Promoters feared Louis because he could win any title at any time if he wanted to. He went to Chicago and teamed up with a manager and promoter and they managed to turn wrestling into a big business. The promoter was convinced the public didn't appreciate technical contests so he shortened them up and added time limits with flashy moves. In 1921 Louis won the World Title in a legit contest. The promoters knew the title had to be moved around to keep the fans interested. And it didn't matter if Louis lost it because he could win it back at anytime he wanted to.
Shoot wrestling was becoming less common. Only when territory boundries or to settle a feud were they in place.
Jim Laundas was a wrestler who was mediocre but could draw a crowd based on his looks. He would match himself with the ugliest guys he could find for the Beauty and the Beast effect. He brought women back to the crowds.
One promoter who was ousted from his comrades in New York, called up the newspapers and revealed the secrets of wrestling. Gates dropped off to nothing! The lowpoint came one night when a drunken press agent sent out wrestling results for the NEXT DAY. It was becoming a laughingstock.
In 1936, Ed Louis wrestled a workout match with Lou Thesz. Thesz had the charisma and talent. He was the champ who would only lose when he wanted to. He was the youngest champion ever at age 21. Thesz said if they money was there, wrestling would be.
In 1938 a show at MSG drew less than 5000 people, and wouldn't return for a long time. Wrestling was dying.
TV saved wrestling. It brought it back to the mainstream. Watching TV was a family experience. Lou Thesz became the most watched wrestler in America. The sport was brought back to the centre stage.
Television brought big flamboyant characters. Killer Kowalski stated that making people notice you was what it was all about. Thesz said that suddenly you could hype events at a much faster speed. What used to take 6 months now took 2 weeks.
Freddie Blassie was in California when TV came along. People would watch wrestling in the windows of stores, jamming the streets. This was during the era of Gorgeous George and Freddie Blassie.
Gorgeous George was a big heel right after WW2, when America was at it's most macho. He was prissy, throwing bobby pins out to the crowd. Someone would touch him and he'd yell "get your filthy hands off of me!". He could wrestle, but more importantly he could get over. George once put his hair on the line and lost. He demanded a rematch and put his wife's hair on the line...and lost again!
"The Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers was another great performer. He'd walk down the aisle and everyone wanted him dead. Moolah says he had a beautiful natural body and that's what pissed people off, because he had something to show off. Buddy Rogers was the first guy who caught the eye of Ric Flair.
Verne Gagne wrestled Thesz on at least 6 occassions, and went 90 minutes on at least 4 occassions. In those days, some of the vets would kick the crap out of the young kids. Vince McMahon said there's a fine line with hurting someone, and not. Verne said in that biz you had to grow up in a hurry.
Television also added the interview. It helped you see another side of the wrestler. People could tell their stories. The wrestlers who could do a good interview would be more successful. Sergeant Slaughter said promos are how you make most of your money.
Killer Kowalski got his name from ripping off someone's ear in Montreal from a kneedrop off the ropes. Gorilla Monsoon's reaction "It happens!". Ouch! Verne said the ref picked it up, and the ear was still quivering and it was kinda eerie.
Hans Schmidt was a big heel in the 50's because it was immediately after WW2 and he was German. Or was he? He was supposed to be a Nazi. We destest them because they're evil. He was actually a french Canadian.
Freddie Blassie says he was well liked but he didn't think much of the fans so he decided to shoot with them. He was stabbed over 21 times, had acid thrown on him, had his car keyed up. Because they loved him.
Women wrestling got it's start in the carnivals as well. When Moolah broke in back in 1754 (or the 40's, whatever) there was only a few women in wrestling. Moolah was the slave girl to the Elephant Boy. She was later Buddy Rogers' second. She won the title in 1956. She claims to still be the champ cause she never lost the title. She says just cause she's mean and ugly in the ring doesn't mean she's like that outside it.
Promoters who remembered the days before TV, kept things local. So they stayed on local TV. Wrestling was back to regional. Each region had it's stars and belts. Monsoon was a superheavyweight when people really wanted to see them. Midgets were also a good side attraction. But when overdone, people got tired of them.
Real wrestlers didn't need help. But others started using weapons and gimmickry. It was started being declared "wrasslin'". Lawler says fans react more to your reaction than the match result itself. If the outcome doesn't matter, what was it? Wrestling's about passion. Good vs. Evil.
Jarrett says the better the heel, the more the fans are going to get behind the face. A good example is the Iron Sheik, who would wave the flag of Iran in the middle of the ring. Sergeant Slaughter went after him and the fans ate it up. The war was going on right in front of the fans. The Patriot says that wrestling is a reflection of society. Using Austin as an example, people want to be him. The guy who doesn't take crap from anyone and does what he wants. Shawn Michaels says 10 years ago, he's a face. But today, his attitude pisses off fans because things change.
Dr. Gerald Morton says when you go to a movie premier and shake hands with a movie star, you're shaking hands with the star, not the character. But when you shake hands with Flair, you're shaking hands with Flair the performer, not the man. It has to do with our suspension of disbelief. Vince McMahon tries to bring that to his shows.
Andre The Giant was over 6 feet tall at age 12. He wrestled in France as The Butcher. He was 7 foot 4 when it was all said and done and had twice as many teeth as anyone. He once drank 114 beers in one sitting and had wine with dinner. If something annoyed him, watch out! During a traffic altercation he once turned another car upside down. Andre was a quiet and nice guy. But he didn't know his own strength. He was the biggest thing in wrestling.
In the 70's, Vince McMahon bought the WWF from his father Vince Sr. He wanted to take the formula his dad used and expand it to a national level. He used video tape and shipped them across the country and other promoters were pissed. He said his dad wouldn't have sold him the business had he known what he was doing. Other promoters were calling up his dad and threatening and his dad was worried Vince Jr. was going to wind up dead. Bischoff blesses cable television saying he'd have another job if it wasn't for cable. Vince says he was the first guy to admit wrestling wasn't real, but rather entertainment. Fans respected that. Vince went after the top wrestlers in other promotions. Verne mentions he had Hogan and Vince had to have him.
Hogan had charisma that no one had ever had before. Vince Sr. gave him the name Hulk Hogan. The Giant loves wrestling him because of the energy he brings. Thesz said he's not a wrestler. He says he gives him a 10 for his marketing, and a 0 for wrestling. His grandmother does a better legdrop. His ideals are easy to grasp so he's a good rolemodel for children. Hogan says his first tryout resulted in a broken leg. He said he was in the right place in the right time. He said he'd look to the crowd for responses and it worked more than just doing things. The crowd enjoys being involved.
Sheldon Goldberg said the 3rd cycle of wrestling began at Wrestlemania 3 with Hogan vs. Andre The Giant when they drew 93,000 in the Pontiac Silverdome. Andre had been the biggest draw since the 70's and Hogan was the biggest fan favorite ever. Andre's best days were behind him and wasn't feeling well. He needed back surgery. Andre liked being on top and no one knew if he'd allow Hogan to win. Hogan kept asking Vince if he was going to job. If Hogan made Andre angry, no one could tell Andre what to do. Hogan says it was the biggest moment of his life. He passed the torch to Hogan that night. He could have given that moment to anyone but saw Hogan as "the guy". Andre died in 1993 of a heartattack.
The ratings were so high, NBC scheduled it once a month as a Saturday Night Live replacement. Then Ted Turner got WCW. He called Vince to let him know. Ted said "guess what, I'm in the wrasslin' business!". Vince said "That's great Ted. I'm in the entertainment business.". Turner got alot of big stars. Savage, Nash, Flair, Syxx, Hall, DDP, and Hogan... Michaels, Owen Hart, Austin, The Undertaker, Vader, The Patriot, Mankind, Ahmed Johnson, and Goldust were the ones Vince had. WCW and the WWF are the big 2. Blassie says the kids today do things they would have never thought of.
Vader says there's not alot of guys his size and age who can do what he does. The Giant says guys can get hurt and his job is simply not to kill the other guy. Monsoon says you could break a guy's ankle anytime you wanted to, but you don't. You'll only look as good as he lets you. Mark Curtis and Moolah share injury stories. Moolah's list is nasty. Thesz explains the cauliflowered ear. Michaels starts his list of injuries. Savage says working out does help alot. Nash says the ring is alot harder than most people believe.
There's no minor leagues. Instead, you have to go to a training camp. The powerplant is a good place for training. They're looking for athletes for WCW. Only 10 or 15% of the people who come through the doors last to the end. You have to have heart to last. One guy said he figured it was just taking falls. He didn't realize how hard it was. Another guy says it's the hardest thing he's ever done and doesn't want to hear people crying about how hard baseball is. 15 guys start, half are gone by lunch, and 3 will come back the next day. The Giant says he went in there, and saw guys falling out from exhaustion but he decided he was not gonna drop. The Sarge says the Powerplant is the easy part. The life is the hardest.
Wrestling doesn't stay in the ring anymore... They show lots of clips from boiler room brawls, backstage assaults, parking lot, and god knows where else! Too many clips to list them all off. Steel chairs are so common place now they appear at least once a night. The referee will always miss cheating, the managers will help the wrestlers, and the announce table will break.
Some people dismiss wrestling as phony or fake. It's like a movie with the same storylines and different actors year after year. The fans and wrestlers connect with hand signals, such as the Wolfpac or Diamond Cutter signs. If you look at wrestling as fake, then you're judging it as something it's not. It's not a sporting event. Would you look at Hamlet as fake? It depends on your outlook.
Wrestling is a live action comic book to some people. Vince McMahon said the product is for young people. If you think young and act young then that's how it'll apppear. Eric Bischoff says it takes about 3 years to get things over. Character development is important according to McMahon. He says alot of characters today are shades of grey.
Like a good soap opera, nothing will be solved by the end of the night and the combatants will be around to fight another night. So is wrestling fake? Yes. As phony as your imagination. Are we celebrating violence? Yes. Are we a society in decay? Maybe. Maybe we should sit back and enjoy the mayhem in a society that allows make believe mayhem.
And that's it.
A very well put together documentary. They talked to alot of guys who know the business inside and out and really covered alot of history. They highlighted the important parts. For fans who are going into this tape expecting alot of recent footage, prepare to be disappointed. There's alot of looks at the past. It's enlightening to what wrestling once was, and what it has become which was the goal while remaining positive yet objective about the product. A&E usually does a good job with documentaries anyway. Wrestling fans who want to get a better sense of history should pick this up. But for new fans who are simply not interested, don't waste your time because you'll be bored out of your skull.