Thursday, May 29, 2008

5 times ‘rasslin could have gone national sooner

By Rick Morris

Pro wrestling existed as a regional, highly segmented enterprise until it was pulled into the modern age in 1983 by Vincent Kennedy McMahon. He was in the process of buying out his father and his father’s partners and taking full control of the promotion. He was not content to merely control the Upper Northeast territory, lucrative though it was with such metropolises as New York, Philly, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and D.C. He wanted to be the boss of the first territory without borders – and he succeeded.

Previously, the barons of each area maintained a gentleman’s agreement that kept them from expanding into other territories. Although some minor promotional skirmishes erupted from time to time, the “dons” of old-time wrestling respected promotional boundaries for the most part and did not “run opposition” against one another. The overwhelming majority of promoters prior to 1983 belonged to the National Wrestling Alliance, a governing body that had a “traveling” world champion (as opposed to a “company” champion, a traveling champion defended his title in multiple territories anywhere and everywhere). The two major exceptions to the rule of NWA governance were Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA – an Upper Midwest territory that broke away from the NWA) and Vince McMahon Senior’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF – the aforementioned Northeast territory that was later renamed the WWF and then the WWE). While Vince Senior and Gagne both left the NWA auspices in the early 1960s, they still refrained from active competition against any NWA promoters, and indeed, kept some measure of co-promotion from them with time to time.

When Vincent Kennedy McMahon (often referred to as Vince Junior) took over the WWF and launched his national expansion plan, it is impossible to overstate how much his actions violated the “gentleman’s club” atmosphere that ruled the industry for the previous several decades. The direction he charted was so shocking that there are some stories that circulate to this day that indicate that Vince Senior was strongly opposed to it out of loyalty to his friends and colleagues. At a bare minimum, it’s been confirmed by those close to him that he did at least call his fellow promoters to warn them that they were going to be under attack. The full story of Vince Senior’s attitude about the expansion may never be known, since he perished due to cancer in 1984.

Vince Junior’s actions unleashed complete fury among his peers – now competitors – because with few exceptions he was now steamrolling them in their own backyards. A short-lived competing “national promotion” called Pro Wrestling USA existed in 1984-85 and it was nothing more than an amalgam of the biggest regional promotions (mostly NWA but also the AWA). It collapsed because, predictably, many of these chieftains imagined themselves the biggest of the bunch and nobody wanted to take a back seat to their peers.

These potentates were angry both out of fear for their own survival (a fear that would be justified, as most would be out of business by the end of the decade once Vince buried some and the Charlotte-based Jim Crockett Promotions would swallow most remaining NWA-affiliated promotions), but also in some cases jealousy. When Vince brought the red-hot Hulk Hogan (fresh off of his Rocky III role) back to the WWF in 1983 and set in motion big plans with MTV, Cyndi Lauper and other national entities, he was taking advantage of circumstances that were rare, but not quite unprecedented. On at least five previous occasions, promoters had potential opportunities to throw off their regional shackles – only one of them attempted to do so and he did so, unsuccessfully, in the same maverick mode McMahon would emulate about a decade later. Had the others tried, the course of history would have been different because Vince Junior wouldn’t have been going against as much precedent in doing what he did. But it’s another matter altogether to imagine that any of these wrestling minds could have broken through as Vince Junior did and made the jump successfully. The fact that he jumped on the back of cable television as it transformed American society in the 1980s (through the troika of CNN, ESPN and MTV) was the most important indicator that only that man in that circumstance could have managed the transformation of the industry. But it’s always fun to look at what-ifs in whatever realm – so here are the five instances that could have preceded Vince Junior’s efforts in 1983-84.

^ 1965: NWA/WWF Title Unification bout falls apart. In Lou Thesz’s book “Hooker,” he recounts the negotiations that took place between NWA President Sam Muchnick and Vince Senior. Having just broken away from the NWA two years earlier, Vince and his partner Toots Mondt wanted additional validation for their already-successful champion Bruno Sammartino. Specifically, they wanted to set up a title unification match with Thesz, then the NWA World Champion. This match would take place on closed-circuit television across the country, then an unthinkable aspect of promotion for pro wrestling. Thesz was to drop the belt to Bruno, thus unifying the world title claims, then win back only the NWA belt at an unspecified date in the future. Thesz was unimpressed with the amount of money he was being offered, especially because the “New York swifties” (his colorful name for Vince Senior and Company) were looking at a potential payday in excess of seven figures. A legitimate amateur wrestler and tough guy (the term “hooker,” like the similar moniker of “shooter,” referred to a wrestler who could apply holds in such a manner to win legitimately, not just in a worked, professional-style “match”), Thesz was a throwback to a time when the traveling champion had to be able to handle any situation in the ring lest a local promoter try to pull a fast one by having his local star “win the world title” in an unscheduled manner. As such, if he didn’t cooperate with the limited-in-skill Sammartino in the ring, Bruno wouldn’t necessarily leave with the belt even if that was the sanctioned outcome. Muchnick was happy with the payoff he was to receive and tried to order Thesz to go along with the match, but was unsuccessful due to Thesz’s threat to double-cross him on the match finish if he did. Had the match actually come off, Vince Senior’s resolve not to cross territorial boundaries might have weakened in the face of what could have been monster profits at the gate and from closed-circuit. While not expressly identified as an influence for national expansion, Mondt was always an advocate for a very aggressive manner of operation and remained so until his retirement in 1969. The effects of receiving big money from a “one time only” crossing of promotional boundaries via closed circuit could have transformed the promotional mindset of the Vince crew – in addition to controlling the unified WWF/NWA champion in Sammartino. There was some doubt as to whether Bruno’s Italian character would be as over in the rest of the country as it was in the Northeast, but these fears were ridiculous – his hometown and base of operations was Pittsburgh, where he was insanely popular and Pittsburgh is very representative of Middle America. Ultimately, though, the failure to financially satisfy Thesz prevented the window of opportunity from opening for the formation of the first national promotion back in the 1960s.

^ 1975: A maverick from “outside the family” tries, and fails, to establish a national beachhead. Those who have compared pro wrestling to La Cosa Nostra over the years need look no further than the similarities in terms of how competition is tolerated – or more accurately, how it was not tolerated. “Running opposition” against an established operation in an area was the biggest no-no among the kingpins of the pro circuit back in the day. So one can only imagine the shock and anger coursing through booking offices across the country when an interloper not presently recognized as an NWA or NWA-friendly promoter tried to set up shop nationally. Eddie Einhorn, a longtime sports television executive who, among other things, helped pioneer big-time college basketball coverage (and is now an executive with the Chicago White Sox), picked up the pieces of the NWF promotion that ran in upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it folded. He signed several big-name stars of the day, including Mil Mascaras (who would serve as his first heavyweight champion), Ivan Koloff, Ernie Ladd, Ox Baker and announcer Jack Reynolds (the voice of NWF wrestling, later to be heard in the WWF and also the father of longtime Cleveland radio and television sports personality Tony Rizzo) for his brand-new IWA promotion. With national syndication, a slot on New York’s cable superstation WOR and cutting-edge 1970s tools such as instant replay being deployed, this TV bigshot was trying to make a huge splash. His early shows against Crockett Promotions in the Mid-Atlantic area and against WWWF in the Northeast got the attention of the powers that be and ultimately, they waged a successful counterattack by invoking exclusive clauses to keep the IWA out of any prime arenas. Court fights to end these practices were unsuccessful and as such, the life span of the promotion only lasted from January to October 1975 – enough time to cost Einhorn a cool half a million. His attempt to change the system from the outside was unsuccessful and demonstrated to Vince Junior that the way to build a nationwide territory was to start with an established one and build from there. Interestingly, Einhorn would return to the wrestling wars nine years later as part of the aforementioned Pro Wrestling USA super-promotion that the lead promoters of the day thought could collectively bury McMahon. But adding the chief outlaw of yesterday to a volatile mix of promoters who already didn’t trust each other fully was doomed to failure and both of Einhorn’s ventures ended up going down in pro wrestling history as “what might have been” footnotes.

^ 1976: Ted Turner puts WTBS on national cable and Georgia Championship Wrestling goes along for the ride. Following the IWA show on WOR by just a year, the second wrestling program to be televised nationally since the Dumont Network broadcasts of the 1950s happened by accident – or at least, not by design of the promoters, who were irrelevant to the decision. In the 1970s, business mogul Ted Turner was in the process of expanding his business base beyond the Southeast. He decided to take his television station, Atlanta’s Channel 17, and put it up on the satellite so that it could be viewed coast-to-coast on cable television. His newly-purchased Atlanta Braves were envisioned to be a prime beneficiary, since they would be the first Major League Baseball team with games that could be seen nationally. But it would be the Georgia Championship Wrestling promotion that would eventually realize some unexpected gains. As the 1980s dawned, the territory expanded into uncontested “open” areas in Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia. Executives realized almost by accident that they were gaining in popularity in certain geographic areas not as a result of the syndicated program, but because of the nationally televised Saturday evening program on the rebranded “SuperStation.” However, the makeup of the Georgia territory kept the promotional braintrust from having any national designs. In addition to the aforementioned verboten nature of promoting shows in “other people’s territories,” the Georgia group was constrained by its NWA membership. They exchanged booking dates for the NWA World Champion with all of the other local affiliates, and for that matter, the promotion also depended on moving talent back and forth between the local territories. At that time, it was widely perceived that territories would go stale with too much of the same talent around for too long, so wrestlers moved fairly freely between many of the different areas. The Georgia promotion would have had to create its own “world champion” and lock down a core group of talent if they were to break off from the NWA and promote shows in many of the major cities across the country that viewed their shows on TBS. Additionally, in the early ‘80s, Ole Anderson held the position of “booker” (matchmaker) for both the Georgia and Mid-Atlantic territories and there’s no way the two territories could have maintained a sufficient affiliated basis with Georgia firmly outside the NWA fold. Ultimately, the TBS show did serve as the basis for Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic group to launch a national expansion in the mid-‘80s – once Vince Junior had already gone national and Crockett had worked within the NWA to buy up many territories, including Georgia. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Georgia promoters could have surmounted the obstacles they’d have faced by “following their television show” in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

^ 1978: Vince Senior takes the title off the Hogan precursor. When Bruno’s final title run came to an end in April of 1977, Vince Senior traveled an unconventional path by elevating Superstar Billy Graham, a charismatic, jive-talking, flashy-dressing heel muscleman from the Southwest. Wrestlers without much technical wrestling ability had traditionally been relegated to the upper midcard at best, but there was something special about Graham’s package of qualifications that made him an intriguing choice to lead a promotion as champion. The gamble paid off, as Graham provided the spark the New York office sought and sold out buildings in both the bigger and smaller markets all over the area. Notwithstanding the gutsy decision to put Graham on top, however, Vince Senior stayed true to his original plan of getting the territory red-hot with Graham in order for his young star “The All-American Boy” Bob Backlund to become established immediately as a superstar by toppling him for the title. With the area on fire, however, Graham believed that he should be turned babyface as significant portions of the fanbase were already cheering him despite the unsportsmanlike tendencies of his character. Vince Junior, who would light the world on fire with a very similar character to what Graham envisioned in Hulk Hogan six years later, was sympathetic to this wish, but wielded no real power in his father’s enterprise. Graham dropped the title to Backlund as anticipated in February of 1978, never to return to his peak level of stardom. In Graham’s subsequent WWE-produced career retrospective DVD “20 Years Too Soon,” he expresses frustration that he did not get the opportunity to deploy what would have been for all intents and purposes the same character that Hogan conquered the world with in 1984. With hated Russian wrestler Ivan Koloff as a former tag team partner, Graham had an ideal opponent to facilitate a babyface turn – and as the Sgt. Slaughter/Iron Sheik feud also from 1984, demonstrated, there was huge box office potential in a rivalry that could appeal to jingoism at a time when the United States was perceived as struggling to deal with some of its foreign adversaries. Granted, Vince Senior did not have Mondt around as an aggressive influence and had settled back into a friendly association with the NWA, so he wasn’t philosophically inclined to push full-steam ahead nationally even if Graham had actually gotten a chance to become Hogan-before-Hogan. Plus, without a national television outlet, the WWWF would have faced significant obstacles in taking their success in the huge Northeast media outlets nationwide. But he also would have had the industry’s first real larger-than-life figure as a world champion and having that kind of mold-breaker on top is a wild card that makes calculating the odds of success fairly difficult.

1982: World Class Championship Wrestling goes on Trinity and builds a substantial syndication network, with unprecedented production values. Much in the same way that Vince Junior imprinted his very different vision of wrestling on the WWF when he took it over, Fritz Von Erich transformed his country greatly at about the time he retired as an active wrestler to focus on promoting in 1982. With his young, athletic, photogenic and insanely over sons about to anchor the promotion for as far as the eye could see, he changed the entire feel of Texas wrestling to reflect the new age in every possible way. A new TV crew came in and brought a revolutionary, high-tech feel to the televising of pro wrestling. Older names who had anchored the area for so long were replaced with a new generation of exciting wrestlers. And eventually, a syndication network sprung up in far-flung areas and his show landed on the national evangelical cable channel Trinity Broadcasting Network (World Class was fairly overt in its pro-Christian messages, more so than most wrestling organizations before or since). Like the Georgia promoters a few years earlier, though, Fritz refused to “follow his program” with actual shows across territorial lines, as he did not want to become an outcast in his fraternity of promoters (even when he broke away from the NWA in 1986 and proclaimed his company champion Rick Rude as the “World Class World Heavyweight Champion,” he ignored his sons’ pleas and still refused to compete against his former NWA breathren!). And while he had a host of fresh, new, over wrestlers (exemplified by, but not limited to, his own sons), it’s debatable if he’d have had enough organizational depth to maintain a national promotion, and the drug problems of his sons and many other core wrestlers might have choked such an effort in the cradle. But it remains a very interesting what-if regardless of all that.

No comments: