Library student worker Brennan Kress has loved professional wrestling since he was just a little kid. In a new blog series, Brennan will explore wrestling history and discuss a book by Union professor Ted Kluck.
The Beginning of Wrestling
Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Macho Man Randy Savage, Ric Flair, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, John Cena, and Randy Orton. These are household names from the great sports entertainment that is professional wrestling. Today professional wrestling may be viewed by some as just a bunch of big guys throwing each other around in a ring, which it is, basically. To others, wrestling may remind them of waking up early on Saturday mornings to watch the likes of Jerry the King Lawler. To some, who were teenagers during the famed Attitude Era, wrestling means violent and intense brawls with the likes of Degeneration X, Undertaker, Kane, and Mr. McMahon. Those in my generation (fans during the Ruthless Aggression/PG Era) have enjoyed seeing John Cena, CM Punk, Seth Rollins and Daniel Bryan rise to stardom. And of course you can’t forget the best non-WWF/WWE wrestlers like Pentagon Junior, Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi, Jay Lethal, and countless others.
But to many, those names mean absolutely nothing at all. In reality, wrestling has become a niche form of entertainment with few new fans. However, for those interested, even casually, in learning more about this strange thing called professional wrestling, then the best place to start is the history of the sport.
Amateur or Collegic wrestling has been a part of sports for hundreds of years. Wrestling has been an Olympic sport since the Olympics began. But professional wrestling (wrestling in which the outcomes are scripted and the purpose is sports entertainment) is a relatively new creation. It began in the mid 1940’s and 1950’s as carnival style wrestling, where big men did tests of strength and would wrestle each other. Soon this idea of wrestling as entertainment evolved into a profession of its own. Wrestlers began to have a persona, or character, that they wrestled under and matches began to be choreographed for effect. Frank Gotch is credited with being the first ever “pro-wrestler” and in the early 20th century began the idea of a wrestling “superstar.”
The Promotion Era
During the 1950’s and 60’s wrestling was divided by region in a mix-match cross-cutting of the country. Each region in the country was owned and operated by a different wrestling organization, the largest of which was the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in the 1950’s. The NWA acted as a larger force that governed many of the smaller wrestling promotions that appeared across the country. The NWA established their popularity when they made Lou Thesz the “World Heavyweight Champion.”
In the 1960’s, several wrestling promotions, seeing the NWA as an evil tyrant, broke off from the organization. Two of these promotions was the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and the Capitol Wrestling Corporation which would later rename itself, World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWF).
The WWF saw much success through their champion Bruno Sammartino. When Sammartino left the company, the WWF, reluctantly, rejoined the NWA. Soon the WWF would strike gold when they hired Andre the Giant to their promotion. Andre was 7 foot 4 inches tall and billed as weighing over 500 pounds. His charisma and impressive size earned him attention from all wrestling promotions, including the AWA and the NWA who fought for the right to book Andre on their shows.
This lead to the wrestling boom of the 1980’s. During this decade wrestling was at its most popular. The WWF began to slowly pull away from the NWA as their CEO Vincent Kennedy McMahon coined the term “sports entertainment.” Wrestling went mainstream as Vince McMahon turned wrestling into entertainment instead of competition. Slowly the WWF began to gain speed through television deals that made the promotion-based wrestling of the NWA seem like a thing of the past. McMahon used popular culture personalities such as Cyndi Lauper to boost support for his company.
But WWF can truly owe much of its success to one man, the Immortal Hulk Hogan. Hulk Hogan became the leader of the WWF as Vince McMahon sought to solidify his dominance in the sports entertainment business. Hulk Hogan’s “real American” persona struck well with the fans, in a much less politically correct time in wrestling and in America. Hulk Hogan also appealed to children as he reminded them to say their prayers and eat their vitamins. Hulk Hogan was the epitome of a babyface (wrestling term for “good guy” character, many times simply called, face) as he fought the “bad guys” for America. His popularity, and the popularity of the WWF in general lead Vince McMahon to go one-on-one with the NWA.
Wrestlemania and The Golden Era (1980’s)
Up until the mid 1980’s the NWA had put on a yearly show called Starcade that acted as the culmination of their wrestling year. Vince McMahon decided that we wanted to put on a similar show for his booming promotion. So, he invented Wrestlemania, that would act as the culmination of the year into one big wrestling show. McMahon went all out for Wrestlemania, booking plenty of superstar wrestlers and other popular entertainers. Wrestling on the show, which was live on March 31, 1985, were some of wrestling’s greats such as Ricky, the Dragon, Steamboat. Andre the Giant fought an equally big man appropriately named Big John Studd in a match that was all about slamming the competition. Famous personalities included: Billy Martin, Cyndi Lauper, and Liberace accompanied by the Rockettes. And this all lead to a massive tag team main event which pitted “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper against none other than Hulk Hogan and Mr. T with Muhammed Ali as the special guest referee. The show was a massive success that sent the WWF into stardom and, for a time, they seemed to be in total control of professional wrestling.
The aftermath of Wrestlemania 1 left the NWA with a struggle. Soon the promotion fizzled out but not after a few attempts to remain relevant. Soon however, with WWF putting two of their highly watched pay per views (Survivor Series 1987 and the Royal Rumble 1988) in direct competition with the NWA’s pay per views, the popularity of the NWA had fallen to dangerously low levels. Soon the NWA would sell out their biggest promotion to Ted Turner, founder of Cables News Network. Ted Turner would rename the promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and would continue the real wrestling war with Vince McMahon and the WWF.
The war between WCW and the WWF cannot be understated as the single most important and influential event in the history of professional wrestling. This war for ratings supremacy waged throughout the late 90’s but truly began in 1993. In 1993 WWF launched the first ever weekly prime time wrestling television show that aired Mondays on the USA Network. The show was called Monday Night Raw and it featured wrestling talent and story lines that allowed the WWF to better build toward pay per views. With men like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant no longer wrestling at this time, the WWF paved the road for newer and younger stars such as Kevin Nash “Diesel,” “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, and Bret “The Hitman” Hart. These stars ran at the forefront of the WWF as it took control of wrestling.
But Ted Turner did not want to be outdone by Vince McMahon in this battle of media moguls. So Ted Turner hired Eric Bischoff as Executive Producer of WCW. In 1995 Eric Bischoff launched WCW Monday Nitro in direct competition to WWF’s Monday Night Raw. So began the Monday Night War. The Monday Night War makes up the deepest and most important part of wrestling history, since its outcome determined the trajectory for wrestling into the next century.
*check back for parts 2, 3, and 4!
**written by Brennan Kress