I Am a Smark: a Fan’s Journey about and on the History of Pro Wrestling

Growing up I was a boy with a lot of energy…and I mean a lot of energy. It was not until I was 10 years old when I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. My conditions showed for the longest time as I look back on my grade school work; during class testing time, students would have their folders covering the top of their desks to block any cheater’s advances, but where others would dutifully write on their tests, I was busy with my pencils, having them engage in a physical death match where only one winner or winning tag team of two would emerge. I had names for my characters of pens; they had their own entrance music, and their own back stories. How did so much creativity emerge out of my young mind? It was all thanks to professional wrestling.

It started when I was around 6 years old. I am not entirely sure of the wrestling match I was watching, but I do remember Stone Cold Steve Austin’s iconic leather vest as he was pummeling who I seem to remember was Bret “The Hitman” Hart. The two wrestlers were engaged in a historic feud that would culminate at WrestleMania 13 in Chicago, Illinois, where Hart won a brutal Submission match after Austin passed out while in Hart’s patented submission maneuver, the Sharpshooter; the real winner in the long run would be Austin as the match propelled him into becoming one of the most beloved superstars of the 1990s, and I was a happy follower of him. I loved Stone Cold Steve Austin; he was my favorite wrestler and when it was Monday night, World Wrestling Federation’s Raw was on at 8 pm Central time, and I was glued to my TV to see Stone Cold “open up a can of whoop ass” on a bad guy.

But that was back when I was 6 years old, and as of today I am still watching professional wrestling, with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) being the company I am still engaged with. But over the years I have learned a “shocking” secret: professional wrestling is scripted. It has predetermined outcomes, and the move sets of wrestlers are played out before hand by creative writers who write out a show for the paying crowd and those who watch at home, unless it is a visiting house show. Professional wrestling has been rooted in this since the 1930s, and has continued to thrive as sports entertainment since then, even though most people misconstrue it as being faked, but there is much more to wrestling than most people like to give credit to. I find fake implies that nothing real happens when wrestlers engage in combat and that they don’t ever get hurt, and with medical histories of wrestlers being publicly known, the fake status of professional wrestling is completely false. Multiple wrestlers this year alone have required surgery the same injuries that affect NFL players, yet the NFL and American football has become the glorified sport for all Americans.

I argue that pro-wrestling should not be viewed in the same light like other major sports because of the predetermined finishes, but I argue wrestling has a deeply rooted history that represents Americana and has survived as an institution and continues to be a thriving business with the WWE being at the forefront. Most people see wrestling as today as “fake.” However, what is left out of this evaluation is that wrestling has had an illustrious history, which has always focused on spectacle. From my memories as a youngster to today, pro-wrestling has represented a significant part of my life, and it is a personal story and historiography that should be seen by the rest of the world. Pro wrestling revolves around in its own world and has developed its own lingo for certain people, places, and events that is at a line of being real and its own “kayfabe” made up world. I am a “smark” in the pro wrestling world for I am a fan who follows it though I know of its scripted nature.

The “sport” of professional wrestling has survived being derided as nonsense ever since its inception. The one thing it has been able to maintain is a story that is exhibited by its performers in just about every single wrestling match. The most memorable sporting contests in football and baseball deal with an underdog scoring an incredible upset victory over a much higher ranked opponent, or the memories that are made during the play off season with team’s vying for the ultimate trophy (i.e. Vince Lombardi award in the NFL). Professional wrestling has a tapestry of events that surround each and every match and it is this story that has engaged audiences for decades from boys to girls, and from kids to young adults to older adults. The basic flow of the match and its analysis vary, but they all seem to stick to a specific formula: “The crossing of the ropes, the pursuit of an opponent after a victor has been declared, the punch in the face to the referee, all seem designed as a display of out-of-control violence, a way of generating heat, and a proof that matches might not be as scripted as the fans assume. It is tempting to see the brawl as an attempt by promoters and wrestlers to make the ‘fake’ look ‘real.’[1]” My memories extend to when I was a young boy and cheered for the faces (good guys) that were beloved by the crowd and I hissed at the heels (bad guys) who committed evil deeds such as ganging up on the face or kidnapping their family member. Pro wrestling has evolved quite a lot over a long period of time, and its beginning was an awful long time ago.

The very earliest sports required few materials and are deemed simple by today’s standards. People, specifically men, had contests of running since the days of Pheidippides and his legendary message run from the Battle of Marathon fought in Ancient Greece. Another simple sport that emerged in the 12-13th century BCE, and can even be traced back 15,000 years in cave drawings from pre-civilized France was wrestling. A physical combat between two opponents, wrestling entailed grappling on the ground or standing up as tests of strength between two men; in the BCE time era, the winner was often times determined by who could knock the other man to the ground first and more often not, whoever survived the encounter. Like the spectacle of professional wrestling today, there were stars in the very distant past as well; Milo of Croton was arguably the most famous Greek wrestler, winning six consecutive Olympiads and numerous other titles at sport festivals held throughout ancient Greece and it appeared the only thing that could stop him was the pack of wolves which legend hold is the way he met his demise.[2]

Various other celebrities of the ancient world have been depicted in paintings and literature as suiting up in the wrestling arena; Heracles and Theseus are described in ancient Greek scribe and paintings defeating mythological monsters by using wrestling holds and maneuvers; famous wrestlers of the day were included on the currency that accompanied the cities of Aspendos, Syracuse, and Alexandria during ancient Greco-Roman, Sicily, and Egypt, respectively. Wrestlers also had large roles in the writings of Homer, Statius, and Qiuntus of Smyrna, some of the most famous and influential men on the history of literature; even more outstanding is the ancient philosopher Plato being recorded as a wrestling participant at various festivals held in ancient Egypt.[3]

These men and the many that died and fought encompassing this growing sport went through a rigorous process of schooling that pro wrestlers of today also need to process through. Schools of wrestling in the ancient Greek world were known as palaestra and took young boys and turned them into fierce grapplers as they engaged each other in a sandpit called the skamma. Matches were fought as three falls to win and began in an upright position as both participants began to lock up with the object of tossing your opponent so their hip, shoulder, or back touched the ground; rules for fighting dirty did not include holds as countermoves and tripping, but for heinous acts such as low blows and/ or eye gouging, a referee was in place with a forked stick ready to pounce on cheaters. This is the ancient world we are talking about so mistreatments of young boys were bound to be a daily occurrence. This form of wrestling was the first specified and documented form of wrestling that held a name and had rules, and over time this form of wrestling faced competition from a much more brutal style of wrestling that would attract more spectators, because even in the ancient world, people loved drama. Pankration is also referred to as catch-as-catch-can and its submission style fighting would become a more popular form of wrestling in later centuries.[4]

These early champions of wrestling were seen as demi-Gods for their exploits in the ring and this attracted a great number of followers to them. In many different cases, the glamour of sport entertainers today is matched by the popularity exhibited by early wrestlers: “The dramatic plot of pro-wrestling matches, as with any sporting contest, is rudimentary: two opponents square off in conflict. There is a crisis in suffering and a climax in victory and defeat. Unlike Roland Barthes’s injection of a moral frame into his assertion of pro wrestling as ‘the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice,’ there need not be any sense of justice, only victory… While gimmicks and storylines come and go according to the vagaries of the times (i.e., the Cold War, the Iranian Hostage crisis, etc.), the basic structure of an athletic contest endures.[5]” Whereas up-right wrestling required throwing the opponent to the ground, catch as catch can was the first style of wrestling that had the winner makes his opponent submit, or tap out. Only biting and gouging were the only illegal moves in this Greek sport that was most popular to the Romans, with many events at the infamous Coliseum likely involving this sport; unsurprisingly catch as catch can often had matches ending in serious injuries and fatalities that drove the paying consumers in the stands wild. This more barbaric form of wrestling contest extended throughout European continent and not surprisingly, a few matches were held at the Roman Coliseum.[6]

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, wrestling was a victim to a dark period as did other professional sports as a result. Instead of the grand stage that WWE performers play out on in front of national television audiences, this time in wrestling history reflects regional promotions of today where local and town champions duel to a finish to a much smaller crowd. The middle Ages slowly saw wrestling make a comeback, as it had to be helped by the Catholic Church who approved it as a recreational activity and a good training program for warfare. The Renaissance saw the sport become more and more organized like its previous days as the Olympic sport, but the organization did not include chivalry as competitors still fought tooth and nail and almost always to the death for betting on lookers; most of the audience for these matches were lower class citizens who were fueled by alcohol and wagering in the taverns, whereas the nobility also held special events for themselves and these were most likely not as blood-filled as chaotic as the tavern battles.[7]

Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, wrestling would become publicized in the writings of many European authors that led to more and more widespread popularity. German author Fabian von Auerwald’s Ringerkunst published numerous wrestling holds in one of the earliest illustrated books ever, and English author Thomas Elyot’s The Governour was the first prominent English work on physical education, which gave special attention to wrestling as an excellent source of exercise. Popularity built up among the townspeople of these European cities, and famous nobility like Henry VIII also held a deep love for the sport. This style of wrestling and press behind it would continue for the next few centuries as wrestling made the leap across the ocean and into America, where in the 20th century, wrestling would take its next step in popularity, when it became about sports entertainment.[8]

When the American colonies were being formed, colonists brought over many traditions from English culture to their new homes. Wrestling was a tradition that came about much more slowly than others, but when it permeated through it became quite popular; a good example of this is many young boys participated in it in the late 17th century, and among them was the founding father, George Washington who was quite the avid wrestler. Wrestling finally broke through in large part to the influx of Irish immigrants who came during the 18th century and whose stereotypical rough and rowdy ways made wrestling quite popular for the youths of the burgeoning colonies. Over time, wrestling in the United States after becoming a country exhibited the same popularity and organization as seen before in Europe. During the first half of the 19th century, special attention to the wonderful attributes of fitness became associated in American literature with wrestling and its popularity soared, but it faced stiff competition from America’s first past time, thoroughbred horse racing. The Irish then played the first significant in the history of professional wrestling in the early 19th century wrestling, as a new style of wrestling took the nation by storm; a mixture that included Ireland’s favorite sport of boxing and the stand up styles of both led to the creation of collar and elbow wrestling.[9]

Collar and elbow became the preferred style of wrestling in the 19th century because it became a sport very popular to bet on. It was fought between two male competitors who both began in an open stance and upright; it attracted audiences and many different wrestlers for it avoided the violence of styles like rough and tumble where wrestlers rushed each other, but included the violence of catch as catch can for ground holds were applied when one competitor fell and the open stance allowed smaller wrestlers to be able to compete fairly with larger sized wrestlers. During the Civil War, different territories developed their own styles of collar and elbow, with the Irish Vermont becoming quite popular and successful at events held the Union territories; George William Flagg was honored as the grand champion of the Army of the Potomac. For years this style became associated with the United States as wrestling became revered in the same light as professional boxing, but eventually others styles emerged as more popular choice for the masses of people to watch. Greco-Roman and catch as catch can emerged as the most popular styles of wrestling during the late 19th century and into the 20th century. [10]

Strongmen from around the nation made Greco-Roman fights popular because it allowed the men to show impressive physiques that caught the public’s attention, while catch as catch can became the standard wrestling style for much of the 20th century as fans preferred seeing a man submit above other types of wrestling. As more and regional promotions started taking shape in the early to mid 20th century, pro wrestling was included on boxing cards at sports arenas with New York City being the sports Mecca it has become today.[11]

Over time, wrestlers started to develop another significant part to pro wrestling: a character. This innovation started with the wrestler known as Gorgeous George in the 1950s; George would enter into the arena dressed in a very flamboyant robe and toss out necklaces to the audience, which drew the ire of his opponents.[12] Taking this type of showmanship to another level was “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, who became a star in the newly formed National Wrestling Alliance of the 1960s; Rogers appeared as a crazed man in the ring who danced and mocked his opponent repeatedly during a match and this drew heat from the audience who wanted to see men like Gorgeous George and Buddy Rogers lose ever so badly. These characters and others like them became associated with Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF); the WWF in recent years is now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) after a lawsuit was settled between them and the World Wildlife Fund in the early 2000s over the rights to the initials WWF[13]. At first the WWF was the World Wide Wrestling Federation and had its beginnings in the NWA and the first gimmicks of pro wrestlers to emerge in the 1950s. But all of it, the institution of American pro wrestling that would soon dominate the world, is adhered to the style known as catch as catch can, where making your opponent say “uncle” was what attracted the people.[14]

Submission wrestling today does not adhere to the fatality rule, but as part of sports entertainment it is required to look as painful as possible for the public to witness. The Sharpshooter maneuver I mentioned as Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s finishing move, had the Hart pick up a downed opponent’s legs, step between and then tie them around of his own legs, he would then spin himself and his opponent 180 degrees and apply pressure to the back by squatting, pulling the legs away from the opponent’s body while trying to get them in a vertical position. There is a famous image from the Submission Match of WrestleMania 13 as Stone Cold Steve Austin yelped in pain while sporting the infamous “crimson mask” of blood on his face as he refused to tap out/ give up to Hart. In reality, though the submission may look quite painful and maybe did hurt Austin, the two professionals were putting on a show that was for the crowd and those watching the pay per view at home, with Austin’s fortitude of pain being on display for all to watch, but he was never in serious danger of significant injury.

Fans of today intertwine with fans of these encounters of ancient Greece as both groups loved the violence that was on display and for the larger than life personas of the people who carried out these events. The Coliseum of Rome has been an architectural design blueprint for numerous arenas and stadiums across the world, and with a focus on the United States, almost all major arenas have hosted pro wrestling events where numbers ranging from 19,000 to 93,000 have packed the buildings to see events put on by the WWE in history; the 93,000 statistic is famous because it was the number the WWE has claimed were in attendance to see WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdome on March 29, 1987; the main event pitted pro wrestling’s immortal, Hulk Hogan against the equally legendary Andre the Giant. What made the main event so special was it was an underdog story of Hogan trying to defy the odds and defeat the “undefeated” 7 foot 4 inch, 540 pound Frenchman. At the match’s conclusion, the 6 foot 7 inch, 300 pound Hogan picked up and body slammed Andre, and after performing delivering his finishing maneuver, the Running Atomic Leg Drop for the pin and win for the wrestling ages that will live forever.[15] I talk about how memories of pro wrestling have ever lasted themselves to people’s psyche, I regard the Hogan versus Andre match as the catalyst for the biggest upwards spike of popularity for pro wrestling, and the greatest moment in WWF/E’s “Golden Era.”

Hogan had been the defending WWF Championship for over two years as reigning champion, but he seemed to have met his end in Andre. The hype for the event was built around a poster with the tall Hogan on the left, being completely overshadowed in height by Andre as the two stared each other down. This image has become iconic for the WWE and its fans; I would imagine if I was a kid in the 1980s, I would be encapsulated with the image of Hogan standing defiant in the face of the bad guy who was chasing after Hogan’s title. WWE has made enormous amounts of revenue behind the classic story of the underdog. The “Golden Era” of the mid to late 1980s for the World Wrestling Federation revolved around  the archetypal good guys referred to as faces and/ or baby faces in wrestling lingo, as the purveyors of doing right thing and representing justice. They opposed the evil heels that seemed overly powerful until the two fought and in the end the baby face would be the victor usually. The WWF became the imperial power of pro wrestling by taking wrestlers from regional territories across the United States, and a few from elsewhere around the world, and giving them a character to portray in the ring, and this is what made people buy into the product in droves.

Ted Dibiase Sr.’s Million Dollar Man gimmick sparked real hatred, referred to as heat in pro wrestling terms, from the crowd because he portrayed himself as a man who could do whatever he wanted because of his wealth and his favorite past time was ridiculing the crowd who wasn’t as rich as him, so he would tease them by offering money for their participation in humiliating stunts[16]; Dibiase Sr. is also famous for his signature maniacal laugh that went along with at the end of his promos and entrance music. Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat is considered one of the best technical wrestlers of all time for his incredible physique and dedication to mat wrestling that earned the praise of crowds of people and wrestling critics all over the world. Steamboat is a classic example of a baby face that indeed generated a great deal of respect for a face, but he is considered lost in the shuffle of wrestlers because he held few world titles during his somewhat brief career.

Hulk Hogan and Hulkamania swept through America in the 1980s. The “Hulkster’s” theme of ‘Real American’ blasted throughout arenas across the US for several consecutive years and he was a perfect role model for kids with his message of daily prayer and taking daily vitamins.[17] Hogan dominated the WWF title scene by holding the belt for close to four years after defeating the Iron Shiek. The problem with Hogan’s gimmick is that it has become commonplace for Hogan to be seen as a Superman in the ring who is impervious to losing, and after a long time the fans cheers will turn to apathy. In this case, the author argues that Hogan’s matches are very dull to the wrestling crowd despite the hype and revenue that come about whenever Hogan fights, as compared to a wrestler known as Rob Van Dam who is critically lauded as one of the most exciting wrestlers in the business today: “At first glance, the most boring Rob Van Dam match is infinitely more exciting, athletically speaking, than the most heavily hyped Hogan match… So why is it the acrobatic Van Dam, with an honest-to-goodness shoot fight background pre-wrestling, will be largely forgotten, while Hogan endures? Call it charisma, or lack thereof, or ring politics. Or perhaps it was the fact that Hogan wrestled in an era of clearly defined good guys and bad guys, whereas Van Dam’s era was more nebulous in this area.”[18] The author has strong opinions on Hogan but for the most part a lot of what he is saying of the living legend of pro wrestling is true: Hogan needs to retire.

Currently Hogan is the on screen and off screen president for Total Non Stop Action Wrestling (TNA), the 2nd biggest wrestling company in the world and chief rival to the WWE at the moment. TNA has tried to overtake WWE as the top promotion but they have failed to do as yet[19]. In one maneuver, TNA switched their programming line up to air head to head with WWE Raw on Monday nights, and after only two months, TNA ended the Monday night run as they were trounced in the ratings. The current state of pro wrestling has the WWE ahead in terms of revenue, attendance, and arguably more notoriety than any other wrestling promotion on the planet. Vince K. McMahon’s global juggernaut is in line to launch its own WWE network and several past and present WWE superstars have started making the entertainment to Hollywood films, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and John Cena. The WWE looks to be in prime form for their business future, but there was a time when WWE was in dire straits and faced stiff competition from another wrestling promotion.

World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s surrounded itself around wrestling talent who began their careers by becoming big names in the then WWF. Superstars who joined WCW to combat WWF’s popularity included Ric Flair, Lex Luger, the Steiner Brothers, and Ricky Steamboat with many more. WCW began as a new company after the closure of Jim Crockett Promotions which was a big name regional promotion in the South before folding due to extravagant traveling costs brought the company under.[20] WCW was headed by a revolving door of Presidents who didn’t really seem to understand how to run a wrestling company. WCW came under ownership of billionaire media mogul Ted Turner. Turner was a wrestling fan for his whole life and he had tried entering the business earlier in the 1980s by working out a deal with Vince McMahon. The deal would have WWF programming be featured on Turner’s TBS superstation. Problems arose for the deal as the WWF show replaced Georgia Championship Wrestling, a very popular show from the regional promotion that was affiliated with the NWA. Viewers refer to the event as “Black Monday” as Vince McMahon appeared on the television screen trying to promote the new show occupying the 4 pm Eastern Time slot on Saturday; GCW had become a staple with that time slot so fans expected to see the hard hitting action of wrestling on Saturdays but were instead being catered to the soap opera style of the WWF.[21] Because of declining ratings and a souring business relationship, Turner and McMahon worked out a deal to end WWF programming on the superstation and this led all the way up to Turner wanting to end Vince’s WWF a decade later.[22]

WCW was filled with a wealth of talent, but the promotion faced struggles in the early 1990s because of poor management. Numerous people were shuffled into the position of President and head booker but these candidates were more suited for business other than running a wrestling promotion. Turner finally found a man who could lead WCW effectively on both fronts in Eric Bischoff. Bischoff began his career as a color commentator for Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association but he was also a marketing major in college. Bischoff made radical changes to WCW that had the promotion start to become a legitimate threat to WWF, with the foremost example being the launch of WCW Monday Nitro. In the early 1990s, the WWF launched their television Monday Night Raw as a weekly primetime event that toured around the US and outside the US on special occasions. Wrestling fans had a program to watch every night and WWF’s popularity soared. As WCW began experiencing success with the signings of past WWF superstars, Hulk Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Bischoff was in a meeting with Turner explaining the business model going further. Turner interrupted Bischoff and bluntly asked him how he WCW could start to immediately derail the WWF. Bischoff was unprepared for this question and quickly replied to Turner asking for a primetime television slot. Incredibly, Turner agreed to the idea and decided WCW would have a primetime show on Monday nights on Turner Network Television (TNT); the plan was very risky obviously as not only was the show going head to head with the WWF but also TNT was a network that had never featured wrestling programming before. WCW Monday Nitro made its debut in the Mall of America in 1995 and it was quite the event with the fans all crowded around the ring in the mall’s main lobby. Vince McMahon reflected on the event with concern over the fact this was real competition to his juggernaut. The most lasting image from the very first Monday Nitro was the wrestler Lex Luger making a shocking appearance at the event during the main event of Sting vs. Ric Flair. Luger only appeared at the entrance way and put his hands on his hips as he gazed upon the ring, but what made this so significant was that Luger was a popular WWF contracted superstar at the time. This was the dawn of the Monday Night War.[23]

The 1990s are seen as a great time for wrestling fans. Two huge promotions began ducking it out for their viewership and their revenue as t shirts, and video cassette tapes were made available for order for fans to wear the attire of their favorite wrestling star. The Monday Night War was a battle for television ratings between the WWF and WCW with WCW taking a lead with some underhanded tactics as described by wrestling experts. Bischoff had plenty of plans and ideas to usurp Vince’s WWF Monday night ratings, with his dirty tactic being to air Nitro a few minutes before the 9 pm Eastern Time slot so he could reveal the results from the Raw show so fans could know what happened; Nitro began airing live so fans did not know what to expect from his show but Raw was pre-taped and edited each Monday night. What really made WCW stand out was the talent Bischoff began to lure away from the WWF. The two biggest names that fired the loudest shot in the war being: Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. Hall and Nash were two very popular superstars in the WWF under the ring names Razor Ramon and Diesel, respectively. In real life the two were best friends and also very close to wrestlers Shawn Michaels and Hunter Hearst-Helmsley, today known better as Triple H. The men made up what were known as The Kliq in the WWF and they used their popularity, also known as the term “over” with the crowd, to their benefit as they were favorites of Vince McMahon and influenced many wrestling and business decisions; for example, it is a popular sentiment that Shawn Michaels as the WWF champion refused to lose, or “job”, to Vader when he arrived in the WWF despite the fact Vader was a three time heavyweight champion in WCW and could have been a big name for the WWF. The Kliq disbanded as Hall and Nash decided to leave the WWF for WCW with the prospect of being two huge wrestling names to sign with the burgeoning company and also their contracts were the first example of guaranteed contracts in wrestling history that made Hall and Nash millionaires while also including a bonus that made Hall and Nash’s contract increase in pay if another wrestler was signed to a higher annual salary than them, their contract would automatically match the pay of that wrestler. [24]

Hall made his debut on Nitro by coming through the crowd and immediately cutting a promo in the ring interrupting and prematurely ending a match between two lesser known wrestlers. Nash joined Hall in the coming weeks, as the two portrayed themselves as “The Outsiders” invading WCW from the WWF; this prompted legal action from the WWF who claimed WCW was illegally using Hall and Nash’s characters of Razor Ramon and Diesel who were trademarked characters of the WWF with the case eventually being settled out of court. The WCW received a shot in the arm with Hall and Nash appearing on WCW Monday Nitro causing havoc wherever they went.[25] Their impact on WCW and wrestling history came into focus at the Bash at the Beach pay per view in 1996. Hall and Nash as heels foreshadowed revealing their mystery partner in their dealings and had him ready to team with them in a six man tag team match at the pay per view but they started and wrestled the entire match without him. They wrestled the team of Lex Luger, Sting, and Randy Savage at a handicap until Luger was kayfabe injured during the match by Sting and had to be carried to the back. As Hall and Nash took advantage in the match with dirty tactics, Hulk Hogan started making his way down the entrance ramp, seeming ready to help his fellow faces. And then the greatest and most shocking twist happened, also known as a swerve, Hogan leg dropped Savage in the middle of the ring and turned heel. This was an unprecedented event as Hogan was the Superman/ Spider-Man/ Captain America character of pro wrestling who preached Hulkamania to children around the world about taking their vitamins and growing up to be good citizens. Hogan becoming a bad guy brought disbelief to wrestling fans in the arena as they threw trash into the ring as Hall, Nash, and Hogan celebrated their alliance by deriding the fans and proclaiming they were about to start the New World Order of wrestling. WCW had just found their biggest cash crop.[26]

Bischoff was the mastermind of Hogan turning heel, and with Hall and Nash by his side, they invented the most significant stable, group of wrestlers, in wrestling history in the New World Order (nWo). The idea was based on a heel stable from a Japanese wrestling promotion where all the major heels decided to join forces, but the launch of the nWo in North America was far more significant as the marketing of WCW branched out across the world. The nWo was promoted as a separate entity to WCW and the nWo would add more members and with the people they added, more and more nWo merchandise were bought up by WCW fans. The nWo made WCW take a ratings lead over the WWF for 84 consecutive weeks. The nWo storyline was further amped by Bischoff revealing himself as the kayfabe second leader to the nWo along with Hogan who had developed a new gimmick of calling himself “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan who had let his ego and fame across entertainment take over the forefront with fans and declare himself “God.” What helped Nitro widen the lead over Raw for all those weeks was the reveal of a protagonist set out to end the nWo’s reign of terror in Sting. Steve Bordan’s character of Sting was a fan favorite wrestler since the 1990s that wore face paint to the ring and associated him with scorpions as he howled to pump wrestling crowds. When the nWo formed Sting was considered the “franchise” of WCW and held a leadership role in the locker room to combat the nWo. A fake Sting started appearing as an ally of the New World Order and Sting’s loyalty began to be questioned by his friends Luger and Flair as they were attacked by this fake Sting. Tired of the accusations, Sting declared himself a free agent from WCW and the nWo and he began to change his entire gimmick. Sting had always portrayed himself as a colorful wrestler that revved up by howling and beating his chest, but his new character became a silent guardian who watched over the proceedings of WCW for over a year from the rafters. Gone was the multi colored face paint but instead replaced by black and white face paint along with wearing a trench coat. Sting’s appearance was taken from the film The Crow that was based on the graphic novel by James O’ Barr, with his new character “Crow Sting” being based on Eric Draven the protagonist of the film and novel played by Brandon Lee in the film to critical acclaim. As Hogan was Superman when he was a superhero, Sting had a supernatural side that not only made him similar to Eric Draven but also Batman; he never spoke a word but did his talking with a black baseball bat he always carried along with repelling from the rafters or coming out from the bottom of the ring to fight the nWo members. Sting’s appearances were made at the end of each Nitro broadcast and this helped Bischoff in the Monday Night War as fans could not stop watching Sting single handedly take the fight to the bad guys.[27]

Pro wrestling has experienced a large amount of success for so long despite the fact it is scripted because I feel it shares enough traits with another scripted entertainment media that a certain demographic cannot get enough of: comic books. As Sting was battling the nWo with an appearance and supernatural manner like Eric Draven of The Crow or even Batman I would argue, pro wrestlers with their physiques and characters are superheroes and super villains from the printed page transfixed into real life. Comic books are known for their epic battles, but the most memorable heroes and villains are known for their intricate back stories, a la Bruce Wayne’s parents being murdered and he began his quest to avenge them by fighting all evil doers as the Batman. Wrestlers are booked by writers and other creative teams into feuds with other wrestler(s) that can pertain to any kind of back story that has a grudge involved. It is quite fascinating to read the many similarities the pro wrestling industry has shared with the comic book industry. Similar media has also resulted in similar “back stage” problems as both industries hardest workers, the wrestlers and the writers have had to put up with strict management that had resulted in less pay and benefits for many years. The WWF had thrived for years on over the top characters like Doink the Clown or the fan favorite heel “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, but WCW capitalized on playing off what people thought was real with the invasion started by the nWo. The WWF was losing the fight and appeared out of it many times. Eventually they got back in it with some “attitude” started and carried by two of the biggest names in pro wrestling.[28]

The WWF was languishing with the lack of storylines that fans really didn’t seem to care about. The WWF also seemed to be suffering from being a show meant for younger audiences while WCW had more adult-oriented programming that was too suggestive for the kids. Stone Cold Steve Austin changed all that. Initially playing the heel to Bret Hart’s face, the fans began to connect with the blue collar Austin. His resilience in the Submission match at WrestleMania 13 propelled him into being loved by the fans. This also showed when Austin broke his neck during a match with Bret’s brother Owen who accidently drove Austin’s head directly into the mat accidently; Owen and Austin botched Owen’s move the Hart Driver where Owen held Austin vertically with Austin upside down and meant to look like Austin’s head was driven directly into the mat which really did happen. Austin refused to stop the match and continued with the pre-determined booked finish by rolling up Hart from behind in one of the best improvised finishes in wrestling history. Austin had a broken neck but the WWF realized they could not lose him because people in arenas wanted to see him, so Austin remained on WWF programming without actually wrestling. What he instead did help WWF close the gap on the ratings war. Week after week Austin appeared on WWF Raw to “raise a can of whoop ass” onto the heels especially the heel Hart Foundation set up by Bret and Owen. The fans loved Austin because he wasn’t entirely a face because he fought and spoke like a heel; he became the first and most successful anti-hero that pro wrestling has ever had.[29] Along with Austin came another wrestler that turned the tide of the Monday Night War, and in so doing this man laid the ground work to help him set out and become the “most electrifying man in all of sports entertainment.”

Dwayne Johnson was the first ever third generation wrestler in the WWF/ WWE with his father being Rock Johnson who performed for Vincent J. McMahon’s WWF in the early 1980s and his maternal grandfather being “High Chief” Peter Maivia who wrestled in the 1960s and 70s. Dwayne Johnson followed in his family footsteps after his football career hit a skid. Originally he debuted in the WWF as Rocky Maivia in the early 90s to zero success. Johnson did win the WWF Intercontinental championship early in his career but the fans hated his do-gooder baby face and a popular chant during his matches was “Die, Rocky, Die!” as the fans gave him considerably bad heat; the Intercontinental title was meant for the superstars not in the main event card but rather the mid card a chance to shine. Johnson soon developed a character that felt the jeers of the fans for too long and he joined the heel stable The Nation of Domination. In short time he quickly became its leader and started to deliver promos that brought good heat to his heel character. Yet over time, the people began to love his promos and Johnson soon turned face and re made himself as The Rock. The Rock was an extension of Johnson in real life but he was more egotistical and self absorbed, but he was also a man of the people, and dubbed himself “The People’s Champion[30]” and the crowd responded by now chanting “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky” every time he took center stage.

The WWF retook the ratings lead by the close of the decade and never gave it back to WCW. Stone Cold and The Rock helped keep the WWF on top but the performance of other superstars, particularly Triple H and Shawn Michael’s formation of the heel and sexually suggestive D-Generation X, and WWF/ WWE legend, The Undertaker. The WWF entered the Attitude Era after Austin won the WWF title from Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV[31], just a year after his break out match. The Attitude Era was filled with what experts called trash TV that featured plenty of violence and suggestive programming with women wrestlers in the WWF, the Divas, being portrayed as sexually promiscuous and often times either being stripped to their under garments or willfully showing off their bodies in very revealing outfits. Stone Cold was at the forefront of the violence for the following years and the WWF developed a loyal following who to this day consider the Attitude Era the best time to be a wrestling fan. WCW in the mean time began to languish with the nWo storyline starting to become stale and lose relevance with fans. WCW had a major debacle on their hands when a pay per view ran over the agreed time so the provider dropped the still running show and WCW was forced to refund millions of dollars. The excessive traveling expenses suffered by Jim Crockett Promotions and other debts crept up on WCW while ratings began to plummet as WCW’s attempt at trash TV fell through with poor creative writing and booking and fans continually turned to the WWF for wrestling entertainment. Finally in 2001, Ted Turner sold his ownership of WCW and Time Warner to a new investment group who had no interest in continuing the wrestling company. Because of this Vince McMahon was able to purchase the entire video library and trademarks of WCW[32]. McMahon and the WWF had won the Monday Night War and McMahon had a monopoly in the wrestling industry with the WWF being the only worldwide promotion around. All of the success of the Attitude Era is distinctly WWF property in trademarks, but there is one other promotion in the 1990s whose story needs to be told.

What the Attitude Era in terms of extreme match types involving men being thrown through tables or getting in the head with chairs and ladders, and the over sexuality of the women wrestlers, all of that was in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) in the early 1990s years before the WWF caught on. Starting out as a NWA territory in Eastern Championship Wrestling, the Philadelphia based promotion headed by Tod Gordon hired wrestling personality Paul Heyman and soon everything in the promotion changed. Heyman had been a manager in WCW and absolutely hated the experience and held deep disgust for Eric Bischoff because he was continually lampooned on WCW programming. Heyman took over as head booker and soon created a new wrestling promotion vision that was based on new cultural norms. He saw the popularity that grunge bands of the early 90s like Nirvana were experiencing so he adapted wrestling and its presentation as an off shoot of the movement. Heyman booked many wrestlers that were not of the atypical superstar physique but their characters were grounded into real life forms with the Sandman being a chain smoking, beer drinking fighter who banged a beer can over his head before a match so he was already bleeding. The style of matches in ECW gave hard core wrestling more mainstream exposure than ever; the performer known as Sabu made this style very popular as Sabu invented new ways to hurl his opponent through tables while Sabu jumped all around with a chair in hand that inflicted as much damage onto himself. Fans on the East Coast could not get enough of ECW and at the time the WWF and WCW were ducking it out for supremacy, ECW was the number three promotion in the world and arguably even estimated as the number two most popular promotion at times. ECW never rose to the presentation and revenue growth of the other two, but Paul Heyman was a mastermind behind wrestling characters and took dozens of no name wrestlers and made them household names. Steve Austin even had a stint in ECW after an ill fated run in WCW and his work of promos in ECW led to his run in the WWF.

Other stars that have their roots in Extreme Championship Wrestling include a great number of famous luchadors who started their run in the US thanks to “Land of Extreme.” Lucha libre is the style of wrestling in Mexico and the various Mexican promotions. It is translated as freestyle wrestling with performers competing in masks[33] and performing more death defying stunts in the ring. The luchadors[34] of ECW got the company over even more with the cult-like fans and Heyman could boast that ECW’s product was better than others because of not just the hard core, hard hitting matches, but also ECW had some of the best wrestlers in the world in Eddy Guerrero and Rey Misterio, Jr. ECW constantly sold out its shows and continued growing in the 1990s. Yet, the cult like fans and dedication of the wrestlers could not save the promotion as Heyman failed to be the businessman that McMahon was. An ill fated TV deal with the then The Nashville Network led to ECW losing money at an accelerated rate as the network refused to properly advertise the show ECW was producing. Heyman could not secure another national TV deal so ECW entered bankruptcy in 2001, not long after WCW folded. McMahon swooped in once again and picked up the pieces acquiring ECW’s video library. McMahon and the WWF were on top and that’s been the story since.[35]

Today the WWE is home to the largest video library of professional wrestling in the world, that includes past WWF/E, WCW, and ECW matches and events. The WWE programming is rated TV-PG in wake of several factors, most notably the WWE’s partnership with GLAAD, and Vince’s wife Linda’s senatorial runs in 2008 and upcoming in 2012, and for the tragedy that was the Chris Benoit double murder-suicide in 2007. Very little if nothing at all remains of the Attitude Era and long time wrestling viewers are frustrated by this. A collection of fans identifying themselves as the Internet Wrestling Community (IWC) take to public forums and chat rooms on line to voice their concerns over the WWE product. Yet they are still watching Raw and WWE’s other show Smackdown! Fans are continuing to purchase WWE merchandise from the website wweshop.com which makes millions for Vince McMahon. I wonder how long I will continue to watch pro wrestling, especially with the current face of the WWE John Cena receiving the same reaction from older fans that Rocky Maivia had. Currently as of this writing, the WWE Champion is CM Punk. He is a Chicagoian, lives out the straight edge lifestyle, currently the best promo man in wresting, one of the best wrestlers in the world, and he himself grew up a wrestling. As of this writing whenever I see CM Punk, I feel like I’m 8 years old again watching Stone Cold open up a can of whoop ass. And it feels great.


[1] Sharon Mazer, Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998) 35.

[2] Scott M. Beekman, Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America (Westport, CT: Prager 2006), 3

[3] Ibid., 2-3

[4] Ibid., 3-4

[5] Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling, ed. Nicholas Sammond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2005), 192.

[6] Scott M. Beekman, Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America (Westport, CT: Prager 2006), 3

[7] Ibid., 7

[8] Ibid., 4-5

[9] Ibid., 7-10

[10] Ibid., 11

[11] Sharon Mazer, Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998),  24

[12] Ibid.,  93-96

[13] Ted A. Kluck, Headlocks and Dropkicks: A Butt Kicking Ride through the World of Professional Wrestling (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009), 18

[14] Scott M. Beekman, Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America (Westport, CT: Prager 2006) , 7, 31, 33

[15] Ted A. Kluck, Headlocks and Dropkicks: A Butt Kicking Ride through the World of Professional Wrestling (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009),  2-3

[16] Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling, ed. Nicholas Sammond ( Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2005),  46-47

[17] Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling, ed. Nicholas Sammond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2005),  61

[18] Ted A. Kluck, Headlocks and Dropkicks: A Butt Kicking Ride through the World of Professional Wrestling (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009), 56-57.

[19] Scott M. Beekman, Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America (Westport, CT: Prager 2006),  145

[20] Ibid.,  128

[21] Marc Leverette, Professional Wrestling, The Myth, The Mat, and American Pop Culture (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mullen Press, 2003), 135

[22] Scott M. Beekman, Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America (Westport, CT: Prager 2006), 123

[23] Sharon Mazer, Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998),  16

[24] Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling, ed. Nicholas Sammond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2005), 172

[25] Ibid.,  248

[26] Ted A. Kluck, Headlocks and Dropkicks: A Butt Kicking Ride through the World of Professional Wrestling (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009), 60

[27] Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling, ed. Nicholas Sammond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2005),  205

[28] Joey Esposito, “Comics & Wrestling: A Perfect Match,” IGN, November 2011, http://comics.ign.com/articles/121/1212026p1.html (accessed December 7th, 2011).

[29] Marc Leverette, Professional Wrestling, The Myth, The Mat, and American Pop Culture (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mullen Press, 2003), 160

[30] Ibid.,  161

[31] Ibid.,  160

[32] Scott M. Beekman, Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America (Westport, CT: Prager 2006), 144

[33] Heather Levi, The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 103

[34] Ibid.,  51-54

[35] Marc Leverette, Professional Wrestling, The Myth, The Mat, and American Pop Culture (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mullen Press, 2003), 175

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