Professional wrestling is a very odd medium of entertainment. During its life in the mainstream it has always been derided and seems to exist in spite of itself and its detractors. But it’s telling that Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man (1987) tells the story of a dystopian future in which pro wrestling’s contemporary success has accelerated into a new form of Roman gladiatorial combat to the death. Born out of 19th Century shoot-fighting (once called ‘hooking’), the first ‘worked’ (pre-determined outcome) match is said to have been between Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt in 1908 and drew massive crowds relative to any other entertainment events of the time.
The move towards worked matches was predicated by a belief that real wrestling matches were boring and didn’t guarantee an exciting match an audience would pay to see, but the actual content of the match was realistic and believable, and Gotch and Hackenschmidt were legitimate fighters. This belief seems to be coming full circle as many now fear that legitimate Mixed Martial Arts is stealing professional wrestling’s natural audience, which will eventually send the medium the way of the flea circus.
Up until the early 1960’s, wrestling kept these roots in legitimate fighters putting on pre-determined matches through Lou Thesz, the biggest star of the biggest network of promotions, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), whose World Heavyweight Title claimed to have lineage back to Abraham Lincoln, a keen wrestler in his day. Thesz was an egomaniac always paranoid about his position on top and held a belief that no one should hold the NWA Title who wasn’t at least a competitive legitimate wrestler. This was a source of much controversy in the NWA and led to the resignation from the alliance in 1963 by Vincent J McMahon of the North-Eastern World Wide Wrestling Federation, when Thesz refused to lose the title to their top star ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers.
Thesz’s purist opinions became a constant source of tension within the NWA, who had a genuinely syndicalist mode of operation: promoters from the various local territories within the alliance each had a vote as to who the next title challenger would be and whether they would actually win the title based on what sort of crowds a wrestler was drawing. In the twilight of his career, Thesz’s drawing power was waning by this time and Rogers was the hot new commodity. The champion has an unusual amount of power in these situations, in that he must agree not only to go and lose the title but also make the challenger look good in doing so (‘put him over’, ‘give him the rub’). The most famous and recent example of this refusal was the ‘Montreal Screwjob’ of 1997, where Vince McMahon Jr. took matters into his own hands (more of which later.)
By the 1980s the syndicalist, mutually beneficial nature of the NWA was waning: where localised territories roughly covering states and areas across North America were in contact with a World Title which gave the sport-cum-entertainment a certain prestige and a boost in business for each individual territory when the touring champion came through town and defended the title against the local hero, wrestling was now becoming centralised. Jim Crockett Promotions had for all intents and purposes bought the rights to the NWA title and sought to buy out all of the territories under its purview so that he had full presidential control over its operation. In 1984 Vincent J McMahon died, and his fervently Reaganite son Vincent K McMahon took the reins of the WWWF, who had similar ambitions for a national crossover wrestling product. He renamed the promotion WWF.
In 1983 Crockett spent $1 million on a mobile television studio and moved his TV programme from a fixed studio to touring live arenas. That year he put on the hugely successful Starrcade, where the final true touring NWA Champion Harley Race lost the title to new star Ric Flair, contracted to Jim Crockett Promotions and performing solely under him. Two years later, McMahon put on the first Wrestlemania which featured Mr. T, Liberace and Muhammed Ali, eclipsed the success of Starrcade. It is said that after the show McMahon was celebrating and raised a toast to Wrestlemania 2, to which Pat Patterson, one of McMahon’s loyal associates, raised a counter-toast to Wrestlemania 100. In April 2012 it will be Wrestlemania 28, and this event if not much else remains a reliable yearly Box Office success. This pattern of McMahon emulating Crockett but doing things on a bigger and more successful scale would continue.
Jim Crockett’s NWA was much the same wrestling as it had ever been: a programme that appealed to adults, mostly in the Southern US, and featured mostly realistic, exaggerated sports storylines featuring athletic, plausible (in its own internal logic) matches between people who were characterised somewhere between sportsmen and entertainers. The open secret that it was predetermined (termed ‘kayfabe’ in a sort of pig Latin version of the word ‘fake’) was still fastidiously held close. Vince McMahon, however, sought to make a crossover phenomenon with larger-than-life characters marketed to children, headed by top star Hulk Hogan.
In the ‘80’s wrestling made more money than previously imaginable within the business, but there were consequences for workers and the local territory system. In the WWF and NWA pay scales matched Ronald Reagan’s notion of trickle-down economics: everyone recieved a percentage of the gate taken at a live event, and later on Pay-Per-View sales, based on their position on the card on that night. So if Hulk Hogan as the main event draws, say, a million dollars for one show, and another without him draws $300,000, this difference would be reflected in the pay that night in direct proportion.
In his autobiography The Dynamite Kid complains: ‘We were making a lot of money, me and Davey Boy, [his cousin and tag team partner in The British Bulldogs] $30,000 for a night’s work at Wrestlemania, but there were a lot of the untelevised B-shows where none of the top stars appeared, we were making $200 between us and it wasn’t covering half the cost of travel to show up. I knew the matches were catching up with me, but I carried on. That was the price you paid for a WWF contract, for the good nights.’ The Dynamite Kid was addicted to painkillers and a cocktail of other drugs to keep him going through the height of his career, and is now in a wheelchair due to the high-impact nature of his matches and non-existent time to rest.
With the two big promotions, workers were now locked into exclusive contracts (nowadays in the WWE everyone’s names are changed so that they may be copyrighted and the company owns their image right) where previously they had freedom to roam across the territories as they saw fit. Wrestling always had and still does work on the basis of a number of fundamental word of mouth agreements between worker and promoter as to their fair treatment, and this obviously worked well when a given worker was making money for the promoter, not so well otherwise. Previously, if a worker’s character was beginning to become stale or they had a falling out with their promoter, they could simply move on knowing that there were dozens of other promotions to go to. Now, if a wrestler wanted to make money they had to make sure they were in McMahon or Crockett’s good books as they had nowhere else to go, being contractually obligated to stay.
The NWA and WWF cherry-picked the top stars from each promotion: Jerry Lawler from Memphis, Junkyard Dog from Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling, Stan Hansen from Mid-South’s UWF, and this cut the knees from the territories who were now second division compared to the national promotions coming into town once or twice a year. Even out of contract, the only way to make a good living was in the nationals now. In the new situation workers were more dependent on the good will of their promoters for their continued success, and predictably for many wrestlers this turned out badly.
An attempt was made by Jim Wilson to start a wrestler’s union after he claimed that NWA promoter Jim Barnett had made a sexual advance on him, and he was duly blackballed from the business and written out of existence. He later wrote a book about the employment practices of the big promotions. Wrestlers remain today as ‘independent contractors’ who have absolutely nothing in the way of employment rights when they sign their contracts but a good deal of responsibilities to their companies. Workers carried on with nagging injuries against doctors’ orders frequently and many disabilities and deaths can be said to have resulted from this. An example of one such word of mouth agreement is that a company does not release a worker from their contract while sidelined with a serious injury, though this agreement has been broken in a number of instances.
The impossible schedule of a wrestler working 300 nights a week led to rampant drug use to keep up and steroids to maintain the sort of physiques Vince McMahon in particular deemed preferable. Hundreds of lives have been cut short by the physical and mental toll of drugs. In his 2003 ‘shoot interview’ where he speaks candidly about his career, Scott ‘Raven’ Levy tells the story of his trying to get clean in rehab. After itemising all the drugs he takes in a given day, his doctor told him that that was the equivalent of 300 Percocets a day. ‘I remember going back about 6 months later for my check-up, and I got talking to one of the nurses there. She told me that the doctor thought it was more than likely I was going to die just from the withdrawal, but they didn’t tell me that at the time because they didn’t want to discourage me…’ The demanding nature of the job and the drugs that came along with it led to perhaps the most infamous wrestler death: Chris Benoit murder-suicide.
Benoit, an extremely talented and dedicated wrestler, has become a taboo subject amongst fans and promotions alike. The story might be more complex than a simple psychotic criminal episode. Chris Nowinski, a wrestler in the early 2000’s, unusually decided to retire after a serious concussion. Wrestling’s first Harvard Graduate, Nowinski later set up a research centre studying the mental effects of repeated concussions on wrestlers and various other sportsmen. Upon Benoit’s death, he asked the family if they would submit his brain for medical study. The repeated recipient of unprotected chair shots to the head and a generally hard-hitting style, Benoit’s brain was found to be akin to that of ‘an 85-year-old man with Alzheimer’s’. Wrestling faces a steady stream of its past stars dying extremely young, the most recent and famous example being Randy Savage a few months back, who had a heart attack whilst driving his car, crashing it.
The working conditions of wrestlers are simply harrowing even relative to mainstream capitalist standards and 2008’s Oscar contender The Wrestler seemed something of an inevitability. The image of an ageing former star, a shambling physical wreck who must continue to soak up dwindling revenue from their withering nostalgia cache is very familiar to any fan.
Here is the dirty underbelly of professional wrestling as a result of its centralisation in the 1980s and its operation outside even the most basic employment rights. The narrative placed on top of this in the WWF’s storylines was something of an ahistorical morality play.
Hulk Hogan is perhaps one of the top five pop culture icons on the 1980’s in an absolute sense. Everyone who lived through that time surely knows who he is and McMahon’s crossover dream came to be. The line between heroes (babyfaces or faces) and villains (heels) was starkly drawn. Hulk Hogan didn’t cheat, he beat everybody fair and square, he was a role model and a proud American patriot, brave and seemingly invincible. He stood up to bullies and people much bigger than him such as King Kong Bundy and Andre the Giant. His most interesting opponent in this period ideologically was ‘The Million Dollar Man’ Ted Dibiase.
Dibiase was a constant perennial thorn in the side of Hogan. He cheated all the time and judging by his actions he could never beat Hogan in a fair match. The WWF title was vacated when he paid Andre the Giant to beat Hogan with help by Dibiase, so that the title could be handed over to Dibiase afterwards. He would later just buy his own title, the wildly opulent Million Dollar Belt.
Dibiase was a very successful heel character, embodying the Wall Street Gordon Gecko figure of ‘80’s Capitalism. While Terry Bollea made tens of millions of dollars in the ‘80’s and over the course of his career, his character Hulk Hogan’s idealist heroism meant that he could not be bought, that his beliefs existed outside of the realm of Capitalist economics that wrestling was so deeply entangled in. Dibiase, a supporting character who was making a fraction of the money Bollea made, set himself up as the target of fans’ ire at inequality. Hogan was the uncompromised hero in a compromised world.
This is an absolutely exemplary form of the operation of ideology: an entertainment company making vast amounts of money in projecting and satisfying their fans’ bottled-up frustration with society at the time. The WWF’s target demographic was chiefly children and pro wrestling’s previous core demographic: low-paid, uneducated Americans worried about their newly-tenuous economic conditions, deterritorialisation, globalisation and the erosion of heretofore traditional ethical values. In a highly charged bit of unintentional satire, Dibiase’s finishing move was a modified Sleeper hold called the Million Dollar Dream, which brings to mind George Carlin’s contemporary routine on the subject. This would not be the last time that the WWF would make currency out of their fans in this way.
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