Pro Wrestling's Evolution
- Written by Jimmy Duncan
Allot of things went down throughout the '80s, but one of the constants that was always in the news in some form or fashion was professional wrestling.
What started out as an arguably legitimate (albeit somewhat unpopular) happening at the beginning of the decade, with guys like Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko (zah-BIS-ko...your welcome) wrestling 60 minute "technical" snooze fests in smoky, dimly lit buildings became one of the largest pop culture spectacles of the time at the end of it. It all gets pegged on Hulk Hogan. Hulk Hogan made wrestling. Without Hulk Hogan, there is no Wrestlemania. There is no business boom. That's what they say. I'm here to tell you they are wrong.
Here's the truth about Hulk Hogan, from the perspective of a guy who has been in the ring, behind the microphone, and with hands on the typewriter. Hulk Hogan was horrible. He couldn't wrestle a lick. Had a decent, steroid aided look and the ability to act a little. Hulk Hogan isn't a guy. He's a character, a gimmick - a creation of the man who REALLY made wrestling hot, WWF owner Vince McMahon Jr.
Make sure to add the Jr. in there, because that's how this story starts. Vince Sr. (Jr.'s dad, see what I did there) owned the WWF up until his death in the early 80's. When he was running things, there wasn't one big company like there is now. There were several dozen smaller promotions throughout the country. Vince Sr. ran the Northeast region, covering most of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. He and all the other promoters in and around North America have these handshake agreements that they won't step on one another. The WWF won't run a show in Calgary, Stu Hart's turf. Stu Hart, in return, won't take his Calgary based promotion and run a tour of Philly, Boston and New York. That's an example, but you get it.
When Sr. died, Jr. blew that away in a hurry, running himself darn near broke to bring in the Hulk Hogans, the Roddy Pipers, the Bret Harts, the Ultimate Warriors, etc. They went into the territories, displayed a much better product, and eventually took over the areas. There were a few stalwarts that outlasted this blitzkrieg. We'll touch on them in a moment. What really blows things up is the decision to mainstream the business. The WWF brings in Cyndi Lauper to accept a humanitarian award with Captain Lou Albano (bad guy turned good guy turned Super Mario). Roddy Piper (bad guy turned good guy turned bad actor turned bad guy turned good guy, still a bad actor) comes out, ruins the ceremony and roughs up Cyndi Lauper's manager, Hulk Hogan comes to the rescue, and we have The War To Settle The Score, a made for television dramatic climax to avenge Cyndi Lauper and right a wrong, on MTV, in prime time.
That's when I remember wrestling becoming cool. After that, there was another MTV event, the beginnings of Wrestlemania, pay per views, big money. By '86/'87, Saturday Night's Main Event was actually pre-empting Saturday Night Live on NBC once a month. Now me personally, I didn't like the WWF product as a kid. I wasn't into the bright colors, or the cartoon characters that Vince McMahon was putting out there. I liked gritty wrestling, with real people doing real things. For that, you had to change the dial to Superstation TBS at 6:05 on Saturday nights for NWA World Championship Wrestling.
In the '70s, Ted Turner bought a very small UHF station in Atlanta, and programmed it with garbage. The only thing that brought it ratings was Georgia Championship Wrestling. Ted never forgot that, and when his little channel became the Superstation, he kept wrestling around. In doing so, he created Vince McMahon's prime competition throughout the 80's, and even more so in the 90's.
Down in Georgia, they were doing things different than they were in New York, but they were just as important, in their own way. McMahon was running big mainstream gigs, but Ted Turner was honoring the territory system and putting together some wrestling matches and cards that are still talked about as being the best ever.
Before Wrestlemania, for example, the NWA was running Starrcade every December, starting in 1983. There are no celebrities to be seen, but go ahead and look up some of the matches on YouTube and tell me they weren't awesome. It is said that the single greatest moment in wrestling history was at Wrestlemania 3, when Hulk Hogan body slammed 500 pounder Andre The Giant. But I say if you watch the Starrcade '83 main event of Ric Flair and Harley Race in the cage bleeding like stuck pigs for 30 minutes, you may feel different.
The two mega-powers in the business, WWF and NWA/WCW, did cross paths once, in what is called the "Black Saturday" incident.
McMahon saw Turner's outfit as a bit of a threat, and wanted to get them gone. So through a series a back door deals, he acquired enough of the promotion to become majority owner. And so went Black Saturday. The southern fans were used to their realistic wrestlers having realistic matches in small studios where 50 people sat around and raised heck. When McMahon took over, he sent the Georgia guys home, and piped in taped matches from around the country with his WWF guys. The fans absolutely hated it! The experiment went so poorly that the regular wrestlers were brought back to TV, and McMahon wound up eventually selling his part of the southern company back to Ted Turner at a loss.
All in all, it was decade of transition. You went from these contests that looked and felt more like today's MMA fights, albeit staged, to entrance music, sequins, light shows and face paint. It was the perfect transition to today's wrestling product.
If you're looking for more information about wrestling in the '80s, I recommend checking out pwinsider.com, where they run a column everyday on the history of the business. Also, you can find allot of classic matches and moments on YouTube, a great reference.
Until we meet again, thanks for reading, and remember not to put your siblings in any arm bars or anything like that. Cheers!