historical stuff by Gareth Millward
31 March 1985 – New York City
This was the moment that the modern version of professional wrestling – cartoon characters, big venues, loud music, pyrotechnics and Spandex went global. Or, at least, Vincent McMahon Jr’s version of it. But despite a relative decline in popularity over recent years, the idea of “predetermined” or “choreographed” fighting, closely associated with the Greco-Roman wrestling seen in the Olympics, has a deep cultural history across Britain and America. It is with this flimsy excuse I open this series with Wrestlemania.
I’m often met with incredulity from work colleagues when I tell them about what I spend my free time doing. Playing computer games. Catching up on TV. Going to the cinema. And watching professional wrestling.
“You do know it’s fake, right?”
Of course, “fake” is a relative term.1. While the outcome is predetermined and the story lines are acted, they are played as if real (“kayfabe” in wrestling lingo). Much like any dramatic art form. But while the strikes, flips, spins and throws are often performed in such a way to minimise the damage done to the performers (whilst making it look like they are beating the proverbial out of each other) the risks being taken are very real.2
I could write an entire book on why professional wrestling is the best thing ever (despite the casual racism, misogyny, homophobia, drug use, questionable morality, politics, occasional contempt for its audience, lack of safety and security for its performers…). What I want to argue is that wrestling, like sport in general, has been an important part of working class culture around the world. Indeed, the way it plays on tropes within society, and the fact that it is a “fake” sport, is entirely the point.Professional wrestling developed alongside professional sport during the industrial revolution. Forms of martial arts such as boxing, Greco-Roman style wrestling, and so forth had become popular attractions and carnivals and fairs. As permanent structures were built to house the “music hall” variety acts (“Vaudeville” in the United States), various forms of football, pedestrianism (forerunner of track and field), and so on, a need grew for star attractions on a regular basis. The nature of fighting, however, is that competitors can only perform once every month or so. Injuries and fatigue build up. Moreover, the most accomplished boxer is not necessarily the most charismatic. As far as the business is concerned, the only good fighter is the one who can “draw” – bring people into the arena to buy tickets.3
The narrative power of sport was popular and profitable. While “legitimate” competition continued to grow, it was clear that not every soccer game was great to watch. Not every boxing bout went the distance (some were over in a few seconds); others were long turgid draws. One way to ensure entertaining events was, therefore, to add the drama of sport without the audience becoming incredulous. Wrestling, more prone than other sports to technically impressive but largely dull affairs, could be extended if the charismatic star was able to deliberately “go easy” on his opponent and extend the contest. Or a foreign star could burst into the auditorium and demand a fight at the end of the night. This would encourage people to come back next week, and allowed the audience to cheer on their local hero against the evil outsider.
Professional wrestling gradually incorporated more and more of these elements. Wrestlers took on characters – or “gimmicks” – to make themselves more attractive. They began performing more spectacular moves, like jumping off ropes and performing flips. These had little impact on their ability to legitimately win a contest, but entertained crowds. To allow them to move from town to town, fighting every night, the winners began to be predetermined, with the “workers” being more gentle with each other to avoid injury and fatigue. Feuds were manufactured to give a reason for people to fight and for an audience to continue to buy tickets. By the 1950s this had become a well-recognised form of entertainment in Britain and the United States, fuelled in the latter case by local TV stations looking for cheap content.4
While professional wrestling spread across the world, each country adapted the concept to their own local attitudes towards sport. In the United States, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) became the most popular “promotion” based on larger-than-life characters, and a Hollywood-esque soap opera approach to storytelling. In Britain, fights were based around more-technical holds, and television presented the contests in the same way it would broadcast “legit” sports. In Mexico, the culture of masks and bright costumes was married to high-flying, fast-paced gymnastic moves. The Japanese developed a style which looked and felt more realistic, in some cases putting wrestlers in real – “shoot” – fights similar to modern-day mixed martial arts. This reflected the origins of wrestling in the country – imported by the United States after the Second World War as a replacement for competitive sport, which was banned.5 Australia, Germany and South Africa (among others) put their own spin on it.Because of this set up, most of the biggest stars the “sport” has produced have tapped into the cultural Zeitgeist. Sgt. Slaughter, for example, became WWF champion in the early 1990s after he abandoned his country (kayfabe, darlings) to support Saddam Hussein at the height of the Gulf War.6 Randy Savage was a charismatic “Macho Man” with over-the-top colourful outfits that sum up the 1980s to a tee. Hulk Hogan did it even better, going on to star in multiple (awful) movies. The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were rowdy anti-heroes during the “edgy” 1990s. At the same time, plenty of wrestlers of colour have found themselves on the losing side more often than not; women were often given very stereotypical gimmicks to work with.7 The Hispanic “Los Guerreros” would ‘lie cheat and steal’. And the less said about the tradition of “midget wrestling” the better.
But this isn’t about the issues with pro wrestling. Like any art form, it reflects the climate of the time. If wrestling is sexist and racist, it’s because it exists as a warped, cartoonish version of reality. If people find its depiction of competition and success distasteful, that is because it reflects our society; one only has to see the sport analogies used by politicians to see that sport, entertainment and politics all borrow from each other on a regular basis.
Anyway. Why does Wrestlemania matter? Well, it began the slow breakdown of the structures which had held up pro wrestling across the world. In many cases, it shows the power of globalisation.
With so many different styles, why is it the WWF’s product that people generally associate with ‘rasslin? Primarily it’s because of the success of Wrestlemania and Vince McMahon Junior’s attempts to make his company an international enterprise. In the 1970s, the wrestling world was split into “territories”. The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) maintained an international system in which promotions would not actively compete in each other’s geographical area. Even those companies that were not part of the NWA (such as McMahon’s WWF in New York, or Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association in Minneapolis) understood that this cartel was good for business. Wrestling was massive on international television, but very much localised. The UK would cheer on Big Daddy on World of Sport; New York would idolise the WWF’s Bruno Sammartino; Memphis loved Jerry Lawler. If a wrestler – usually a “villain” – became stale, he could go and work in another area as an unknown (or, perhaps, with a mythical reputation). Within the United States, however, different areas had different emphases. Some were more hard-hitting; some focused more on storytelling; others went more for athleticism. Regardless, the WWF was not wrestling sin qua non.
McMahon Junior bought the WWF from his father in the early 1980s, and planned to take the promotion onto national television. The rise of cable, coupled with new formats for “pay-per-view” events opened up the possibility of marketing the WWF well beyond New York and New England in a cost-effective way. Against McMahon’s Senior’s wishes, Junior got his television show on cable across the country, and began signing the biggest stars from other companies (in flagrant violation of the NWA “gentlemen’s agreement”).
Wrestlemania was a massive gamble. McMahon spent big on luring Hulk Hogan away from the AWA in 1983 in preparation, building the company around his star power. Then he invested in hiring venues to show ‘Mania through “closed-circuit television”, and brought in Cyndi Lauper and Mr T as celebrity guests. It was a runaway success, leading eventually to international expansion.
Unable to compete with the production values and celebrity of the expanded WWF, many of the local promotions went into terminal decline. The loss of their best draws to New York didn’t help. World of Sport in the UK went off the air, and replacement shows quickly lost ground to the glitzier and more bombastic McMahon product. By the mid-90s, only World Championship Wrestling (WCW) could seriously compete in the USA, with Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) offering a more low-fi alternative. Japan and Mexico maintained their traditions, but in the latter case stars such as Rey Misterio Jr. and Juventud Guerrera moved north of the border for greater exposure and a bigger pay cheque. Shortly after the millennium, WCW and ECW went bankrupt having overstretched their resources competing with WWF.
McMahon’s vision of wrestling had won. It is still by far the most popular version of wrestling across the world. And while local variations continue to exist, the globalisation of the WWF product reflects many changes in the global economy. Everyone has their own version of the hamburger, but the Big Mac is still the most recognisable. The WWF was very 80s. And it’s kept me entertained ever since. That’s why I had to include it as the first entry in 30 for 30.