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
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 “
^ 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
^ 1976: Ted Turner puts WTBS on national cable and
^ 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
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.